Short film poem I did for one of David Dodd Lee’s Ashbery erasure poems, ‘Friends’. It’s a truly great piece (the poem). Kubrick I am not, but I enjoyed putting this together.
In honor of World Poetry Day, I’m sharing my favorite poem, the one that made me want to write poetry, ‘Entry in an Unknown Hand’, by Franz Wright.
I first read this as a Xerox’ed handout in my first Creative Writing class. I took this class after a year spent as a relatively successful Computer Science student, feeling intensely unfulfilled about what I was doing with my life. After the campus literary journal took a couple of my dreadfully awful poems, I felt inspired and switched my major to English, much to the horror of my parents who, to their credit, were supportive of me following my passion at the cost of anything resembling job security. I was very fortunate to encounter the poet, editor, and teacher David Dodd Lee, who introduced me to the work of Franz Wright and many other poets that remain my biggest inspirations and influences (including Lee himself). This was quite literally the first poem we read in that class, and was the first contemporary poem I had ever read in my life. Like most I had never really thought about poetry since reading Shakespearean sonnets in high school and simply didn’t know that people still wrote it outside of Hallmark cards.
This poem by Franz was an immediate and lasting wake-up call, hitting notes of loneliness, self-deprication, anger, sadness, bitterness, sarcasm, wit, and so much more, that resounded with me very deeply. Simply put, reading this poem both enlightened me that not only was poetry still being written but it was (often) poetry divested of end rhymes and overly sentimental tone. Poetry could be vulnerable, angry, biting, wan, funny, brutal, hopeful. It was for me a singular moment of ‘I love this, I want to read more of this, I want to write this, I want to be in conversation with whatever this is as often as I can for as long as I can’.
The speaker of Bill Rasmovicz’s Gross Ardor is a special breed of curator, reaching gracefully yet frenetically into his own microculture of what Franz Wright once called three pounds of haunted meat, and haunted feels like an appropriate word. There’s a momentum throughout that feels like a poltergeist slowly tearing itself apart but gathering steam. The familiar but slightly grainy, through-a-mirror-dimly world of this book is always raining and all too aware that the ‘meat chaos’ of ourselves is only one layer in the future fossil record. I keep thinking the cover is remarkably apt, the entire collection seeming bone-hard in the most delicate way possible, fragile with madness but cut with an almost drug-induced focus and precision. This culture warrior commits seppuku and reflects solemnly on not only his own mortality but the concrete yet ungraspable concept of a lifespan.
Every poem is an endeavor of introspection, the speaker who wears his heart on his rust belt achieving the masterful effect of affecting an unconscious touch to every interstitial image and head-drowning associative leap. The result is earnest, sadly funny, confident and searching, the haunted meat put the warned-against one time too many through the grinder. In an already unbelievably strong catalog from the young 42 Miles Press, a brilliant offering of a book.
Lee’s work is unerringly visceral, singularly invested on a deep personal level, and always offering a stark, unflinching display for both the speaker-self as well as the reader-observer. Place and memory are often of the most delineated actors in Lee’s books but perhaps never as much so as in this newest collection. Lee seems unafraid of embracing not only the yearning and regret cultivated by the past but the rich, nostalgic confusion that occurs when it’s mirrored and overlapped by the present. Life whirls around Lee’s standing-still speaker as places and people empty out and refill — this is really all that time is as it cruelly steps on. While textually many of these poems appear spare this is another of the brilliant gestures Lee knows so well, and just as a smell can trigger an entire season full of memories Lee’s poems explode and engulf, shrink down to pinpoints with the weight of dark matter. His lines are full of characteristic leaps of association that can comfort or drunkenly go dizzy. There’s always a deft, natural touch to the mechanical bits, the syntax and vocabulary, but Lee’s unique flavor is in a matured, raw patina of breathlessness, anger, lust; artistry without guise, a performance that’s never just putting you on. These poems are as comfortable throwing you against the wall as letting you quietly sink to the bottom of a pond.
There’s good reason why David Dodd Lee remains a staple in the small group of poets I find I can reliably return to when hitting depressingly long dry spells between books that feel like knockouts. One of my flaws as a reader is my susceptibility to taking such spells in dramatic stride, despairing for no good reason that either there just aren’t any books coming out that will genuinely unsettle me or that for some reason poetry has lost some of its destructive and surprising powers to me. Fortunately enough, these things are never true and Lee is a poet that invariably clarifies to me through absurd bouts of self-obfuscation what I personally value in a collection, or put another way, what gets inside of my head and refuses to leave. This kind of reliability is increasingly remarkable to me when over long careers many poets only oscillate in and out of this startlingly complex kind of efficacy.
For lack of a better term, Lee’s ‘staying power’ when included on any shelf has been almost unparalleled in my experience as a reader of poetry over the years. ‘Coldest Winter on Earth’ not only manages not to be an exception to this rule but an admirably achieved high note.
Everyone should meander over to the blog of the always insanely talented and immediate David Dodd Lee. He has a new book out, and has graced us all with a sample poem that took the back of my head off (and wouldn’t return it).
Visit him here: http://seventeenfingeredpoetrybird.blogspot.com/
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a graceful wrecking ball of a book; or, to steal from it, from the poem ‘The 10:15 to Cambridge’:
“That the on-coming train
was a pack of the shyest white horses.”
This new chapbook from the always luminous and serrated-blade Louise Mathias (and one must nod deeply to David Dodd Lee’s cover for it, to call it arresting is to criminally understate its power) is full of such moments. I can’t somehow get past some cliche or another about a cracking whip when I think about Mathias’s lines, the way they flow out so elegantly only to suddenly incur a wrath of image and noise once fully extended. I often had the feeling of being suddenly jolted out of a dream, or rather from one dream into another.
Again a line from the book itself seems all too appropriate in describing it; from the poem ‘Orion’:
the motion startles,
then the mass.”
Something always enjoyable to me is a complex air of confidence to Mathias’s speaker, something coquettish toward a sly, trickster arrogance but never quite getting there, moving around a sort of nearly invisible presence of unfiltered emotion known, like a black hole, but it’s dark inescapable shape. I always feel Mathias is not only fully aware of these tonal lattices but in turn makes them part of the trick and game. From the poem ‘Twentynine Palms’:
“Is that what you wanted? Subtle? The luke warm
politics of someone else’s marriage?”
Tremors and oscillations flutter throughout, one’s feet shake though never quite go out from under. Memory and closeness in body and emotion to a specific other seem so important here, and as Mathias points out in the poem ‘Blue Cogs of a Secret’.
“How a memory–(fur, being charred)
must be stubborn, or quit.”
I feel so many memories in these pages, both the stubborn ones kicking up dust and the ones that quiet, the ones whose faint fingerprints and voices still echo about somewhere. I’ll end with some lines from the poem ‘Snuff’, the poem that barely left me standing. Buy this chapbook. Mathias is a blasting wonder. Cheers to Burnside Review Press for lending the fuse and powder. The scent of flowers and cordite hover all around this book.
“You can exit the city of ghosts. You can’t exit
Fog on the film. I said, my bones are gone.”