The Possum Pouch


Fall / Winter 2002-03

An irregular publication of essays, notes and reviews


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Joseph Lease and Thomas Fink: Narrative and Critique

Michael Boughn on Black Mountain’s 50th Anniversary

Steven Taylor’s Loveland

Jennifer Moxley’s The Sense Record and other poems

New books by Flood Editions

Dig It!


Joseph Lease and Thomas Fink: Narrative and Critique

TF: In reviews of your work, Forrest Gander and Donald Revell count you among several experimental poets who have recently revitalized narrative possibilities. “Apartment,” one of the longer poems in Human Rights (Cambridge: Zoland, 1998), definitely has that narrative impetus.

JL: In "Apartment," I’m trying to make experience actual in a construct of words. (I learn that phrase from Robert Creeley.) I try to critique the construction of the lyric "I"; I try to show how the lyric "I" is embedded in cultural politics. I try to explore the absence of community, to tell the story of the need for community.

TF: What you call “critique” can be associated with both the heart of lyricism and the self-critical or speculative strain within postmodern lyric. This story-telling does not supply a “master narrative” that would stymie the kind of critical challenge you speak of; partial narratives are able to produce strong effects in a collagistic field.

JL: I love collage, for example, in Jasper Johns' paintings, but in "Apartment," I think more about scene structure. This is a lyric sequence. This is deliberate. I wouldn't move the sections of "Apartment" around; they're moving, they're in motion, and together, in sequence, they create an emotional trajectory.

TF: In collage, one might say that the temporality of visual or literary reading is less important than an instant of juxtaposition. Even if I don’t read collage that way, I can appreciate how your emphasis on the flux of potential and actual emotions within "landscapes" of a fluid but somewhat identifiable socius calls for different terminology.

Various narrative moments in "Apartment" always speak to and with other poetic modes, as well as other narratives. I'm thinking, for example, of the relation between the first two sections: the encounter of the “I” and the homeless man who can’t stop talking, and the one- or two-sentence stories about unfulfilled characters in the prose section that follows.

JL: That is very close to the way I feel about the poem now and to what I was thinking when I wrote it. The different sections of the poem create/enact an emotional trajectory. Lyric structure becomes dramatic action. And that action, for me, becomes storytelling.

TF: When narrative is juxtaposed with a passage of lyric introspection or that involving a lyric "I" engaged in social address, in a sense the "emotional trajectory" from one to another "is" the story itself.

JL: The music of the poem (sequence, temporal form) enacts an emotional trajectory, makes experience actual in a construct of words. For me the process has a narrative dimension. The narrative dimension is part of the poem's capacity for critique.

TF: Lyric structure is not confined to the single, singular speaker. It allows for multiple voices, and the musical and conceptual interaction of their different perspectives presents dramatic action.

JL: Yes, absolutely. And the music creates scene structure.

TF: This kind of narrative may relate to Language poetry.

JL: Sure. I did write "Apartment" while I was working on a dissertation that included discussion of Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Barrett Watten. At a certain point in the eighties, Leslie Scalapino was huge for me. At its best, Language poetry draws you in. It's like dance music. I think I learned that kind of involvement—involving the reader in the dance—from Language poetry (along with other sources). Cage and Thoreau are also very important to "Apartment."

TF: Does the Orphic experience of loss enter into the "dance" of your lyricism?

JL: Yes. I do feel haunted by Orpheus. By the various versions of loss. A layer of electricity breathes in everyday life. Thoreau: "Actually the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day." Has anyone in America the leisure for a true integrity? Thoreau: "He has no time to be anything but a machine." We locate this problem inside: in our inner lives we are machines, we are blind, we have no true integrity. Or even worse: we have true integrity and we are poisoning it, wasting it, ignoring it, blinding ourselves to it. One story: the only way to be honest is to be haunted. The haunted person recognizes that s/he is cursed, recognizes that s/he has done something terrible, even if s/he has at present no idea what the crime might be.

TF: "Apartment" is certainly a poem of many honestly haunted voices. The speaker in the first section, haunted by the evidently homeless man who utters rage but can't listen, is suddenly concerned about his insight into the degree of his own relative integrity and his uses of it. To avoid dialogue, he's moved away from the talking man, but the man goes after someone else, "spraying/ a hex at him," and it's a displacement of the hex that could be sprayed at the speaker himself. After being confronted by other narratives that bespeak isolation and insufficient community in U.S. society, we can go back to this incident and ask whether it's the individual or the collective arrangement that is primarily responsible for the "crime."

JL: Ralph Ellison wrote that in twentieth-century (naturalist) fiction, American ideals collapse under the weight of history (of historical amnesia, the refusal to acknowledge racism). I would like to bring Ellison's argument to bear on Postmodern American poetry. Ellison is arguing with Hemingway, but he might as well as be arguing with Ashbery. Even when we resist what Michael Harper calls America's "historical amnesia," American poets write inside a cultural/symbolic mode. Language poetry, wonderful as it is at times, doesn't get outside that mode. I re-read The Scarlet Letter recently, and I thought of Sacvan Bercovitch saying, "There is no position outside ideology." But there is resistance.

I think we need (for one thing) to explore some of the possibilities that Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan open. Serial form tells a story slant, shatters the story and re-shapes it. Creeley is thinking about the real. He has faith in the poem even when he is questioning everything.

TF: "Slivovitz," another long poem in Human Rights, speaks directly to a faith in the attempt to approach the real, even as many versions are questioned: "The sun we see/ is not the real sun." Resisting many American Jews' relative "amnesia" about the holocaust, the poem juxtaposes narratives reflecting the direct and highly mediated encounters (and deflected encounters) of Jews of several generations with this unbearable event.

In general, in your writing, I read the lyric I's resistance to totalizing effects of dominant culture as allowing the subject its places rather than one place. Narrative involves ongoing dialogue about the implications of such locations.

JL: I love that. Places rather than place. In confessional poetry often you get self transformed into landscape—Lowell and Bishop. I think of self and places in Whitman, Lorca, Celan. There's no a central place, and there's not an end. No telos. Magic (I could have said the sublime) involves fragmentation of self.

TF: Divergent aspects of the environment keep reshaping the self's possibilities. "Magic" might be the pleasure of surprising recognitions and the effort to abide by the poetic ethics that we've been outlining.

I'd like to hear your thoughts about one of your most overtly narrative and place-oriented poems, "Essay on Addiction." For me, it's about a love relationship that must get beyond the "ghost" of patriarchy or die. In that poem, the Gothic "haunted house" is a place that must be demystified so that other, as yet unspecified places can be explored.

JL: I want the sense there of a nightmare. But even though it's known—it is becoming. And two people stumbling through a recurring nightmare. But she is the one who knows the story. And she is the one for whom it is becoming. It was very important for me to create a character in that poem—a strong protagonist. We see through her eyes.

TF: Poems like "Essay on Addiction" and "The Room" offer feminist counter-narratives. What writers have influenced you to do this?

JL: There are too many; any list is incomplete. I could start with Jean Rhys—she has a huge power for me. And Stein, of course. Susan Howe and Adrienne Rich. Definitely some of the women poets of my generation who I've been reading for years: (my wife) Donna de la Perriere, Larissa Szporluk, Laura Mullen, Lisa Jarnot. I was socialized as "male"; I try to critique and re-shape my self. It happens in a flow, in poem after poem.


Under the Influence: a Report on the 50th anniversary celebration of Black Mountain College
by Michael Boughn

In 1952, John Cage first staged Theatre Piece #1 at Black Mountain College featuring work by David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, M.C. Richards, Robert Rauchenberg, and Cage himself, and putting in motion ideas that led to the development of Happenings beginning in the late 50’s. From September 19-22, all of Ashville, NC, and much of the surrounding area became the site of a 50th anniversary celebration of this historic event. Over the 4 days of the Under the Influence festival, the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Centre organized multiple performances of music, art, film, and poetry, all of the work tracing its roots back to the innovations of Black Mountain College.

Much of the focus of the festival was on music, and especially on Cage’s legacy. The two main performances, both equally marvelous, were by Tony Conrad and Pauline Oliveros. Conrad, using a violin playing one note and working behind a screen, and Oliveros, improvising on an amplified accordion, both used electronic delays, harmonic overlays, and feedback to create richly textured oneric walls of sound, though in each case the textures were utterly specific to the artists. These featured performances were matched in intensity and brilliance by the work of a number of lesser known musicians. On Thursday in a downtown Ashville gallery, Vincent Wren used a machine he invented to play the music of the spheres using a computer driven sound generating matrix keyed to planetary positions and interacting with the body of dancer Yoko Myoi. On Saturday, singer Elisa Faires performed Cage’s Aria for Voice in Vincent’s Ear bar. It was a stunning performance in which the operatically trained vocalist sang, played a coffee grinder, a laptop, and tap danced on a piece of sheet metal. Other performances included the Western Carolina University Gamelan Ensemble playing Cage and Lou Harrison pieces, Chris Hamilton performing Radio Music, a performance piece by David Dawson, and work by many other local musicians.

There were also a number of tributes to New York Correspondence School founder Ray Johnson, including a display of mail art from the BMCMAC archives and the premier screening of How to Draw a Bunny, a controversial documentary exploring the enigmatic death and life of the BMC graduate. On Friday, Negativeland presented a number of culture jamming videos. And on Saturday and Sunday poets Patrick Herron, John Landry, Lee Ann Brown and Beth Brown Al-Rawi, Lisa Jarnot, and Michael Boughn variously read poetry, did string tricks, and sang camp songs and rhymes at a bookstore in Ashville and in the dining hall at Black Mountain College where the Cage piece was originally performed. Many ghosts attended. Numerous other installations, performances, and exhibits contributed to making the festival a remarkable event which invoked over the four days some of the same wildly eclectic and synergistic energies Cage and the other Black Mountaineers unleashed on a needy world.


Loveland, a review
by Dale Smith

The aphorism presents a kind of magic spell. It’s a quick path to the deepest interiors of thought and feeling. It surpasses explanation and thumbs a nose at complex argument. In its tight-fisted grip, complexity is foregone entirely for compressed nerve and syllabic pressures, making a form-content pill that dissolves quickly into the bloodstream of the recipient. No one better appreciated the poetic aphorism and fragment than Walter Benjamin. One note, unpublished in his lifetime, gives insight to a kind of writing, whether poetry or prose, used with great success in Steven Taylor’s Loveland.

“Style is the rope that a thought must vault over,” Benjamin writes, “if it is to advance to the realm of writing. The thought must gather up all its strength. But style must come toward it halfway and go slack, like a rope in the hands of children when one of them makes ready to jump.” (Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 2)

Loveland moves through diverse bodies of feeling and intelligence. The poems in it are quick takes, glimpses of fleeting moments and sudden realizations. Here, thought and style greet each other on a course toward disclosure. Taylor’s poems show how the eye is quicker than the heart or mind, and it’s the eye in these poems that knows where and how to look. The song and craft of the aphorism correlate with the speed of perception. The flat surface of eventuality is polished very finely so that light shines through its hidden inner prism.


Your are so

Thank you
for coming

red faced warbler

Another, and perhaps one of this book’s most delightful poems, reads:


There is no
way to describe
the sensation I
sit writing and am
about to crack the riddle
of the ages when come
tiny footsteps and a
tiny hand lights like a
dragon fly on my knee

Others here are longer, but they all show a care for the compressed syllables of language and create an illusion of moving frames, line by line, arresting attention by surprise, song-like delight and thoughtful resources of imagery and social insight. Stark documentation (“Shower of petals / ahead of a storm / fourteen children / shot dead in Denver”), snatched conversation (“We love the poets / they are so low / tech and prepared”) and religious meditation (“Heaven is / Being in / Love and / Hell isn’t”) are mixed into this distilled Loveland. Taylor’s provisory approach to the world leaves his poems open to diverse possibilities, thematic shifts and tonal registrations. Antithetical surprise and dry humor create an illusion of space in his work, only, that space is directed back, inwardly, opening thought with style’s loose twists.

The rich detail of “Local Color” assembles a list of names to reveal certain characteristics or traits of frontier mythology: “Doc Holliday Jesse / James Billy the / Kid Wyatt Earp Mysterious / Dave Mather Hoodoo / Brown….” In “True West,” the darker lusts of the frontier are signaled per capita: “Human heads eight / dollars a / piece.” The West of our own tortured present perpetuates violent patterns. For like Matthew Sheppard, gay-bashed and murdered in Wyoming, “When all are / violated the / vulnerable are / brutalized.” Taylor’s antennae tune in to these patterns, following them into questions that will remain unanswered: “What happened to all the talk about American Imperialism? Hushed up. A joke twenty years stale. Some new hip cynicism I don’t get?”

His quiet, domestic concerns are arresting, and he looks into quickly private spaces too rarely occupied by serious verse.

His first object reference, clear as a bell
And I say that’s right tree and he says tree
and I am jubilant and full of wonder and I carry
him into the bedroom where his ma reclines
resplendent and he points at her tit and says tree (“Boxing Day”)

Loveland is a relation of a common situation not easily recognized. In these lyric aphorism spirals we are introduced to an idea of liberation. Through friends, family, objects or even headlines a provisory self discovers access to its creative engines. The rub, to put it country simple, (and there’s always a rub), is this: Loveland is that tiny little place we all must learn to occupy, willingly, while everywhere, distracting us with its immensity, evil’s great work continues. At stake are the overpowering forces of Nullity vs. the perceptive clarity of the heart. Taylor’s poems are like small stones thrown at that null anti-vision, evidence that a deeply rooted life can thrive.

Loveland, Steven Taylor, Bootstrap Press, 2002, 92 pages
Bootstrap Press, PMB 359, 1630A 30th Street, Boulder, CO 80301


The Sense Record and other poems
by Dale Smith

These poems are records—as the title indicates—of a life in poetry where, following Rimbaud, meaning and sensation find their fullest embodiment as single extension. Words record by formal arrangements the long and active duty to their soundings, contexts and histories. But that life, or attention, prior to art’s making, with compelling personal urges, insists there is to be found out some related form. Poetry is no picnic, and when life in it pursues or absorbs forms required at its urging, an original and surprising work can result to further a way through the limited box of our world, as it is.

Jennifer Moxley’s seriousness honors attention to form and life. Poems want that life—call it content—present in them. Experimental poetry is only the test of one’s abilities in language. There is life too in form, or there’s nothing but vapid maneuvers. Complicating this is our own internal American pressures to behave in a public face. Though we are not equal, we like to dream ourselves under a single roof. Moxley, here, in her admirable manipulation of formal expectations, scrutinizes her world by her own inner terms, complicating the political mess of democracy by testing the authority of poetic forms. In “Where Was I Going,” she writes:

     The book is the key, and I hold it.

What is the meaning of my wakeful state.

The finitude of my wishfulness daily pens

a new dread, should I rid myself of perpetuity,

my thought of future season, where past

is tranquility and companionship able

to make a picture of peace, the conceivable

universe will oblige these unethical motives

of paraded wisdom. Was it so easy

to be flung to heaven? Where was I going…?

The poem’s rich imagery, timed rhetorical disruptions and personal thematic investigation helps craft something reminiscent of Wordsworth or Yeats while practicing a verbal coherence closer to William Carlos Williams. A neo-Romantic use of her own noetic sources under highly compressed formal stanzas, with lines somewhere in the decasyllabic range, produce in tone and gesture something altogether useful now, more than ever, when contemporary poetics faces the paucity of the so-called new formalists at one extreme, and the hyptertextual frontier of free-space, free-range freer-than-free free verse at the other. (Others have abandoned the human entirely, of course, for machine-generated forms. What is chance, after all, but a mechanical sequence authored by eventuality). She recharges old forms by dismantling the archaisms and replacing them with her own uses of language. It’s lyric synthesis through a kind of dream narrative, only that dream world brings with it real questions of how to live here and now.

Her concerns are not with history, or so much with social practice. It’s difficult to locate an “issue” or context behind these reflective poems. “My poems are less concerned with narrative than with tracing an interior train of thought,” she said in a recent interview. That train can be provocative, generous and surprising, but it can also haul a lot of unmarked cargo. Faith, finally, in meaning is evident, and meaning through form determines her greatest discoveries. Form is initiation.

Sometimes the forms—which, by the way, are mostly internal to the poem, rarely formally strict in the way of a sonnet—break down under the stress of compression. She reaches, sometimes too far to hit her point. Two sonnets, executed with mock perfection, poke fun playfully at the form. “The Critique,” too, which to my ear registers Emily Dickinson, reaches a kind of contrived state, evident of that formal break down I mentioned.

I’d rather say “I shall not tell”
than tell you, in a noble lie
that all compassionate choices
must be stomached, and for a pinioned-heart
deserve our praise….

I gather this is at a level of writing where words like “noble” and “pinioned-heart” reference other work, and I understand the depth of formal penetration here, but I’m indifferent, in this case, to its game. If there is anything negative to say about the book, it’s that there is a quality of gamesmanship in these formal devices, verbal references and tonal quotations. Perhaps it’s my ignorance of all she’s up to here. I see Whitman’s words, feel Oppen’s presence, dutifully note with appreciation all that Williams and Stein offer through her language. I just wish there was a notebook appended with a list of her readings, quarrels and conversations.

The title poem, opening with a quote from Verlaine, is delightful, branded with Eros.

Under the threat of another light downpour
Eros, soaked by the rain-water,
spoke to the sentient flowers.
Sadness, no longer extraneous,
began the derangement of nerve,
bypassed the bleeding heart
to pierce the blood-brain barrier.
This all en route to the two-car garage.
I was worn with the labor that augurs despair,
life in the futile percentile, when past
my squeamish eyelash, buffeted by scallops
of small will, the slightest fair brushed.

This funny and entangling opening delicately handles various poetic clichés and images with deft execution. The poem demands we take Art seriously by challenging formal expectations with verbal underpinnings, caprice and sudden forthright claims.

“Though puzzled and embarrassed
by your frank display of sentiment,
we think you are very brave.”

Save this for the walls of fools
who cannot bear existence.

Reality’s heroism in an act of forfeiture.
The exhaustion of new forms.
The working parts of an abandoned machine.

“I didn’t particularly like the book
but fighting shy of argument
I said a few nice things about it.”

Save this for the walls of fools
who cannot bear existence.

Near the end there is a distinction between tongue and word. The self-righteous acts above are seasoned now with reflection.

How many the unrecorded battles
registered upon the human brow,
the betrayed face that knows it’s the tongue
not the word, that is destined to fail.

Names, mostly, as I recall, are absent from the book. Instead, “I” shifts under the compression of forms, subtly transformed by the language constructing it. Moxley’s “I” unlike Creeley’s, say, extends by the registration of its formal environments. Creeley scrutinized syllabic values, finding “self” as a kind of wedge in words’ selective compromises. (Or perhaps “self” shows in “tongue,” the mood of “I” absorbed in the force of words). Moxley’s “self” is not locus, but a passionate intelligence of trans-value, supplied to form as a tool of perception.

I wonder if anyone will regard The Sense Record as experimental or avant-garde in any way. Every poem that puts us on the line is an experiment. Moxley reinvests a formal poetics with the meaningful structures of her life’s complex environments: textual, personal, emotional, physical. Her formal uses create a tension of line and sentence, putting distance between “her” and the work. That emotional distance gives her greater freedom to explore the uses and limits of herself as it lives in language registered by form. The poems reflect that. We’re lucky to have such an attentively complex and backward-looking poet.

The Sense Record and Other Poems, Jennifer Moxley, Edge Books 2002, 80 pp.
PO Box 25642, Washington, DC 20007 /


New books from Flood Editions
by Dale Smith

In a short time, Flood Editions has published a catalogue of work by a range of important writers. Ronald Johnson’s late book, The Shrubberies, inaugurated the press’s catalogue. The high quality of design and production given to these books match the work and tone on their pages. With the upcoming publication of Robert Duncan’s out-of-print book, Letters, Flood will stand as a press dedicated to serious extensions of the past into the present.

Two new books by Fanny Howe and Tom Pickard continue Flood’s dedication to work by a previous generation of writers. Howe’s stories in Economics examine in exquisite prose transparencies the social and economic conundrums of the liberal, educated classes. The first sentence of the first story in her book, “The Weather,” quickly presents the situation: “The white couple who adopted the black child were not happy with what they got.” That story quickly sinks into the hard, negative core of American feeling (or anti-feeling), as the adopted baby, neglected by the white couple, pathetically grows up in their presence confused, unloved and treated with the callous indifference of a puppy. This trophy babe, whose ornamental value is for public display, is the source of constant irritation and dissatisfaction for the adoptive mother (Carol). The story shows how Carol’s internalization of her hatred for the babe, when confronted in herself, is reasoned and, in pragmatic fashion, solved. The horror and helplessness of young Malcolm (as he’s named by the liberal, economically-well-off white family), falls hopelessly upon the reader. The cold, analytical and transparent prose style only deepens the violence of familial, racial and, ultimately, human betrayal.

…But inevitably Malcolm left the next morning…. Carol was taking it upon herself to bring him downtown. Gray snow was piled in dense heaps along the edges of the streets. Traffic ground slowly forward, windshield wipers bopping.
     Carol appraised Malcolm’s wide-eyed stare. He knew that he was not going to “California,” but somewhere else. That was all he knew. Carol thought of all the boring papers she would have to sign—it would probably take all morning—and considered changing her mind. The hostility of the social workers was almost more than she could bear, and she sighed.
     “How do you feel?”
     He shrugged from inside his blue snowsuit.
     “Well, everything will be alright. Don’t worry.”
     He was quiet then murmured, “Mommy?”
     “What,” curtly.
     “Are you going to pick me up?”
     “Uh, you have to spend the night there.”
     She reached out and turned on the radio. The morning news surfaced with the usual tales of urban disaster—fires, robbery, mugging, murder, rape—to which she listened, proudly, because she would be free of it all soon.
     When they finally parked, she looked at the gray building and considered going home again. They got out and Malcolm slipped on the ice, so she had to hold both his hand and his bag. The pressure of his hand raised a vague emotional quarrel, but she was a reasonable person, and her reasons came to mind, fast, not the least of them being that he would be better off without her. They crossed the street, gingerly.
     On the other side, they went through the red doors together; and, some time later, she came out, alone.

Well, this is bummer-hour for sure, but the pleasure of this story is Howe’s crafted execution of psychic intent within social and material limitations of human emotion and imagination. It’s a pleasure too to see exposed the meanness and cruelty that public surfaces often hide of private or familial relations. This story and others address fundaments of psychic conflict ranging behind the powerful urgencies of social issues.

Other stories here are less gut wrenching, but they are achieved at great human cost to her characters. What Howe locates with such painful penetrations is an American mythology, where the meaning of life draws on economic conditions and social rituals of public and private conduct. If myth supplies meaning to individuals and groups by relating human acts to the greater determining principals of our lives, then, in America, economy is the source from which myth makes its measure.

Children also remain a vital and significant presence in these stories. Their burdens come from the stupid decisions, callous actions and sublimations of the adults around them. But their unique otherness and separation from the informing socio-economy gives them presence unavailable to their keepers. In them we see what adults have lost, and how their fragile otherness meets alien system in the acts of the parent.

Like Lucia Berlin’s resilient and sustaining stories, speaking of lives at social and economic margins, Howe’s Economics looks at a broad range of the food chain, where drunks at academic cock-tail parties tell their stories, friends are divided by class and office temps solve administrative slips. Sympathies are with children, situations, or environments still inviting to human needs despite the emptied forms scattered in these urban landscapes. What shows best here are psychic manifestations in matter. The clarity of her language and the quickly detailed observations of phenomena charge these words with great intensity. In a sense, and I’m probably stretching it, she’s a spiritual descendent of William Burroughs, for she sees clearly the virus inhabiting human flesh. The cold accuracy of her language and the mythic distortions embodied in the actions of her characters give these stories great verticality. Instead of social urgency we see how people treat one another. The emotional conduct of invisible lives reveals for us spiritual craving both desperate and transforming. Like her carefully made and phenomenally detailed poems, Economics looks into life matters for truth and consequence.

A native of Newcastle, England, poet and filmmaker Tom Pickard’s Hole in the Wall: New & Selected Poems makes its own economic observations. But economy, class and geography for this New American-influenced poet comes mostly through the rich language of his heritage. Not a stiff-upper-lip heritage, but one announced by virtue of radicals deep in English soil.

In the Objectivist tradition, paring words down to broaden their sound and register meaning, Pickard’s work here is of compact, dazzling, Bunting-esque musicality. It also bursts with a fluid sensual appeal reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence. The earliest poems first appeared in 1967.


split she was
lay there two ways

shagged we had
and breast apart

one nipple fingered soft
felt like porno pictures
looked they should

fucked we had
and pissed happy glad

Another, “Scrap,” uses dialect in the tradition of Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy and Lawrence:

hoo kid
fancy yasel?

howay outside

scrap lads, who’s jumpin in?

kick ees heed in
gerroot yi twat
stick it on im
kick ees pills
boorim in the nakaz man
wipe ees face wi ya raza
smath the get…

The northern dialect is rough on North American ears, but the music and compression extend this dramatic fight. Other sensual details plant these poems in diverse experiences. There’s little to say about them when to have them in your mouth is quite enough. But behind the urgencies of love, urban squalor or pastoral observances lies social tension and poverty. In “Work for Welfare,” he writes:

time to recycle the contours
of my psychological geography
with a Restart New Deal grant
climb out of this cardboard coffin
and dust down my no questions asked,
hygienic, body disposal

More favorite stanzas here from “The Double D Economy:”

Back of the pub a rottweiler
ripped a kid’s throat out.
Nanny broke baby skulls.
5 a.m. phone calls.

There is no response.
The internal phone in the Social
isn’t working.
They only listen when you think
they aren’t.

If there was a riot
I would have joined it.
If I had a machine gun
I would have shot it….

And from “Winter Night:”

gimme snort gimme crack
gimme smack lord by the sack
till it breaks my fucking back
on this winter night

street lights flicker windows shake
I don’t want to stay awake
wind and rain and howling storm
bless the day that I was born
bottle breaking bloody dawn
another winter night

Pickard’s socio-economic commentary is from within, as you see, not from without. These lyrics are sweet, full of human curiosity, experience, sensual longing and release. The quick surprises, rhymes and rhythms show how poems can conserve their forms if driven by intelligent, inquisitive energies.

a thermal flipped
buzzard shits
sun snatched
and streaked

a naked sky (from “Blackberries at Dusk)

In “Absolute” the rites of lust are resolved in the phenomena of the bedroom.

sunlight after sex
first frost on the fells

a crystal apron dissolves
in a lap of certain light

water in a bedroom cup
cold clear

and the air sure

The sense of these poems comes through physical objects, people and situations. There are no proposals. There are frames instead, quick glances of human relations in songs of bittersweet knowledge. There are no grand statements, no figuring it out or idealistic pretenses. But there is a complexity of feeling and observation that foregrounds both language and life, two values by which all others are weighed. Language poetry, (to pick on that amorphous sub-genus), has often misunderstood how complex ideas, diverse modes of intelligence and social relations can be extended through the sensual vitality of language. Pickard makes art by letting complexity issue from a surface of sensual simplicity. He reminds us however fragmented, discordant and frayed the self is under postmodern conditions, flesh still locates a functioning “I,” a diverse referent of the body’s perceptions. This humble and provocative poetry reorients the head, insisting on reminding us of the pleasures of a good fuck, for instance. While fucking may not be a solution to global ills, it’s better than an appeal to colleagues on conference rosters.

Check this recent interview for more about Tom Pickard:

See Flood’s website or more information and for a list of publications.


Dig It!

Berkeley poet Owen Hill’s new mystery, The Chandler Apartments, is an absorbing, intelligent and playfully related story of deception, murder and social satire. Using the mystery genre’s sparse prose and Chandler-esque social vision, Hill takes his readers on an epicurean pub-crawl through present-day Berkeley.

Bookseller-sleuthe Clay Blackburn lives in the Chandler Apartments in a rent-controlled studio at the freak-show intersection of Telegraph and Dwight. When an ex-lover ends up dead he’s drawn into the world of a dotcom dominatrix who hustles black market antiquities. Poets with yuppie tastes and career-concerns mix it up with culture studies drop-outs slumming as auto mechanics to draw Blackburn into a scheme involving big cash, federal agents, strigils, statuettes and other relics. The plot is classic California noir as our hero finds his head through misleading circumstances.

The joys of this book are in the perceptive accounts of social life in the freak state of “pre-post-feminist Berkeley.” The sensual lives of his characters show a lust for life despite corrupt moral visions, harsh economic realities and spiritual crises. Poetry also contributes to the extraordinary pleasure of this book. (“American poets have two things in common: we are anonymous, and we are useless). Peggy Denby, who draws our hero into her late husband’s financial risks, is a poet, like Blackburn.

     “Flustered.” She smiled as if we’d invented the word. First word of our own personal language. “Clay, I lost my husband, and now I’m into some werid shit that I can’t understand. This isn’t my life. I write experimental verse! I’m most comfortable when I’m swimming in words. I’ve always pulled away from life. My heroines are Emily Dickinson and Leslie Scalapino. I don’t trust my senses. My friends are mostly academics. You fascinate me, I mean the way you live. The apartment on Telegraph, digging for old books. All the nuts you hang out with. But I don’t know how close I’d want to be to that.”

Robert Creeley reads in the Maude Fife room at the University of Calfornia. Hill uses this opportunity to comment on some of the social phenomena the occasion presents.

     Robert Hass stepped up to the mike, wearing a Mr. Rogers sweater and a new agey grin. He happy-talked an intro to the opening act, a third-generation language poet, and a grad student at the university. She looked like the book clerk Bogey flirted with in The Big Sleep. Blonde hair in a bun and a sensible dress. She would set up each poem with a breathy, giggly intro that was sly and funny. Then she’d switch into her poetry voice: serious, plodding, awful. The strings of pointless words put me into a semi-stupor. Marvin started giggling. He leaned over and said, “Not a decent…” which is one of our jokes, a reference to a William S. Burroughs line from the sixties: “Not a decent fuck in the entire generation.”

After the reading, the crowd is herded to a reception down the hall.

     The party room had the drab, undecorated look that we associate with Soviet communism. The cork bulletin boards were bare. A long table, a type that you’d remember from elementary school, was loaded with mid-priced California wines, crackers, cheese, and fruit. Another table displayed some of Creeley’s books. I was taken by the gray sameness of the covers.
     I became aware of Stephie’s presence as the only sexual entity in the room. Well, except Marvin, who isn’t my type. The young language poet who opened the show seemed too stiff and lifeless to ever bother with anything physical. I saw her talking to an editor from UC Press, wearing a frozen smile, like someone at a wedding reception. I knew instinctively that her only concern was her career. Everyone else was busy chasing prizes or publication, or a few minutes with the star. If I walked around the room and pricked each of them with a needle, would they bleed? Poets are supposed to bleed.

I don’t mean to over-determine this book for anyone. It’s more than insider analysis of poets and their performances. Hill’s book looks carefully too, and in greater depth, at the social morphology of Berkeley, human adaptation to post-modern conditioning and sexual second-guesses in a climate of uncertainty, predatory practices and consuming greed.

     I waded through the park and over to Haste Street to watch the skaters. Boys in their late teens, shirts off, rolling up a ramp and falling back. Seeking that feeling in the groin. And, in the audience, little girls and lecherous old guys like me, seeking the same thing…. Out on the lawn a few crazies are speaking to the imaginary friends. Old hippies are dancing the same dance they’ve danced for thirty-five years. When the forces of boredom won for good a few losers moved from the hinterlands to The City. Then San Francisco got too expensive and they moved to Berkeley/Oakland. Something like that probably happened in parts of NYC. And Amsterdam. Any place else? If you appreciate lost causes you can fall in love with this place. Casablanca in the forties couldn’t have been much more interesting and diverse. Sadly, if you listen closely that mainstream steamroller can be heard, crossing the Bay Bridge. Soon Berkeley will be a conquered province. What will become of us?

I wish there was time to tap out other passages from this engrossing book. Negronis, tequila, grappa and many other drinks pass through the characters here. They attend cuisine with religious zeal and pass through each other’s arms in conflicting states of ennui and desperate passion. As a collage of 21st century NoCal survival practices, this mystery unfolds more than just plot to reveal the mysterious acts and forms that compose urban life there. It’s a book about art too, or how art influences decisions. Poetry as a creed of life rather than a career. Any career. That’s the point, I think. To pursue the adventure of art and life at all costs, and to come out on top, alive. The corporate villains, spiritually indentured academics and vicious, money-grubbing shits here share in common a love of acquisition. Clay Blackburn’s path through this treacherous domain is a journey intelligent as it is amusing. Although he’s been around the block a few times, wearied by encounters with life, he can’t ignore the subtle thumping pitter-patter of his heart. The formation of mystery….

The Chandler Apartments, by Owen Hill, is available through Creative Arts Book Company, 833 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, California 94710, 800.848.7789


Ron Silliman’s Blog is usually updated daily. The web log format is perfect for relaxed commentary on contemporary poetics. Recent entries have focused on Forrest Gander’s polysyllabic vocabulary, the fate of Actualism as a force in US poetry and Eleni Sikelianos’s projective field range. His entries are best read for perceptive close-readings of individual authors. The historical and evaluative social commentary is also useful, but sometimes misses. For instance, excessive praise heaped on the journal Chain is a stretch, and is given for its incorporation of polymorphic values. Nothing wrong with polymorphism, but to say this annual from Hawaii / Philadelphia tops the North American literary food chain for its democratic virtues is a stretch. I have other arguments but I’m glad this daily log reaches public screens. Silliman's enthusiastic, daily engagement with poetry is an important contribution and helps keep talk alive—even if you want to smash the screen at times.

Books received:

Zero Star Hotel by Anselm Berrigan *
Edge Books, PO Box 25642, Washington, D.C. 20027 /

Marks, by Richard Martin
Asylum Arts, 5847 Sawmill Road, Paradise, CA 95969

Mental Ground, by Esther Tellerman, (trans. by Keith Waldrop)
Burning Deck, 71 Elmgrove Ave, Providence, RI 02906

Ridge to Ridge, by Kenneth Irby *
Other Wind Press, Inc., 541 Lakeview Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48013

Queequeg or When the Kettle Whistle Blows, Richard Owens
Fecal Kulchur Press, PO Box 1223, Montague, NJ 07827

Some Mantic Daemons, by Garrett Kalleberg
Futurepoem Books, PO Box 34, NYC 10014

Magazines received:

Swerve 8, ed. by Fred Schmalz & Brian Engel
8999 Thomas Dr., Woodbury, MN 55125
Work by Linh dinh, Kelly Everding, Joshua Beckman and Chris Martin
Hand-sewn, elegant, great work. One of the finest little zines in the country.

Combo 10, ed. by Michael Magee
31 Perrin Ave., Pawtucket, RI 02861

Near South, Number 2, Fall 2002, ed. by Garin Cycholl, John Breedlove, Chris Glomski, Lea Graham, Sarah Livingston and Kristy Odelius.
3617 W. Belle Plaine, Chicago, IL 60618

Bombay Gin, 28, Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa Press, Boulder Colorado, 2002

* Reviews forthcoming