December 28, 2005

G. B. Ryan, Poems 17-20 (Elkhound, 2005). 72 pages.
So after a couple of minutes researching on Worldcat, I've found that G. B. Ryan is author of Poems 1-11 (Elkhound, 1998) and Poems 12-16 (Elkhound, 2002), and that Elkhound has only published these three volumes. This leads me to surmise that Elkhound and Ryan are one in the same. I may be mistaken, but I doubt it. But even if true, so what? To echo one of Chris Stroffolino's many analogies to indie rock, this would be tantamount to a band starting an indie label. As with indie labels, there's always the problem of distribution: Elkhound has managed to place Ryan in several well respected libraries: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Buffalo, the National Library of Ireland, etc... On the business side, however, there's no website, they're not on amazon, SPD, etc. A complimentary copy of Poems 17-20 was lying around the office for a while before I decided to take it home.
As the title suggests, the book is broken into four parts. It's unclear if these are meant to represent a continuation of an overarching design or stand alone notebooks/chapbooks. From the material, I would guess the latter. Two sections contain separate poems, each poem forming a unit onto itself. Only chapters 18 and 19 have single, serial poems creating unified texts.
The read is uneven with sporadic moments of sharp insight and commentary:
Although there's a sheer
drop of twenty feet
on the wall's far side,
the super tells me,
tenants like to see
coils of razor wire (26).
At times, Ryan uses form and rhyme. As outmoded and reactionary as this seems to me, I am able to appreciate their merits; however, when craft gets abandonned, then as a reader I get confused as to the purpose of using them in the first place. "Tulips" is set to follow an ABCC/DEFF/HIJJ pattern, but this would require "it" to rhyme with "coat" in lines 7 and 8. Perhaps there's an accent at work here; if we take some of the narrative material as biographical (a dangerous if, mind you) then perhaps there's a mitigating Irish connection that would somehow make "engine" and "vein" closer to rhyme or at least a good near-rhyme (31).

Elkhound Press
Box 1453
Gracie Station
New York NY 10028
G. B. Ryan clarifies: "Elkhound is simply a distribution tool, but a reasonably effective one."



December 27, 2005

Ho Xuan Huong, Spring Essences, trans. John Balaban (Copper Canyon, 2000). 134 pages. $15.

Balaban has managed a small marvel in this volume of Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong's work. First is his deft handling of the necessary introductory material: the complex historical background of feudal Vietnam; a biographical sketch and brief account of the scholarly debate surrounding her (her husband was executed for bribery in 1819; the document lists her as his concubine); there's the language itself (She wrote in Nom characters adapted from Chinese characters) and even the transliteration system requires a brief introduction; finally, there's the manuscript tradition to contend with as the poems were altered over the years, creating different versions of the poems. As scholarly as all this sounds, it falls short of overload (he does this all in 12 pages) and equips the reader to understand and appreciate the poems more deeply. In all, Balaban tells us he spent ten years on this project and the product manifests his care and dedication.
The poems themselves are presented trilingually. One page conatins the Nom original and the transliteration at bottom; the facing page conatins the English translation. Even a quick read-through offers several reasons why Ho is considered the Queen of Nom poetry. The poems are short, either four lines or eight, and packed with striking images and scathing social commentary. Take for example the sharp witted banter in the two poem call and response cycle between Chieu-Ho and a disciple:
Teasing Chieu-Ho
Is the master drunk? Is the master awake?
Why flirt with the moon in the middle of the day?
Perhaps there's something I ought to say:
Don't stick your hand in the tiger's cave (43).
Chieu-Ho's Reply
No, I'm not drunk and, yes, I was awake.
And why not flirt with the moon by day?
At the tiger's cave where one shouldn't play,
his cub lept into your hands to have his way (45).
Balaban's translations are well crafted and retain much of the artistry of the original. This volume should help return Ho Xuan Huong to her proper place among the greats of Asian literature.



December 15, 2005

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Americus I (New York: New Directions, 2004). 90 pages. $21.95 (hard).

___, Tryannus Nix? (New York: New Directions, 1969). 92 pages.

All of the protest poetry floating around right now sent me searching through some of the latter-day Vietnam era protest material to see how it all stands up 30 or more years later. Tryannus Nix's handwritten scrawl has all the immediacy of a mimeographed manifesto rant: "Oh Quaker King I hope you do not turn out still to have the Jupiter Complex with the idea you can win all war if you throw enough thunderbirds" (49), and it never once lets up. Change a few of the proper nouns (Bush for Nixon, Iraq/Afghanistan for Vietnam, etc...) and this would stand up with the best of what's circulating now (minus some of the Buddhist lotus flowers though).

Americus I is a definite departure for Ferlinghetti even from 2001's How to Paint Sunlight, let alone the anti-establishment, mega-phone toting prophet of Tryannus. It's a canto cycle in every sense. More Whitmanesque in its catalogue style (see for example "III," pp. 11-7) and inclusion than Byron, Pound or Zukofsky, Ferlinghetti's poems chronicle the events (primarily) of the last century, using headlines, quotes, letters, and other documents to flesh out his subjects and expand the scope of his discussion. There is a touch of the Poundian/Talmudic conversations across centuries and continents, but again and again Ferlinghetti returns to the core of an American collective consciousness: FDR, JFK, Brooklyn, baseball ....



December 5, 2005

Juliana Spahr, this connection of everyone with lungs (Berkeley, CA: Univ of California, 2005). 75 pages.

"poemwrittenafterseptember11/2001," the opening poem, should be mandatory reading: for poets, for non-poets, for anyone with skin with recognition of an outside outside of their skin. This is a work likely to make Buddhists and Spinozans happy, but points to a universal condition of humanity that few since the late 1800s have tried to posit in such a positive light, and which does so on such a convincingly human level as to make it sucessful in sceptical, more humanistic times.
The optimism presented here, naive or not, seems genuine; and presents a break from the bleak pessimism of post-WWII (WWI in Europe; in fact, maybe there's a hint of an Elouardian tradition at work here) literature.
"poemswrittenfromnovember30/2002tomarch27/2003" act as a time capsule of sorts, recording assessments of world events (many of which registered in the papers, but not in the American consciousness; Kenya for example) as the United States marched towards war. What is written and what we will remember is telling of America's insistence on hegemony in the Middle East, while it lets the entire continent of Africa and other concerns float far below its (moral/ethical?) radar.