There’s an excellent new edition of The Journal Petra out now.
Work by such Montevidayo favorites as Kim Hyesoon and Lucas de Lima can be found there, along with many other great poems.
Over at Cleaver Magazine, Johnny Payne has written a very thoughtful review of The Sugar Book. In particular, I appreciate the way he – like Carleen Tibbetts in her review in American Microreviews- thinks through the kind of “barrage” that gave Publisher’s Weekly such issues with Haute Surveillance. Payne acknowledges that he felt the urge to cut out some of the stuff from the book but instead of this leading him to knee-jerk attack/dismiss the way Publisher’s Weekly did, he actually thinks about his reaction.
Here’s an excerpt:
This is exactly what Kant meant when he described the sublime as a rapid alternation between the fear of the overwhelming and the peculiar pleasure of seeing that overwhelming overwhelmed: a raging storm that “takes our breath away.” This book is full of a genetic hybrid of Billie Holiday’s strange fruit—as a song that became an ekphrastic poem—the ugly philosophical object of contemplation transmuted, by its very violence, into something lyrical.
Pablo Neruda played with this idea back in 1925, with feismo, the art of the ugly:
el perfume de las ciruelas que rodando a tierra
se pudren en el tiempo, infinitamente verdes.
the perfume of plums that rolling to the ground
rot in time, infinitely green.
The Sugar Book is a full-on assault on the senses, the sharp point of a blunt instrument. I don’t think anyone would accuse this book of subtlety. Its virtue is precisely its overkill. Excess, at its best, becomes a form of complexity. The outrage, while often smirking, runs deep, forcing a core of sincerity into what might easily have become a flippant, cynical take on urban ennui, as I feared when facing such crackling ironic titles as “At the Shrine for the Dead Starlet,” or “ The Heart of Glamour.”
I’ve been meaning to post this for a while…Erica Bernheim has a fascinating review of The Fassbinder Diaries over at Verse. Here’s the first part:
Growing up in Italy before the internet, my sister and I maintained meticulous lists of the most ridiculous translations we encountered, translations that were neither literally correct literally nor entirely phonetic. Often, we noticed, there was a food element, something decadent, decaying, or simply just off: the local movie theater showing “Ratty and Ham” (instead of U2’s “Rattle and Hum”), “Porky Coolness” (a strange rendering of salsiccia dolce, or sweet sausage). Coincidentally, the pig—both as animal and symbol and consumable object—features heavily throughout The Fassbinder Diaries, James Pate’s 2013 collection of “filmic poetry.” Upon its publication, The Fassbinder Diaries received well-deserved attention from a number of readers and critics who praised the wide scope of Pate’s lens as well as the generosity of his allusiveness, the pop culture references made both familiar and ominous throughout the text. In a Montevidayo post, Johannes Goransson alludes to Pate’s formative years in Memphis, a city which evokes crime and decay and a specific type of Southern grittiness replacing the more straightforward gothic tropes. In this instance, as in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, realism can become much more horrifying than the imagined.
Carleen Tibbetts has a great review of The Subar Book on the website American Micro Reviews, focusing on the sugary, decayed substance of artifice. Here’s the final paragraph:
The Sugar Book is vile and violent, but also asphyxiatingly sweet, choking while gorging on its aloof, artful persona. It unsettles. It takes the reader far beyond their comfort zone, as poetry should. Just like Los Angeles herself, the poems inhabit that glittering/grotesque duality of Kardashian Family and Manson Family. They have that eerie Chinatown feel. They are the disarticlated woman in the Black Dahlia murder. They are Richard Ramirez in all his night-stalking terror. The Sugar Book asks, when any structure decays, when the sugar decays, what do we do with the remains?
Entropy Magazine recently put up my review of Johannes’ excellent new The Sugar Book. The cover and design of the book reminds me of what a reviewer once said about Brett Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero — it’s like a “piece of black candy.”
Here’s the first part:
1. Poetry of the Planet
In his book on “cosmic pessimism” entitled In The Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker lays out what he sees as the three concepts that constitute our sense of reality.
There is the World, which is the zone where we act and interpret and perceive, “a human-centric mode of being.”
There is the Earth, which is “the world as an object” and encompasses “geology, archaeology, paleontology,” etc.
Lastly, there is the Planet, which is the “world-without-us.”
Planet is difficult to grasp, being non-human and against our humanist assumptions about history, meaning, consciousness (as Thacker points out, consciousness itself is simply a roll of the evolutionary dice). In fact, he argues, some of the best attempts to deal with the idea of Planet come not from philosophers themselves, but from what he calls “dark mysticism” and from the horror genre. Horror, in both literature and film, has often challenged the humanist World with various emanations of Planet, “expressing them not in abstract concepts but in a whole bestiary of impossible life forms — mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, and muck.”
I bring this up because Johannes Göransson is one of the major poets of this concept of Planet, and also because he often uses genre (horror, but noir too) to help convey this sense of the non-human. Poetry, of course, has long dealt with the nonhuman, going all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and some of the best contemporary poetry addresses these non-humanist realms. Lara Glenum, Joyelle McSweeney, Arda Collins, Feng Sun Chen, Rauan Klassnik, Ariana Reines, and Lucas de Lima all write powerful poems relating to Planet. Göransson’s particular focus is the intersection of the nonhuman with masquerade, or how the undermining of human-centric assumptions leads to a sort of ontological/political masquerade.
In Göransson’s poetry, there is no self-congratulation about being on “the right side of history.” History, having no human face, no Mind, and no anthropomorphic Hegelian Spirit, has no sides. There are only events. There’s only Los Angeles.
The other day I discovered an interesting review of Haute Surveillance on Publisher’s Weekly. Often negative reviews are very revealing – especially when it’s such a negative review as this, especially in a magazine that like to present itself as a “journal of record” that is supposed to be a guide to things published with an air of “objectivity.” If an “objective” record has to abject my book in this way, has to warn instead of merely take note of my book, what does it say about my book’s relationship to “objective” American poetry?
I am particularly interested in the contradictions of this rhetoric: It is both “underwhelming” and “orgiastic,” both “pornography” and “disinteret[ed],” a morass” that “drowns” the reader and “vacuous.” The review repeatedly presents my book as both too much and not enough. This is the hallmark of when people who perceive themselves as having refined taste tries to shield others from work that challenges that taste.
How can a text both be a barrage that drowns the reader and be “exhaustive critique”? The critique suggest a stable place from which to view one’s culture; and that’s a place I’ve never found for myself, and it’s not a stance I’ve found convincing in other writers. (I’ve written quite a bit about my dissatisfaction with this pervasive paradigm of the writer-as-critic, for example here.)
It seem this person is unable to read the text and has to fall back on a number of cliches (that contradict each other): it’s about “spectatorship” (which it certainly is), so it must be a “critique”. If it’s pornographic and masochism, then it cannot be “boundary-pushing” (ie “experimental”). When you stumble into this many contradictions, I think it’s important to ask oneself as a critic if one is actually reviewing a book or flailing wildly?
The review is correct in many ways (perhaps in spite of itself). I think my book mostly certainly is a “morass” and “masochistic”, and it most certainly doesn’t provide a way out, a way forward, a progressive worldview. It is most certainly meant to be a “barrage.” But again, if I were the critic, I might ask myself: Why is this author creating a barrage, a morass? Why would someone want to subject himself or his reader to such “smut”? Can there be any other way than the “critique” of engaging with US culture (and its splendid images, its barrage, its violence)?
The smut is particularly interesting to me of course. The falling back on the rhetoric of “pornography” is common these days. I have written extensively about this (for example here, about “ruin porn”). At the heart, I think this line of criticism goes back to the fundamental rhetoric of high taste: high taste is anxious about art that traffics in sensational images. I have also written about Jacques Ranciere’s “The Emancipation of the Spectator”:
It was in this context that a rumour began to be heard: too many stimuli have been unleashed on all sides; too many thoughts and images are invading brains that have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; too many images of possible pleasures are held out to the sight of the poor in big towns; too many new pieces of knowledge are being thrust into the feeble skulls of the children of the common people…
This also goes back to my last post, which treated the charges that Action Books represented a “sensationalistic” – and therefore immoral, ignorant – aesthetic.
There’s a certain type of poetry that orbits around an on-going absence, giving the reader the sense of ghostly not-there-ness with images that are all the more vivid for the emptiness around them: trees, lone houses on wind-swept beaches, blackbirds among twenty snowy mountains. But this absence isn’t necessarily premised on loss. Rather, the absence can sometimes be based on a restraint that’s all the more mysterious for being so exact. If the poets of absence were on a sort of scale of formalistic experimentation, Wallace Stevens might be at one end and John Cage at the other. Strand and Lauterbach and Ashbery and Palmer would fall somewhere between them. And James Shea would have to be in that number, too. His brilliant new book, The Lost Novel, is haunted by absence in the way other collections are haunted by memory.
The first line in the first poem (“Thinking of Work”) emphasizes a brushing back, an act of clearance: “A brief storm / blew the earth clean.” It’s an appropriate line for a book that often seems to take place in an aftermath, placing the calmness after the storm and not before. Yet the poem is not an ode to this cleansed earth, but rather about how to carry on post-storm: “There was much / to do: sun to put up, / clouds to put out, / blue to install…” And this response — this nature shaping and re-shaping — is emblematic of the collection. For all of Shea’s close attention to the natural world, to the intricate details of leaves and “cloud-shaped stones,” his poems are less about a cohesive organic world and more about the aesthetics of nature. In “New & Selected,” he writes, “Best to begin loving someone / in the late fall or winter, when / nature will not outshine you.” Nature in both this poem and “Thinking of Work” is seen almost as a stage set, a phenomena that might “outshine” its actors.
This highly aesthetic approach to nature is often seen in the poetry of absence. If nature isn’t a plenitude, then each image becomes not a marker of truth (spiritual or otherwise), but simply a sign, and the natural world itself becomes “an empire of signs” (to use Barthes’ phrase in a very different context). There are moments in the collection where this act of reading signs is explicit. In “The Phrase You Gave Me,” Shea writes, “I remember almost / nothing of what I’ve written, except / that it begins thusly: Crows seal the sky. / They speak of their suffering in long, distant sentences.” But usually the reading is implicit. In “Supervenience,” he writes, “Dusk approaches, wild geese overhead. / The mind can build upon the brain.” As the above lines suggest, Shea, like Stevens, is fascinated by all kinds of art-making, both literal and metaphorical, and, also like Stevens, he is drawn toward the paradoxes of this making. In “Poem By Tolstoy,” the poet writes, “For ten years or so I haven’t had such a wealth of images and ideas as these last three days. I can’t write, they are so abundant.”
The title itself hints at absence, too, though in this case it’s an actual loss: the lost novel. Is the novel “lost” as in left behind somewhere, and cannot be found? Or lost in the sense of the writer having lost the thread of the novel and therefore not being able to complete it? Or is the title meant to be literal, with “lost” being the theme of the book? (Of course, the fact this is a poetry collection and not a novel seems to also be at play — as if this “novel” is so lost it can no longer even be rendered or described in prose, and instead is referred to in a different form, marking yet another degree of separation.) All of these questions are implied by the title, and in the title poem itself.
There are nine sections in “The Lost Novel.” The first lines are addressed to an ambiguous “you” that might be the novel itself. “I wrote you once for years. / I called you many names.” Not “I wrote to you” but “I wrote you”: implying that for the speaker the novel has be transformed, anthropomorphized. The following section gives us some of the names/titles: “Party of One. Sexy / Hypothesis. Miss Bliss. / The Instrumentalist.” Because this is a lost novel, there is no final name/title, only a list of possible ones. The next sections pick up on this fragmentation. In section four, the poet says, “Some chapters just sketched out, others quite filled in.” And later, in section six: “Chapters 6, 7, 8: / Develop character!”
Despite the injunctions, these fix-it notes to self, you begin to think that this novel — like a modern project grounded in its own failure and/or incompletion (Beckett and Kafka come to mind) — is a work that cannot be completed, that houses its own missing parts within itself. As the poet writes near the end, “I still have all my notes,” suggesting that though these notes will never lead to a completed novel, they continue to hold promise, the “still” being a wager against the impossible.
“To celebrate Action Books’ 10th anniversary of publishing extremist literature from a broad swath of countries and cultures, we are pleased to announce an open reading period from March 15th to April 15th. We will gladly consider submissions of full-length manuscripts of poetry, translation, and genre-promiscuous work! We will select at least two manuscripts to publish, one of which will be a work in translation. We look forward to reading your work!”
– Joyelle McSweeney & Johannes Göransson
I have a new essay, “Toward a Sensationalistic Theory of Translation.”
In many ways it’s a response to Mia You’s review on Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream published in Book Forum a while back. You basically made the argument that we (the American readers of Kim Hyesoon) were “gross sensationalist” because we lacked the proper context for understanding her work.
I picked up on this critique and turned it around because I think the idea of context as a stable, determining force has become pervasive in our culture – both in discussions fo poetry and translation, but also wider culture – and that this is an incredibly simplistic idea of the way art works. The context-model posits that context basically determines “meaning” of a work of art. As a result, translation becomes impossible. Instead we get “gross sensationalism” and “appropriation.”
(I’ve even been accused of appropriating Swedish poetry, which I think is a really interesting charge because it makes clear the problems that not just translations, but immigrants, cause to this model of “context.” And authors – as I mention in the Volta essay – are not always (or even mostly) central figures of some kind of monoglossic illusion of “central”, true language/culture, often existing in peripheries and crossing all kinds of borders.)
Rather than stealing or decontextualizing, what translation – and art! – does is continually forge next contexts. Don Mee Choi and Action Books have for example forged a lot of contexts for reading Kim Hyesoon’s work. There is not one true meaning of Kim Hyesoon’s poems that can be gained from some supposedly stable idea of Korean culture (the instability of ideas of “context” is actually brought out in You’s essay since she questions some common ideas of Korean culture in the US); there is in fact no one true context for reading her work. In one recent interview (in South Korea) for example, she talks apprecriatively about what an essay I wrote about her work as “gurlesque” for the Swedish journal 10-tal, discussing how this brings out the important figure of “the girl” in her work. This is how poetry work: it constantly brings artworks into contact with readers and writers, creating new “contexts” for reading.
This doesn’t mean we should forget about the fact that Kim Hyesoon is a Korean poet, and that Don Mee Choi translated her. That is why I invoke Joyelle’s and my phrase “deformation zone,” a booklet we wrote for Ugly Duckling in which we argued that artworks are deformation zones (“appropriating” this terms from Aase Berg’s Swedish poem) that includes various contexts and deformations and translations and forgeries.
“The poet´s concept of Art is, therefore, related to the theme of translation. She actually believes that Art is an act of translation, a transformation or deformation of form from one medium into another. And she is not afraid of the degradation or decomposition that comes with transformation. The consecutive lines forming “winding sheet music” in the poem depict this concept of de-composition. This phrase, composed of two different expressions (“winding sheet” and “sheet music”) can be taken as representative of the spasmodic Mobius strip into which composition and decomposition, creation-degradation-recreation coexist.”