Posts Tagged ‘Review’

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Josh Neufeld. (Pantheon) $24.95

ad_cover_finalA.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is Josh Neufeld’s first book-length graphic narrative. It contains five interconnected pieces of non-fiction from five disconnected groups of New Orleanians (some many generations deep) who lived through Hurricane Katrina. These five people were brought together by Neufeld’s blog—which evolved into a non-graphic book—written about Katrina after he served three weeks in Biloxi, Mississippi doing rehabilitation work with the American Red Cross. The book does a great job of assembling a diverse group of people who stayed and weathered the storm for reasons that are more interesting and complex that the public see was led to believe by the media at the time.

It’s a welcome telling that personifies the obfuscated series of events, its aftermath still being felt years later. What makes the book different from most of what’s been told about Katrina so far is its focus on the personal. Neufeld writes almost entirely about his five characters, and how such a devastating event affects them on a human level. He effectively uses narrative to humanize the tragedy, rather than dissect the bureaucratic and social-cluster train-wreck of the New Orleans and U.S. Government until the analysis melts into blind rage.

pg2Despite the great writing and the credential of being a long-time contributor to Harvey Pekar’s acclaimed American Splendor series, it should be noted that some color schemes are unpleasant. Neufeld decided to bathe the series in several combinations of desaturated, low-value color schemes that make reading certain sections—specifically the “Saturday, August 20 2005” section with just a yellow background and orange lines—very difficult. It could be that Neufeld had a reason for choosing his combinations, but that reason isn’t clear and it’s sometimes very distracting.

As the story progresses its hues become more contrasted for the figures and background respectively, which at times works like the little girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List but doesn’t work consistently enough to not be distracting. This could have perhaps been solved by well-planned value planning.

Overall, though, instead of producing aimless anger at the mysterious, Kafkaesque nightmare of the Man’s response to national disaster, I’m left with a pure, sincere empathy for those involved, like maybe we lost more than an epic Mardi Gras vacation spot. The book ends with the slightly hopeful yet sullen rebuilding of the city—both physically and emotionally—that  steadily carries on in spite of gentrification efforts and FEMA blunders.



Geoff Gossett


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Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988 – 2008, Norma Cole. (City Lights) $14.95


Norma Cole’s is the first book in City Light’s new spotlight series, which will showcase contemporary innovative poetry by both well-known and emerging American poets. City Light’s continuing commitment to experimental poetry is evident: one part of the series’ purpose is to draw attention to the small presses currently  publishing outside the mainstream—Cole’s wide range of original publishers include Moving Letters Press, Potes & Poets Press, O Books, and Granary Press.

Slightly larger than their iconic Pocket Poet Series, the Spotlight series is beautifully designed and produced. Cole’s verse ranges vastly in form and subject, with a large selection of prose poems. Her dialogue with contemporary French poetry is especially evident. As she begins her poem “: Well”:

Eating and shitting pearls, we
tell each other stories, listening for difference

Even with a half-hearted listen, it’s easy to tell that Cole’s poetry is different. Where Shadows Will offers only the beginning of an introduction, a whetting of the palate.

The next book in the series is Free Cell by Anselm Berrigan.

to be hung from the ceiling by strings of varying length, Rick Reid (Black Goat, Akashic) $15.95

globetrotter & hitler’s children, Amatoritsero Ede. (Black Goat, Akashic) $15.95

With the two most recent selection from Chris Abani’s Black Goat imprint, the editor continues to explore the experimental. Rick Reid’s debut collection is an experiment amaedein which the page itself is a “frame that superimposes itself temporally, aurally, and visually.” The text of each page appears in a sparse  free verse between two centered black dots, which give the effect that the collection is a single page with changing text, “producing a process of both afterimage and surfacing.” The text of the collection is less interesting than its conceptual foundations, but in the current age of evolving print culture the book raises interesting questions about the physicality of ink on paper, of the material construction of printed poetry.

Amitoritsero’s collection is made of two long poems, each composed of 26 lettered sections. The first, “globetrotter,” is a wanderer’s reflection on the city of Toronto, and the second, “hitler’s children,” is about the poet’s experience of contemporary Germany, framed within his vision of its “enabling, overarching ‘neo-liberal’ political atmosphere.” Both poems contain glimpses of genius, but the first is ultimately better than the second. Amitoritsero’s strength lies in his succint marriage of image and abstraction. His spatial descriptions are superb. From section c:

you have no perspective
wide as the autobahn

and from section d:

##what does the endless
###########north american sky

###like those sex workers
in amsterdam’s love quarters
########she says simply

####################i am wide open

The politics of the second poem are organic rather than forced, and at times—as in the leading segment, “The Skinhead’s Lord’s Prayer”—the poems are simultaneously humorous and tragic. An impressive debut by the Nigerian-born former Hindu monk, a truly successful contemporary practitioner of the long poem.

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An Atlas of Radical Cartography, ed. Alexis Bhagat & Lize Mogel. (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press) $35.00

If healthy social change on any level requires both informed understandings of problems and realistic strategies to form solutions, what tools can be used to illuminate social ills and offer feasible resolutions? How about maps? 

As An Atlas of Radical Cartography suggests, all maps contain political agendas, often behind a facade of objectivity.  Maps have both the power to reshape conventional thinking and facilitate plans for change.

Exploiting the incredible power of maps, An Atlas of Radical Cartography offers a collection of ten politically engaging maps with accompanying essays. All the authors are activists in specialized fields, and together their work of maps and essays cover a range of issues from identity, migration, land use, energy and imprisonment. The difference between these radical cartographers and most mapmakers:  these “wear their politics on their sleeves.”

applied_autonomy_1While dealing with serious issues, the authors carefully craft their works in engaging ways, often shedding light on alarming and underreported issues. The Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA), for example, provides a map of the many CCTV surveillance cameras that sprang up around Manhattan since 9/11. They bring attention to the question of the overabundance of watchdogs, and show routes of least surveillance around the New York island.  In a separate work, Trevor Palen, conversing with the organization Visible Collective, describes John Emerson’s CIA Rendition Flights between 2001 to 2006.  Palen details his field research on “torture taxis,” the planes the CIA used to move illegal detainees.


pedro_lasch_1Other works use a biting sense of humor to illustrate their points.  Pedro Lasch in his map and article “Latino/a America” envisions the Americas without any boundaries. He discusses how a map can show traces of immigrants travels. His work explores how globalization enforces boundaries to loosen the flow of capital while preventing  movement of people.

As the authors of An Atlas of Radical Cartography focus more on exploring social relations than geography per se, some writers map topics instead of physical space.  Ashley Hunts; “A World Map: In which we see” maps a thought diagram of contemporary capitalism and shows how bodies are caught up in it. She describes her work as a “Diagram of a Very Large Complicated Machine”.


The articles in this collections are better than self-congratulatory, they are not free from self-criticism. Jai Sen, who worked on dwelling rights for the working poor in 1980s Kolkata, describes how a community of people were likely preserved because of their existence on maps made by the company he worked for. Still, Sen asks what might the maps made have looked like if the citizens themselves participating in the mapmaking. Perhaps their interests would have been better served.

As pop culture commercializes social change, capitalizing on its trendiness—you can empower Darfur with your new Urban Outfitters graphic-T or save half of Africa with the purchase of U2’s new album—An Atlas of Radical Cartography breaks the norm. It offers refreshingly clever illustrations and informed discussions on pertinent social issues with a convincing belief that “This slow, cumulative and constant work across many scales of action is what creates social change”. Its contents are both accessible and necessary for any sincerely interested in social issues.


Ted English is a teacher of first-year composition and a graduate student of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Oklahoma.

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Frank Kuppner, Arioflotga (Carcanet) £9.95

Frank Kuppner is the funniest Glaswegian poet writing today. He also holds the world record for most impressive poet’s lambchops, only shorn in recent years, though any proof of their existence remains deep within the Carcanet file cabinets of authors photos. His latest collection, Arioflotga, is introduced on its back cover, where Kuppner writes,

Surely none of us can have been left quite unaffected by the recent startling and unfortunate disaster of the disappearance of the Great Poetic Anthology into the electronic cracks between the major academic institutions which were preparing it – something which one might have thought to be impossible in this age of unremitting communication. Nothing can compensate us for a loss of such magnitude. And yet here is some slight alleviation. Just over a year and a half ago, a copy of what seems to be a version of the index of first lines of the vast confusion of lost poems mysteriously turned up in a Latin American restaurant in Glasgow. No time has been lost in offering it to a still disconsolate public. It is not nothing that a portion of what promised to be the greatest collection of poetical thought of all time has not been utterly lost. And, as it happens, such is now not the case. No. Not so. For here indeed are depths, insights, provocations and astonishments. Or, at least, the beginnings of them. 

The collection is, as its description suggests, a 114-page index of first lines, beginning with, “A, b, c, d and so on. Where’s the problem?” and ending with “Zzzzz. No, no. Don’t wake me up. In fact,” all in alphabetical order with no attributions. As one early British reviewer pointed out, the collection is nearly impossible to complete. That would not be a problem if the reader were to take Kuppner’s claim of origin more seriously, but the production of the book itself does not complete the form of its framing device. If anything, that is its greatest fault, that it sells itself short by not completing the joke. Still, this is among the best of Kuppner’s seven collections, all released by Carcanet. He is able to maintain a balanced tone of humor and introspection throughout the book, while simultaneously succeeding in producing diverse enough—though perhaps too self-standing on the whole—first lines to be believable:

The Gods of this location were never seen without hats. 
The Good Lord creates you either one way or the other;
The Governor himself told me he had nothing but admiration
The great Bolivian inventors of the aeroplane
The great freedom-fighter’s son does seem, er, somewhat fragrant;
The Great Inca sits in Cuzco Town, drinking the blood-red wine. 
The great novelists were, in their various great ways, fools;


Christian Bök, Eunoia. (Canongate) £9.99

Bök’s Eunoia is a Oulipo-meets-English tour-de-force, which won Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002 after its initial Canadian publication by Coach House Books in 2001. The collection is a univocal lipogram in which each chapter—some over twenty pages long—is composed of grammatical sentences utilizing words that contain a single vowel, arranged as prose poems. Chapters A through U also abide by subsidiary rules that include the seemingly arbitrary—that each chapter “must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage”—as well as the rigorous—repetition is discouraged and all chapters must exhaust at least 98% of the available lexicon of univocals. Amazingly, Bök manages to weave narrative through the melodic cadence of each chapter. From Chapter A:

Hassan can watch as all hands land a small warcraft
and camp at a lava sandflat – a basalt strand that has
tar sands as black as magma ash. Wasps and gnats
swarm as all hands stack sandbags and start a spar-
tan camp. A campman, smark at campcraft, can spark
a match and warm an ashpan that thaws what hard-
tack a clan wants: bran mash and lard, spam hash
and salt, ballpark franks and flapjack stacks (all
starch and fat). …

and from Chapter I:

Fishing till twilight, I sit, drifting in this birch skiff,
jigging kingfish with jigs, bringing in fish which nip
this bright string (it’s vivid glint bristling with stick
pins). Whilst I slit this fish in its gills, knifing it, slicing
it, killing it with skill, shipwrights might trim this jib,
swinging it right, hitching it tight, riding brisk winds
which pitch this skiff, tipping it, tilting it, till this ship
in crisis flips. Rigging rips. Christ, this ship is sink-
ing. …

The five vowel chapters are followed by shorter poems exploring related themes, including words that contain only consonants and a homophonic translation of Rimbaud’s sonnet “Voyelle” (Gulfs of amber contours/evaporate the tint.//Linseed glass or oblong/freezing dumbells). Unlike the first five chapters of the book, these poems require too much explanation. While they achieve wild success as literary experiments, they don’t shine with the poetry of the first five chapters. Bök’s collection is an interesting commentary on the range of possibilities belonging to our English language and its generous orthography, allowing multiple phonemes to be represented by single letters. His formalism, as George Szirtes, American neo-formalists, and others have suggested (albeit regarding more traditional forms) truly is more liberating than restrictive. 


Arioflotga was released in October 2008. Canongate will publish the softcover UK edition of Eunioa in September 2009.


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An iluustration of Jack Spicer by Geoff Gossett.

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. (Wesleyan) $35.00

With back cover blurbs from Ron Silliman and Nathaniel Mackey, Jack Spicer would seem to fit nicely within the tradition of epic-scope American poetry occupying the space between the mainstream and avant-garde, but his book’s contents complicate that pigeonholing. Born in Los Angeles in 1925, Spicer wrote poems that didn’t fit the aesthetics of the Beat Movement or the New York School, though he was conversant with poets and poetry from both communities. Likewise he can’t be categorized by his homosexuality, which appears throughout his work without ceremony. An important member of the lesser known San Francisco and Berkeley Renaissances, Ginsberg performed the first reading of “Howl” at his Bay Area gallery, “6.” His Collected Poetry is titled after Spicer’s famous last words—better than any poet’s tombstone epigram—before his death in Northern California in 1965.

Spicer’s early work is noteworthy for the development of his tone and voice, his growing balance of wit with authority. The poems have aged well, seem contemporary. From his Berkeley Renaissance period, as classified by the editors, he writes in “Imaginary Elegies”:

The poet builds a castle on the moon
Made of dead skin and glass. Here marvelous machines
Stamp Chinese fortune cookies full of love.
…………………………………………             ………………Tarot cards
Make love to other Tarot cards.  . . .

Nestled one-third of the way through the book is After Lorca, Spicer’s 1957 collection, in which he first explores the subject matter and form that dominates his collected work. Published by a White Rabbit Press, a small independent, at a time when most up-and-coming young American poets competed to win publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series, their introductions written by judge W.H. Auden, Spicer’s collection is generously introduced by Federico García Lorca himself, already two decades dead. Think Nabokov with more humor than pretension. The collection is composed of an assortment of Spicer’s translations—some actual translations, some half-translations, some translations of poems supposedly written by post-mortem Lorca, some Spicer originals disguised as translations—and a handful of letters written from Spicer to Lorca, discussing his developing poetics.

The translation theory he expounds in his letters, coupled with the translations themselves, demonstrates a bold-faced confidence that is justified by the poems themselves:

When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. . . . A poet is a time mechanic and not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. . . . Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem.

The poems themselves express an authority borrowed from Lorca—certainly also resulting from Spicer’s own poetic evolution, punctuated by moments of lyrical brilliance. A typical example, from “Debussy,” a translation dedicated to the University of the Redlands, where Spicer briefly attended:

The shadow demands from my body
Unmoving images.

My shadow skims the water like a huge
Violet-colored mosquito.

A hundred crickets try to mine gold
From the light in the rushes.

A light born in my heart
Upon the ditch, reflected.

In his introduction to the collection Lorca calls the poems unwilling centaurs, though he claims modesty prevents him from claiming either half of the beast. His description applies well to all of Spicer’s work, not just After Lorca, as the poet always sought to include more voices than could be contained within his poems themselves, later supplementing them with self-conscious letters and footnotes. Rather than a weakness—Spicer’s inability to articulate the scope of his vision within his poetry—his inclusion of that interior heteroglossia is perhaps his greatest strength, effectively questioning and stretching the boundaries of the poem itself.

Spicer’s 1960 collection, The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, contains unnumbered footnotes, commentary directly and indirectly related to the poems themselves, which venture into more experimental territory. Again, Spicer employs a Nabokovian framework to weave his collection together with a narrative. The first footnote of the collection begins, “To begin with, I could have slept with all the people in the poems. It is not as difficult as the poet makes it.” The footnotes to “Concord Hymn” are a good example of the range and tone of their counterparts: “‘Conquered Him’ is a poem by Emerson.//The Dead Seas are all in the Holy Land.//If you watch closely you will see that water appears and disappears in the poem.” Other examples are more esoteric. One footnote to “The Territory Is Not the Map” reads, “Orpheus and Eurydice are in their last nuptial embrace during this poem,” and the mythological characters reappear throughout the narrative of the footnotes, widening his scope even further.

Several of the poems in The Heads experiment with loose rhyme schemes (“What is a half-truth the lobster declared/You have sugared my groin and have sugared my hair”). For the most part, the poems themselves are less brilliant than the framework they’re placed within, if they are considered to represent the entirety of the poems. This seems an intentional method of ensuring that the footnotes are essential to the collection, rather than of periphery interest; Spicer has intentionally made the footnotes form part of the poems. Throughout the collection, Spicer’s footnotes maintain a consistent voice, similar but distinct from that of the lyric poems they annotate, providing an interesting commentary on the nature of the lyric device. His playfulness is reminiscent of O’Hara or Koch, but with no trace of the subtle New York privilege that sometimes sneaks into their less experimental work. Spicer also pranks the Beats. In a footnote to his poem “Ferlinghetti,” he writes, “Ferlinghetti is a nonsense syllable invented by The Poet.”

Spicer’s final five years were incredibly productive, yielding half a dozen small press books varying wildly in subject matter and form. Spicer’s poems contain medieval knights, American baseball, and period linguistics. His experiments with form include sectional long poems and prose poems.

Spicer’s work from After Lorca on is characterized by a bold middle-class American wit, handled gracefully so that it doesn’t interfere with his literary ambitions. For the most part his cleverness does not detract from the quality of his work. His self-consciousness does not detract from his lyrical authority. He continues to include letters within his collections, which form cohesive movements. Spicer writes decades before the advent of the MFA-fueled McPoem, and he succeeds at compiling concept albums rather than anthologies of pop chart singles. Spicer’s most noteworthy contribution to the art is his ability to weave the contemporary short lyric into epic arrangements, combining the preeminent mode of American poetry today with the mode that has most endured through the history of our language.

In one of his letters to Lorca, Spicer explains his conception of literary tradition:

In my last letter I spoke of the tradition. The fools that read these letters will think by this we mean what tradition seems to have meant lately—an historical patchwork . . . which is used to cover up the nakedness of the bare word. Tradition means much more than that. It means generations of different poets in different countries patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem.

Spicer’s rendition of the great, same poem is noteworthy for its form, for its epic scope and voice, and for its serious consideration of playfulness. His collected poetry is too monolithic, too tedious an introduction to the poet, but serves as a worthwhile study of his evolution as a poet, an unconventional trajectory toward greatness. Acquiring Spicer’s single collections is no easy task, as they were printed half a century ago by small presses working below the mainstream radar. MVDTTM is well edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and includes a valuable critical introduction to Spicer’s work, a timeline of his life, and notes to accompany the poetry itself. The quantity of work produced in a single life of forty year is remarkable, and it’s too bad that Spicer’s vocabulary took him at such an early age, that he was unable to contribute more to that great, same poem.


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