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Sonnet 56, Paul Hoover. (Les Figues Press) $15

Hoover’s exploration of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 56” (“Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said/Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,…”) inhabits the experimental space between Peter Davis’ Hitler’s Mustache and Christian Bök’s Eunioa. Though I originally approached it with some skepticism, I quickly came to appreciate its Oulipian exploration of form. In Ian Monk’s brief introduction he frames the work well:

[Hoover’s poems] range from standards of the Western repertoire, such as the villanelle or the limerick, to more exotic examples such as the Arab qasida or the Japanese haibun, while also taking in such recent inventions as the web-inspired flarf. In this group, I would also include such versions as “Free Verse,” written in unrhymed couplets which are rather reminiscent of much of what now passes for “standard” lyric poetry. What Hoover succeeds in doing by adopting this approach is to present us with another important insight: there is no poetry without form, and a failure to think this point through simply leads poets to adopt the prevailing forms used in their place and time while mistaking them for something natural and inevitable.

Indeed Hoover’s collection does just that. It manages to question the naturalness and inevitability of free verse in the most elegant mode of criticism, art itself. Like Bök, the work demonstrates an Oulipian rigor unusual in contemporary poetry. Like Davis, the work is simultaneously humorous, self-conscious in the best sense. The collection includes classic Oulipo exercises, translated into English, like Noun +7, in which every noun is replaced with the seventh noun following it in a chosen dictionary, as well as more contemporary and playful forms, like Class Description (“Formalist readings are not allowed. All papers and class discussions must relate to the historic collapse of dominant systems of sense making in the post-Soviet period.”) and the Workshop, set at Skyline Community College.

Instructor: Anyone else? Come on, don’t be shy. Nobody? OK, let’s think it through. We all know that love can lose its force and begin to grow dull. The edge of the knife grows dull through use and has to be sharpened again. Right? So love is like a knife in constant need of sharpening.

Randy: Love’s not a knife. That’s stupid.

Instructor: Have you ever been in love?

Randy: Don’t think so. But I always keep it sharp, if you know what I mean.

Instructor: That’s enough, Randy. To class: And when you’re hungry, you can become irritable and sharp with others. So it’s not as inconsistent as it appears.

Sonnet 56 is a great addition to the Les Figues Press TrenchArt series, available by subscription only. The 2009/2010 series, entitled Maneuvers, “explores the possibilities of re-ordered time and content, framed with the understanding that one cannot separate content from time, and that to shift the form or the order is to shift the subjectivities of the text.” Hoover’s collection of 56 poems does just that, while raising other important questions for contemporary English-language poetry. It’s intelligent, well-humored, and refreshingly unnatural. In the end of his poem “Preface,” which explains the genesis of the project, Hoover writes that “Nature has forms, but culture is replete with them.” Contemporary poetry culture is a perfect example, with form less inevitable than we tend to think, and Hoover’s exploration of the theme is exciting and worthwhile.

DS

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from Bwana Spoons' new book, featured below

 

leapLeaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, Robert Bly. (University of Pittsburgh Press) $15.95

Leaping Poetry is an important reprint of a combination anthology/writerly commentary, first published by Bly in his journal The Seventies, in 1972. Bly’s basic premise, outlined in his essays and backed up by the poems he has collected, is that there exists in all great art a leap that bridges conscious and unconscious thought. Bly’s love of world poetry is evidenced by the many translations included within the collection, which contains relatively few American poets. His insights are useful and considered—he writes in broad but accurate strokes, as in his essay “Spanish Leaping.” Bly’s concept of the leap adds fuel to the fire of  the age-old academic-translator versus poet-translator debate. Bly, of course, an accomplished translator in his own right, backs the poets. Leaping Poetry is a great introduction to the leaps Bly describes within. It prompts rereading of many admired poems, in search of their artistic leaps, and in its writerly deconstruction is incredibly practical to the working poet. 

The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, ed. Jeff Hilson. (Reality Street Editions) ₤15

Hilson anthologyReality Street, the publisher known for its “linguistically innovative poetry,” has done the world of sonnet anthologists a tremendous favor by producing the first collection that proves their life work does not have to culminate in the production of rote textbook anthologies. Beginning with poetry written in 1945, the book compiles contemporary aberrations of the sonnet—in the best possible sense—suggesting that the form is more alive than ever. Some of the most interesting examples are the visual: Jeremy Alder’s “The Pythagorean Sonnet,” Alan Halsey’s discomposed sonnets, and Tim Atkins’ “Petrarch.” The anthology includes a great variety of English-language poets, including Canadian Christian Bök, American Harryette Mullen, and Australian John Kinsella. Other highlights include Philip Nikolayev’s prose poems, which contain sonnets formed of bolded text, and Juliana Spahr’s work, which includes “After Bill Clinton,” a found sonnet produced from an online White House press release about education in America. 

Welcome to Forest Island, Bwana Spoons. (Top Shelf Productions) $30

Bwana Spoons is a master of the graphic narrative leap. His world is populated by living mountains, vampire bats, humans, alligators, and whales, all interacting with each other on his uniquely own Forest Island. Welcome is a loose collection of paintings in Spoon’s characteristic style: bright in color and composition, exhibiting a considered sloppiness, and containing  a fair amount of words. It’s narrative sequences are among the book’s most interesting pages, as Spoons crafts tales resembling children’s stories on acid. His work is a reminder that story can indeed be enhanced by art, a critique of the plot-fueled black-and-whites of the indy comix writers.

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