Ring of Bone

by Jessica Comola

Ring of Bone: Collected Poems
by Lew Welch, Ed. Donald Allen
Forword by Gary Snyder
City Lights Publishers, June 2012
252 pages / $17.95  Buy from City Lights

 

 

 

 

 
Lew Welch’s collection, Ring of Bone, is more of an artist’s assemblage than a simple book of poems. This new and expanded edition by City Lights Press encompasses Welch’s poetry, music, drawings and critical writings, providing fans with a definitive edition of the poet’s long-lost works, and new readers with an expansive sample of his writing.

As Gary Snyder’s forword tells us, Welch was a little-known 60’s generation poet who was living with Snyder temporarily while building a cabin on Ginsburg’s adjoining land, when, on May 23, 1971, Welch hiked into the Sierra Nevada Mountains carrying a revolver. A suicide note, indicating a deep depression, was all that was ever found, but the mystery of this final day has made Welch somewhat of a cult figure. Fortunately, Ring of Bone, brings together Welch’s unfinished writings, providing readers with a remarkable set of poems without dramatizing the events surrounding Welch’s death.

This newly released collection is arranged into five books and a set of uncollected writings, which follow a loose chronology. However, unlike many collected works, the order of the poems is not the focus. By nature of their visionary quality, these poems form a world of dreams and nightmares so convincingly that strict organization proves ultimately unnecessary. Instead, the poems speak to each other across time through their musical tonalities and recurring thematic tensions, thus constructing one of many “rings” invoked by the book’s title.

The collection opens with “Chicago Poem,” in which Welch’s plain speech melds with his musicality, creating lines such as “Bouncing like bunsens from stacks a hundred feet high. / The stench stabs your eyeballs.” This poem introduces what Gary Snyder, in his short forward, defines as Welch’s “jazz musical phrasing of American speech” but also establishes what we might now call Welch’s “ecopoetic” stance when, just a few lines later, he writes:

All things considered it’s a gentle and undemanding
planet, even here. 

…………………………………………………………

The trouble is
always and only with what we build on top of it.

These lines illuminate a tension between city and nature that unites what might otherwise be a book of chaotic poems, dissimilar in form, tone, and language. For example, Welch expresses a similar feeling towards the environment a few pages later when he writes “never use a motor, man, / you gotta row / to go!” (“Memo Satori”). Though the sentiment is the same since Welch is valuing the natural over the artificial, his writing spans such a wide range of voices that the poet’s brilliance could be easily overshadowed by playful 60’s slang—it is when Welch fuses this multiplicity that his poems transform from frantic to ecstatic.

Near the end of Book II, Welch observes this tension, writing:

Whenever I make a new poem,
the old ones sound like gibberish.
How can they ever make sense in a book? ([whenever I make a new poem])

His lines come across as honest and curious, since he answers his question two poems later in [I saw myself], the poem that gives us the title of the collection in the lines:

I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it
……………………
and vowed,
always to be open to it that all of it
might flow through

This poem aligns the “I” with nature, speaking from a place in which the personal and external are brought together in a vision—the reader sees that nature has become a medium for spiritual experience, and language on the page has become meditation.

As Snyder points out, this transformation occurs most successfully in the Hermit Poems and The Way Back sections. Here, Welch sets aside his overtly playful verse in favor of quiet but striking observations such as “Deer-hoof crushing a flower. Rodents at the root of it . . . Mushrooms in the warm fall rains” (“He Begins to Recount His Adventures”). These bits of prose border on the reflective quality of haiku, a form which Welch spent much of his life reading and translating, but they retain Welch’s West Coast Beat speech in a moment from the same poem like, “I’d shoot out way up over China and then fall back and miss the hole (‘cause the world would turn a little in the meantime) and just end up killing my damn fool self.” It is in a poem like this that the reader recognizes Welch’s ability to be both sincere and playful as he zooms in on the smallest crushed flower and back out to the sweep of the whole, revolving world.

Instances of humor like this mature into pure wonder at the magnificence and destruction of nature in Book V, particularly in a poem such as “Song of the Turkey Buzzard” in which Welch collages songs, quotes, prose, riddles, and even a “Will & Testament.” Here the poet speaks of an injured turkey buzzard, recounting in dreamlike tones, “He wanted to die alone. . . He tried, feebly, . . . to heave his great wings. Weak as he was, I could barely hold him.” Here, once again, the human and natural realms are aligned as Welch not only humbles himself in awe of the buzzard, but goes so far, in the conclusion of the poem, to request that the living, “With proper ceremony[,] disembowel what I no longer need, [so that] it might more quickly rot and tempt / / my new form.” This “new form,” which we can read as the buzzard, invokes another “ring”— something akin to both reincarnation and the idea of the “circle of life,” without carrying with it a sense of cliché imagery.

It is Welch’s awe-filled reactions to the natural world that move the poems beyond the traps of expected language and predictable imagery, and it is on a tone of pure wonder that the collected poems end. As Welch reminds his readers in the poem “For Joseph Kepecs,”

The poem is not the heart’s cry
(Though it seems to be if you have craft enough)
The poem is made to carry the heart’s cry 

And only to carry it.
…………………………………………………
The need for another world that always works right
Is the heart’s exhuberance.
We don’t hide there. We spill over and

Make it.

 

***

Jessica Comola is an MFA student in poetry at the University of Mississippi. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Columbia Review, The JournalTulane ReviewAnti-, and Criminal Class Press.

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Trees of the Twentieth Century

by Jacquelyn Davis

Trees of the Twentieth Century 
by Stephen Sturgeon
Dark Sky Books, 2011
62 pages / $10  Buy from Dark Sky or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 
Sometimes confessing to an invisible audience, sometimes to the poet himself, the impressive poetic debut Trees of the Twentieth Century consists of approximately thirty poems and communicates that which usurps prepackaged explanations yet desires to be heard using the human voice. What is experienced with the five senses—what makes us human—takes priority. This collection excels when read aloud, whether or not this was Stephen Sturgeon’s intention. The  intelligent search for meaning periodically surfaces, alongside themes of passing time, shuffling memories, the malaise of adulthood, desperation, the recurring realization of injustice and impending reality of temporal forces at play. Sturgeon is generous in sharing his philosophical inquiries, thoughtfully embedded stanza by stanza:

      What does it mean when things
present themselves; it means, it means that we
have seen them; that’s over. That’s over. (13)

Simplicity, associated with purity and grace, is a skill which many lack. Few have cultivated the patience of our ancestors—for better or worse. When something presents itself, it is often in one’s best interest to take the said object or situation at face value, despite a tendency to complicate, mask or layer, ranging from intention to the natural course of events. If it barks like a dog, it’s probably a dog—a hard lesson. The poet unearths such authentic perspectives, even if they are frequently singular to his own trajectory, hence the recurring presence of the “I” pronoun:

In the beginning I was happier.
The rocks spun. So close the air was to my face
I sparely breathed. (16)

Or:

Enemies, by chance, were my only peers.
I watched them, from on a hill, at its top,
thinking, everything falls down that will come up. (16)

Or:

      Once more
I consider the pedigree of time,
and see no puzzle to its address. (30)

Rarely does Sturgeon fall back on calculated, constrained rhyme schemes, but alliteration, consonance and clean, well-punctuated line breaks are his strengths, along with highlighting a lush life fueled by subtle obscurantism. Saturated with fertile garden and celestial references, the poet alludes to utopic ideals and fictions serving as fodder for the expectant, hopeful—even endearingly adventurous.

It’s hard to see into my garden
where the fence has been lovingly chewed,
so I write out a good-bye letter. (27)

Or:

What one astronaut says to another
is heaven’s business, communicable
by fusion and frission alone. (31)

There are moments in Trees of the Twentieth Century when Sturgeon appears to be archiving perceived discord and neglect; writers often adopt the responsibility of exposing that which others attempt to push aside or conveniently erase, opting instead to translate negativity into creation or acts of building and construction (to harness and reshape negativity for the sake of the new):

Beg for rest but real rest is work,
strong work. Pretend to know homelessness
and death to a fault, and talk about it,
because you’ve been homeless, because you’ve died. (41)

Or:

People saw a starving criminal
and mildly kicked me, or flicked me crumbs,
while I etched a new map of the world
inside my roving mouth. (14)

A keen eye notes when the world is not what was anticipated. Sturgeon’s intrinsic observations and gestures are bittersweet, enshrouded in familiarity: “The product of my infrequent employment is sustained illusion” or “There is nothing, nothing” or “Talk with old friends is the most pleasant and least enlightening kind of dialogue.” The poet combines the matter-of-fact and pedestrian with that which is beyond scope—the chased illusion of the improved upon, most fulfilling. He resigns to the beauty of an atheist’s secular world, yet with a personalized faith that the here and now matter. Both have always mattered, even if there is no trusted map.

“I think no matter where he goes,
if he arrives then he is lost.
Absence, to him, is a caress.” 

“With every word, my final bow.
The moon erodes. The breezes flow.
I will become what I am now.” (36)

From Ingmar Bergman to Woody Allen to Edgar Allen Poe to Paul Celan to Tupac Shakur to Zola Jesus, the topic of death never ceases to light a mutual fire—it remains a universal mystery, overcoming diverse histories, languages and status. The messenger of a networked consciousness, Sturgeon collects sentiments associated with this existential conundrum—perhaps, with an ambition to placate or amend. We’re all in this together:

Mourning has levels to it, and we meet,
zipping different amplitudes in the shaft,
up down, sharing in transit a numb space. (13)

Or:

This morning I have seen my creature die.
It is not the sun that makes, or can feel
the interminable burning of standing still. (15)

Some would argue that familiarity breeds contempt, but for others, sound repetition is a sign of honed skill and prowess. To repeat or to allude to a previous thought adds newfound significance to it. Such a textual strategy shows that perfection can indeed originate from practice, returning to a thought or action so as to place it another context—if a thought still holds true, then it’s strong enough to survive. What better way to test a poetic meme than to alter or dissolve its neighboring milieu?

however the night was calm.
However the night was, the night was calm (47)

Individuals oftentimes write poetry, or write at all, because they urge to cover inexplicable terrain and examine experiences which haven’t yet been formulated. They have seen a very particular world, or they have not. Poets examine, enjoy and scrutinize what is there—and what is not. The notion of the solitary genius holed up in a remote studio is old news; the brilliant poet who represents a century or culture appears to be nonexistent. Sturgeon does not claim to see the world in a way which differs from his literary peers and predecessors; yet, he is aware that similar, sensory threads provide common ground. He addresses both the invisible gesture and subtle nuance; Trees of the Twentieth Century proves to be a labour of love. Poems in this collection are appreciated now, and certain poems—“The Confabulators,” “In Pursuit of the Curtain Rod” and “Parerga”—will be regarded for years to come. This text aspires to remap ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ boundaries between individuals, in hopes of locating a translatable middle ground, an accessible compromise of morphed, unseen energies.

You honor all that you want,
forging and forgetting slick orbits
that bind our vows in transparent movements. (13)

***

Jacquelyn Davis is an American writer, arts & culture critic, independent curator and educator. She is the founding editor of the small publishing press and curatorial node valeveil which is devoted to strengthening creative connections between America and Scandinavia.

Marjorie Welish: In the Futurity Lounge / Asylum for Indeterminacy

by Nicholas Grider

In the Futurity Lounge / Asylum for Indeterminacy
by Marjorie Welish
Coffee House Press, April 2012
112 pages / $16  Buy from Coffee House or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It says a lot about Marjorie Welish’s new collection of poetry that the cover design of the book consists of well-known writers hard at work both explicating the book and extolling its virtues. The book doesn’t really need that kind of push in terms of quality (line by line, the writing is great throughout) but explaining what Welish’s project consists of is more of a problem. Reading the book, when you try to corral the abundance of subjects addressed in the book into a good read and interesting network of ideas, you’re often interrupted by uninvitingly plastic stretches that may test your patience not because they don’t add up but because Welish’s “not adding up” isn’t an interesting and compelling kind of resistance.

Subjects and abstractions that recur and are addressed from different perspectives across the span of the book include but are not limited to: architecture, modernism, the language of public space, language as a faulty reproductive device, proscriptive language, performance, mechanical technology, outmoded technology, Brecht, Beckett, Stein, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, translation, the pragmatics of the visual art world, and Dada. These aren’t just jumbled together, however, so much as continually revisited in widely varied forms. And with the press materials in hand, there’s even more: the book is actually two books, the first being a “laboratory of modern futurity” and the second “a zone of research” responding to choice terms from translations of Baudelaire’s “Correspondences.” It’s not hard to imagine, then, how the book could labor under the weight of so much content even as the poems themselves are compelling moment by moment.

What more effectively ties the individual poems together is the very creatively employed use of repetition and rearrangement. The poems often proceed not via an attempt to directly address or explain any of the more abstract ideas mentioned above but to perform them and move sideways through varied repetitions and a reliance on all caps and homophones. One of the more concrete examples of this appears in “Signal to Noise,” which begins like this:

What to do with a stranger?
Bathe her and anoint her in oils, permit her to feast. Then interview her.
Then interview her
Ask her name and from whence she came. Then how she came to this pass.
This is a test.
This is a test.
END.

and quickly transforms into complex expansion:

What to do with a stranger? Bathe her and anoint her in oils; permit her to feast.
Then interview her.
SENDER is to issue a few central questions in advance to structure the interview to allow
the SUBJECT a chance to think—I do not believe in provoking the stranger to tilt some
sort of misguided spontaneity in flight!  HELPER may indeed issue three or four
questions also and ours, kindred may overlay. Infer her. Test test test test coincidence
of number emitted in collapse.

You’re not arriving at an increased understanding of the nature of either “SUBJECT” or questions but rather you’re shown an increasingly baroque set of variations that address the natures of an interview and a test as well as a play on words that spreads from interview her to infer her and (tacitly) interfere. This is how much of the book does the heavy lifting of addressing such a wide cast of content—by variations that illuminate the importance of minor linguistic differences and by playing around with those differences.

This play, and an attendant “subject” or place or thing, are what gives you mooring in the midst of all the complex abstraction, knowingly referenced in lines like these:

More specifics

legible, capable of being read charismatically, if unintelligibly writ
or written intelligently lenient despite indistnctness or obscurity
since reversed: inverted involved upside down scrambled sampled and
put through a sieve crushed with the blade of a knife cubed
and quartered split off from plaintext

The problem is that “plaintext” gets left completely unmoored for much of the book, which is compelling line by line but doesn’t accrue into any kind of broader perspective on any of the subjects named above or connections between them. That’s the main, and really only, problem of the book: the noise of abstraction is beautiful, but after dozens of dense pages it starts to seem repetitive and feel dull. This is not to say that the book itself is dull, but that the sheer tonnage of poetry crammed in a small font into 97 pages eventually makes the work of playing along much less appealing to do unless you’re an adept at the wide range of references Welish employs (from Frank Lloyd Wright to WWI to a Bob Perelman poem) or else read strictly for surface play rather than any kind of larger architecture.

No single line or poem is flat-footed here, but it’s the weight of unplacable reference and dodge into abstraction that makes the book tough as a straight-through read. Instead the book invites visiting it here and there, piece by piece, reading enough to see the intelligence and wit at work but not so much that the poems’ frequent indeterminacy begins to frustrate or bore. As the book title even suggests, In The Futurity Lounge is less a place to stay than to visit and hang out for a while before moving on, interested in visiting again.

***

Nicholas Grider is an artist and writer whose artwork was recently the subject of a solo show at the Armory Center for the Arts in Los Angeles and whose writing has recently been published inConjunctionsDrunken Boat and other journals.

For Out of the Heart We Pump Our Pleas

by Ethel Rohan

For Out of the Heart Proceed
by Jensen Beach
Dark Sky Books, 2012
120 pages / $12.00  Buy from Dark Sky Books or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The twenty-two stories in Jensen Beach’s debut collection, For Out of the Heart Proceed, center on family and in particular father and son relationships. The collection is peopled with troubled characters struggling to make sense of their circumstances, choices, and connection to others. What is perhaps most compelling about these stories are the interesting and memorable ways the characters grapple with issues of faith: Faith in themselves, others, the world, and the divine. There is great efficiency to Beach’s prose and a precise order to this collection that juxtaposes the disturbances and sometimes chaos of these characters’ lives, conflicted characters often controlled by fear.

For Out of the Heart Proceed contains three Parts linked by how its men do, and sometimes don’t, transcend their fears and difficult situations. In the first story, “Training Exercise,” a father and young son must brave the dark and what appears to be a menacing, male stranger in their back garden:

The [lion] flashlight keeps growling and the man keeps growling back and the lion’s plastic teeth are casting a weird silhouette on the man’s face. We’re all stuck there, locked, more or less, in what’s looking to me to shape up like a battle of wills.

This opening story contains a mix of light and dark that’s both literal and figurative and sets the tone for the entire collection.

In “Peafowl,” the male protagonist undergoes several changes of heart involving exotic birds, his wife, the natural world, and himself:

‘I think they’re gay,’ the famer said. ‘Gay birds,’ he said and hung up the phone. My wife had moved from the living room to the back deck. I watched from the window as she dragged one of the deck chairs over to a thin strip of sunlight, where she sat and turned her face to the warmth. It was March and we were all anxious.

Themes around our relationship to the wild and unknowable appear often in the collection.

“Orion,” the last story in Part I and one of the longest stories in the book, tells the tale of two estranged friends forced to consider the power and the magic of the human imagination and experience:

‘Seen from Earth, Orion appears to be plotted along a single plane. However, the bodies that make up this and other constellations are only connected in the human imagination.’

The two men are also forced to confront the opposites of that power and magic:

I thought of the crumpled body of Tom’s dark blue jeep. The endless line of cars they’d shown on the news the night of the accident. ‘You go crazy at home,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows I killed my kid. I can’t just sit around forever with that.’

“Orion,” a story where the bizarre, profound, and arbitrary are expertly handled, ends Part I on a dark, nuanced note with the protagonist’s fear heightened and his faith tested. The reader is right there inside this wonderful awful closing scene and image, as squeezed as the cockatiel in the protagonist’s arms and left to wonder what will happen next? While Beach portrays his characters’ struggles with compassion, there’s also an insistence on honesty in these stories and a refusal to skirt characters’ flaws or to offer readers easy resolutions.

The theme of place also appears often in the collection, both geographic place and place as an ideal that characters yearn to reach. In Part II’s first story, “Africa,” tension mounts in an uneasy triangle of father, potential girlfriend, and daughter:

It was awful, of course, losing limbs in such a violent, bloody way. No one could deny that. But this was a kind of violence he normally didn’t think about; and there was his daughter running around on the linoleum floor talking about frozen cocks. He began to think about sin and circumstance and violence. It was all very disorienting.

As the story unfolds, through telling details and dialogue, we feel the protagonist’s sense of loss at his inability to connect with this woman.

“Priest Lake, Idaho” and the final story in Part II, “To the World I’ll be Buried,” are especially moving and strong. Beach inserts himself into “Priest Lake, Idaho,” exploring on the page different authorial choices he can make for the story’s protagonist and alluding to God, omniscience, and the often-cruel and sometimes fortuitous randomness (or is it fate?) of life:

The man recognizes himself, or some image of himself, in the shed. Like it, he is old and will, more than likely, not be around all that much longer. He’s already lost his wife. His son—or it could just as well be a daughter—is married and lives back east. He’s alone, apart from the dog I haven’t mentioned yet.

A dog plays a bigger and bleaker role in “To the World I’ll be Buried,” another story that centers on tense relationship triangles and betrayals both real and imagined:

He cupped his hand to his mouth and called to the dog. The motion-activated security light above the door turned on. He stepped out into the irregular oval of yellow light on the deck. Beside his foot, there was an uneven spot in the dark stain. He’d promised to add a new coat before he left. Molly liked a color called Bourbon. He whistled loudly with two fingers in his mouth so that when he came back to the bedroom without the dog, she would know that at least he’d tried.

The success of “To the World I’ll be Buried” and the collection as a whole lies in how real and relatable these often quirky characters and their strange dilemmas become in our imaginations. Through keen details and the characters’ well-drawn thoughts, actions, and dialogue, Beach brings the stories’ setting and cast alive and the latter’s hopes and fears are as individual as they are universal.

In Part III, the work becomes ever more imaginative and surreal as the male protagonists continue to overcome hurdles both within and outside of themselves in order to thrive and/or survive. “Their Future Looks Brighter the Closer It Gets to the Sun” tells the story of a father and son who together make an enormous kite and attempt to escape the “dusty, yellowed earth” by flying on the kite’s tails.

“Spaceport America” introduces us to another father and son duo searching beyond their everyday existence and the earth itself for meaning and significance:

He placed the necklace on the counter, spread it out with his fingers. The arrowhead was about the size of a quarter, maybe a little bigger. ‘What does this make you think of?’ he asked.

The door opened. I could smell the approaching rain outside. I got the impression the arrowhead was supposed to trigger some memory or a joke Charlie and I shared, but I couldn’t imagine what it might’ve been. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s an arrowhead necklace.”

He looked at me. ‘Nothing?’ he said.

‘I guess not,’ I said. The only thing I could think was that maybe he’d once bought his mother a similar necklace. If there was some deeper significance, I couldn’t locate it in the necklace itself. I looked at Charlie for a clue, but he just stared back. Then I looked at the necklace, laid out on the counter like it was being worn. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I want to be blasted into space after I’ve died.’ I held the brochure up in front of me.

The collection’s final, title story, “For Out of the Heart Proceed,” brings us perhaps the most humorous and yet crushing tale in this collection. Jim and his son, Gene, are a man and a boy both rootless and searching. Like so many other characters in this book, Jim and Gene feel forced to look beyond the real and the ordinary to find a sense of connection and belonging:

The giant doors slid open as we approached. ‘See,’ I said, showing Gene our true robot nature, ‘we’re kings here. Doors open for us.’ I thought of Ted on the lawn the day before and jerked my arms up and down, beeped a couple times. The robot is lonely. Gene looked up at me, turning his whole body to follow his head. It was a perfect pantomime of a robot.

‘Do they have our kind in Cleveland?’ Gene asked.

‘Affirmative,’ I said. ‘We’re everywhere.’

Jim, again like the rest of the protagonists in this collection, is both flawed and striving hard to do the right thing and the story’s close is as poignant as it is open-ended.

The story endings in For Out of the Heart Proceed are often unexpected and open-ended. There’s the urge at each story’s finish to turn the page, searching for more, not with disappointment or with dissatisfaction, but with that hunger to know ‘the end.’ However, Jensen is too successful at nuance, subtext, and omission to give readers any less than the only close to each story. At the book’s finish, we are reminded that little, if anything, ends where we expect. We can never fully know another’s story or the full depths of a character, least of all our own. We are forever striving, looking within and beyond our existence for the best place, the best way, sometimes with fear, sometimes with faith, and sometimes with both.

***

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say (PANK) and Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books), the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in World Literature TodayTin House Online, The Irish Times, The Rumpus, Post Road Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco. Visit her at ethelrohan.com.

China Cowboy

by Sarah Heady

China Cowboy
by Kim Gek Lin Short
Tarpaulin Sky Press, June 2012
132 pages / $14  Buy from Tarpaulin Sky

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read China Cowboy under the most perfect of circumstances: in a garden a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean, perched on the Ring of Fire that fuses San Francisco to Hong Kong. The voices of Chinese daytime television descended from my neighbor’s second floor window onto the pages of the safety-yellow book, which had arrived via USPS in a rough condition apropos of its protagonist. Like the abused and well-traveled La La of Kim Gek Lin Short’s second full-length collection, the bubble mailer was practically clawed open, the book so scuffed that its soft outer layer was worn to the quick, almost see-through.

The ocean echoed the book’s evocative opening line: “A bluegrass of fogging.” And the last place I’d been before here was Nashville, where any nobody can twang out a couple tunes at an open mic and even the weak-stomached can’t turn down a shot of 35-year-old well whiskey from a commemorative porcelain decanter in the shape of Elvis’ head, forged on the occasion of his majesty’s death in 1977—also the year of La La’s birth (“Y’all, I would’ve been out of your league at 12. I’m only tattlin’ now, cause I would’ve been 20 today,” she boasts from an eternally-pubescent afterlife hellishly specified as 1997).

It’s with such brash spunkiness that La La—a poor kid in Hong Kong with aspirations of American country singer celebrity—tells the story of her brief life and violent death, including the glamour she imagines for herself, the many small deaths along the way and her songwriting star that keeps ascending from beyond the grave.

A ring of hellfire encompasses La La from the moment of her birth, when the devil himself (“a white dark man”) wraps a searing-hot hand around the breech fetus’ calf and delivers her into the harsh world of Kowloon, 1977. La La’s parents make their living “taking the tourists to an alley stabbing them stealing their stuff,” and the child is used as a prop to gain victims’ trust. Early on, to cover up the odd claw-shaped birthmark on La La’s leg, her mother dresses her in “cowboy boots tube socks,” and Patsy Clone is born: La La’s country star alter ego, her ticket to America, where children “have their own rooms.”

Unfortunately, one of her family’s victims is an American ex-con/soybean farmer/child abductor who sticks around Hong Kong following the assault, and one day La La never comes home from school. Maybe Ren, a.k.a. Bill, a.k.a. William O’Rennessey, is really the devil incarnate, or maybe he’s just one of the devil’s many agents on a confused, globalized earth circa 1989. He is certainly an updated (and actually American) Humbert Humbert whose version of the coveted nymphet is called a “la la” (with a lower-case L). China Cowboy’s heroine is just one of many la las in the world, an unlucky abductee who’s bribable by sugary cereal, plastic microphones and flouncy skirts. And Ren is a man who will do anything the voices tell him—assuming aliases, squirreling away la las in remote corners of the country, wrestling with his own delusions of grandeur and multiple personalities. In China Cowboy, “Hell is red carpeted stairs lined with plastic runners smell of wicked shit”—a particularly cheap and Americanized evil. Ren “goes all the way inside,” and La La never comes out—smuggled through the port of San Francisco, sequestered in a shoddy Missouri cabin, serially raped and, finally, poisoned.

If this all sounds too hideous to be enjoyable, I must point out that Short infuses the story with kitsch, humor and addictively playful language that balance out the heartbreak. The dark subject matter is made lighter by La La’s protective pantheon of American deities: “Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls,” Clint Eastwood, Woody Guthrie. She complains: “In my sleep I am starring in Coal Miner’s Daughter. I am as convincing as Sissy Spacek except I am Chinese and just can’t help it. I can’t.”

An expanded version of Short’s chapbook Run (Rope-a-Dope, 2010), China Cowboy is a poetically-executed novella largely taking the form of prose poems, although other textual structures creep in toward the end of the book—including spacious, lineated blocks that stand in for visual artworks created by Ren’s artist doppelganger, and rhyming country song lyrics in “La La’s Guthriecrucian Songbook: A Bildungsroman.”

In Short’s often singsongy prosody, the blunt physicality of child rape and the simplicity of kid-speech melds with the ethereal and the eternal: “He tapes toilet roll to broken mouth retainer to hard semen-gauzy sock, it goes in my crotch,” but La La promises “in my new life I will be white heat, pure I will rise.” This is the language of dissociation, of self-immolation: “I will be swept ash, light I will rise.”

In the piece entitled “Run,” we see La La’s self-aware side, the part of her that suspects her “country superstar humility” won’t save her:

In my dream I am running. I turn around and look behind me there is the cabin and below it dug ground, a place where my death could be. Duck down, Butterfly.But it is only me. I’ll dig her a hole too. Which little box do you want, I ask, we have two of this one left and I shake the coffin like it’s cereal the kind I won’t eat. But I cannot answer. I am looking at myself running. There is something blue coiled around my ankles. It is my panties. I fall.

La La’s is a disembodied (yet entirely, painfully bodied) voice traveling across decades and continents, transgressing mortality to speak. She is a ghost inhabiting the dreams of her captor, her parents and herself. She sees herself dead, changed, transparent, famous, pregnant, American, flat-faced, blonde, in fugue, at a mic, triumphant. In an account of her final moments to her mother—one of the most difficult passages to read—La La notes that

Up to the last it didn’t hurt. There was a lifting in his descent my body caved. I didn’t cry. The sting the sweat. My skin rippled the song skipped[…][I need you to know what happened to me]. I just wanted to do something. Mother. I never got to do anything.

The Lovely Bones this ain’t. China Cowboy is a satanically intricate narrative with seemingly infinite vantage points in space, time and sympathy. After all, Ren isn’t always evil and he’s not never the victim, as Short admits in her acknowledgments: “Boots up[…]to all the cowgirls and cowboys who sparked what’s good about these characters and to all the angels and devils who ignited what’s badder.” It is an account of trauma and the stories people tell themselves to survive, in the larger context of colonialism (1997 representing the British handover of Hong Kong) and cultural tensions between China and America: “When I picture home Ren doesn’t picture the same place. If I could do-over anything I would make Ren picture the same place.”

An incredibly original conceit that is so thoughtfully constructed, with so much attention to detail and such a range of source material—from Dante to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—the book must be reread to catch all of Short’s utterly un-snarky cleverness. She’s a master at making her strange little pieces glow brighter under the perfect titles, which locate them in the complex web of personal myth and symbology that Ren and La La spin around one another: “Butcher Holler,” “This Bean is Your Bean,” “Repulse Bay,” “Cow Loon.” As China Cowboy progresses, its interior space deepens: a network of dreams, self-delusions and mini-universes reveals itself through Nabokovian footnotes, appendices, crime reports, fake nonprofits (Cowboys Against ChildAbuse), press releases for suspicious art galleries that just gush “front.” But for what?

With this and all of her projects, Short has expanded and fused the poetic and narrative fields, creating a zone where elegance and grace can gambol with the just-plain-fucked-up. The book is disquieting, seductive, a preteen pathological liar busking on a deserted corner with an invisible guitar. Is it awful to suggest we can all take a cue from the La La school of stress reduction?: “I want to scream. But I don’t. I ask myself // what would Patsy Cline do?”

***

Sarah Heady is a recent emigrant from Bell Buckle, Tennessee, a founding member of the New Philadelphia Poets and an MFA student at San Francisco State University.

The Importance of Being Ben Kopel

by Megan Volpert

Victory
by Ben Kopel
H_NGM_N BKS, January 2012
112 pages / $14.95  Buy from H_NGM_N BKS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Ben Kopel is stupid. Ben Kopel deliberately refuses to believe that people may not always be inherently good at heart, despite the steady influx of evidence piling up at his feet. Instead, he declares Victory, his debut collection from H_NGM_N BKS, a book for which I have personally been waiting a very long time.

I first heard of Kopel while I was pursuing an MFA at Louisiana State, where he was an undergrad. He was a nice kid, and after hearing just a half dozen of his poems, I knew he would shape up into an excellent writer. There was no significant fault to find, so I hated him. When he got into the writing program at Iowa, we lost touch. I thought for sure that they would knock the joy right out of him, that he would turn into a bastard. Imagine my surprise when he finished his MFA and then went over to Amherst for a second one. Kopel not only survived Iowa, he found it an insufficient concluding point for his education. So finally arrived is the singular product of an unusual path for this son of the swampland, equipped with James Tate’s sense of imagery, Dara Wier’s gift for cadences, and a healthy confusion about the business of poetry born out of the midwest’s most critically acclaimed bloodbath.

By all accounts, Kopel could have been a contender for any number of more prestigious first book prizes, but he cast his lot with an independent upstart. He could have sought a tenure track professorship, but he returned to New Orleans to teach high school English. By the good looks of him, with his black skinny jeans and pompadoured mohawk, he seems ripe for riding the next wave of hipster shock poetry. But Kopel doesn’t have the stomach for it. Kopel is not vulgar, is not disdainful, and is not ultra cool. He is polite, awkward, and nerdy, and it is not a pretense or a shtick.

When Victory came out, I knew it would be good, and without bothering to flip through the book, I immediately invited Kopel to come and read with me in Atlanta. In some ways, I had been waiting for years to do it. He acted like he had won the lottery or something. His constant enthusiasm sometimes makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit. The rest of the time, I want to put him in my pocket and carry him around to protect him from…from I don’t really know what. So he came and we did the reading, and then the obligatory post-reading trip to the bar.

We were on the patio, surrounded by precisely the kind of slick young hooligans that Kopel should have been schmoozing. But Kopel does not really understand how to do that. Kopel is not an actor. So he did what made him most happy. He went into the bar, where a townie karaoke extravaganza was going on, and signed up to sing Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” He knows all the words by heart, and though Kopel is not a particularly good singer, he soberly belted out the whole thing as if this was just in case the world would end tomorrow. Then he came back outside and patiently soaked up the conversation of the cool kids, who themselves could not be bothered to remain quiet and observe the incredible, loving puppy heart on display while Kopel was singing.

You are likely wondering how we have come this far without my evaluating anything that is actually in the book. Victory is a portrait of Ben Kopel, so it is essential that you understand what a unicorn he is. When I say that this book reflects him completely, represents him more than adequately, you need some anecdotal background to have any sense of what I mean. Let’s also get some points of comparison. Ben Kopel’s first book is a genuinely emotive version of Heather Christle’s early work. Ben Kopel’s first book is a more personal version of Anis Mojgani’s later work. Ben Kopel’s first book is as optimistic as Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits. A tour of his wheelhouse must begin with his heart. Now we can turn to some specific pages.

The opening poem contains many of the recurring ideas. “Gymnasium of the Sacred Heart” is on its surface a plea to have sympathy for two Catholic school skinheads breaking into a car while high from huffing cleaning products. Ben Kopel is not an apologist for the criminal and evil elements that slide among us. He is making a Herculean gesture of commitment to silver linings. He appreciates that everyone is damaged. He cries out as a wounded animal on behalf of those too macho to do it themselves. “Don’t disown your skinny fisted sons / locked inside the locker room. / They too are the father of you. / They too are mostly made of noise.” Kopel is screaming, and it evolves into rocking out. He will “sing for the canary gassed beyond belief / in the basement of the Biology building.” It’s not that we move on or we look past. It’s that we press on with this baggage on our collective sleeve. Why? The title of the poem that begins the book’s second section: “because we must.”

This poem features some kids who “have burned / down the Dairy Queen again.” Kopel assures us “Everyone died warm / & no one was alone.” Is it too childish to quietly hope for this, or even less practically to shout this at the sky? Nope. The third section begins with a conversation that juxtaposes the Holocaust and astronauts. This one hangs together under the title of “The Birthday Party.” It’s not Kopel’s birthday. He’s just a guest, falling in love with the spaceman’s fiancé whose family tree was trimmed by world war. Still, they party. How?

This third section contains the first of only two literal mentions of victory in the book. In “Bar Fight #2,” the events take place “Like clockwork. Part mutilation. // Part victory. Part garden.” Time marches; we hurt; we carry on; this is innocent. The middle section begins with the fact that “We all recognize the need / to alter the ending.” Ben Kopel doesn’t turn off the movie before Old Yeller gets shot. He just envisions a better possible ending, a la Springsteen’s “Badlands.” Maybe it exists in another universe. Section five ends with “Teenage Victory Poem,” that digs “Way down deep in the bored demographic.” Somewhere, the kids are living happily ever after and they “made some great noises together.”

Barreling into the end of this pitch-perfect ode to the bloody but unbowed, section six opens with a tiny poem that bears reprinting in it’s entirety.

There is a Question I am Forever Waiting to be Asked

& the only answer
goes something like this–

In the attic of everything
there is a bird
with one wing
& his heart is true
& nothing like mine.

Can you believe in such a humble beast? In this same section, Kopel provides two variations of a poem titled “Why I am Not a Tiger,” but the final section opens with “Invincible Coyote” and closes with “Amen,” in which he dies someday with “A pillowcase / Full of coyote skulls // Tied loose / Round my neck.” Kopel is a modern day superhero on the imaginative model of Napoleon Dynamite, or Saturday Night Live’s Mary Katherine Gallagher. He has more in common with the classic lonely wonder of Maurice Sendiak’s Max from Where the Wild Things Are than with the dark desperation of Wes Anderson’s Max Fischer or other cutthroat anti-heroes of the mumblecorps.

So as it turns out, Ben Kopel does not need me to protect him from anything at all. Ben Kopel is scrappy. His eternal sunshine may tempt ruthless, unfeeling people to bust out the windows of his car, but that’s alright. Kopel is more ready to be picked on than most of us. Perhaps he is not a tiger, but he believes in something: “If I could see myself at thirty / I would tell him // I will be good soon. Alright? // Alright.” I too believe Ben Kopel will be alright. In fact, I believe he already is. On our way home from the bar full of cool kids, I told him that he makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit. He said I should spit it out in my hand and give it to him, that it was a good little gift to give. He got excited. He opened his eyes really wide and smile at me with his teeth. He pumped his skinny fist in the air and kept driving. There are no other poets like Ben Kopel. There are not even really any other people like Ben Kopel. I hate him.

***

Megan Volpert lives in Atlanta, where she teaches high school English. Sonics in Warholia (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011) is her fourth book. She is currently editing an anthology on queer pedagogy. Predictably, meganvolpert.com is her website.

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