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What We’re Reading: The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather, Part 1

2015 January 22

What We're Readingsampson starkweatherThe First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather by Sampson Starkweather (Birds, LLC, 2013)

This is a big ol’ book of poems, and a densely written one on top of it’s sheer size. I bought it at Twin Cities Book Festival last October, and have flirted with reading it, but never fully dug in until recently, when I finally got over the size and intimidation of it all. I found I slipped easily, and completely into Starkweather’s meta-realist world.

It is indeed divided into four books: King of the Forest (which is then divided into subcategories: “City of Moths”, “The Photograph”, “Dreams”, and “The End of the Sea”), La La La, The Waters, and Self Help Poems. Each book is wholly different, yet they all talk to one another with reoccurring themes, characters, and settings. Because of it’s size and gorgeous depths, I’ll be reviewing the first two books (King of the Forest and La La La) this week, and the other two (The Waters and Self Help Poems) next week.

None of the poems are titled, except in The Waters, where they are labeled by Roman numerals. This means you can read each section either as one long poem, or a series of interconnected poems strung together.

The books are rich with contextual references to other writers and their texts, as well popular culture. In this excellent review of the book in ColdFront Magazine, reviewer Mark Gurarie puts it beautifully: “The dichotomy here is a construct in itself: everyone has a city inside them; everyone emerges from a forest.” Starkweather’s city and forest are full of familiar faces: Lorca in New York, Shelly, drugged out college kids from Sarah Lawrence, Coleridge’s suffering,  Tony Hoagland, JFK, Lincoln, Keats — and that’s just a handful.

Yet despite the references throughout, the poetry is also accessible and extremely engaging to read, thanks to Starkweather’s smart sense of language and textual play. As he writes in “City of Moths”, “[…] Language. The zoo we all lose our nature to.” And the collection does feel like a zoo sometimes; there is a lot of winding inner reflection happening and synaptic sparks flying, and it can be a lot to absorb and keep up with. As a reader, you can’t quite pin the narrator down, as he’s constantly shifting and talking on either side of each topic. His self-awareness borders on self-conscious when various worries and anxieties arise. The very significance of poetry is questioned by the narrator and his friends, who tell him that poetry is “a thing that fools climb simply ‘because it’s there.’ ” The narrator is pondering much — the meaning of a poem, of love, all the while searching for himself. It’s in these anxieties and self-awareness that as a reader, I connected to the narrator, as these are universal experiences, despite the individuality of each expression of the experience.

The first subsection of King of the Forest, “City of Moths” is at once reflective with Starkweather looking down at lonely depths, then irreverent and almost nonchalant (“I’m not really trying to tell you anything; I just wanted you to hear the sound of being alone, oh yeah, and the snow is deep and bright.”), and yet in other lines, darkly funny (“The IRS is after me again. I mailed them Lorca’s ‘The Ballad of Weeping” with my W-2. Because there are very few angels who sing. Because there is room for a thousand violins in the palm of my hand.”). “City of Moths” is conversational in tone, with run-on, meandering sentences that wind us around — yet at the same time, Starkweather has his keen poetic eye right on the meaty subject matter, such as in this excerpt:

Wait, I have a question — Is a man, severed from his own shadow, covered by the Death and Dismemberment Plan? I only ask because I live in the forest, and lately light can’t find its way through the pines. Okay, for the sake of full disclosure, I’m afraid a woman has split my heart like firewood. Take me off speaker-phone for a second. Can you speak to the third-party for me directly? Good, write this down: Why does your love always feel like fumbling for condoms, as if it was your own fear that was fucking you?

Throughout each book, Starkweather layers conversation on top of conversation, looping back to topics of language, love, suffering, and family. There are reoccurring characters (ex-lover, uncle, father, sister, mother) that shift perspectives and roles in the different sections. There are even reoccurring settings: the forest, the sea, the city. Yet despite the reoccurring themes, characters, and settings, it doesn’t feel repetitive. Rather, it builds a foundation from which to form an identity, and through the looping themes, we find out what really sticks to the bones of this identity.

While “City of Moths” takes much of its content from the city itself, and directs much of its tone to this ex-lover figure, the “The Photograph” poems are linked by just that: a photograph, a camera, the impossible task of capturing a moment of light forever. The section weeps science, and matches the scientific tone with form; this section is less conversational and instead uses short, clipped sentences. The poems read as moments distilled by chemistry, carefully removed piece by piece: “The poem always has a handful of your pieces beside her, off the board, standing like little gravestones. A cemetery. Of you.”

“Dreams” is a surreal dreamworld that we swim through, sometimes quite literally. Water and forests are the reoccurring settings here. In this section, the speaker can’t quite see everything, and reasons for certain actions aren’t clear. There’s a kooky ambiguity characteristic of dreams that is different than previous sections. We are flooded with the speaker’s sense of lost control, letting go, giving up. The narrator shares his dreams with an uncle, and a father, which keeps us from ever getting a firm footing while reading this section. One of the many beautiful moments that captures the dream-like current of this section:

A page rises up into the yard like a white flag into the green, green grass. Imagine inventing snow. As the last page tumbleweeds away, I can make out black markings and immediately recognize them as that of a foreign language. Inexplicably, I know exactly how to pronounce each word, even though the shapes and letters are strange, and as they leave me, I know they are frightening and beautiful and all my name.

The final section of the first book, “The End of the Sea”, is the shortest. The setting is familiar, but slightly altered: there’s a lot of seaweed and and a forest floor — we’re down to the roots of the matter again. Even the speaker has shifted age — it’s about a boy and his life story. In succinct, direct, and beautiful lines, this boy pulls all those previous sections of King of the Forest together, gathering the countless threads his older self has left hanging, and tugs on just the right ones to make us melt into his hand.

The second book, La La La, shifts form again: here, we find short lines that build long, spinal poems. The world is now a technicolored, fast-paced one, peppered with familiar strains of irreverence and dark humor. Popular culture is under the microscope as we see flashes of TV, video games, computers, emails, iPhones, video tapes, SNL, and the Superbowl in these poems. There are so many moments where I laughed out loud, surprised by the moments I found funny, such as this one:

Dear Mom
you don’t know shit
about poetry
if you were a think tank
we’d all be making
cartoon balloons

Because even while they are funny, they are tinged with frustration, anger, loneliness, and loss. Starkweather is still playing with language, but it’s got a hint of violence that wasn’t there before:

syntactical revolution
is real
language is going
to get up
and bust
some heads
ever feel
like a gang
of exclamation points
is following you

Formally, it feels like Starkweather is going through the stages of grief, or some process like this. First there is intense loneliness and reflection; then clinical dissection of that loss; then a sense of letting life wash over the narrator without any control; then with La La La, we see his anger and confrontational side.

The lines in La La La are bare, without punctuation. They fall into the next one, sometimes bumping into each other when we aren’t sure which line they are supposed to go with. But the beauty of Starkweather’s writing is that they work in multiple ways, such as in this instance between “to break” and “everything”:

things don’t have
to be
to break
is an action
watch the poem
sail into

Loneliness is the most common thread throughout these different books, and as Starkweather writes, “what I really wish / is to be alone / without feeling alone / to make sense / of these lines”.  And perhaps he’s accomplished just that: he has us, the readers, sitting not next to him, but nevertheless with his words, trying to make sense of it all, too.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this review next Thursday…


Three Things: The Coffee Edition

2015 January 19

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Um. Somehow I’ve managed to compile 188 Three Things writing prompts without a single ode to coffee. What a disgrace. This week, I attempt to appease the coffee gods with writing prompt #189: The Coffee Edition.


Lloyd's Coffee House


George Woodward, Lloyd’s Coffee House, 1798. Cartoon. Calke Abbey, The Harpur Crewe Collection.



John Falter. Illustration for Sanka ad campaign. Published February 9, 1960 in Life magazine. 



Mark Webster, Coffee Cup, 2010. Oil on canvas.


What We’re Reading: If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?

2015 January 15

What We're Reading

harvey coverIf the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey (Graywolf Press, 2014)

Matthea Harvey is a rare poet whose work is at once technically sound and formally innovative, original, and moving. If the Tabloids Are True What Are You is her fourth collection and all of her themes and obsessions are on display, careening into one another to create a hybrid work featuring a cast of hybrid characters. The book itself is lovely to look at, filled with original visual art that is synthesized beautifully and seamlessly with the text.

Visual art isn’t new for Harvey: she created the cover image for her 2007 collection Modern Life (Graywolf, 2007), collaborated with painter Amy Jean Porter on a collection of erasures called Of Lamb in 2011 (McSweeney’s), and her sister is the visual artist Ellen Harvey. The difference between her previous work and Tabloids is how closely tied the art and text are. A series of nine poems only have images as titles:

Harvey 1Harvey 2

Another four have text cut into silhouettes as titles:

Harvey 3

One piece,

Harvey 4

(d)evolves beyond even those and features no text, except the word “stay” in the title.

A poem early in Tabloids, “Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare,” could be read as an ars poetica of hybridity. “I’ve taken many forms over the years, / but this may be the strangest one,” this perfect Elizabethan sonnet begins. Harvey loves taking new forms, inventing impossible or impractical machines. Indeed, her second collection is called Sad Little Breathing Machine (Graywolf, 2004). The final couplet of “Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare” is most apt when talking about Harvey’s work:

Make us a man, or make us a machine—

But do not leave us trapped here in-between.

Whether Harvey fears or loves liminal spaces is hard to know, but she spends a lot of time in them. In only the first 20 pages, Harvey combines visual art with text to create a new form, which takes for its subject a composite being, the mermaid–part human, part fish. The text of these pieces are prose poems, a hybrid form itself.

The standout piece in Tabloids is the long closing piece, “Telettrofono,” a mixture of history, poetry, visual art, and, in one iteration, sound. The piece “was originally created as a soundwalk with sound artist Justin Bennett for Stillspotting NYC: Staten Island.” In this masterpiece, Harvey’s obsessions spiral into and around one another. Using the life of inventor Anonio Meucci, Harvey crafts for him a mythology, using his real life achievements to build a world where mermaids come to land for the love of sound. In Harvey’s narrative, Meucci’s mermaid wife, Esterre, inspires his inventions. The small details that make the piece:




Calling us “divers

is probably a good idea.

The fusion of invention, history, hybrid creatures, visual art, and text is remarkable and poignant.

Despite all of the crossbred forms, the poems collected here demonstrate Harvey’s command of technique. As off-kilter as her subjects can be, she still knows how to craft a poem that is surprising and complete. The sonnet mentioned earlier is impressive on its own, but other poems feature well placed revelations that drive the poems forward. The opening “Mermaid” poems create a new mythology of mermaids:

“At least she’s all mermaid: never gets tired of swimming, hates the thought of socks.”

(“The Straightforward Mermaid”)

“These days, her sisters trail cruise ships, hunting for orange prescription bottles that might be bobbing in the ship’s wake.”

(“The Impatient Mermaid”)

“Mer-funerals are the worst since, poof, the merfolk just morph into seafoam.”

(“The Morbid Mermaid”)

Because, of course mermaids dissolve into seafoam when they die. Of course they’re addicted to lost Xanax and hate socks. Again, it’s the small details that elicit small gasps and surprised laughs that make these poems so exciting.

Whether Harvey planned it or not, she has been building up to If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? in all of her previous work. It’s still jarring and humbling to see how well deployed her craft is in this book. It makes me wonder what she’ll do next, where she can go from here. Based on her previous work, it’s sure to be a surprise.

What other writers currently working are at the top of their game right now?


Three Things: The Imaginary Friend Edition

2015 January 12

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This week we have an imaginary friend sitting next to us, looking over our shoulder as we write, whispering in our ear. Or maybe it’s a more playful friend, launching spit balls in our general direction. In any case, let’s write an imaginary someone into our scene this week, shall we?



Lynn Skordahl, Her Imaginary Friends, 2014. Collage. Via flickr.



Jean-Baptiste Courtier, Untitled from Elephant Rose. Photograph.



Oscar Manuel Vargas, Uniform Encounter. Charcoal on paper.