Poetic Scientifica by Leah Noble Davidson (University of Hell Press, 2013)
The title drew me in. Science, it seems, is endangered by the current administration’s denial and de-funding, so I’ve been longing for its textured diction and conjecture. Davidson denied my expectation, but offered something more broad and thought-provoking than just scientific vocabulary.
From the very beginning in a section titled “Nobody Reads the Introduction,” Davidson reminds the reader of the interplay between language and meaning and also that meaning is subjective and constructed by language and experience. She puts forth a hypothesis that the book goes on to test: “It is possible to give a poem deeper meaning by abstractly defining the dialect of the words of which it is composed.” In one sense the book is a biome rich with nutrients which feed the ‘organism,’ or the opening poem. The first poem is placed before the table of contents and each word of the poem is used as a title for every poem in the book. Therefore, each word in the opening poem is a cell made up of the linguistic molecular structures and associations that make up each corresponding poem in the book. Davidson contextualizes her own dialect, as it were, and creates a scaffolding system for the reader to climb deep into the underbelly of the opening poem.
Right away, I wondered how Davidson would write satisfying poems for the articles in the opening poem. How do you write a good poem a title like “the” or “so”? Poetic Scientifica answers that question again and again. In the opening poem, the word ‘into’ is repeated three times, so the book contains three poems titled “into.” These are three of my favorite poems in the book; they’re about abuse and violence, but the voice is both direct and distant, giving the reader the impression that the poem is examining a wound with an objective hand. These poems engage the reader viscerally while creating a shared meaning of the title word between the reader and the poet. The three poems titled “into” build on each other, and by the end of the book, I feel more intimately connected to the poet than I ever would have expected.
Formally, the poems vary in this collection. While some poems employ end-stop, others ignore the line altogether in a prose-like manner. I would not recommend this book as a model of strong line breaks, and I feel that the voice comes out most strongly when Davidson lets language resonate on a sentence level. In “have,” a prose poem, she creates tension with long sentences and minimal punctuation:
The depression begins with you fingering hand towels you can’t afford in a store you’ll never remember the name of because you’re consumed with how they remind you of the ones you dried the dishes with when you quit working to stay home with the baby while he started his career at the job that you got for him
In other instances, reading Davidson’s imagery is almost like visual hallucination. “So you are in a boat without language,” “Tell” begins, “and I have a stick for a mouth.” From here the speaker gesticulates wildly within this reality. The poem is playful and inscrutable because we can’t imagine spaces that have no language, but the poem also carries emotional power. And the ending lines carry so much more weight than a flippant experiment in constructionism: “there are no words in your head. // Just a picture, a moving picture of what we won’t call water and a loss for something not a stick.” Davidson’s playfulness comes out in other poems as well such as “person” which is just as fun while less cerebral.
Harold the Zombie is picking his wounds again—
the mood must feel as gray and distant.
Jennifer asks him if he feels like
a pitted olive cheese. “No,
Harold wants to be a vegan, wants
to quite smoking, and learn Pilates He wants to
watch less TV, but it keeps him off the streets.
out of people’s heads,
out of his own head
In my opinion, a few poems are less hard-hitting, in and of themselves, than others; however, the project of the book answers for itself and for each poem too. Each page is necessary to test the hypothesis, and that’s what makes this book a satisfying read.
Again, in light of this political moment, I appreciate this book for the way that it draws attention to the unwieldy power of words to contain multitudinous meaning. For example, think of the how the word “great” connotes vastly different meanings in the phrase: “Make America great again.” Davidson takes words and shows the reader how each contains a world, a color, a story. After reading this book, certain words will seemingly never be the same for me now that I’ve experienced these dialectical expansions. Just for fun, I put a handful of those words together into a sentence: Burrito your brains into the hallway for business ballet. Now that sentence may or may not mean anything to you, but I bet if you read Poetic Scientifica, it will mean a great many things.
Can you think of any words that pack a punch for you? Try writing a poem that explores a word other people might never think twice about.
I didn’t want to look. I started reading this book two times before I finished it. I tried to look away, but I knew that’s what I’ve been doing all along. Solmaz Sharif does the heavy lifting here, but this book requires fortitude, nonetheless. To see this world as the poet does, you must let part of your world fall apart.
This is like reading a dictionary in a mirror—the words are backwards, but you can also see yourself, blocking out the light at the edge of the page. Thus, Sharif reconfigures our perceptions of military euphemisms, a wedding updo, a letter to a loved one, a photo of a soldier.
In one sense, an unapologetic voice with unwavering purpose propels these poems. “Deception Story” begins: “Friends describe my DISPOSITION // as stoic. Like a dead fish, an ex said. DISTANCE // is a funny drug and used to make me a DISTRESSED PERSON.” Sharif blends military terms (in caps) with dialogue and creates a polyphonic experience of revelation. The poem ends, “My life in the American dream is a DOWNGRADE, // a mere DRAFT // of home. Correction: it satisfies as a DRAG. // It is, snarling, what I carve of it alone.” Amidst the thick description of violence and discrimination, I need poems like this one which offers a rare moment of first person exposition; I gain traction here with Sharif’s experience of America as an Iranian-American. The focus found in Look is unyielding, but sparingly and, at just the right times, Sharif exposes lyrical moments as both truth and balm. From “Vulnerability Study”:
8 strawberries in a wet blue bowl
baba holding his pants
up at the check point
a newlywed securing her updo
with grenade pins
Sharif never asks, or offers. Look, she directs. And at such images as these, how could you not? But this book is exceptional not only because of the way Sharif reimagines and re-deploys language, but also because she plays with form all through the book. Whether through prose, indentation, section breaks, or brackets, many poems beg to be read twice and three times, and they offer the reader double meanings, squared. “Reaching Guantánamo” simulates the letters inmates receive at Guantánamo; “Dear Salim,” each section begins. But after the greeting, seemingly innocuous language is erased from a lover’s letter to her spouse.
Love, I’m singing that you loved,
remember, the line that went
” “? I’m holding
the just for you.
This intrusion on private language eviscerates intimacy; occludes the sender from the letter itself. And so this epistolary poem represents the erasure and elimination of humans that is exercised in our time more than many of us could ever have imagined. Although the form is brutal, and the point heartbreaking, the tenderness of what does appear in this poem compels the heart to reimagine the prisoner of war.
The book is anchored by “Personal Effects,” a poem where Sharif elegizes her uncle who’s life was lost in the Iraq-Iran conflict. In this poem, she interrogates the way photographs skew remembrance. It begins, “I place a photograph of my uncle on my computer desktop, which means I learn to ignore it.” The poem pans, from that point, taking in the panoramic effects of decades of conflicts in Iraq and Iran—how military offensives reach into a family and blow it apart. About a photo of her uncle, Sharif writes,
it was his bare toes
that made me cry
because I realized then he had toes
and because dusted in the white
desert sand they looked
like a corpse’s toes
The book builds toward this moment of gutting simplicity. Solmaz Sharif shows her readers what a poem can do—break apart the world with a single image of bare feet.
What have you read lately that broke your world apart?
Not so long ago… okay really, forever ago in Internet Time, we interviewed poet, teacher, and essayist David Biespiel about his opinions on the ins and outs of MFA programs. I’m returning now (perhaps in the hazy disillusionment of my own MFA experience) to his book for a little guidance, better yet: a wake up call.
Every Writer Has A Thousand Faces by David Biespiel (Kelson Books, 2010)
If you’re anything like me, a preface to a book on creative technique and craft that features Adrienne Rich is a fairly sure guarantee that you’ll make it to chapter one. While that’s the case in Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, David Biespiel shows less of an interest in delivering what you think you want and instead offers the reader what they might (or probably) need. This is a book about wandering and fixation, boundaries and boundlessness. By the end, you may discover a new friend—the Artist inside you—who’s ready to take a stroll through a fresh process, a creative journey.
Now, reviewing a craft book is kind of tricky, I mean, I can’t just give away all the craft tips! So I want to explain why this is an important summer read. For me, at least, summer is slightly less stressful than the other nine months of the year. Maybe the American education system has also conditioned you to breathe a little easier June through August. In any case, now that I feel less pressure, I am more willing to consider my craft and method of crafting. And really, that’s what David’s book is—a proposal of another method of creativity and creative output. He never mentions submissions or contests, reading recommendations, or even educational programs (and thank goodness because my browser history is chock-full of all that jazz in blog and article form). Before sitting down with this text, my summer plans went something like this: revise, revise, revise, submit, draft. Maybe that’s your plan of attack, and more power to ya!, but I can say with total confidence that the first three verbs on my to-do list would have been fraught with frustration, “submit” clouded with self-doubt, and “draft” with dread. (You guys, I’m just being honest.) Instead, reading this book just reminded me that there are many paths to “success” (whatever that is). What Every Writer includes, instead of the advice de rigueur, is a well-spring of ideas for how to jump start the creative process, valuable examples of athletic and visual artists who exercise this proposed method, and, perhaps most importantly, OODLES of empathy for the writer/artist who is battling their own stuck process and potentially self-doubt or frustration. Sound familiar? If you’re interested in a fresh approach to your writing, I say, dig into this read and discover your other 999 faces.
If I had to sum it up, Every Writer proffers an order of operations: Palette, Passion, Failure. Yup, I said failure, but Biespiel said it first. Before you fail though, you might begin with a lengthy dabbling or brainstorming method that might begin with a “word-palette,” a method where you sit down and essentially doodle language. A list of language forms itself, out of your mind, associations, and surroundings. The word-palette leads to a version of an experience (story, poem, et cetera). “The more you investigate change, the more you discover what you hadn’t known to see. In other words, the known unknowns become all you confidently know,” Biespiel explains. In my understanding, expanding the drafting process in this way allows for feeling and passion to enter into many versions of poems where stress or frustration may have formerly governed revisions.
I use the word “version” very intentionally because so does Biespiel. In fact, one could sum up this text with a very simple maxim: “versions not revisions.” The reason is simple. With the draft-and-revise method, one is only ever trouble-shooting and adjusting the draft that already exists. And we all know what happens when you come to a road block and you simply cannot “fix” what’s in front of you. You scrap it and feel like crap. But did you ever give the poem/prose a real chance to fail? Perhaps not, because the revision process was dictated by the problems in the original draft, and where can imagination or exploration enter in when we are confined to an initial creative impulse? Enter Palette; enter Passion.
The word-palette exercise frees you from constipated drafting: “No one wants a tepid attitude in your marks,” says Biespiel. “Write with a fierce attitude—whether it’s a sentence or scene—and that’s what readers will most positively respond to.” The marks he refers to are: sentences & syntax, lines & stanzas, characters & scenes. Whatever your medium, your writing will be imbued with your attitude, and your attitude is inevitably shaped by your engagement and your process while drafting. Biespiel proposes, therefore, that you explore with all your might the “marks” you employ and let them lead you to discover the version of whatever you are writing.
David says he forms these word-palettes over weeks and days, carrying around a folded sheet of paper that serves as a catchment for all the language, thoughts, lines, and the title that comes to mind. Then,
As for what I create from the words on the list? Well, if I like what comes of it, great. If not, I move on. I pick words out of the version, start over. Make a new list, do it again. I’m not making drafts and revising to fix it. I’m making lists of words to see what resonates within me. And then thinking about how I feel about the words and the resonances.
Failure does not sound so bad when you can recycle the palette and reinvent the poem/prose that first evaded you. “[B]y throwing up air ball after air ball in your writing, you master the distinction between miss and swish—which because of their consonance, assonance, and rhyme these two words would fit wonderfully onto one of my word-palettes!” So what kind of ball are you playing? Draft-and-revise or miss-and-swish?
More importantly, I leave you with the question that Adrienne Rich posed to Biespiel and the Stegner fellows: “Are you in it for the long haul?”
Ursula Le Guin offers praise for what she calls Lesley Wheeler’s “brief novel of misbehavior in academia” by considering the book’s reclamation of narrative poetry and fantastic fiction. And that nicely sets the stage for some of what Wheeler is trying to accomplish in The Receptionist and Other Tales. The book is broken up into two parts: The Receptionist is a series of poems following Edna, a receptionist in the English department at the local university. Perhaps because of the fantasy books she reads to her two children, or perhaps because of her own (and the audience’s own) love of those classic speculative stories, Edna sees herself constantly as a hero fighting or running from evil in all forms, the most persistent being the dark, dangerous Dean, called the “wolf in wool” and known for his sexual harassment of faculty. Along with the Dean, we have the University Counsel, described beautifully in a section titled “Hill-Top Ambush:
University Counsel loomed there, a pair
of lawyers, Blackberrys shining brighter than
the hide on their wings. This is the part where
the Riders attack you from their avian
steeds. The damned Voice tolled again in Edna’s
ear, and she looked up in surprise. A skin
of clouds was forming over faint stars,
a crescent moon. They want to steal your voice,
it warned. Not my amulet? Edna was
exasperated. Not my spell-book? Your choice.
Aesthetically, this section is beautifully put together: the rough terza rima gives the poem momentum and cohesion, and the images of these University Counsel, at once slick lawyers slinging Blackberrys and evil warriors glinting sharply astride their evil avian steeds, fill the scheme with rich substance. For me, moments like these are dangerous in that they play close, close, close to the line between rich characterization and overly easy stereotype. The Receptionist is, in part, a tale of academia, but it seems to have a curious and unsure relationship with its audience, and so there are moments where Wheeler relies on the low-hanging fruit of stereotypical academic life: a poet struggling to publish work no one wants to read, a dutiful medievalist working hard, a dramatic drama professor “billowing in.” And of course, the lawyers like hungry scavengers, shiny and dangerous. There is value in these representations: accessibility, trope reversal, play. But there is danger, too, of course, and I’m left wondering if that line is not, at times, crossed.
This section, too, showcases one of the really curious and cool things about The Receptionist: The Voice. Edna regularly communicates with a voice that at times seems to be in her head or on her shoulder, part sub-conscious and part demon/angel whispering in her ear. The Voice has a keen interest in Edna seeing her life, the struggles and little victories, as part of a grand narrative, as Frodo—the small, meek hero—overcoming great obstacles and triumphing despite it all. The Voice prods Edna into these models because for her, the quiet receptionist who sees all but has seemingly little power to do anything, these stories offer a framework for just action, for the honorable path. The inclusion of fantasy as a genre (and all the implications of that: form, content, characterization) suddenly makes sense with The Voice: the fantastic is at once a necessary model of thought and impetus for action, but it is also in need of critique and consideration.
In the midst of all the serious considerations in The Receptionist (sexual harassment, dangerous and gendered power dynamics in academia), Wheeler manages to have a ton of fun, and this is perhaps the best reason to recommend the book. The sense of play, whether linguistic, aesthetic, or generic, is always present, and reading this poetic narrative is at its core an act of joy. There are conceptual and critical wrinkles that pop up from time to time in the text, but the run-away train of Wheeler’s ecstatic play is always there to smooth them over, to keep the pages turning, to keep Edna moving on toward her fateful and powerful end.
The last chunk of the book is full of the Other Tales: a hodgepodge mix of fantastical poetry concerning tales we all know an love: Rumpelstiltskin, Peter Pan, and, of course, Zombie Thanksgiving. My favorite, though, is a poem written from the White Witch’s perspective (she of Narnia fame), in which she tells us,
I once was cold and ran with wolves, I confess,
but now I desire a legacy. Torture
is a fading art. My golden foe confuses
you. Learn that he is the misanthropic
metaphor, not I. Study my biopic.
After the interconnected intensity of The Receptionist, Wheeler’s Other Tales are a delightful dessert course: light, playful, and the perfect ending to a fun, challenging book.
What playful books have you been reading lately?