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What We’re Reading: Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness

2014 September 18
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by Timothy

What We're Reading

.Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness by CAConrad (Wave Books, 2014)

Sometimes it feels like poets are magicians. They create texts that are baffling and beautiful, building poems out of phrases and events so obvious that we smack our foreheads wondering why we didn’t think of that. CAConrad, on the other hand, gives his tricks away. Conrad uses (Soma)tic rituals designed to create for the writer an “extreme present” in which to create poems. “Soma” means “body” in Latin, so a radical, physical presence makes sense describing these rituals; but “soma” also refers to an intoxicating drink of immortality in ancient Vedic and Zoroastrian traditions, and the layer of altered mental states adds to Conrad’s definition. Each of these rituals is described in Ecodeviance just before the poems they inspire. Conrad conducts workshops of (Soma)tic rituals and says, in an interview at Monkey Bicycle, that dancers and painters have participated in his workshops, dancing or painting rather than writing.

Unlike a standard writing prompt, (Soma)tic rituals are almost poems themselves in the way that they reshape the world as you read. You can—and should—take a look at samples of some of them here, but to give you an idea, here’s the beginning (and I should stress that this is the beginning) of a ritual called “Preternatural Conversation”:

Every once in a while I think something about a stranger on the sidewalk and they dart a glance at me and I get it—I GET IT—we are one! Allow seven consecutive days for this exercise. DAY ONE, think about a woman you know, think about experiences you have had with her. Think about conversations you have had, think about the things she wears, eats, her way of walking, her laugh. Think about every detail you can imagine. See if she calls you or emails you. Take notes about this attempt at psychic connection.

For Conrad, each of the seven days required for this ritual produced a separate, numbered poem (or section of one poem? It’s hard to tell with Conrad’s work). Here’s the first poem Conrad produced from this ritual (scanned to preserve the integrity of the poem):

CAConrad ONE - Version 2

 (Soma)tic rituals solve the problem of how to be present for the work of creating, how to make something without overthinking it—or because you’ve overthought it and there’s nothing left to do or think except the poem. (Soma)tic rituals make space for the artist to be exposed and create out of that vulnerability. Conrad puts the ritual in the foreground, listing only the title of the twenty-three exercises in the table of contents, not the poems they bred. Further, each exercise is described before the poem is given; in doing so Conrad pulls back the curtain and invites us to create with him. What can I make using this or that ritual? What rituals can I make for myself? The reader is forced to imagine the possibilities of the poem before reading it.

About halfway through Ecodeviance Conrad writes, “an owl drops a mouse in front of me / it doesn’t have to mean something / but it probably does”, which feels like a manifesto of sorts, and a celebration of (Soma)tic rituals. Because each of the poems has come from the Conrad’s sub/unconscious mind there are layers of meaning that are unraveled upon further reading. The almost complete lack of punctuation encourages multiple ways to read each poem.

In the ritual “Gender Continuum” Conrad writes, “Permission to drop margins is an exceptional space to offer yourself and others.” Though he is referring to the “margins” between genders, the sentiment works equally well when discussing the shape of Conrad’s poems. They’re beautiful on the page, taking varied shapes that resist the left-justified norm, sometimes subtly as in “Act Like Pallbearer With Sofa Cushion” produced as part of a separate ritual than “Gender Continuum”:

CAConrad ACT LIKE - Version 2

With its single line stabbing into white space, “Act Like Pallbearer” is “straight” and “inflexible”. Other poems are curved and fluid, as in “Permission Please to Be a Stone but You Are a Clock We Say” seen here:

CAConrad PERMISSION - Version 2

Notice the way the first half of the poem is curved like a river, perhaps formed by the “billion / tears an hour the human / race” produces. The poem resolves into a straighter shape, and “seem[s] to / make sense”.

Conrad’s (Soma)tic rituals reinvent the world and his poems surprise the reader who imagines them before reading. Conrad gives us permission to be wild, to drop margins, to make sense and meaning, or not. CAConrad might be the best poetry teacher we have. I’ll claim him as mine. Who are your teachers?


What We’re Reading: The Rose of January

2013 December 19
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by Timothy

What We're Reading

Nutter Rose of JanuaryThe Rose of January by Geoffrey Nutter (Wave Books; 2013)

Geoffrey Nutter’s fourth collection The Rose of January is a wonderful, if occasionally overwrought, collection of poems that shows Nutter at his most verbally dexterous. The poems here are borderline maximalist compared to some of Nutter’s earlier work, notably his debut collection, A Summer Evening (Center for Literary Publishing, 2001). Nutter stretches the content of these poems, sustaining feeling across multiple pages, delivering a consistently surprising, if not always consistent, read.

Nutter is at his best when he moves from a simple statement or image into a complex web of words. In these moments, it seems Nutter tries to synthesize the concrete images of William Carlos Williams with the abstract virtuosity of Wallace Stevens. “Metalmark,” the first poem in the collection, begins:

Last night I dreamed

a giant butterfly,

its enormous wings striped

with myriad colors,

was drifting silently

over the green hills

and above the bridges

and the towers of the city.

It was not akin

to a flowered matrix

of calculated vernal

arrangements, nor the yellow

undulation of a wave

seen by a child at eventide.

The poem goes on to liken the butterfly to marble blocks and stones from a mill. In many of the poems, the initial image—here, a giant butterfly flying over a city—explodes into vibrant colors as Nutter vividly captures his subject, and then shifts to his true focus. “Metalmark” ends, “[…] that I beheld it from the sky / was what the dream made / not probable, but possible.” Elsewhere in the book, Nutter applies his verbal fireworks to literal fireworks in a longer poem called “Fireworks Display in Early Summer:”

                         From the crumbling parapets

that overlook the highway and waterway

we were stirred to a kind of wakefulness

and saw them exploding, staving off the increase

of night’s aloe-bladed debtors, lifting lights

skyward for love and augury’s igniting.

The poem continues for 13 more 9-line stanzas that range widely, but never waver from the heightened awareness of the earth and sky that comes from being outside watching fireworks.

Nutter does poke a little fun at his own loquaciousness, as in “Dope” that comes early in the collection. The language is heightened for comedic effect, using the word dope 16 times including the title, ultimately rendering the word almost meaningless. The poem begins, “I don’t mean to be pugnacious / but your bones are made of dope—” before going on to declare blood, quince, and statues to also be made of dope.

You live in a mansion, El Dorado,

and your mansion with its five bay windows

turned toward the bay is builded of dope

and the bay is dope, and the bodies underneath

your house turn goldener as gold doth dopeth.

While most of The Rose of January is successfully energetic and satisfying yet abstract, there are several duds. Poems such as “Invective Against Pugs” and “Remember the Telephone Book” apply Nutter’s dense verbiage to subjects that fail to satisfy. While many of the poems here make surprising observations about simple things, occasionally the subject simply cannot sustain the weight of Nutter’s language.

Overall, Nutter’s fourth collection is a satisfying outing, applying Stevens’ abstract language to more contemporary subjects, linking the early 20th-century to the early 21st-century in unexpected and delightful ways. Stevens’ influence is apparent, but Nutter distinguishes himself, using humor and irony to keep the earnestness from crushing the reader in sentiment.

What other writers take their influences and update and change them? Is it successful, or does it come across as pastiche?


What We’re Reading: Trances of the Blast

2013 October 17
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What We're Reading

Ruefle_Trances of the BlastTrances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle (Wave Books; 2013)

The word stanza comes from Italian and means, loosely, “little room,” which is an apt way of looking at a stanza. In Mary Ruefle’s work there is another unit of poetic measurement present, often smaller than a stanza, though arguably more energetic, which could be called a “blast.” These moments of clarity, insight, instruction, and radiance have been a feature of Ruefle’s writing for the length of her career (see 2010’s Selected Poems also from Wave Books), but, as evidenced in Trances of the Blast, have become more subtle and opaque over the years, though no less intense.

In Ruefle’s early work, blasts often came at the end of the poem, signaled by a stanza break (often the only stanza break in the poem) or by a colon. That is to say, she pointed to the insight, forced the reader to think about it. As she has matured, Ruefle has become more willing to place these gems of thought elsewhere in her poems. “Fireworks,” one of the first poems in Trances of the Blast, begins, “The world was designed and built / to overwhelm and astonish.” This delightful couplet stops the reader almost immediately with its truth and surprise. Ruefle stops the reader again by following these lines with another surprise: “Which makes it hard to like.” Later in the poem she tells us, “My happiness is marred only / by my failure to attain it. / Otherwise it would astonish and overwhelm.”

Other poems have blasts that are more difficult to parse, though no less satisfying. They delight in syntactic upsets and “weird responsibility,” as in “Spikenard”

Sentence, you always

spoiled my evening.

This is the journal

of my journal.


Like pale writing

they lie there on the floor.

I spend more time with my journal

than I spend with myself.

The end.

It’s the surprise of writing what you didn’t know you were going to write that Ruefle longs for; epiphanies that are genuinely born of the process of composition. The sentence, the complete thing, known before you’ve begun is less interesting. Indeed, the known can spoil an evening.

These “blasts” aren’t just moments of lucidity or discovery, they also work to compress or expand time. The phrase “Little Eternities,” the title of another poem in the collection, could be used to identify blasts involving time: “Childhood! It was in one of the houses nearby.” Here, time becomes a place; especially a place to live in. “Ars Poetica” begins,

You go through the past

and there is a wall, and some steps

down; you come into a lane and go

until there is no more lane, but only

a path, and then you come to a field

that must have been a garden once

with a house or something.

Past is physical, real, and navigable. Is this Ruefle’s own memory? a memory of our own? Is it no memory, simply a thing by which we can examine memory? No matter, we walk through the past with its wall, steps and gardens, throughout the collection.

“I hated childhood. / I hate adulthood. / And I love being alive.” So ends “Provenance.” Set apart as its own stanza, this tercet is both “blast” and “little room.” It is a life condensed into the end of a poem, and distilled down to extremes. Ruefle is at her best when working thus, and Trances of the Blast is Ruefle at her nuanced finest.

What other poets have continued to delight, “overwhelm and astonish” as they have matured?