New American Writing 24
[ bookreviews ]
Edited by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover, this is an international poetry annual with a clear preference for the experimental over the traditional, the non-linear over the narrative. New American Writing is a magazine with definite ideas about the sort of poetry it wants. The converse of this is that it has a similar clarity about what it doesn't want: the poem as ironic anecdote which so dominates the British poetry mainstream would be unlikely to get a look in here.
Among the more than 40 contributors are Pierre Joris, Rachel Loden, Fred Marchant, Yang Jian, Clayton Eshleman, Katie Degentesh, Rosemarie Waldrop and Todd Swift. There is also a feature on the work of Miami-born radical jazz-poet Nathaniel Mackey, including a long and very interesting interview with him by Sara Rosenthal.
The issue kicks off with translations by Jason Stumpf of two poems by Mexican poet, Pura López-Colomé: 'In Praise of Death', and 'Four Steps'. As with any translation, it would be impossible for Stumpf to reproduce in English the music of López-Colomé's original Spanish.
Her poems are stark in their apparent lack of consolation.
from 'In praise of death'
That day, waking, I felt death near: a mute siren, without a mouth at the outset
of youth, of spring, of a feminine flower. When touched, the petals shut with
the slam of an iron door. Someone whispered in my ear: "Offer your pain to
God." It was a voice that spoke through flesh. I paid numb attention to it,
thinking of the sanctity of he who ignores all. With eyes shut, I saw my soul, its
little spots cruelties towards love...
Hers is a poetry which probes relentlessly at the worst truths human existence has to offer, but at the same time manages to avoid the high-pitched existential melodrama a lesser poet might lapse into if they attempted to go down this road. I met Pura Lopéz-Colomé when she was in Galway for the launch at the 2006 Cúirt Festival of a collection of translations of her work by Galway-based poet, Lorna Shaughessy. Contrary to the impression a cursory glance at her work might give one, she is one of the most happy-go-lucky poets. There is perhaps a certain tentative consolation in being able to boldly face the worst life and death has to throw at you. If so, it is a consolation sentimentalists - forever on the run from bad news in those solid, sensible poems of theirs - can never really have.
As well as the very serious, New American Writing also offers us the playful: Rachel Loden's 'My night with George Costanza', based on the character from the comedy series Seinfeld, is the sort of playful postmodernist Surrealism I always enjoy: "I'm off now / herding lambs // with George Costanza". Katie Degentesh's 'I have had very peculiar and strange experiences' is a poem "constructed with the help of Internet search engines". Not surprisingly this results in a number of non-sequiturs, the most hilarious of which are in the stanza:
Negroes are human beings
given a considerable position in the political life of Northern Ireland
and all wore moccasins
so as to avoid a misunderstood creativity
This sort of poetry typically sends didactic readers, who believe that poetry must be about making the world a better place and only about making the world a better place, into a tailspin of rage. The first two lines, they will tell you, make a complete mockery of both the racism faced by African-Americans and the political situation in Northern Ireland. This is not satire, they will tell you, for as long as you're trapped in that elevator with them. It is poetry which supports the status quo.
Apart from the fact that the only sane thing to do with the current political situation in Northern Ireland is to mock it, I think they rather miss the point that poems are not (and never have been) manifestos or letters to the editor. Even obviously engaged poems such as Auden's 'Spain' or Mayakovsky's 'At the top of my voice' are on some level word-games. If they were not, they would not really be poems, and would have died with the moment that produced them. That aside, I think that poems like Rachel Loden's and Katie Degentesh's do actually make the world a better place, albeit in a very localised way: they made me laugh on a wet Bank Holiday Monday, which is more than the aforementioned didactic readers have done in a very long time. Yes, I agree, these poems do not have the answer to all the planet's problems. But who does? It is a bit much to ask every poem to bear the weight of George W Bush, Osama Bin Laden and Kim Yung-il.
Pierre Joris's 'In Larache' does engage with the current world political situation.
from 'In Larache'
The two young women
We stay with
Speak perfect Spanish
For having gone to Spanish
School here in Larache
Since the age of 3. Cannot read
A street sign in Arabic,
this time it is here:
the lead of religion.
it is all over
it is all over
when in the beginning is
it is all over
when the only hankering
is for pristine Medina
it is all over
when the educated middle class
techno-savy as any roumi
says there is no veil
over the book, onl
yover the woman...
It is a poem, which in its way, goes to the heart of the disaster now opening up: the way religious fundamentalism has come to be seen by an increasing number of young Moslems in the West as the only way of showing their opposition to the Bush/Blair madness. Twenty-five years ago angry (albeit mostly white) young people typically joined organisations such as CND, the Socialist Workers Party or Militant. I should know; I was one of them. Back then the British Labour Party was seen as a real vehicle for possible political change. In the New Labour era all that has vanished. And it isn't coming back. The tragedy is that to many young Moslem ears the fundamentalists, with the crazy coherence of their arguments, may sound like the only real opposition on offer. 'In Larache' is a fine example of how a poem can be linguistically innovative without lapsing into art for art's sake aestheticism.
Though it is quite beautifully produced, with a slick colour cover by Bill Viola, there is a certain severity about New American Writing. There are no contributors' bios. In any other magazine, this would seem like an oversight. But here it smacks of a peculiar consistency. Contributors' bios, one suspects, would be a little more narrative than editors care to give us. New American Writing is a magazine which asks the reader to leave the ego at the door and enjoy the writing. It is a world class publication, both an enjoyable read and a must for anyone with a serious interest in what's going on at the cutting edge of poetry internationally.