Friday, April 30, 2010

Chronic (D.A. Powell)

This year's Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award was given to D.A. Powell, a professor at the University of San Francisco, after the publication of his most recent book, Chronic. The award is a $100,000 prize given annually to an emerging poet with an established body of work who hasn't yet received much fame or success. Yes, I said $100,000. 1 and then five 0's. One hundred thousand dollars. For writing poetry. Clearly I had to check this guy out. I met him briefly at the AWP conference in Denver a couple weeks ago, and he passed along a copy of Chronic for me to review. Let's see if the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner can hold up to my personal standards.


I'm gonna level with you here: I have never been so emphatically unsure of my own feelings regarding any piece of writing as I am with this book. There is so much I absolutely love about this man's writing, and so much more than I just cannot stand. There was never an "eh" moment. To me, each poem was either genius or overdramatic; profound or cliché; heartfelt or hokey. I was completely drawn in by 90% of his titles (for example: "{not the musical:] south pacific," "shut the fuck up and drink your gin and tonic," "clown burial in winter," and "scenes from the trip we didn't take to the antarctic"), but was often let down by the poems themselves. But then I would turn the page and find a serious gem like "crematorium at sierra view cemetery next to the high school," which reads as follows:

impoverished graveyard: mangy green triangle where two freeways form a crotch

twenty yards from the gym and the AG shop: see, it's morty's mom's funeral today
there's morty in a tie, his dad's head rocking: the pendulum of a clock tsk-tsks

holes just the size of flowerbeds claim sleek boxes. marry me, you ruined seed

all semester they open and gnash their yellow teeth: there goes mike, we say—
his hearse lumbering through the iron gate—remember: he used to drive so fast

and then that smokestack poking its head above the surrounding grass

so that others—ever mindful of space, perhaps—could singe and shrivel on oven racks
blazing into eggshell-colored ash collected in old penny jars and in paper sacks

there goes dusty [pointing at the belching puffs that tumbled over the valley]

between PE and molecular biology the smoke you'd sneak: half tobacco, half human
white alloy of the usual carcinogens and damon pettibone's granny. or a bit of mike

that chest that—before it caved against the steering wheel—felt strong and sinewy***
I think that's a fantastic poem. It's only on page 8, so even though by then I was already a little conflicted, I was a bit more enthusiastic moving forward from that point.

But Brian, why did you dislike the other poems so much? Well, I'm glad you asked. D.A. Powell is known to be somewhat experimental in his writing, and not experimental in a funky Salvador Dali kinda way, but experimental in an I-don't-care-much-for-the-rules-of-this-language kinda way. The biggest evidence of this, and the one I had the most trouble getting past, was his strange use of enjambment and end-stops. Powell doesn't pay much attention to the usual laws of punctuation or capitalization, and that's fine. I would never fault a poet for something like that, it's petty and unnecessary. He uses punctuation when and where he sees fit. No problem. However, the particular way in which Powell chooses to utilize punctuation creates a situation where very few lines end in the symbols themselves. This can be very confusing, as it tends to lead the reader towards assuming that each line is enjambed, when in fact they are end-stopped. Add to this the fact that, once the reader has gotten used to assuming each line is end-stopped, Powell begins to toss in enjambed lines, and the confusion really starts to mount. I know it may seem like a small, nit-picky thing, but it actually broke up the flow of many of the poems in ways that I thought were disruptive rather than generated for effect.

Still, though, I couldn't just write the entire book off because I don't personally agree with the man's style choices. Chronic is nothing if not cohesive, and I thoroughly commend Powell for writing a book whose parts gel together so nicely. He breaks the poems into three sections—Initial C, Chronic, and Terminal C—that are easily managed and primarily well-constructed. While the entire book touches upon timeless subjects like death and illness, interspersed with contemporary references and language, the first section is somewhat lighter than the last section. I liked that continuity. The middle section, Chronic, is actually one long poem of the same name, a dream-like soliloquy that serves as a strong transition between the other two sections. Its first few lines:

were lifted over the valley, its steepling dustdevils
the redwinged blackbirds convened
vibrant arc their swift, their dive against the filmy, the finite air

the profession of absence, of being absented, a lifting skyward
then gone
the moment of flight: another resignation from the sweep of earth

jackrabbit, swallowtail, harlequin duck: believe in this refuge
vivid tips of oleander
white and red perimeters where no perimeter should be
While the last section of the book is heavier, as I mentioned, it's actually got some of my favorite poems from the collection. I especially like "confidence man," which opens with the lines: midway charmer, indiscriminately flexed his smile/a mask of liquor, the rowdy cowpoke. My favorite, though, is the final poem of the book, "corydon & alexis, redux," and its haunting final couplet: silly poet, silly man: thought I could master nature like a misguided preacher/as if banishing love is a fix. as if the stars go out when we shut our sleepy eyes.


by D.A. Powell

After all that, I'm honestly still not sure how I feel about the book. It deserves to be read and experienced individually, as it is a book filled with somewhat experimental work that would likely garner different reactions from each reader. I'm curious to see how his other three books read—Tea, Lunch and Cocktails, for those of you playing along at home—and if they confound my senses as much as Chronic does. I mean, if nothing else, the guy just won a serious award with a serious cash prize attached, so he's got to be doing something right. My suggestion: check him out for yourself and let me know what you think. And, as always, keep reading, Genoshans!

***Many of the poems in Chronic have very long lines, so some of the line breaks presented here may not reflect the actual breaks in the book.

Friday, April 23, 2010

In Search of Time (Dan Falk)

Phew, it's about time I got this review up! Pun intended (wah wah).


Dan Falk is a journalist/physicist who basically writes "Highly Intelligent Concepts for Dummies" type books. His first, Universe on a T-Shirt, studied the history of science's search for a "Theory of Everything," something complex enough to tie in all the laws of physics, but simple enough to be a logo on a t-shirt. His newest book, In Search of Time, takes a similar approach by studying the history of time as a concept, construct, and physical law.

Honestly, I'm not sure where to begin with this book. On the one hand, Falk has done an incredible job writing about a complex subject in a way that makes it extremely accessible. I enjoyed the physics discussions just as much as the chapters on Stonehenge or medieval timepieces. On the other hand, though, it took me forever to get through the first few chapters. Once he got into Newton and the 17th century, everything picked up, no doubt. I read the last 200 or so pages of this 300-page book in one sitting. But that wasn't the problem. Those first 100 pages took me something like 3 weeks to get through. Sure, the information is interesting; I don't mind reading about the development of the hour as a unit of scientific measurement. I actually find that intriguing. The book just had no flow. Each of the first five chapters is an island of information, hardly contributing to any kind of larger narrative. Yes, it's a nonfiction book, I understand. Yes, yes, it's a book by a physicist, mainly about physics. I get all that, but once he gets into the actual physics, I couldn't read the book fast enough. He strings together theories and biographies and anecdotes and philosophies in a way that made me feel like he was really moving towards something instead of just spouting off random facts.

By the time I finished In Search of Time, I realized that Falk had helped me come to my own philosophical decisions on how I feel time is conceptualized, and whether or not it truly exists as some kind of "flow" through the universe. I now feel like I understand fully my own views on the future, the past, and even time travel, and would be confident in defending my stance in a debate. Falk has done an incredible job laying out the research in an accessible and presentable way. It just took him a little while to get there. And don't get me wrong, those early chapters aren't exactly boring. There is plenty to take away from his discussions on solar time—time based around the motions of the sun—versus clock time, but as I mentioned earlier, each chapter is an island of information. I had no trouble putting the book down after finishing an early chapter and then forgetting to pick it back up again. I think Falk is an excellent writer, an excellent researcher, and a terrific judge of how to frame an argument without burdening the reader with his own personal views. I also think he could have made the beginning of the book a little more interesting. All that being said, I still recommend In Search of Time to anyone with even a mild interest in the philosophy and science of time. It seems to me an invaluable text when forming one's own views on the subject. Just don't get bogged down in those early chapters.


In Search of Time
by Dan Falk

I normally wouldn't grant a research book like this a story rating, but In Search of Time is a special case. His narrative structure is very weak in the beginning of the book, but then unusually strong starting about a third of the way through. He turns time into a character who interacts with famous thinkers throughout the ages, while maintaining the concept that this character's identity is still shrouded in mystery. For the most part, a great job.

I liked his voice, I liked his pace, and I liked the way he dumbed down information without actually making me feel dumb. Falk knows how to handle his science. Now, if he could only work a little on how he handles history...

I had a lot of fun with this book, and learned much more than I expected. Yeah, it starts a little boring, but at the end of the day I'm glad it was recommended to me, and I would absolutely recommend it to all of you.


The score might seem a little low, but remember that I don't usually include Story in the ratings for these kinds of nonfiction books. Without the Story score, the Overall jumps up to 7.56, which is pretty high. Make sure you come back Friday, April 30 when I review the first of the ridiculous number of books I picked up at this year's AWP Conference in Denver! Until then, keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Words For Empty And Words For Full (Bob Hicok)



I know it's been a couple weeks since I've gotten a real review up, but Bob Hicok's new book, Words For Empty And Words For Full, has made it worth the wait. I first found Bob's work—one second: Bob, can I call you "Bob"? I've read so much of your poetry, I feel like I know you now. And it's more fun than calling you "Hicok"—where was I? Oh yeah, I first found Bob's work through Verse Daily, a great little site that posts a different poem/poet every single day. He hit me immediately. It's hard to explain, he's kinda got this "Hey, I'm a poet, I take my work seriously, but there's no reason I can't write about silly things seriously, or serious things sillily, or something" feel to his writing. Does that make sense? No? Here, take for example an excerpt from "In Michael Robins's class minus one," a poem from Bob's last book, This Clumsy Living. It begins with the line, At the desk where the boy sat, he sees the Chicago River, and follows that metaphor closely throughout the poem:
Have you written a poem for us? he asks the river,
and the river reads its poem,
and the other students tell the river
it sounds like a poem the boy would have written,
that they smell the boy's cigarettes
in the poem, they feel his teeth
biting the page.
That's how many of Bob's poems go. He introduces readers to a situation or an idea, and then leads them down a curious path, sometimes stopping to notice the people and things important to him, but more often driving onward towards an attempt at understanding. Understanding what, exactly, is often a mystery, but Bob's poems are always full of mystery.

Words For Empty And Words For Full starts off rather slowly, with few poems of any immediately apparent significance in the first quarter of the book. There are a handful of poems referencing serial killers and dubious motives, some more quirky than others, but it all seems rather innocuous. The book absolutely explodes, however, once that true mystery of the collection appears within "So I Know" on page 37. "So I Know" is the first in a compelling series of poems dealing the Virginia Tech massacre that took place three years ago today. Bob, a creative writing professor at Virginia Tech, was on campus at the time of the shootings and had close contact with many of those affected by the tragedy. "So I Know" kicks off the series beautifully, expressing well the mixed emotions that the poet experiences in the wake of such a gruesome event:
He put moisturizer on the morning he shot
thirty-three people.
That stands out. The desire
to be soft. I could tell the guy from NPR
that's what I want, to be soft, or the guy
from the LA Times, or the guy from CNN who says
we should chat. Such a casual word, "chat."
I'm chatting to myself now. You did not
do enough, I write to myself, about the kid
who turned in writing about killing
a few buildings from where he killed.
With soft hands in Norris Hall killed.
Bob opens up to his readers, revealing candid thoughts about the tragedy as he attempts to cope with both loss and a level of survivor's guilt. Don't know why the kid didn't come after me,/I nearly failed him, the poet admits at the beginning of "Whimper." Eventually, though, he moves on. Or at least pretends to, by acknowledging that others have, most notably in "Terra incognita," where he writes:
And on the seventh day, as if someone said,
"May the healing from the refrain
'May the healing begin' begin," we have Frisbees,
exuberant grass and thighs
against spring air, the sound
of sanding wood in breathing hard
not far from Norris Hall with suddenly
a fence around it. "Life goes on" is also painful

to hear, to see in truth that we have to get back
to wondering if eight of us can fit in the car
and where's the goddamned pizza with three meats
for $11.95?
The rest of the book takes its own advice and moves on, a little sadder, perhaps, but no longer dealing directly with one specific tragedy. There are others, though. "First do no harm" begins vividly: While trying to extract a fly from a spiderweb,/I pulled one of its legs off. This quasi-amusing look at tragedy in general is one of the things that makes Bob Hicok's work so accessible. He writes poignantly about topics that other poets can only handle by being lofty and aloof. He has a colorfulness about his work that enables him to successfully link physics and his wife and flowers and vacations, without appearing scatterbrained. Most importantly, he speaks his mind. It just so happens that his mind is filled with the unseen connections that all things share. Words For Empty And Words For Full is no exception. All of these poems are connected, but not in such a way that they cannot be appreciated on their own. Bob Hicok is a master at his craft, and after reading his work, one can't help but feel like they've not only gotten closer to him, but closer to themselves as well.


Words For Empty And Words For Full
by Bob Hicok

You guys know the drill by now: there's no numerical rating for poetry. Everyone has different tastes. I happen to love Bob Hicok's work, but you might hate it, and that's fine. I highly recommend that you at least check out some of his work, though. This Clumsy Living is a great introduction to his work if you don't want to jump right in with this book, but really any of his poems can give you a clear example of his voice and tonality. Give him a try! I think you'll really enjoy his work. Until next week, keep reading, Genoshans!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Gone Fishin'

Sorry for the lack of reviews of late. I have them in my head, I just don't have the time to write them. Last weekend I was up in San Francisco working a booth a Wonder Con for the comic book company I intern for, Archaia, and tomorrow I'm heading off to Denver for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference. I PROMISE YOU SO HARD THAT NEXT WEEK THERE WILL BE A BOOK REVIEW THOUGH!!!

Until then, make sure you keep reading 5x500. Religiously. I'm Tuesday, remember, which means there's a new poem up today. See you next week, Genoshans!

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