THE INDEPENDENT PRESS REVIEW
St. John of the Cross: Alchemist of the Soul
Edited and Translated by Antonio T. de Nicolas
288 pp., paper, $18.00, ISBN: 0-87728-859-3, Samuel Weiser, Inc.
From the Foreword by Seyyed Hossein Nasr: “The significance of this translation of St. John of the Cross becomes clear if one realizes his role as at once poet and seer or mystic addressing a world in which poetry and spirituality have parted ways.” Weiser has brought out a magnificent volume that includes a chronology of the poet’s life, introductory essays, Spanish and English texts of the poems, and translated excerpts from the poet’s spiritual treatises on union with the Divine. The poetry is rendered in modern English, not elaborated or spun out, a close but lucid version of the facing Spanish. De Nicolas is not only a Spaniard and a poet, but also translator of Sanscrit and Hindi familiar with the ground of mysticism and its “technologies.” The translator’s essays on the saint’s life and the poems are informative and intriguing. This book will be of special interest to readers of Rumi who are interested in mystical alchemy and soul-work, in its Western as well as its Middle Eastern or Asiatic garb.—Lourie
Fables and Distances: New and Selected Essays
269 pp., hardcover, $24.95, ISBN: 1-55597-227-6, Graywolf Press
This wide-ranging and profound collection of prose from a noted poet will thrill readers of his work and engage any reader of modern literature. The poet appears here as a gadfly, a thoughtful critic, a literary historian…. Haines is an iconoclast, but not because of his opinions, his manifesto, his poetics; he represents an intensity of inward life uncommon even among poets. Noted for lyrics capturing the Alaskan landscape and ambience, Haines’ prose like his poetry radiates a mystical communion with the world. Whether he is meditating on the nuclear age, critiquing post-modernist jargon, or dissenting from John Ashbery’s poetics, Haines seems to have just taken a deep breath and a silent pause. His Alaskan wilderness, like his literary assessments, is mapped with a meditative voice that explores the outer world interfacing with the subtlety of a Socratic “examined life.” A book like this reminds me that, far from there being too many poets in America, we could use more like this one. “…To read Haines is to enter a clearing in the woods, to feel calmed, and that one was once here, centuries ago.” (Barry Lopez, book jacket) –Lourie
The Open Road: Walt Whitman on Death & Dying
Illus. with 21 duotone photographs, various photographers
128 pp., hardcover, $24.95, ISBN: 0-9636501-4-9, Four Corners Editions
Excerpts from “The Photograph, Whitman, and Death’s Blank Page” by Pierre Delattre in THE Magazine, July, 1996: Perhaps sensing that we not only exist as appearances, but that we also die as appearances, what many of us seem to dread more than death itself is that our dying might appear ugly to others. Ernest Dichter called it, “The fear of posthumous embarrassment.” We all long to die beautifully. Joe Vest, the late editor of The Open Road: Walt Whitman on Death & Dying, was dying while he worked on the composition of this mysteriously affecting book. Whitman helped him to beautify his death. Vest has offered us a vehicle for beautifying our own deaths as well.
An inspired arrangement of three elements gives the Whitman book its power. There are Whitman’s words, eager in their rush to greet his “strong deliveress,” to embrace death as the same mother who gave us life, to marvel at the “luck” of death with as much or more enthusiasm as he gives to marveling at the fulsomness of life in the vigorous, erotic body. Between each fragment of poetry, there is a full-page, black-and-white photograph of ordinary life or death, or both at once, by one of several brilliant photographers: Eugene Smith, Ernst Haas, Linda Connor, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Garnett, and Wynn Bullock. These photographs transfer Whitman’s declarations down from the mind into the body, away from thought toward intuition; and, most mysteriously, they pull us away from Whitman’s external world back into a private reverie…. Add to that the inspired pages of stark whiteness, and you have the full resonance of its compositional trinity….
The Open Road: Walt Whitman on Death & Dying stands a very good chance of qualifying for anyone’s short list of crucial books, and for the most practical of reasons: namely that Whitman, and the photographers whose visions enfold his poems, are supreme encouragers. They make us feel just as affectionate when we embrace death as when we embrace life. Who doesn’t need such medicine to reach for now and then, there on the bookshelf by the bed?--Pierre Delattre
Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press
Edited by Martin Espada
282 pp., paper, $12.95, ISBN: 1-880684-15-2, Curbstone Press
This anthology is a document of Curbstone Press’ history as a visionary, progressive publisher dedicated to bringing the work of Ame’rican (Latino and U.S.) writers to the public. 37 poets are included in this volume with many poems in the original Spanish with an English translation. Many of the poets are focussing on their experience of the social horrors around them, from daily indignities and painful memories to the massive injustice that permeates our land. Far from just observing, they have lived inside the “rhythms of oppression” of which they write. We are hearing from committed advocates, speaking on behalf of those without the opportunity to be heard, living or dead. We also see the mood of hopefulness and resilience, reinforcing the idea that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.—Nova
Poetry of Pain: Poems of truth, acceptance and hope for those who suffer chronic pain
45 pp., paper, $9.95, ISBN: 0-9648968-2-2, Simply Books
This book is an important contribution to bookstores from a small press in Washington. The author of these fine poems is a sufferer of a condition that many people never hear about, fibromyalgia. Pain can disrupt your sleep, family relationships, friendships, job performance, and opportunities. It can steal your life away. These poems are deeply moving and reveal the terrible gamut of pain and its mysterious manifestations. It will be a boon to all who suffer pain; we can all recognize and empathize with almost every word. This book is about determination, hope, and empowerment, including valuable information about support groups available through Chronic Pain Associations in this country.—Nova
Love Poems with an After-Bite for Bitter and Battered Lovers
Julia Busch, Illus. by Hollye Davidson & Julia Busch
128 pp., paper, $9.95, ISBN: 0-9632907-0-3, Anti-Aging Press
This is a humorous little book with numerous illustrations, and it could certainly be an impulse item on your front counter. It includes such unforgettable quatrains as “Little Boy Blue, Is it really true, You got into the sack, And don’t know what to do?” and the more soulful, “Eyes… scanning quickly… reaching for a fragment.” From outrageous to melancholy to whimsical and back again, these poems are “for every lover-in-recovery” and offer “…comfort in knowing you are not alone!” according to the cover.—Nova
Small Claims, Large Encounters
poems by Sonya Jones, photography by Donna Guenther
64 pp., hardcover, $17.95, ISBN: 0-9646230-0-5, Brito & Lair
The inaugural edition from Brito & Lair in New York City is an impressive volume of poetry with elegant photographs. These poems recount a journey to India and beyond, becoming a journey of inner exploration, very simple, very gentle, sometimes humorous. A simple vacation turned into a pilgrimage and then a voyage of transformation. “By turns irreverent and heartfelt, these poems explore the very personal and mysterious bonds of the guru-disciple relationship.” Beautifully presented, this book will attract readers of many persuasions—anyone who has longed for internal peace.—Nova
City Lights Pocket Poetry Anthology
ed. by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
280 pp., hardcover (small format), $18.95, ISBN: 0-87286-311-5, City Lights Books
From the Introduction and book cover by Ferlinghetti: “Even though some say that an avant-garde in literature no longer exists, the smaller independent publisher is itself still a true avant-garde, its place still out there, scouting the unknown…. From the beginning, the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic…. I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment….” Bravo, Ferlinghetti! Whether you like this poetry or not, this 40-year retrospective, with a handful of poems from each of the 52 volumes of the “Pocket Poets,” defines a literary subculture that has become nearly mainstream. The anthology is compact and beautifully produced, a sure seller, and who among poetry readers can resist Patchen, Ginsberg, Prevert, O’Hara, Bly, Kerouac, Voznesensky, and so on. There are German, Russian, Chilean, French, Spanish poets in translation—ferment he certainly caught! While dominated by male writers, the series included collections by Denise Levertov, Marie Ponsot, Daisy Zamora, Diane di Prima (Revolutionary Letters Etc—a sequence serialized in every ‘60’s underground paper I ever read), Anne Waldman, Janine Pomy-Vega. I personally wish to thank Ferlinghetti for the Pocket Poets Kora in Hell: Improvisations by William Carlos Williams, which I rank among the greatest poem sequences by any American poet and a masterpiece in an adopted genre, the French prose-poem. If you haven’t tried selling the Pocket Poets volumes, try this one and see what happens. You’ll want the City Lights catalog fairly soon, I’ll wager.—Lourie
From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990
Edited and with an introduction by Douglas Messerli
1136 pp., paper, $29.95, ISBN: 1-55713-131-7, Sun & Moon Press
Born of decades of publishing on the literary cutting edge and ten years of sifting and gathering specifically for this tome, Doug Messerli’s anthology is a landmark, perhaps even a monument, for our millennial American literature. Unwieldy though it may be, this volume is indispensable as an introduction and sampler of nearly a half-century of poetry. Determined neither to omit fine poets nor eviscerate them by inclusion of only a representative poem or two, Messerli has excerpted the works of 80 poets to create a one-volume encyclopedia of experimental (or avant-garde) verse. He takes as model “Donald Allen’s ground-breaking The New American Poetry, published in 1960,” which was a unique and highly influential work. That he couldn’t limit his collection to the size of Allen’s is a testament to the ongoing poetry renaissance after the 60’s, and the high degree of pluralism, sometimes called “fragmentation” or “subjectivization,” among our poets. This is not necessarily a bad thing for our literature. I certainly appreciate finding in this volume along with accepted masters (Charles Olson, Louis Zukovsky, Frank O’Hara, and others…), poets of their same generations and literary modes who deserve the same status (Jack Spicer, Lorine Niedecker, Amiri Baraka, Jackson Maclow, and others…). Surely among the younger poets included are more masters, whose names I cannot acknowledge until I read much more of their work, a project for which this anthology provides excellent guidance. Here is a summary statement from Messerli’s brief introductory essay: “A good anthology can shed light not just on significant individual poets, but also on the relationships among poets. And with this in mind, I gathered Canadian and American poets writing from 1960 to the present, for the most part focusing on poets who previously had not been extensively anthologized and whose writing seemed to extend and challenge the tradition of innovative American poetry beginning with Emily Dickinson (who was first published 100 years ago), Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and others. Taking my lead from Donald Allen, moreover, I felt that these poems could be grouped into smaller gatherings which might help to illuminate some specific issues and concerns….” This anthology belongs in all reference collections, and I recommend it to any reader of poetry who is intrepid enough to venture beyond modernism into other stylistic terrains, which may resemble wildernesses, uncharted lands, and sometimes alien planetscapes of the mind.
Poems for the Millenium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry
Volume One, Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris
842 pp., paper, $24.95, ISBN: 0-520-07227-8, University of California Press
Review adapted from Chicago Review, Volume 42, No. 1, copyright 1996 by Chicago Review.
Poems for the Millenium is the most recent in a slew of anthologies on innovative poetry in the twentieth century, a phenomenon perhaps related, as its title suggests, to a millenial straining towards re-evaluation and reckoning. If one gives credence to the avant-garde’s resistance to assimilation, in any sense, its anthologizing seems rife with problems, if not paradoxes. Rothenberg and Joris are not altogether blind to this quandary, and wisely frame their effort in terms of “a mapping of the possibilities that have come down to us by the century’s turning”(3), rather than a new canonization. The very bulk of Poems for the Millenium, at nearly 800 pages in its first volume, emphasizes the dense flowering of possibilities, as opposed to the culling traditionally associated with an anthology. In this sense, Poems for the Millenium resembles From the Other Side of the Century, issued in 1994 from Sun & Moon Press, and edited by Douglas Messerli.
Yet unlike Messerli, Rothenberg and Joris prove to be generous guides, providing historical and cultural contexts for poetry which could be inaccessible in fragmentary isolation. In prologues to principle sections on Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Objectivists, and Negritude, the editors establish the vitality of movements which are often overlooked in the context of poetry. In opposition to literary histories which emphasize the roles of individual artists, Joris and Rothenberg take their cue from the visual arts by emphasizing radical collective movements. Interspersed among these historical sections are sections titled “Galleries,” which juxtapose poems from disparate nationalities and cultures. The logic of their sequence is at times seemingly arbitrary, and requires greater trust in the editors’ instincts. Yet such trust often pays off….[example omitted—Editor].
Nevertheless, some readers may be unsatisfied with the particular synthesis of international poetry which this anthology presents. In the introduction, Rothenberg and Joris suggest that they are attempting to de-center prior representations of modernism through a global approach: “In the process, the African and Asian masks looted by nineteenth-century colonialism—masks which set ablaze the imaginations of Picasso and Apollinaire, of Tzara and Dèrain, in pre-World War I Paris—will have started their long trek home”(8). Yet more often, perhaps unsurprisingly, Poems for the Millenium embraces an eclectic cosmopolitanism which reads international poetries through the concerns of American, British, and Continental movements. The editors’ broad focus on formal innovations, open forms, and language experiments may be more suited to William Blake and Robert Duncan than Navajo or Japanese poetry. Characteristically, for instance, traditional Russian incantations are framed in terms of their appropriation by Russian Futurists, and titled “Bald Mountain Zaum-Poems.” This tendency is not all bad, for it gives one a vital sense of the appropriations and misapprehensions of the modernists themselves. In other words, Rothenberg and Joris not only take radical modernism as their subject, but embrace many of its methods in assembling this anthology.
Such an approach, which gives careful attention to typically underrepresented regions of poetry such as Expressionism and Negritude, provides a needed alternative to the provincialism so often apparent in American avant-garde poetry of late. The hubris involved in this global undertaking is readily forgiven in the face of the care and intelligence with which Rothenberg and Joris approach each selection, many of which were previously unknown to me. If the masks to which the editors refer have not really “started their long trek home” (8), they have at least been further disseminated.—Devin Johnston, Poetry Editor
Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry
Edited by Walter K. Lew
616 pp., paper, $22.95, ISBN: 1-885030-14-2, Kaya Production
This anthology, itself a work of art, represents an overwhelming aesthetic, intellectual and political achievement. In over 500 pages of poetry, among 73 poets, there’s not a weak link; not a dispensable poem or a less-than accomplished or unexciting poet. The editor, himself an experimental poet, has arranged for us a visual and literary experience that takes us beyond academic lyricism into the maelstrom of history and language making itself.
All modes of poetry, from Buddhist odes to video poetry, appear here, but in edifyingly unpredictable ways that render them, in the best sense, uncategorizable; well-known writers like Lawson Inada and Jessica Hagedorn appear along with new poets like Hawai’i-based post-colonial postmodernists Barry Masuda and R. Zamora Linmark, Indo-Brechtian Amitava Kumar, and heretofore well-kept secrets like New York Chinatown’s Frances Chung and the Black Mountain-influenced Canadians Fred Wah, Ho Hon Leung, and Roy Kiyooka. Gay, lesbian, and erotically daring women’s poetry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-based poetry and a new generation of Vietnamese American and Korean American poets are foregrounded here for the first time.
Neither a multiculti feel-good anthology, an instrumentalist teaching anthology that condescends to its audience and subject matter, nor an Orientalist rehearsal of anti-Orientalism, this book will liberate the reader from the strictures of the known at all levels. An exquisite artifact of activist experimentalism, theoretically smart and so beautiful it hurts, Premonitions promises to be a landmark in American letters for many years to come.—Maria Damon, Univ. of Minnesota, author of The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. Book jacket copy, we can’t do better.
out of everywhere: linguistically innovative poetry by women in North America & the UK
edited & introduced by Maggie O’Sullivan
254 pp., paper, $15.00, ISBN: 1-874400-08-3, Reality Street Editions (U.K.—Small Press Distribution, U.S.)
Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry
Edited by Tony Barnstone
184 pp., paper, $xxxxxx, ISBN: 0-8195-1210-9, Wesleyan University Press
“From the Beijing Spring of 1979 until the student uprisings of 1989 a new generation of poets fourished in China. Influenced by Western Modernism and increasingly daring in their challenges to state control of their art, these poets disguised political protest and social commentary in shadowy images and metaphors, earning them the name the “Misty Poets.” Rejecting the Social Realism prescribed by Maoist doctrine, they celebrated subjective experience and individuality, ushering in a new era of artistic expression that has been dampened but not extinguished by the Tianenmen Square massacre. This new anthology is the most comprehensive English sampling available of the work of the Misty Poets and their even younger protégés, many of whom now live in exile in the West, where they continue to reshape Chines poetry and literature…Barnstone’s substantial critical introduction places the poets in their cultural, historical, and political context.” (cover copy)
Barnstone cites in his essay “…one of the prime problems of translation—one can translate the words, and one can translate the spirit, but one can’t translate the historical moment that made those particular words written in that way so revolutionary.” Nevertheless, the poetry is startling and compelling, and it is evident even from a quick glance that these Chinese poets have entered a dialogue not only with their own country’s political protocols but also with 20th century literary modes world-wide. Here is a poem written in English by expatriate writer Ha Jin:
ALCOOLS: Poems by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Donald Revell
192 pp., paper, $xxxxxxx, ISBN: 0-8195-1228-7, Wesleyan University Press
Another outstanding contribution from Wesleyan is this long-overdue contemporary rendering of a 1913 collection widely considered to be the fountainhead of European modernism in verse. Translator Donald Revell says a mouthful regarding the roots of modernism in recommending this Parisian poet: “All great poems are causes, but not therefore exempt from causality. Each is itself an aftershock of some earlier disruption, some prior innovation.” Apollinaire wrote in many genres, including highly prophetic art criticism in which he championed the Cubists and the art experiments that were simmering in Paris after the turn of the century. Apollinaire’s touchstone poem “Zone” appears in nearly every anthology of 20th -century writing I’ve every read, and it felt like a permanently-captured breath of fresh air even when I first encountered it during the ‘60’s. Revell’s translations are free-wheeling, as he emulates Apollinaire’s verve by rendering French argot into recent colloquialisms. Having the entire collection accessible puts “Zone” in context and brings to life this key (and distinctively Zen-like) literary figure who sadly died at age 38 of influenza in 1918, cutting short what was already a meteoric career. I applaud Wesleyan for publishing a bilingual edition, since even novice French readers can here enjoy the originals and assess for themselves the translator’s art.—Lourie
George Seferis: Collected Poems
Translated, Edited, & Introduced by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard
320 pp. , paper, $xxxxxxxx, ISBN: 0-691-01491-4, Princeton University Press
The Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation
©1996 Gateways Books and Tapes