10/31/13

Junji Ito - A masterpiece of horror manga, one of the greatest horror stories ever told, in any medium.The story concerns the people of a small Japanese town who become obsessed by the occurrences of natural and artificial spirals around them. The result of this obsession is a slow transformation into something other than human, leading to a gruesome, realistically-depicted death

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Junji Ito, Uzumaki, VIZ Media LLC, 2013.

Read it here or here 

Kurôzu-cho, a small fogbound town on the coast of Japan, is cursed. According to Shuichi Saito, the withdrawn boyfriend of teenager Kirie Goshima, their town is haunted not by a person or being but by a pattern: uzumaki, the spiral, the hypnotic secret shape of the world. It manifests itself in everything from seashells and whirlpools in water to the spiral marks on people's bodies, the insane obsessions of Shuichi's father and the voice from the cochlea in our inner ear. As the madness spreads, the inhabitants of Kurôzu-cho are pulled ever deeper into a whirlpool from which there is no return!

The coastal town of Kurouzu-cho is infested with spirals. They manifest in ramen, on pottery wheels, in the fields and sky. The obsession with spirals seizes the town’s residents like a fever, causing intense paranoia, fear, madness and eventually complete transformation. Slow-moving students transform into snail people; others stretch their bodies into spirals just to die. When she notices that human fingerprints are spiral-patterned, one woman cuts off her fingertips with a pair of scissors. A potter becomes obsessed with the grotesque ceramics that emerge from his kiln after the spirals infect the lake where he gathers clay. The teenage lovers of warring families transform into serpents and vanish into the sea, never to be seen again. Hideous and beautiful transformations, death of family, death of community, death of self: this is the world of Uzumaki.
In episodic chapters, the first half of Uzumaki charts the increasingly nightmarish bodily horrors that afflict the residents of Kurouzu-cho. But about halfway through, when a hurricane decimates the town, the story shifts gears from Cronenberg territory into a suspenseful, nightmarish tale of survival. To make the situation worse for the few survivors of the hurricane, the town no longer allows anyone to leave. They’re trapped. A succession of rescue crews also find themselves stuck in Kurouzo-cho, knowing they are only minutes from the edge of town, but unable to get back. The only structures not impacted by the daily onslaught of spiraling whirlwinds are the decaying row houses on the edge of town. With no connection to the outside world and supplies running low, the survivors take desperate measures, forming gangs (including a horde of sinister children who surf the whirlwinds and kill anyone who ventures out of the row houses) and eating whatever they can find, even cannibalizing anyone unlucky enough to transform into a snail person. Then, in the final chapters, Uzumaki shifts gears once again, kicking it up to full-throttle cosmic horror that rivals anything ever written by Lovecraft.
Uzumaki4The new hardcover edition from VIZ Media is a welcome upgrade over the paperback volumes. In this larger format book, Junji’s Ito’s starkly beautiful black and white artwork looks better than ever. Although the film adaptation of Uzumaki captured the general strangeness of the work, this is a story that’s best told in black and white. The images are horrific but naturalistic, and there’s a subtlety to the characters in both the art and dialogue that makes them more sympathetic and relatable than the characters in most of the manga I’ve read. Arguably Junji Ito’s crowning achievement, and without a single dull page in the mix, it’s 600+ pages of terror and beauty. My wife and I each keep a shelf of books we’d take with us in the event of a zombie apocalypse. These are the books that mean the most to us, the ones we couldn’t bear to part with. This edition of Uzumaki in hardcover instantly earned a place on my zombie apocalypse shelf.
The universe of Uzumaki is one frighteningly indifferent to humankind. Natural disasters devastate entire populations, prayers go unanswered, patterns of history repeat with the unfeeling resolve of the rising sun. The classic horror stories of Poe and Lovecraft reflect the imaginings of damaged, stunted psyches, but Junji Ito’s horror stories are nascent, intelligent, reflecting the degradation of normal people and normal society. They come from the mind of someone who understands that terrible, impossible shit happens and confronts it with an unflinching, stable eye. That’s why I’ll take Ito’s imaginings over those of almost any other horror writer/artist/filmmaker. That’s why I’d say if you read just one manga in your life, let it be Uzumaki. It’s simply one of the greatest horror stories ever told, in any medium.
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- Cameron Pierce

From a distance, the seaside Japanese town of Kurôzu-cho looks peaceful and idyllic. Ferns sway gently on the verdant mountainside, the ocean laps gently at the black lighthouse, and Dragonfly Pond sits serenely at the town's center. But closing in, the reader realizes that something darker lies at the heart of Kurôzu-cho -- something beneath the sudden dust devils, the mysterious whirlpools, the inescapable convergence of the winding streets. A malevolent spiral contaminates Kurôzu-cho, churning dark thoughts within its inhabitants and goading them to the self-destruction that ends in the spiraling smoke from cremation fires. Junji Ito's first two Uzumaki graphic novels draw readers into the disquieting tale of Kurôzu-cho, infecting them with a heightened awareness of spirals and a case of the chills that may last for days.
Narrator Kirie Goshima lives contentedly in Kurôzu-cho, blind to its sinister element. Less of a protagonist than a witness to the horrors that befall those under the spiral's supernatural influence, the quiet teenager realizes something is amiss when she spies her boyfriend's father, Mr. Saito, staring avidly at an empty snail shell. Her boyfriend, Shuichi Saito, attends school in a neighboring town -- a daily escape which affords him the detachment to see how the spiral has infected his hometown and his family.
The first storyline, "The Spiral Obsession," details Mr. Saito's deadly fascination with any spiral -- whether a coil of wire or a special type of fish cake -- and Mrs. Saito's resulting violent spiral-phobia. Kirie listens skeptically to Shuichi's theories about the wrongness of Kurôzu-cho, but withholds judgment until his father declines into a housebound wreck and his mother flees reality into an aversion so strong that she takes scissors to her own body in an effort to rid it of spirals. As Mr. Saito tells Kirie's father, "They're everywhere once you look for them."
Some chapters from each of these two volumes stand alone as separate stories, similar in character to the best of The X-Files's monster-of-the-week episodes. The spiral exploits the characters' flaws in bizarre ways, often altering them physically as well as mentally. "The Firing Effect" and "Twisted Souls" show the heavy toll the spiral's flattery and perversion exact from characters who otherwise might behave perfectly normally. Ito goes particularly hard on feminine vanity in two just-desserts stories: in "The Scar," a vain, cold-hearted beauty's crescent-shaped scar twists itself into a disfiguring spiral, and in "Medusa," an attention-craving girl's hair takes on a life of its own. "The Snail" takes the reader to school with a new slant on the relationship between bully and victim. Despite its often-episodic nature, Uzumaki maintains continuity from tale to tale, building intensity from one to the next.
In the second volume, many stories veer away from the odd comfort of comeuppance stories to show the spiral's increasingly larger-scale, more violent, and less selective seductions. The circle widens to encompass anyone and everyone, and innocents dragged into the vortex suffer deeply. In "The Black Lighthouse," characters guilty of nothing worse than foolishness pay with their lives when they investigate the abandoned beacon's hypnotic light source. Characters trying to save Kirie from the threats of "The Umbilical Cord" and "The Storm" die merely because the spiral ensnares them. These events leave an indelible mark on Kirie; with Shuichi as her only ally, she must resist the evil she sees around her even as others call her a liar. The spiral cannot twist her spirit, but it stalks and menaces her.
None of these stories, however psychological, goes without grotesque images or eerie supernatural twists. In context, a mollusk or a hairstyle can induce shudders as easily as a trickle of blood or a rotting corpse. Ito spares nothing and no one; small children, kindly craftsmen, and glowingly pregnant women stand as much chance of serving as conduits of evil as becoming its victims. Of the twelve chapters in these volumes, a few border on camp, but only the gimmicky (if tragic) "Jack-in-the-Box" falls flat.
Ito's exquisite black-and-white pen work, with its elaborate backgrounds and realistic figures, represents Kurôzu-cho as just south of normal -- until he pulls out the stops with searingly disturbing images of the spiral's influence. Ito employs creative and memorable visions to show the spiral's erosive effects on the landscape, the little details of life, and the human mind and body. In the first volume, he accomplishes this with minimal gore, but the horrific events of the second volume -- particularly "Jack-in-the-Box" and the one-two punch of "Mosquitoes" and "The Umbilical Cord" -- require blood. He chronicles the unsettling sights through Kirie's wide-open eyes -- each lower eyelash lovingly drawn, creating a dewy, innocent effect -- as she watches Shuichi waste into hollow-eyed gauntness. When the events of the second volume chip away at Kirie, it's wrenching to see her trusting eyes bloodshot and to watch her sweet face take on the tension of painful secrets.
For both volumes, Viz takes the welcome step of reproducing the beautifully painted first four pages in full color, setting the tone of uneasiness in dark reds, unhealthy greens, and sinister purples. The second volume raises the bar further with an embossed cover and spine. A lighthearted cartoon featuring Ito poking fun at Uzumaki's concept (and at himself) closes each volume.
Ito lists his influences as "God of Horror Manga" Kazuo Umezu (who lent his name to the award Ito won for Tomie in 1987), Hell Baby manga creator Hideshi Hino, science-fiction/experimental novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui, and American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Uzumaki is that rare work that captures the style of Lovecraft's horror, gradually unveiling the grotesqueries underlying everyday life, without pilfering its distinctive content, or calling everything in sight "Cyclopean" or "squamous."
"Spiral" to some translators and "Vortex" to others, Uzumaki inspired the 2000 live-action Japanese movie of the same name, which spurred positive buzz on the art house circuit, but has not yet been released to home video. The Uzumaki graphic novel, currently serialized in Pulp magazine, will conclude in Volume 3, scheduled for an October 2002 release. The final collection will include one story not published in Pulp.

Lovely despite its moments of looking-glass distortion, Lovecraftian with nary an "eldritch," Uzumaki shows a town in which the inhabitants become wound around the points of their own greatest weakness. The townspeople's all-too-common and all-too-human failings, warped and mutating out of control, at first keep the evil that befalls them from seeming random or gratuitous. But like a piece of fabric with a few tiny holes, Kurôzu-Cho is rent from weak point to weak point, unraveling until it seems it will fall to shreds. Although some of these vivid stories read as cautionary tales, and some read as straight-up horror, Uzumaki infects the reader with nothing worse than a case of the chills and the desire to read more. - Laura Blackwell

I’ve been reading a lot of manga lately. In the past, I’d go through brief fits of reading the stuff, but it always felt temporary, like a fling while my romance with anime hit the buffers. This time, it’s totally different; I’m ready to devour as much as I can find.
By and large, anime is defined by its limitations; it only looks as good as the money spent on it, but manga is typically drawn by one talented artist; someone with a consistent vision, capable of imagining a fantastic landscape without ever needing to worry about budgets and frame-rates. It’s an untainted, purer style of story-telling, burdened only by the singular abilities of its author.
With my above enthusiasm in-tow, the first stopping point on this fresh journey into the black/white country of comics was always clear; Uzumaki by horror maven Junji Ito. Given I’m still reeling in claustrophobia thanks to his deliciously weird short-story “The Enigma of Amigara Fault“, the idea of slipping into his most acclaimed work to date was an ambition I’ve held for many months.
Uzumaki is the Japanese word for “spiral”. If you know your anime, it will immediately conjure up two obvious references; the main character of Naruto is named “Uzumaki Naruto” and, of course, spirals (and anti-spirals) represent living energy, perhaps even the soul itself, in the excellent Gurren Lagann. I’m not sure why this symbol in particular seems so prevalent in Japanese culture, but Ito’s sinister ideas are quite persuasive. Spirals are obsession.
The dread conjured by completing Uzumaki was similar to the fright I felt when reading of Africa’s army ants. These aggressive colonies, which number in the millions, are constantly on the move. They form a “living architecture”, using their own bodies to build bridges and protective walls against the ravages of the African climate. They feed on almost anything by hunting en-mass, crawling over their prey in their millions and stripping it to the bone; even animals as big as horses have fell victim. Just reading about them, I’m disturbed by their unrelenting aggression and ambiguous intelligence. There is no point in trying to understand their intentions, it’s simply a case of running for your dear life, and that’s Uzumaki in a nut-shell too. A town haunted by a faceless, creeping, crawling malevolence, an unfathomable, undiscriminating curse hell-bent on the total destruction of every man, woman and child.
Beginning in a fine fashion then, the first chapter is brilliantly weird. To the utter bemusement of his relatively normal family, a typical Japanese salary-man is suddenly obsessed with spirals; at first he’s satisfied by merely staring into a snail’s shell, but as his mind gradually unhinges, he starts experimenting with his body too. He doesn’t simply admire the spiral, he wants to become one.
The first two volumes (out of three) are fairly episodic, making up a series of bizarre encounters with the spiral obsession, most of which range from the darkly comic to out-right disgusting. When I say the latter, I’m talking about cannibalistic pregnant women and insane doctors feeding their hungry patients umbilical cords and placenta that, for whatever reason, take root and grow when chopped from newly-born babies; and there’s more, but I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. All of the horror in Uzumaki is, as is Ito’s signature style, sticky and organic; we’re supposed to be sickened, disturbed and freaked by the way he twists and contorts the apparently flexible human body to new extremes.
uzumaki_350.jpgIt would be fair to say that I enjoyed the first two volumes, but they were merely fun for the sake of horror; I felt nothing for the characters, and the thread-bare plot offered little more than an uneven patch-work of horrific adventures. That is to say, I wasn’t heading into the third (and final) volume over-flowing with enthusiasm, yet it’s a quite remarkable end.
The entire town, now well beyond rescue, has been completely smashed by the dreaded curse. The last few survivors are starved and confused, tightly grouped together in small wooden huts, hiding from the many terrors roaming the streets outside, including tribes of cruel children capable of riding giant twisters through the wretched remains of modern civilisation. These last few chapters are post-apocalyptic, bereft of hope and beautiful; the landscape is desolate and open, forcing a real fear of loneliness on this reader that’s far more potent than the cheap thrills of earlier volumes.

Ito’s true strength isn’t necessarily his detailed depictions of gore, but his manipulation of human nature, the way he exploits our physical relationship with life and our worries of the unknown; he knows what’s lurking in the darkest caverns of reality, willing to fathom the moon-lit shadows being cast across our bedroom walls. - www.bateszi.me/


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10/29/13

Karen Green - This exquisite book is an impressionistic miracle, an assemblage of short text fragments and collages by an artist trying to make sense of her husband’s suicide. That this husband was David Foster Wallace is beautifully beside the point, for the focus here is on the experience, the bleak and necessary journey of grief



Karen Green, Bough Down, Siglio Press, 2013.

With fearlessness and grace, Karen Green has created a profoundly beautiful and intensely moving lament. In this unusual narrative constructed of crystalline fragments of prose interspersed with miniature collages, Green conjures the urgency and inscrutability of a world shaped by love and loss.
In charting her passage through grief, she summons memories and the machinations of the interior mind with poetic precision, a startling sense of humor, and an acute awareness of contradictory truths and of the volatility of language. Like the snippets of Billie Holiday lyrics scattered throughout, Green distills each moment, locating the sweet and the bitter, with the emotional gravity of music.
In counterpoint, tiny visual collages punctuate the text, made of salvaged language and scraps of the material world. Made not to illustrate the words but as a parallel process of invocation and erasure, pilfering and remaking, each collage—and the creative act of making it—evinces the reassembling of life.
Bough Down is a book of dualities, probing the small spaces between lucidity and madness, desire and ambivalence, the living and the absent. Both an evocation of her love for her husband and an act of defiance in the face of devastating loss, Bough Down is a lapidary, keenly observed and composed work, awash with the honesty of an open heart.

KAREN GREEN is an artist and writer living and working in Northern California.

One of the most beautiful expressions of love and loss you will ever read. Bough Down put me in mind somehow of the Portuguese fado: a lament rendered so precisely it becomes luminous and affirmative. This is a profound, lovely, bitterly funny book that fulfills the first requirement of great art: it is magical.—GEORGE SAUNDERS

In Bough Down Karen Green has created beautiful missives, both textual and visual, around an invisible core of grief that we all, one way or another, share.  Like those great poets before her, Ann Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson, Green’s poetic ear, her honed images, and her paradoxically confessional yet non-confessional voice challenge the reader to rise up to meet the demands of a wonderfully humane artistic vision. This is a stunning book.DAVID MEANS

Bough Down is a breathtaking lyric elegy. A fusion of poetry, prose, and visual images, it is a work of emotional acuity, quiet ferocity, and riven bravery. Its use of silence, compression, detail, and the fragmentary is powerful and rich. I can’t call to mind a book that centers on loss which better sustains its summoning, grief, anger, probing, intelligence, and dignity. Wow! I am still in its grip.AMY GERSTLER

Some of the book’s pages hold tiny collages (remnants from a life: canceled stamps, scribbles and edits, fingerprints that look like they were captured in ash, or a detective’s powder), and some hold brief, elliptical bursts of text (a dream, a trip to the dentist, memories of a moment so painful, and so personal, that I’ve erased my attempts to describe it). Everything gathers around an absence so present the hole shapes the book: the death of Green’s husband, in 2008. To those who have lived through such a loss, this punishingly tender elegy may have totemic power, but to every reader Green’s empathy, her humor, and her observations—so clear they are nearly hallucinatory—are strong medicine. —Andi Mudd

At the start of Karen Green’s prismatic first book, Bough Down, it is June. “Does it begin like this?” she writes, and describes in glittering prose a pastoral arrangement of household objects: garden hose, cigarettes, fuzzy pills, artichoke stalks. The items seem innocent enough until they become intricately linked with the narrative surrounding the aftermath of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, the author’s late husband.
“Our house smells like cooked dog piss. The cork floor has a speckled cigarette filter pattern, the linoleum is a grid of snack crackers. The coughing sky, the new pills, two sets of golden eyes, tracing our movements. What a yellowing place. I want to rip the carpet out. Instead I bake and you eat, digest. Vanish. I pray you back to me and there you are, in the indigo paper jumpsuit. Honey, you smell agathokakological.”
It’s a word one can imagine Wallace using, “agathokakological,” from Ancient Greek ἀγαθός (agathos, “good”) and κακός (kakos, “bad”), meaning “made up of both good and evil”; Bough Down is a beautiful anomaly in itself. It is many things: art book, collage, lyric, prose poetry and ultimately, a dizzying and wondrous incantation of grief.
Bough Down pulls the reader into a maelstrom of emotion while simultaneously keeping the grief at bay, as if the suffering is in the sole possession of the narrator; we see Wallace as if through a spy glass that offers a version of the writer that is Green’s alone, so the act of reading seems nearly voyeuristic. Like Susan Howe’s That This — also an elegy for a husband, the philosopher Peter H. Hare, which includes cut-ups of text and photographs — Bough Down, published by Siglio Press, is an art object in itself. Postage-stamp-sized collages by Green (who is also an artist) are interspersed throughout the book; they are laced with an almost unnerving delicacy. Like the work of Howe and Anne Carson, whose Nox is dedicated to her late brother, Bough Down elegantly blurs the discursive boundaries between poetry, prose, and visual art.
A spread from Karen Green's "Bough Down" (courtesy Siglio Press)
A spread from Karen Green’s “Bough Down” (interior images courtesy Siglio Press)
In That This, Howe wrote, “Now — putting bits of memory together, trying to pick out the good while doing away with the bad — I’m left with … the unpresentable violence of a negative double.” Doubles also exist in Bough Down, a “doppelgänger widow” who “does not totter in her heels; she branches out with the graceful invulnerability of a coastal cypress,” and most eloquently in the form of the “jazz lady,” whose increasing presence in the second half of the book lends the text a type of palpable duality.
This shadowed biplicity works because Green is able to inhabit so convincingly these “others” she chooses. It reminds me of the best parts in Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, where he spins dazzling portraits of multiple jazz legends. But the lens through which Green peers is tinged with her ongoing inquiry on absence. If the jazz lady is the mirror in which Green sees herself, it is also a method through which Green can articulate her own story’s searing reality without relying on self-referential depiction. The italicized quotes that sometimes accompany the jazz lady sections are snippets of lyrics that Billie Holiday sang: “Dear lord above/Send back my love;”Skip that lipstick/Don’t explain;” and most heartbreaking, “for the sun to rot,” from Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
The double shadows in Bough Down, of Holiday, Wallace, of death itself, tint the writing with a multi-dimensional patina, and are not unlike Green’s mixed-media collages which feature cut-ups of poems (Marianne Moore, Henry David Thoreau), handwritten scrawls, fingerprints, small swathes of color. The tininess of these works makes one squint; often they seem sheathed in an ethereal haze. But grief is a complicated topography, and the pristine subtlety of Green’s art is upended — in a good way — by her prose. “I want to take all the chaotic stuff and make it quiet,” Green said in a 2010 New York Times article, and she does: “I need to talk to you,” she writes, addressing the novelist directly, “Your arms feel an irrational color. Not arms, stalks. Not tongue, anemone. Not this, you. The half moon above and its tableau is mine alone.” And later, “The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.”
Regret courses through Bough Down, but unaccompanied by sentimentality. Green’s prose, conveyed in block-like passages that read with the refinement and rhythm characteristic of the best contemporary poets — think G.C. Waldrep, Amy Gerstler — blazes with a type of filmic gleam: “A crow in the sycamore opens his beak like big black garden shears and says, Ha. The mockingbirds say plummetplummetplummet.//… I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.”
From Karen Green's "Bough Down" (click to enlarge)
From Karen Green’s “Bough Down” (click to enlarge)
Acedia, agoraphobia, alyssum, anemone. Dispersed through Bough Down, these words attest to Green’s sonic attention, her poetic method of communicating unspeakable emotion. These words live in the same realm as “animalculum,” “sesquipedalian” and “heliogabaline,” tongue-twisters that Wallace utilized so gracefully in the essays in Consider the Lobster. But in Bough Down, it is Green’s voice that mesmerizes, her images surreal yet particular: “You are an oil spill, but from an airplane the catastrophe is gorgeously baroque;” “his shoulders had a certain sloping topography which made my parts swell and accelerate;” “we are the Barbie peach of Caucasian babies making love in the afternoon.” The reader experiences Wallace as a conjuration attached to a past that displaces preconceptions of the writer even as it constructs another, more intimate reality, one of him as a patient, a beloved, a lover.
Bough Down is not simply a testament to suffering, but also to the purgative properties of the natural world. “The garden and the husband, well, I was confused about what I was keeping alive,” Green writes. The physicality of Bough Down — her poignant references to body parts, flower anatomy, even the heady descriptions of multi-colored pharmaceutical pills — lend the book an immediacy, even as Green is describing the past. The work enthralls because it exposes artistic creation as an act of necessity, this feat of laying it all down. Perhaps this is what the title alludes to — the concurrent processes of forgetting and remembering as they are set on the page. Bough Down continually challenges the reader to submit to memory while at the same time recognize its ongoingness. In Bough Down, we view the life of Green’s mind as it searches, flails, and discovers the world’s fierce truths, its luminosity. - J. Mae Barizo


KAREN GREEN’S NEW — and incredibly, her first — book Bough Down, from Siglio Press, is an astonishment. It is one of the most moving, strange, original, harrowing, and beautiful documents of grief and reckoning I’ve read. The book consists of a series of prose poems, or individuated chunks of poetic prose, interspersed with postage-stamp-sized collages made by Green, who is also a visual artist. Collectively the text bears witness to the 2008 suicide of her husband, the writer David Foster Wallace, and its harrowing aftermath for Green. The book feels like an instant classic, but without any of the aggrandizement that can attend such a thing. Instead it is suffused throughout with the dissonant, private richness of the minor, while also managing to be a major achievement.
Upon first read, Bough Down feels disorienting and surreal — like entering a drugged wormhole of grief, pills, and barely tolerable engrams and emotions, which appear via allegory, hallucination, synecdoche, and blur. Upon rereading, however, the bones of the book’s structure become admirably clear. “June, black // Does it begin like this?” Green hovers at the start, before plunging into the day of Wallace’s death, her experience of finding his body, her dealings with the police, and the haze of public commemorations. (I’m feeling free in this review to use “Green” and “Wallace” instead of the more formalist/distanced “the speaker” and “her husband” even though the text of the book avoids proper names.)
As the “support guys” become scarce, as they eventually must, we stay with Green — now alone, and haunted — in her house, her garden, her “village,” her mind, her body, her heart. We also bear witness to her own deepening relationship with psychiatrists and pharmaceuticals, which takes place in something of an echo chamber left by her husband, who struggled mightily to treat the depression which precipitated his suicide. The book charts the passage of time by moving through the seasons and stations of Green’s “non-linear, inelegant progress” of grief. Green smartly ends the book (spoiler alert!) “I can’t wrap this up” (how could she?), but nonetheless there is a real sense of progression and resolution in Bough Down, one that feels earned and wise, never cheap.
Indeed, while Bough Down is a memoir of grief, part of what keeps it from playing “the grief castanets” (to borrow Wayne Koestenbaum’s phrase) is the acuteness of Green’s sensibility. She suffers no fools, and instinctively calls out and rejects any trope that feels easy or predictable. She is never mean per se, but she is keen, as when she describes a “doppelganger widow” in town (presumably a woman who performs “outliving” almost professionally): “The doppelganger widow shows up at the most prestigious service draped on the most smartest and meanest support guy. She does not totter in her heels; she branches out with the graceful invulnerability of a coastal cypress.” In response to the sentimental truisms offered at funerals, Green writes:
I want him pissed off at politicians, ill at ease, trying to manipulate me into doing favors for him I would do anyway. I want him looking for his glasses, trying not to come, doing the dumb verb of journaling, getting spinach caught between canine and gum, berating my logorrhea, or my not staying mum. I don’t want him at peace.
Elsewhere in Bough Down, Green says, “It is hard to remember tender things tenderly.” But as the above litany of memories indicates, Green has no trouble evoking tender details of her husband, especially those of the physical variety. It is a refreshing relief, in a grief memoir, to hear the lost love object remembered not just in love, but in lust. Green pays homage to his elegant legs, his smell (“like godliness”), the shade of his nipples. These details don’t just make a lovely tribute; they also reinvent masculinity, noting specificities, which stand blessedly apart from “Updike”-like attributes. “Your legs were elegant, and you crossed them elegantly, not like a boy pretending his jewels were too big,” she writes, underscoring the difference.

The tender things may be painful for Green to remember; due to her crystalline, sincere rendering, they are also painful to read about. Perhaps because this is not the memoir of a couple married for decades — Green and Wallace had been married for but four years at the time of his death — the love here conveyed feels hot, blooming, then disastrously cut short, tragically adumbrated by all the trauma and anger that constitute suicide’s ugly gifts. (“The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense,” Green writes, struggling with the cruelty of the paradox.) I could quote any number of excruciating passages, but here is one of the most delicate and agonized: “On our wedding night we smiled at the antler chandelier rigged with rope and walls as cold as snow. Sorry, sorry. How on earth.” How on earth did our love come to this; how on earth did we find this love: two sentiments locked together in a Gordian knot — perhaps forever — by the violent abandonment of Wallace’s death. - Maggie Nelson


Shadows 
1. The Paradox: I don’t want to discuss Karen Green’s Bough Down in the shadow of her husband’s death; if it is impossible not to, this condition replicates another mode of cultural violence, namely, subsuming a woman’s texts to her more famous, more serious, male writer counterpart.
2. Because Green’s book is an achievement in that it resists such closure — resists naming her dead husband, the author, or his texts — making him, instead, her own shadow figure, one haunting the text and her life endlessly.
3. And yet if Green refuses to name the Dead Author, I have yet to read a review of Bough Down that hasn’t named him, or, indeed, identified her as his widow. That this is inevitable does not make it less complicated. That Green, a visual artist, was a writer long before she met said husband, and certainly long before his death — and that this is the first we’ve heard from her — is no less insignificant. That her text, like her life, is marked by an awareness of suffering — loss, grief, psychic alienation — makes Bough Down, as excruciating as it is, if you are of a certain persuasion, which I’d argue we all are at one point or another, deeply satisfying.
Lamentation 
Because if Bough Down is a love story, it is also a documentation of a very specific trauma, that of loss — a documentation which a scholar could read as positively valued, as something able to provide many things, not least of all the removal of artifice.
If the Public Widow and the Memorial Ceremonies (Green’s references to the post-suicide ceremony) are rendered as alienating public displays — that is, Artifice — then Green’s book can be described in terms of lamentation, antidote to the artificial, lyric revealing something of the language (and silence) of loss, inextricably linked to love.
4. Anticipating this, the text includes a call from her son: “Happy Birthday Hag Widow,” a moment which marks both Green’s sense of humor and her willingness to de-mystify her plight. Her plight (she won’t elevate it to Fate and neither will this review): to live in the shadow of her husband’s death, to become his symptoms, to embody the taboo of suicide yet resist it. To create art — to write a book — which resists.
5. So if our reading of the book inevitably invokes the loss of the writer, one reading of its function is to provide psychological witness, cultural artifact, gendered performance, and political tool. Political because it is dangerous to be ill in this country, not to speak of within a larger system or paradigm, which makes individuals into “consumers” of mental health care. Dangerous because it is maddening to be an artist under capitalism, a spiritual seeker within a dominant psychopharmamedical complex where they take “drugs that give the well-insured tremors” that “make patients speak in incomplete” (It is here that Green’s line breaks off, a moment, like many in the book, pointing to the failure of language to represent grief, or anything else, with accuracy.) - SUZANNE SCANLON

I learned a valuable lesson in grief last year.
Shortly after the shootings at Sandy Hook in December, my wife and I were horrified to learn that our friends’ daughter, Avielle, was among the schoolchildren who had been killed. A few days after the tragedy, seeking a reprieve from our relentless sorrow, my wife and I went Christmas shopping at Anthropologie at Otay Lakes Town Center. Big mistake.
The holiday music and festive cheer inside the beautifully designed store was so out of sync with the way we felt that we momentarily broke down. Shoppers slipped around us and avoided our section of the store while we sobbed. When the moment passed, and it always passes, we resumed shopping, a little freaked out by the spectacle we’d become.
Of course, our friends in Sandy Hook have endured much, much worse. In addition to the loss of their child, they’ve been called puppets by the gun lobby and crisis actors by conspiracy loons. At a time when they’ve been at their most vulnerable, they’ve been attacked.
Artist and writer Karen Green can relate. Her book, Bough Down, published by Siglio, is an elegy for her husband, the much-loved writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008.
Green, a visual artist who works in a variety of media, has come under fire by the kooks and cranks who troll online comments sections of popular portals and websites. Green writes, “Strangers feel free to email: Nobody knew you before your husband took his life.”
Green turns this cruel and callous dagger into a hallucinatory riff that drains the barb of its venom and turns it into something revelatory. In Bough Down, she blends striking miniature collages with dreams, vignettes and recollections distorted by the unreliability of her memories and addled by the drugs her doctor urges her to call meds.
It is a work concerned not so much with tragedy but its aftermath, an intense period when one’s senses are heightened, laughter erupts through tears and every impression leaves a mark: “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound.”
This is precisely the kind of worry that makes people uncomfortable. Bring it up too often and the worrier will get that “We’re concerned about you” look that leads to late-night phone calls, increased dosages, a reality ravined. It’s easier to submit to the pharmacological voodoo that is 21st-century mental healthcare, which seldom works and fails to address the fundamental problem: that which others would prefer to be left unsaid cannot be unthought.
Green, thankfully, has other options. By expressing her grief through words and images, she transmutes the experience into art. The results are nothing short of shattering.
“Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of its cavity.”
With cutting prose (“It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly”) and haunting imagery, Bough Down is a palimpsest of sorrow. It is a portrait seen through a funeral veil, a fragmented collage of a past that wasn’t what it seemed and a future that never will be.
“Sentences have been highlighted just to demolish me when I find them. I will find them for years.”
When her husband died, Green’s loss was compounded by the adoring fans who clamored for answers and shaped what they could get into a narrative that assuaged the loss of the books they would never get to read. In Bough Down, Green takes the grief back and makes it indelibly her own.

“The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.” - Jim Ruland

Part memoir, part artist’s book, “Bough Down” is Karen Green’s chronicle of the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace, and of her own mourning. It is a delicate vellum-covered object, in which narrative scenes are interspersed with abstract collages (most of them not much larger than a postage stamp and some made out of actual stamps). Ms. Green turns out to be a profoundly good writer: “Bough Down” is lovely, smart and funny, in addition to being brutally clear and sad.
The suicide, by hanging, occurs early on, and most of the book concerns its aftermath, including Ms. Green’s time being treated for depression under the care of the same “fallible doctor” who had treated her husband and in the same psychiatric institution, where “no longer do I wear the Visitor’s patch above my heart.” Anonymous characters move ghost-like through her life—the “support guys,” the “doppelganger widow”—but the story always returns to her own grief and loss. Although she does not mention Wallace anywhere by name, Ms. Green draws him with such specificity and care that his presence is everywhere palpable. She did not lose a generic husband or a famous writer; she lost the particular man whose “legs were elegant,” who did, as he called it, “the dumb verb of journaling,” and who said things like, “Honey, you smell agathokakological” (containing both good and evil).
This eye for specificity is one of Ms. Green’s strengths, whether she is depicting the disaffecting mood of the hospital (“In a corner, a cluster of lab coats made lunch plans”) or, bluntly, the scene of her husband’s death (“I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down”). Even when the prose turns impressionistic, it arrives at an image or emotion that is startlingly clear: “There is a church bell in town made out of the mortared skulls of everyone who ever had a migraine. At night I know where the sound comes from, how it was born and where in the body it reverberates. Every hour on the hour it tells me what I did and do wrong: You did not see that cloud or that fluttering lid as portents, you did not decipher the acrostics, you left the house, you live in the past, you left the house.”

Perhaps most impressive about “Bough Down” is that, despite the poetic pitch of its language, it refuses to poeticize its subject. It does not resolve into pure despondency, on the one hand, or redemptive hope, on the other. Instead, Ms. Green registers the complexity of grief and in the process makes something beautiful out of the saddest stuff in the world. - Martin Riker

10/25/13

Felix de Azua - Mordantly funny, at times horrifying, always invigorating. Through eight months of dense diary entries, it recounts the distractions of an apparently mediocre man in post-Franco Barcelona who embraces banality and drifts on the tide of the city. But the diarist's piercing irony keeps his descent a sharply told, energetically written tour that sometimes resembles a Baedeker of the underworld as edited by James Joyce




Felix de Azua, Diary Of A Humiliated Man, Trans. by Julie Jones, Brookline Books, 1996. 

This work presents eight months in the life of a hopelessly banal individual, told in the form of increasingly disjointed notebook entries -entries that detail episodes of drunkenness, minor crime, minor sex, acerbic ruminations on liturature and the protagonist's inability to create anything more than his own dissolution.
Diary of a Humiliated Man ultimately rises above the moral squalor in which it is mired. It is, in the narrator's own words, "a modest book full of hope."


Selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the Best Books of 1996.
Mordantly funny, at times horrifying, always invigorating, the first novel of this Spanish writer to appear in English benefits from a supple translation by Jones. Through eight months of dense diary entries, it recounts the distractions of an apparently mediocre man in post-Franco Barcelona who embraces banality and drifts on the tide of the city. But the diarist's piercing irony keeps his descent a sharply told, energetically written tour that sometimes resembles a Baedeker of the underworld as edited by James Joyce. Orphaned and living on a small inheritance, the narrator finds himself drifting to the sleazy night life of the Ramblas, where he encounters former mentors and eventually adopts a new one: an enigmatic usurer known as the Chinaman. Their relationship moves from adversarial to oddly co-dependent, as the diarist experiments with crime, slides into squalor and madness, is rescued by a jailhouse vision of materialism and an apotheosis of sex, has a final reckoning with his alter ego and ends up reconciled with his voice?the diary itself. This modern picaresque is a bracing change from the sometimes banal freeways of current American fiction. - Publishers Weekly

In de Azua's first novel available in English, a man "with pretensions to banality" spends his time reading, wandering the streets of Barcelona, drinking, thinking, having aimless sexual and underworld encounters, and recording his observations in a diary. Thankfully, because many readers would probably be happy to trade lives with him, the narrator does not descend into self-pity. Recalling Camus's The Fall (1956) and many works by Nabokov that have an erudite first-person narrator, the book resembles many other novels about superfluous antiheroes. Its narrator, however, is unpretentious, witty without being stagy, and tenderly satiric. Another plus are the well-translated, insightful descriptions of Barcelona and its society. This book was winner of Spain's Premio Herralde Prize in 1987. Recommended for informed readers. - Eric Howard, Library Journal

S: Semaines de Suzanne - The mix of American and French writers collaborating on S. concoct a humorous and beautiful exquisite corpse, or rather exquisite S., who embraces absurdity, black humor, and beauty—the perfect surrealist woman who fears neither sex nor the bohemian lifestyle

S. A Novel

Harry Mathews, Jean Echenoz, Mark Polizzotti, Florence Delay, Olivier Rolin, Sonja Greenlee, & Patrick Deville, S: Semaines de Suzanne, Brookline Books, 1997. [1991.]

"A joyful exercise in style by seven authors in total complicity." Le Monde    S., written in collaboration by a group of American and French writers, is at once a challenging literary collage and a novel of rare elegance and depth. With pathos, humor, and sheer verbal inventiveness, it imagines the extraordinary life and times of Suzanne—or Susie, or Susana, or Sue—an uncommonly resourceful woman who finds herself by turns the catalyst of a brutal murder, the obsession of a fanatical avant-garde poet, and the leader of a Cuban contraband ring. Although each of its seven episodes is by a different hand, the story retains a remarkable unity; the enigmatic Suzanne, seen in a variety of perspectives and fictional styles, emerges as an engagingly human, wholly unforgettable character.  Suzanne's story is a nonetheless checkered one: In Patrick Deville's bittersweet version, she is a Lolita exploring her nascent sexuality with a down-and-out magician. For Jean Echenoz, she is a young hellion in a particularly sordid band of delinquents. Sonja Greenlee envisions her in a moment of religious crisis, while Mark Polizzotti casts her as the muse of an insane literary rivalry. And in Harry Mathews's madcap finale, our heroine runs afoul of a haplessly vengeful ex-husband. An international cause celebre, S. has been translated into French, German, and Japanese. Now, its publication in English brings to America one of the most original and exhilarating novels of recent years.   "The mix of American and French writers collaborating on S. concoct a humorous and beautiful exquisite corpse, or rather exquisite S., who embraces absurdity, black humor, and beauty—the perfect surrealist woman who fears neither sex nor the bohemian lifestyle and whose identity is not mired in her ego but rather in fate, coincidence and love ... [S.] serves as a wonderful introduction to unfamiliar writers, as well as a delightful romp all its own." Rain Taxi 


Suzanne (aka Susie, Suze, Anna) is a wanted woman--wanted, that is, by men from Belgium to Cuba in these seven fast-paced vignettes from seven authors. Each chronicles another moment in the sly, petite brunette's eventful life, including her careers as thug, litterateuse and seductress, her religious crisis and a near-death experience as she drifts from country to country, year to year. She comes to life most vividly in Deville's ""Hocus-Pocus"" (the account of 13-year-old Susie's digital deflowering at the hands of a down-and-out magician) and in Mathews's (The Conversions; Cigarettes) encrypted tale of unrequited conjugal love, ""The Quevedo Cipher."" These disjointed fragments of a life story differ enough in tone and focus that, together, they tell less about Suzanne than about the varieties of passion she inspires. Why she inspires it is something of a mystery. A string of stock descriptions ( ""Her large eyes were blue and pleading"" etc.) and comparisons to Bonnie Parker make Suzanne seem only the latest in a long line of boilerplate femmes fatales bred and raised by cliche: she's beautiful, ruthless, tight-lipped about her past. But this kaleidoscopic chronicle has its own heady appeal, and the abrupt shifts in voice and style, its very disjointedness, may be the only way to communicate the unhinging effect of a woman who lives so completely in the shadow of her own sex appeal. (Sept.) FYI: S. was published in French in 1991 by Les Editions de Minuit. - Publishers Weekly

10/23/13

Chris Tysh newly translates Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, compressing Jean Genet’s disturbing 1943 novel into cuttingly charged verse









Chris Tysh, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, Les Figues Press, 2013.

In Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, Chris Tysh newly translates Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, compressing Jean Genet’s disturbing 1943 novel into cuttingly charged verse. In the blue hours of the Parisian underworld, pimps, drag queens, and butchers in bloody aprons are joined by Divine, Mignon Dainty-Feet, and the young assassin Our Lady, three saintly figures in a forbidden realm of the senses. Tysh cuts Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic into a ghostly song that traces the path from prose to lyric where Divine switches gender and names “as if passing under a scarlet awning.” Suturing sexual otherness to an aching of gendered expectations, Tysh’s cadences embrace postmodernism’s emblematic penchant for all manner of appropriation, and recycling finds a radical iteration in the fashion of fairies, queens, and stool pigeons.

“…like Genet, Tysh is something of a snake charmer, or the snake itself? — lyricism unfolding kaleidoscopically, extending emotions and meanings, fastening this mouse/reader to the spot.”  - Robert Glück

 ’In the game of self-contempt / I’ve become a master.’ In 1967 the middle-aged married men of the Australian Customs Department seized my copy of Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and burnt it to cinders. Nearly half a century later, US poet Chris Tysh has brought it back from that incineration, petal by petal, stained and transfigured. She has taken the French prose of Our Lady of the Flowers and retranslated it with all its monstrous selfishness into a pale and glowing poetry. There is no philosophy or politics in Genet, just specific acts of thievery and brutality, as well as cupids and altars and betrayals and masturbation made luminous by conversion into metaphor. Tysh has transubstantiated even this. This volume of verse, played over by a flickering ghostly flame, is perhaps the book that Genet meant to write, had he the gift for verse, before the Parisian intellectuals got to him…From pulp novels to the angels in heaven, from sodom to the royal family, from “gloom’s infernal ruckus” to a silent field of flowers, Tysh drags her wounded poem.”  John Tranter

As the second installment of her three part project titled Hotel des Archives, Chris Tysh took up the bold task of versifying Jean Genet’s hallucinatory first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. The original novel, as Jean-Paul Sartre implies in his introduction, is already on the brink of being poetry itself: “Are we so far from poetry? Can it be that poetry is only the reverse side of masturbation?” Tysh, whether knowingly or not, explores this very question through the creation of this work.
The structure of the poetic translation restricts itself to two seven lined stanzas per page, a form with traces of the sonnet. And like Wordsworth said in “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” those who “felt the weight of too much liberty/Should find brief solace there,” in the confines of the sonnet. It was, after all, in the ultimate form of confinement—prison—where Genet, left all to himself, found the inspiratory pressure to extricate the original work out of his mind and onto brown prison paper. However, the original, in all its poetic imagination did not have the compressed punch that regulated poetry is able to deliver, at least not throughout the entire work. Rather, the original novel reads as if trudging through the muck of Genet’s subconscious desires in order to find anything worth building metaphysical meaning out of. What Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic succeeds in doing is adding further restraint onto the original text in order to pull out the skeletal story of the original novel, which is the story, metaphorically—through a constant changing and killing off of self—of becoming an artist.
The characters in Genet’s original version are nearly empty figures (with the exception of Divine) who allow the reader to input his or her own projected experience of others into them. As one of the earliest attempts of modern queer debauchery, its form is ephemeral, hazy, experienced in the realm of spirits more so than in convention. In Echoic we get more of a straightforward narrative of events, aiding a reader of the original through this poet’s perspective on the novel. The original is, after all, highly open to interpretation, and like the scene where Genet lies in his prison cell and imagines “the hundred Jean Genets glimpsed in a hundred passers-by,” this poetic translation acts, as suggested in the title, as an echo or reflection of the original work. So naturally, some aspects may be left out, altered, and perhaps even heightened.
One particular triumph of Echoic is the calming pace verse imposes on the novel. The same haunting imagery is present, but now in a format that allows for easier focus and digestion of potently translated scenarios. This sharpening of the original sometimes makes for more accessibility, but, of course, leaves out some of Genet’s personal quirks as narrator. Let’s compare the standard Bernard Frechtman translation to Chris Tysh’s new one.
Let us say now that her carnal pleasures never made her fear the wrath of God, the scorn of Jesus, or the candied disgust of the Holy Virgin, never until Gabriel spoke about them to her, for as soon as she recognized the presence within her of seeds of these fears (divine wrath, scorn, disgust), Divine made of her loves a god above God, Jesus, and the Holy Virgin, to whom they were submissive like everyone else, whereas Gabriel, despite his fiery temperament, which often makes his face turn red, feared Hell, for he did not love Divine.
This paragraph gets condensed and altered into about four lines in Tysh’s version:
Let’s say she never feared God, Jesus
Nor the Holy Virgin, not like their wrath,
Contempt for her brand of loving
Until Gabriel makes the scene. I see him
Walking down a street, almost running
Bumping into D as the doorbell rings twice
Above the little candy store he’s ducked into
Rather than getting dismissed by the term, the original Our Lady of the Flowers is one of the few texts aided by the description ‘masturbatory’ toward an understanding the author’s intentions. The intricacies of Genet’s revealing and fetish-filled details in this conversion to poetry take a backseat to a more fluid, less tangential moving of action. The mania of the original gets smoothed into a tamer, tauter replica, as if the original were the muse itself, and Echoic its chiseled offspring.
Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic acts as a great complement to the original novel. It provides just as good a reason as any to revisit an aging classic that confounded and disrupted the form of the novel by not so much refusing, but radically ignoring standards of beauty that lied outside the sordidness of a confined individual psyche, one illuminated by Genet’s rabid imagination. As a supplement, it highlights, using the restraints of verse and Tysh’s dedicated familiarity with the text, the sequence of actions that go muddled and perhaps overlooked on a first read of the original text. -

Josef Kaplan - the poem presents us with 68 pages of alphabetized poets’ names, grouped in sets of four, each identified as ‘rich’ or ‘comfortable’

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Josef Kaplan, Kill List, Cars Are Real, 2013.
Available as
PDF 


It’s been a big year for lists in poetry. I don’t feel at all threatened or the least bit offended by Josef Kaplan’s most recent Kill List. In fact, it’s hard for me to believe anyone out there really would be. Flavorwire and Seth Abramson offended me much more. But of course, I am an oh-so jaded rich poet myself, and it’s the grandmas and granddads of U.S. Conceptual Poetry who have jaded me already. I have one urgent critique of Kaplan’s poem: and it’s that the work comes off as didactic, transparently so. And to argue for this transparency as a virtue in itself undermines the integrity of conceptualism as a vanguard movement worth rooting for in contemporary poetry. Maybe I care too much. But why not make the poem a hundred pages longer? Slam Poetry is similarly didactic…something like Elliot Darrow’s “God Is Gay” which was written up in Time magazine earlier this month. Both Darrow and Kaplan espouse a kind of viral poetics to provoke discussions about classism, racism/sexism etcetera. Darrow is a high-school thespian in North Carolina; Kaplan is part of a comfortable community of poets living in Brooklyn, N.Y. With Kaplan, it’s a witty uncreative self-awareness sharpened to a lethal edge. It’s a necessary prank, a deliberate faux pas; a pot shot at our naked emperor and his provincial court of intramural poesies. But it’s not enough.
The exciting thing Kill List accomplishes is its unique perpetuation across various comment streams and blogs online. In its first week, there have been some hilarious moments of response…one person arguing that so & so isn’t a rich poet because they only recently received tenure and the National Book Award, for instance. Some people are upset. Yes, the romantic idyll of the starving poet in a garret is entirely defunct. The trouble is that if someone is a poet and you know about them outside of your own inter-personal sphere, they’re mostly likely rich, because so much poetry is and always has been (not without the occasional, glorious exception…) for the most part conceived by and for an owning majority class. So much poetry is just like potpourri.
Here’s an attempt at close reading my favorite section of Kaplan’s poem. This stanza appears towards the end on page fifty-eight:
“Ron Silliman is comfortable.
Justin Sirois is comfortable.
Matthew Smith is comfortable.
Patti Smith is a rich poet.”
Patti Smith is a rich poet, no doubt…and an example of the constantly warping conception of what constitutes poetic labor (an oxymoron?) or what makes someone a poet, wtf is poetic. All poetry mocks the bourgeois idea of production, viz.: how much labor must one put into something for it to have any value. Anybody can do it, so therefore any poem is inherently subversive. A poem that’s no more than twenty words may win awards on a grand scale—never mind how long the poet claims it took them to write—just as they could rattle off an epic fifty-page poem in a matter of days. The poet’s “craft” so-called may reside more in their delivery, the cultivation of a persona, or some underlying concept forming the bedrock of everything they do.
Poet John Latta wrote on his blog Isola Di Rifuti in 2009 about “the insidious People-magazinification” of the little avant-garde poetry magazines he was receiving at that time from fellow poets, young and old, new and inveterate:
“[What] is it about this particular moment that sees the arrival of Lana Turner and Abraham Lincoln and Gerry Mulligan? (Trying to think of others, I do recall a Roy Rogers some years ago—and a Frank and a Marilyn and there’s Arshile still, presumably.)
All those magazines were/are still for the most part edited produced and disseminated by respective communities of poets. Needless to say, any layman potential non-poet reader will have a hard time finding them online unless they specify, for instance: “Lana Turner poetry” or better yet “Lana Turner poetry magazine”. And that particular title is a literary reference to an old pop cultural reference…way back to Frank O’Hara, who was indeed commenting outright on the just-as-insidious, albeit irresistible cult of celebrity in the late 1950s surrounding actress Lana Turner with his famous poem about her collapse.
Seth Abramson alluded to this phenomenon of poets preaching to the choir in his introduction to the Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry list on Huffington Post. But his intentions for making this list were unclear. He shot himself in the foot with the disclaimer: “Everyone has their own pantheon of favorite poets, cadres, mentors, and poet-friends…” He encouraged people to add to the list, as long as nobody used it as an opportunity to shamelessly promote their own clique, magazine, university lit department, reading series or borough of New York City:
“…lists of top poets and angry responses to such lists have the same net effect: to define poetry as a series of geographic sub-units or highly-circumscribed sub-communities, all of which are largely self-sufficient and self-contained, and therefore do little to directly promote American poetry as a national cultural phenomenon.”
Abramson’s list did something to promote its’ creator as a national cultural phenomenon, and in an only slightly more provocative way, so does Kaplan’s. Abramson casts himself as Paul Revere in the rapidly unfolding drama of poetry’s survival in the mainstream. The redcoats are the poetry haters. A lot of people don’t care about poetry because a lot of poets don’t care about people who don’t care. Or if they do, their way of caring is by writing poems with titles like “Accept Me” courtesy of their local MFA program.
Kaplan is more on the side of the provocateur, trying to dismantle the machine from the inside. It’s still the most natural way a poet can survive at first, by writing for and about the other poets nearest to him/her, sharing work and creating new distribution networks. The one saving grace of the Top 200 seemed to be its’ potential application as a teaching tool, a treasure trove for any classroom setting or the web-crawling autodidact. All lists are inevitably exclusive, as many commentators on the Huffington stream pointed out, but Abramson’s also begged the question: Who are the other people he must be thinking of? Who are these poets/non-poets who are doing the hypothetical opposite of advocating for poetry (a dubious notion in itself, along with “serving poetry” or “allies of poetry”) who has placed it in peril, via a lack of effort or harmful effort(s)? Is there an Axis of Poetry?!
If you want to read a novel you find one and it’s generally understood you’re engaging with the novelist by appreciating that they have spent a certain number of hours on the many pages that constitute their work. That is traditional creative writing. You defer to their author-ity. So a poet’s authority is mutable. Poetry proposes a fundamental non-hierarchical relationship between reader and writer. The writer of the poem is never pre-determined as that much more of an authority on the work than its reader. This is why there’s such a thing as a love poem, and no love novels, no love essays, no love dissertations or lectures. We’re desperate, get used to it. It’s kiss or kill. - Ben Tripp


This new Kill List poem by Josef Kaplan is easily the best work of conceptual poetry I’ve seen in a long time. I’m an expressionist, not a conceptualist. But let’s face it, conceptualism, as Inger Christensen would say, ‘exists’. This particular conceptualist poem works for me because it invites us to consider an idea, and invites us to turn that idea over and over for as long as the idea interests us. Then it invites us to delete the idea. This is a great poem for FaceBook, for conversations heatedly engaged upon and then abandoned because other pressures such as the need to sleep or shop or nuke a burrito became more compelling. The deleting is part of the ‘reading’. This concept will self-destruct. Unlike a drone.
A Multipoint Array
As for the concept: we are introduced to the phrase Kill List, which for most nice liberal American poetry readers will conjure ideas of drone warfare or revolutionary violence or the opposite of a no-kill shelter or some kind of fatal indexing. Then the poem presents us with 68 pages of alphabetized poets’ names, grouped in sets of four, each identified as ‘rich’ or ‘comfortable’.  Like, ‘Caroline Bergvall is rich’ and ‘Jim Behrle is comfortable’.
One senses that this ranking of the poets into the dubious bourgeois or ultra-bourgeois categories is the bait we’re supposed to gobble up. And yet. I just read Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, in Susana Nied’s translation, last week with some students, and I can’t help but focus on that ‘is’.
‘Kill List’ could be read as a litany, it could be reading off a library shelf. The indexical adjustments of ‘comfortable’ and ‘rich’ have a nice, well, ‘comfortable’ sixties feel to them, a now- out-of-touchness, a vagueness. Like ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’– as expressions of acute political crisis, kind of sweet. In our current context, these could be financial terms or refer to perceived social assets or even how interested the author feels in these poets–or it could be random. As 2 goes into four (ie the binary of rich/comfortable into the 4 line stanza), there is also the alphabetical order itself. Sweet old alphabetical order. Humans made you, and humans love you. But nothing humans make is innocent. Not even orders of knowledge.  Moreover we are invited to read these 68 pages as a computer would, scanning for names (names are the only element that changes), data mining an index for names we recognize. Like a drone-operator or a drone. Attention or recognition here is itself weaponized.
This is where I link Kill List to Inger Christensen. ... read more -

Josef Kaplan’s Kill List, which has recently sparked a bit of controversy, is designed to make a point. Because a list of names coupled with economic statuses (limited to “rich” or “comfortable”) certainly isn’t a stylistic masterpiece. Joyelle McSweeney gives a reading that is appreciative of the poem’s formal strategies, and I can dig it, but on the other hand, once you come up with the concept, it’s a matter of copying and pasting, and there you go. It’s a conceptual poem — it is what it is in that regard.
But on the level of meaning, such as that is, is the notion that poets too are imbricated in the capitalist system in which we all live really so shocking? This should be obvious. Given the perplexed reaction to this book from some quarters, however, maybe it isn’t obvious for everybody. So, point taken; it’s a good reminder.
What defines “rich” or “comfortable,” though?  Clearly, Kaplan’s judgments are arbitrary. And what about the poets who truly are “poor” or “struggling”? — because they certainly exist too.  Apparently they don’t deserve to be on a kill list. Only the relatively well-off do. So it’s not so much about poets per se as it is about class. Kaplan seems on one level to suggest that the middle and upper classes deserve to be offed. Obviously, this is tongue in cheek — he doesn’t literally believe this — and so there is a degree of parody of class warfare being iterated here, and probably a comment on “kill lists” in general, perhaps with reference to covert government operations in a time of war (something McSweeney also notes).
So, okay, poets are part of the system, just like everybody is. And in the bigger picture, our conceptions of class and empire need to be continually questioned. Got it. Here’s the thing, though. You would think that anybody on this “list,” as affable and accepting and willing to take a joke as he or she may be, or as willing to be fodder for a valid rhetorical point, etc. — you would think that any person is going to resent being on a “kill list,” no matter how conceptual or satiric it’s supposed to be. I’m not on it of course, because I’m not well-known enough to be on Kaplan’s radar, which is fine with me. But speaking as a living human being, I think anyone on anybody’s kill list, real or fake, is going to think, Fuck You. - Mike Begnal

Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature , Ed. by Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018. "If there were a...