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National Poetry Month Special

Jillian Weise; God's Silence by Franz Wright; Arguments for Stillness by Erik Campbell

Translating the Body
by Jillian Weise
All Nations Press, February 2006, 44 pages, $10.00

With a book of poems about an amputee, we might get hung up on what isn't there rather than what is, the out-of-the-ordinary hijacking the writing into novelty, the subject matter hogging the reader's attention, and the balance between language and experience veering towards sensationalist voyeurism.

That's part of the confessionalist-fallout we still suffer in American poetry. That cluster in the mid-20th century - Plath, Sexton, Ginsberg, Lowell, Berryman -- took the plunge into experience that wasn't overlooked so much as it was taboo: mental illness, substance abuse, sexuality. Since then, we've had plenty of poets embrace this sense of freedom to produce material that is interesting, necessary, and valuable for the poet himself, but not necessarily so for the reader.

Jillian Weise ain't like that. Her command of language, the precision of pacing, transitions, and her refusal to overplay her subject matter are what make her first chapbook, Translating the Body, worthwhile. It is this very discipline which gives the book what is ironically lacking from most yawping, teeth-gnashing heartists: life. While some might find melodrama and self-pity here, and the "Nona" poems have an eternally fuzzy backstory, I'm most impressed by the voice: there are few current American poets (Tony Hoagland, Ai, Sharon Olds) that write about such difficult subject matter with such a steady hand.

She opens with definitions of "translate", one being "to carry or convey to heaven without death", establishing the notion that the body is more than this flesh and blood that we feel ourselves feel; it is part-vehicle, an instrument of transcendence. She often frames experience as fragments, occupying a kind of double/nether world, revealing what is both above and below surfaces, as in "Below Water":

Behind the beach house, I stand
on one leg with club foot dangling,

ribs concealed by a red swimsuit.
We used to strip bare, until I caught

you staring at the railroad tracks
along my spine, and I thought

Mine, mine. Above water, only faces.
Below water, I kick one and a half

legs, pretend to be a mermaid.
I wish we could always be

a horizon of faces, hidden bodies.

Weise weighs the conflict between intimacy and artificiality, expectation and reality; while the speaker grapples with her situation, her lovers and strangers almost all tip-toe around the fact -- even when they probably mean well, they reveal a profound ignorance (one says, "I love you/despite your leg").

The provocatively titled opener, "The Amputee's Guide to Sex" (also the title of Weise's full-length collection due out in 2007 from Soft Skull Press), is a three-part prose poem: "Removal of Prosthetic", "Foreplay", and "Sex". While it's a somewhat predictable how-to, it charts the entire work's arc: the removal of artifice/compensation, a seeking of acute awareness, culminating in a union of what simply is.

This chapbook is focused, daring, and evenly pitched. While a few poems creak after re-reading, and I'm still lost by those "Nona" poems, most display a rare balance between intensity of experience and integrity of language.

Andy Fogle Amazon

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God's Silence
by Franz Wright
Knopf, March 2006, 140 pages, $24.00
"I'll be damned. You're a poet. Welcome to hell."
-- James Wright, in a letter to teenage son Franz

Franz Wright does some ballsy work. He writes poems that matter, deeply, for anyone who has ever struggled with depression, psychosis, substance abuse, suicide, the questions death leaves unanswered, or the questions death asks. He's worked at a mental health center and an organization that serves kids who have lost a parent. This isn't any surprise, given Wright's past of mental illness, addiction, and the father-shadow of monumental American poet James Wright, but he has managed to find redemption in a newly embraced Catholicism, his wife Beth, and -- I'd argue -- his work.

I'm grateful for the necessity of his poetry, that voice about as urgent and honest as any I know of in America, confronting the mind and its world in all its ugliness and beauty, wrestling with the self and spirit, at once particular and archetypal, capable of both self-destruction and grace.

Somehow, the "classic" Wright poem compresses all that vastness and intensity into 10 or 20 lines, and it's this very tension between the miniature and the endless which makes Wright, at his best, arguably the most compelling and literally inspiring poet publishing today. His work is even more frightening for how often it is maxed out.

I am glad he is alive, glad he is writing, and glad a poet like him won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, but damn this new book is long.

Of the four sections (92 poems) of God's Silence, only the second one flies. They might move in some arc, as one critic proposes, from bottoming out to acknowledgement to recovery to aftermath, but I can't help armchair-wondering about the potential brilliance of a 46-poem book, made mostly of section two.

There are the sequence-poems, the dedications (fellow poets, wife Beth), those with some meta-poetic nod to the moment of composition, and the translation-trampolines, where Wright is most superficially like his dad and Robert Bly: translations, imitations, or appropriations of non-English-language poets like Rilke, Issa, Celan, Reverdy, Char, and Lorca. I feel like some kind of sinner to shrug off the work of someone I admire so much, but after awhile, most of this reads like just another bunch of poems, someone browsing through their notebooks.

"A Word for Joy" seems typically limp, beginning with lyrical urgency, then dwindling into reflective exposition. Like most poets, I'm biased towards the former, but bias aside, Wright is simply stronger with the former, and does the latter far too often, so that even the leitmotif "I have heard God's silence like the sun" gets plain old, carrying far less weight than Elie Wiesel's initial utterance of "the silence of God is God."

But he'll also hit us with something exquisitely brutal like "The Heaven":

I lived as a monster, my only
hope is to die like a child.
In the otherwise vacant
and seemingly ceilingless

vastness of a snowlit Boston

church, a voice
said: I
can do that --

if you ask me, I will do it
for you.

Here is extraordinary poetry I won't ignore: the conscientiously ragged line and stanza breaks, enjambment's surprise, the remarkably lucid voice fusing a scholar's taste with an underdog's spit, the isolation of phrases and sounds to highlight music or thought's extra jab -- there is plenty of Wright's nimble bludgeoning here, and much fuel for astonishment. There is also a lot to be read once -- and only once.

Andy Fogle Amazon

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Arguments for Stillness
by Erik Campbell
Curbstone Press/Rattle Magazine, April 2006, 90 pages, $13.95
"My advice: Don't enter these poems if you want to exit unchanged." o exit unchanged."
-- The first sentence in Nebraska State Poet (and former Campbell teacher) William Kloefhorn's foreword

That, dear readers, is bullshit.

I know it's a bad sign when one of the first places a reader flips is the author bio and photo, but it's a worse sign when it reads, "He has never won a literary award, but he does have a snappy collection of antique typewriters and comic books, both of which are currently languishing in his in-laws' basement in Elwood, Nebraska. He hopes to retrieve them someday". Cute.

This sort of eclectic hipster jive makes up the majority of Erik Campbell's first book, which is full of winking asides, a self-congratulatory trophy case of epigraphs and allusions (Rilke, Protagorus, Beckett, the Stones, Nietzsche, Stephen Dobyns, Thomas Mann, Hamlet, Tantalus, Aristotle), a few obligatory jabs at the writing life (including one on epigraphs, notes on typeface, publishing), and the occasional F-bomb.

This adds up to more static than sting. Campbell is far from a hermetic poet, but with so much flagging going on, the resulting tone is oddly insular. Odd, given the agenda is right there in the book's first epigraph by Charles Baxter: "What's remarkable is the degree to which Americans have distrusted silence and its parent condition, stillness [...]. The daydreaming child, or daydreaming adult, is usually an object of contempt or therapy". I recall being simultaneously attracted to and suspicious of this ironically either/or face-off: the frenetically fucked-up American society versus the ostracized, wise child-mind.

There is plenty of daydreaming and what-if business going on: "When waiting for anything or to fill in / The silent spaces standing in any kind of line, / I'll open my wallet and pretend it's a dead man's"; Gregor Samsa's father drunkenly bemoans his circumstances to a bar full of men; a chain of reverie springs from the sight of a woman crying on a payphone; a Frankenstein movie infiltrates dreams.

But there's little of that stillness and silence we're promised. Poem after poem sprawls onto a second page, heavy with exposition and a sort of reclining narrative, often with similarly structured last sentences that feel overpracticed, as well as the aforementioned overdose of footnote-craving material -- after awhile, we've got a serious jones for the bone of a haiku.

It's a shame because there is good work here. The poems involving Southeast Asia have some of the more important moments: "There are some sins / So egregious / That they can create / A god". Later, the upper class stare at "A jungle full of trees / That they can't name / And so can truly see"). "Cat, Man, God" is a superb balance of a contemporary family, ancient history, and animal instinct. It compels from first line to last, the only poem to do so in this cluttered collection.

Andy Fogle Amazon

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