Some recent poetry books

language is, John Phillips (Sardine Press, $10)
One Day And How It Was, Theodore Enslin (Granite Press)
Interrogation Palace. New and Selected Poems 1982-2004, David Wojahn
     (University of Pittsburgh, $14)
The Pitch, Tom Thompson (Alice James, $14 )
Little White Shadow, Mary Ruefle (Wave Books, $12)
Fractal Economies, Derek Beaulieu (Talon, $13.95)

John Phillips' beautiful little book language is contains a set of superb philosophical and imagistic poems which remind me of Robert Creeley's work (though some of my friends have said Cid Corman is nearer the mark). I'll stick to Creeley because the poems seem to me to engage with the idea of thought as it happens, making poetry of the moment, aware of both that making and of the moment.

     to think
     what is
                    I am
     here to
      thought by.

says one untitled piece (in its entirety). Another gets to the absolute heart of the matter:

     the time
                    it takes
        to read
                 a poem
     is it

Fantastic! Here is someone entranced by, and with, the fact that language is how we engage with the world, and delighting in the possibilities that that engagement offers. Here is someone making very personal yet universal work. It isn't, by the way, all poetry about poetry, there's plenty of imagistic and observational writing here too.

John Phillips runs Granite Press in St Ives and produces exquisite hand-sewn editions. Thedore Enslin's recent pamphlet
One Day And How It Was continues to explore the lyrical sequence which he has specialised in for many years. The twelve short sections gradually accumulate and react with & against each other, boldly stating halfway through that 'There is a magic in this world'. Enslin's work reminds me of the music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich (as well as the poetry of John Taggart), a comparison perhaps reinforced by the last section's declaration that

     It is never finished
     what it does not begin
     the ends are only timing
     and there is no time

It may be 'only' timing, but what timing! Enslin and Granite Press deserve to be better known.

A different kind of music features in David Wojahn's
Interrogation Palace. In 'Mystery Train (A Sequence)', which is my favourite section of this chunky book, music is a springboard for narrative, social comment, fiction and digression. In the selections reprinted here The Sex Pistols rub shoulders with Elvis Presley, who is featured in a painting, as Janis Joplin boards the train of the sequence title, and Bob Dylan visits Woody Guthrie in hospital, causing the nurse to grit her teeth as he sings. Whether apocyrphal or based on true stories, it's an intriguing sequence, which ends with the bizarre image of John Lennon endlessly getting shot in a waxworks museum tableau.

This particular series is unusual for Wojahn: although he often starts poems with, or at least includes, well-known images and events, the poems tend to circle back to the personal and experiental. They, thankfully, manage to avoid narrative and overblown epiphany, although
the moment is often explored, and how that affects the narrator and those around them, often in a dry philosophical way, which occasionally is too mannered for my taste. There are a few more experimental poems in the collection, usually consisting of spread out phrases and lines, with asterixes between them; occasionally annotated in the margins. Presumably the authors wants us to focus on these individual lines, but since they more often than not flow from the last and on to the next it is difficult to see why. Elsewhere in the section of new poems, there is outspoken political comment on USA warmongering and Bush, which is good to read but will, I suspect, date; a superb poem about Blind Willie Johnson; and an excellent short piece about playing scrabble at an airport. Wojahn is a new name to me, but I'm pleased to have made the acquaintance of his work.

Tom Thompson's The Pitch is not to do with musical pitch, but territorial, or defined space (as in pitching tents, or 'my pitch'). The poems are more abstract and play with syntax and juxtaposition in an intriguing manner, although you occasionally get clunkers of lines like 'The police set about their work so tenderly! Like dolls built to simulate laughter.' ('A Fillip. A Fandango.') As an opening line this makes me want to turn the page very quickly,  but  most of the work is much more developed and imagistically and linguistically exciting:

     Sheets of copper and tin coated in a powedery glow. Roof gardens
     blown open stem by stuffed-musket-stem below.

     The daymoon plumps like melon. Even furniture
     falls to its knees in this eclipse. Stretched forth, prostrate to shadow.
               ('After Cheese and Coffee')

     Clatter in the hall announces me here at your stranger door. [...]
               ('Esprit d'Escalier [My Observers]')

     The end is something none expect in any material sense, but it
     came yesterday. Some contained trace of it on the floor of my
     apartment: small, wite, warm but hard at the denter where you'd
     expect it to be soft. [...]
                 ('The End Is Something None Expect')

I warm to this kind of things being made strange, and to the urban disarray (or 'mirrory city') the narrator of most of these poems inhabits and conducts his relationships in. Several poems are facetiously amusing, such as 'Doctored Emerson' which starts with 'Doctor, I'm a clever girl. Could you be my calling?'; others such as 'The Goods' use a more exploded form that makes the reader focus on individual phrases (in a much more succesful manner than Wojahn's previously mentioned poems):

     Let room equal everything       not wall, it rings
     with formless yet distinct harmonies:       traveler's clock
     sugary girders listing     within concrete ideas,
     street sweepers grinding up silence.        Sounds flatten
     the city below to a meadow of seepage,       [...]

This book interests me because of startling lines ('Here you are my nail-thnk boy, all angular fidgets beneath the big red car') not because of the overall success of the poems. If Thompson can get the poems even more consistent and sustained, the work will be even better. As it is, the pitch is uneven and intriguing.

Mary Ruefle's
A Little White Shadow is a beautiful book of found poems. The poet has Tippexed out most of each page of an old book of the same name to find short, often surreal, poems. The original is reprinted in exquisite facsimile. It reminds me of Tom Phillips' A Humument, but this set of texts is less adorned - and all the better for that. If phrases such as 'It / was my duty to keep / the / piano / filled with roses' or 'he / quickly / spoke fluently in many languages / a human humming bird' make you smile (and they do me) then you'll enjoy the fleeting pleasures - tactile, visual and literary - of this neat little book.

Derek Beaulieu's Fractal Economies moves even further into visual territory, Here are collage poems, concrete poems made from badly-applied Letraset (remember Letraset?), diagrams, photocopies, and prints. I want to like it more than I do, but I factually ind this work incredibly difficult to come to as 'poetry' - I'd rather consider it as 'art'. Also, I think that this kind of working practice has been extended and furthered by others far more than Beaulieu seems to be aware of. [Although being one of the editors of the shift & switch anthology I recently reviewed here should have helped.]

Visually, I find some of the work plain naff - I'm particularly unconvinced by the Letraset pieces and the collages. Elsewhere there are some interesting images made from rubbings of plastic letters of some sort and grids of printed marks made, at a guess, by scrunched up paper or plastic. These are my favourites, although I still feel the author/artist hasn't discovered or created his own vocabulary yet. They're simply too coy, too ordinary, too simplistic, to hold my attention. It seems it's the usual problem of makers in one genre not knowing what is going on in other genres. Importing some basic drawing and printmaking processes into visual poetry just isn't good enough for me.

            Rupert Loydell 2006