Barking at the Shape of Air

The Seventh Gesture
, Tsvetanka Elenkova (translated by Jonathan Dunne)
     (89pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Exposition Park
, Roberto Tejada (68pp, $ 22.95, Wesleyan)
Sad Giraffe Cafe
, Richard Gwyn (78pp, 7.99, Arc)

These three books show just some of the interesting possibilities of genre within the form of the prose poem. It is a form which seems to be gaining more recognition in the UK (less regarded as a haven for lazy writers who can't face the challenges of telling a story or creating a poetic structure), even if we are still perhaps in this respect a little way behind America or France or Central Europe.

The work in Tsvetanka Elenkova's The Seventh Gesture
(translated from the Bulgarian by Jonathan Dunne) is most immediately recognizable as sharing the concerns - sex and death (the two intimately connected in Elenkova) - of traditional lyric poetry. It explores everyday lives and close relationships. Which is not to say that it should in any way be confused with much of what passes for poetry in British domestic 'free verse'. There are much stranger angles and greater dimensions in the prose poems of Elenkova: the personal has wide political and ethical implications; the ordinary becomes the surreal and the magical; the smallest private gesture sends waves of resonance throughout a dark, and for the most part, unknowable universe. Elenkova is continually forcing us into new, unexpected directions.  For example, we can see how far she takes us in her reflections, both tender and ironic, on something as simple as 'Passport Photos':

     These severed heads in photos are not so horrific as
     in films. Although they're of our nearest and dearest
     and we carry them in our bags, sleep with them on
     the bedside table, talk to them. In the gloom of the
     church they are not horrific either - they say it's a
     holy place, far from all violence. It must be the
     lack of blood, but for the past and future. Only one
     with the crown of thorns and the closed-open eyes
     frightens me. Observing me from every angle.
     Only the woman who died in a car accident with a
     photo of Our Lady in her bag.

Although thoroughly rooted in the concrete, there is a continual search for a metaphysical meaning combined with an acknowledgement that in the end we each have to make our own meaning, however much this may isolate us from others. It is a meaning which will always be dying and changing: 'You close the eyelids
. Or someone else does. You're the seed of a plant that sows itself alone' (from 'Humility is never enough').  Yet if sometimes 'the faces are missing' ('Olympics'), then there is also hope - 'death also dies' - and a celebration of sensual love, with its physicality tied to the spiritual: 'How sweet is this opening fruit with fingers, when the juice runs down your hands, when the flesh divides, not along the veins' (from 'Why the spirit creates matter').

One of the most admirable aspects of Elenkova's work is the way that she is able to include so much - or perhaps to point outwards to so much - in so few words, while not giving in any way the impression that this compactness is forced or sweated over.  Her writing seems to flow effortlessly, drawing us further into it at each turn of phrase, startling us with its lyrical beauty (without the self-conscious showing off of poetic skills). 

As the translator Jonathan Dunne points out in his fine introduction, Tsvetanka's The Seventh Gesture
helps us to ask those questions we do not dare to ask, even if 'we only begin to see when we learn that we are blind'.  Hopefully, this volume from Shearsman will help bring Tsvetanka the wider English-speaking audience she deserves.

Roberto Tejada's Exposition Park from Wesleyan University Press could not be more different. Instead of a lyrical 'I' or 'you', Tejada uses collage, cutups, found texts, and parody to reveal and undermine the hidden (often unconsciously) political and ethical implications of the language we use. Of course, there is rather a lot of this around at the moment, but Tejada is far more disturbing and provocative than most. Here for example, is what I take to be a straightforwardly 'found' text, which challenges us to think of the unconscious cruelty behind what are simply technical instructions:

     Keep the eel alive until ready to skin.
     Kill it with a sharp blow to the head.
     Slip the noose around the eel's head and hang the other end of the cord on a hook,
         high on the wall.
     Cut the eel skin about 3 inches below the head all around, so as not to
         penetrate the gall bladder, which lies close to the head.
     Peel the skin back, pulling down hard - if necessary with a pair of pliers - until
         the whole skin comes off like a glove.
     Clean the fish by slitting the white belly and removing the gut, which lies
         close to the thin belly skin.

This of course has line breaks and so is not technically a 'prose' poem; yet it is clearly prose chopped into lines. This is typical of Tejada in that he likes to continually explore the boundaries between poetry and prose, to challenge any preconceptions we might have about what a poem can be:

     As a prominent agency with a view both to local and
     global levels, the Art Institute Service Bureau is
     resolved to achieve its object by adherence to the
     highest professional standards in the implementation
     of Controlled Lectures and Walking Tours offered
     to the interpretive community at large. The
     programs and facilities offered by the Bureau are
     for the pleasure and edification of the public [...]
          (from 'Walking Tour').

But this isn't poetry, one might exclaim. And perhaps it isn't. But it is in the sense that as a poem, it seeks to undermine our existing assumptions about 'reality'. In the three-page prose poem 'Walking Tour', Tejada exposes the controlling ideology behind an apparently neutral and functional text - we are startled into considering the realities hidden in language rather than simply the reality which the language claims to describe.

If this all sounds a bit forbidding, I should stress that there is a marvellous playfulness at work here. Phrases are often juxtaposed in funny and absurd combinations, as well as in subversive ways, reminding me at times of Lisa Samuels:

     In dreams a joke
     slips in his
     mouth across
     the room and
     cats off the building
     in fits & starts of
     a gravity about
     the point - or lack
          (from 'Sketchbook')

Tejada is art critic, academic and translator as well as poet. It is clear that none of these is separate from the other for him. Indeed, these roles are all brought to bear in a book of mixed genres and forms (there are also photos and visual poems, for example).  Though it may not be to everyone's taste, Exposition Park
delivers a masterly performance.

The prose poems in Richard Gwyn's Sad Giraffe Cafe from Arc Press take the form of fables, in a manner not dissimilar from Borges or Calvino. Most of these fables are less than a page long and are linked through recurring themes: an imaginary kingdom, a wanderer named Alice and a narrator who explores a past which veers from the streetwise real to dreamlike shifts in perspective.  There is a haunting quality throughout. For example, in one of my favourites, 'On being cool', the narrator nostalgically and ironically remembers an adolescence, which will be strikingly familiar, and then takes us unexpectedly and yet convincingly with a close-up shot into a detail which has all the qualities of a hallucination. There isn't room to quote the piece in full, but here - at the risk of butchering it - is an extract to give you a flavour:

     Do we ever forget the things that shaped us in
     those long days of adolescence and early childhood?
     [...] the slick rolling of joints, and the cavalier
     abandon with which you attempted to carry off
     simple acts, as though nothing, but nothing, was
     a challenge, to your quiet cool [...] not appearing
     too needy so as not to put girls off [...] Carol, 19,
     from Leytonstone, will take you to her bed but
     will not have sex with you [...] you both make it
     to the kitchen where you drink gin and watch a
     spider working its thread above the stripped pine
     table [...] You reach for the spider, scoop it into
     your mouth, wash it down with gin.

Of all three collections, Gwyn's prose poems most resemble short fiction. Yet the narrating 'I' is far more slippery in Gwyn's work than it is in Elenkova's. Part of the fun is in identifying which character is talking in any given piece and temporarily entering that character's world before it slips away into a different space and time. The different voices form a kind of collective, but it is a collective which operates in a dangerously disembodied universe, where we are never free of the past and where we are already haunted by the future. But there are an infinite number of pasts and futures, which are only made real in the telling of them. The Sad Giraffe Cafe

     exists only for as long as and to the extent that we,
     its creators and tenants, re-tell and repeat its story,
     unspooling and re-threading the narrative day after
     day, night after night, replenishing ourselves as well
     as it, the Cafe, with the illusion of its existence
          (from 'Ballad of the Sad Cafe').

Denise Duhamel, explaining the difference between 'flash fiction' and the 'prose poem' says that when we are urged 'to lose control, to dispense with gravity, to bark at the shape of air' we know that we are 'probably in the realm of the prose poem'.  Go on, go and buy one of these books! Bark at the shape of air!

            Ian Seed  2010