The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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MAR 2011 Issue

Rapid Transit

Major Jackson
Holding Company
(W.W. Norton & Company, 2010)

These 10-line poems spin with joy and astonishment. They retain just enough ballast to keep them from lifting off. Adventuresome, they swirl around a very grounded sense of personal myth. The liberating lilt of John Ashbery’s fancy erudition and the surreal romanticism of Pablo Neruda, flash like gold against Major Jackson’s illuminated vignettes.

At the core of the book, lively lists reveal a structural ploy that Jackson exploits, often to impressive effect. “Superfluities” uses the word “this” 16 times as in: “this tattered perishing.” “Fever” is a lament of what-ifs. The melancholy that’s stirred up is eventually subsumed in a journey that culminates “like ash.” Jackson summons the fire and renames it.

Themes surround the narrator—clouds, terror, lovers and libraries. Surprising combinations and wildly innovative juxtapositions unspool like: “wallowing in the brothels of myself” or “the poem as a sword moonlighting as a mirror.”

Visually, Jackson splashes the poems with violets, poplars, and “heartwood.” His ear crackles with the static streaming of Skype, ATMs, and “Dynagroove.” The elegant and the mundane switch-hit with near perfect pitch as he guides us through condensed worlds brimming with emotions, observations, and generosity.

 And always tension vibrates between the ideal and the real. “A mouse sniffing its snout along a baseboard floor,” brings you back from the palace. Passion and craft exult in this breakthrough book.

Cara Benson
(Book Thug, 2010, 2010)

Entropy is a loaded word. If we say Cara Benson’s prose poems in (made) are entropic, it may mean that they represent the “best possible lossless compression of any communication, under certain constraints.”

The poems, presented on eight-inch wide pages, exaggerate their horizontal properties, becoming cells, containers, postcards, and vessels. The book’s emphasis on format helps frame its velvety, Gertrude Stein-worthy snapshots.

Details of underlying bedrock emerge from a rich ebb and flow of divergent textures. In “Glass,” the poet transforms her subject like “ricochet fun in the mirror room.” A sunrise morphs into a volcano and then a jewel. When Benson asks what queen couldn’t be “more daring with her wealth,” the poem itself is rendered into the jewel. And Benson, like her queen, is daring.

“Aim” bolts out of the gate and onto the page with a rush of lavish, evocative description: “White lattice, crawling blush roses, flapper dancing black beaded fringe swinging.”

Here, Benson focuses her lens on the past. In a condensed, but brisk cadence, she convincingly recapitulates a heritage that includes Grandma crossing the Rhine and telling “knee stories.” In supple lines that alternately coil and uncoil, Benson strikes a balance between form and content. A query is sent “rummaging through the future,” to find if its “arrival created its destination.” Benson tills new ground to sow “dispersement.”

Robert Wrigley
Beautiful Country
(Penguin Poets, 2010)

It’s good to remember what poetry is—a roadmap to the soul. So it’s no surprise to find blue highway lines on the cover of Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country. True to its title, the poems often express a bond with pure nature. Camping trips, walks in the woods, storms, and dust devils. But the travels and travails of human nature are expressed keenly as well, as the author encapsulates relationships with key players in his life.

Country opera could describe the hardtack vernacular that coexists with the solo in this oratorio. “County” is a paean to rural culture with all its tic(k)s. Like a miniature Leaves of Grass, Wrigley hammers away, repeating what kind of county it is. “County of tools…of the dead coyote nailed to the barn door…of the fearful and fearless.”

Economic hardship rings alongside defiance and determination. Crass and class co-inhabit the land: “the ATV beside the ancient Indian trail.” Skilled alliteration, subtle arrangements and dead-on details add dimension to the panorama.

Stanza breaks alleviate the narration as Wrigley aims at his marks with little deviation. Whether conversing with an ant, encountering a moose, or marveling at the “mandible of a vole,” most of the poems run straight and true, close-hewn to their subjects.

Part praise, part protest, part record, part shamanistic song—these clearheaded poems maintain a measure where “silence blossoms.”


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

All Issues