Weekly Prose Feature: “An Omnibus Review of Tomás Q. Morín, Lisa Russ Spaar, and Allison Benis White” by Emilia Phillips

April 5, 2013

In a time when the mundane abounds and, in an attempt to subvert it, many poets bet all their lunch money on irony’s thin pony, the three poets here devise the extraordinary by other means. Morín, Spaar, and White all exhibit a virtuosity in their craft and yet, despite the technicality that reveals itself in close reading, each one earns its keep through what’s at stake in the poems. Among my favorite new works, these collections are reviewed alphabetically by author’s last name.

With this review, and all the future reviews published on 32 Poems online, I hope that readers will take our stance of critical appreciation as a spur for experiencing the work themselves.

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A Larger Country by Tomás Q. Morín
The American Poetry Review, 2012

A Larger Country by Tomás Q. Morín (Copper Canyon Press, 2012)A Larger Country not only expands the limits of our reading world geographically, with nods to European poets like Czseław Miłosz and Miklós Radnóti, it broadens our expectations of what can happen in a poem and the universe it creates, bending physics and probability. Often vaguely situated in a kind of alternate or hyper reality, Morín’s poems temper a Kafkaesque authority with an exuberance in tone like that of Gogol. Many of the poems confront readers with a conceit, as with “Karma”:

When she came from the East, empty-handed,
the newspapers used words like raiment, blue, shimmers,
to describe her arrival in the hall of immigrants.
Under occupation she scribble solace.

Here we have a personified Karma on a kind of ambassadorial tour of an unidentified, presumably American, town. Karma seems bigger than the Beatles or the Dali Lama; the speaker(s) say that they “paraded her down the avenues / to . . . where her pink likeness / stood cut in granite.” On her customs/immigration form, she identifies her occupation as solace, but look how Morín’s phrasing totes another meaning: “Under occupation” could suggest that another person or group controls her or the place she’s in and, there, she writes about solace. Throughout the collection, readers will find moments where Morín deftly plays to two readings, like an underhandedly worded contract. Some readers, zealots of transparency, may beef about this grammatical duplicity, but take it as a testament to Morín’s scrutiny of language. And his playfulness.

What makes Morín’s forays into the absurd work is his knack for arresting imagery. “Karma” ends:

                                                      she counted the hours
under a birch somewhere, deathless, teaching
the hemorrhaging mouse at her feet about patience.

But Morín appeals not only because of imagery but also in how he warps the familiar into the outlandish:

He filled the sink with the trout who hit our lines,
crossed himself once, twice, then renamed and cut each one

—their vague eyes rolling—while I made ready to gently knuckle
each flayed beloved with garlic and thyme, an American John

to his American Jesus, humming my crazy songs
over the black faces of the plans I baptized in butter.

“The dead will only suffer butter,” he liked to say

Ritual, with its cousin religion, dodders through a number of the poems in A Larger Country, sometimes toward hilarity, as in the comedy of errors, “Egg Ministry.” Morín gives us the set up:

In a grim henhouse I find the faithful
clucking about the rapture,
and whether heaven is truly shallow and fresh
like a box of straw waiting for birth.
All eggs will break, I assure them . . .

As they consider this, a reddish, bouquet-crested hen
nods to sleep

But then we jump into the hen’s dreams where she sees

                                      sticky, Egyptian hands
grinding a bold, yolk-yellow powder
for mixing with egg and water—
to paint skin, no doubt.

And, more associatively, we move toward Giotto who

will use it to ignite his poor saints’ heads,
while Botticelli will mute it for his Madonnas
whose petite, exhausted faces
in the flight-heavy dreams of hens would surely flake
and having flaked, leaf into the moist air
to spin and reweave a lost tribe of yolks

But, landing on firm ground again: “Such is the dream life of hens.” At the end, the poem turns away from the conceit and explodes onto “you are now a part of the ritual, / a necessary antagonist / to a faith no less fragile than your own.”

What Morín perhaps finds most viable about ritual and religion in poetry is their rhetorical character and their language forms. In an interview published by 32 Poems in March, Morín says that his goal in writing A Larger Country “was always to keep the strangeness of the poems in focus by using as a backdrop tried-and-true forms (sonnet, sestina, rhymes) that would hopefully anchor the reader.” When the speaker of “While Waiting for the Resurrection” addresses Miłosz, he says:

                                        I know what you really wanted
was a sturdy sentence that would move meaning

patiently along the slick backs of verbs and nouns.

But this, most of all, seems like Morín’s intention. If we overextend the collection’s title into a metaphor, we might think about form as a means to map sovereign gestures, to know, if not expand, the borders of what we can understand. “[T]here is joy in our sheer movement / of a thing from A to B,” he writes in “Dumb Luck,” and

                                                          a sound
made realizes its purpose when it fills

a silence because that is what we do
when we are born.

A Larger County is filled with sound and movement. Consider the opening of “Our Prophets”:

It shouldn’t have surprised me while reading
Gorky’s remembrance of Tolstoy and devouring chicken
on a blanket in view of the muddy waters
that I should see a parakeet misnamed the Quaker parrot
by some scientist poet with a sense of humor
in the way their lime color drapes over
their backs and down each wing in a way that
reminds one of a key lime pie; though not
the one with the dome of meringue which resembles
the dress of a house finch, rather the wobbly
body of the sad supermarket doppelganger;
the imposter with the God-awful filling
tinted green by they of the white aprons
and soufflé hats who no doubt assume we are all children

Morín, unlike some associative poets, doesn’t have the nervous energy, the spastic lunges between images. Rather, we have a smooth ride in store for us, on the “slick backs of nouns and verbs.” Notice how, even when there’s not a rhyme, Morín provides us with slant rhymes or consonance: how the “n” sounds chime between “reading” and “chicken,” how the o with double consonants echo in “wobbly” and “doppelganger,” how the “n” sound returns for “filling”/ “aprons”/ “children.”

Regardless of Morín’s formal capabilities, the book entertains us with its cabinet of curiosities, its images, its often fabular and magical narratives, its humor, and its immense sensibility. Morín reminds us that we can be “loved again / and again by the words in a book,” and, if the reader allows it, that book will be A Larger Country, for, here, “we are finally / in the world we always said we wanted.”

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Vanitas, Rough by Lisa Russ Spaar
Persea Books, 2012

Vanitas, Rough by Lisa Russ Spaar (Persea Books, 2012)Lisa Russ Spaar’s fourth collection privileges us with the “lonely bliss of going / where the body cannot follow.” Though, in the poem, the place’s most likely death, Spaar enables us to achieve this bliss through other, healthier means: language. Throughout Vanitas, Rough, language serves not only as a vessel for information, it textures our reading with sonics that nearly enact experience, so that we may “imagine what’s unreal (soul, the other, desire, blah),” against Spaar’s own admission that sometimes it’s “perhaps impossible . . . in words, // to tell”.

That’s not to say that the collection builds itself around imitative fallacy, that a poem called “Hibernalphilia”—that is, the fondness for winter—feels stark and dormant. Rather, in the opening nine lines of the poem, Spaar bathes us in detail:

Triangular glasses, brumal volts, gin,
frescade of pearls, plucked, sunned olives,

grave albino onions, juniper nip & the cusp of snow,
we sip slow, as at a glacier’s lip. Holy day.

I’m thinking fingerbone salad, the marginalia
of Emily Brontë, intricate skeleton keys,

not blade but the pierced heart, the bow
to which torque must be applied.

That blue note of exile in your eyes.

The language here verges on the tactile. Notice how the sharp sounds of “Triangular glasses” (and its six-syllables) suggest the sharp angles of the physical object; how the onion contains layers, as onions do, of description: grave, albino; how “the cusp of snow” hangs on the cusp of the line break; or, even more technical, how the stresses that abound in the phrase “we sip slow, as at a glacier’s lip” literally causes the reader to slow down, to sip on the line instead of gulp it down. As the subject matter moves to more delicate and intricate objects and appreciations, the language becomes more delicate and intricate with more polysyllabic words and complex vowel sounds like that we find in “marginalia,” “skeleton,” and “intricate.”

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the poem, but whether Spaar intends these gestures or if they come subconsciously to her, Vanitas seems to present an onomatopoeic representation of memory and emotion. Language and its contrivances likewise become a part of the imagery so that many of the poems wax ars poetica, though they aren’t that simple. We see “the spider’s nocturnal script” and “the world / in verbless fugue state”; we voyage into etymology, as in “St. Vogue”:

With a route in voguer, to sail—
            as longing is root to Lent—
so the glamour of failing is again in season.

Here, the “heart speaks . . . in dactyls” and “Rime shackles . . . ankles”.

One could identify Spaar as a formal poet—and we’d be ignoramuses if we flew through the book without noticing her tendencies toward prosody and end rhyme—but this distinction diminishes her fluidity and skill. So often critics use “formal” pejoratively, as if it denoted formulaic verse, jigsaw balladry. Perhaps Spaar’s poems work beyond their formal construction because they situate themselves always in the tangible even when they respond to religious tropes, as in the sequence that includes “St. Home” and “St. Bed of Snow,” and art, as in “After Hokusai”:

            then, climacteric, urn-thick cocks
tinted purple, in small, soft-bound limited editions,

lovers cramped into the pages, four tight corners,
            labial folds, shell pale
kimonos, octopi prongs forcing mouths

& mons prone in sea-foam—.
            But for this late self-portrait,
seamed neck, torso crooked over

bent cane: mere bone-black ink, sumi,
            & just as ghostly, pulse-point pentimenti
of cinnabar, the soul

pushing its way out, regret

Spaar tells us: “To abstract is to surrender.” When it becomes difficult to finish a poem, to tell what happened, she gives herself the imperative of “Still, try” and launches into an attempt: “inkling flare, japonica flooded & skeletal. / The dawn genitive, hived, unstoppable.” Why? She tells us that, too: “Objects withstand the gaze / better than words.”

Vanitas, Rough provides us words that are as close to objects as they can get. Her poems slur the boundaries between two and three dimensional, living and reading. In doing so, each poem becomes dense and, though Spaar prefers short lyrics, often in couplets, it takes a long time to read each poem, to parse the sounds for comprehension. That said, the reader’s attention and effort is rewarded with acute meditations and bliss of the body.

Spaar doesn’t shy away from the erotic; the result, if I may say so, is sexy (if not occasionally grotesque). The “transfusion of flesh & gust,” the plait of fetish and description, yields, in the title poem, this passage:

In a panel of floor-propped mirror
your tongue in me is mine, too,

glass pear of the toppled goblet,
drunken wasp grazing semen yolk

of split, glazed oyster shells,
Death blowing soap bubbles

out the orbital sockets

Spaar, in a move rarely accomplished elsewhere, elevates language and description beyond mere practice, beyond craft, to near rapture. As poets, we deserve the sublimity of our medium, and when Spaar asks, “Is syntax erotic?” and then begs, “If so, please. Please read. Here.”—we’d be fools not to do so.

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Small Porcelain Head by Allison Benis White
Four Way Books, 2013

Small Porcelain Head by Allison Benis White (Four Way Books, 2013)“[T]o make dolls out of death is to make children,” writes Allison Benis White in her second book, a collection of untitled lyrical prose poems that, in the wake of an unidentified death, uses doll imagery as a kind of effigy for the irreconcilable and ephemeral—the body, god, and art. “[S]he is mute,” ends one poem, “as the moments I accept God or a make a voice from objects, pressing her stomach, pressing her stomach, not screaming.” With eerie precision, White sculpts her descriptions—

For the easily broken heads of bisque or china, tin heads, made separately, cut and stamped from sheet metal, welded together, then painted or enameled in Saxony, now in boxes, on bodies dressed in black or maroon capes with fur collars, each shattered head exchanged for a metal one but it is not enough.

—and, elsewhere, dresses her subjects in the finery of lyric mediation:

If God is everything, then he is this emptiness and eyelids that close when her head is tipped back in the dark and click. If God is nothing.

The attention to detail in Small Porcelain Head elevates its subjects toward ekphrasis, as if the dolls, and the lost life that burdens them, are a kind of art or, at the very least, an attempt at it. For White, the body, and its death, seem deeply embedded in language, even poetry; White speculates about the possibility of speaking “with the fluency of dying” and asks, “What should I do with my mind? Think of the way it broke until the breaking is language.”

The prose form here provides as much texture as lineation. Wide margins and short, sometimes one-sentence, paragraphs affect the appearance of pentameter and stanzas. The end words, as they fall in the full-justification, feel deliberate—nothing out of place, nothing accidental. Even as I quote from the collection throughout this review, I worry I’m altering the poems, not doing their design justice. Because we cannot accurately reproduce the formatting through type, I’ve provided a scan of one of these poems below as a way to emphasize how important the appearance of the work is on the page:

Small Porcelain Head by Allison Benis White, page 38

Look at how the first line opens into the second; how “I don’t know,” as a grammatical unit, seems to work with “to reveal a glass-eyed monkey.” And what about that ending!—the penultimate line literally multiplies when “multiply” wraps to the next line. This sort of faux-lineation abounds in the book, often with significance. Elsewhere, the hyphenation of “realizes” at the margin alters our reading by momentarily, and duplicitously, suspending the sentence’s meaning:

Small Porcelain Head by Allison Benis White, page 27

And see how the word “leave” literally leaves a line:

Small Porcelain Head by Allison Benis White, page 27

Is this intentional on the part of White? Four Way Books? My guess is yes, but regardless of whether or not this near impossible precision is accident or design, Small Porcelain Head gives us the prose poem at its most lyrical, most aware and elegant.

But that doesn’t mean that the poems’ poise conceals the rawness of the speaker’s voice, doesn’t mean that the grief here doesn’t turn toward violence. The imagery, often macabre, carries the tone here. “If description is a living thing . . . I want to say something that will look at me,” she writes and later provides us with “key turned, moaning, in the back of her head”; two torsos “sewn together at the waist”; “Mary . . . delivered from Marie. And the reverse, later, because she requires company.”

Sometimes, however, White addresses the concerns of the speaker head on:

. . . Because the operator activates the body like a glove puppet.

Because the novelty wears off quickly and the hand, withdrawn, leaves the body exhausted.

Because to live is to be entered vertically and repeatedly, the pain is love and making me.

At the core of all lyrical poetry, in whatever form, is, what White calls, the “mutual helplessness of seeing and being seen”—a tension between two beings, of the gaze between them. In this case, one of those beings is dead and the living is forced to play the role of the “other.” Constantly throwing her voice behind this other, White asks, “What’s left but obsession, handling the object over and over?”

Readers may find that they return to Small Porcelain Head again and again. Though, initially, a quick read, second and third encounters with these poems reveal the complexity of the form, that the meditations and images ameliorate each read, become more potent and insightful. As White suggests, “the desire to make and to cease are equal,” and each poem here seems to be doing just that: opening up to another poem while destroying the previous, coming into being just as it leaves. But take comfort from these poems if you can, White tells us: “[I]f death is a failure of imagination, we are alive.”

—Emilia Phillips

Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com. 

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