Both & From Quarry Road
Review: Psycho-motor Breathscapes, poems by John Nòto, Vatic Hum Press, San Francisco, $7.95, ISNB: 9654877-0-9.
You just have to admire a poet who lays everything out for you at the beginning, no evasion, no gimmicks, no teasing hints toward hidden meaning. “I’m writing you from below the belt,” begins John Nòto’s Psycho-motor Breathscapes. It is for you to add, “But they come into me through the chest, the lungs & heart, through the eyes, ears, throat. Mind.” This is total assault poetry.
As this country staggers and rocks to the second millennium, many books will be proclaimed as the ones that lay claim to the future. This is my annunciation: Psycho-motor Breathscapes. And it is not just post-post-modern, post-TV-generation, post-Exxon Valdez, post-O. J., post-Shell oil execution of Ken Sara Wiwa, it is poetry alive with a clarity I never thought to see as we all labor for our bearings while in the throes of Bill-Clinton-Gates capitalism. Search as you might, you’ll not find as clear of a description of our plight as in this first poem, “Jar of Respiration”:
A deep river is
the perfect frozen asset to be thawed
in a climate of wealth without pride
uncorked for summer by the cartel
and spread across the kitchen table
left for the baby to die slowly
in the Sudan
“Have a Blood Light” with motor oil
and barbs in its broken jaw.
And the warning later:
If you are to survive
you must make of your lungs forever-pumps,
clear the register.
This is the only book of poetry I know of that clearly presents the plight of post-industrial America, the country whose only growth industry not likely to move south of the border is prisons.
On the book jacket is an accurate and helpful statement about Nòto’s poetry by Stephen-Paul Martin:
The visceral trajectories of Nòto’s writing take mainstream technoppression and turn it into drivetrain music, filling constructivist lattices with unmeasured gardens of passion.
This particular book, however, is even more: it contains a unique structure that makes of it a real book not just a collection of miscellany. The first section, “Compaction,” is just that, compacted breath poems that through their intense phrasing make it nearly impossible to read without gasping, without bringing into the poetic activity not just breath but the whole body itself moving into and out of the reading experience: this is Charles Olson merging with a vengeance with reader-response theory.
The second section called “Density” is marked less by breath than a monological weaving that illustrates a mastery of poetic line. Take as representative the first poem in this section “Structural Blood-Collapse Firestorm”:
I’m flapping in the breeze like a ripped textbook
and a makeshift rain
is tearing at the seams
of complete ideas
I thought I had
been exposed to enough unfiltered sludge
Each line makes syntactical links with the next forcing the reader to pause, move tentatively into the mental emotional terrain established by the next image, then retreat a bit while the mind establishes the new connection through a seeming ambiguity forced by the double reading. It looks easy, and perhaps it is for this poet, but it is anything but when this line linking is also pulled tight into the reader’s psyche through the apt imagery. This is poetry that can rescue beauty from the post-Gulf Video War apocalisp interrupted by commercial messages from Bosnia. These are the beginning three lines to “A Machine-Woman Appears Wet From Within Screens (Nightly)”:
Rippling on magnetic snow, I see her tongue disappear
into the ear of a late afternoon storm with the taste of
tea and venom: Zagreb in a rain of bullets.
The third section is “Eruption.” And, surprisingly, the poetry erupts into lyricism, but it is a lyricism that challenges all of our previous ideas of the lyric. This section begins with “Folds” that starts:
Don’t write me long smooth spires of sunrise.
I live to pluck raw gender
flexed like a drying fig in the wind.
I’m convinced that anything this poet writes will interest me. His “From Sidewalk to Back Fence: Infant Neuromuscular TimeCrescents” is one of the sweetest sad poems I’ve read in years. And “Embrace (Vaginimus)” is one of the best heterosexual love poems, challenging the belief that it is not possible to write tender poems with tough language from an awareness that doesn’t deny the state of post-Industrial America. Imagine fucking while driving a fast car through rush-hour traffic that is being waved through the urban wasteland by maniacal traffic cops.
An early poem in the collection “Robotic” ends: “Your voiceprint on my lips / disassembles me.” Amen. But the sprit that drives these poems puts me back together again. And because of this man’s faith in language to document the state of affairs as it is and the inward state this awareness makes on his condition, on ours as readers, this is poetry of faith and celebration. Honest poetry, the most honest book of poems in many a year.
Previously: In this corner Paul Metcalf
Review: From Quarry Road, Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Paul Metcalf. Preface by Jonathan Williams, edited and with an introduction by Robert Buckeye, Amandla Publishing, East Middlebury, Vermont, 2002, ISBN: 0-9708563-2-6. $20.00 paper.
It’s the little questions that I try to answer in the early morning after the barking of the neighbor’s dog wakes me. I’ve given up on the big ones: Why do poor people vote for Republicans? Why do people love being victims? Is it that excessive consuming destroys memory or that lack of memory is necessary for excessive consuming? Why are there six degrees of separation instead of five or seven? I give up on those. I awake curious about the little questions, like this one: why is the subtitle of this book “Uncollected” when it is now collected? After it is collected, can it be “uncollected”? Was it somehow gathered without being collected? Editor Robert Buckeye explains: “This selection of Metcalf’s writing is intended to supplement the selection Dalkey Archive made in Where Do You Put the Horse? (1986).” These, then, are previously uncollected, probably meaning that they were left un-collected by Metcalf. Perhaps. I have an answer. I doubt it is the real answer, but at least it’s an answer. And there is some novelty in that.
I read essays and reviews to learn about the writer as much as I read to learn about the subjects of the writing. The first time I realized I was doing this was when I first read the letters of Ezra Pound, then Williams, then Olson, three of the heavy hitters also in this selection.
So what do we learn about the subjects and the writer? You can be introduced to or given a unique reading of: Charles Olson, Edward Dahlberg, Michel Butor, Michael Lesy, Jaime de Angulo, Clark Coolidge, Ken Irby, Jonathan Williams, Emily Dickinson, Todd Moore, Lucia Berlin, Melville, and Pound. What about the writer, in this corner (from his lead essay on Olson): Paul Metcalf?
We learn what he learned from Williams, his being rooted in place, Paterson. From Pound: history, anything is the subject of the poem, rhythm, the collage of historical documents, his ear. On Pound: “Perhaps he’s a cross between Dante Alighieri and Rush Limbaugh. But I learned from him.” Olson? Space and the reminder that Melville necessarily had to be dealt with, Metcalf’s personal connection could not be long ignored, and the fight, to kick against the pricks not expecting any reward. Olson in the heavyweight division.
And from Metcalf? That the book [not the word: “playing with language”] [not the sentence: distinguishing the poem from prose] is the basic unit of writing. Writing is life, infused with time (rhythm), space (geography and the space of the page) and history (time), as opposed to the workshop, university writing, the precious no-risk writing, the language gamers [Gertrude Stein: “that bitch”]. His own writing risked everything [In my first letter to him, after reading Genoa, I included a poem for him, all that I remember is this very forgettable title: “Only everything is good enough, for Paul Metcalf”]; the pathfinders do that and make it look easy, natural. He was no philosopher, no abstract thinker, no Marxist, but he understood the essence of American capitalism and produced work that stands as a constant criticism of the culture that is blind to its history, denies that the creative act only has meaning within history. A friend sent me a copy of a Delbert McClinton cd with a song called “The Jungle Room.” I thought of American culture. I thought of Metcalf: “Ain’t got no future / ain’t got no past / you’re good as gold / while the money lasts.” He never wrote from that room, never even visited.
Bob Buckeye did a superb editing job, and I couldn’t find a single typo. It’s nicely printed and bound, a refreshing hand-crafted book, solid. It is a real book, an excellent example of small press craft, honoring a writer who only published with small presses. His writings will endure, his critical writings [the essay on Dickinson should be required reading for lit students] no less than the collage novels / poems. Metcalf was an original, though firmly rooted in American literature. Critics made much of the fact that Metcalf was related to Melville. T. S. Elliot wrote that the present determines the past, that a real talent creates his predecessors. Metcalf was given his, but sometimes I have this fancy, provoking another unanswerable question: when will it be that students of literature will look to the nineteenth century and refer to Melville as the great-grandfather of Paul Metcalf?