Arielle GreenbergThree Recent Books from Omnidawn:

Spinoza in Her Youth -- Norma Cole, 2002

Extreme Direction -- Alice Jones, 2002

Etym(bi)ology -- Liz Waldner, 2002

Arielle Greenberg

Spinoza in Her Youth, the latest book by San Francisco poet Norma Cole, collects several chapbooks together along with some other work in a dizzying spectacle of verbal acrobatics. Cole’s work, like the best of the Language School poetries with which her writing seems connected, is invested in theory and syntactical mysteries but not at the expense of joyful usage or raw energy. I admire the sheer adventure of this collection — the poems heed to no particular form, playing with punctuation, margins, type size, quotations, symbols, etc. and yet always feeling carefully and craftily composed. As non-linear as these pieces are, each is embedded with vivid moments of emotional clarity that also comment on what it is to read / write a poem, as in the line “Let’s make this page into an apartment, an enlightenment / structure like being inside someone’s skull.” Some of my favorite lines in the book came in the prose poems in the section “Desire & Its Double,” which begins with an epigraph from a work on Spinoza by Osamu Ueno: “The genius of Spinoza lies in having discovered a secret liaison that connects . . . desire to its double. I will try to shed some light on this.” The short prose poems, a cycle of “Artificial Memories” and a cycle called “My Operatives,” are extremely sharp and compelling; in the poem “Artificial Memory 5,” Cole writes “If I’m quiet enough the bullet will go back into the gun, the boy will get up, etc.” “Artifical Memory 10” reads, in its entirety,

Two women in a café called The Magic Slate were discussing a series of black and white photographs

of a baby sitting on a pool table holding a pool cue. Above the baby was a familiar beer label, Budweiser, on a banner. People, students, were using the terms bourgeois and boudoir interchangeably. Others arrived at the airport saying “where’s the beach?”

Cole has a delightful talent for illuminating the crossroads of theory, language and humanity.

* * *

A compact book easily read in one sitting, but also easily returned to like a daily practice, Alice Jones’ Extreme Directions takes as its form the positions of Tai Chi Sword, each explored in brief poems. Jones explains that she “wanted the poems to evoke the movements’ fluidity, like Chinese brush stroke paintings,” and this is exactly how they feel: sudden and graceful. While no experience with tai chi is of course necessary in order to read this book, I was glad that I had studied it briefly, because it gave me a greater appreciation for the difficulty of slow, precise movement that is also meant to be seamless: it is hard to do physically, and perhaps even more of a challenge poetically. Jones meets the challenge with fragment that evokes the Eastern while nonetheless clearly rooted, feet flat on the floor, in American culture. My feeling is that she occasionally falters by making the poems too Asian, as in “South-pointing needle,” in which she writes “raise the shade and look / the emboldened warrior / finds the black-haired maiden,” which comes off a bit too Crouching Tiger for my taste, though one can see how such images would be difficult to avoid in this book. Elsewhere, the titles lead the poems in an unfortunately obvious way, so that the result is transparently representative rather than suggestive; the poem “Rhinoceros gazes at moon” begins “Large and unwieldy / ancient and scaled / horn designates up.” But most of the poems in Extreme Directions avoid such pitfalls, and are instead a happy meeting of playfulness and meditation, transcendent and banal, like “Rein horse:”

OK, don’t fly
stay in the realm
of the probable
we can pay the bills
sorry again


Or, in the sweet “Block, sweep left and right,” “Are you Zorro in the morning / under the covers / unmasked?” Alice Jones’ book evocatively renders the physical moment permanent in words.

* * *

Liz Waldner’s Etym(bi)ology is that rare thing: a work that surges with political fervor and also with joy, humor and wild innovation. Unafraid to take on the topical and render it universal, Waldner describes the book, whose poems date from the early 90s, as stemming from her “curiousity about the construction of the concept of selfhood in american culture, and the global effects of u.s. corporate-dominated media” along with her “abiding interest in the representation of women.” While the influence of Language poetry is evident here, the poems in Etym(bi)ology are also frank and often disarmingly direct, as in the title poem, in which she states “if more flat-chested women refrained from affixing silicone bosoms, more flat-chested women could refrain from affixing silicone bosoms” and then adds “(If no one were deciding the value of your being based on the size of your breasts, it would be safer for women to go out at night.)” I can’t remember the last time I read such resolutely honest and straightforward (and funny) lines in a book of such formally avant-garde poems. The syntactical leaps Waldner makes (“AND FATHER OF EUROPA / o syllable o footfall / her home was a very cold place she is sitting alone, / mellifluous”), along with the uncanny accuracy of her strange pronouncements about women and women’s poetics (“*Emily get yr gun, my life has stood a / loaded, buffalo gals in Amherst, et al.”) and the down-to-earth shimmy of the language (“He lets there be the sense of yeah— / well, he lets there be that”) combine to form a utterly exciting and important voice of particular interest to How2 readers: this is a remarkable, and remarkably female, experiment.

Bio: Arielle Greenberg’s poems and reviews appear in the current issues of Chain, Rain Taxi, untitled, Crayon, ixnay, Outlet and other journals; her first book, Given, will be published by Verse Press in the fall of 2002.  She teaches at Bentley College.

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