Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle In With the Old, In With the New

By Phil West

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  The latest pile of poetry to hit the Chronicle reflects a current trend in line with what you're supposed to have at a wedding: something old and something new. Old comes in the form of reissues from the first third of the century already committed to cultural memory; new comes in the form of a trio of performance poets committed to the page. Throughout this pile of works, there's a definite attention to voice. In some cases, content even takes a back seat to voice, for the wildly varying styles of these assembled poets are just that sharply defined. Since we're just two months out from the largest gathering of performance poets in one place, and since this place just happened to be Austin, let's start with the new.

If you only consider their status as members of the Venice Beach Slam Team which competed at the 1998 National Poetry Slam, then you could say that Jeffrey McDaniel and Ellyn Maybe are slam poets. But that's not even close to the whole story. McDaniel has enjoyed a long history of publishing on the lit mag circuit -- he's even been included in the Best American Poetry anthology series -- and Maybe, to put it simply, is one of the most original writers working in poetry today, performance or otherwise.

The Forgiveness Parade ($11.95 paper), McDaniel's second book for Manic D Press, the San Francisco publisher that has become the flagship press for West Coast performance poets, is filled with poems that utilize his trademark couplets with style, flair, and funny, refreshing twists of language. Included are some of his most stage-tested pieces, like "The Jerk," which extends the title persona to a dizzyingly clever level, and "The Billy in Me," a narrative fusing a surprising backseat moment with a teenage devotion to Billy Idol. But there are more reflective pieces here which require seeing the poem on the page to get the full effect. Some of the poems encapsulate variations on the theme of going to the precipice of drug addiction and back again, while others rely on a gleaned observational wisdom that poets, at their best, are supposed to impart to their audience.

Maybe's The Cowardice of Amnesia ($10 paper) is surprising on several levels. For one, it's on Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 press, which typically features writers who are more streetwise than wide-eyed. Maybe is definitely wide-eyed -- many of her poems are earnest and confessional in the best sense, taking her audience through her situation of feeling 1968 yet living in 1998. In pieces like "Ball & Chain Record Store" and "Not Yet," Maybe reveals herself as a believer in the anti-establishment idealism of the hippies, but she does so with an uncanny ability to pivot at multiple places within a poem, using surprising observations and control of language to twirl beauty and purity around her day-to-day experiences. They're poems that demand rereading, and at the same time, they're poems that make you want to reach out and give her a big hug and say "Right on" without any trace of jaded Nineties irony.

That's 1990s, obviously, although the 1890s get a nod in the first of the brand-new reissues. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Federico Garcia Lorca's birth, translators Greg Simon and Steven F. White have unveiled new translations of the Spanish poet's Poet in New York (Noonday Press, $16 paper). The poems, chronicling Lorca's stay in New York and Havana in 1929 and 1930, reveal his bewilderment and sorrow with the American state of affairs, particularly with the pronounced racial inequity of the times, and the resurgence of life energy he receives when he leaves New York for Cuban shores. Simon and White also provided the translations for this period of Lorca's work for Selected Verse, the most complete sourcebook on Lorca out there, so this won't give the budding Lorca scholar any new perspectives on his work. The translations, on the whole, are solid, especially when compared to some of the other Spanish-to-English attempts found in Selected Verse. But there's still the occasional bugaboo: The ubiquitous nardo, a Mediterranean flower, translates to the rather unfortunate "spikenard" (that's three syllables, spike-UH-nard) in English, and rather than just let the Spanish word suffice, Simon and White bravely try to make the awkward word sing within his poetry. It, as you might expect, does not. Poet in New York limits itself to a narrow time period in Lorca's career, but contains some of his best and most outspoken work in one loving volume.

Another celebrated Iberian poet, Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, is anthologized in the deceptively simply titled Poems of Fernando Pessoa (City Lights, $15.95 paper). I say deceptively simple and anthologized because Pessoa created an array of personae, or heteronyms, under which he wrote. Pessoa did attach his name to some of his work, but the pastoral Alberto Caeiro and hedonistic and passionate Alavaro de Campos are two of the better-known names which Pessoa slid behind. The most remarkable thing about his heteronyms is that each one is not only given his own life story, but his own distinctive mission and style, complete with individualized faults. It's a fascinating project to have devoted a life of writing to, and editors Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown have used introductions gleaned from Pessoa's heteronymically penned essays to frame each of his poet voices, thereby preserving the anthology feel of the collection while using it to show the versatility Pessoa possessed.

Even the most uninhibited and pagan Pessoa persona seems tame by comparison to City Lights' new translation of Dino Campana's Orphic Songs ($12.95, paper). Campana wrote the title work, a set of linked poems and prose poems, in his twenties on the eve of World War I in Italy. I.L. Salomon has made some intriguing moves in his translations, occasionally switching line A for line B, perhaps in order to preserve the wild-maned, risk-taking nature of Campana's work, which departs from poetry standards of his day into churning rivers of verbiage which appear even more breathless and rapid-fire in the original Italian. Although at times Campana is resolutely modernist and dark, especially in some of the companion pieces to the title work placed at the end of the book, at other times he is forward-looking and strangely beautiful in his approach.

A more recently departed but no less influential 20th-century writer, Anthony Burgess, best known for penning A Clockwork Orange, takes on two old battle-chestnuts, the epic poem and the rhyming couplet, in his posthumously released Byrne (Carroll & Graf, paper $10.95). The novel-length poem, which is actually billed as a novel rather than poetry, is reminiscent of the poem that propels Nabokov's brilliant Pale Fire. The novel seeks to present a history of the 20th century through the eyes of a pale photocopy of Lord Byron and his children, who are spread across the globe, born to different mothers at points throughout Byrne's various misadventures. The writing, at times, is utterly artful in its artlessness. Burgess revels in hinging rhymes on prepositions, articles, or even uncouth word splices (breaking them between the first and second letter) to highlight the potential for awkwardness in rhyming couplets and A-B-A-B rhyme schemes. One notable example, where he discusses the rise of the Third Reich, goes: "And Goering's weekends were a pagan riot/With tough boar that his hunting parties shot/Eviscerated stags reeked in a pie at/Which gormandisers gaped then scoffed the lot." Burgess reaches one of several apexes of self-reflexivity early on, with " ... Byrne would insist/That he'd kissed Diaghilev, also Nijinsky/And (the rhyme's unavoidable) Stravinsky." This is as funny as when Nabokov has his couplet-writer churn out "My Adam's apple is a prickly pear/Now I shall speak of evil and despair/As none have spoken," but whereas Nabokov localized his musings to placing literary criticism in the hands of the insane, Burgess is more freewheeling and free-ranging than that, placing Calvinism, the sex life of ex-President Bush (that's verbatim from the poem), Salman Rushdie, and Yasir Arafat into the folds of his farce. This is highly intellectual fun, resplendent with foreign phrases, unlikely twists, and the aforementioned ham-handed approach to poetic tools. It might have been possible to make this even more over-the-top and more loaded with cultural referents, but the balance Burgess exerted in creating Byrne makes this a touching, if not unexpected, departure for the writer who foisted upon us the seed text for all those disturbing Clockwork images.

Marie Ponsot, on the other hand, uses innovative forms like the tritina (like a sestina, but utilizing only three repeating words rather than six, in half the space), and innovative twists on language, in her latest book, The Bird Catcher (Knopf, $22 hard). This is Ponsot's fourth volume of poetry, but her first was released back in 1957, and the experience of four decades of published verse shines through. "Non-Vegetarian," a more veiled paean to meat-eating than the title might indicate, closes with the stunningly un-subtle lines, "My guts delight twice in the death I dine on/once for hunger, once for what meat distracts me from." Throughout the book, she displays a wise and measured, yet cutting, voice, which is often direct and placed in a fairly straightforward verse structure. The closing poem "Even," however, reflects the uncertainty of birthing language -- seen through the eyes of Adam and Eve in Eden -- through a slackening, loose-spined structure, which evinces itself through not only more purposefully tentative language, but through more obvious and up-front devices, starting with its physical presentation. This volume of poetry seems more elevated and adorned than merely written.

But maybe none of this matters sales-wise. After all, alternative rocker and former van-inhabitant Jewel foisted A Night Without Armor on the world last year. This collection of poems sold remarkably well, maybe better than any of the aforementioned books will. This, of course, led Jewel to be met with considerable scorn from poets everywhere, and perhaps for good reason. While better writers toil away in obscurity, rock stars like Jewel and actors like Ethan Hawke can get their (inferior) poetry and fiction, respectively, published on the strength of their celebrity names. And while Jewel's poetry wasn't as godawful as other celebrity poets of the past (anyone remember Suzanne Somers' Touch Me?), Jewel is more ready at this stage for an advanced undergraduate poetry class than a perfectly bound book from a major label press. Those who felt slighted by the Publishing of Jewel will want to check out A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge (Mouth Almighty Books, $10 paper) by New York poet Beau Sia. Sia, who has been a force in the poetry slam scene for the last three years, and who appears in the upcoming movie Slam, claims to have written the book in four hours. It's a response book -- Sia has taken the titles of Jewel's poems and written new poems underneath them -- and although Sia's introduction is a letter to Jewel which is more "You inspired me" than "Ha ha," clearly the joke lies in the arch flipness with which Sia has dashed off poems painstakingly titled by Jewel. Sia's a good spoken word artist with a knack for offbeat humor (his new Mouth Almighty CD Attack! Attack! Go! is more representative of his "real" work), and at moments, this humor filters through, but the book is best enjoyed as a companion piece to Jewel's book. Read Jewel's poem, read Beau's companion piece, have a good chortle, wonder how long this flash in the pan called Jewel will flash, then wonder what it'd be like if poets were made celebrities instead of the inverse.


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