Book Reviews by Elena Karina Byrne

The Journal, 2010

One Of Those Russian Novels by Kevin Cantwell

What Books Press, The Glass Table Collective, 2009

69 pp., paperback

reviewed by Elena Karina Byrne


One Of Those Russian Novels you may think is a genre reference to a type of fiction (we presume Russia's 19th century great literature highlighting its dark, feudal, autocratic times) that excites the great expanse of history and of the heart, but, it also happens to be one of the launch books from the daring What Books Press, the imprint of The Glass Table Collective, a marvelous poetry collection by Kevin Cantwell. The book's opening poem offers the assertion, "you can believe me/ now," perhaps knowing full-well a skeptic won't until the end of the book. But you do--- you believe him. So, what is the belief and who is the man? Jacques Maritian, in his essay, "The Virtue of Art," declares art "resides in the soul and is a certain perfection of the soul." This concept, not yet pushed out of the 21st century's car door as it hurtles down the cultural ghost highway, should include Cantwell's proof that art is also a certain imperfection of the soul, making mankind vulnerable, drug-riddled, hungry, full of imperfect angst, in "a room at dusk, a man by himself." The belief resides not in art or email, the vast Black Sea or "lone chimney of a burned down house, " not in "the milk eye of the world," or on the "iron stairs" a beloved dead friend will climb. This belief, "To whom it may concern," is the passion within "fact in front of you at all times," saying, look again, "saying that the ball is round/ but it comes in a square box." 

Kevin Cantwell is a poet comfortable in his own skin, using an elastic eloquence, comfortable with both narrative and lyric impulse, with arid and lush landscapes of language. A wild array of poems from One Of Those Russian Novelsfloat elliptical question marks, some "vexed"  as "mare's tails, as nightmares," and others convince with a sudden metrical/musical rush for the veins, as here, in this passage from "Green County."

...& in a few days the fine grass coarsened & collapsed over the collar,

less the

man, more the napping corpse of Whitman's uncut hair...

Cantwell's poems also enter and withdraw from their own sensory pleasure (minnows on the rise are goose bumps on the skin) redeeming the experiential disadvantage of the imagination, in order to enter memory's war zone we call History. Historical jostles like "Marlowe in Italy" and "After the Mexican War"  don't quite adopt persona but for an intimate consciousness-stepping-back to the time, so the poet briefly lives-out what he engages and so too suggests we "walk into an open field where no one/ can listen." With an adventurer's will, not unlike the book's epigraph speaker, Ulysses S. Grant entering the deep stalactite/stalagmite chambers of caves, Cantwell finds his own dark balance: the sovereign ordinary and the earnest extraordinary. Give the reader something surprising: fierce and gorgeous, yet oddly unassuming, One Of Those Russian Novels. Give the poet the "sweet ink" and the "wild hog instead," so that he may abandon obvious beauty in order to find it recast in the miraculous accident of desire.


7 Poets 4 Days 1 Book

Christopher Merrill, Marvin Bell, Istvan Laszlo Geher, Simone 

Iguanez, Ksenia Golubovich, Dean Young, and Tomaz Salamun

Trinity University Press, 2009, $14.95


Molly Bendall & Gail Wronsky

What Books Press, 2009 $10


by Elena Karina Byrne


Collaborations that involve automatic writing, chance operations, surrealism, call/response, and the exquisite corpse have never quite been outdated--- these writing techniques are granted new life in two exciting books: 7 Poets 4 Days 1 Book by Christopher Merrill, Marvin Bell, Istvan Laszlo Geher, Simone Iguanez, Ksenia Golubovich, Dean Young, and Tomaz Salamun;  BLING & FRINGE (THE L.A. POEMS)  by Molly Bendall and Gail Wronsky. At a time in political history when the confused resurrected terminologies of communism and democracy guess at each other on the invisible stage, so too poetry's history creates a battlefield for all its styles of collective identity and individual freedom. Both books speak to what Octavio Paz once identified as "neither me nor the be nobody and oneself at the same time." Or shall we say, in a provocative state of union, to be everybody and oneself at the same time?


Imagine seven renowned poets "declaring the end of meaning" as they converge in "the unknown arms of the unknown" to write, "borrowing from one another's poems" at the Library of Shambagh House, headquarters of the International Writing Program, in four days, in order to dream up a braided single sequence, marrying dream and reality. Opening the door of the unconscious, seven diverse poets put their trust in each other enough to appropriate the "other" voice, to let the engagement of unhinged language create a new consciousness-in-motion on the page. Brendan Constantine speaks to the power of this surrealist impulse when he says, "The word surrealism may be 90 years old, but the fact of the surreal is exactly as old as consciousness. It is a by-product of perception and may well constitute a fourth dimension, one that qualifies the other three as relative to consciousness." The seven poets say, "There's never one language for that," for the confluence of image and idea dissolving, cascading and converging in a "faith of guesses, " in one dynamic gesture. There may not be one language, but there does seem to be one created voice, a felt tone, this choir's self-aware octave hitting its right note:


Taking longer than your life will be my way to you

Yet, if I try, if only I try not

To say too much but to rather listen

To the rustling of the leafless trees and be

Obedient. I don't

Believe we could just part.

As if catachresis parts a word.

Take my hand, let ghosts of the river

Enjoy us...


And everything reverses...verses...


The book's collective rant unfolds between narrative and lyric, finding its subject matters in both the external and internal worlds of experience. The happenstance of correlating correspondence breeds all over the page of each poem installment. Language, in 7 poets, 4 days, 1 book, is it's own fallout act of discovery, at once self-conscious and unpredictable --- an incendiary example that a polyvocal (heptagon-vocal) collaboration works and finds common ground, not in Magritte's defiance of common sense, but rather in capturing the common sense in this inspired process of defiance. Like intuition itself, the end result is indeterminate because as Christopher Merrill points out "the line ends and ends and ends." Susan Sontag declared "language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made." So with that challenge in mind (in mode), language in these two books has the ever-flexive-flux ability to break down, to build and encumber, to set free, to procreate, and to astonish.

In another fecund kind of collaboration, Molly Bendall and Gail Wronsky dialogue right out of Stevens'  "gaiety of language," creating the material forms of Bling & Fringe. For all it's pop cultural bangles and sparkles, its snip and snap of familiar icons and artifacts, this book's language lounges in literary sites of conflict, and within a marvelous opulence of misunderstanding. With a linguistic tongue-in-cheek humor, the book'sperverse sense of semantics works like the gravitational pull of planets in an orbit of irony: the readers are somehow participatory, complicit. Bling & Fringe aims to overturn our bad habit of putting our trust in the use (and overuse) of names. From the violation of assumptions comes something altogether gaudy and often gorgeous. Even when the conversation of their side by side poems returns non-sequitur progressions, there's a shared delirium of felt understanding. In this excerpt from one of the poem-pairs, Bendall and Wronsky, using sound-associative word play, seduce a delightful anarchy of aphorism:



Me  and    James Dean       are     "sexy"

my dog is            "a good friend"              my

          sister-in-law        "the  tree       of    self-im(posed)

chasity" have some Chinese

      Astrology        tea          oui? Bee-

 g(odd)ess         forgive        me        Tis the

    y(ear) of    the       poet

(lest       we             be            forgot)        

     like:              Lalla            jumping       mad

DON'T        MOON       ME       and

     the yew tree         with         its        "insatiable appetite"

"like death"      This  is     "the         end

     of    the             year      as      well      as             of

the      poem"             This

        is      the       new      langue      sign:

   I      put        it          on              your         bar tab

Absurdist Eugene Ionesco might echo what happens here in this lingo play: "the 'surreal' is there, within our reach, in our daily conversation." But the beauty of both books is that they work in their collaborative efforts to show that juxtaposed language disengages and engages the imaginative intellect, creating a lively correlation of real knowledge. In a recent interview Angie Estes assures us that "the mind tethers itself to any hint of meaning, and clings to it like a shipwrecked sailor does to the splintered remains of a smashed hull." So when two poets converse, seven poets from all over the globe get together to collage and weave what they have written, the menage a trois (I, we, and you) pays the marvelous price of matrimony: a new translation of the self.


We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone by Kerri Webster

The University of Georgia Press, 200562 pp.

by Elena Karina Byrne


We think we know our ‘sense’ of the world. Whether you’re Magritte or Mata Hari --it all really comes down to what we see and our seeing ourselves seeing the world, which is perhaps looking back to see us. Wallace Stevens believed the poet’s subject was his “sense of the world,” that he also believed “words are chosen out of desire.” (A Primitive Like an Orb, IV) But, in his “body, fiercer in his mind, merciless,” linguistically, the author comes to terms with his desire, and desire certainly comes to terms with its author, something that is all too often missing in contemporary poetry because of the distinct lines drawn between experimental and standard approaches to writing.

Kerri Webster’s first marvelous book of poems, We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone, finds a fugitive comfort in its innovative handling of diction, desire, and a justly askew, yet sensuous seeing/sense of the world. We are never made to feel the poems wear a false, emotionless suit of avant-garde self-consciousness. Early on, Webster declares, “The word is a rented room / and” paraphrasing Tennyson, that “we do not eat our hearts alone.” Imagine the poet enters the mind’s reveling exile without everyday idioms and vernacular; it’s like entering the rented room or house through an upstairs window, rather than through the front door. That’s the gift and beauty of inadvertent seeing. So, in Kerri Webster’s case, something exciting and far more personal happens, between a Magritte-kind of hallucinatory overthrow of reality, and a Mata Hari very real dance.

With gorgeous language-maneuvers, Kerri Webster multiplies each image, subject and persona, the way a scientist splits atoms for the first time.

A priori-knowledge takes over. The book’s opening poem, “Lexicon” is a good introduction to the poet’s own fresh stance and understanding, where she tells us there’s “a figure of speech for ellipsis [and] a verb for slow peril/ logged in a commonplace book dog-eared and oily--” This first poem, like the book itself, moves through sadness & longing, time & absence, being & the universal selves, all coupled “drowning mirages” that serve to keep the poetry bodied forward, toward a civilized disorder as the subtle narrative still gracefully unfolds (“holy vanishing.”) Throughout the book, her aurals are visceral, smart and accessible. Webster’s music is derived from sensory nouns and verbs, the use of enallage, unexpected description, and is derived from an inward folding process that creates a timeless kinesthetic response. It’s a kind of “Genuflection, like gravity, world within world…” that breathes beyond the page, also moves outward, “safe-passaged & gleaming,” into its own temporal “lapsed hymn.” These poems rhythmically find their way out of the dark with unconscious authority. Here’s a playful example from “Bestiary”:


In the House of Sleep, such a frail house, flail-chambered

and failing, watch him pull his pants on, watch him

palm hilly hilly, leavened he’s leaving

all yeasty, the part with the bird…



and I court abandon---hilly hilly---underbelly

of the senses and someone forever

walking away….


Webster “understands / gray like some academics get theory.”  The section of short prose hotel poems addressing Joseph Cornell’s box series,

seeks out a fresh logic; the speaker’s complicity claims, “ This page is / full of theft, ” the kind that seems to turn dramatic lyric and metaphor into a Rorschach test of creative conjecture. The section bearing titles like “Grace,” “Gratitude” and “Silence” all address equations of definition, punctuate turns in observation, and all use a Rilke epigraph. They have a delightful way of addressing their own direction by doubling monologue as dialogue. Every section maintains its own invocation, its own unique format and many of the poems use nature as personal vernacular for the abstract sentiment. “Folded animal, my loneliness.” This sentient transfer multiplies the picture and liberates our rendered humanness through the vatic aquisitioning of nature. What inevitably ties all the sections together is the accumulative weight of the writer’s presence on the page, her voice, and the relationship to the one addressed. So, it seems We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone ‘s interrogation is a kind of invention, a signature delicate defiance where each section also presents an unlikely, yet intimate marriage between the theoretical and the physical.

As literature, art and film come to terms with a new wartime, post-modern angst, we ache to see language’s accessible originality, its hungry move toward not only a new kind of approach, but a gut-level (not gut-wrenching nor heart on the sleeve, please) kind of passion. When a “phrase for absence gullied” seems unfamiliar in Webster’s work, we are guided, coaxed to let “haunting be the sum of touch” where there’s a promise of emotion that comes visually clear.


And suddenly a chunk of sky falls out of the sky, as though

Electrons cannot be trusted to orbit, as though everything

Is fundamentally collision.


Her images and syntactical arrangements feel primitive, that is to say, born anew and viscerally accurate. The poems are alight with intuitive intellect, where “consumption and consummation are kin,” where a unique brew of lists serve as alchemy to the imagination, where the opiate of her language enters its own “permeable skin,” enters our bodies and that “whole silly empire of sorrow.” In this re-sensing of the world you might indeed find there’s “a word for sadness that dwells in the small of the back.” You might also find anchored moments, mid-stream, like, “I am frail/ And you are frail.” This works as a kind of “etherized version of seeing” that is nearly prophetic. What if art is the muse itself, the sensorium of prophecy-- then we might gladly return to it again and again, as we would, Kerri Webster’s first ignited book of poems, We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone.