Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter (available for preorder): You’ll want to get your hands all over this as soon as possible. Ugliness can only exist in the shadow of beauty, and this novel is a gut-slingshot of the rawest, finest sort of beautiful available. I remember learning about extremophiles in science, these organisms and bacteria that manage to thrive in severe conditions that would kill most living things. Now imagine that beauty is a bacteria, and think of how beautiful the most extremophile beauty that lives on the underside of ugliness would have to be. That’s like this book. Its characters relentlessly charmed me, just as much with their meanest faults and flaws as with their kind vulnerabilities. It’s nothing short of an instant classic. There’s a pain here for everyone, of the sweetest sort—in these close-third perspectives, you’ll find understanding and self-recognition in places you wouldn’t want to admit, and will feel good to know that your defects aren’t so rare. It will be a relief. It will be one of the thousands of reasons you’ll love this novel.
Flings by Justin Taylor (available for preorder): Taylor is one of my favorite contemporary storytellers—on the page I think I fear him as much as I revere him. I show up to read a story, all giggly-party-girl-with-a-six-pack-of-beer-like, playing my stereo too loud, and Taylor slaps me upside the head and says I have a lot to learn about life. Shit gets deep, fast, before you have time to prepare or cringe. Imagine being a kid and suddenly having to spend a weekend at your survivalist uncle’s house while your parents jet off to a B&B. It’s 4:30 in the morning; you’re warm in bed & fast asleep. Suddenly he’s waking you up, pulling you out into the cold. You’re trudging through snow and you can’t see a thing. Suddenly he tells you to stop everything—stop walking, stop breathing, stay completely fucking still. You feel like you’re going to freeze to death. You retreat so deep into your head that you hardly hear the gunshot. Next thing you know, he’s slitting a deer carcass with a knife and pushing your hands inside the warm blood; your hands are covered in blood and you’re kneeling in the snow and you aren’t even fully awake. This is Flings.
The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (available, paperback pre-order available for August 12th release): Arguably, everything in this book is realism, but as an enormous disciple of fabulist fiction, I can’t help but read it that way—the lush imagery in this novel magically disguises and obscures the everyday, and soon all of life begins to look unfamiliar in a way that allows the very existence of these characters to appear as ridiculous, thrilling, and painful as it arguably should: the rug is lifted, everything that gets swept beneath notice in the day to day becomes exposed. Weaving between three generations, the present action of the book takes place in the wonderfully spooky context of the death of a mortician, and magically, synergistically, birds seem and yet do not seem to be involved. I return to this book all the time because I love its alchemy of making narratives that you expect to be straightforward into something else entirely that resists and complicates all your assumptions. I think about those incredible sidewalk chalk drawings that appear to be actual tunnels in the sidewalk. It’s like those, except you’d be able to enter the tunnel when you looked at the chalk lines really really closely, and once you were in the tunnel you’d realize that everything you thought was solid is actually an illusion and vice-versa and you’d get that dropping-elevator feeling in your stomach times a million.
Three Hundred Million: A Novel by Blake Butler (pre-order available): Nothing makes me know I love a book more than a physical response, and whenever I see this book mentioned anywhere (and you’ll be seeing it everywhere, soon) I feel planted, literally locked to the ground remembering the hold it had on me from the first pages until I finished. It’s a viral text on so many levels—the way it makes you feel, the velocity of its suspense, the intense intimacy with the complex and frightening characters, the vertigo-inducing way the narrative shows that arguably clear categories like “good” and “bad” can become unsustainable once a certain proximity is reached. As a true-crime junky, any novel involving a psychopath and the detective hunting him is an immediate must-read for me, and to get this tale in the hands of a writer whose genius, future-forward gift for innovation in style and form is like having a million dollars delivered to you in a car that is literally made out of stacks of money that would also add up to one million dollars.
Going Anywhere by David Armstrong (pre-order available): This debut collection is a line-up of hits, strong and transportative and original. Every situation Armstrong takes you to is completely engrossing; the premise alone of any one of these stories would be enough to base a feature-length movie on. Even the narrative connections within the stories link the highly unusual at the hip: a camel defecating in the woods finds an affinity with a government worker opening a manila folder; a tuba finds its way to a shooting lesson and a father coming out to his son. I think one of the best compliments writers can give about a book is to say that reading it made them want to go write, and this really did—in the same way that luminol makes hidden bloodsplatter visible to the naked eye, after reading these stories I was able to see so many unnecessary limitations I’ve always placed upon my own work but hadn’t been able to recognize until now.
Celebrating the return of Vintage Drunken Boat posts to the internet today is none other than “Hell is for Children,” a piece of short fiction by Elizabeth Colen. This insightful glimpse into the life of a nameless narrator’s experience of his or her daughter, published first in DB 12, Summer 2010, is filled with captivating depictions of life, as well as death. “We got out of the car, book pages whispering. The heat had a personality of its own, like someone who stands too close when they talk. Someone who can’t get enough of themselves.” Elizabeth J. Colen is the author of two poetry collections, Money for Sunsets (2010) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies (2012), as well as flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake (2011). She currently resides in Seattle and can be found writing about writing on her blog at http://elizabethjcolen.blogspot.com/ Click to read “Hell is for Children”
First thing you learn is you always gotta wait.
- The Velvet Underground, “I’m Waiting for the Man”
Like it says in the Bible: To be absent from the body is to be present with God, to be absent from society is to be on a higher plain.
- Robert, hobo interviewed in Bill Daniel’s Who is Bozo Texino? film, riffing on 2 Corinthians 5:8
Before I begin on the second leg of our journey into the ways a poetics can be formed and transformed by riding freight trains and hitch-hiking, it is worth mentioning again that hopping trains and hitching carry significant risk to life and limb, and should only be undertaken by experienced individuals or with an experienced individual as a sort of ‘mentor.’ More about the roughness of such modes of transport to come. For now, live free and ride hard!
If you recall the first of these posts, you’ll remember that it dealt with transitory states, with movement, and how such states inform a poetics by leading the transient being out of him or herself, towards ineffability that becomes the material of poetry. What that first post left out is that traveling by freight also requires periods of stasis and rest, as one is always at the mercy of logistics— trains arrive or do not arrive based on innumerable factors both mundane and extraordinary, and even when they do arrive, there are not always rideable cars in which to stow away. Some amount of predictability is a given— certain trains with certain destinations leave from certain yards like clockwork— but oftentimes, there is some temporal mutability embedded in the massive infrastructure of arrivals and departures. Where that leaves the transient being is in a zone where movement is desired but cannot be undertaken, a space outside of typical temporal realities yet ultimately dependent on them. This Beckettian soil, with its awesome variety of constitutive elements, can fall under a number of different terms depending on its proximity to where trains stop, how the space is maintained, and whether it is an appropriate spot to bed down for a wink.
But what happens to the transient being when within these spaces, these idylls or nightmares or commingled oddnesses? How does this strange static territory inform a poetics?
Among the most fascinating aspects of the liminal spaces associated with the transitory state is that they can often be approached only through a weirdly rarefied reading of signs and symbols. For example, much has been made of the old hobo sign language, an abbreviated version of which is reproduced below:
Sadly, the use of such codes is rare in today’s world, but the transient being’s precise reading of space can still be rewarded— the rail spike by the side of a road will point to a path that leads to a secluded spot under a bridge, a bent-up fence signifies what can often be a good entry point to a train yard, and a smattering of loose cardboard, soup and beer cans, and charred wood can show one a back trail to a friendly store where one can pick up water and other necessary supplies. What happens as one travels is that a new way of connecting signifiers to signifieds emerges, and thus, liminal territories that are usually overlooked are opened up, and a shrouded language is brought out of the shadows to be stored within the transient being’s argot cache.
Once arrived in these transitional spaces, however, the traveler is caught within their circumstances. Thus, for every leafed woody perch beside a gurgling brook, there is the underside of a highway overpass where dirty rigs and broken glass clutter choking dust, and for every tranquil oak-studded rural country trail, there is a mess of barbed wire with sirens and gunshots clattering on nearby streets. Yet despite these obvious contrasts, many such spaces share at least one similarity, and that is their remoteness— whether tucked into valleys ringed by mountains or crammed into the density of industrial plants and urban power centers, they are not locales that most people notice, let alone attempt to venture into. As such, the spaces yield the transient being a sort of shaky freedom, where the yoke of the job squad and the droning of the capitalist teletechnological matrix are not altogether present, though such unfortunate beasts might be mere footsteps away.
These liminal spaces, then, provide for an absence from society that is clarifying, for not only do they allow the transient being an unusual view of landscape sans much of the bemoaned visual clutter of our times, but they also allow for a receptiveness to possibilities concrete and cosmic. It seemed a joke, almost, that I first came upon Gary Snyder’s “What You Should Know to Be A Poet” in an Olympia bookstore mere hours after I had hopped off a moving train in Tacoma. I sat, rapt, and let Snyder break down what we should know to be poets:
all you can know about animals as persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
the names of stars and the movements of planets
and the moon.
your own six senses, with a watchful elegant mind.
at least one kind of traditional magic:
divination, astrology, the book of changes, the tarot;
the illusory demons and the illusory shining gods;
kiss the ass of the devil and eat shit;
fuck his horny barbed cock,
fuck the hag,
and all the celestial angels
and maidens perfum’d and golden—
& then love the human: wives husbands and friends.
children’s games, comic books, bubble-gum,
the weirdness of television and advertising.
work, long dry hours of dull work swallowed and accepted
and livd with and finally lovd. exhaustion,
the wild freedom of the dance, extasy
silent solitary illumination, enstasy
real danger. gambles. and the edge of death.
Having just eaten shit after half-falling off a slow-moving train, the last line of Snyder’s poem struck me hardest as I read; after all, many too many freight-riders are missing digits or limbs from unfortunate (or idiotic) encounters with train cars, wheels, and tracks. But as I read the poem again (and again), I began to realize that Snyder’s words portray the state of being transient in liminal spaces almost perfectly. Time spent in wooded or rural liminalities teaches “the names of trees and flowers and weeds/ the names of stars and the movements of planets,” and this knowledge is both practical and slightly esoteric. Such knowledge is in contrast with “the weirdness of television and advertising,” cognizance of which is necessary, but only insofar as one knows how to avoid its Mammon-like tentacles, a goal that is integral to the transient being’s impulse in the first place.
Then there is the “extasy” and “enstasy.” The former is inextricably tangled with the reception of the ineffable, the “real danger” that the transitory state breathes. But the latter, the enstatic, is what interests me most about the transient being’s experience in liminal spaces. The aforementioned remoteness of such spaces can allow for withdrawal from the world, its jarring violence and teletechnology, and in the lack that sometimes results from such withdrawal, poetry can fruit. I often think of such emptying of the self as a washing-over, a tide of overwhelm that leaves little in its wake besides air entering and exiting the lungs, along with a sort of bare consciousness. It is akin to what St. John of the Cross writes of when he ends his Dark Night of the Soul with “I went out from myself, and all things ceased.” While I claim no closeness to any deities, I find myself drawn to the liminal spaces, the enstatic spaces, not only because I feel the emptying affirms being at its most naked, but also because it eventually offers space for new ideas of creation to run without inhibitions of territory
“Coping Prana,” the final poem of Will Alexander‘s Compression & Purity, can be read as working in tandem with the idea of a life force existing in the margins, in the liminal spaces, in enstasis, and how this is a form of power. The poem details a putting-upon, an oppression that comes from the jive world of “dominance and capital,” to quote another Alexander poem. He writes that such forces are “always seeking to have me neutered beneath my derma/ so as to talk to myself/ so as to cancel my structureless scrutiny.” Their existence depends upon destruction of life, of neutering one’s being so as to subsume one into a structure. He continues:
they speak of me as lawless
as a typhoon in a sea well
as to morals
as to fixed & accelerated combination
they fix me
as a fragment from a starving lion’s compendium
I am considered
as pointless positron without image
being leakage from a barbarous index province
To be “deserted/ bereft,” to be “pointless positron without image,” this is to inhabit an emptiness, a remoteness that has an analog in the transient being’s dwelling in the liminal. The “barbarous index province,” this is the monolith that has no room for energy and life power other than its own. Those who refuse to kowtow are squeezed out. You’ll find us in the cuts, lawless and filthy and wild-eyed and in trance, letting our poems write themselves as they should.
- TED REES
Ted Rees is a poet and essayist who spends most of his time in West Oakland, California, but travels around the western US on a regular basis. His current work focuses on environmental degradation and the struggles of wage labor. Previous writings can be found in the Double Burst featurette with Jared Stanley (Supersuperette 2014), Michael Cross’ Disinhibitor blog, Small Press Traffic’s website, Eleven Eleven, Ragtag, and a number of other publications both online and off. His two chapbooks include Outlaws Drift in Every Vehicle of Thought (Trafficker Press 2013) and Like Air (BentBoyBooks 2012). Forthcoming are chapbooks from Mondo Bummer and BentBoyBooks.
After a brief absence due to technical difficulties… Vintage Drunken Boat is back!
A collection of images out of DB 13 is the vintage pick on this sunny Throwback Thursday afternoon. Tanyth Berkely’s “The Field” is a series of seemingly-candid portraits of city dwellers in Atlanta and NYC combined with intriguing shots of the cities themselves.
Tanyth Berkely’s work has been collected by the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art and was featured in the 2010 exhibition, “Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography.” She has taught at NYU, Columbia University and SVA. In 2009, her work was showcased in a film about young American photographers entitled PEOPLE * LOVE * PHOTOS.
Samantha Giles’s brilliant, scary Deadfalls and Snares (Futurepoem) maps military detention from various inside-outs, constructing registers of alien phenomenology through exacting, deformative forms. The grammar of self-violence and self-mutilation she invents in the first section to re-present torture at Abu Ghraib (and its internal drive to spectacle) is riveting, as are the creepy truncations of appropriated discourse on hunting and skinning animals in the second section, shot through with sinisterly contentless redacted phone conversations. The book’s final section syncopates grids of curiously blanked photograph descriptions with critique of the Western subject-perpetrator’s crushingly de-ethicized gaze. Each of these parts is prefaced by recombinant, revelatory writing-through of Moby-Dick’s “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter: these pieces discordantly jam together phrases containing “white” for an oversaturated white-out, activating the contradictions immanent to Melville’s commentary on the many angled symbolic violence of whiteness, particularly its capacity to void. This book is right on time as Iraq re-enters cataclysm (if ever it left).
What a pleasure is Rodney Koeneke’s Etruria (Wave)… In an era of content frenzy, this book’s restrained, personal range of reference is refreshing and real. Koeneke’s expert command of certain prose and poetic styles – and his unabashed literary flourish in a number of different registers – is set off by his own hallmark tendency to elongate sentences, phrase for luscious phrase, into labyrinths whose every corridor brims with wit and forbearing. The resulting parallel Etruscan universe is learned, wise, and obliquely melancholy while also light and funny, its idiom from the precisely historical to the precisely contemporary by turns natural, savvy, and camp. Here is a preternatural social sensibility that remains poignant even as it confronts what today passes for the sentimental; here is an elegant figural technique that never disappoints. In the opening bravura poem, Koeneke notes sidelong, “I am no O’Hara” – but to tell the truth, I’m not so sure.
Holly Melgard’s Friends & Family (bon aire projects) archives Joey Yearous-Algozin’s verbatim transcription of three years of voicemail addressed to his partner Holly Melgard. Catching hold of the ultimate ephemera, this compulsively readable act of medium translation is also a virtuosic performance of genre-bending that runs the gamut of conceptualism, confessional lyric, documentary, life-writing, novella… HMFF not only flaunts its intimacy, but tenderly weaponizes it, the reader entrapped as solicited eavesdropper in an all-too-familiar contemporary circuit of oversharing as the text movingly exhibits white, working class precarity, bringing Melgard’s own complex class affinities and more especially her affective labor as daughter into relief. The book knows itself inserted into that economy of affect: the flipside of its macho propriety over Melgard’s messages, its gendered debasement of the love object in abject disclosure, is Yearous-Algozin’s over-identification with his lover. One can’t help but imagine that such a listening to and (word-) processing of her messages enacts a therapeutic commoning and lessening of their burdens.
Inter Arma (Fence), Lauren Shufran’s neo-Ovidian masterpiece (this term used advisedly), ingeniously retrofits Amores’s tropology and metrics for the twenty-first century, reinventing the stress position to bear on neoliberalism’s brutal muting of the law. Through the metaphoric vortices that swirl around the duck-cum-detainee-cum-soldier she conscripts as lyric subject, Shufran piteously and wickedly compresses the cruel cages of factory farming, indefinite detention, and military masculinity – her audacity and wit convincingly moving her speaker beyond bathos. Here burns an homological alchemy of desire, hate, fear, and murderous aggression that reveals the complex intersections of homophobic, genocidal, and carnivorous urges: Shufran’s an anti-Aesop of geese on hunger strike, of a Private macho to get fucked in barracks in his Gaga-drag, of sheep fallen so far past pastoral they’re water-boarded in a wishing well, knitting Afghans of their own wool. A superplus tour de force that rigorously reconceives all border zones, the human/animal to the proper/figural to the Western/Arab.
Lastly, I make note of Hervé Guibert’s The Mausoleum of Lovers: Journals 1976 – 1991, trans. Nathanaël (Nightboat). I have just begun this long book (its length hardly the reason one would note the unobtrusive heroism of Nathanaël’s gorgeous, vigilant translation) and am completely hooked, turning the pages slowly as though that could make it last longer. What stands out already is Guibert’s extreme fluidity as a writer – capture of nuances of thought and feeling – his sense of relation, his compassionate interest in himself and his self-knowledge (especially his sense of his younger selves), his care for the flesh of the world, his constant awareness of the mortality of all bodies…