blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Chapbook Reviews III:
Kate Greenstreet, G.C. Waldrep, F. Daniel Rzicznek, Idra Novey,
Benjamin Scott Grossberg

Chapbook Reviews: Visions of the Imagined World

Often, in an omnibus review, the need to create narrative unity from a diverse collection of poets and aesthetics can require a magician’s touch: a rounding off of what doesn’t fit the peculiar boundaries of the review so the collections themselves don’t wrongly feel square-peg-round-hole. Happily, through all my immersions in these poets’ works, I didn’t have to amputate the rabbits to get them in the hat.

At the same time that these collections grapple with the tensions of being in and of the world, their negotiations create pockets of openness—spaces where the grit and particulars yield, if ever so briefly, to visions of possible futures. It is in these sometimes very different encounters and evocations that these poets write urgency and necessity into the worlds of their books.

Learning the Language, by Kate Greenstreet (Etherdome, 2005)                       



Socrates may have said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but Kate Greenstreet’s Learning the Language reveals introspection at its most collaborative and worldly. The collection opens with “Introvert,” included here in its entirety:

          Deep in my own green element,
          I met a friend—
          my double, my dearest.

          pulled me out of the sea,
          placed me

          in this pan of water,
          added salt, and taught me
          to eat bread.

The duality of this poem is striking. Without a delineation of before and after, the removal of cause and effect (yanked from introspection after meeting her counterpart, or a meeting forced by the outside world?) creates an existential dilemma for the speaker. It also reminds us that timelines and lists are not organic to our experiences, but superimposed to make sense of our pasts and futures—an important reminder, as Greenstreet’s focus remains on making sense of the continually unfolding and free-associating present.

Interestingly, this friend is the speaker’s double, and one of the beauties of this collection is how Greenstreet is able to create two personae of the same speaker—at once self-reflective and fully engaged in the world’s motions, as in “Yellow Book,” which begins “Was there really no name for my life?” Later, she muses through the months of autumn, realizing:

          The urge to travel, the longing for home,
          it comes to us
          as weather.

          The rain when it started

          sounded like fire burning paper,
          or dry leaves.

          What is in us already.

          Because we love the ground,
          the uncrossed distance.

Divided into four sections, with several poems within and among sections sharing titles, Learning the Language evokes the blurry motion between conscious self and discovered self as it catalyzes the soft (but never oblique) mysteries of the speaker’s journey. Water and color figure prominently in the shifting internal and external landscapes, and the speaker’s relationship to her conjured self shifts too. As the collection moves toward conclusion, in the fourth and final title poem the speaker tells us that:

          Near the end, she kept asking,
          “When can we go home?”
          “We are home,” I’d say, sometimes.
          I’d say, “Soon.”

The movement is organic and tidal, sometimes one and then the other with varying pitches and textures, though this fluctuation is true of the conflicts too: the discovered self was not a shadow with a different idea of home, but an equal with an ultimately different need. “Sometimes in the middle of the woods the signing stops”; and, after the speaker’s traveling companion has wandered off “following a sound?” in the final poem, “The Interpreter,” the speaker can give us only half of her voice, a translation:

          Flatted fifth,
          “the devil’s interval”—mad
          with grief, but trying to “get somewhere.”
          The little sister dies and no one mentions her again.
          Big wave, we get ahead of it somehow.
          This road.
          It’s hard.
          It’s mud.
          as dust.
          We walk on it.

The double, the dearest, from arm-in-arm to another wave to get in front of; the road from mud to dust: once, a world did slide belly first from the salt, and Greenstreet gives us the language for it.

Kate Greenstreet was born in Chicago and currently resides in New Jersey, where she works as a graphic designer. Her first collection of poems, case sensitive, was recently published by Ahsahta Press. Her chapbook, Learning the Language, was published by Etherdome Press in 2005. Her poems have appeared in Bird Dog, Conduit, can we have our ball back?, GutCult, Diagram, and other journals. She received a Fellowship from the NJ State Council on the Arts in 2003. Some of her new work appears in Cannibal and Vanitas.


The Batteries, by G. C. Waldrep (New Michigan Press, 2006)


The Batteries, book cover

In G. C. Waldrep’s The Batteries (contained in Disclamor, forthcoming from BOA in 2007), the speaker is also learning a new language for the strange circumstances of his world:

          In this dream I am a tour guide
                  but I speak in some other language—
                        I am the only one
                  who does not understand
                          the words I am saying.

          At a long oak table I lift the lid
                  of a tool box,
                                      remove each implement,
                          explain its purpose.
          Lay it aside.
                  Move on to the next.

                  With each
          the crowd around me grows larger,
                          more silent, more attentive.

This middle section from “Battery Alexander” reveals the speaker’s metaphorical dilemma: how to be attentive to a language of objective truth. To achieve this, Waldrep builds on Whitman’s use of the catalog poem as a democratizing device. What startled me the most throughout these poems was their careful detachment—almost as if the National Park Service was in the practice of hiring poets to reveal the landscape’s history and multifaceted truths to new waves of tourists. In “Battery Townsend,” our guide asserts in his notes: “In time of war the poets turn to war / each in his best manner” and each of the nine poems in this collection is a sequence that “is named for and was first drafted at the site of one of the nine former gun emplacements at Forts Barry and Cronkhite, demilitarized since 1974 and today part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.”
Blending fragments of military history and jargon from World War II and the Cold War with graffiti left by park visitors from 1978 to 2003, Waldrep creates an agenda-less speaker to catalog and sift through the literal and metaphoric debris of “the hammer, the anvil, path along which / we step // one into another.” Pro-War and Anti-War, love and death, artillery and picnic tables already compete in this landscape, and when our guide does meditate on the collision of layers, it is not to reveal preference. Instead, in the opening poem, he takes stock of the spectrum (“Can you believe I once stood for war? / (Can you believe I once stood against it?)”) because “The purpose of images / is to attract other images, / one beside another, / above, beneath, / eventually superseding,” because “Here, we invented a new language for the poets.”

Collage and fracture are not new, but in an era when bias can influence the choices of addition, exclusion, and arrangement, the re-seeing that comes from impartiality may be Waldrep’s greatest overture toward inventing that new language. Seldom do we see our guide intervene or directly alter this landscape, and while one instance of graffiti compels him to do just that:

                     OF MASS DESTRUCTION
               INTO MY NATIONAL PARKS.

          —This is not quite right. The weapons came first,
               mass, the destruction; then
                       picnic tables.

his actions are still democratic in that they serve to re-balance the strange harmony of collision and aftermath, statement and restatement, that characterizes the rest of parks’ graffiti, as we see in “Battery Rathbone-McIndoe”:

          In chalk, baby blue
               with yellow highlights:
                      “Love Your Family & Nature.”
               (Underneath, neatly printed
                      in what looks like White-out:
Sometimes the imagery tends toward the arcane, as in “I want to be humane, but in my heart / nineteenth-century Californians / keep telling yellow peril jokes.” Still, the succinctness does reinforce this collection’s formal strategies, even for those who may not understand the significance of the allusion to the Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s possible that such ignorance would allow some sections such as the opening to “Battery O’Rouke” to assert an even greater emotional resonance:

          What is written here fades quickly.
                 Faces drawn in chalk,
                                                            the idea
                 of defense, of a beach
                                           ripe for landing.

          West, east, the longitudes of war.
                   This is no place for monuments.  

America hasn’t experienced the fragmentary effects of war on our landscape since the secession, and this “idea / of defense” is at the foundation of our culture of war. While San Francisco’s batteries may have prevented a splintering of the literal landscape, their presence wasn’t enough to prevent the psychic fragmentation of the cultural and geo-political wars waged daily in the conversations and minds of Americans at home or fighting for American interests abroad.

In form and content, Waldrep’s positioning of lines on the page echoes the shifting layers that have settled into our literal and metaphoric landscapes, and it is through the accumulation of fragmented rhetorical modes that The Batteries best evokes the tumultuousness and breeziness of San Francisco’s converted batteries with laudable impartiality—and one that gives hope for our current wars’ eventual postscripts.

G.C. Waldrep currently serves as a visiting professor of English at Kenyon College. In 2005-06 he served as a visiting professor of poetry and history at Deep Springs College in California. He is the author of Goldbeater’s Skin, which won the 2003 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and of the chapbooks The Batteries, published by New Michigan Press in 2006, and One Way No Exit, forthcoming from Narwhal. His other honors include the Greenwall Award from the Academy of American Poets, as well as awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.


Cloud Tablets, by F. Daniel Rzicznek (Kent State, 2006)


Cloud Tablets, book cover

As a title, Cloud Tablets may imply that Rzicznek has moved above it all, sending prose poems as salvation notes to all of us on the ground still thick in our lives. But our guide is also a student of the world—while Greenstreet and Waldrep begin to renegotiate themselves by effecting an artificial distance from their previous ways of being, the prose poems of Cloud Tablets stay deep in the quotidian clamor, their speaker “lost as I had been yesterday, winding through the shouts and songs of the market’s fringe.”

What is unique about these poems is the balance they strike between a life and its lyrical dreams: in the clothes of spiritual awakening as the speaker, freshly and without cynicism, accepts being lost and as he creates brief moments of personal redemption through juxtapositions of the tangible and the just-out-of-reach.

Like clouds fat with the world’s run-off, Rzicznek gives us a reality in process where “men hang amazed and barefoot on the garage roofs, hurling beer cans and swinging shirts above their heads,” where “garages tear away from the sides of houses” and “cars tumble and flip uselessly from the sliding buildings.” Seraphim shout over the music in a nightclub. Sheep enter a library to bray at Dante. “In a Land With No Sky,” our world’s prognosis is grim:

The voice we hear even while we sleep howls over the loudspeakers like something fighting with itself. We wake, gather our picks and shovels. We hold them in our arms. Like lost limbs that no longer recall their bodies, they are dry and sorrowful. We love the handles most, the only trees left.

The opening poem, “Response on a Cloud Tablet,” is the only exception to this shades-of-grey reality. Simultaneously addressing his readers and the speaker that will inhabit the book’s remaining poems, Rzicznek tells us: “Dear beauty-faced, waiting listener: it pleases me to inform you that . . . I have now become a pattern that will play in the back of your eye. . . . You will see a child pretending to cradle a baby against her chest. I will be the air in her arms and you will breathe part of me in without trying.”

Upping the ante on the stuff other poets might lament or elegize, Rzicznek’s speaker emerges in the second poem, “In a Land With No Sky,” already acclimated to the world. This is a land of unsettling noise and fracture, yet he is able to encounter the sad strangeness of each poem with a faith that wholeness lurks in the corners, as in the final sentences of that poem:

I would take a handful of shattered glass from the factory windows and throw it into the air. And for half a moment it hangs there, going neither up nor down and glinting like a patch of stars seen through a cloud.

Offered a new way of reckoning, the speaker finds increasing unity, however brief, as the collection unfolds. In “Pecuniary,” it appears as an overlooked reprieve: “In some green sector of the heart, a radio is playing.” In “Gambling on the Sabbath,” as insight:

I am listening for my father and his brother to speak the stories bound up behind their jaws. I know they will put stones in their own eyes and stuff their mouths with the wet leaves of riverbeds, and I know they will keep throwing dice down toward their wives.

If a salvation note were to appear in this collection, it would read: This is what it’s like to fall off a round world. And here is where, and why, you hold on.

F. Daniel Rzicznek teaches English at Bowling Green State University, where he also serves as poetry editor for Mid-American Review. His poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Boston Review, Double Room, Fugue, Meridian, New Hampshire Review, and other journals. His chapbook of prose poems, Cloud Tablets, published by Kent State University Press in 2006, won the 2004 Wick Poetry Center Chapbook Competition.


The Next Country, by Idra Novey (The Poetry Society of America, 2005)


The Next Country, book cover

As the landscape fluctuates from post-Allende Chile to Appalachia to Byzantium by train and points in between, you could make a home inside of the language Idra Novey shapes into the world of The Next Country—and indeed her speaker does.

The collection opens with “East of Here,” immediately wedding reality with speculation as the speaker describes “the next country over” where “the sole religion seems / to be bread,” where “if someone you’ve doted on // dies there defending the nation, / seven emissaries for the president // come by, all wearing stethoscopes, / and listen to your heart.” The empty gesture of these emissaries’ gifts to the dead heroes’ families—“a list of either questions or answers, / but never both”—is unsettling, but also instructive. When faced with the unacceptable, invent something new. In “Report From Appalachia,” the speaker recreates her relationship with her surroundings:

          My brother became a flag, the decorative kind
          made for hanging on the patio; he folded

          and unfolded himself with the wind, eclipsing
          his teal meaningless stripes. He’d flap all night long,

          taut and wanting. I heard him, but couldn’t stop
          being the ornament in the grass, the plaid backside
          of a woman weeding, beached among the impatiens.
          At some point, orange leaves obscured the yard
          and we were transported to the slow breathing
          deep of the garage. And we are still there.
          One hidden, rusting behind the two-seat bicycle.
          The other trapped under the badminton.
          It is a way of loving, perhaps, simply
          being this familiar, unreachable.

While admitting the reality of “we are still there,” the speaker has discovered mythmaking through metaphorical reinvention, and the effects of this are profound. As The Next Country unfolds, the speaker and those around her grow increasingly comfortable as immigrants in a world of dreams and transcended geographies.

In “Property,” her recently-evicted mother imagines “a horse ranch, mornings / of mares” and seasons that “will only happen / in the evenings. Midday will always yield sun” because “there is no need for exactitude in fantasy.” A friend tells her after soccer practice that “he was one of three to survive / his border crossing” but will return to Montenegro “in a silver Lexus, a doctor // of something, and stir up / the yellow dust on his brother’s road.” Much later in the collection, “Two Women In a Barn” shows the sustained malleability and permanence of these dreams:

          It happens that a mother slips into parchment
          and rolls up gradually around the fictions

          of her children. That she becomes an almond
          and softens in the pockets of cotton garments.

          Sleeps with her glasses on in her daughter’s house
          and vanishes in the morning. That this is often

          the case—and she has coerced her grown child
          into going to feed her blind horse, to watch it

          list oddly in the small paddock, wanting
          the daughter to love horses, at least hers.

Like bread, dreaming is the religion of this place. The speaker travels into the stories and sights of Panama and Chile; travels into the literature of Neruda, Yeats, and Delmore Schwartz; travels in and out of a marriage; but for all the crises she finds at home and abroad, violins still mysteriously assemble in her coat pockets, and as she discovers in “To Byzantium, By Train,” there is still refuge to be found in “the inarguable grace of a farm // just past, or passing, or to come.”

Idra Novey teaches writing at Columbia University. In 2005, her chapbook, The Next Country, was published by the Poetry Society of America and was selected for the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Literary Review, and other journals. Her book of selected translations of Brazilian poet Paulo Henriques Britto received a P.E.N. Translation Fund Award and is forthcoming from BOA Editions in Fall 2007.


The Auctioneer Bangs His Gavel, by Benjamin Scott Grossberg (Kent State, 2006)


The Auctioneer Bangs His Gavel, book cover

Sometimes our dreams, however lyrical and immediately transcendent they may be, can serve as reminders of what we are denied, and Benjamin S. Grossberg’s The Auctioneer Bangs His Gavel wastes no time underscoring this point.

Opening with “Pig Auction” and the auctioneer’s “Three quarter quarter quarter do I have half?, the speaker implores us to “Picture this: a tent, two hundred spectators // on three sides, auctioneer on a dais.” As the narrative continues to unfold, the descriptions of this auctioneer are worth noting: “his voice / tripping along between speech and song—,” his “voice tripping / like water down a rock face”—speech and song merged into aggressive salesmanship; the tranquil and quenching properties of water replaced by the torrential and adversarial qualities of a flood.

Though the speaker and his companion eventually move on, the pig’s oblivion to the dinner plate lingers. In successive poems, Grossberg establishes the animal kingdom as a reflective trope through which the speaker considers gay sexuality, with society and God taking turns on the auctioneer’s dais. The visceral impact of this is jarring.

The first thirty-five lines of “Beetle Orgy” focus on the speaker’s discovery of beetles mating at an abandoned tennis court, “coupling in company, hundreds of them, / the rows melding to make a single metallic band” then cuts abruptly to

          Back in Houston, a friend had parties—
          lawn bags in the living room numbered with tape
          to store guest clothing; plastic drop cloths
          spread out in the spare bedroom (cleared of furniture
          for the occasion), a tray of lubricants, different
          brands in tubes or bottles, labels black, red, and silver
          —a high tea sensibility.
          The room pulsing as if inhabited by
          a single animal, caught up in a single sensibility.
          Could I understand?

In the last half of the poem as the speaker (not invited because he wasn’t HIV positive) attempts to understand, he returns to the animal kingdom, varying phrases borrowed from the opening passages of the beetles as “a band of light, a band of glaze, the gold leafing / that shadows the vines in Celtic manuscripts, a living art.” In the final turn to the conclusion, Grossberg raises the theological questioning that will inform and transform the remaining poems in the collection:

          Maybe that’s how it was at my friend’s parties—
          God leaning over the house on a casual tour

          of the wreck of the world, noticing ornamentation
          where it wasn’t expected. Moved to add
          His touch, He reaches a hand through the clouds, runs
          His finger over the hard arch of their backs, covering
          the length of each spine with the tip;

          each man brightens at the touch, comes to know
          something expected, unexpected, and tenuous—
          and God, also, comes to some knowledge
          as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased
          by the collective brightness of human skin . . .

          Then I think of God fitting the roof back on
          my friend’s house, and exhaling, satisfied—
          just like me as I walk away
          from the tennis court, just like the men inside.

Interestingly, the poems reveal the adversarial relationship to be not so much with God, but with the institution of god, as we see in “Incantation”:

          It was for your sake
          he added those lines about Sodom and man
          lying with mankind; he knew you were
          just my kind—and built up his hests
          against it. Sometimes Jesus gets the upper hand
          and you don’t call for a week. Then he gloats,
          raises toasts with the Father and Holy Ghost—
          three corporate tycoons closing a deal
          with champagne.

Fusing theology with the mundane, in other poems Grossberg presents a cocktail party hosted by angels for the end of the world, a lover’s blue-black poodle, why God hated Onan, Hellenic myth, a high school friend’s HIV scare. The collection ends with “Two Apples”—one Eve’s, one the speaker’s—three sections of lyric explorations on the speaker’s first lover and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden. By the time the collection closes with “I still didn’t know // what I had done, or why I had done it, / or why it was that I hadn’t done it before,” we realize that this is a book of prayers to the Maker of beetles and pigs, prayers in the old sense: as a way of understanding the world.

Benjamin Scott Grossberg is a professor at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. His first full-length book, Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath, won the 2005 Snyder Prize and is forthcoming from Ashland Poetry Press. His chapbook, The Auctioneer Bangs His Gavel, was published by Kent State University Press and won the 2005 Wick Chapbook Competition for Ohio Poets. His poetry has appeared in the journals North American Review, Paris Review, and Southwest Review, among others.  His critical work has appeared in Studies in English Literature, Studies in American Fiction, and The Journal of Homosexuality.  end of text

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