Wednesday, August 23, 2006


JON LEON offers mini-reviews of three chaps: GUITAR SMASH by Brian Howe; LYRIC POETRY AFTER AUSCHWITZ: ELEVEN SUBMISSIONS TO THE WAR by Kent Johnson; and THRENODY by Tom Clark

GUITAR SMASH by Brian Howe
(3rdness, Atlanta, 2006)

Brian Howe is pioneering a new type of poetry I’ll call Science Future. He pushes the boundaries of what a poem can be by assimilating technology, sampling, and repetition to transcend and skirt categorizations like modern, post, and avant. Little trace of the author can be found in Guitar Smash. It is poetry with a life of its own, organized through a process distinguishable from “human” poetry. That is, Brian Howe is an alien. Yet as “Posthuman Romance” exclaims, “The word ‘unnatural’ is never a compliment.”

In the posthuman world “Altering the structure of the English language/Making it more fucked up and fluid...” is completely natural. Accordingly, Brian Howe writes straight poems about the real world; aesthetically alert imidazoles synthesizing the copious amount of information transferred at a vamped speed. Guitar Smash, then, is wholly given over to the seduction of the present and that sentiment is embedded in the book and complicit “with the avant-garde...against meaning, history, intentionality, the final demise of modernism.”

When describing Guitar Smash the question of success or failure is a moot point. It is not even a book and therefore cannot be situated around the relative merit or demerit of its enterprise. Guitar Smash represents and reflects our world’s drive to advance at all costs. The costs of the process of appropriation and textual manipulation is a human cost and once we release our poetic variances upon the world we are alienated from them. Guitar Smash exists in the world as an inexchangeable, terminally unsaleable oddity. In the poem “Poetry” Howe, perhaps accidentally, architecturizes a plausible manifesto for the genre. The poem begins “poetry is passion/for real people/a political act” and goes on to assert “poetry is not something” and “poetry is not something I do.”

Poetry has endured a long tradition and is ever advancing. The most effective of young poets are the ones who question, and agitate the very definition and usefulness of the form. Howe does so with the spaces between the block of words in “Thermopoetics” which create a metronomic anvil effect, placing primary attention on the ear to enact a music. Any images or meaning associated with the squall roam like flashlights in a basement dive. The jagged cannonball rhythm pounds with a dyslexic beat to the raucous of an emerging and ________ generation.


Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War by Kent Johnson
(effing press, Austin, TX 2005)

Rat-a-tat-tat. What can one say about this book but that it is necessary. As necessary as "crispy girl," "four little girls incinerated in a mud compound," "head a little bit on fire," "often-raped / kids," "the making of bombs," "machete'd babies in the streets," "open eyed bodies on slow fire," "a fifteen inch dildo down your mouth," "torture prisons," and "we did our best" are unnecessary. Kent Johnson gives us all the tallied brutality we can stomach but with a big-shot heart and mindful sincerity. In the Preface to Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, a letter to Campus Watch, Johnson states in parentheses that "not everyone would judge it poetry!" It is poetry sine qua non, in the most classical and historical sense and simultaneously advanced-plus. A tendentious beach fire for the bland poetic notions so desperate in their idiotic will to persevere into the 21st century. Here, in only 40 pages, we can be scared, excited, endangered, and hopeful all together. The attention that Johnson directs to the startling details of current events could be an example in constructing a world of accountability, an integral activity lest we become like "Volvo driving academics" carpooling with "the girl . . . seemingly oblivious to the gunfire and screams." For in that world we would not need to call these poems "exceptional" or "brave" because all poems would be nothing other than. We can sense his contempt of retreat and muted protest in "Bernstein's 'Enough,'" an appropriate response to Charles Bernstein's argument in favor of "ambiguity," "complexity," and "skepticism" as opposed to anti-war poetry that is "overtly political and written in language that approximates the norm." Without action and responsibility we may only lower our heads in shame and imagine the Poet mocking us into exile; perhaps returning some lucky day to enjoy "surplus time the labor of others has more or less made." That husky labor in American Poetry is generously taken up by the efforts of Kent Johnson in his chapbook Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War. One may have to brush away the rabble and mob from the bookshelf to accommodate such commitment.


Threnody by Tom Clark
(effin' press, Austin, 2006)

Threnody opens with a prologue called “Dead End” describing the loss of the “heavy industries that built our world and shaped our lives”—the compulsion to press forward through time in this world which “has only one direction, forward, and one speed, this speed, and one destination, a dead end that repeats itself over and over.” Bleak, yes, and the book remains so during the course of its ten poems and eight pictorials illustrating the grim subject matter. A track which accompanies the reader on a darkly sentimental trip through the debris of ghostly absent industrial landscapes.

Threnody is a quick and minimal imagistic shutter of a near distant boompast. Clark communicates his elegiac reminiscences by way of highly readable and compelling poetry describing a “colorless world.” A melancholic tone pervades throughout the book.

3. Scroll

A junction we pass a switch the rails diverge
We are compelled along the right-hand set of tracks
The tracks on the left vanish into drifting snow
Snow blows toward us splats wetly and melts upon the glass
We approach a level crossing between low industrial buildings
Snow blowing from left to right across the tracks
At the level crossing a signal light a flagman a single forlorn pedestrian
               holding an umbrella against the stinging wind
We continue on between long empty loading ramps
Through interstices in guardrails and fences peek starved ghost trees
Time passes and all we know is this colorless white-gray world
These white-dark hulking shapes this wet gray-white snow
We’ve never been here
We will never be back
The tracks go on unscrolling
And we go on following the tracks
These endless parallels endlessly unravelling

Movement, time, and progress are detailed and stilted for a moment in a wistful snapshot—grainy and gray-white. With the sheds, ramps, powerlines, chimneys, abandoned factories, and vacant warehouses Clark’s poems move at the pace of memory’s unscrolling. Threnody is a memorial to modern times and a munificent reminder that “Poets sang lamentations once.”


Jon Leon is author of Boxd Transistor. Some recent articles and poems appear in Jacket, Magazine Cypress, Ghost Play, and Dusie.


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