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Loss, Covid and More: Recent Contemporary Poetry in English

by

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa  

 

 

I've been obsessed with a number of books recently that I keep reading and rereading. In addition to Seidenberg's plain sight, another book that has caught my attention is Cynthia Hogue's achingly beautiful In June the Labyrinth. This book about loss was published a couple of years ago but only recently came to my attention. It successfully combines a more traditional lyricism with avant-garde bits. Despite the narrative parts, the book taken as a whole is almost a master class in poetic experimentation, such is the variety of approaches Hogue adroitly adopts. Through the course of the book we learn that "Elle" is a mother who died in June leaving two daughters behind. We get the story in pieces, glimpses and tidbits. The central metaphor of the labyrinth works well and thinking of the lives of the person loved and dying and the ones left behind as enmeshed in separate labyrinths is intriguing. Hogue keeps a steady hand throughout but maintains a light touch. This artfully crafted collection may be Hogue's best work to date. Here is a sample of her lyricism:  

Elle fell at first touch

Lazy the long and breezy sunlight / mingling==

                      [ . . . ]

 

           Love's acciden's

           glittering wand waves == hosts ==

           the delicate-eyed / the dowering

                                                                               (p. 20)

 

A few pages earlier appears an eight line list poem that begins:

a town satellites around its sacred structures

 

- "on a little rise in the square" -

 

tourist shops, selling icons, flutter with cards

 

- "the most important site of marian pilgrimage" -

                                                                                 (p.18)

 

Hogue also translates poetry from French and occasionally French lines or phrases appear in her work as in a poem titled ("to be-frend"):

- Fortified in the house: "la femme a la fenetre"

- "the most poetical topic in the world" -

- Here's freedom, C 

Hogue seems comfortable with and well-versed in a wide range of forms and styles. This panstylistic book stays with you long after you put it down. The loss within is palpable and anybody who has grieved will recognize stages of grief (and more) in this book.

 

The very prolific Pam Brown has a signature style that she continues in her latest, Endings & Spacings, but each time while maintaining her distinctiveness she comes up with something fresh, new and intriguing. How does she do it? In part I think it is because the world keeps changing and her books reflect the world beyond the reader. In this book people can't sleep and make herb tea in the middle of the night. It seems to be the perfect COVID bookthere is a restlessness here, a kind of jazzy improvised feel yet polished. There is a great deal of movement from image to observation, to details then abstractions. The whole thing works very well; I can't seem to get enough of this bookeach time I pick it up I find something new and attractive. I feel the world spinning around me as I read this book, like a camera going in a circular motion. Brown is as magnetic witty and smart here as ever as in this excerpt which illustrates how deftly she moves from observations to ideas to reflections to details:

   'cementing a positon

          as one of the country's leading researchers

    with the launch of a first book

                                                 &

                                                 a raft of fellowship and grants'

 

    `with wry wit                                 the emperors of the anagram

 invent imaginative formal constraints

                                                     not decor but credence`

 

     alright then           got that

                                           at 4am

 

 

 

white white teeth

            ping perfectionist bleats

 

artist talks

 

        idling

 

on the lonesome internet

 

 

new romantics rusting in the wine bar

 

 

                                             (p. 18)

 

Every page of "Endings and Spacings" is a captivating and fun journey into Brown's observations about the world around her and us.

 

Some readers may know of the anthology of Kiwao Nomura's poetry translated into English titled Spectacle and Pigsty. A newer smaller but groundbreaking and awe-inspiring collection is The Day Laid Bare translated by poet Eric Selland. It is an apt titlein this book I feel a gritty, dangerous, sometimes sexy but mesmerizing world is being stripped of its layers:

The nonperson sits on shoulders

That there is no end is a frightening rod I should think

 

The nonperson slit's someone's throat

Only the freedom of being torn to pieces screams at the top of

                  its voice  

 

                                                                                (p. 24)

Or:

Dappled in sunlight

One narrowly manages (to embark

For the floating world) with several wounds

Now the wounds open

                                                                       (p. 40)

 

Selland explains:

 

Certain key words are central to Nomura's poetic vocabulary: worlds like 'flesh', and 'parade'. The words 'roadblock' and 'parade', which name the various sections of the poem, have metaphoric meanings. [...] The parade is a metaphor for society, i.e., the world or the worldly. It is mostly negative. The  pieces of flesh move along in the parade like a Felliniesque carnival, unaware and un-conscious of themselves or the deeper meaning of existence. They are inhuman or subhumanor sometimes 'all too human' (Nietetzsche). (pp. 7-8)

 

The following excerpt may illustrate:

FOURTH FLESH is working. For instance, when you are immersed

in afternoon sleep in the eternity of water, that which multiplies

into many fish gathers together and eats the history of your

diseased skin, eats it all up nicely.

 

FIFTH FLESH is so smelly you could call it stench incarnate

                                                                                                            (p. 16)

 

The translator Eric Selland is an outstanding poet in his own right (one of my favorite books in recent years of contemporary poetry is his Arc Tangent, 2013 by the same press).   

 

When I first got Nomura's 80 pp. book, I could not put it down. I spent hours on the sofa reading it. I found it life-altering. I did not feel like the same person anymore when I got to the end of the book. And I keep returning to it to learn and experience more of Nomura's magic.

 

Nomura is one of Japan's leading poets. If you read The Day Laid Bare (approximately 70 pages and expertly translated) I think you will see why.

 

In a very different vein, The Pleasures of Peace by Paul Rossiter lives up to its name. If you have COVID induced insomnia or are tired of looking at screens or cooped up and your nerves frayed you can be swept away to various locations depicted in an often painterly way in this book. Most scenes are from Japan or the UK the two countries in which the poet divides his time, often natural settings but sometimes more urban. Rossiter's attention to fine detail is itself very Japanese to me. In a poem titled "North" which begins:

the train halts

 

windless silence, falling snow

visibility ten metres

twigs and branches, silver

birches muffled with heavy white

 

*

 

north-western coast

a sea in turmoil

among dark rocks  

                                                        (p. 27)  

 

you can see the sparse, economical style in which Rossiter often writes.

 

Two pages later you will find:

MORNING BUS

 

coastal villages

potholes and empty houses

no one to be seen

                                                  (p. 29)

 

and on the next page:

in the hush after

the shinkansen's departure

boot soles creak on snow

                                                 (p. 30)

 

On the next page of the book we will be transported to Tokyo versus snowy northern Japan in a poem titled "Local Ingredients":

WELCOME TO PANSY SATELLITE

 

                    sign over a shoe shop in the

underground passage at Shinjuku station

 

red cardboard speech bubbles

affixed to pert ankle boots say:

 

                            HOT!!!

 

and so on to L'AMBRE coffee shop

a plush and lofty-ceilinged basement

whose tobacco-stained stucco walls,

              rustic red-brick pillars, fake marble tables

                           and low red-velvet cushioned chairs

are lit by triple-decker wrought-iron chandeliers

suspended on dusty metal chains

 

         Beethoven plays from the speakers

         and here we are,

                                        effortlessly transported

         fifty years back to the late Showa Era

                                                                                        (p. 31)

 

Rossiter's subtle sense of humor can be found elsewhere in the book as on p. 60:

(interlude)

 

language

on display at the eco-lit conference in Plymouth:

 

          late catapultism

 

                   counter-desecration

 

                            the after-normal

 

         the Anthroposcenic

 

 

situated knowledge

 

                                                                 (end of interlude)

These four books could hardly be more different from each otherthe playful Endings and Spacings, the dark and nihilistic but engaging and sometimes humorous The Day Laid Bare, the mournful but exquisite In June the Labyrinth and the tranquil and subtle textures of The Pleasures of Peace.  There should be something for everybody here, or a book to match your mood perhaps.

 

 

 

copyright Jane Joritz-Nakagawa 

 

 

 

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of ten full length collections of poetry as well as chapbooks, fiction, and essays. Her most recent book is Plan B Audio (Isobar, 2020). Email is welcome at: janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.

 

 

 

 

Works cited

 

Brown, P. (2021). Endings & Spacings. Sydney: Never Never Books.

Hogue, C. (2017). In June the Labyrinth. Pasadena: Red Hen.

Nomura, K. (2020). The day laid bare. Trans. E. Selland. Tokyo/London: Isobar Press.

Nomura, K. (2011). Spectacle and pigsty. Trans. K. Yoshida and F. Gander. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn.

Rossiter, P. (2021). The Pleasures of Peace. Tokyo/London: Isobar Press.

Seidenberg, S. (2020). Plain sight. Berkeley: Roof Books.

Selland, E. (2013). Arc Tangent. Tokyo/London: Isobar Press.