PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews, viz “Random Diptych,”
Matching Skin by Shirlette Ammons
(Carolina Wren Press, Durham, NC, 2008)
A Coincidence of Wants by Michelle Detorie
Throne by Michael Cross
Majakovskij en Tragedy by Johannes Göransson
(#2 Dos Press Chapbook Series, San Marcos, TX, 2007)
[Editor’s Note: For “Random Diptych”, three poet-critics accepted my invitation to review two books together, with such books chosen at random from GR’s available review copies. “Random Diptych” presents a special challenge as, in addition to reviewing the individual book, the review also must read each book in the company of the other. Here is the result from Patrick James Dunagan who, as it turned out, wrote more than a diptych’s worth as the second publication incorporates three different poetry collections.]
In the Afterword to Matching Skin, Shirlette Ammons situates her poems in the context of her own “personal tug-of wars with identity” referencing Emerson and stating in summation: “I believe that it is the evolution from double-consciousness to multiple-consciousness that instigates and helps resolve my own internal struggles and informs the art and actions of many of the artists of my generation—particularly the dissident ones.” Constantly exposed to such the dizzying array of stimuli in any and all possible ways including personal, political, technological, requires such “evolution” in order to keep up the necessary awareness which is demanded by one’s art. It’s an ideal summation by Ammons, yet one wholly realizable as the ongoing reality of life is testified to by, as well as tested by, these poems.
Ammons’ book includes a cd recording of her closing four poem set, “John Anonymous” with the alliterative play of the book’s final lines “just anonymous / there’s just a lot of us” serving as testament to the fact that there are many selves at work throughout Ammons’ book. All are demanded for and called upon as she navigates the oftentimes treacherous playfulness of passing back and forth through anonymity while literally, as a poet, raising her voice in song.
The #2 chapbook of the first Dos Press Series is a coolly handmade sewn binding flip-over chapbook, with silk-screened covers, one side given exclusively to Michelle Detorie’s A Coincidence of Wants while the other side is split with Michael Cross’ Throne giving way to Johannes Göransson’s Majakovskij en Tragedy.
The quite separately distinct poetry of Detorie/Cross/Göransson is well matched by the plethora of poetic stylings Ammons rolls through across the course of her book where race, sex, and class are central concerns. She’s by far the more ‘public poet’ of this multi-poet-faceted diptych, her poems are often direct addresses to family and friends, yet remain grounded in conversation with literary forbearers.
And then last night I tiptoed up
inside the boiling brown of a literary caldron
white with Wheatley’s malnourished lips,
speaking easy an ashy English
stewing a vocabulary of double standards
before renaissance requests we write them down;
found myself feeling not-so-contemporary,
knocking the tedious junk
that innovates and materializes our lives
at an unforgivable speed
(“Revisting Baraka’s Preface”)
Of the three poets from the Dos Press chapbook, Detorie’s poems contain the most direct statement joining easily with Ammons in offering a sense of a particular place in terms of space and apparent conditions surrounding the personal occasion of writing, which is easily traced by the appearance of imagery, even if it is usually weird and uncertain.
It was winter, or we
imagined it was. Water
made of ice, lit leaves
and salt smell, dirt.
Even with the caveat of “or we / imagined” the specifics here are undeniably recognizable. As is likewise true with the description of singers in Ammons’ “The Wind Has Risen”
a big easy dirge belted by
a grave, brackish breeze
the somber swells of,
Oh bel beh like gulf water
gurgle beneath second line sarongs
Flipping the Dos Press chapbook over, correlations with Ammons are less immediately apparent as the verse becomes denser, more abstract, and endlessly disjunctive in relation to any sense of ready coherence. Yet this direction has an organic place in the “evolution” towards a “multi-consciousness” cited by Ammons in her Afterword.
Johannes Göransson does have moments where he hones in on the immediate event of feeling, as with these untitled lines.
I was carsick
I sent a postcard
to America wish
you were here
with a gas mask
In the landscape of Göransson’s poems the speaker is situated beyond the familiar, although the ordinary remains everywhere. A surrealist bent is apparent in his seemingly European transience—which feeling is increased by a few poems appearing in Göransson’s native Swedish not translated into English or vice versa but as evidence of the dual language experience of the poet to poetry: A situation of being caught between roles of identity/behavior which may be complimentary or conflicting. For Ammons the roles remain ones of racial and more often sexual identity, but poetry is the space for both where these issues are addressed, set down in language.
I swear, she a demon,
eyes wit nightmarish stares,
with her crinkled, tight prune
I loose any respect
for lower parts of my self
my bulging package
On the other hand, Throne by Michael Cross embraces an experimental performance of linguistic space pursuing, perhaps with some jokiness, the quite mutually bruising battle over poetic kingdom between poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan (Cross offers opportunity for such speculation by using epigraphs from each poet, the final words of each reading as sort of final summations of their never ending poetic rivalry: “…like a picture echoing” – Spicer, “…the place of the Law!” – Duncan).
sulpine in lisle hoods
how I speak for a posse
is steam purls, that that’s my word
sways a bevy whom light, stag,
and motionless wedge this felted not yes
This word play, delighting in sound pattern and ricochet of vowels, is of practiced wordage Ammons, too, embraces; although she more torques it to her own uses of narrativity than does Cross.
Buried beneath this wreak wreckage,
women wet with winced whiskey
wear wild weekends to weather workday weariness;
they rear a wedlocked litter
wrenching a rusty, worn oil filter
with a family of phallicless, faultless fingers
(“Sub-Goldsboro Garage Gals”)
Ammons’ “gals” are at home with Cross’ “turbine’s centrifugal calcified / fists, St. Pairs the seated aires” (“nunc age”) as much as they are with Detorie’s “where two girls make a seam / A yellow war unzips.” (“POPULAR MECHANICS”). The serious play in the work of every one of these poets is what poetry’s all about. These works provoke and startle, proving the poets to be in the midst of things, writing poetry, pushing the development of life along; challenging the rest of us to keep up with them, lighting up the language a bit more ourselves.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. Things are appearing in 1913, Amerarcana, American Book Review, Bookslut, DeathandLifeofAmericanCities, HtmlGiant, Rain Taxi, Shampoo, Switchback, and The Volta.