I love discovering new voices, but there’s much to be said for following poets over the course of their careers, watching their styles evolve, their attentions shift. Poets in mid-career must navigate hard crossroads to avoid repeating themselves, becoming parodies of their earlier successes; more mature “late style” poetry, as Theodor Adorno (“Late Style in Beethoven,” 1937) and Edward Said have argued, provides its own fascinating mixture of retrospection and complication.
John Matthias, Acoustic Shadows (Shearsman Books, 2019)
John Matthias published his first collection 50 years ago. His books since have traversed centuries and continents: the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the experimental hotbed of Paris in the 1920s, the Scotland of Queen Mary and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Atlantic waters plowed by the Great War’s dreadnoughts. Acoustic Shadows, his latest, settles largely in the American midwest, especially Matthias’s childhood home of Columbus, Ohio.
Matthias is American poetry’s premier “midwestern Modernist”: his work combines Hemingway’s plainspoken straightforwardness, Pound’s recondite allusiveness, and Stein’s delight in sheer wordplay. The mostly short poems that comprise the first half of Acoustic Shadows examine random occurrences that have struck the poet’s attention, or revisit moments of his life — for instance, meeting renowned poet Czesław Miłosz outside a guesthouse bathroom in 1984, renting the philosopher John Wisdom’s London house as a grad student, and watching old home movies with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. The poems move through “zones” of space and memory. The prose poem/essay “Some Zones” dwells on how the mind compartmentalizes place and time, as in time zones, the “zones” of the Glen Echo ravine where the boy Matthias played, The Twilight Zone, the “interzone” of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.
The phrase “acoustic shadows,” like the word “zones,” recurs throughout the book, culminating in the title poem, a fine addition to the mid-length, highly referential (one might say “old school modernist”) poems of Matthias’s earlier books. “Acoustic Shadows” cross-cuts Matthias’s forebears — his great-grandfather the Civil War veteran Albert C., his grandfather Edward Shiloh, a distinguished jurist — with the sardonic journalist Ambrose Bierce, who is represented by both his writings and his appearance in Carlos Fuentes’s novel Old Gringo, putting these three figures and the poet himself into an imagined conversation on the horrors of war, the inhumanities of the law, and the insubstantiality of the recorded or written voice:
We are the stuff that beams of light are
made on; the stuff of reams of paper printed with
the ambiguities of words. We don’t
hear very well. At least not what we see.
Acoustic Shadows’s tailpiece, “Blake’s Painting The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life,” feels like a farewell. But Matthias has been penning goodbyes for almost two decades now, and continues writing with all of his old melancholy, energy, and humor. I’m looking forward to the next installment.
Caroline Bergvall, Alisoun Sings (Nightboat Books, 2019)
There’s something echt modernist about Caroline Bergvall’s longterm project of turning over, repurposing, and generally fucking around with the western canon. Bergvall, a Franco-Norwegian performance poet, is also a scholar of medieval English literature: the “Alisoun” of Alisoun Sings is of course Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, that gap-toothed, outspoken, and wonderfully libidinous (“Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve”) raconteur. It’s hard to say how much Chaucer agreed with his Wife’s subversive arguments, but Bergvall’s Alisoun is a profoundly engaging, funny, and deeply sympathetic voice. “Hi you all,” she introduces herself; “I’m Alisoun. Some people call me Al. Am many things to many a few thyinge to some & nothing but an irritant to socialites and othere glossing troglodytes.”
In the monologue that begins the poem, Alisoun becomes a kind of transhistorical spokeswoman for women in western history. She speaks in an intoxicating hybrid of Middle English, contemporary slang, and every register of diction in between, all rooted in her earthy physicality:
Btw nat worry should ma language feeling it weirdo, rude & cueryous at first. Rough as a cats lick or like a dress whats travagant, folded over updoubled, as though am speechin many langages at once…. No but for serious, ‘tis a rich scrabljumbl of heavily crossbedded bitching tongues, folded like shells in tymologick tension, so is ma usage a happy combimess, simpel.
It’s hard to stop quoting Alisoun, and Begvall paces her voice in unexpected ways — a pastiche of sex-related contemporary song lyrics (“1DJ2MANY”), a name-dropping homage to experimental women writers (“Bookes”), a richly woven typology of western fashion (“Stitch”). In “Herte,” Bergvall herself (whose name, “Caroline,” she notes, is that of a medieval scribal hand) addresses Alisoun directly: “Looking for relevant ways to reinvest your iconic figure’s speaking habits as the impressively loudmouthed past-future era maximalist female that you are has been a pretty taxing task for the troubled foibled comlicated 21st centry writer fighta that I be.”
Yet, Bergvall decides, “it’s all about panache.” Chaucer’s Wife replicated yet transcended all the clichés of medieval misogyny, and Begvall’s Alisoun has the linguistic panache, the historical learning, and the theoretical chops not merely to rehearse a thousand years of oppression and resistance, but to offer in the poem’s final passages an infectiously uplifting — even for the cynical — call to arms. In the hands of a more earnest poet, Alisoun Sings’s last stretch would feel like agitprop; in Alisoun’s energetically hybrid language, it’s just plain exciting: “Abyde! quod Alisoun, all good king’s in drag! The era of ma tellings nat bygone, just bigonne.”
Erica Hunt, Veronica: A Suite in X Parts (Selva Oscura, 2019)
Erica Hunt is a native New Yorker, though during the 1980s she spent time with the Bay Area Language Poets. She was the only African American woman in Ron Silliman’s 1983 anthology In the American Tree; and her first collection, Local History (1993), was published by Roof Books, almost a house organ for the Language movement. Local History bears marks of Language writing’s intellectual astringency: one section is titled “Surplus,” another (of epistolary poems) “Correspondence Theory.” But the poems’ personal texture belies their theoretical headings, and Hunt’s linguistic inventiveness and social awareness have proved more durable than any transient group identification.
“Veronica” of the book’s title is addressee, interlocutor, and alter ego (note how the name contains “Erica”) — a more encompassing version of the poet herself.
Veronica and I are unreliable weather
with mismatched closets of rage
potentially the mothers of gunshot teenagers
prone to brine
and fixed turbulence despite the sieving motion
in history, the retrieval of balance between reason
and perspective does not apply to us, instead
we teeter on the brink of boiling vertigo.
There are indeed opened “closets of rage” in Veronica, including a harrowing passage (“Broken English”) where the poem’s language breaks down into shards of gasped syllables, recalling Eric Garner’s agonized “I can’t breathe” before his death at the hands of a police officer in 2014:
re / inserting / re /beating / and re- / suffocating / the b-b-b / b-b-b / b-b-b-b / reathing / grieving / bulleted body / on repeat […]
“Broken English” is a “Lamentation—a chorale,” one part of the book’s relentless and uncomfortable focus on the non-white victims of our contemporary police state: “day after day the bodies pile up / — must be friends with the wrong police —”; Veronica is, however, by no means a one-note howl of anguish or grief at what Langston Hughes called the “dream deferred” (to which Hunt nods in one of her section titles), but a subtle and often lyrically melodic meditation on what it means to be Black in a nation where one’s neighbors speak “in concealed carry,” what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be an American in general.
For all of the bleakness of Veronica’s final section, “The back of the future” — “The future is back and it is / ungovernable // It’s back and it sucks / Just as I’ve been told” — one senses that Hunt is at base an optimistic poet. (“The back of the future” is preceded by “This is where love comes in” and “Another place where love comes in.”) If our contemporary moment seems dire, there are still cracks letting in light, and a place for optimism — be it angry, empowered, or tempered: “The future’s back — what have you done for me lately / The future’s back we read the instructions this time / The future is back and the story leads you here.”