The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue

Rapid Transit

Arthur Rimbaud
Illuminations (Translated by John Ashbery)
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)

Rimbaud famously proposed the “systematic derangement” of the senses to find the unknown. That was his prescription for liberating language. The consequent writings are what make us “modern,” the translator John Ashbery declares in his foreward.

What was shocking 140 years ago seems play-like and theatrical now. Under Ashbery’s masterful and nuanced hand, these immortal poems bound. “Chroniques” become “gossip columns.” Reading along with the original French is the ne plus ultra.

Fairies, flowers—“yellow gold coins strewn across agate”—and flea markets pose as subjects while the poet posits preposterous notions. War, women, and woe are seen through opera glasses. He’s a prankster punk on a tear.

Choosing to echo the prose format of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, Rimbaud picks up the ominous echoes of Poe as well. Testing the tenets of civilization, murder is contemplated in “Tale.” Throughout, complicated oxymorons add tautness and tension. “Is it possible to become ecstatic amid destruction, rejuvenate oneself through cruelty?”

Desperately engaged, the 20-year-old beseeches a “choir, to calm helplessness” before his nerves give out. Despite “the paradise of storms,” exhilaration is insuppressible.

The tempo is pulled to allegro, the poet gesturing and gesticulating, as he describes “mad and infinite momentum toward invisible splendors.”

Rimbaud’s tour-de-force has been rendered perfectly fresh. Genius on genius. These “wells of magic” are an abysmal delight!

Ish Klein
Moving Day
(Canarium Books, 2011)

Sensitive, breathless, and “devilish,” the Poetry Foundation’s blog describes Ish Klein’s poetry as “mawkishly sentimental and lyrically poignant.” Her films are billed as “excellent—if extremely bizarre.” Welcome to a parallel universe in which you find your doppelganger auditioning for a puppet show.

Someone in a fanciful tiger suit stands waving at us from the cover of Moving Day. This is an apt image for acclimatizing yourself to what lies ahead. Prepare to merge identities on multiple levels in an ongoing, pitched battle.

The title sheds several layers of interpretation as motion and emotion interact. Playful and open-ended, ever on a quest, it is imperative to “Remain mobile.”

Klein charts a program of action and effort while slyly integrating arenas. History, nature and self-analysis intertwine with “a nutty someone inside.”

Actors, friends, family and “screens” add metaphor and structure to the percolating vernacular. By turns charming, disarming and disembodied, Klein transports us in an affected, hypnotic, fairy-tale confessor mode. Her audience and cast of characters ride a Mobius strip, trading places seamlessly.

“You have to work to learn to fight to learn to work…” The scribe plunges in, letting the poetry lead like an electrifying, quivering current. The internal censor seems shut off and the consequent convolutions in the narrative lead to surprising and satisfying conclusions. “I am a channel and it’s challenging.”

Yusef Komunyakaa
The Chameleon Couch
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

Born in Louisiana, the great-grandson of Trinidadian stowaways, Yusef Komunyakaa changed his name from James Willie Brown to honor his island heritage. His poems bear enough weight to hold the songs and cries of two souls.

Known for musical references and remarkable imagery, the Pulitzer Prize winner mixes worlds freely. Memory is stirred up and ghosts engaged, from Minerva to Monk. Indictments are handed out in a measured way and balanced with adulation. Rope and catgut are bookends. The scales demand a “pinch of salt for a pinch of sugar.”

More than a witness, Komunyakaa navigates between poles: between crime and faith, cages and paradise, love and reason. He confronts despots and turns thunder into nourishing rain. A romantic muse slips by on winged feet.

Numbers figure largely. Like a “shapeshifter” or “alchemist” he sprinkles cosmic ingredients into enchanting spells. His baritone “silver tongue” runs on “the five shadows of Venus.”

“Flesh” is a hundred-line poem of ten stanzas that tackles the “ultimate question.” Komunyakaa rips his discourse out of the void as he steals the voices of gulls from the “creator’s … mouth.” Challenging the hurt while following desire, the poet initiates a sacrificial act as he becomes his “own communion.”

If the idea is to make the word flesh, then Komunyakaa comes damned close. The lion masters the lyre.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues