Anselm Hollo, Guests of Space

Coffee House Press, $15, ISBN 978-1-56689-192-9, 100 pages

Reviewed by Peter Hughes

This handsomely produced book, from Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, is full of poets’ ghosts. Here are some of them: Samuel Daniel, George Peele, Thomas Wyatt and the Duke of Poitou. Then there’s Olson, Pound, Dorn, Dawson, Berrigan, Tzara, Ginsberg, Koch, Rakosi, Corso, Plath, Frost, Bernstein, Eluard, Baudelaire, Oliver, Goethe and Rilke, (more or less in that order). I’d say Ted Berrigan was the presence haunting this book the most. But – no disrespect to Anselm Hollo intended – I’d also say that the most resonant lines in the book are by Randolph Healey, in a quotation embedded, in part, in two of these sonnets:

“How big is the mind?
How could we avoid dissolving
in our own private oceans?”
Guests of Space has a valedictory quality – the poet tips his hat graciously to those he has admired, acknowledges his indebtedness over the years, and ponders on the fact that the process of writing has never become easier. The first sonnet ends:

should it feel easier, writing? I don’t think so. No.
Whilst the second begins:

here have I summed my sighs, playing cards with the dead
in a broke-down shack on the old memory banks
So what’s the sum of the sighs? The poems flicker and ruminate, voice the dead. Then they lean over, smelling slightly of tobacco, and ruefully share an anecdote:

“An ancient land animal” Man in a wheelchair
comes rolling out of old folks’ home
I hold the door open for him

He looks at me, says “WIND’S PICKIN’ UP...”
rolls on down the slope to the parking lot

not heading for any car! but the good old Open Road
— I’m beginning to have my doubts

when a nurse comes charging after him
an air of disapproval about her

she turns him around and pushes...
I help her pull the chair back up the slope

They perform a successful reentry

“So a lot of time has passed  But without
the imagined future having come to pass”
There’s a powerful constellation of contradictory impulses at work here: a poignant sense of mortality, impotence, feisty resistance, complicity with authority, futility, disappointment that things never evolved to meet the dreams of youth. The power of that poem is generated by the juxtaposition of the event recalled (or imagined) with the quotes which frame the piece. The quotes come from a “literary source” (Carla Harryman talking about her “Memory Play”, apparently). And the placement surely says – why, with all this literature, history, thought, philosophy, politics - why is ordinary life so often suffused with a sense of futility or debasement? This leads to the ideas of “wisdom” and “politics”. Let’s do wisdom first.

Wisdom rears its silvery head on page one (not to mention the photographs on the cover). Twice in one line:

“and wisdom has not come” “against wisdom as such”
which, irrespective of the sources for the quotations (Henri Michaux and Charles Olson) sets up a tension between a longing to understand and live more fully, and an acknowledgement that maybe this is as good as it gets. In a footnote, actually, Hollo quotes a bit more from the Olson:

“I take it that wisdom, like style, is the man – that it is not
extricable in any sort of statement of itself”
which is more or less what Yeats said about truth, and this is the side that Hollo wryly comes down on in the rest of the book. In the last poem of the book, in fact, we get:

Well, here comes another book of poems...
What are the findings?  Boots on a treadmill
Stagger on yes bloody well stagger on
Elsewhere in the book the mood turns more bitter – not because the poet is getting older, but because the civilisation the poet belongs to appears to have reversed the processes of evolution and staggered back to a primitive and mindless violence:

imperial president
cavorting on the deck of expensive killing vessel
paid for by you and me
president          no bonus

young humans dying
in a country occupied
to the tune of millions of dollars a day
paid for     by you and me
“mit der dummheit kämpfen die götter selbst vergebens”
“with stupidity even the gods struggle in vain”
The penultimate poem of the book ends with these lines:

Into the valleys of idiocy
They ride, our lords
I can’t hear many people disagreeing with such sentiments, which reappear quite often through the collection.

The overall feel of Guests of Space is of a gently quirky raconteur who is not in too much of a hurry to get up out of his seat. The range of reference is broad, the rhythms often those of informal speech, the gap between contempoary slang and Elizabethan quotes sometimes vertiginous and moving. And over all, that valedictory amber light shines like a glaze.

But just as we settle in with our Pepsi and popcorn
THE END rolls up too soon always too soon

Peter Hughes Norfolk January 2008


[#] Guests of Space reviewed by NICHOLAS MANNING



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