Babylon’s Flowcharts

Nathan Hamilton scrutinizes new collections by poets from the United States of North America.

Still to Mow
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Salmon €12.00

Maxine Kumin is a highly established American poet whose closely observed descriptions of natural and private worlds show influence from, among others, Frost, Bishop and Sexton, while ultimately lacking their edge. Still to Mow is Kumin’s latest collection, her sixteenth; she boasts an impressive career spanning five decades, during which time she has picked up numerous awards, including the Pulitzer. Her voice is straight talking in delivery. It aspires to be approachable; useful and usable like ‘metal or cereal’, as Neruda might have it.

The collection’s first section, ‘Landscapes’, is, as one might expect, largely American pastoral in approach. It opens with ‘Mulching’, which invokes a Jeffersonian farm scene. The poet is on the farm, but all is not well. While ‘kneeling / to spread sodden newspaper between broccolis, / corn sprouts, cabbages and four kinds of beans’ she finds herself ‘prostrate before old suicide bombings, starvation, / AIDS, earthquakes, the unforeseen tsunami’. Leaving aside how the tsunami could have been foreseen, this opening outlines the procedures and themes of the collection. It moves from the American land and soil, through political concerns, to considerations of faith and a fear of growing older and less relevant. The America the poet ‘used to love as a child’, its idyll, has been stained; it is a more brutal and bleak place since ‘the first torture revelations under [her] palms’ rendered the poet a ‘helpless citizen’ in a country that makes her wish the earth ‘to take [her] unquiet spirit / bury it deep. Make compost of it.’

The American pastoral, traditionally used to praise the land and transcend earthly troubles, to emphasize freedom and nature’s transformative power, is being used instead as a means to criticize – to highlight the national blight. This is potentially an interesting approach, yet the usual slip-ups are there, too. There is much blank description of nature:
The apples are dropping
all over Joppa
a windfall, a bagful
for horses and cattle.
Geese overhead
Are baying like beagles.
It can also occasionally be unintentionally hilarious, as in the sonnet ‘Come, Aristotle’, which might be summarized as follows: the poet finds some neglected ‘perfect parsnips’; the poet is reminded of a quote about something Aristotle wrote; the poet eats the parsnips and in the last lines magnanimously invites Aristotle to ‘Come, philosopher. / Come to my table. Sit by my side’. At a stretch, this could be saying something vague but unresolved about ethics, but it could also be read as rank egomania. Along with a number of cutesy nature poems, this rouses the spirit of contrariness in the reader so much that, come ‘Essay, Freshman Comp’ one sympathizes with the poet’s student who
… turned in a composition
about shooting pigeons in his uncle’s barn.
He peppered them with beebees.

They just sat there in the rafters
spots of red appearing on their breasts.
Eventually they toppled. The ones

that were still flapping he stomped on.
Naturally, this student later becomes a vegetarian, with ‘a lifetime of expiation ahead of him’. This farmstead brand of moralizing appears elsewhere, throughout the problematic second section, and hits a nadir with the slack, sighing "The shame of it" in ‘On Reading The Age of Innocence in a Troubled Time.’

Laying down the BB gun for now, there are finer moments. Kumin is better when relaying straight observations and letting the metaphor work for itself, as in ‘Ascending’, which, while still a little on the nose, is touching; and the sweet, but simple ‘Looking Back in my Eighty-First Year’. Late in the first section, there is also a refreshing, wry glimpse of another world:
From the highway the vigor of sirens

announces a world of metal and speed
beyond my blinkered allegiance
to this task.
A couple of the more religious poems intriguingly provide a voice of uncertainty for the moral mainstream of Christian America in light of recent US geopolitical bullying, but generally there is too little awareness to make the attempted political poems of the second section anything other than embarrassingly naive. There is a lot of guilt, and a lot of horror, but it is too removed and cosily spectator-like to be worthwhile; the moral and political awakenings are adolescent:
But where is that other Humane Society, the one with rules
we used to read aloud in school

the one that takes away your license to collar
and leash a naked prisoner

the one that forbids you to sodomize
a detainee before the cold eyes

of your fellow MPs?
However, in ‘The Map of Need’, we have the affecting if overdone:
How wide is the map of need? Measure
the bellies enlarged on bark and roots, the maimed,

in the merciless heat and yet it soldiers on,
this rage, this will to live consumes, abides
wherever flesh is: everyone.
Kumin saves perhaps her best moments for the reminiscent last section, where she contemplates a few roads not taken and ends with the slightly baggy, but bracingly frank, almost apocalyptic, final lines:
We try to live gracefully
and at peace with our imagined deaths but in truth we go forward

stumbling, afraid of the dark,
of the cold, and of the great overwhelming
loneliness of being last.
Yet, despite Kumin’s undoubted wealth of experience, Still to Mow remains, overall, a little thin on the ground.

James Hoch’s Miscreants would like you to know it takes risks. As its title might suggest, its predominantly elegiac poems are populated by the dispossessed and the outcast – troubled young men and lost boys on drugs. It is gritty and it is tough; it is also a little forced. Hoch’s lines are short and arrested (like the lives of many of his poems’ characters) and progress hesitantly through poems about family, violence, the delinquent, grief. He has an eye for the simple image, as in ‘Leda’s Aubade of Sink and Sledge’:
out of crabgrass and black pine

they looked like swans
an archipelago of upturned sinks.
There are also moments of word craft to admire, as in the following two excerpts from the sustained twenty–one canto elegy for Bobby Almand (abducted, raped, and murdered by David Stannard in 1977). From canto 18, we have the lilting:

and he’ll come back
—as you like to think—a winter
             sparrow, not

—as you know—
                           a face with weight,

             elbow, knee,
                           a son’s

speech in the dark.
And here, from canto 20, the stark:
I worry time makes small

slits in the iris, the sun
may some day

bleach the figures out.
But, in places, things get repetitive. On page 25, we find the phrases ‘sliding a needle’ and ‘waved his arms as if making an angel’ and on page 31 ‘sliding a needle, watching … until you felt something like an angel’. Later, during an awkward poem written from the point of view of a paedophile (unfortunately a none-too-rare perspective in recent poetry), we have ‘some young penis swelling in my mouth’ followed later in the book by ‘the one who has taken his uncle’s prick in his mouth’. And the hackneyed metaphor ‘jailed’ or ‘locked up’ (as in inside oneself) is used in describing negative effects from drug use on more than one occasion.

There are further slips. In tone, as in ‘Late Autumn Wasp’ which opens ‘One must admire the desperate way it flings / itself through air…’ – must one? And with sentimentality and melodrama (perhaps predictably, given a taste for Caravaggio, who is mentioned four or five times) as in the poem ‘Defenestrations’:
a prop your boyhood
shotgun cocked against your head
and the quiet won’t quit,
can’t take, being torn…
Through too many false steps, the poet’s concerned focus on society’s outcasts feels more performed than genuine – and a little too pleased with itself as a result. The less told story of male disintegration, even victimization, is an important subject but, after a while, the reader starts to wonder what the purpose is. Who is this for? The victims? Or is it more in the poet’s own interests? More interesting would be to investigate, rather than a biographical or sociological subject, the very language through which we might grapple with, or attempt to illuminate, the world and its ills.

It is this sort of experiment with which Philip Fried’s fine book-length sonnet sequence, Cohort, is concerned. Here, the suspended fragments of Kumin’s half-ignored ‘world of sirens, metal and speed’ are steered for headlong in poems of repeated linguistic invention and probing wit. As the three introductory poems demonstrate this is a sequence of some scope and ambition:
… the lead-footed, combustible
bus-driver steers our destinies—
no appeals except to the wheel.
… in the spin, the wandering poles, the rifting
plates, we ply our cosmic commute,
             (‘Short Line Driver’)
… it was all radio.
At night the bedsprings picked up transmissions
that were bending around the edge of the future.
             ( ‘Reversible Swirl’)
From the witty metaphoric introduction to its chilling legalese close, language and the noxious aspects of an information age out of control are on trial in Cohort. And so is the lyric self (or selves) and its place and purpose in the world, as in the envoi ‘i too am a late bloomer / with rank in the family a budding consumer’. The first three sonnets avoid punctuation and capitalization, other than Big Bang and Ygdrasil (the ‘world tree’ of Norse mythology). Punctuation and capitalization of the pronoun ‘I’ is left until the fourth sonnet, ‘The Oral Tradition’. This ‘growth’ draws attention and declares a process of world creation and investigation. Then, in ‘Sealed Warrant’, the reader is addressed across the gap between octet and sestet: ‘You are the material // witness implicated in every window’.

And so the framework for this trial of language and the world is set-up in the sonnet’s form – its history of lovers’ quarrels and legal proceedings, opposing forces, arguments, and potential reconciliation. Fried plays continually with this gap between sections as, in ‘Risk Assessment’, ‘the needle of grandma’s Stuttering stitching, // piecing together our lives of patches and fractions’ and, in ‘ “By Babylon’s flow-charts” ’, ‘And we, we are a swarm intelligence. Get it? // Got it! – twitching down the pheremone lanes’. These repeated formal games subtly, and delightfully, invite the understanding that the tense join of the age’s fragmentary forces resides irretrievably and yet observably in the separating white space of these sonnets’ form. And the sequence’s formal trajectories are even more intriguing. As if the joining forces were being stretched to breaking point, the sequence condenses from the reducing six sections of the introductory poems, to the five-section sonnets in the title poem, into the two sections of the Petrarchan sonnet. From here, it then expands out again into the four sections of the Shakspearean, and from there – while observing also the use of regular dashes and hyphenization to delicately enact a fracturing force in sentence structure – back out into the world.

That the ‘rivers of Babylon’ lyric has become ‘Babylon’s flow-charts’ is also typical of Cohort – this time of the wordplay, specifically Fried’s regular usage of modern business banalities and symbols, mixed with other cultural fragments, to suggest harm being done. This is the damage of the entity ‘business’, an entity we have created but which no longer works in our own best interests; its now contextless ‘strategies’, ‘protocols’ and ‘underpinnings’ running amok across the landscape of thought. This is all to say that Fried’s is an altogether more rewarding project. It remains true to the territory and jargon of our time, and is wryly entertaining, without ceding intellectual ground. It is relevant, insightful, and darkly witty in its scrutiny of the digital age – an emboldening salve amid the wear of ‘the world’s infantile, satisfied babble’.

More from the author at his blog Curiosa Hamiltona and on Twitter:

Nathan Hamilton runs Egg Box and is Chairman of the Board of Directors for Inpress, an organisation that represents and supports 30+ independent UK presses. He also currently programmes and runs the Richmond Upon Thames 'Book Now!' Literature Festival. His poetry and criticism have been published in a number of places, in print and online, including Poetry London, the Manhattan Review, nth position, the Guardian, and the Spectator.

A most complimentary--and well deserved--review. What impresses me in Cohort is the allusive clarity of the language which leads often enough to ambiguity, as it ought. I particularly enjoyed "Identity Theft" with its naming of its own poet, ambiguously. Wonderful stuff.
L. Eldredge
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