These ten tiny tomes from Vagabond Press each speak (squawk, swoon, glitch, muse, lyricise, confess) of how there is something not ticking precisely inside the reality machine. Or perhaps these books shine light onto how we’ve all gone slightly spectral within our anthropocenic phantasmagorias, lost and unmoored in an experiment that’s become dreadfully strange. Some of these books turn exclusively toward the world, others perhaps come from particular critical engagements; each serves to extend conversation both on what poets do, and what poems are for. Collectively, they map the uncanny infrastructures of all-too-human behaviour and the results are bewilderments, unsettlings, detours and dérives across netherworlds to which most of us haven’t a set of keys. There is enough in this first pack of deciBels to generate joy, dissent, close (or distant) reading and, ultimately, celebration – another step by Vagabond Press into the future (wherever that may be), and led by the fleet-footed Pam Brown.
Thing & Unthing by Angela Gardner
Angela Gardner’s elegiac thing-poems act like ‘breathing the phenomenal / world to shadows, to speckle righted // on the retina’; indeed, these texts are tracking devices monitoring a perhaps delirious odyssey:
the day a broken head, the car a ship of fools * In this telling the sky is weighted we drive south into ochre and bruise the hills just an outline fading
These lines – are they end-stopped or enjambed, or both? – jerk us through unstable weirdness, with Gardner modulating precisely. So often, these haunting and defamiliarising noirs trigger an immediate wish to re-read:
It is the end of the road. Just beyond the hotel the high tide has been obsessively collecting. It throws up a headless seal plastic bottles a car tire. The woman behind the bar says ‘this weather will turn to crap later’ We make beer rings on formica and look out the window
Gardner’s explorations of immanence are startling, revelatory, the poet not so much punctuating as puncturing appearances mistaken as realities. So many of these images have an afterlife, returning semi-coherent and artefactual, resonating long after each page is turned. Yes, this is a book of careful engagements interrogating how ‘ideas start to cluster around objects’: the Queen Anne chairs have ‘firmly muscled legs’ and ‘sun shines closest to childhood, now remembered as longest, warmest’, but Thing & Unthing is also an existential meditation. While early in the book, ‘the body is incoherent’, and the poet showcases just how garbled our intimacies can be, in the final poems Gardner shifts her gaze skyward, apprehending the ‘Pull of air (collective sky)’ as if to scan not only the strangeness of a mundane world, but also beyond.
Love Breathes Hard by Maged Zaher
As if a vivisectionist, Maged Zaher cuts into ligatures connecting friendship and intimacy. The book is sectioned – three parts, three narrative modes – and the initial aphoristic lines are disjunctures onto surreal vistas:
I come with few stones. We are due from the dialectic by hovering over potential lovers. And accepting that the blood of the dead will appear as our favorite cloud.
Some of the lines are arresting (‘You think of something to say and I imagine my madness turning into a statue’) while others act like stents to effectively keep the narrative pumping (‘I move my dreadlocks to see you as if coming from afar’). Sometimes, the poet seems to deliberately subvert desire for each line to be a spike in the cardiogram:
Day in day out I hear the voices of arrows. I prepare canned beans for breakfast and wash my clothes. I am ready for war.
These disconnections spatially extend Zaher’s themes of lovelessness, yearning, violence: by sitting alone, stark and unadorned, the lines are non-unities that, in the next section and like the lovers, come together. Indeed, the second section shifts to an epistolary mode – an ‘X’ writes how they ‘hope you had a lovely visit to Seattle’ before shifting quickly toward confession:
I like your mind especially, and I like how you look and I love your poetry Knowing that you haven’t kissed anyone in two years makes me feel very special
There are three letters here: perhaps responding to ‘X’, a ‘Y’ imagines ‘it is impossible to love in this vast country we live in’; ‘Z’ next responds: ‘obviously I am falling for you somehow – obviously I am scared because of my insecurities’. So it is, from the disconnection of the first section’s aphorisms, that we are shifted toward a sequenced narrativity of X-Y-Z (happilyeverafter, etc). These are the formally faltering movements of individuals shifting toward not only connection, but also communion: ‘I actually don’t care that much about sex – I do – but I don’t – I am more interested in love’. The final section, a coda, takes readers into zones of sentimental eloquence, the lyricism of coupling:
This is not about seduction It is about hanging out tonight While surrounded by capitalism It rains And we call it love This continuous threat of collapse.
This, then, is love in a time of commodity fetishism; amid ersatz things, a survey of the real and affective body of an intimate other.
Kulchur Girl by Rachel Loden
Introducing her book, Rachel Loden indicates the provenance of these texts: attending the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, Loden tells us: ‘I took notes on whatever pleased me, occasionally leaping from the spoken words in the room to others of my own invention, with no duty (at the time) to anyone but myself.’ This book, then, is an epigrammatic self-portrait, each page recording polyphonies of voices spliced with the poet’s wandering responses. The style is implicative, the texts a kind of disjunctive reportage:
30 June All the talk about writing has been vanity. What is “serious”? I suspect it is something bad writers sit around and pretend to be. Lovely fakes, the Stones. Bringing me as close to pleasure as I can come today. Silver shoes. Black rain.
Dropping names into her non-narrative (‘four hours a day – // two with Robt. Creeley two with Charles Olson. // Tonight, despite extreme exhaustion, I’ll go hear Robert Duncan read’), Loden’s 50-year old notes employ apprehension as an imprecise technology; primarily, these fragments demarcate a cabal of ‘serious’ writers presenting at a conference and a 17-year old marshaling the perimeters, asking ‘In there a way – in?’ On occasion, the starstruck Loden (who attends the conference ‘a few days after turning seventeen’) enters the domain of her poet-heroes, at which point the notes become feverpitch:
To have Creeley talking and reacting to me?! He wrote what I said on the board – said it was important, said he believed me, he agreed. God.
– and, later, ‘GINSBERG JUST BORROWED 2 PIECES OF PAPER FROM HERE’. In essence, this book is a reverie that diarises experience alongside quasi-profundities: ‘Nothing happens except what is happening’. Recording the event, this is recording-as-event; Kulchur Girl is a poetic bildungsroman portraying a teenaged narrator sometimes feeling at ‘home with these people’ while suffused with those energies of becoming ‘part of what happens’.