Notes from the Divided Country by Suji Kwock Kim. Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
20 Poems by Seán MacFalls. Peregrine Press, 2001.
Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive by Patrick Rosal. Persea Books, 2003.
As Reviewed By: Ravi Shankar
Like the saw of a New England farmer, transplanted from rockier soil, when the leaves turn fiery resplendent, the dark heavy at both ends of day, it’s time to survey the crops’ fullness and make some approximation of where things stand. When I look out over the year’s ripe fields of verse, vegetable variety sprouts incongruent forms that point at many things, including the winnowing of aesthetic discretion in the ever more capacious cupboard of contemporary poetry, leaving me with more questions than answers. Who’s to say what’s said ironically and purposely clumsy, else just plain shoddy and lacking craft? What’s true lyric revelation and what’s wry critique of subjective voice? Isn’t it just plain liberating not to privilege one form of expression over every other one, just as we ourselves, specks in orbit, are not privileged overmuch in an absurd cosmos where diversity is given lipservice by pedagogues and politicians, yet authentic verbal innovation, the kind that might move consciousness forward, is drowned in the tides of imitation? Who cares when from center to periphery, from critic to advocate, from publisher to poet, from reader to reader, we have formed a closed circuit, profoundest community in one sense, noose constricting in another, begging the question, where are poetry’s new readers going to come from? By and large, the collections of poems I have in front of me speak from limitation, to limitation, which is not to diminish their relative lyric grace, nor to assert the exclusionary dangers of such status, but rather to remind us that a return to the days when Marianne Moore graced the cover of Life magazine are unimaginable.[private]
One positive result of this fecundity, however, is that hybridization has started to happen. Much of the new poetry seems to draw its influences from disparate aesthetic schools, giving us the spin of self in a hall of mirrors, in shards, elongated, compacted to retort, even moved on occasion to rhapsody in the old ways as keening and dramatization of emotion. Yet when the degree of literacy and distilled awareness it takes to abide saliently in the corpus of a poem is diminished by the proliferation of other media, by the willful coercion of the language by those in political office, by the growing general ambivalence about the importance of poetry to effectively change the world around us, and further by the rancor in our own ranks as to what constitutes a successful poem, then it’s a grim moment for the incantatory arts. To rectify that, I’d reapply Wallace Steven’s notion that real poetic work needs to hunt the big game, and according to that principle, there are very few first books that appropriately do so. One exception is Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes from the Divided Country, which aptly won the Academy of American Poet’s 2002 Walt Whitman Award, a collection I’d judge a major first book just on the basis of the first poem in the collection, “Generation”:
Once I was nothing: once we were one.
In the unborn world we heard the years hurtling past,
whirring like gears in a giant factory—time time time—
We heard human breathing,
thoughts coming and going like bamboo leaves hissing in wind,
doubts swarming like reconnaissance planes over forests of sleep,
we heard words murmured in love.
We felt naked bodies climb each other,
as if they could ride each other to a country that can’t be named.
We felt bedsprings creak, felt the rough sailcloth of sheets dampen,
felt wet skin hold them together and apart.
What borders did they cross? What more did they want?
Bittersweet the sweat we tasted, the swollen lips we touched, the chafe of separate loins:
bittersweet the wine of one flesh they drank and drank.
They called us over oceans of dream-salt,
their voices moving over the face of the waters like searchlights from a guardtower.
We hid, and refused to come out.
Their cries followed like police dogs snarling from a leash.
We ran through benzene rain, flew through clouds of jet-fuel.
We swam through hydrogen spume, scudded among stars numberless as sands.
We didn’t want to be born we didn’t want.
Blindly their hands groped for us like dragnets trawling for corpses,
blindly their hands hauled me like grappling hooks from the waves,
the foaming scalps of ghost-children laughing, seaweed-hiar dripping,
the driftwood of other children who might have been.
Out of chromosomes and dust,
cells of hope, cells of history,
out of refugees running from mortar shells, immigrants driving to power plants in Jersey,
out of meadowsweet and oil, the chaff of unlived lives blowing endlessly,
out of wishes known and unknown they reeled me in.
I entered the labyrinth of mother’s body.
I wandered through nerve-forests branching in every direction,
towering trees fired by feeling, crackling and smoldering.
I rowed though vein-rivers.I splashed in lymph-creeks between islands of glands.
I leaped rib to rib, rung to rung on the spine,
I swung from the ropes of entrails.
I played on organs, leaped through a fog of sweet oxygen in the lungs.
I clambered over tectonic plates of the skull, scrambling not to fall
down the chasms between, the mind-mountains where I could see no bottom.
I peered through sockets at the brain brewing in cliffs of bone
like a gigantic volcano, with its magma of memories, magma of tomorrows,
I could have played there forever, watching, wondering at the vast expanses inside,
wondering at the great chambers in the heart.
What machine made me move into the womb-cave, made me
a grave of flesh, now the engine of beginning driving forwards,
cells dividing, cells dividing:
now neurons sizzling, dendrites buzzing,
now arteries tunneling tissue like tubes hooked to an IV;
now organs pumping, hammers of hunger and thirst pounding,
now sinews cleaving, tendons lashing meat to bone:
meanwhile my skeleton welding, scalp cementing like mortar,
meanwhile my face soldered on, hardening like a mask of molten steel,
meanwhile my blood churning like a furnace of wanting,
meanwhile my heart ticking like a bomb—is-was, is-was:
then cold metal tongs clamped my forehad and temples,
then forceps plucked me from mother’s body like fruit torn from a tree:
then I heard a cry of pain—mine? not mine?—
then a scalpel’s snip snip against the umbilical cord, like razors scraping a leather strop:
soon I felt sticky with blood and matted fur, surgical lights blinding,
soon I felt tears burning my skin—Why are you crying? Why am I?—
I didn’t know who or what I was, only that I was,
each question answered by the echo of my voice alone: I, I, I.
The poem is broken into numbered iterations, beginning with 0 which has one line, 1, a couplet, 2, a quatrain, 3, an octet, 4, sixteen lines, and finally, 5, which has thirty-three lines. The deviance, in the final stanza, is an important one, not only for the manifold resonances of the number thirty-three, but because what—or rather who—has emerged by the poem’s end is an individuated entity, discrete from the pattern of growth represented throughout. In actuality, to speak of these sections as stanzas, as couplets and quatrains, is a misnomer because they’re intended as incremental units that replicate in time, cells in midst of mitosis, and indeed the entire poem represents kinds of growth—individual, collective, spiritual—that are really regressions, if the holistic wisdom of the first line is considered. To be nothing, yet to embody the plenitude of one, fulfills a Buddhist paradox, while also getting at the state of satiety and safety of being part of a mother’s flesh, and even before that, a fertilized egg, which embodies the shape of that 0 quite nicely.
The next section, or taking the title as a cue, generation, is the first: “In the unborn world we heard the years hurtling past,/whirring like gears in a giant factory—time, time, time—” The sound the years make is their very essence here, and represents both the tintinnabulation of a newly grown heart as well as the call to a behaviorist view of the mechanized self that the mesh of gears evokes. I’m reminded, favorably, of the opening to Randall Jarrell’s much-anthologized Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner—“From my mother’s sleep I was thrown into this state”—though in the case of Generation, it’s not a soldier’s particular lot but each being’s subjective emergence into consciousness that’s at stake. The next generation is the second: “We heard human breathing,/thoughts coming and going like bamboo leaves hissing in wind,/doubts swarming like reconnaissance planes over forests of sleep,/we heard words murmured in love.” Slowly, coming from the world of the holistic and factorial, still enmeshed in the static before there are names for sounds, the collective self emerges to the hum of human life, with all its doubts and loves, its breaths, but the process is a vexed one, fraught with desires that know no border, nor cessation. “What more did they want?” asks the third generation.
The fourth generation reveals the resistance the unborn have to emerging and the persistence with which they are pursued: “We hid, and refused to come out./Their cries followed like police dogs snarling from a leash…We didn’t want to be born we didn’t want.” This state of existence is set in contrast to those who are cleaving each other in the heat of desire, pulling babies out of themselves “like dragnets trawling for corpses.” This generation, in the last few lines, also veers from the collective pronoun to the first appearance of the first person: “out of wishes known and unknown they reeled me in.” Understandably, then, the fifth generation is the song of the self, ten of the first twelve lines beginning with I (entered, wandered, rowed, splashed, leaped, swung, played, clambered, peered, could have), working through anaphora to embody the inner life of the embryo.
What’s glimpsed is illumined in the colors of compound words: nerve-forests, vein-rivers, lymph-creeks, womb-caves, and the alliterative incarnation of the active life prior to birth, leaping “rib to rib, rung to rung on the spine,” peering with awe “through sockets at the brain brewing in cliffs of bone/like a gigantic volcano, with its magma of memories, magma of tomorrows.” The fifth generation is full-throated in asking the big questions, the ones whose edges the best poets sketch: “What machine made me move into the womb-cave, made me/a grave of flesh, now the engine of beginning driving forwards.” Here the specter of the gears from the first generation flits, an enigma, and the definition of flesh as an engine of beginning is also eminently applicable to poetry. The poem ends with the speaker’s emergence into the world, and insistent use of anaphora, because it unfolds in time, manifests the slow hardening of a mass of tissue into a being in the final eight lines.
The ending recalls Heather McHugh’s poem, “Blue Streak,” and its lament for the narcissistic solipsism and gratuitousness that confessionalism verged upon:
we made it; millions counted;
one-of-a-kind was a lie; and the poets,
who should have spoken for us, were busy
panning landscapes, gunning
their electrics, going
I I I I I.
The speaker’s utterance of that most fundamental of monosyllables, unlike McHugh’s, is not to make any one else complicit in the moral responsibility of being an artist, but to claim that fragmented awareness has questions that can never be answered, that in solitude, the artist must raise a self. I find that the self-reflexive self-consciousness here at the end has its contrivance shine through, whereas much of the rest of the poem is such a fluent embodiment of generation in multiple senses; as growth, as invention, and as offspring, the washing up of ancestry upon our shores. At the end of the poem, with its attendant confusion of who’s who and why, I’m put in the mind of Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law. And those who live the mystery falsely and badly (and they are very many) lose it only for themselves and nevertheless pass it on like a sealed letter, without knowing it…” “Generation” attempts to unseal this letter to give us a brief glimpse of the characters in the script that will remain illegible to us in our mortal lives.
Though I question some of how the rest of Notes from the Divided Country is organized (why, for example, does Aubade Ending with Lines from the Japanese face Nocturne two poems into the third section?), I marvel at the number of poems that show Suji Kwock Kim’s range. For example, while a poem like Flight is lineated with lines alternating from left justified to right justified, the poem Rice, or Song of Orientalamentations (and what a cunning neologism) proceeds with stalk-thin lines of one word each:
Most of the other poems in the collection are much more dense and figurative, redolent on occasion of Anne Sexton (from Borderlands “Lonely O, blank of an eye / rolled back in its socket”), or Ko Un (from Drunk Metaphysics: I’ve never been one soul. / Sixty trillion cells stagger / zigzag down the street, / laughing, trash-talking, quarreling, / singing-crying, living-dying. / Sixty trillion cells—all drunk!”), yet decidedly original, especially in the way Korean language and culture is infused with such precise awareness. Korean words such as hahngari (clay pots), p’ansori (story-singing) and hanbok (silk or hemp clothing) appear alongside “the burred and scabrous spines” of black walnuts in Translations from the Mother Tongue (which first appeared here), a poem addressed to a mother and full of maternal affection for Korean food and ritual, that is not uncomplicated by ineluctable loss, since “not much lives on, from one generation / to the next.”
Such plainspoken lyricism is entirely transformed in other poems, such as On Sparrows, which has the ghost of Wallace Steven’s blackbirds flying in its sky of influence, proceeding forward in numbered sections that examine aspects of the bird, aspects of perception, while integrating Campbell McGrath’s technique in A Spring Comes To Chicago of inserting quotations, from the Bible or from Hamlet as a few of those sections. That’s a perilous strategy, in my reading, as the music of the verse can easily topple into the pedantry, ostentation, or plain evasiveness of leaning on someone else’s words other than as epigraphs, and the quotations here are not so well propped, especially when there’s imprecision in the speaker’s voice in other places: “They are not / what is not. If they cannot / lead me to you, they carry me / beyond myself.” Providentially, the poem eventually finds its arc of flight fluent in the third section, even channeling a Celan-like penchant for portmanteau neologism to embody the dervish of sparrows:
But sanctioned perhaps by the fragmentation alluded to in the collection’s title, Notes from a Divided Country, the poem veers even from that to include an excerpt from a field guide on the “Clay-Colored Sparrow,” and then, in the final, seventh section, ending with a recitation of species:
SWAMP. SAVANNAH. SEASIDE. FIELD.
LARK. GRASSHOPPER. FOX. AMERICAN TREE.
WHITE-THROATED. GOLD-CROWNED. VESPER. SONG.
The insistent march of capitals and its placement as the culminating stanza, asks us to read the existence of sparrows against the reduction of language, something contiguous with the opening to Hart Crane’s A Name for All: “Moonmoth and grasshopper who flee our page. / And still wing on, untarnished of the name, / We pinion to your bodies to assuage. / Our envy of your freedom. We must maim.” These vivacious flitting birds cannot be captured in guidebook descriptors and yet, paradoxically, how poetic such specific utterances are for the fact the call reality into being on the page. On Sparrows is uneven in parts, but ultimately exemplifies what’s so exciting about Kim’s project, which boldly occupies the hinterland between sense, persona, imagism, language, culture, and the unmaking and remaking of self.
Seán MacFalls’ 20 Poems is completely different in valence and perspective than Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes from a Divided Country, yet the two collections share some of the insistence on craft that has grown ever more rare in our current profusion of poetry publication. While in Kim’s case, that insistence is articulated through a welter of different forms, MacFalls looks at the old master’s as exemplars and indeed, the first thought I had when reading his work was that W. B. Yeats had found a suitable heir. Indeed MacFalls, like Yeats, uses Gaelic on occasion and his work has a sonorousness that calls to mind poems like the “Lake Isle at Innisfree” and “Cuchulain Comforted.”
The first poem in the collection, “The Sheltering Sky,” is subtitled “A metamorphosis,” and it begins iambically, “In a drearing height on grave-dead boughs of branch,” reminding us of the incantatory power of meter, especially when it’s full of liberal substitution that negates any chiming monotony. The metamorphosis that takes place is the speaker’s transformation into a mythical bird, commensurate with the realization that the world is imbued with divine grace that can transform any wound to a wing. The molting that takes place, however, is rendered in imagery so clotted with allusion and archaism that it’s difficult to engage directly with the poem. For example, take this chunk of the second stanza:
…My Father, who from a race of lions
A king and the last of his kind, built, whilst Mother
Destroyed. And she the culling raptor, by incestuous
Murdering, would pick and scrape to clean the marrow
From our souls, preening like a clip-winged Eagle,
Would screech throughout all season, suffering close
To the essence of faith, my Father who with her formed
Two halves of a wounded Gryphon, un-noble in pride
With a bent on fatal-flights of his own undoing,
Marveled at her eyes, gray and gay as accusers
She cursed in sight of angels all wings below—
The syntax here, with its deferral of the predicate, combines with abstraction (“the marrow from our souls,” “essence of faith”) to dampen the immediacy of the epiphany, which is a metaphorical transcription of a phoenix-like rebirth, from a “down-weathered creature, without lift,” to “a rash of spirit…wings spreading far from gross flames…transfigured into flight.” This transformation is akin to what a poet undergoes when the way inwards is revealed as encompassing the world, but because of the diction and the scantily coordinated clauses, I have trouble imagining the flight with the intensity the poem seeks to evoke.
I much prefer the simplicity and sensuality of a poem like “Under the Blue Mountain”, which is more profound for being less baroque:
Ravens scatter outside my pane.
A throw of die against the winters
First snow and the window needs cleaning,
Maybe later. The running glass
Is watery and after I make love
With you I wake to the severing light
That is always silent.
The conjunction of the ravens with the mention of dice conspires to produce an aleatory effect, one that is enhanced by the conversational digression that the window needs cleaning, followed by the synesthetic description of the fragmented light. Here the lyric is more porous to how the outside world impinges on the imagination in the very process of creation and the result is limpid and languorous. The poem ends with the chaos and unpredictability of those dark birds and how they’ve come to symbolize the relationship between the speaker and his beloved:
Though we lived in a one bedroom
Unfurnished, I called it a dance hall
And we danced silly tangos. I tried
To lift you then but now outside
My windows ravens dervish and never
Fly in formation under blue mountain.
Much of the rest of MacFalls’ collection (which incidentally is feted with comments from such sources as diverse as Harold Bloom, Sharon Olds, and Richard Wilbur) is in dialogue with other poets. This is most clear in “Blueberry Picking,” which immediately calls to mind Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” and Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking”. But where Heaney describes the act in specificity and transformation, and Frost divulges near-indefatigable fatigue at his own sense of having fallen to ground like an apple bound to be pressed into cider, MacFalls cavorts in the sheer joy of the primal act of picking. That the poem is grounded in the specific act of blueberry picking is salutary for its verbal departures, and even with an unnecessary initial inversion, a description like:
Foragers were we, as teaming
Minnows ‘round a polk-a-dot reef, feasting on some great
Blue-Fin’s roe, brave savages, painted in the glow of ember-
Light, of burnished yellows and bushy-blanched browns
Drenched by dew and dappled in the stipple
Of sun-brushed fire, all the colors making patterns, even
Box Turtles knew…
is vivid and ebullient, especially in the play of dapple and stipple, which is reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Blueberry Picking” demonstrates MacFalls’ evolved sense of sound and rhythm, and proceeds from a poignant evocation of family to the sensually fulfilling act, sufficient in itself, of picking blueberries, “as if to commemorate all / The things that were worth / Knowing, stuff that was ripe, / Easy, and rapt / In blue.” As seen, the final stanza of the poem also gradually diminishes in line length as it proceeds, mimetic of the picking clean of the vines, so that the last line (“In blue”) gets at the quintessence of the individual blueberry, and the entire undertaking becomes a metaphor for the art of poetry, the succulent fruit that flourishes after a season.
Throughout the collection, MacFalls sense of craftsmanship is immaculate—indeed at times, almost too immaculate—and one has the sense that the poet has spent much time polishing his syllables until they glisten with the inborn radiance of certain gemstones. One such poem, “Sometimes the Body is Contagion,” dedicated to Dylan Thomas, begins:
Sometimes the body is contagion
To the soul. Stars in their mission fall
To seed the fertile flesh, ignite
Blue waters of sulfureous hearts,
And so the flash is set to cancel
In the flood.
Sometimes the lip of soul onto seal
Will not hold, before he first knocked
And let flesh enter, thorny pegs
Pricked nerve and pierced bone on his climb
To the rose, yea, some star odd as
Dylan Thomas, once said of his poetry that it “is the record of my individual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light,” and appropriately, each stanza of “Sometimes the Body is Contagion” preserves both the sidereal and the corporeal, star and flesh, the celestial arc of the imagination set in relief to the unruly creation and subsequent decay of the body, especially Thomas’ body which was besotted with drink and heavy with sorrow by the end of his life. The music of the poem, like the initial hexameter broken between the first two lines (“Sometimes the body is contagion / To the soul.”), is an apt homage to the sonorous Welsh poet. In the sixth stanza, the poem deals explicitly with Thomas’ early death: “It was his thirty ninth year in that fall / To heaven when the steeping cell, / Refused to push in its tide.” That steeping cell—the body imbued with drink, the prison the soul abides in—finally encircled the white-hot luminosity of Dylan Thomas and the poem seems to imply that this eventual flaming-out was necessitated by intensity of expression.
Another poem, excerpts “from Odes,” calls Neruda immediately to mind. The classical ode, of course, was much more highly structured than what Neruda was to render so brilliantly in his “Odas Elementales.” Pindar’s choral odes had three parts—strophe, antistrophe, and epode—meant to be sung by a chorus, unlike the odes of his contemporaries, such as Sappho, Alcaeus, and Anacreon, which were meant to be sung by a single voice. As often happens in the evolution of ideas, John Milton’s contemporary Abraham Cowley misunderstood the classical ode and as a result, created an ode of irregular versification, embodied best perhaps by Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. Neruda’s great breakthrough was to use the form, which theretofore had been used as a kind of public song of praise, heard at the Olympic games and weddings, to rhapsodize the quotidian objects that constituted his and his fellow Chileans’ life. Thus, we have a poem like Neruda’s memorable Oda a los Calcetines, which infuse a pair of woolen socks with the awe generally reserved for waterfalls and Grecian urns.
MacFalls’s Odes, especially “To Amber Ale”, with its clipped lines and turns of phrase, are highly reminiscent of Neruda’s Odes, though MacFalls also changes the form on occasion, as in the Ode “To the Bear,” so that the lineation is more capacious and crafted, and less spontaneous seeming than the Ode “To Amber Ale.” I am less convinced by the Ode “To the Harp,” because once again, MacFalls’ insistence on abstraction and archaism, along with the corollary disclosure that he’s completely out of touch with the demotic, feels parched and familiar:
That frees my soul,
Sets my mind to dreaming,
How the hand of man
Out plays the God,
To its master,
Wingèd caterpillar? Freed soul? Making love to its master? These are linguistic infelicities that I cannot vouchsafe nor recommend; they strike at the heart of what I find most worrisome about “20 Poems.” The collection wends its lyrical way as if the latter half of the twentieth century never happened, and so the “dew’d morning dove” flies by us, while “harpy’d steam rises,” the lines rendered in a highly mannered meter that intentionally eschews the simplicity of transfigured expression to get at a more embroidered version of revelation. While on occasion, this results in such brilliant, epistemologically-charged phraseology as, “My head is but an occluded riff / De-noting songs you make in aisling airs of light / Polyphony,” (from Poet to My Eyes), in other places the work is too stilted and archaic, too removed from any notion of contemporaneity, to speak persuasively to this reader.
That’s not the case with Patrick Rosal’s “Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive,” which is nothing if not completely modern, full of the beat box inflections of life in the city as evinced by the first poem of the collection, “B-Boy Infinitives”:
To suck until our lips turned blue
the last drops of cool juice
from a crumpled cup sopped
with spit the first Italian Ice of summer
To chase popsicle stick skiffs
along the curb skimming stormwater
from Woodbridge Ave. to Old Post Road
To be To B-boy To be boys who
snuck into a garden to pluck
a baseball from mud and shit
To hop that old man’s fence before
he bust through his front door
with a lame-bull limp charge
and a fist the size of half a spade
To be To B-boy To lace shell-toe Adidas
To say Word to Kurtis Blow
To laugh the afternoons
someone’s mama was so black
when she stepped out the car
the oil lights went on
To count hairs sprouting
around our cocks To touch
ourselves To pick the half-smoked
True Blues from my father’s ashtray
and cough the gray grit
into my hands To run
my tongue along the lips of a girl
with crooked teeth TO be
To B-boy To be boys for the ten days
an 8-foot gash of cardboard lasts
after we dragged it
seven blocks then slapped it
on the cracked blacktop To spin
on our hands and backs To bruise
elbows wrists and hips To Bronx-Twist
Jersey version beside beside the mid-day traffic
To swipe To pop To lock freeze and
drop dimes on the hot pavement—
even if the girls stopped watching
and the street lamps lit buzzed all
night we danced like that
and no one called us home
This poem, like much of the collection, is pure, unvarnished (and in places, untransformed) nostalgia for those who don’t dance but boogey, don’t leave but bounce, and in its infinitives, which surprisingly come in the middle of a line, unpunctuated and interruptive, we get a sense of what urban life consists of for someone who grew up with hip hop culture, ate Italian ices, breakdanced, played basketball and the Dozens (“someone’s mama was so black / when she stepped out the car / the oil light went on”), rose into the mystery of their pubescence full of curiosity (and bluntness), exuberant with the energy of being young and alive in the city. In fact there is no punctuation in the entire collection, save for the ubiquitous m-dash, a cue these poems are intended to be voiced, and certainly that sense is enhanced by the play of syllables and use of repeated sounds.
The grammar of the lines is also bent in places to get at the vernacular of the streets, “To hop that old man’s fence / before he bust through his front door” and we even see the strut of brands and MCs across the lines, along with a refrain line that turns Hamlet’s aporia into affirmation: “To be To B-boy To lace shell-toe Adidas / To say Word to Kurtis Blow.” “To be To B-boy” becomes anthem, anaphora, call-to-arms, witness to growing up in the late seventies, early eighties—the mention of Kurtis Blow gives us our parameters—Blow who kicked the original flow, and along with Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrikka Bambaataa, issued in the first generation of hip hop and its myriad offshoots. Among the many sources Rosal claims descent from, a rapper’s special brand of verbal pyrotechnic is central.
So is his ancestry. Rosal’s roots are in the Philippines and he looks towards the island on occasion, with the implacable longing of an immigrant’s son. A poem like “The Ancient Baguio Dead” describes Manilla in stark, harrowing detail and yet retains a measure of fernweh (or literally farsickness in German; one can’t be homesick for a place that’s never been home):
That unflinching look at the urban sprawl, replete with waste, squalor, and the unmistakable signs of life being lived, is set in contrast to the Baguio dead who are exhibited, embalmed, in a nearby museum, “stone-colored stiff/in glass cases”. In them, the speaker sees a vision of what this place once was, a “canopy of tress / tropic cool and dithered / with bird-flits and monkey tails.”
But the speaker in Rosal’s poems is not from the Philippines, he’s Filipino, which sounds, coming out of his mouth, like a gang’s brag or a badge of honor. Ultimately you can’t parse out the New Yorker from the Filipino, the logophile from the jigga, and that’s the way it should be, identity being closer to a set of nesting boxes than discrete and inert. What I find most exciting about the collection is the space it occupies, straddling both performance/slam poetry and academia. There’s energy in Rosal’s work that’s infectious, something closer to the legibility of popular culture then to the arcane workings of cryptograms, and I think his voice might be seen as an example to others who would like to transmute their experiences growing up in the inner cities into something more lasting and literary. Of course this fact means that the Parnassian purview of poetry is often occluded for what’s commercial and transitory, like the mention of Adidas in the aforementioned poem or Tyra Banks in “Uncommon Denominators.” In other spots, the work feels too familiar, as if aping a trope that has lost its power:
Some of this, reconfigured a thousand times in the many homogenized flavors of gansta rap, verges on the trite, and I question the use of “I raise a glass” as an organizing principle, though just a few lines later, the poem grows more original (“torn down / to pulse-code bass / nightflash and deepthump ether / we sleep under like / crashing waves”). In a few other poems—like in the culminating lines of “Litany of the Missing Cheekbone”
You speak me
Speaking you Love
you speak me
into my mouth—
you belly/you tongue/you rain
–the work is redolent of the neophyte’s effort, something to be transcended, else left out completely. Indeed the very notion of litany is overused here, as we have lists and repetitions that could easily be replaced by other lists, other repetitions, and sometimes this reader winces at what’s been exposed, crude and untransformed revelations more at home etched upon a subway car then put into a poem. But by and large, these moments are the exception, and what’s more striking is the way a distinctive voice emerges from the shards of fragmented identity to make something more coherent and substantial. I call forth the ending of the moving, elegiac lyric “Next,” as an example of more mature wisdom emerging from the specter of the needless self-destruction that surrounds the speaker: “Ariben’s in his casket / and three dozen people crowd / under a tarp meant for five…Like most days this one / only leads to the next Someone / might take this all for granted / No one said it should be you.”
Just as in MacFalls’ collection, Rosal’s influences are readily apparent in “Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive.” There’s a poem written after Audre Lourde, one that has an epigraph plucked from a letter written to Rosal by June Jordan, even a poem titled “As I Read Etheridge Knight for the First Time.” Rosal situates himself squarely within the tradition of African-American poetry and there’s certainly an orality about his work that’s vibrant and importuning to be voiced that I find in his chosen forebears. These are poems to be incanted, to be set to jazz riffs in a spliff-pungent back room of a bar in an industrial town in North Jersey, minuscule and spirited stays against the deepening oblivion that waits at the end of each person’s story. Rosal’s story occasionally uses the advanced tools of self-reflexivity (such as the turn in “The Next Hundred-Odd Half-Dreamed Miles,” from a persistent second person to first person, “this story isn’t about you It’s about me”), but generally abides in the notion of voice as conferred by the lyric confessionalists and hip hop MCs.
The title of the collection, “Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive,” refers to a sequence of breakdancing moves; Uprock was a highly stylized form of mock combat, a proxy for actual violence, where a dancer would lose if he accidentally touched his opponent. It’s interesting to note how that world prefigures the eventual world of slam poetry and how Rosal’s poetry has some of the swagger, simplicity, and acrobatic verve of someone doing a windmill on a piece of cardboard. That analogy can be further expanded upon, of course; Rosal is breakdancing, not doing ballet, and the rawness of his enterprise might compromise the endurance of the poetics. These are poems staged on the street corner, not choreographed for Carnegie Hall. Nonetheless, the immediacy of the work and its explorations of identity, family, and loss, make “Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive” a promising debut.
Finally, I would be remiss as reviewer if I didn’t implicate myself in the flurry of first books, as my collection Instrumentality came out in May of this year. Probably the best way to deconstruct a poet-critic’s aesthetic sensibilities is to read a poem:
Singeing the heels of a quarrel,
Another renewal, with what for fuel?
Is it courage or fear that brings us
Both tears, each unable to leave the other?
Outside, the world displays its devices,
Lures and entices, promises pleasures
Earnest as arsenic and easier than rain.
Which must be why we refrain . . . It’s true,
That with you I’m shriven, but remember
When we were children, and joy
Joy was a given.
Since a review is the place to confess misgivings, I should mention that my chief fear about Instrumentality is how the poems hold together, being wildly disparate in terms of syntax, impetus, voice, and form. But when I most fear that the body of the book is not supple enough to hold such tempestuous and varied kin, I call on no less an authority than the recently passed literary giant Czelsaw Milosz, who wrote in response to what he perceived to be an imperceptive review by the critic A. Alvarez in The New York Review of Books: “a poet repeatedly says farewell to his old selves and makes himself ready for renewals.” It is in the hope for such renewals and in gladness for the optimism generated by this year’s crop of first books, of which I’ve left out a number of notables, that I proffer this review. May the upcoming year arrive, in its time, with even greater alacrity and innovation.[/private]