by Alan Catlin
Generally speaking, the perception is, that when a poet issues a selected poems, it is a late in career move. Recently, I received three books of poetry, two of which fit that common perception. The first was by Eric Greinke, “For the Living Dead,” which contains poems written between the years 1969 and 2102. Greinke is a poet and translator of some distinction and versatility, as the several collections I have seen, clearly show. He has translated Rimbaud, not having French I cannot comment knowledgeably about the accuracy or the efficacy of the translation, but it seemed a highly readable interpretation. He has collaborated with other esteemed small press poets, such as Harry Smith in the manner of Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, and John Elsberg in the haiku form. His many collections show a wide range of interests and accomplishment.
In the current book, it is difficult to say if this is definitive selected poems as his list of titles suggest, at least, one other collection this one presumably supersedes. One of the curious aspects of this collection is the format which dates the poems but does not identify the collections they are drawn from (assuming they are drawn from collections.) Most, but not all selected poems I have seen either begin with new uncollected or conclude with those, and with clearly identified books poems are selected from. A notable exception was one by Stanley Plumly, a remarkable selected that was organized thematically, without regard to date or clearly identified defining characteristic, creating a dynamic momentum and direction rarely seen in this publishing form.
I am open to new ideas but I found judging “For the Living Dead” difficult as there didn’t seem to be a clear progression in the work. One of the fascinating features of a selected is seeing how a poet grows, learns, and applies his new found knowledge to his work. There is a peculiar kind of sameness in tone to roughly three quarters of these poems, none real failures but none outstanding either. Toward the latter quarter of the book, a more emotional, more passionate voice emerges that enlivens what had otherwise been a not overly exciting book to this point. There was also a curious concentration with the bulk of the poems being before 1975 or after 2005 with a brief inclusions between leading the reader to speculate why. Could this collection have been broader and more inclusive? Was this ground covered elsewhere? Or some other reason that had nothing to do with poetry at all such as life or career reasons? Still, at over a one hundred fifty pages, this is a substantial volume of work.
Another collection I recently reviewed, Joan Colby’s, “Selected Poems.,” one of those late in career books described previously. The high quality of the poetry in this collection rarely varies from the earliest selection to the later ones. A huge gap from the 80’s to 2012 reflects a an admission that, rather than taking a traditional poetry career path after publishing two collections in successive years, she pursued other interests, continued writing but not publishing in book form, until recently. Hopefully, she will collect more of these “missing” poems in a book as well given how this reader was drawn to seek out the unselected poems in her earlier collections.
The third recently reviewed book by Kentucky poet and visual artist Laura Eklund, is more unusual; an early in career selection of newer, mostly unpublished poems, by a poet who is refining her technique. Clearly Eklund is endeavoring to transfer the artistic vision she has already nastered in her diverse visual arts career, to the written word. Her work In “White Ibis”, shows a mature talent, balancing the more mundane daily life concerns of the poet with her visionary, artist’s eye. The second section of two is devoted to love poems for her husband a fellow poet and teacher.
Thinking back to my own selected poems, “Drunk and Disorderly,” it would best be described as a mid-career book culled from extremely limited release chapbooks long out of print
The book came about under somewhat unconventional circumstances as the editor, David Baratier, literally walked in off the street to the tavern I was working in and proposed doing the book. Lots of unusual stuff happens in a bar, as the book amply demonstrates, but nothing quite like this. Of course, I accepted though it took over five years of sporadic contact, mostly by phone, to see the book through to completion. A collection a couple of years later contains, though is not specificity a selected, most of the ensuing work of the two years following “Drunk and Disorderly” under the title “The Schenectady Chainsaw Massacre” suggesting a selected can become out of date almost before it is published, even if it superseded by a not quite selected. And there is no strict way to organize. The latter book was arranged chronologically (and un-paginated) while the former was arranged thematically, in four parts, roughly as a day going to, arriving at, being at and coming home from work in a tavern in Albany, N.Y..
Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of being published in an anthology, “The Lowdown” featuring a cover by legendary poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The editor, Robert Zoschke, chose poems from my selected to be in the anthology along with many others widely published poets work. My “Last Will and testament Poem” written in the middle 80’s includes the lines,
“If they (my poems) ever return
I leave them to anyone who wants them
except for the person who stole from them
and she knows who she is. To her I
leave my son’s endless Arf programs.”
Ironically, that person was also well represented in the anthology, a fact the editor had no way of knowing. As she is the most published poet in the world, I will refer to her as The Queen, as in Queen of the Small Presses (though the expression she who shall remain unnamed used by an editor of the Literary Magazine Review to refer to her inexplicable omnipresence in poetry publications works just as well). The wound of seeing your work “borrowed” by a poet you have known and worked with in a student teacher relationship, blatantly copied and referenced without attribution, not once or twice, which might be construed as accidental as she tried to assert, but many times, is disconcerting to say the least. The “borrowing” (her words) is to my way thinking, is plagiarism. Of course, I am not the only poet she has “borrowed” from, but that’s another story entirely, for another time. Maybe, as she one said,” If I don’t write five poems before noon, I break out in hives.” In order to ward of a plague of hives, one assumes, and write, literally, hundreds of thousands of poems, eventually “borrowing” becomes necessary when the creative well runs dry.
I distinctly recall, in a workshop held at her house, her bragging in sheepish, naughty little girl way, proud of her indiscretions, “How she loved to copy the work of bad poets and make their work her own.” The idea of being considered a bad poet is one thing, a subjective thing, is neither here nor there. I let my work speak for itself on the count. The wholesale stealing of lines from deeply personal poems about my mother, written in the workshop an encouraged by “The Queen” is another thing altogether.
Years later, reading her selected poems, Cold Comfort, published by Black Sparrow is organized roughly as, people and places. In reality, her poems are an endless repetition of themes, images and subjects. I was struck by the irony, the absurdity, of even considering such a volume. Here was a poet who is endlessly repeating herself, a master of words consuming herself like the mythical self-consuming Uroboros, until her current work is a caricature of itself, almost a kind of perverse self-plagiarism. You could pick almost any poem from that collection and put it aside any poem on a similar subject in one thirty years earlier and not be able to tell when they were written. There is no growth, there is no maturation process, no intellectual curiosity whatsoever, only a tedious self-absorption that surpasses even the most radical narcissist’s involvement with her one true subject. It is to legendary editor of Black Sparrow Press, John Martin’s credit that the book is readable and representative of the better examples of her earlier writing at all.
Martin’s claim that he was going to do for her what he did for Bukowski, falls well short of the mark. About the only things they have in common are extreme fecundity and self-absorption. However, with Bukowski you get the sense that his raunchier indulgences are based in fact, while with The Queen, her obsessive sexual indulgences are largely fantastic. After all who wants to read a senior citizens sex dreams written in a manner that suggests she is stuck in perpetually arrested adolescence? I know I don’t, obviously, but that’s just me.
A later volume from the same press, “The Woman Who Looks Like Me” could easily have been titled, “The Woman Who Writes Like Me.” Rewriting The Queen, albeit with caveats,
would look something like this, a simple compilation of her core images clusters, oft stated and restated themes, and a breathless style best read quickly, lest you fall into the trap of reading one of her poems for content, which is, essentially, entering a trap with no bait.
Another Poet Who Writes Like Me
like some evil twin separated
just after birth, she’s a josephine
in rags, wearing muskrat instead
of sable, vinyl not leather,
hair darker than anything
ever dyed. Somehow you know
she let herself go, legs fat
as cured hams, lips swollen
from kissing mirrored images,
no ballet, no tortured hours to
the barre once dessert tray
arrives she never lets it pass.
You can hear her words, cobbed
from the B movies she rents by
the handful but never returns,
one eye watching the screen,
the other on the page as she
types her words, the more predictable
the better, innovation scares
her like the skeletons in her
closet, dead bones of her lovers,
parents she can only imagine,
a mother like Bette Davis who
nurtures, a father like Lugosi
sucking her dry, husbands who
left her dry and infertile to
cultivate other fields; no babies
in her life but the ones she
creates on endless typewritten scrolls.
Even now, long past her prime,
she imagines it is not too late to emulate
the nuns, decalced and sequestered,
vows of poverty she might obey were
it not for the scents of roses,
jasmine, bitterest oleander she must
have to anoint her bed with for dream
lovers from Nam she never had.
Sometimes, she thinks she has
never lived at all, that she was
rescued by gypsies only to be taken
to the camps to die, the ultimate
solution, silence, something never to
be desired, least of all by herself.
How are those arf programs working for you now?