Three From Wave Books
By Eileen Myles
By Matthew Rohrer
By Christian Hawkey
April is the coolest month—at Wave Books anyway. All three of its April releases seem to insist on it. Matthew Rohrer’s press release praises him for being “Equal parts punk rock and pastoral”; Eileen Myles’s hails her as “The rock star of modern poetry”; and the one for Christian Hawkey lauds his second collection as “edgy and ominous.”
See? Cool. But cool as in hip, cool as in whipsmart—not detached or emotionally distant. All these books seek to connect with readers in their own cool way.
All three befit the aesthetic and mission of an independent poetry press dedicated to “publishing strong innovative work” and to “encouraging [its] authors to expand and interact with their readership through nationwide readings and events,” in accordance with the editors’ belief that “the audience for poetry is larger and more diverse than commonly thought.”
Wave Books seems to agree with Open Letters that “work that treats the understanding of art as a universal pursuit, and as a universal pleasure” is not just a worthy but a reachable goal. Like its Massachusetts-based predecessor, Verse Press, which merged with the new, Seattle-based venture in 2005, Wave seeks to publish poetry for the people. But this does not mean they pander; it means they believe in the existence of an intelligent and inquisitive general reader who is fully capable of appreciating high-quality work if given the chance to see it.
Moreover, Wave takes action beyond just publishing books (not that that wouldn’t be enough) in order to support this belief. Remember last year’s Poetry Bus Tour? The one that rotated a cast of over 200 poets in a 40-foot biodiesel vehicle across 12,000+ miles of North America to read in 48 cities? That was them.
Among its many other ventures, both fun and noble, Wave also features an online supplement of new work by emerging writers called The Bedazzler, and a 12-acre organic fruit and vegetable farm in Wisconsin that offers residencies to poets willing to work at growing and selling the produce in exchange “for room, board, and a new environment in which to write.”
Ladies first—let’s lead with Myles. The author of over a dozen books, and thousands of poems, Myles gave her first reading at CBGB’s in 1974. Since then she has, among other things, served as the Artistic Director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the mid-80s, made a ground-breaking “openly female” write-in bid for the U.S. Presidency in 1992, and edited The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading. A seminal post-punk feminist icon, she currently divides her time between New York and Southern California, where she relatively recently began teaching at the University of California in San Diego.
Appropriately, Sorry, Tree, her latest book, deals with a sense of identity and displacement, the strangeness and exhilaration of moving and being on the move, of going to sleep one place and waking up another, of love and loss and regret and continuing on even in the face of it.
In the poem “Home,” for instance, she writes: “It’s not where I write / It’s where I vegetate,” going on to characterize writing as her way of seeing, being, and making sense of the world: “I write down / so I wake up.”
And in “Fifty-three,” the third poem in the collection, she writes:
I’m looking at a tree
full of tiny balls
California trees are different
thin eucalyptus more blades than
leaves not hitting
This is a California poem and a birthday poem, and she flows smoothly from writing about moving geographically to moving temporally, concluding with the beatific declaration:
my best friend
& I love
you on one
of so many birthdays
Myles includes poems for the living and poems for the dead; for the ones she still gets to love in person, in a quotidian way, and for the ones whose memories she loves, but who are no longer here. Some of the very best of the former are the series of four “Dear Andrea” poems, the first of which kicks off: “I love you too / don’t fuck up my hair.” With a sense of humor and an explicit intimacy—“I can’t believe / you almost / fisted me / today. / That was great,” the first poem continues—Myles crafts a concise portrait of a relationship both comfortable and challenging. She plays the couple’s moments of misunderstanding for comic effect, as in the second “Dear Andrea” poem which begins, “I’m not trying / to turn you / on Eileen / I’m stretching” and she uses dialogue with the beloved as a means of defraying criticism of her poetry; “Spare me the postmodern / experimental poet / bullshit,” the titular Andrea declares.
In contrast, in the longer poem “Lodovico,” Myles elegizes friends and loved ones long gone. “Of course I’ll always / think of Heather / who leaned into / it. Such a willful / way to go,” she reminisces. She adds:
Heather chose to go
because of pain.
She felt chased out.
I also remember her
setting her back on
fire in a sex club
Myles is contrasting the willfulness and resilience of youth with the determination of age.
Certainly, her plainspoken, conversational style might not be every reader’s cool drink of water, but one has to admit that she pours out the short, understated, casual free-association consistently and makes it look easy. And simply making bold-faced declarations which still stand to make a lot of people uncomfortable—such as in her Ginsbergian “To Hell,” wherein she writes “I want to show you complicated dyke love, construct a poem / about women and men” —can constitute a crude but effective way of getting one’s point across.
Sometimes, she makes it look a bit too easy, as in the poem “No Rewriting.” Such passages as the following might make you wish the poet had, in fact, taken some time to rewrite:
This morning it was summer
while I stayed in
I watched spring fade
I went out in chill fall
and walked my dog
in winters rectangles of trash striking our face
the wind turning flags and banners into danger
man the wind was big
in this fragmented city
These lengthy, prosaic stanzas fall flat, taking up too much space in the poem before we get to the more interesting sections, sections that operate via wry humor and playful diction, such as “now I’m like king of the losers again / I said king king king // it’s like genitals / I want to show you all these tiny parts / but I’m public public public.”
At times, Myles’ insistence on ordinary, everyday language and observation leaves the reader unsatisfied. Some of her shorter poems, “Ooh” for example, seem more like sketches than finished poems, and fail to pack the wallop that short poems require to be successful.
Elsewhere, the subject matter itself seems needlessly puzzling and anti-poetic, as when she writes about banal events that happened “in my writing class” and “another grant I never got around to sending in.” Occasionally, these insider-ish nods to the workaday life of the modern creative writer seem deliberately exclusionary or too-cool-for-school. In the final piece in the book, “Everyday Barf,” she almost taunts the reader for lack of knowledge of the dull minutiae of awards and residencies. “I was teaching a workshop that week at FAWC,” she writes. “Do you know what FAWC is”—only to forego an explanation. (It’s the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for those not well-versed in the writer-in-residence circuit.) One wonders what she hopes to achieve through this, and such missteps seems all the more jarring in contrast to the big-hearted openness and accessibility of the rest of the collection.
Nevertheless, Myles is a poet with a history who writes about history, her personal history and our political history, and how the two intertwine and can’t be separated, even if we might want them to. In the more powerful sections of “No Rewriting,” she artfully juxtaposes the major, nationally known details of the 9/11 attacks with the details of her own experience that day: “I met the poet Jason from the building next door / they’ve hit the pentagon someone yelled / and I went down to get some coffee / and when I came back one was down / wow I said to Jason.” In this instance, her low-key understatement is pitch perfect. To say merely “wow” in the face of the collapse of the World Trade Center seems a perfectly reasonable and appropriate response, and certainly is a less wrathful or damaging reaction than many others that followed.
because you’re going to make
me the greatest
So begins the poem “Each Defeat,” reminding the reader of another great punk-feminist artist, Patti Smith. Reading Myles gives you the sense that we should listen to our still-fresh elders. “Everyone in history / Should have videos of the past,” she writes, in a way that makes you think maybe she’s right.
Cutting-edge as these three Wave poets are, each appears to possess a strong sense of history, more specifically of tradition. Rohrer opts to open the collection with a cagey epigraph from the Taoist skeptical philosopher Chuang Tzu, in apparent praise of being of one’s time:
To be rigid and arrogant;
to be above this generation and distant from its ways;
to talk of great principles;
to be critical and disparaging;
these are approved by scholars who dwell in the mountains,
by men who are not of this age…
Yet even as he extols the virtues of engaging with one’s era, Rohrer also illustrates through example the importance of knowing what’s led up to said era. Rise Up begins with a four-section poem entitled “Four Romantic Poets,” which operates a bit like a mission statement for the collection at large. “I must learn to say what I / never intended to say, like John Clare” he writes in the first section.
The repetitive poems of the Book
of Songs, the blazing peach blossoms falling
in every stanza, and on the winding
path through the shade to the wedding: teach me
to hold an image of the world in me
that isn’t cracked, that isn’t bent backwards
like my toenail, catching on the bedspread
he follows up in the second.
Like Myles, Rohrer uses his poems to blend the personal and the political, resulting in poems that provide a pleasing balance of scholarship, politics, and domesticity. In “In a Bower of Rosemary,” he writes:
In the president’s dream I am
washing other people’s laundry
and have to stop and wipe
my hands on my pants
and straighten my hair when
he comes to the workroom to be magnanimous.
I wipe my hands. I do not kill him.
Even in his own dream I do not shake his hand.
Actually, this the-personal-is-political mindset seems to be shared by many Wave poets, a trait befitting the authors published by a press whose latest large-scale project is an anthology of political poetry. “We’re interested in a broad definition of a political poem and in expanding the conversation about what a ‘political poem’ can be and do,” say their guidelines. “If you think it’s political, send it to us.”
Rohrer’s poems can be and do a lot of things, many of them at the same time. The poems in Rise Up are serious and well-crafted, but also funny and fresh, exhibiting a playfulness he’s shown in previous collections, notably in Nice Hat. Thanks., his collaboration with fellow Wave author Joshua Beckman.
Here, as in earlier work, Rohrer proves himself a master of Stanley Kunitz’s advice to end on an image and not explain it, letting the image explain itself. Again and again, he ends on images simultaneously cryptic and perfectly fitting, like a poetry gymnast sticking landing after landing.
Not surprisingly, then, one of the most enjoyable sections of the book is entitled “The Ideograms,” an ideogram being a graphic symbol that stands for an idea. So you can see what I mean, I’ll end his section of the review with one of my favorites:
At night this is what scares me:
Having to piss in the forest blackness:
Seeing a faint glow:
Knowing it is two elk working together
to balance a birthday cake on their antlers.
These three Wave poets are not just cool; they’re also inspiring. And when I say inspiring, I want to be clear that I do not mean “inspirational” as in spiritual verse, or greeting-card copy. I mean inspiring in the sense that, at the very least, these poets affect or touch their readers, and in some cases the go so far as to motivate or to stimulate action. This action may be simply to keep reading their books, or it may be to read more Wave authors in general, or even to go write poems of your own if you’re into that sort of thing. These authors are not just inspiring, but inviting as well, and this is a quality the very best art provides; art is something that makes us feel more awake and alive, and that’s what these books do.
Hawkey’s poems awaken and enliven over and over, as he situates the reader in a landscape that is astonishingly vivid: “Incoming: field strafed by fireflies. / Incoming: sand shelled by enemy waves,” he writes in “Hour Utopic.”
I’ve reviewed Hawkey enthusiastically before. In his debut effort, The Book of Funnels, Hawkey explored the possibilities of X’s, as in X-marks-the-spot and X-you-are-here. In this sophomore effort, Citizen Of, he plays with the associations and resonances of the letter O. In one of many poems entitled “Hour,” he writes:
The hole was not aware it was a hole
until it was uncovered. Then it became
a manhole, which I fell through,
over & over. I tried to move the hole
but there was another hole
beneath it, which I fell through,
over & over, an O. This
was my blowhole. I breathed through it.
The motion of this poem echoes the motion of the book as a (w)hole, each piece serving as a hole or a tunnel opening onto other, even weirder and more mysterious holes. Moles show up quite a bit in these poems, and the figure of a mole is an apt mascot for a collection in which the author invites you to burrow through and through, getting pleasantly lost, trying to figure out what each new tunnel means and where it leads.
I don’t know for sure if Hawkey was going for this, but all the “Hour” poems made me think of a medieval Book of Hours, compilations of texts and images intended to facilitate reflection and meditation. Marginalia was common in Books of Hours, as their owners often liked to add their own notes and observations on the meanings of the texts. Hawkey’s book invites this sort of readerly participation.
There’s so much going on in virtually every poem, that you can, if you are so inclined, mark them up and go back to them, catching new ideas to ponder.
That said, this book is way funnier than a traditional medieval Book of Hours, containing line after line packed with seemingly effortless comedy and wordplay. “We exchanged looks—all three of us— / & mine was totally better” he writes in “Water in the Ear.” “Let’s / get a peacock on the squawk box. / Let’s oscillate between / ocelots, one spot at a time,” he riffs in “Elke Allowing the Floor to Rise Up, Over Her, Face Up.”
If Hawkey’s first collection concerned itself with how one situates oneself in landscapes that are largely personal, then this book concerns itself more with how we situate ourselves in broader contexts; how we construct ourselves as “citizens of” towns, nations, the earth and the whole world.
He composes the poem “The Birth of a Nation” almost entirely out of alternately weighty and flighty questions (there are a couple of statements, which operate as asides):
Do they incinerate their dead? Do they make soap from the ashes?
Is cleanliness a way of honoring the dead? Do they,
as a nation, have a genetic weakness
for alcohol? Are they predisposed to sudden defecation?
And is the measure of a nation how they dispose
of their waste? (If an island, how sad for the sea.)
Do they have a flag? Is it a thumbnail, a painted tooth, a tattoo
on the eyelid so that, at night, the nation sleeps
as one nation? And the colors? Lampblack
to celebrate their powers of night vision? Peach, for sensuality.
Neon mahogany to symbolize their love of wood products?
This interrogation causes us, as readers, to wonder to whom the answers matter. Periodically throughout the rest of the collection, Hawkey seems to advocate that they don’t matter at all—to his cat, to the animals who inhabit the planet with us—but that they also matter more than almost anything else.
If one life matters, then don’t they all matter? he seems to argue gently. Or, to put a finer point on it, perhaps he doesn’t argue at all, and instead encourages us to argue with ourselves: how do we decide what matters—what makes sense—and why?
I’d argue that this is what the best poetry can and should do: make its readers think while simultaneously delighting them; suggest a discussion that you should be having, rather than merely trying to have it for you.
I could go on and on, not just about how excellent Hawkey’s work is, but about all three of these authors’ latest releases. Instead, I’ll end by saying that, to an extent, all small poetry presses are like indie record labels, but Wave Books is like a really consistently satisfying one. You can be sure that all the releases won’t sound alike, but you can also be sure that you’ll probably end up liking all of them. Thanks, Wave Books. Long may you wave!
Kathleen Rooney is an editor of Rose Metal Press. Her first book is Reading With Oprah, and her poems have appeared recently in Harvard Review, RealPoetik, The Pinch and The Book of Irish American Poetry: from the 18th Century to the Present. Her essay “Live Nude Girl” appears in Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers (Random House, 2006).