Reviews of the Ephemeral

‘Previous Vertigos’ by Nina Karacosta, ‘Betwixt’ by Jennifer K. Dick (Corrupt Press)

In Pamphlets on June 17, 2011 at 9:16 pm

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Innovation in poetry is resisted more in the West than it is in the States, so Dylan Harris is taking a leap in publishing these two poets.

 

The experimental poet recognises the reader’s mind as a dynamic that interacts with the work to create meaning. The poem is offered as a live experience in itself. As we are constantly absorbing, changing our perceptions, each time we read these poems, we encounter new meanings, new experiences.

 

Previous Vertigos by Nina Karacosta opens with ‘Solitaire’, one of the more accessible poems in the chapbook. This poem focuses on the use of drugs to escape, as ‘the days run one next to the other’. The images are vivid and poignant: ‘the cat slow walks around the yard’; ‘there are postcards on my wall that chit-chat/endlessly. Their blue green water in the night/becomes purple’; ‘Day and night/I draw maps and color them.’ But ‘all this adds up to nothing.’ The sense of despair, of hiatus, is movingly evoked.

 

‘Nostos’ is the Greek word for ‘Homecoming’ and is the title of the second poem. Here the text is fragmented across the page, in snapshot images:

my face          a kid

wet stamp        map     train in the countryside    sleep           the eyes of hawk

his face            glasses             well-shined shoes

 

It’s an encounter that leaves its mark on the speaker:

‘behind his face            1922    and the sea East where he comes from

Black Sea

they haven’t kept his home     they haven’t kept his home’.

 

The poem begins and ends with a three-line stanza, while a text portrait of a memory makes up the bulk of the poem in the middle ‘stanza’. While the poem looks messy on the page, the white spaces between phrases suggest fleeting glimpses, barely taken in. What freezes indelibly in the speaker’s memory is highlighted in italics:

all my remaining life             he said’

 

Karacosta is fond of lists. In The Story of Everything’: I am aluminium cans, plastic bottles/I am rainforest and sunshine/ I am drain cleaners/I am white vinegar. In ‘Under’ there are more lists:

‘Living up lazy and horses slack, slippery underwear: boom

broken bits and trunks, underwater shoes.

Finnegan clashes, late night ancestors

Truck,     dragon,     priest,     devils,     dervishes,     dimes’

 

While lists can be evocative, sometimes they are too self-conscious or random. This isn’t always successful, and through all the ‘delirium undreamed’ the reader hunts for something tangible to attach to. In this case, it eludes me. However, ‘Circe’s Domain’ has striking images:

‘you sit one-eyed over my roof

teeth of the wild, sword in right hand

far-away a young hope holds an umbrella.’

 

There are beautiful lines here: ‘memory was numb and liquid.’

 

‘Mom and Me’ is a gentle poem that evokes a childhood memory:

I remember the blue bathing suit

and the tips of her fingers

circling sun lotion on my back

 

– but in case that is too easily clear or appealing, Karacosta slyly blurs and darkens the image: ‘diesel engines/made of feathers and snails/spittle drowning worlds/like a whining of a mandolin/or a veiled woman swimming away’. Perhaps the excess of images drowns out the poem somewhat, but nevertheless, there is a moment of magic in this poem.

 

A simply written poem that also relates to a loved one, is ‘M’, in which Karacosta brings a memory vividly to life by using the present tense:

‘I’m on the bus and I’m fifteen and

it is today that

I’m wild inside.

The bus bores me. It goes slow

and reveals a dusty city

the sun, Hilton hotel –

it keeps moving and moving

in an immobile way’

 

The innocence of first love is conveyed in the line: ‘You know I did write the letter M in every notebook I had.’ A few brief lines capture the unfolding of heartbreak, the memory ten years later.

 

‘Can’t Talk About It’ is a tightly written poem that leaves an impact. The layout on the page suggests a compartmentalised approach to cope with pain – both physical and psychic. The speaker is detached from the experience: ‘She uses the surgical knife/hand steady/cuts what she calls/dead skin/and roams around the edges/revealing/the raw flesh.’ Instead of explaining how and why she burned ‘three fingers’, she doodles:

 

‘The skin is a fruit

lily and river

 

I am

a corridor of rain’

 

Karacosta’s imagery is often exotic, with orchids and hummingbirds, peyote and spices, but these are counterbalanced with altogether more biological terms: photosphere, embroid, analgetic membranes, mitochondria, fluid flesh. Here is a poet who aims to subvert our expectations at every turn. The result is a kind of schizophrenia that is intriguing.

 

 

In ‘Suds’, the speaker berates herself – or an addressed ‘you’– for not ‘extending’:

‘You are/a/ follower/of the/experimental/standing in/the/middle//of /your crowd–/

for you there is no extreme, no extravagant

no ecstatic.’

 

If this is what Karacosta is striving for, she achieves it in more than a few poems here.

 

Jennifer K. Dick’s collection Betwixt is altogether more assured and cohesive, both visually – with the exception of the first poem, these are all prose poems, the length of a single paragraph – and thematically. The collection is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus and his wife, Eurydice. Orpheus uses his musical gifts on the lyre to persuade the gods to allow him to travel to the Underworld to rescue his wife. He is given permission, as long as he doesn’t look back at her until they reach the Upper world. But just at the entrance of Hades, he cannot resist glancing to see her face, and she disappears: ‘Where you looked back, locked and over a shoulder, is as inconsequentially permanent as Eve with her apple’ is Dick’s evocative response to that fatal moment.

 

In ‘They waited at the treeline for their dog’s return’ she writes: ‘what resembles this assemblage of bricks, language, luggage?’ This is a poem about loss: ‘Old lady’s socks full of holes leak gold. They say 746,235 francs were never recovered. But who decided those bills should be invalidated. Bodies of paper, human form.’ Her voice is assured, moving back and forth between the contemporary world and that of myth: ‘A trail through the forest automatically pilots us back to Gretel: ‘here little, here, little….

 

The poems link tenuously, for example through a single word: ‘Talking of glass, this one’s broken’ moves us to the next poem, which begins: ‘I see it in the glass doors…’ Glass is one of the motifs.

 

Dick’s titles are long and intriguing. ‘Morse is a code that she would hear if only it weren’t whispering to her’ is the title of a poem that deals with radiowaves and underwater cables: ‘smoke signalling through fog the message just as blurred in this cerebral city…’ The senses of both sight (‘trompe l’oeil’) and sound fail the speaker in this sequence, where a lack of punctuation creates a feeling of panic, confusion.

 

While there is music in her work, there is also a carnal crudeness that spikes the language, subverting the generally cerebral atmosphere: ‘Puzzle me a motherfucker…’; ‘Orpheus simulate an orifice is as opening onto…pointed as a penis taking to light…Molasses freezing in snow, the stickiness after she licks you.’ And in another poem: ‘Age. Desire. The end of the. Flaccid.’ Often there is a strong sense of a male voice in these poems.

 

A striking aspect of these poems is tone. In ‘Drive now. Backup. Forward. This is the glancing’ the voice is sardonic: ‘Yes, darlin’, this is a boxed set of mixed metaphors, a mashed up carafe of red and white sloshed together, just label it rosé.’ Tone is also intriguingly gendered: ‘Hand me a feather, a petal, lace the path with pomegranate crimson as her knees in winter snowdust charcoal textured as the calcium in her bones.’ And then:

‘Documenta. Direct. Dungarees. Put these on. Or those. Wear whatever you like, doesn’t matter, we are sitting in the dark…’ A sense of two voices, one female, one male: ‘Fumbling in her, he.’

 

Dick’s humour is dry, and her anti-romantic style uses ironic juxtapositioning to create a deliberate bathos: in another poem, a letter to Eurydice: ‘I am collapsed into, you that I am pleated to bleating no, and yes, and wherefore art thou, me mine is thine. This ain’t no Romeo rodeo…’; ‘my bleeding lyre’s gouging a songbird, singing the pure contralto lofty as runny bathwater gone cold.’

 

Linguistic playfulness sneaks in at oblique angles: ‘she’d, shed, shepherd shy on the slyball hit a homer, backdrop, backstop, fourth and twofers copping a feel, a field. Score! Down one. Thicker than peppered skin drying on salt flats…’

 

But these digressions into sound play and subtle linguistic puns sometimes cause the reader to stray from the theme, which appears from time to time like a brief dart of sunshine through clouds. Then we return to the seeking out: ‘a low thudding Atlantic ting, ting ting of non-functional, dysfunctional sonar radio calling out, here, Eurydice, here Odysseus, here Orphic melomaniac.’ The patterns and repetitions evoke humanity’s endless search…what is it that we seek? At any rate, we appear to be in perpetual motion, either looking ahead, or looking back.

 

In ‘Pause. Rush hour. Stop telegram. Back up’, Dick again plays with syntax, breaking all the rules: ‘She rapidly breathlessly she. The man with the cross breaches the. Halt. Halter. A game of fog and crowds.’ Dialogue is overheard from random people: ‘My lover pays me five times more an hour than you can ever afford, honey.’ And just when it all appears random and fractured, the link reappears, to fix each poem to the chain: ‘this is the tunnel he took, Eurydice, just follow the tracks in the dark, steady, steadying.’

 

These poems reward several readings, evoking each time a different aspect of the multi-layered complexities of our worlds, both old and new.

 

*

About Corrupt Press:

 

Harris, a poet himself, created Corrupt Press because he felt there was a demand for a publisher outside of Ireland/UK/USA that would cater for Anglophone writers living in Europe. It’s the only Paris-based Anglophone press that  Harris knows of. He is primarily publishing European authors, but it’s not restricted and depends completely on submissions. This is the website: http://corruptpress.net/

 

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