Oct 10, 2017
From the hyperreal to the bare-boned and bleeding, October’s snapshots probe systems that seem out of our hands, and bring to life both our complicity and agency.
In Slow War, Benjamin Hertwig touches on some of our deepest national myths, only to push in, breaking the veneer of patriotism to reveal something much more potent. Hertwig leads the reader through vignettes of a prewar journey, (the girls at school/will like you more/for having gone to war), culminating in unshakeable memories of trauma upon returning home (try to convince yourself that the smell/of bodies in your bed/comes from meat cooking/in the room above). Hertwig is unabashed in situating the reader immovably in disillusionment (In Flanders Field some shit/went down), his tone curdling in poems like “Food Habits of Coyotes, as Determined by Examination of Stomach Contents” where metaphor dissolves into stark horror. While cruelty is certainly on feature here, Hertwig also takes interest in the full range of human capability, meditating on casual acts of compassion in a place where human touch is scarce enough that a brush on the shoulder can feel like an encounter with god. God is of particular interest to Hertwig, who grapples to make space for something greater continuously throughout this collection. Time, god, and war collapse and entangle, before “Remember Your Body Again,” where “cedar smells of god/and a Bach cantata/makes you almost/forgive/your hands.”
Feel Happier in 9 Seconds
Coach House Books
In her collection Feel Happier in Nine Seconds, Linda Besner’s envisioning of god is less ubiquitous, but rather “has a pimpled visage.” When the quotidian is becoming increasingly bizarre and surreal, even terrifying, Besner supplants the reader in her own landscape of absurdity, making space for moments of hilarity and even joy. Her poetics seem to suggest that happiness is less a degree of control (flog a sunbeam, harness/a cloud) and more a process of letting go completely, surrendering to the ludicrous. Besner takes jabs at neoliberal ideals of productivity (I for one, have been making a list of lists to make), and happiness that is scalable and competitive (my happiness is twice/your size). Where news headlines today feel unbelievable and often harrowing, Besner takes cultural ongoings to the exponential. An MGM exec declares supremacy over the sky, Mother Nature goes to court, and an interviewer asks the interviewee for her bra size. In this collection, Besner seems to allude to the uses of imagination for navigating the current landscape: “I found I was driving/a cardboard box/with the steering wheel/drawn on. Hitting/the breaks meant/veering into a hard place/and falling down.”
Where Besner is wry games and witty jeers, Joe Denham is grim inevitability in his collection of poems, Landfall. Here, the wording is sparse, leaving the page to feel like a litany performed to a cloaked audience. Denham wants to make us aware that “the air we breathe still, with ease, assuming always” is running out, becoming irrevocably changed, and we’re too plugged in to notice (enter stage right exit when/we slump back into our devices). Denham is not one to supply answers, and indeed, we see the speaker consider hurling themselves into the sky, debating whether or not to cover up in KY jelly and whipped cream and just disappear into oblivion. Still, in the midst of total nihilism and individual user isolation, Denham makes time for open air: “I know you want/just a little more, and deserve it so. And do. Adrift we are inside/this open blue.” But Denham also makes it clear that wanting, while cathartic, is also what brought us to the end of the world in the first place (“maybe free will is a stone dropped forever into a/ bottomless well”). These poems seem to suggest that we are capable, indeed, of going both ways, but deciding on which is something that might just pass us by before we can manage it. “What if we actually have to choose,” Denham warns.