Friday, August 31, 2007

GUESTS OF SPACE by ANSELM HOLLO

NICHOLAS MANNING Reviews

Guests of Space by Anselm Hollo
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2007)

Let’s begin at a strange beginning. My copy of Guests of Space came wrapped in a Coffee House Press press-sheet, evidently designed to seduce reviewers into asking this most recent book up for a night-cap. These three A4 pages, crammed with a cocktail party of positive opinions on Hollo, were disturbing. The reason is that, regarding the merits of Guests of Space, I found myself agreeing less with two extraordinary poets– Lisa Jarnot (“who better to write an elegy for the West than Anselm Hollo?”) and Alice Notley (“you must read [this book] or you won’t know enough”) –than with Publishers Weekly: “An entertaining, chatty, omnivorous affair.”

I can’t help thinking that Publishers Weekly, in its own chatty way, is the more just here as to the merits of Hollo’s most recent book. Guests of Space is for me a vigorous, formally proficient book. It’s a book which obviously likes language. It is often enjoyable. It makes jokes. It’s not afraid of being political, cosmopolitan, and engaging. But it is hardly a poetry which, as the usually extraordinary Tomaž Šalumun writes, renders one “changed as never before.” Worryingly, Hollo’s book seems to be of the type which makes intelligent people say impenetrable things. Andrei Codrescu: “If you can’t remember the way to your heart, Hollo’s poem will show you.” Or The Albuquerque Journal, (my favourite), which confers upon Hollo veritable First Testament powers: “He tells us how it is and how it always has been in our own words, only better.”

It’s this sort of press-release which makes me shudder in antipathy and near horror at the critic’s (thus, my) hypocritic oath. Of course, none of this is Hollo’s fault; but the reason I’m talking about it at the beginning of this review is because, as we’ll see, Hollo too is a lover of notes, and has accordingly freckled them across almost every page of his book. My hypothesis– and my reason for talking about a press-sheet at the beginning of a book review –is that Hollo’s notes are in no way gratuitous: rather, they allow us a disquieting and unfamiliar glimpse into a perhaps worrying aspect of his aesthetic.

* * ***

First, some general remarks. Though we may wince at the knee-jerk taxonomy, Guests of Space, though not derivative, proudly situates itself in a Berriganesque tradition. In spite of this, the sonnet forms in play in the book are distinctly and remarkably Hollo’s. (As Notley rightly notes in her blurb– and she is someone who would know –“The personal sonnet, that is, made Hollo’s–can you imagine how tricky that might be?”) More than this: the form is here manifestly impressive. It is at once taut and giving, and Hollo, through the use of diverse stanzaic forms variegated only by the white of the page, allows it to stretch and then recontract, conferring upon these fourteen-liners a brilliant reciprocal consistency and variety, energy and restraint.

Sadly for me, however, this formal proficiency is the most impressive thing in Guests of Space. As apart from this, the collection, though energetic and competent, is prone to lackluster stretches: lines like “the festival of Saint Retail/ that ends every good U.S. American’s year” seem, to say the least, unimaginative. But when Hollo riffs, when he, as the Boston Chronicle tells us, “snips and snaps”, we are in familiar territory, but we usually want more:
                So the old guy grits his teeth
and wishes for that song “She Is a Country Woman”
to call him back to the bars of? Late Modernism?

Too often though, for me, it all looks and sounds just that touch too premeditated: a playing-out of oblique cuts and known surrealist gestures: “What’s current? I mean misheard? / Currently misheard? Shelf dancing? Alpine badminton?” The line saunters off into dispassionate incongruity; but what is there beyond this? This isn’t as angry as Notley, nor as strangely sad as Berrigan is under all those droopy shrugs:

Everything goes on as before
But never does any single experience make total use
Of you. You are always slightly ahead,
Slightly behind. It merely baffles, it doesn't hurt.
It's total pain & it breaks your heart (Ted Berrigan, from “Wrong Train”)

The one part of Guests of Space that, against expectations, surprised and moved me, was the explicitly political conclusion which is “Such an Expensive Dream”. It was almost as though Hollo, shaking off the Cool and hanging up the coterie of Jack K. and Allen G. and, a bit later, Anselm B., had woken up:

first they asked for your Ausweis
then they took you to Auschwitz Kosovo! Kosovo!
the way the species now does what it does
is the way it has always done it


* * ***

So much for a general take. To introduce my following remarks, I think it’s important to recognize that critics, when reviewing a new collection of poems, are usually supposed to address “simply” the “poems themselves.” Above all, the critic is not entitled to be interested in such secondary, unimportant things as, say, footnotes.

What is, however, “a poem itself”? This seems to me one of the questions which Hollo’s book unintentionally asks. Because, naively against protocol, this review is really a review about notes: footnotes, blurbs, annotations, explanations, observations, clarifications, elucidations. Details. Notes under notes. Notes inside notes. “A critic should allow us to see the global, sum value of a work.” I’m skeptical of this formulation of the analytic imperative. For if this “value” is itself swamped in detail? If this value is made of detail? An encompassing vision is of course preferable; but detail, though it is never definitive, is at least indicative, and I suspect that these “secondary” elements in Guests of Space may in turn be telling of a certain way of conceiving of poetry, which has, I will argue, some negative aspects.

To return to the allegory of the press-sheet mentioned at the beginning of this review: why is it important? Simply because, the notes present everywhere in Hollo have for me a fairly patent uselessness. In spite of this, it is difficult to detect any trace of irony directed towards either scholastic conventions or philological bookishness. In fact, such travestied playfulness, apparently absent here, is curiously more evident in Eliot’s infamous post-factum remarks, (and that’s saying something).

For these notes are, strangely, at once useless and yet presented with a popularizing wink: “Hi. I’m your author. I’m here to help you.” I have some favourites. In one poem, Hollo notes that a particular collaged fragment is from a play by Carla Harryman, but then feels obliged to inform us: “I was assigned that part in a reading of the play one summer at Naropa in the nineties.” Or, we come across the phrase “Red Bug Dermititis” in a poem, and looking below for clarification, find: “refers to the scribe’s case of shingles.”

Even stranger instances occur when Hollo, within his footnotes themselves, begins to surreptitiously note the preceding note. From the bottom of page 48:

“‘The range of . . .’” and “‘How could we avoid . . .’” – USAmerican poet Charles Bernstein and Irish poet Randolph Heally in e-mail tertulias. Tertulia– Spanish for regular, informal, literary or artistic gathering.”

And what, the critic may ask, is an “e-mail”? The question sounds facetious, but this passage does make one wonder precisely what determines the presence or absence of one of Hollo’s notes. As, what is “clarified” or “contextualised” here is in fact fairly random: we are given information, for example, neither about “The Protocols of Elders of WASP”, nor “Bizet”, nor “The Iowa Writers’ Wokshop”, where for many people with many different backgrounds, these references are more than obscure.

All of which makes one think that this simply must be an elaborate joke: a self-reflexive, Bernsteinian, intra-diagetic, twinkling grin, paramount to: “my notes make up part of my poems.” But, even if it is all a gag– and I don’t think it is –these notes almost ruined my reading experience. On my third read-through I actually tore off a piece of paper to use as a veil over the bottom of each page, thus exterminating an authorial voice who, after the perhaps interesting line “but the sea slug remembers everything, you hear?”, found it necessary to tell me: “sea slugs have been immensely helpful to human memory and dopamine receptor research.”

Believe me: I sincerely wanted this to be a joke. Quoted here, it even sounds like a joke. I’m partially convinced, however, that it is not, and that moreover, it is something perhaps more alarming. Namely: a play for accessibility gone wrong.

For these annotations seem a mystery until we realise why they are perhaps there: they are there “to help us”, and in doing so, to make us feel, as The San Francisco Chronicle helpfully tells us, that these poems are “highly personalized”, that their purely abstract, poetic vision is supported, to quote The Boston Review, by “snaps of contemporary life.” These notes are, in short, a short-cut: a wink which, under the aegis of “greater accessibility” and “anti-hermeticism”, exist to allow the reader to be emotionally comfortable and semantically reassured.

Am I wrong? I would like to be wrong. But it made me think in fact of what I feel to be a strange Event Horizon often visible in both generations of the New York School, where a version of O’Hara’s Personism rejoins Confessionalism and an almost militant “Quietude”. That Hollo thinks, for instance, that I care whether or not the phrase “Red Bug Dermititis” in one of his poems “refers” to his medical condition, is unusual. O’Hara didn’t, I think, fall into this trap of equating personality with accessibility; to quote the man himself:

“How can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? for death?”

Thus, a “laudable prioritization of the personal”? The “anchoring of a poetic in the singular, unassuming, quotidian life”? No. For the idea of “personality” rendering value to a poem is, we know, deeply problematic. It’s an implicit presumption many critics would mock without hesitation in a “Quietest”. And yet, when it comes to Hollo, we are prepared to ignore it?

It is worth noting that Hollo was elected “United States Anti-Poet Laureat” in 2001 by the Buffalo Poetics List. Yet Billy Collins too, I suspect, might also seem to suggest that readers need poetry to be “supported” by “real” shingles (ie. Anselm Hollo’s) and “real” conversations with friends; that they need to know that poems are not “just language”, but rather that this is ME, Anselm Hollo, talking to YOU. For what else do these notes, and these poems, often imply than: “Do not be afraid: all this comes from LIFE”? As Tomaž Šalumun unfortunately notes: “[Hollo’s] voice is so vivid you can feel his presence while reading.”

I don’t mind Guests of Space: it is, as I said at the beginning of this review, vigorous and formally proficient. My suggestion is simply that perhaps the two US Laureates, in spite of their differing syntaxes, are in the end not as far apart as we, or in fact they, may often think.

*****

Nicholas Manning teaches comparative literature at the University of Strasbourg, France. In 2004 he took his MA in twentieth-century poetics from the Sorbonne (Paris IV), and from 2003-2006 held a scholarship at the Ecole normale supérieure of the rue d'Ulm. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in Verse, The Argotist, Fascicle, Free Verse, Cross Connect, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Cordite, Dusie, Eratio, Otoliths, Aught, Shampoo, among others. He is the editor of The Continental Review, and in 2006 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

2 Comments:

At 11:48 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by John Bloomberg-Rissman in GR #6 at:

http://galatearesurrection6.blogspot.com/2007/05/2-books-by-anselm-hollo.html

 
At 6:39 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by William Allegrezza in GR #8 at:

http://galatearesurrection8.blogspot.com/2007/11/guests-of-space-by-anselm-hollo.html

 

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