pure poetry, 2000

Readers who like unlikeable characters will love Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Lila Moscowitz. Lila is stubborn, spoiled, angry, bitter, promiscuously self-destructive. And, frosting on the cake, she’s a poet. That’s not to say she’s without redeemable qualities. She’s funny, hilarious, in fact, a natural wit, and as honest as a person can be without losing all of one’s family and friends and readers. Her humor is laced with sarcasm and irony. She’s quick, street smart and intelligent, independent. Experienced readers will recognize that Lila is not Binnie, that the narrator of a novel should not be confused with the author. This narrative truth is emphasized toward the end of the book when Lila takes some questions after a poetry reading:

“‘Did you really dance topless at the Baby Doll Lounge?’ Another one of the college girls is contemplating a career move, no doubt.
I smile as if I’ve got a secret, and I say, ‘I refuse to answer on the grounds that it could incriminate me.'”

Lila may be a poet, but she’s not stupid:

“That I never danced topless at the Baby Doll Lounge or anyplace else either is not what they want to hear.”

Does she “write every day,” another student asks, and Lila pretends for the audience that she does write every day. She’s then asked “how much money do poets make?” Here she tells the truth (192-193).

But while the perspicacious reader knows Lila is not Binnie, we all know that poetry does not sell, so why not only does Binnie put “poetry” in her title but structures her book with poetic devices, informing each chapter with epigraphs, definitions of poetic conventions? Didn’t she want her book to sell? The answer has to do with wheels within wheels, or how to turn a stand up routine into literature:

“Many of the poems I write are about sex. I have a gift for the subject. The ins and outs of it. My poems lean toward the sordid side of the bed, the stuff of soiled sheets” (21).

We don’t get to hear those poems, but they apparently are full of the tension created by want harbored in inhibitions freed in seduction, romp enclosed in forms, procedures, praxis, which express mores without which somehow sex is not nearly as much fun. The fun is enclosed in a box of gravure etchings. The notion of form as enclosure is conservative. The poet might want out, not in. Lila’s own explanation might solve both Binnie and the reader’s questions:

“There is freedom within the confines of form the way a barrier protects you from the elements of disaster. The way there is love in the bonds of marriage. ‘Without boundaries, you can be only adrift,’ I say. ‘Lost. Without lines drawn on the map, you are nowhere. It is better to be a prisoner of war than to be without a nation, a place, a people'” (194).

Jesus may have said the opposite – Come, follow me, and leave all that nonsense behind. Of course, most of his followers wound up wanting it both ways.

“Maybe they should stay in their cages and sing their hearts out. Unbridled passion…results from being tied to the bedpost” (194).

Which is to make of Lila a dynamic character, one who’s changed over the course of the work. She finds love only by losing love. She’s human, fallen, having slipped on her own banana peel, but she gets back up, and writes a book that stirs and calms the forms.

Pure Poetry, by Binnie Kirshenbaum, a novel, Simon & Schuster, 2000, 203 pages.

Is Poetry Good for You?

Here at The Toads, where we have, since 2007, contributed to the general discussion of literature, we sometimes get questions regarding the uses, benefits, and effects of reading poetry: Is poetry good for you? How long does it take for a poem to kick-in? What are poetry’s side effects? How long does a poem last? Will reading poetry help my anxiety, depression, or pain?

These and similar questions are often accompanied by anecdotal experience offered as evidence or symptom. Someone knows a guy who read a poem and joined a cult; another attended a poetry reading and woke up with a hangover; a mother noticed her daughter slipping a book of poems into her missal at Mass – what to do?

What’s the best time of day to read a poem? Is it ok to read poetry while on steroids? Should you mix poetry with television? Are there any good poems about math? Can you suggest a good gluten free book of poems? What are this poem’s contraindications?

Medical doctors may suggest reading no more than two standard length poems per day. All things in moderation, including poems. As for the opinion of the man on the street, Everyman, vox populi, the wisdom of the crowd seems never closer to madness than on the subject of poetry.

Hugs Penyeach: “I Saw a Man Hugging a Fridge: Twelve Poems by Youssef Rakha in Robin Moger’s Translation”

Youssef Rakha, Egyptian writer and editor of the international online publication The Sultan’s Seal (aka Cosmopolitan Hotel Cairo), recently posted to his site twelve of his own original poems, translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger. That posting draws significance for several reasons: both writer and translator are professionals published elsewhere in traditional forms – literary, commercial or journalistic; the poems are estimable; as literary online culture continues to evolve, with some longtime bloggers dropping out following more traditional successes or frustrated by the perceived over saturation of unpaid venues, Rakha continues to appear determined to develop even further his site, creating unprecedented opportunities for diverse writers and readers.

As I consider a discussion of Rakha’s twelve poems, I’m reminded of Kirill Medvedev, the Russian poet whose concerns regarding ownership of communication and open access to literature and language led him to renounce his copyright, and in addition to his other work, he began to self-publish his poetry on Facebook. At the same time, Medvedev seemed interested in writing that would not alienate a common reader, as so much poetry often does, even if inadvertently. Reading poetry can seem like studying a foreign language, as indeed it is.

Rakha’s poems behave, it might seem redundant to say, poetically. That is, they move by metaphor and juxtaposition of images, narration sometimes ambiguous, with many unexpected turns. What is their subject? Rakha has always made expeditious use of tags. At the bottom of the “Twelve Poems” post, for example, we find 70 tags, alphabetically ordered, but we don’t find fridge or hug.

We should assume the speaker or narrator of a piece is not necessarily the author. Authors create characters, in both fiction and poetry, and narrators, including those in the first person, are characters. Even the narrator of a so called memoir, perhaps particularly so, is a character created by the author. Louis Menand recently spoke to this issue in a New Yorker article. I’m not sure he clarified or muddied the waters. That business about the “narrative pact,” for example: I prefer Trilling’s argument that everything is an argument – and that probably includes memoirs, essays, poems, novels, ads and commercials, junk mail, the evening news, anything on an op-ed page, and notes left on the fridge from your partner. The old, venerable encyclopedias? Full of arguments. The new Wiki? Likewise. But Menand’s closing point, that no occasion for writing should prevent us from reading, is right on. But what of the culpability of readers who in their creative reading find something the author had not intended? But isn’t one of the purposes of poetry to create and sustain or nurture the possibilities of unintended consequences?

The setting of the poem where we find the man hugging a fridge seems domestic. His wife is there, swinging from the chandeliers, but this doesn’t seem to be a party. The local world is drowning in rain. We might recall Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” “Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?”  The man’s legs are submerged. Is he hugging the fridge for its buoyancy potential, a life preserver? The poem is titled “Listen Ashraf,” and Ashraf Fayadh, a poet initially sentenced to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia, is named in the first line. His sentence was subsequently reduced to an eight year prison sentence with 800 lashes. His crime, it seems, wasn’t so much poetry, or being a poet, but of writing the wrong kind of poems. We hug our abodes, our houses, our wives and fridges, our lifestyles, as the waters continue to rise. We hug to say hello, goodbye. We hug the things we love. We hug a fridge or a clothes washer when we want to move it to another location. We hug to hold on. “Listen Ashraf” is the last of the twelve poems.

The first poem of the twelve is titled “First Song of Autumn,” and speaks of joy: “I am the clarinet’s mouth.” This poem is lyrical, cylindrical, like the flight of birds.

In “The Angel of Death Gives Counsel to a Bereaved Parent,” we find one of those poems whose narrator or speaker appears as a character invented by the author of the poem. The poem appears to be the angel’s apology, a rebuttal to the argument that he has no feelings. But he must harbor his hugs to get the job done. And he gives back, not an answer, and certainly not even a hint of a meaning to his work, but a hug of surety.

The twelve poems speak in both the first and second persons. The speaker addresses someone close but at the same time far away, questioning, observing, remembering. There are sparks of sadness and of sarcasm, of hope drowned in irony, of anger:

“Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty
That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.”

Readers might wonder what it is they hug, to get them through the night or day of a poem, across the invisible wall of a border.

One of the twelve poems, “Stallion,” is a prose poem. Not that a piece written in prose is any easier to grab hold of. It only appears to be one of the more accessible poems here. Written “For Ahmed Yamani,” it moves as a dream of water over oil. Another prose poem, titled “Love (Marriage),” seems an aphoristic apology, though we may not be exactly sure for what. It is not the sentiment often found on greeting cards.

On second and third reading, the poems open more easily. The reading is not difficult; that is because the writer has done most of the work. But there is work required of the reader, too. The settings and references may be unfamiliar, the problems, though universal, hardly equitably distributed. Characteristic of the poetry is the packing together of history, personal observation, everyday events (visiting a cafe, for example), a kind of diarist epistolary form. The movements feel free, without restraint, not hamstrung. 


Out of the Blue Review of Alma Lolloon

A fun and generous review of Alma Lolloon has appeared on Amazon. Here is a link, and I’ve pasted the review below:

by, Rucker Trill

July 4, 2018

Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase
Dear Miss Lolloon – You are no doubt by now growing weary of fan mail after the publication of your eponymous novel, Alma Lolloon, but I just finished reading it, so I must write to tell you how much I liked it.

Right off the bat I thought, hmmm, this is new and unusual given the absence of most punctuation not to mention quote marks so that I knew I was in uncharted waters here, or maybe a better metaphor (I learned that word from the book)would be along the line of separating skeins of different colored yarn after the kittens have been in the knitting basket. But soon enough I got my stride and realized that this is the way things happen in real life – there are no quotation marks there, now are there. And it seems like that’s the way this book unrolls, just like life with the unexpected hidden just around the corner, under the everyday. (Though given your five husbands I wonder if anything about your life is “everyday”.)

I’m no writer myself, but one of the things I liked was how you and your friends talk about the book right there in the book while they’re supposedly hearing the book! I mean whoa! What’s that about? It was like falling into a hall of mirrors or something. I asked a professor who lives down the block about it, and she said you were “meta-texting” and after I showed her a few pages she said you were doing it very humorously, and I confess I laughed way more than once. But like I said, I’m no writer, so who knows.

Now, I don’t knit but I’d love to join you and Curly, Hattie, and Rufa some day for coffee and scones and we could talk more about your book. I could even bring the scones. Maybe some time in August? I plan to be up your way then.

Anyway, I’ve run on too long and I know you’re busy on your next book. I hope it’s a mystery, I really like the mystery part of the book with Jack Rack. (I think you should have married him!)

Best regards, Rucker