The Poetry Project Newsletter, 194, 2003
Bruce Andrews, The Millennium Project, [www.princeton.edu/eclipse], 2001.
Joe Elliot, Reduced, Situations, 2003.
David Larsen, Freaky If You Got This Far [self-published], 2003.
Carol Mirakove, temporary tattoos, Baby Self Press, 2002.
Rene Ricard, Love Poems, CUZ Editions, 1999.
Lytle Shaw, The Lobe, Roof Books, 2002.
It's awful to pick up a book of poems and find sweat. A
while ago this was so.
"I lose myself / in others' dreams": Before, a
product-minded consumer of poetry intuited the effort that
precedes a perfectly normal-sounding clause like this, but
she preferred pulling the dream straight from the text
rather than dwelling on evidence of its labor.
Today the consumer can lose herself in sweat: there are
works about work (process); works about that other kind of
work (earning $); and works that work to amuse us as
'not work.' All together, the types here are metalinguistic
and reflexive, but my intent is simple, to highlight three
approaches to work as recent transactions in remarkable
A good lead-in to the typology is The Millennium
Project by Bruce Andrews, available online. A crosshatch
of material from the 1980s and 1990s, Millennium adds
up as real labor, nearly a thousand pages of poems in 11
volumes. Each volume is sectioned off within a delimited
spectrum of "conceptually organized" categories: distance,
context, suture, apparatus, praxis. These subsets are then
split into 18 smaller divisions that take up shared forms
and themes. The crosshatch of texts gets previewed within a
neat 'pegboard' on the index page with 55 points of entry
(11 volumes x 5 conceptual categories). As the title html
indicates, once you enter, "you can navigate the project by
moving sequentially through one of the eleven volumes (left
or right), or from one subsection to its counterpart in each
of the other ten volumes (up and down)." When you select
Volume 1, C3, the "suture" category, you find a poem,
"C3A1-a," which begins:
The stiff curve ease & the dark cibachrome nights
Hornier precipice, dizzy elixirable tumor guts
a mock fake swell stupor romeo zoot
High-heeled monotonic koochie-koochie penetralia of gifts --
Andrews's language in these poems is "testicular," the
familiar "mannequin attributes" of a half-self-deprecating
(mock fake), death-metal (dark cibachrome nights; tumor
guts), sex-tooled (stiff curve; penetralia), dragster (romeo
zoot // High-heeled) square pants. This jokeful project
could be typed as unserious, yet Andrews attaches the poems
to stern conceptual framery, apparatus, praxis, etc., so
that the didactic authority these concepts intimate on the
title page point to more instrumental purposes. The preface
establishes the work as "a companion piece" to another book
by Andrews, Lip Service, only the poetry in
Millennium focuses on "socially resonant material."
Even before finishing the preface we get it. This is work
about its own collation, 1000 wacky, brilliant, communally
relevant pieces put in the right places. The work, as noted,
comes with back-up instructions that prep readers to steer
through the poetry with notional expectations, as well as to
read it with reference along a continuum in Andrews's career
processing other texts.
In The Lobe Lytle Shaw makes evident his own set of
processes translating Diderot's rationalist "practice of
selectively eliding and expanding -- to present difficulties
and supply phenomena." Shaw's phenomena summon a big, nearly
all-male cast of references to 18th century figures (Wilhem
Meister, Johann von Herder, Novalis, Friedrich Holderlin,
among others) as well as contemporaries (Rodolphe Gashe,
Phil Rizzuto, Jeff Wall, Fester) for a pocket
dictionnaire poetique brimming with exceptional
difficulties: "ski slopes gone to gravel"; "he learns by
playing / as a diagram makes his rage concrete"; "Undergoing
abject exteriority and historical whiplash"; "I used
staccato rib drags and irregular stomach billows to enfold
the island's economy of lunch motions into my midriff"; and
If Shaw were only compiling an encyclopedia in an emergency,
so to speak, there would be little else to notice in his
processes. But there is more, as phenomena pile up. Shaw is
in a methodological snit that he aims to transform, but that
also triggers influences not entirely under his control. A
breezy 13-liner titled "Enter the Wagon," begins:
"'Emotional content,' repeats The Master, / correcting a
youngster's kick. / I don't want to be all 'Confucius said,'
but the mysterious fluids find / expression..." Emotional
phenomena and a self-conscious aper┴u on method pour out by
way of nasty yet urbane environs, captured in these last
five, O'Hara-like lines:
The monster trucks sparkle.
The surround sound kicks-in.
On Canal rig horns chug.
These were briefly some of my piles.
And an attitude to grind them.
Expressing selective phenomena keeps Shaw scene shifting and
job hopping. His specificity of the workplace and other
stagings for poli-sci conditioning is apt, abbreviated, and
the sound is right. Here are some favorites.
* A "hippie" tries the service exit;
* The Overseer in his upstairs office;
* a sculptor laid-off from his temp job;
* The $217 of junk money he had gotten from the unwatched suitcase;
* profiling applicants who might accept unpaid internships;
* punch-in time.
Thanks partially to Shaw's research on the Age of Reason,
certain noun phrases project more than a whiff of refreshing
class-collision: "world travelers" brushes up against
"townies"; "the Baron" v. "work-suited helpers"; "someone
speaking / on a cell phone" v. "private fucking property."
While this is a text that persists in examining its own
compositional practice, The Lobe links to ambient
surround sound of political and economic preoccupations and
their attendant outflow of self-knowledge:
As the sun goes down, I'm reminded that I own stuff.
But no, I'm not satisfied: I still keep notebooks and make lists.
I'm going to move to another work type, poetry that makes
contact with earning a living and one's finding a niche
among the impersonal macrostructures we associate with late
capitalism. This type has been previewed in Shaw's supply of
data on class, employment scenarios, etc. In characterizing
this second type as work about earning a living, however,
I'm interested in emphasizing one's intimate and
transformative interactions with 'the outside.' To
illustrate I'll turn to two recent chapbooks.
temporary tattoos by Carol Mirakove looks like a journal,
with entries on each page numbered 1 through 15, some
numbers with two or more entries -- "10 (am)," "10 (noon),"
"10 (pm)," for instance ˝ and with one entry with a double
number -- "5-6 :: happy" (the number 13 is skipped). The
texts are lyrics about so much more than earning a wage.
They center on internal dialog with a fellow who tattoos the
writer's hand, takes drugs, and isn't always around while
she does other things, laundry, listening to music, and aha!
fooling around at the office. Mirakove is not unmindful of
the dark forces of capitalism, though. "i have just ventured
into the world of online banking." Two sentences later: "i
have 3 phone bills."
Here's Mirakove's portrait of a higher-up at work: "he's the
best person i know but i swear i think he thinks about saran
wrap. turnbuckle. someone on 1st avenue says 'yeah, he's the
cfo." This is the light hand of poetry of the moment,
orchestrating Mirakove's fill-ins about 'the outside' into
credible and amusing elements in a larger, deeper song.
Three entries titled "11 (am)," "11 (noon)," and "11 (pm) ::
depression rearing up like god's flyswatter" further
demonstrate Mirakove's brand of lightness. The first half
of "11 (am)" starts as an employment narrative but this
yields asyntactically to a 'you' she addresses throughout
In meetings a lot, including one with an art director who
tells me that the intended nav bar color is critical. sigh.
flesh out aesthetics versus e-commerce. i don't know whether
to feel easy or awful in knowing the difference.
the other 2 were so desperate for the job it broke my heart.
i should get a dog. although meta-me says petting purpose is
a slight pathetic.
It's because as soon as i was looking for you.
These four paragraphs resonate, one to the next, back and
forth. You more fully appreciate a line, "i should get a
dog," after reading a few lines further ("i was looking for
you"). Similar in emotional force, the second paragraph
("the other 2 were so desperate for the job it broke my
heart") makes more sense as a counter-sigh to the slight
sarcasm implicit in the word "sigh" from the paragraph
preceding. The entry "11 (noon)," toward its conclusion,
takes us back to 'you,' and back to the office.
in honor of purple you. when the revolution comes there will
be no more reports, my manager went around earlier and said
we must not exceed 40 hours a week. & i spend at least 10
hours a week corresponding, so this is overall
[ before i could type "a pretty good deal" a meeting popped
up around my cube & then there were three people IN my cube
with me & my desk -- breathe -- breathe -- ]
dear hero in prison,
Obvious conflation in fantasizing 'you' -- the second
paragraph of "11 (noon)" begins: "i am busy daydreaming..." --
with Mirakove's own imprisonment in workday action binds the
lyric. Real and imagined, what's the difference? as the
transformation stratagem goes. The low-key authenticity of a
manager and then three people in a cubicle lends credence to
her striking unanticipated notes, "purple you" and "hero."
And just in case you recoil from the nearly plaintive rant
"when the revolution comes," Mirakove clears this up
recursively in "11 (pm)...": "when i said 'revolution' i meant
i'll keep you close in a special midwestern way."
Joe Elliot is a poet in the poetry publishing business. This
is a too-familiar combination. His chapbook Reduced
reveals more speedily than other recent examples, though,
what a poet is up to when she or he works in what he says
and in the ways he says it.
Elliot's Reduced is a small object, even by chapbook
standards, twelve pages of used blue-lined notepaper, cut to
4 x 5 1/4 inches. One sign of working 'in what he says and
in the ways he says it' is how the poetry here is imprinted
on pages that contain penciled-in (erasable) handwritten
notations related to printing. One imagines the paper was
hanging around the back office, and Elliot didn't want to
I thought of writing
you a letter explaining all
the reasons I'm not
wrong, then I thought of
all that paper
the shrinking rainforest
in my head,
wrote this instead
At which points the handwriting crosses Elliot's printed
poem is left to happenstance, and since each piece of paper
is one of a kind, no intersection of particular handwriting
and printed text will be repeated. In my copy of Reduced
the penciled script "form [illegible] ~ 100" shares the
same line as the beginning of the printed text, "Some living
/ people send // their love / letters to the dead: " Barely
making out the words "Some living" (because these words
intersect with the illegible penciled-in text) while
simultaneously in-taking the handwritten "form [illegible] ~
100" is chilling. Then again, ascribing the line literally
as-is -- "form Some living ~ 100" -- to the subject position
of the printed poem is unsettling when I continue to read:
"form Some living ~ 100 / people send // their love /
letters to the dead: " In this reading, line 1, the mostly
incomprehensible line of penciled-in and printed text,
enacts the pathos of writing to the dead. Further, the look
of two kinds of text (layers of thinking and rethinking) and
the atmosphere surrounding the texts (thin blue lines
floating across white pulp) contribute to an artifice of
intimacy, which is also eerie, because I can experience this
easily-erased, half-handwritten poem as one written to me
personally. But this is a love letter to the dead!
Elliot's practice combining poetry and work life contrasts
with Mirakove's. temporary tattoos mixes up the
workday with daydreams to surrender a nimble lyricism.
Reduced distributes its limited materials -- a)
handwritten notes and b) printed text -- to cancel and
simultaneously recombine poetry of love and some loss that
is accented by chance procedure, the intersections of a) and
b). These intersections play out the intimacy between what
they first obscure but ultimately tell of the one who lends
her attention, the writer, and the one who borrows it, the
The last work type is so self-magnified and comedically
distorted it operates out of reach of ready-made
categorization. At surface, it drops features of the first
two types: there are no mentions of, much less personal
intersections with, a day job; and there is no clarifying
detail of how the work develops nor background on how it
should be read. This type is so messy about
conventionally-referenced appeals to critical attention that
it seems unmindful of itself as poetry. As a
stand-alone, the work that is 'not work' comes to us
subterraneanly and with not a little hip hauteur.
Rene Ricard's Love Poems flaunts the current
practice of presenting poems within a quasi-defined
chronology, that is, a collection of recent or older work.
Ricard distorts such expectation, mixing up eras, ages, and
names within and among the poems. In no more than 20 pages
of text, he gathers three short pieces written one, 12 and
18 years before their publication in Love Poems.
(Only the oldest and funniest poem, "The Death of Johnny
Stompanato," appeared earlier in Italy, with an Italian
translation.) One impression gleaned from this assortment,
is that Ricard is stigmatizing his own retrospective,
forcing the question of why only these pieces fall under the
rubric 'love poems.' Anyone familiar with previous work, and
most especially Rene Ricard 1979-1980, would
recognize that a majority of his oeuvre is love poems.
Ricard writes here the way he has written before,
straightforward declarative sentences as subterfuge for an
ambition tied to physical love, but also bound up with
physical demise, rage and public disgust beyond his
conscious understanding. As he wrote in the poem "I was
born" included in Rene Ricard: "This isn't art this
isn't poetry I don't believe I'm / writing this I don't
believe I'm reading this..." Now in "The Death of Johnny
Stompanato" Ricard admits:
I want a drink. I don't know what happened.
I was young then I was old. I was paid for
Then I paid. Everything seems like it happened
Yesterday or so long ago it happened to someone else.
Ricard's poetry is unstinting in its incredulity, fueled by
the aftermath of love affairs with awful boys in his
imagination, and the three pieces in Love Poems fit together
within that shameless tautology. The twitching hilarity and
disturbance he evokes are equally at odds with the cool,
cognitive tones of current, formally ironic and even smug
avantist literature. Ricard's is heavy-breathing and
enduring neo-romanticism. His diction is sent up in the
crisp, descriptive style of Dashiell Hammet, that is, were
Hammet a humorist permanently fallen out with Sam Spade.
Like his recent drawings and youthful performances in
underground films, Ricard's Love Poems is slender in weight,
absurdist in intent, and extraordinary in its impersonated
semiotics of tragicomedy.
Then again there is David Larsen, aka LRSN. Cartoonist,
Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in comp lit, self-publisher of
artist / poet chapbooks, Larsen is easily the complement to
Ricard when it comes to crisscrossing demarcations between
subterfuge and the shameless. Pick up a copy of Freaky If
You Got This Far and make sense of the book first as a
tailored physical object, a tactile fetish to savor in its
variations in texture and thickness within 30 pages. It's
hard to figure which parts are handmade and which
'manufactured' (Xeroxed), and that's part of the tinker's
design, you'll realize, a foil to the fraudulent harmony
struck between Larsen's original and appropriated texts. One
sixth of the book lifts decades-old sociological prose
verbatim, penned by Erving Goffman, "A Great Canadian," and
tellingly the author of such baleful-sounding books as
Behavior in Public Places, Interaction Ritual and Frame
Analysis. Here's a sample of one appropriation:
The general formula is apparent. The stigmatized individual
is asked to act so as to imply neither that his burden is
heavy nor that bearing it has made him different from
In some dimension, via Goffman, Larsen internalizes the
stigma of Ricard's persona-driven romanticism, and renders
it thoroughly, methodically ironic per the dictum that one
should not call attention to one's "burden." But, hey, does
Larsen stop there? Tireless, and with just a couple of
master strokes, he tags the two-page passage, excerpted
above, with a magic-markered "FREAKY IF / YOU GOT THIS / FAR
p. 13 / OR 14." Layer upon layer of ... frame analysis? Larsen
is saying a) I'm not saying this, Goffman is; b) but I'm
using Goffman for my own purposes, heh, heh; c) I think; d)
but why are you reading this junk?; e) anyway, let's
remember this is a booklet I'm putting together and, see,
you can participate in my laying it out!
Larsen's black-and-white visuals are epically ragbag, some
tinged with two or three of the cheesiest-possible colors.
One titled "I'll Buy That Dream" pastes a swamp photo over
faded musical notation. The swamp is slimed in a mucous hue
that's contrasted at the base with a platter of dead fish on
a bed of lettuce and overripe tomatoes. Across from this is
the poem titled "THEY";
They'll have to understand.
They'd be monsters not to
What are they, some kind of
Larsen sates my appetite for chuckling with angst. He does
this by raising only the bloodied tips of sinister
propositions, leaving me to fill in the syllogisms. In a
list-poem, back-titled "It Takes a Lot to Kill a Young
Person," Larsen identifies these five (of 13) potential
1. THE GLORY OF GOD
2. HIS WRATH
3. TOO MUCH SPERM
4. NOT ENOUGH SPERM
Larsen is insinuating an all-is-up-for-grabs nonseriousness
that is at least one occasion for poetry. "Eggs," he writes,
"They're fucking throwing rotten eggs!" He adds a few lines
later, "Best vacation ever."