Poetry for Southern California
Our Senior Editor G. Murray Thomas has put together the latest CD's in our craft for your ultimate listening pleasure (once you get the CD that is). We will provide listening selections when available. And from time to time Murray may review books, or broadsides or god knows what...
POEMS FOR THE UTOPIAN NIHILIST
Book by Milo Martin
Echo Park Press (www.echoparkpress.net)
Full disclosure time again: I have known Milo Martin for years, at least since the Onyx Cafe days (in the mid-90’s, the Onyx Cafe was one of the largest, and most exciting, readings in town; Martin was one of the hosts). So, while I might be biased in his favor, I also have the perspective of watching his craft develop over the years. (If you think I am too prejudiced to give an objective review, feel free to skip to the next one.)
So this review is, at least in part, about the growth of a poet. It is also about one of the long running debates in our community -- page vs. stage, academic vs. slam. For Milo Martin has crossed those borders, and brings the best of both to this book.
Martin started out in the performance arena (including the aforementioned Onyx). Then he got his MFA from USC. I hear plenty of arguments against MFA (just as I hear plenty of arguments against slams), but I can say that, in Martin’s case, it gave him the discipline to bring the sprawl of his performance poetry under control, without sacrificing any of its energy.
The poems in Utopian Nihilist are obviously born our of performance. The lines are perfectly matched to the human breath. The use of repetition also derives from the spoken word:
She said it’s like falling asleep in the snow
like your bathwater growing slowly cold
She said it’s like holding scissors against the soft part of your
like watching a medieval barn decay
(“She Said Simile” p. 19)
and the roses shall fall back into remission
and the desensitized youth will pay no mind
and the engines will seize due to the lack
of oil and personal attention
and the voice of god will be witnessed tangibly
as luminous beams of light streaming through clouds over Leipzig
(“Stoppage Non-Stoppage” p. 68)
Notice the use of the word “and” in the previous example, how it both adds to the rhythm of the poem and imitates normal speech patterns. But these lines are tight, controlled; they don’t ramble like normal speech. One pattern these poems often take on is that of a chant, another controlled form of speech:
and to think that he was faithful
and to think that he had fasted
and to think that he had held his words
most of the time
crossed out passed over pulled down
(“Pulled Down” p. 41)
This aspect of chanting is more than just a stylistic device. These poems often work almost like prayers. They are reaching for something larger than, and outside of, human existence. Yet they do this without being overtly religious. They evoke our various religious traditions without preaching. They are not so much poems of belief as poems of hope -- the hope that there is something greater than ourselves.
This fits in with Martin’s concept of Utopian Nihilism, at least as I understand it. He expresses this concept in the final poem of the book, “Utopian Nihilist Manifesto”:
(ii) The Utopian thinker, the idealist, believes in a perfect world
whereas the Nihilist, or hardened realist, knows this world to be
entirely imperfect. The Utopian Nihilist, however, sees colored light at
opposite ends of the hexagon.
(iv) The Utopian sees the wine glass as half-full whereas the Nihilist sees it as half-empty. The Utopian Nihilist sees libation suitable for consumption and ponders the history of the grape.
My interpretation of this is that, even amidst the despair of human existence, it is always possible to find hope. Although the Manifesto is the final poem, this theme is found throughout the book:
and the benevolent shade of Mother Maria blankets our blood shot eyes
filling our ears with impossibly beautiful music
while the only nice cool breeze of the whole day
filters through the pinnacle hearts of palm trees
directly between the buttonholes of our sticky shirts
and we are forgiven
(“Los Angeles Forgiveness” p. 24)
Utopian Nihilist is illustrated with abstract pen and ink drawings by Martin. They are meditative images, meant to be contemplated but not understood (there is also a sense of meditation in their production).The same applies to the poems in here. They are searching for answers, not claiming to possess them. They too are often like koans, meant to be contemplated.
Yet even amidst this questing, there is still a confidence, a surety to them. It is the confidence of voice, of a poet who has explored and combined the best of both sides of the poetry world today, and in the process found a way to say what he wants, with confidence and power. —G. Murray Thomas
UP THE STREET AND AROUND THE CORNER
Book by Cory “Besskepp” Cofer
Mic and Dim Lights Books
Up the Street and Around the Corner is a collection of stories about growing up poor in America. Although set primarily in Stockton, these tales could be any city. Besskepp focuses on the details of such existence: the haircuts, the apartments, the smell of cooking chicken, the people out on the street.
It is the wealth of such detail which makes these stories work. He places the reader in the middle of the scene, immersed in its sights and sounds. You are right there with him as his family moves from cheap apartment to cheap apartment, as he experiences his first kiss in a dirty alley, as he raps in the back of a big white van, drinking cheap wine with his homies.
Besskepp keeps his tone light throughout. Even as he’s discussing poverty, discrimination and the other ills of urban life, he maintains a sense of humor and an optimistic outlook. He tells his tales with a smile on his face. The message is, keep your head up, and you will get through it.
I did have one problem with Up the Street... however. To call these stories isn’t completely accurate. They are more vignettes. The stories rarely reach any resolution. They often end abruptly, at a spot where it certainly feels like there must be more to the story.
It’s not just the lack of conclusions I’m objecting to, but, as I said, the lack of resolution (and there is a difference). The reader is too often left hanging, even wondering if there is a page or two missing. Now, maybe this is true to the nature of Besskepp’s memories, but creating art out of memories often involves pushing the boundaries, embellishing a bit. Up the Street... would be a much more powerful book if he had crafted actual stories out of the memories, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Or at least a sense that he had told everything we need to know.
Up the Street... is illustrated with wonderfully whimsical artwork by Nicole Klayman. The drawings hover between graffiti and cartoons, and thereby complement the setting and the tone of these tales.
Up the Street and Around the Corner is an honest and entertaining book about a poor childhood. I just wish Besskepp had done a bit more with his material. -—G. Murray Thomas
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