Shelf Life

Shelf Life

The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater; Terese Svoboda’s Weapons Grade; Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full.

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"If a dream is a rebus, what is a play?" Leave it to poets to take a perfectly good rhetorical question such as this, from Nada Gordon’s play Distraction, and come up with multiple answers, each less likely than the last, and all of them brimful with a belief in complete freedom of expression. With The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater (Kenning Editions; paper $25.95), poets Kevin Killian and David Brazil have provided as friendly as possible a reintroduction to a genre that, in contemporary America, at least, has some ways to reclaim the world-historical heights of appeal it held among the ancient Greeks, the Elizabethans and in pre-Franco Spain.

Plays demand money, but will work for space and time. A few experimental troupes dedicated to poets’ plays survived for a while in the ’50s, most notably the Cambridge Poets Theater and a group out of Black Mountain College. The most convincing play in the collection is Dutchman by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). That this 1964 play about the seduction of a young black man on the subway is the most current-sounding thing in the book says at least as much about Baraka’s ear for dialogue and sense of dramatic action as it does about this city dweller’s sense of plus ça change. Other standouts include a previously uncollected Frank O’Hara play and Kathy Acker’s thrillingly chaotic The Birth of the Poet, which ranges from New York in the ’80s to Propertius’ Rome to a mosque.

The anthology does betray more than a touch of hostility to the needs of the uninitiated. As the editors put it: "Even the most radical texts in this book engage perforce in at least a few of theater’s traditional trappings–the entrance, the curtain, the discovery scene–why, character itself–dialogue–conventions theater had built up over thousands of years." Can’t say the poets didn’t try. In the stage directions to his play !The Feast!, Michael McClure describes as "bestial speeches" the long passages in which actors only enunciate their characters’ nonsense names (e.g., Yeorg, Nargath, Retorp, etc.).

* * *

Terese Svoboda hasn’t published plays yet, but it’s one of the few genres she hasn’t busted into. Weapons Grade (Arkansas; paper $16) is her fifth book of poems; she’s also published four novels, a memoir about her late uncle’s involvement in secret executions of black GIs in postwar Okinawa and a translation of songs of cattle herders along the Nile. She’s no provincial. Personable without stooping to ingratiation, her work is free of stylized narcissism. This isn’t to say she’s an exemplary character or, even deadlier, a plain-spoken chronicler. In fact, she’s a little odd. Take the opening of "Mom as Fly," a poem with a touch of Electra complex:

A fly with a human head
heads for your screen. It’s Mom,
toting groceries and laundry

If you’ve been some time away from poetry, this might look like the start of a confessional sitcom, the outcome of decades of poets competing to retail the most outlandish family disasters. But during Svoboda’s career, it’s been increasingly fashionable for poets to bleach out anything as messy as a true story or an awkward word, reducing poems to mood extract–the bleakest confrontations and direst predictions. Svoboda likes that too, but she can’t help making musical comedy out of it.

Previous books centered on long narrative verse sequences: reimagining Faust as a starlet, uncovering incest on a family farm. The new Svoboda poem is short, touches on a fear or wish and is a kick to decode:

The lake stood and pudding–
shook, the sails slack and dry.
Two men sang wholly songs–
No oaths–then drank a toast to me.

Svoboda likes to play with words. She also likes always to be saying something worth your time, which is less of a universal practice. In Svoboda’s case, it comes down to surviving without turning sour. We can always use more examples of how to do that.

* * *

A successful engineer in the auto industry, Bob Hicok won a book prize from the University of Wisconsin in 1995. He soon gave up designing car parts for teaching writing. His sixth collection, Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pittsburgh; paper $14.95), includes several poems about teaching, which ordinarily would be a mild subject, except that he is talking about Virginia Tech in 2007:

He put moisturizer on the morning he shot
thirty-three people. That stands out. The desire
to be soft. I could tell the guy from NPR
that’s what I want, to be soft, or the guy
from the LA Times, or the guy from CNN who says
we should chat. Such a casual word, "chat."
I’m chatting to myself now. You did not
do enough, I write to myself, about the kid
who turned in writing about killing
a few buildings from where he killed.

Very few poets reveal the gift of feeling free to say anything; even fewer develop their art to respond to turns of mind without causing the poem to stall. The empathy in Hicok’s accounts of love, work and death runs from the brutally cute, as when his wife emerges from cancer treatment "happy as a torch/in a Frankenstein flick" to the cosmic: after considering day after day of mass-slaying headlines, Hicok concludes, "I am telling you, Alpha Centauri, man to star:/run."

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