Tuesday, September 30, 2008

review: Cemetery Country/ Yoga & Painting & Jazz & Travelling By Air

by Ronald Baatz and Mark Weber (Zerx Press, 2008)
Zerx Press, 725 Van Buren Place SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA 87108

This is a split chapbook with poems by Baatz on one side of the book and poems by Weber on the other. Zerx have done a few of these and they work well, especially since Weber, the Zerx editor, eschews the usual narcissistic attraction to poets who write like him and just pairs off with great writers.

Baatz, I think, may be just about the best there is (he'd be too humble even to countenance the idea, but I offer it for consideration anyway).I first knew him for great little haiku--the best I'd seen since Kerouac--but I've since realised he has tremendous range as a poet. The poems here are long(ish) personal poems about Ronald's dad, and his final months suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. The poems are moving without being mawkish, surreally tragically funny as dementia can occasionally be (I have worked with dementia sufferers and their confusion is perfectly portrayed), and--dare I say it in this cynical punkish post-Bukowski antipoetic age--grandly lyrical at the end: not in any self-conscious way--there's no arch language--it's just that the grand talent of the poet engaging with a subject that touches him deeply takes the writing to a level rarely seen since Ginsberg put down his pen on the final draft of "Kaddish".

Comparisons with Mark Weber's half of the book are useless, naturally, since as I've said Mark hasn't attempted to make the two sides cohere particularly (what you've got is two different books stapled together at the middle). But as different as "Yoga & Painting" is, it doesn't disappoint.

If you haven't read Weber you should. He's a disc jockey as well as a poet--playing jazz on a New Mexico radio station--and he used to be in a terrific band called The Bubbadinos if he isn't still. His free verse long-lined poems talk and walk like jazz improvisation without any of the affectations of other poets influenced by jazz or with an overhang of the Beat era whispering in their minds (even when, like Weber, they're trying to ignore it) (I don't know who Mark's poetic influences are, so that may be a huge assumption): Weber's voice is entirely his own, and his subjects are his own too--who else would write one about being asked to take off a beanie hat at a jazz concert, or how annoying it is when house painters blast hip hop music from a van radio while on a job? (He's right, it is.)

Perhaps the best poem on the Weber side of the book, at least in the sense that its meaning touches the reader most, is "The Saddest Day in America", which is about his father being called a pervert because he tries to watch some kids playing basketball. It's the way the world is going--that paranoia, that cynicism, that sense of being closed-off from your neighbour by fear.

This book reminds us that great poetry is one of the vital weapons we have against the darkness being brought down on us in the present age by free market capitalists, communists, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, everybody who believes the real life is in Heaven or only in the cold iron of what Ginsberg calls "the dull material world". This is why we're doing what we're doing.

There were 400 copies pressed, by the way, so if you're interested you'd better get a move on and contact Mark at Zerx.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


tottering state selected poems 1963-1987 by tom raworth (Paladin Poetry 1988)ISBN 0-586-08705-2

I came across this one in an Oxfam shop in Kettering on Saturday, retailing for a quid, which is a criminal price to pay for such a great collection, but my principles, it would seem, are more intellectual than actual! I'd not come across Tom Raworth before. A quick check of his biography, though, showed that he belongs, chronologically if by no other token, to that best-of-all generations of British poets born just before or after World War II. Lee Harwood also had a Paladin anthology, which sits on my shelf at home. Chris Torrance I'd corresponded with for a while, but during a house move I lost all his letters and his address. A sin and a shame, as someone said elsewhere. Anselm Hollo, whom Raworth collaborated with on Haiku in 1968, was one of the poets present at Wholly Communion, the Royal Albert Hall poetry reading in the mid-Sixties that this site takes its url from. They were fabulous poets all, and we've not been able to match their achievements yet. (One question: from such a stellar generation of poetical talents, how come Roger McGough was the one who became best known?)

I don't like the language of ordinary or academic criticism, especially when it comes to poetry, because somehow it never captures the essence of what the poet is doing, and in a way, excuses you from having to engage with the piece itself. But if you can find a copy of this book you should engage. Raworth writes beautiful, complex, funny poetry, some of it with haiku-like precision and clarity, some of it seeming like painting that shows its meaning through tones and colours, some of it marvellous linguistic experiments (I don't know!), but all of it, when it's not just making you laugh, coming at you with ideas, with a certain take on the world; it's not just poetry because the poet hadn't written a poem yet that day, as it sometimes is now in the magazines and on the internet with the plethora of new poets advances in communication have brought bubbling to the surface like brown water from a drain. Raworth's take on the world might change from book to book, from poem to poem--he (or we) might not be able to pin down what his take on the world is, precisely (or want to!)--but we know he is thinking, while he's serving up these juicy little slices of his mind for us. And intelligence, or the use of it, is one thing we can never have enough of in art or in life.

After I read the book, by the way, I looked Raworth up on the internet and found him at www.tomraworth.com .Here you can catch up with the work Tom has been doing since 1988 (if you find this book first), or get yourself an overview of his entire (if you'll forgive the critic's word) ouevre. I was going to present you with a publication list, but since it's already available over there, you might as well go there. It'll be the best link you type in all week if you care about poetry and want to read the best of it, past and present (and sometimes "new"--as in "make it new"--doesn't necessarily mean "most recent", eh?)

Afterword Tom tells me that your chances of finding this edition of the book are slim because Rupert Murdoch, that intellectual giant, social philanthropist and supporter of the arts, had all the Paladin poetry books pulped when he took over the company. A crime that puts my stealing of my copy of the book for a quid into perspective. What black karma Murdoch must have brought for himself sanctioning the destruction of all that intelligence, all that refinement, all that creativity, all that beauty. But there is a more recent COLLECTED POEMS you can buy. Go to Tom's site for details.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Short Review: 888 by J.D.Nelson

Mad Verse Press PO Bok 6114, Boulder, CO 80306, USA

I don't know what J.D.Nelson is doing. I don't know what to call his impenetrably eccentric little poems. But I know I like them. I also know that nobody I've heard of is doing anything remotely similar, which in the world of contemporary poetry--where almost everything feels like a retread of something else--that's quite remarkable. Poems in this little (13 page) collection have titles like "Wednesday, Otto?" and "The spiders won't concede" (the flipping between upper and lower case is J.D.'s, not mine), and each one takes you somewhere a little different than the last, or the next. They're so short that quoting three lines would give away most of the poem, if barely any of the meaning (do thay have meaning?), so I won't present a quote. I will urge you to contact J.D. for purchase details, however. If you want to buy poetry by living poets, you should at least try one who's doing something that hasn't been done better by the dead. Bruce.