21 September 2007


cover image: Benjamin's Spectacles

Spring Ulmer: Benjamin's Spectacles, published by Kore Press 2007

Benjamin’s Spectacles writes into history, into shadow, into spring. Into, not through. History as in the times of Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Simone Weil. Shadow as the shadow in which nothing casts a shadow, nothing has substance or meaning. Spring as “May fled to a place so barren / as to be of no contest” or “April existed . . . in harm’s way . . . to pay the living / for the dead.” Or spring as the author, Spring Ulmer: “My mother comes in, stomping snow from her boots. / Where’s Spring? she asks.” Spring is nowhere in the snow, Spring is a muffler, silence, in the family, Spring wants to write herself into the shadows, out of existence, or perhaps to the only place existence can be found. If you read and find Spring here, you have paid the price, for this is one of the most bleak books of poetry I have ever read. One of the most bleak, and one of the most beautiful.

The obvious allusions in the book are to Walter Benjamin, and they are throughout. But let’s begin with the less obvious. In “Allegory I,” “Shadows beckon” as William Carlos Williams’s descent beckoned. And it is descent, to the ground, to the underground (digging her own grave was Antigone’s response). Williams’s spring occurs in the final grip of winter, on the road to a contagious hospital, but promises reddish, purplish things erupting out of the mud, into life and sun again. But in Spring Ulmer’s world,
i brace myself for the emergence of sun. it is beyond the horizon, blocked by what’s in front of me. soon it will be blocked by what is behind.
And in “Allegory II,” much later in the book, “Javelinas rummage through garbage, snorting, strewing compost,” and calling forth the sexually rummaging “Pig Cupid” of Mina Loy’s “Love Songs for Johannes,” but whereas Loy’s pig seemed a celebration of the messy physicality of erotic love, Ulmer’s javelinas strew the compost, making it unlikely to enhance growth, and Spring’s mother in the poem chases the pigs “through the streets in the darkness.” Erotic love in the poem is an impotent love involving misshapen bodies, darkened minds, and an erasure of both eroticism and love.

In a poem (and I read this book as a single poem), a book, a world without reason/raison (where the word even collapses, as raison is not reason but raisin, and the speaker doesn’t like raisons), a world of shadow without end, a world where there is “nothing but dust” and where the heart is “monstrously out of tune,” and where, in “The Mechanics of Reproduction,” “It’s hard to separate / one face from the next,” there is no hope, or, if there is, it is in the very act of disappearance, which brings the ground, the stone, groundedness. Benjamin’s dream, as retold in this book, is that language will be no longer able to make meaning, and instead become what grounds people, possibly what grounds people together. Because it is not in transcending, but in being a stone in a field (“B’s Lost Letter to A”) that you can “really absorb all the fieldnesses,” and
My own liberation comes
from being able to care

without caring
Not only do “We collapse / to uphold,” but, as a friend tells Benjamin, who in this poem seems to stand in for the author/speaker of the poems, “Your nothingness is the only experience the age may have of you . . . / You and your nothingness”

Much of Benjamin’s Spectacles is perfectly balanced, with perfect (though not closed) endings, off-kilter but so finely graceful that I find myself wanting more of a disturbance, less of an eerie coldness, more air. But sometimes, and to me this is where the book moves from good to stunning, poems threaten to break open from fullness, despite the suspicion that all is for naught. Such poems manifest “Poetry unhanging itself.” One of the richest is “Letters to the Dead.”

Fresh figs on the counter—
Fellini’s 8 ½—
What happens after betrayal?
I don’t want to hold a man’s hand—
The hunger it spruces—
That flying green—
A beetle shell—
A wish not to be windexed—
These excommunications—
Thimblefuls of relation—
Inner conversation—
Hopkins’ letters to the dead—
Heart-shaped leaves outside my kitchen window tremble—
How it disturbs me—
Knocking food off my fork—
Like a hair shirt—
A man withholding love—
Is this all he can give—
Am I ungrateful?
Gesammelte Briefe, Passagen-Werk, Berliner Chronik, Illuminationen—
The order of books on my table—
Smell of old pages—
The hunger-striker undoes his stitched lips—
Poetry unhanging itself—

In such poems (and there are several) language is willing to be messy, bushy, open, breathing. I wouldn’t quite say that such parts save the book, because it is indeed a very good book without them. But with them, stunning.

Spring Ulmer

In this shadow world dust world nothing world stone world of care without caring, gender blurs, the individual becomes linguistic counter (“B touches A’s lips”), the body is crippled, hunchbacked, sex is a matter of bodily shapes that fit together, but sex is impotent with no fruition, yet “spring” (or, at least once, “Spring”) is all over the place, not quite “busting out all over” as the song would have it, because nothing escapes the shadows, but in language the word “spring” occurs some 15 times in the book, at least 10 of them in the last third of the book. And while only twice does it name the author, it is more than tempting to read each “spring” as contributing to an identity that never quite takes place, that never can take place. Because “spring” is a word, and words ground us and keep us from meaning, but help us to commune, to absorb being (“all the fieldnesses”). We are not like, rather we are “B and E—two stuck typewriter keys.” In this shadow word world, I would willingly be stuck with the keys in Spring Ulmer’s first book. We are all here, with Benjamin and Brecht, and with another B unnamed in the book, but one with which I cannot help but associate this horror, and this communion with the hypocrite lecteur: Baudelaire. But let’s end with Benjamin, as the book ends:

when I was walter benjamin,
a woman helped drag me

up a mountain.
could that woman be this man?

I bow my head and let him stick the darts in.

Who is I? Who is he? Who is that woman? Who is this man? Aren’t we all them? Who bows to endure? Don’t we all?


where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain

I always liked those first lines about the wind & the rain & my honey lem & i (which took me a long time to understand was not my honey lemon eye).

I was in Oklahoma for the last four and a half days, in the terrific company of Linda Russo, Jonathan Stallings, Michael Kelleher, Lori Kelleher, my mother Meryle Alexander, and several inquisitive and smart students from the University of Oklahoma. Mike Kelleher & I read together for SOUNDS OUT, a program of the Expository Writing Program of the Univ. of Oklahoma, at the invitation of Linda Russo. As a poet, I love the company of Mike & Linda, who are terrific poets. And meeting Jonathan was a great surprise, finding out he is an Arkansas spelunker and master of Chinese teas (or, at least as much a master as one is likely to find in the states ranging from oklahoma to arizona). I loved drinking various teas with him, and I think they prepared me well for my poetry reading.

From the ages of 11 to 18 all my friends were in Oklahoma. In the last 14 years I've had many friends (too many to count on two hands) from Buffalo New York, or who at least were in Buffalo long enough to be students or faculty members in the Poetics Program there. And on this past Tuesday at least, I had 3 Buffalo friends in Oklahoma. Accidental occurrence? or not . . .

Mike & I read in front of a commemorative Oklahoma football, white with beads on all the seams, a Native American work of art in a Native American art gallery. He read from his two books, and on the plane on the way home I read his magnificent book, HUMAN SCALE. I'll have more to say about that after introducing him, and hearing him again this Sunday in Tucson, where he will read with Tyrone Williams, for POG & Chax Press.

To Linda & to Jonathan: much love & thanks!

again again yes!

Long time no blog, all during a move that began at the end of July and has lasted . . . well, it is still lasting. Life remains in boxes, books remain in boxes. But the bulk of it is out of boxes, the press no longer has plastic wrapped around it, and we're working.

Chax Press has a new address:

650 E. 9th St.
Tucson, AZ 85705

Now I'll try to blog at least a post per week, although I have to admit that I like it that blogs can ebb and flow, be really busy, then not at all.

love to all those who have supported Chax Press recently; your support has lifted spirits, possibilities!