Friday, January 15, 2010

Elizabeth Iannaci Reviews "An Urgent Request" by Sarah Luczaj,

I'm very pleased to feature a guest review by Elizabeth Iannaci of An Urgent Request (published by Fortunate Daughter Press) by Sarah Luczaj, a book I was supposed to review (I read it and loved it - HIGHLY recommended) but never did. I featured three of Sarah's amazing poems back in August of 2009.

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An Urgent Request, Sarah Luczaj, Fortunate Daughter, an imprint of Tebot Bach. 2009, $10.00

With An Urgent Request Sarah Luczaj has given us an astonishing collection of 21 poems that at once, manages to slow-dance with the intangible, yet is rooted firmly in everyday reality. This is a collection that underlines and embraces the contradictions inherent in the human condition. A poet of exceptional ability, Luczaj moves fluidly from the surrealistic to the concrete and back again. Take the opening lines of the book’s first poem, “For José Drouet (1968 - 1989)” which establish a real sense of place in a real world:
José, the light is moving in the water
José, I carved a poem in the walls of a room
Then suddenly we are taken on a leap with:
the room was dust
and the planets were
trapped as the people
in it were, and it broke
on them, and the room
broke on the sky which
is made of dirt as
the room is made of
dirt, and the people
are made of dirt
and also the stars
This is indeed a leap. We understand that the neither sky, nor the people are made of dirt. Yet we recognize the truth of it. After all, aren’t we and everything in this universe star stuff, created from that one moment, that big bang? So, when we read the next lines: it broke / on your body made of stars we recognize the truth of that as well.

The poem is the perfect opening for this book as it has, dare I say, a sense of urgency befitting the title. As do many of the poems in this beautifully varied collection. Like the prose piece “The Noise is Still There”: “Whether I am aware of my breathing or drunk, if I practice the violin or not, / and particularly when opening doors.” Again, Luczaj has expertly created a sense of urgency. The piece has a velocity fueled by its structure. Except for its title, there is no mention of any noise in the poem and we are compelled to add the poem’s title to the sentence fragments which propel us forward.

With some poems the title echoes and reverberates as in her short piece, “Missing The Dead” :
If I could catch some daylight
as I catch
the snow melting from the roof
I could bring a bucketful
and pour it out until it fills the room
in the middle of the night
Without the title it’s a pretty little poem. But the words “Missing The Dead” add a fragrance that not only elevates the piece, but might cause a reader who has ever missed someone gone from this world, to pause and take a breath.

Luczaj displays various styles including the superbly-crafted villanelle, “Child Song”. Here, the repeating lines do exactly what they should, they bear the weight of repetition, yet gather additional significance from the lines they bump up against: “Wood, warp, feather fish scale, skin / The world is stamped, the world goes in.” are not only incantatory, but also almost magically embody the macrocosm outside in the sing-song microcosm of the child.

These poems are overflowing with a love apropos of Luczaj’s Buddhist and psychotherapist background: a mother’s love in the breathtaking “Oh My Girl”:
oh my girl with the endless water
looking for a bank to knock against
looking for a boat to carry
oh my girl, wondering what’s wrong with you that the
world isn’t right
love and straightforward gratitude in “My Life Is Brilliant” which is nonetheless, a kick-in-the-solar-plexus indictment of injustice:
I was not sentenced to death for infidelity
blasphemy, murder
or not having put enough salt in the soup.
and her vast love and understanding of humanity with, what I take to be a persona piece, “Here Is A List Of Things I Ate Yesterday”:
For one blank moment
on the floor of the toilet cubicle
the whole damned world was eaten
There’s a proliferation of wonderful contradictions in the book, as in “Washing Her”: “‘I can’t / move’, she says. And moves.” In the title poem, “An Urgent Request”, the speaker claims: “I don’t need poetry. / I already have a body.” (a fabulous contradiction in a poem) and ends with: “Just give me the words”. Yet in “Imperative” which can be thought of as terms for a deal, the speaker says:
Take off your voice
Leave your eyes for now
And I’ll take off my arguments…
I’ll take off words
One can argue that poetry exists in the spaces between juxtaposition. But this is more than that. The poems in An Urgent Request demonstrate the endless contradictions that exist in the physical universe, the laws of which we are all subject to.

Luczaj is not without a sense of humor. “Holiday” is a three-page poem that reads like a short, short story which chronicles something akin to a Moroccan Hotel California:
This isn’t
a swimming pool’ he cries,
‘It’s a trap! It’s specially designed
to drown people. There’s no way in!
There’s no way out!’
Yet she leaves us with a reprieve and the image of her grandmother’s now waterlogged watch, lying useless in the sun.

Constantly exploring the terrain of the internal the results of which are manifested in the external, Luczaj artfully articulates what it is to be human. In reading An Urgent Request, we have an opportunity to become more so.

—Elizabeth Iannaci

~ Elizabeth Iannaci is a poet living in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and for five years served as one of the Directors of The Valley Contemporary Poets (a not-for-profit poetry organization) where she was coeditor of their yearly anthology. She was a finalist for the 2009 New Letters Literary Award and her work has been widely published in journals and anthologies throughout the United States and Europe.

Wallace Stevens - Armchair Visionary

A great review of Wallace Stevens' recent collection of Selected Poems - seems a new one comes out every few years. He's been dead for a while, so you think they'd just issue a Collected Poems that is definitive and be done with it.

This comes from More Intelligent Life.



When Wallace Stevens died, few of his Connecticut insurance colleagues even knew he was a poet. With the recent release of his "Selected Poems", Ryan Ruby revisits a man who proved that to be a great poet, no great experience is necessary ...


You can find them anywhere you go. Unshaven young men who slam down cheap liquor in remodelled dives. From their stools they hold forth on the doctrines of this obscure mystic or that obscurantist philosopher, and then they brawl for brawling’s sake. They swap stories about the tiny towns they reached by thumbing a ride or hopping the rails, tales that invariably end with a night in jail or the gutter and a rescue from some local angel. This is what’s known as Experience, to be distilled into stanzas that can fit within the circumference of the bottle stains on their cocktail napkins.

These are lifestyle poets, the Beats of yesteryear. Should you find yourself in the presence of one, ask him (always him) whether he likes the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Not one will say yes.

To a lifestyle poet, Stevens’s biography presents a problem. Born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Stevens never quite became a member of the Lost Generation. He considered moving to Paris to become a writer, but caved to pressure from his lawyer father and stayed in the States, where he studied at Harvard and earned a degree from New York Law School. In 1916 he and his wife abandoned the bohemia of New York's Greenwich Village for sleepy Hartford, Connecticut, where Stevens began work for a local insurance company. By 1934 he had become vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, a post he would keep until his death from stomach cancer in 1955, aged 75.

Stevens published "Harmonium", his first book and one of the most important collections of 20th-century verse, when he was 44. He went on to win two National Book Awards, a Bollingen and the Pulitzer, yet when he died, his office colleagues were surprised to learn that he had been anything but an insurance executive. "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job," he once said in a newspaper interview.

“I have no life except in poetry,” Stevens once wrote to himself in the late 1930s. To put it another way, he was a square. But lifestyle poets–like autobiographical novelists–are wrong to believe that experience is the necessary foundation for what one writes. The faculty sustaining the literary enterprise has always been the imagination. This "is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos," Stevens wrote in "The Necessary Angel", a book of his essays published in 1951.

Lifestyle poets remind me of the critics in Stevens’s poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, who tell the titular musician:

‘But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.’

What these critics fail to understand is not only that, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar,” but that this transformation is necessary for any form of transcendence to be possible. Like the tune, a poem cannot be both "beyond us, yet ourselves" if it all it manages to do is describe things "exactly as
they are".

In Wallace Stevens the transformative power of the imagination has found an enduring champion. His oeuvre is densely populated with poems bearing unashamedly cerebral titles, such as “Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination”, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”, “The World as Meditation” and “The Poem that took the Place of a Mountain”. According to the Online Concordance to Wallace Stevens’ Poetry, a handy tool set up by John N. Serio, the editor behind the recently released "Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems", the word "imagination" appears 47 times in his work (not including cognates such as “imagine”), beating out such poetic tropes as “sight”, “shadow” and “image.”

Stevens proved that to be a great poet, no great experience is necessary. You needn't go off to war like Byron or take to the road like Kerouac to have yourself an adventure. If your mind is expansive enough, you needn’t even leave your chair. “Merely in living as and where we live” the air is already “swarming / with metaphysical changes,” as he wrote in “Esthetique du Mal”, a long poem featured in the collection.

Yet Stevens’s mind was not merely expansive, but a universe unto itself. As he described in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

Even when he tries his hand at spare minimalist stanzas, for instance in his often anthologised “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird” (a poem whose depths a critic could surely plumb for obscure biographical references if so inclined), Stevens is simply unable to suppress his lyrical musings on whether to prefer:

The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos.
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

More than any other American poet, Stevens became a visionary, a status
that Arthur Rimbaud–that great adventurer and mediocre poet–rightly
claimed was the goal of writing verse. In "Lettre du Voyant", Rimbaud wrote that poetry, through a poet's "long and systematic derangement of the senses", could change ordinary reality into something extraordinary, a "factory into a mosque". For Stevens, too, a poet’s “choice of the commodious adjective” could reveal the divine qualities of the objects that make up “grim reality”. This is because it is the poet’s “description that makes it divinity”, even when the reality may be nothing more than “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”

"Selected Poems" (Alfred A. Knopf) by Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio, out now

Picture credit: Bettmann/Corbis

(Ryan Ruby is a writer based in New York. He is working on a novel set among the bohemians in postwar Greenwich Village. His last article for More Intelligent Life was "How I learned to stop worrying and love Frank O'Hara".)