All too often, the small presses that populate the contemporary cultural landscape remind us just how insular many literary communities are. This proliferation of editors who support writers with very specialized interests and a somewhat obscure aesthetic seems intricately linked to the rise of social media networks and D.I.Y. publishing technology. Those who serve as cultural gatekeepers may now curate their newsfeed, conversations, and their overall experience of the world around them. Indeed, it is easier than ever to avoid challenges to one’s own views, predilections, and assumptions about literature. Yet there are more books than ever, aimed at progressively smaller audiences. The various networks of cultural producers grow increasingly fragmented, with less and less dialogue between artistic communities.
Cleveland State University Press, and the books published by its remarkable Poetry Center, are a rare exception to this disconcerting trend in contemporary literature. Three recent titles in particular place diverse and often very different artistic traditions in dialogue with one another, envisioning poetry as a rhetorical space where disparate cultures, mediums, and historical milieu can exist side by side. Lee Upton’s Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles, Broc Rossell’s Festival, and Arseny Tarkovksy’s I Burned at the Feast, newly translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev, each initiate provocative dialogues between literary and artistic communities in a way that is altogether refreshing.
What does this interstitial space make possible, then? A glimpse of the other?
* * *
Better to think the story is a mask
and Daphne walked away
in her human body.
And thus the true story has never been told...
Winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition, Lee Upton’s Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles situates contemporary influences (among them Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, and Linda Gregerson) in relation to their classical roots. She skillfully invokes Greek and Roman mythology, offering novel and wryly humorous recastings of familiar narratives. Yet she also traces an arc from these classical sources to the contemporary lyric, alluding to Shakespeare, the Romantics, and Gertrude Stein along the way.
For Upton, the poem is not simply a place for initiating dialogue with texts from other historical milieu. Rather, it is an excavation, a bringing to light of conversations that have over time been fragmented, muted, and buried in the detritus of culture. The poem affords a liminal space in which the various manifestations of a particular line of thinking may be brought back together, reassembled. With that in mind, each piece in this new collection offers a confluence of texts, narratives, and voices that have been slowly distanced from one another over time.
What does this make possible, then?
* * *
No one will ever be hungry here.
The fruit that lodged Persephone in hell,
and figs, and olives, and apples
cling like bats at a cave wall...
Upton not only resists the desire to romanticize our classical heritage, but she traces this impulse through time. Each poem allows representations of a beautiful and inaccessible past to intersect, to coincide, to complicate one another. We as readers are implicated in our nostalgic gaze, but at the same time, we are revealed as small parts of culture’s machinery. We merely reproduce the same familiar and somewhat ineffable longing.
A bottle by firelight. A blossom unfolding into pears.
Where do we go from here?
* * *
I find myself speaking
I have a cup in my hand
And someone gives me some thing...
Broc Rossell’s Festival engages many of the same questions about our literary heritage. Although invoking familiar forms, which include the lyric, the prose poem, and luminous Sapphic fragments, he presents received modes of thinking and writing alongside novel ones. Prefaced by a quote from Mallarme, in which thought “emits a Throw of the Dice,” Rossell’s poems skillfully invite chance into a creative practice otherwise populated by echoes, ghosts, and the vestiges of a vast and complex textual history.
A gloriously decayed statuary.
A death threat.
The color of a dress.
What happens, then, when we roll the dice?
* * *
From an aspect
blooms a cup
of tea. Actual enemies
erupts into anemones....
For Rossell, it is the chance meeting of two disparate modes of representation on the printed page that opens up entirely new possibilities for thought and expression. Prose poems in the tradition of Baudelaire and Mallarme appear alongside invented forms, which utilize the space of the page, and the material nature of the book, in fascinating ways. The poem affords a unique place where philosophy meets tactile, embodied modes of representation.
Frequently pairing lyric strophes with beautifully rendered visual images, Rossell allows these art pieces to complicate each of the lyric sections in innovative ways. As the collection unfolds, the images appear as projections of the speaker’s emotional states, as glimpses into an inaccessible interior, and as response. The book becomes a dialogue between parts of the self or parts of consciousness, made possible by the collection’s inventive use of form.
* * *
But I did not debase the grasses, or my family
or insult the ancestral earth by being blithe,
and as long as I worked on the earth, accepted
a gift of the coldest spring water and fragrant bread,
above me, the abyssal sky leaned down
and stars stumbled, hurtling toward this hand...
Arseny Tarkovsky’s I Burned at the Feast, newly translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev, exhibits a similar interest in the ways that disparate traditions can illuminate and complicate one another. For Metres and Psurtsev, the practice of translation affords an opportunity for collaboration across temporal, aesthetic, and geographic boundaries. Translation becomes and interstitial space where disparate artistic traditions, and the historical milieu that they represent, can be placed in conversation.
A strange light.
An empty sound.
A thread across the universe.
What happens in this liminal space, then?
* * *
Beneath the jasmine a stone
marks a buried treasure.
On the path, my father stands.
A beautiful, beautiful day.
As Tarkovsky’s I Burned at the Feast unfolds, the poet pays homage to his predecessors, among them Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. Metres and Psurtsev’s translation not only brings this tradition to a Western audience, but also, situates these writers’ work in relation to the American lyric. This bringing together of artistic influences also highlights the relevance of the political questions that preoccupied Tarkovsky for a contemporary audience: Does a culture that allows war risk dehumanizing is subjects? How does the individual dissent from the collective while still negotiating his or her own fate? What role does language play in dissent, activism, and peacekeeping?
Tarkovsky does not attempt to answer these questions, but rather, lets the possibilities proliferate, strike sparks against one another. And Metres and Pertsev’s new translation allows their light to shine.
* * *
A glimpse of the other, a little mirror.
It is books like these that prompt us to look beyond ourselves. What we find reminds us that even our most solitary moments are a conversation.
What we find reminds us to listen.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty collections of poetry and hybrid prose, which include Scorched Altar: Selected Poems & Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books) and a forthcoming collaboration with John Gallaher called GHOST / LANDSCAPE (BlazeVOX Books). Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Ora Lerman Trust, and the Rockefeller Archive Center. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.