Friday 29 May 2009

So Here We Are 21

Click here to listen to So Here We Are on MiPoradio


The Long Beach poet and writer, Donna Hilbert, has been writing about death, grieving, class, alienation, motherhood, displacement and survival in a series of books since 1990. Brought up in the Red River Valley of Oklahoma near the Texas border, she has spent most of her life in southern California. What is distinctive about her work is not so much its seeming transparency and purity of language but rather its deployment and repetition of certain key words, phrases and poems throughout her oeuvre in order to give it semantic structure and weight. This enables her to expose unresolved aspects of the human situation and constraints on the self, without prejudice or sentimentality that reverberate over time. Her work can be read as a fusion and extension from a feminist perspective of some of the literary techniques employed by Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. The use of precise economic and social detail, which needs to be examined for its context and omissions, dominates over form. This is evident in poems, such as ‘Economy Lesson’, ‘Interior Decoration’ and ‘Aunt Velma’ in Deep Red (Event Horizon Press 1993) and ‘Consciousness Raising’ in Transforming Matter (Pearl Editions 2000 pp. 31-32). There is a striving to convey raw emotion within sharply defined social situations, as in poems such as, ‘Craving’ in Transforming Matter (page 22). Repetition is utilised to move beyond the singular moment and ordinary things and objects, such as letters, shoes, dresses, playing cards, lunch boxes, magazines and so on, accrue extra meaning.
Hilbert reinforces this sense of unresolved matters returning by repeating certain poems in subsequent collections. They are used as echoes and to potentially show through ambiguity new meaning in their different context. Take the example of ‘Rank’, which appears as the first poem in the Dear Heart section of Transforming Matter (page 27), a collection dedicated to her husband killed by a motorist whilst cycling his bicycle early on the morning of 25 August 1998 and concerned with the social context of the narrator’s love affair with her husband. ‘Rank’ can be read as a loving memory of a man who obeyed his mother in teaching the narrator how to play bridge. This is supported by the context of the other poems in the collection. When ‘Rank’ reappears in Traveler in Paradise (Pearl Editions 2004 page 51) as the third poem in the Transforming Matter section it can be read more as a poem of social control, class and fitting in where the emphasis is more on the narrator and mother-in-law rather than mother-in-law and son or narrator and son.

Here’s ‘Rank’

I never wore white shoes
before memorial Day
or suede in summer.
I crossed my legs
primly at my ankle,
wore a panty girdle
and a full-length slip,
no shadow of body
apparent through my dress.
I knew better than
to crackle gum,
or walk down the street
cigarette dangling
from my mouth,
knew better than
to pierce my ears,
like some common girl.
Still, his mother
rooted out the tell-tale
signs, traces of a family
line who worked for wages
in “mediocre” jobs.
The day after
we’d spent the night together
and got caught,
he came to my apartment
with a deck of cards
that he spread across
the kitchen table,
saying Mother says
I have to teach you bridge
so we’ll have something in common.
He arranged the cards
in suits to demonstrate
their ranking,
clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades,
saying spades are the boss
trump, outrank everything,

‘Rank’ works as a compressed narrative where each detail has meaning and power that echoes over time and shows the upwardly mobile, transgressive narrator out trumped by the superior class of her future mother-in-law. It is a poem about transgression and consequent exposure.

It was the Transforming Matter collection that led to the making of the short film Grief Becomes Me: A Poet’s Journey, by director Christine Fugate, an interweaving of documentary footage and narrative interpretations of the poetry. Made by a team of women filmmakers, the film explores Hilbert’s depiction of death and renewal and reveals some of the inner life of grief. The title Grief Becomes Me indicates an enfolding and overpowering of a self by an intense emotion as well as fitness to and by implication beauty within that state.

Here is the poem from Transforming Matter (page 45):

Grief Becomes Me

You’ve never looked better
my friends Edward and Neil
tell me and lean close
for a clearer view.
I know what they mean
and believe it’s true,
the same way earth and sky
wash to a radiant clean
after relentless days of rain.
How you would present me
with pieces of sea glass
tumbled smooth
from journeying canyons
and rivers to the ocean
and back again
washing up at our feet –
bits of amber, green,
and the rarest stellar blue.
Everything pure and impure
has leached from the soil
of my face,
and in the corners of my eyes,
hard crystals form.

The poem’s focus on perception and representation emphasises the need to look closer at things. The lines ‘Everything pure and impure / has leached from the soil / of my face,’ scorches the notion of outer appearance reflecting inner being. It is the final line that shifts the poem’s attention back to chemistry and process. The use of ‘hard’ in the final line takes the possible meaning of crystal away from any pleasing geometrical shape to crystallisation and the difference between glass and crystal solids. The poem thus ends with an appeal to the difference between solids and glasses as representations and the knowledge that the process of forming a glass does not release the latent heat of fusion.

Hilbert’s latest book, The Green Season (World Parade Books 2008), is a poetry collection sandwiched between two short stories. The title plays on the multilayered meaning of green as an adjective and harks back to the poem of displacement, ‘Seattle’ in Transforming Matter (page 30). In ‘Seattle’ the narrator is as green as the evergreen trees and grasses of Seattle and is ‘green too at nineteen’, and is within the range of meaning of OED 8, not fully developed, OED 8c, still raw, and OED 8d simple, unsophisticated, gullible and so on. There is the underlying possibility of implying OED 3a as in green with envy, although this is not fully supported. This mention of green, a recurrent theme throughout the oeuvre, comes with references to the novelist, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter and has the narrator so lonely that she engages wrong numbers in conversation. The use of green in the title The Green Season moves from adjective to noun and implies OED 2c a season of the year, characterised by abundance of verdure, OED 10b retaining the traces of newness, perceptibly fresh or recently set and not completely hardened and OED 9 as a noun, verdant. There is also contained with this OED 6b adjective, of immaterial things, especially the memory of a person, which echoes throughout part of the collection. It is therefore using ‘green’ as a marker over time, place and social situation so that it echoes in a new context and shows a movement forwards. The collection charts a continuing journey towards connectedness, of self and to family and friends that is thwarted by opposition, setback and death. The past is still shaping the future in the present, memory and dreams, and experience, family relations and psychological history temper the promise of renewal. The path to regeneration is thus strewn with psychic markers and this is represented in the collection by previously published poems and stories.
The opening story, ‘The Early Days’, from the award-winning collection, Women Who Make Money and the Men Who Love Them (Staple First Editions 1994), concerns a woman’s journey out of grief to connectedness with the world through language. The social detail is clearly defined in relation to the narrator’s confinement within the gender role assigned by her family and class. The narrator, often with her mother, uses new words, such as cantaloupe, foreign words and swearing as ways into a newer and better social space and as buffers against failure. Cantaloupe can be read as a sign of health, fresh diet, as well as new word and part of the journey outwards. However, the narrator fails to find a way out, fails to connect and disintegrates in suffering. The happiness of the title poem, ‘The Green Season’, is prefaced by a sequence of poems, including ‘Domestic Arts’, ‘Madeleine’ and ‘The Explanations’ which show a generation of alcoholic middle class women handing down their coping mechanisms to their daughters and neighbours. Here the narrator as a young mother rebels against this and attempts to break free of their great unhappiness. They are all in some way seeking a language for hunger, grief and anger and other meanings for passion and what it is to be a woman. The narrator as a mature woman operates more on instinct in ‘This, Happily’ when she takes a new lover and knows that competition is not far away.

He Who Takes My Sorrow Away

He who takes my sorrow away
my friend has named as her lover.
Who wouldn’t wish for that,
if only for an hour or two,
that sorrow might
be lifted with the skirt,
discarded like a soiled shirt.

Hilbert refuses any easy closure or notion of healing after grief in favour of a psychologically more probing perspective of self and others, self and self. The collection has an uplifting philosophical poise, highlighted in the poem, ‘Waste’, and although remarkably close to memoir, is profound in its critique of therapy as social control and understanding of the necessity for a set of historical and psychological markers that underpin a narrative self on the brink of renewal.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Letter 20

Click here to listen to So Here We Are on MiPoradio


I would like to say a few words about Juliet Cook’s Horrific Confection originally published as an e book and now published in hard copy by BlazeVox Books ( of New York.

Juliet Cook’s Horrific Confection combines elements of magical realism and dark horror in a poetic exploration of the domestic, especially food, and the artificial. It is set deeply within the meaning of confection as a noun ‘the making or preparation by mixture of ingredients’ (OED 1), ‘a preparation made by mixing; a composition, mixture, compound’ (OED 5) and as a verb ‘to make into a confection; to mix, make up as a seasoned delicacy’ (OED 1). More than that, Cook reaches back to older meanings of confection such as ‘a medicinal preparation compounded of various drugs’ (OED 5b) and ‘a prepared poison, a deadly potion’ (OED 5c).
The book is divided into four sections, ‘heat me up’, ‘cool me down’, ‘consume me’ and ‘choke on me’, which provide both a narrative and analytical structure. The opening poem, ‘Morning Fragment’, introduces two recurring motifs, the egg and the knife, within a breakfast image of bloodshot eggs, glistening marmalade, glowing hot wire ribs and crumb cake crawling out of the narrator’s throat. The egg registers as nutrition, embryo, ovulation, fertility and eyes and the knife as implement and weapon, showing the domestic to be both constructive and destructive.
The first section, ‘heat me up’, inhabits a domestic world that is both sensuously tactile and swerves between the kitchen as a site of sanitised violence and food as nourishment and poison. The raw seems to permeate and resist the cooked. Here the narrator attempts to resist the artificial and sinister world of her mother’s domestic regime:

A black line blurs
into bristling trellis. Throbbing. Little sister ensanguined,
straining twisted limbs. Furry bodies wriggle in sockets. Honey
bees burst out her eyes. Leave behind
tiny stingers pumping venom into trespassed flesh. (page 15)

Note how the stressed ‘b’ produces a savage intensity. ‘She Warns Me’ continues:

Mother’s burgeoning tongue. Cyanosis-blue and serrated
abduction. I can’t hide. I surrender to the toxic spill,
the swarm. Excruciating swell and thrall
Words sprawl disembodied. A husky hum
from the filthy darkness underneath a rusty engine.
Tendons slashed. Ripped open dress. Knivey licks
and public restroom reek of chloroform. (page 15)

Cook’s feminism is indirect and subtle. Domestic violence lurks and hovers in all manner of unexpected places and weapons, from the mother figure, to Barbie dolls, to confectionery and the male gaze.

The artificial is seen most graphically in the poem, ‘Dollophile’, which concerns male fascination with blow-up and other dolls, and occasions some blistering and comic language:

He wants to smooth pancake makeup
onto already poreless ‘flesh’
He wants her preprogrammed ‘voicebox’
to ‘acquiesce’, ‘deliquesce’, ‘luminesce’,
and release a steaming shitload

of dirty words. He wants made-to-order, interchangeable
crotch panels, blinking lights, a bottomless spit valve.
He wants a barely legal doll who can fit a small octopus
inside like some kind of mutant nesting doll rape. (page 17)

In the second ‘cool me down’ section, the poem ‘Grotesque Intimacy’ features a narrator that yearns for the artificial and transgressive desire. Here the self and her partner seek invasion: ‘We’re being drained, smeared, / dragged into the lush desire for even darker disguises.’ The language is suitably double-edged and shifting into a multilayered universe of possibility. ‘Beady-eyed sweetie. Zombie lips. / Feel the baby earwigs tickle your spine. / They know how you want to be a book.’
The textual solidity of the poems forces through to a world that is less make believe and more credible horror through its constant reminder of the self as consumer and its proximity to the raw. ‘Swathes of mucus always ooze / from slugs nestled inside her pastel cupcake papers.’ and later from the same poem, ‘Horrific Confection’, ‘A shiny knife winks at her. It wants her -- / a frosted slice. Gaping and glazed with coagulum.’

The third section begins with ‘Self Portrait as Gingerbread Girl’ and takes the reader into the heart of this culinary dystopia. Here the narrator longs ‘for a dress that flaps open’ and to ‘escape this edible mess / of shams.’ in order to avoid decapitation and gives voice to the Gingerbread Girl that ‘didn’t ask to be cut in the shape of a girl.’ This is an attack on the artificial as she would prefer to be ‘abstract’, ‘unable to be construed’ and ‘spicy misdeeds’. It is a wonderfully idiosyncratic elegy. The section as a whole gives voice to confections that insinuate and fester against the matronly domestic goddess and her opposite the domestic witch. These poems show the ways in which the artificial penetrate other parts of a woman’s life and culminate in ‘Costume Party Afterbirth’ where:

You’re more like a pin-
striped service provider, holding down the tongue depressor gag.
You experiment with cup sizes, but have nothing real

to fill them. Sample 1. Fake Secretary Sample 2. Fake Pig
Suspended in Silicon Sample 3. Besmirched Cryptozoology.
You have anthropomorphized yourself, you have felt yourself up

for suspicious lumps. You have frisked your hollow panda bear head
until at least one piece of candy fell out
your eye socket. Your gaping piebald maw. (page 42)

The final, choke on me, section gives voice to more mutant confections, fake cakes, horror cakes and gaping holes oozing slime leading to ‘Self Portrait as Semi-Amorphous Entity’ where ‘she’s beating / her own head against a doll house / door’ and the narrator’s head ends up in the cake pan. Choke on me shows the impact of the artificial on the young girl that veers away from the domestic goddess to the domestic witch in a blistering series of dramatic and satirical poems. Poems such as ‘Oh Those Mercurial Wrists’, ‘Spilled Milk’, ‘little death scenes’, ‘Pink Bird’ and ‘The Angel of Death’ bring this energised collection to a climax full of invective and humour. Here’s the beginning of ‘Oh Those Mercurial Wrists’:

The way she froths at the mouth then explodes
into sexy blasphemy.

The way her lips sizzle then ignite –
Bananas Flambé.

Painted flames drizzle down to
scintillating nipple ring gleams.

This leads to

The way she makes up her own eyes with a languorous,
over-the-top glamour
she calls ‘Tarred & Feathered’.

The way today’s look is called ‘Little Bo Peep the Whore’
as she wields a tiny riding crop, exclaiming, ‘Faster Lambchop!
We must escape the damned rapscallions!’ (page 54)

This, however, is a mere warm-up for the full violence of ‘The Angel of Death’ that links its sustained attack on the artificial to a Catholic upbringing and explodes in visceral anger.

My womb is a real muckraker
and half the congregation’s dirty fingers are stuck inside.
Some of them are trying to get me off;
some of them are trying to turn me off,
but my motorized blades are still whirring furiously.
You see, in MY visceral guide to uterine occupation,
the vagina dententa myth is true.
I’ve cued the seizure-inducing lights
and the spew of slashed babymakers.
Bang your head to the strains of this heretic c--t. (page 63)

Saturday 7 February 2009

Letter 19 (new series)

SHWA 19: A Note on Hugh Fox

Hugh Fox, one of the co-founders of the Committee of Small Magazine Editors & Publishers (COSMEP) network, has been an abiding and colourful presence on the small press scene for forty years. COSMEP was founded at Berkeley in November 1968, by a generation born in the Thirties, to foster the post-Beat boom in small press publishing. Closely linked to Sixties counter-culture, the founders of COSMEP were interested in breaking down social, psychological, personal and literary barriers. Hugh Fox has continued on this route unabated, combining an academic career with his small press activity. He wrote an acclaimed book on pre-Columbian religion and edited, Ghost Dance, an international quarterly of experimental poetry from 1968 until 1995 that featured Latin American and outsider poets. He is a poet of exuberant mental states and shifting voices. He has published more than one hundred books of poetry and is one of those poets that is forever looking and moving forward. The direct opposite of, for example, the English poet, Philip Larkin, who published only five books and was predominantly introspective. Widely read with an inquisitive mind, Fox’s poetry exudes the spirit of opening the doors of perception and its arc of development is outwards towards the new.

His work jumps from perception to perception, allusion to allusion, drawing upon vast knowledge in literature, history, archaeology, anthropology and languages and experience. Like Charles Olson, Fox works on a grand scale, seeking out a universality and global and or comparative perspective. Fox, though, is more divergent than Olson and works in shorter units. He is a beguiling poet, continually experimenting with different techniques and personae and using cultural, historical, autobiographical and linguistic references to open out meaning and ways of being.
It is this constant quest of moving forward, onwards to the next technical problem, book, chapbook, and a desire to publish with independent presses that he shares with his English contemporaries associated with The English Intelligencer newsletter started in 1968 and the Association of Little Presses, founded in 1966.

Quoting from Fox’s own autobiographical comment, he writes:

‘After attending grammar school with the Irish nuns at Saint Francis de Paulo school in Chicago, and then high school with the Christian Brothers of Ireland (not just the regular Christian Brothers), the pre-med and medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, then a switch to English, a Ph.D. in American Literature from the Univ. of Illinois and marriage to a Peruvian who was mostly Indian and getting involved with the mythologies of the ancient world, making discoveries no one had ever dreamed of before (like discovering Phoenician writing all over the pottery and ruins of the Mochica Indians in Peru and the Yopi Indians in Mexico, discovering Sumerian writing on pots in ancient Bolivia), and then becoming a Jew after I discovered that the ‘Czech’ grandmother who had raised me was really Jewish too ...’ (Hugh Fox – Defiance Higganum Hill Books 2007 page 88) Note the emphasis upon discovery and the movement from one discipline to another, from one religion to another. His second wife was from Kansas and his third is a Brazilian MD. From the same autobiographical note, we read ‘When in Spain or Latin America he is usually identified as an Argentinean.’

His memoir, Way, Way Off The Road (Ibbetson Street Press 2006) sheds light on what he terms the invisible post-Beat hippie generation of poets. It’s full of vignettes of poets and literary figures and criss-crosses over time and place in a collage of stories.
Fox is fascinated with the roots of individual identity and language that is backed up by research in Peru, Columbia, Chile, Mexico and Trinidad, a facility in several languages and the first critical studies of Charles Bukowski and Lyn Lifshin. He was attracted to Bukowski’s non-academic, non-Latinate English and its lack of pretension and Lifshin’s sense of isolation that he links to her father’s hidden Jewishness. (Way, Way Off The Road pp 10, 101-6, 128-134) He admires both for their artistic integrity and yet sees their outsider status as masks. The same perspective can be applied to Fox’s poetry. For he also plays the outsider card and similarly employs masks. The most notable of which is his alter ego, Connie Fox, which he played out in dress and print. (See Connie Fox’s Blood Cocoon: Selected Poems Presa Press 2005) The creation and writing of an active female self with a life and history can be seen as an extension or unfurling of the creative self and a movement against another barrier or plain exhibitionism. Certainly he has remained true to the post-April 1968 Berkeley sensibility of the gypsy poet vagabond and continues his outward journey of discovery and the books continue to appear at a prolific rate.

His Brazilian poems, Finalmente / Finally translated from the Portuguese into English by Glanna Luschei (Solo Press 2007) has been followed by Nunca Mais / Never Again (Cornerstone Press 2008) a series of sequentially numbered first person narratives that places the perceiving self within the living culture of Florianopolis, Brazil. It is a subjective study of the body in flight, crippled and fighting against the ravages of time and the backdrop of a holiday from Michigan to distant relatives.


Teresa walking slowly with her cane,
talking about “I…I…I…w…w…would..I…I…
like…to go t…t……the..b…b…bathroom,”
her son who spoke perfect English last
year yesterday told me (eating coconut
sweets) “I’ve already forgotten everything,”
his sweetheart, Neiva, has a son from another
guy..the commandments here:

1. More coffee,
2. More butterflies,
3. Papaya,
4. News on the TV,
5. Clothes,
6. Free time,
7. Sea,
8. Hills,
9. Grilled beef,
10. Eternities.

The movement here from pathos to bathos gives extra depth and humour to a sequence that effortlessly sprawls across intercultural relations into philosophical
probing. Fox positions words to employ their full meaning in poems and in so doing makes easy poems more complex and brings in a wider range of reference, as here:


Lovers Day tomorrow – the TV shows
men lifting women over to beds, me
castrated like a monkey from another planet,
trying to learn how to be a human being
in the middle of assassinated sons, drugs,
rifles, cocaine, cocaine, cocaine,
communion / the body of Christ in
the twenty-first century

Coca = Herb
and herbas are natural products of the earth.

The tone of casual reportage begins to unwind towards the end of the sequence.


The church channel on TV, hypnotizing,
Hail Mary to the computers, hail to
to the TV with a thousand channels,
hail to the cost of gas going up, hail
to the motorcycles that go like bullets
and use less gas, hail to inflation
lowering the salaries and raising prices,
hail to all the faces in the world together,
no differences because of color or language,
or the name of the tribe, waiting for Jesus
to come back again, and for the difference
between heaven and earth to disappear
forever. Amen.

‘Hail’ here of course can be pellets of frozen rain, to greet enthusiastically and to acclaim as the reader knows and thus the tone of the poem is both enhanced and potentially mocked. As the news and films of violence escalates, the narrator becomes more isolated by thoughts of mortality and this eventually leads to a poetic implosion.


My poetry itself begins to
undo itself, the intellectual-
creative landscape undoing
itself and the philosophical
richness of the present moment
here re-becoming the great
emptiness of my life (almost
over) there.

This reinforces the Bukowskian theme of the body with teasing comic puns in the bracketed ‘almost’ and line broken ‘over’ coalescing thoughts of mortality into the kind of self-pity that Bukowski would have ridiculed. Fox employs a knowing self that seeks to embrace the world as fully as possible and calls upon the full gamut of emotional responses within a continually evolving exploration of identity.

David Caddy