Wednesday, September 23, 2020

the calming

 "Facing the universe makes you feel small," says one character in Song Fang's movie The Calming. This character has witnessed the Milky Way, making him feel "so small and insignificant," capturing it on film. The shots in The Calming, carefully composed by Fang and cinematographer Lu Songye, are less extravaganza and more spectacular in their ordinary beauty. This is the story of an artist's journey, in the wake of a break-up, back to establishing a sense of creation again. A documentary filmmaker, Lin (Xi Qi), travels from Tokyo to countrysides and towns by train, and ultimately back to her childhood home. It's a simple tale really, oft in solitude and stillness. People come and go that she vists in small scenes--many times people she hasn't seen in quite some time. The film does not announce who they are, instead we learn what her relationship with them may be, in moments of both clarity and opaqueness. 

What the film and Lin are most enraptured by are surroundings--especially the natural world. We see a dissonance between the natural and the technological from the beginning in the opening shot of a projection screen of a forest, establishing human's ability to facilitate the manipulation of natural imagery ("I think the brightness can be turned down a bit..."). Later in an answer and question session post a screening of Lin's film, an audience member asks, perhaps with a shade of disdain, "... would an art gallery be a more suitable place to show your film?" Fang seems knowing and unashamed with her film's tone and lingering visuals. In a film of such spareness, the contrasts can seem especially stark--the sounds of people talking in the streets, cars, and the cawing of birds. Between long pauses in dialogue, the airiness of "empty sound" is even heard on the mix. When sharing a meal in a restaurant, a place noted for not changing in in forty years, out the large window, a garden. In one of the more visually arresting slices of the picture, Lin finds herself in a snow-swept town. We watch her in her black heavy coat, denim bag slung over shoulder, a single braid, and listen to the crackle of snow--snow heavy on branches on which a single bird flutters out. In contrast, we later see a bird nest heavy on a high, bare tree. In one moment, she studies historical artifacts behind glass, including a copy of Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country. We learn later that Lin has long been entranced by snow since childhood. 

As hear wind through trees, as we watch Lin clean the surfaces of a very beige apartment, and arrange houseplants, there's always a sense of contentment with a sparking hint of dissatisfaction. Another train ride. Another lonely room, looking out at a city skyline or factories alight in the night. In one shot, the camera peers through a curtain at a still audience in red plush seats listening to Handel's aria "Convey me to some peaceful shore." And then we see Lin's face among the listeners and viewers, tears brimming her shut eyes. The Calming is a lovely ride, leaving us to "some peaceful shore," as sounds run over the credits (locusts, birds, and bubbling streams), but it's grounded in the frail, sometimes banal, sometimes quietly joyful and quietly agonizing realities of human existence.  ***

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, September 21, 2020

the inheritance

Ephraim Asili's first full-length feature film The Inheritance mixes the feel of documentary and narrative fiction in a fascinating portrait of a Black Philadelphia social collective named House of Ubuntu. Julian (Eric Lockley) helps set this collective alongside a small group of people in a home of books, music, political readers and magazines inherited from his grandmother. There are guest speakers, like those who shed light on the story of MOVE, the philosophies of John Africa, and the 1985 tragedy inflicted by the government of Philadelphia. This is a pivotal, captivating part of the film in particular, utilizing and mixing footage with the heartbeat-feel of the present. Also within the film are moving poetry readings by Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker and spare shots of hard-hitting, meditative quotes for the characters and viewer to ponder over. 

However, The Inheritance is not a ponderous piece. Visually, the movie is very involving and rich. I was particularly drawn to all the loving shots of old books and LPs, their covers and jacket designs (Toni Morrison's Tar Baby is a striking moment of a young woman in reading--perhaps ignoring someone's green smoothie mishap in the kitchen). The items of Julian's grandmother's past, in the hands of a new generation, are warmly captured--a tapestry of Black experience / art infused into the current. Asili seems Godard-inspired (a poster of La Chinoise figures) both in style with those bright primary colors and moments of electric, exquisite compositions (the film is shot and edited by Asili) and in genre-play, tone and sound (the mix and editing style is rough, occasionally jagged, but never in a flashy, obtrusive manner). The color palate, of course, is not Godard's alone as Asili creates an exquisite piece of his own collage-like piece of art: per Asili in Artforum, "Once I accepted the conditions of studio filmmaking, the black box became my blank canvas and I built the set design color by color, object by object. I spent about nine months traveling around to different stores and markets buying the objects that provide much of the mise en scène. I also used a lot of materials from my personal collection. Every book, poster, painting, piece of fabric and furniture was handpicked." I am fascinated by his process and care here. But this film is more than just canny craftmanship, it's lovably worn-around-the-edges, especially in the unfussy performances of the ensemble, and is stirring in its subject matter. With any group of people trying to foster a community under one roof, there are squabbles here and there--trying to remain shoe-less, creating chore schedules, figuring out who should be a guest speaker--the ramifications of which can be both minutia and of upmost significance within the fold of the collective's vision. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, September 18, 2020

lovers rock

After watching Steve McQueen's "Lovers Rock," I was reading Langston Hughes and came across these lines from his poem "Harlem Night Club": "Jazz-boys, jazz-boys,-- / Play, plAY, PLAY! / Tomorrow.... is darkness. / Joy today!" The sensuous dance party held in "Lovers Rock" encapsulates a fleeting, joyful party in a particular moment in time. Even within the party, as undercurrents of disharmony and moments of distress arise, we know paradise can't last forever. "Lovers Rock" is a gem within McQueen's Small Axe series, about the Black West Indian experience around 1980. 

I have been a fan of McQueen's work, especially 12 Years a Slave which, despite being a story that had been told before and despite its subversively old-fashioned presentation in the vein of familiar "heroic" white cinematic tales, was still a  startling movie and one that struck like a bolt of lightning in the middle of 2013. I was enraptured too with both Shame and the very underrated Widows, both of which didn't get the same galvanizing response from audiences and critics, but offered similarly complicated characters and unflinching subject matter within rapturously specific tales that few films of today offer. There is something broadly painted about his films, yet so honed-in and microscopic.

"Lovers Rock," a day into night into the morning after piece, begins with a train moving through darkness akin to a rolled-up carpet we see being moved for the dance floor. Much of the opening, elegantly filmed, is the set-up for the event in bay-windowed sun-glinted, paint-chipped interiors, elegantly filmed (photography is by Shabier Kirchner). Immediately we are eased into the rich, transporting sound mix. Women in a kitchen preparing food happily singing "Silly Games" (an overture to an unforgettable, what's-to-come centerpiece moment of the film). Young women gleefully singing Blondie's "Sunday Girl" with handclaps. The textured sound of flipping through papered-45 sleeves. Getting the sound-systems and speakers right and the echoing mic checks. Usually I am sensitive to and irked by the over-amplification of the rustling sound of burning cigarettes / joints in films (a phenomenon in indie films of recent years), but here it doesn't seem superfluous--its intrinsic to the atmosphere. As the film moves to the party, the lighting morphs to a rosy orange glow, a bulb hung around the DJ's neck, and here we begin to see the frictions (big and small) between men and women in a social setting--women on the dancefloor in the beginning chopping it up with "Kung Fu Fighting" and then down with a strand of Chic's "He's the Greatest Dancer" (compare and contrast that to Chic's desperate, chilly appearance with "I Want Your Love" in Shame) as the men pose as wallflowers, scoping out the scene, and then soon, the men and women are dancing together, with some on the outs, vibing, eyeing on in moments of loneliness. Like a ballet, a dancer enters out-of-rhythm and off-kilter, setting a new, impassioned tone on the floor. Time literally stopped and nothing else mattered when I first saw the dance set to Janet Kay's "Silly Games." It's such an unbelievably gorgeous, haunting experience--one of the most ecstatic filmmaking moments of song and dance I've seen in a while. And as the flitting images of crosses suggest, this party is communal, holy. As with much of McQueen's other work, the movie is more about experience rather than complex narrative, so the encounter, potential-relationship story at the center of "Lovers Rock" of young Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) in a faintly glittering purple sheath (perfect costuming all-around by the reliably great Jacqueline Durran) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), isn't as riveting as the world rotating around them. But as this paradise moves into the morning after with a beautifully-shot bike ride and our buzz killed by a red-haired white man, "we can see it in" her "eyes," Martha relives her night with resplendent joy. ****

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

kane train

Smooth flows from Machinedrum + Freddie Gibbs.

New album A View of U drops October 9th.


The Relic (feat. Rochelle Jordan)
Star (feat. Mono/Poly & Tanerélle)
Kane Train (feat. Freddie Gibbs)
Wait 4 U (feat. Jesse Boykins III)
Sleepy Pietro (feat. Tigran Hamasyan)
Spin Blocks (feat. Father)
Idea 36 (feat. Chrome Sparks)
Believe in U
1000 Miles (feat. Sub Focus)
Inner Eye

Friday, July 31, 2020

trapped in gold

New tune from Fort Never, "Trapped in Gold" is now available on all streaming platforms.

Lyric video below.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

zombi child

Director Bertrand Bonello has had a varied, unusual and fascinating career so far--his films always visually rich (House of Tolerance and Saint Laurent among them). His latest, Zombi Child, continues that streak. It's difficult to parse out the plot of the film without revealing too much--a slow-drip of a story, with folk elements. Its roots are in Haiti, beginning with a cut-up blowfish; ground powder softly placed in loafers. Soon, the man (Mackenson Bijou) wearing those loafers, perishes in the street. From cutting cane, workers barely able to stand, the film suddenly moves into present times of a mostly all-white Parisian girl school learning about the French Revolution. A gaggle of girls discuss their black classmate Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)--is she "too weird" for their little sorority? Echoes of De Palma's Carrie kicks in--especially those languid locker room shots, girls blow drying their hair; Stephen King is also blatantly mentioned.

Yves Cape's (Holy Motors) elegant cinematography is full of flair and brings out Bonello's impressionistic visions. Other horror influences, like Tourneur and Val Lewton, are there, but are also muted, as Zombi Child grapples with large social dilemmas. In its "spacial geometry," the film flits by with allusions to war, colonialism and societal revolutions. Even in history class, with its pristine desks and whiteboards, the sense is that history is perpetually buried and made smaller for each generation--dulled down to another dull lecture. While the movie's deceptions of racial identity and issues seem meekly developed, there are moments of razor wit, as when the white girls and, a seemingly reluctant Mélissa, participate in a chant-like trap sing-a-long in their forbidden after hours candlelit art room retreat--a student's paper sculpture on a table, spiny like that blow-fish. There's a bizarre aura to the Napoleon-founded school, where the students must be part of a particular legacy. The school has a too-tidy, insidious Suspiria vibe, even though the movie doesn't venture too deep there.

As with Bonello's other work, he is more interested in visually telling a story than wonky plot mechanics. Girls lie in the grass, mindlessly scrolling their phones, feeling like "corpses." Meanwhile, the picture, exquisitely edited by Anita Roth, makes some incredible cuts. One powerful example takes us from a serene, leafy sun-lit campus to wind-rustled cane fields at night. Mélissa's history haunts her, is overlooking upon her cinematically, even though as a character, she seems somewhat removed from it, perhaps because, socially, she has to be. Her parents died in the 2010 earthquake--a heavy grief has molded her into someone who seems wise beyond her years, stoic, and withdrawn. The movie also links her character to the story of Clairvius Narcisse. The latter half of the film goes into all sorts of unbridled visions. Balancing all of this is a tricky act for Bonello, crew and the very good cast, the movie remains a captivating moodpiece. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


Moses Sumney has released a fascinating, musically-varied new record.

Here is track "Polly" from græ.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


The leafy green trees of a quiet neighborhood. The low summer hum of cicadas. The genteel setting of Andrew Ahn's (Spa Night) eloquent little film, Driveways, enveloped me fully. A remote medical assistant, Kathy (Hong Chau), takes her young son Cody (Lucas Jaye) with her to her estranged, and now deceased, sister's bungalow home. Upon a late night arrival, Kathy is startled to see that her sister was a hoarder. Through days of frustration, determination and sadness, she works with Cody to clean the house. Meanwhile, retired Korean War vet Del (Brian Dennehy, bittersweet, in one of his final film roles), sits on the neighboring porch eyeing them. Cody, sensitive and smart, perhaps with some sensory issues, does not fit in well with the neighborhood kids (especially the loud, aggressive, gregarious wrestling boys) and soon grows to bond with Del. The two very good actors of extremely different generations, develop affecting performances through their characters' friendship. This is a simple film, seemingly small in scope, yet with an enormous beating heart. I felt very attached to its tender rendering. Chau, who brazenly gave her all in the unfortunate misfire Downsizing, gives a layered turn here to an imperfect character. The quiet score by Jay Wadley and the rich photography by Ki Jin Kim are incorporated well. The title refers to the place were neighborhood chitchats, yard sales, friendly waves, routines, good-byes and new beginnings can all occur. Ahn's film gives these haunted characters paths of reflections and a new sense of hope. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, May 16, 2020

the wolf house

Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León's Chilean film The Wolf House is a twisty nightmarish vision and one of upmost artistic wizardry. If one is looking for a plot, it could be described as a young woman who flees her German colony with a wolf on her heels, taking refuge in an abandoned home in the woods. But The Wolf House isn't so much about plot as it is about its political undertones and the astounding intricacies of its visuals and aurals, which unravel, replicate and renew at a seemingly non-stop pace in a one-shot feel.

In order to truly grapple with this tough film, one has to delve into its history--of the Colonia Dignidad (something I admittedly did not know of until researching and watching this work of art) under Pinochet's rule in Chile. With shrill, distorted choral music, the movie begins with savage irony using vintage clips of this colony: "The dark legend that has been created around us is mainly due to ignorance. They are ignorants ... who fear a community that remains isolated and pure," its narrator presenting The Wolf House as a film "rescued from the vaults."

The ensuing piece is of the main character, Maria, embodying a sense of relentless isolation, recalling elements of the Creation and also of Alice in Wonderland, becoming the house itself at times--paintbrushings emerging as a face in the walls and the doors, biting into an apple. In dollhouse views, roaches scatter, sound effects buzz and whirl, the body continuously morphs from the flat into the three-dimensional--straw-blond hair, blue eyes, and red lips. There are mounds of dirt, creaking doors, chittering birds and insects, sink water that turns plastic-wrap in the basin, flickering candles that populate then disappear, a fuzzy TV hums. And snorting pigs that the protagonist, creating her own "colony," turns into pig-"people" (Pedro and Ana)--with hands and feet. These are some of the more comical and disturbing moments of the film. If they represent the Chilean "peasants" noted in the introduction that the German colony prides on living in so-called harmony with, or as victims of white cultural violence, these primitive creatures molt into more human forms, until they ultimately emerge as waxy, blond, blue-eyed entities "immersed" in Maria's "sweet honey." Maria remarks on Pedro's "progress" in speaking "correctly" and admonishing that he talks "too slow." Meanwhile Pedro and Ana incessantly speak of how happy they are in their existence, to an almost brainwashed, banal degree. What in time happens to Pedro and Ana is a both an upending and embracing of the traditional folktale. Throughout, "the wolf" is a taunting, threatening disembodied voice in Spanish that haunts Maria. The fairy tale references are familiar--from The Three Little Pigs to Hansel & Gretel to the mirror reflections of Snow White to its storybook motif of escaping and returning home. Though what settles as "home" is ultimately ambivalent in this breached landscape. As it closes with warped strains of Wagner, Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León's film is an intense, uneasy ride, with sharp moments of black humor and trenchancy. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Further reading:

Friday, May 8, 2020

city girl

"City Girl," a poem from Twilight Prince, featuring the Nicholas Brittel score from If Beale Street Could Talk.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Thursday, April 30, 2020

have you seen this man?

Years ago, I discovered Karl Tierney's work reading a few of his poems in Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS, edited by Philip Clark & David Groff. One of his poems in the book, "Funereal," shifted the earth under my feet. I admired its careful craft, but I also felt suddenly emotionally connected with a voice that was so distinct and unusual from a name I hadn't heard of before. The poem moves from the historical and grand--"One whole ship set with an entire fire, / wasted on a dead Viking" to the painfully "real": "Satin in a coffin ... Who knows which is more apropos for laying grave side / flowers of plastic or flowers of silk / when there's not only a new decade and another country / but a fresh millennium just around the corner." The death here is personal, so it feels enormous, enveloping, and Tierney paints it with a historic sweep; but there's also a knowing in the ultimate insignificance, especially when it comes to the triteness of funeral aesthetics. This voice of urgency, of erudite, of wit and slight indignation, culminates in the crafting of a dynamic piece that runs the gamut of observation and feeling. When I was co-editing the now-defunct online journal Clementine, I reached out to the executor of Tierney's poems, Jim Cory and asked him if I could publish some of his work. He graciously sent me a slew of poems and I chose three from various points in Tierney's life. At that point I didn't expect to see a collection years later emerge from Sibling Rivalry Press, and I am so happy one did.

"Funereal" appears in the 1991 portion of  Karl Tierney's collection of Castro poems, Have You Seen This Man? and it's just one of the jewels in a both modest and extraordinarily rich collection. This book has been sitting on my bedside table for months. Is there some sort of trepidation that writers sometimes face when they read the poems of another writer whose work they connect with so deeply? Perhaps because you want to engage with it so wholly, or perhaps because it's too much to bear. Karl Tierney's life was cut short at 39 years of age when he jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1995. He had been sick with AIDS. He made sure to contact Cory in the event of his death to take care of his work. Jim Cory's introduction to Have You Seen This Man? is especially poignant--lovingly detailed with moments of acerbic reflection of the life and times of Tierney. In linking Tierney's work to O'Hara, Cory sums up much of Karl's poems vividly--"... the voice is both casual and intense. The poems sometimes sound like someone sharing a confidence with intimates, at other times, they could be rants delivered across a cafe table. Much of their subject matter--cruising, dating, soggy overnight assignations, fumbling attempts at relationships and the recriminations that often follow--concerns the search for erotic satisfaction, if not connection..."

This searching moves through the years, from 1983 to 1995, Tierney's coming-of-age as a poet in the midst of such devastation. I admire his ability to capture expansive subjects succinctly. On "Beauty": "It comes from nowhere  /and has the disturbing quality / of knowing your desire." On "Turning 30": "... one discovers there's no age / when one doesn't feel awkward..." On "Vanity": "... for two hundred dollars / I buy a vanity mirror and have it inscribed / Resentment is the Potting Soil of Scars." If Gary Snyder's The Back Country feels like artfully-constructed diary entries from the natural world at the mercy of the material world, Tierney's poems feel like artfully-constructed entries from the material world (the female impersonator "MacDonna" figures, a poem which doesn't seem so keen on Madonna) at the mercy of the natural and also the historical. Through the years, Tierney's voice understandably grows more complicated and complex, with lines running back and forth with various switching of tone, attitude and stance ("I saw your eyes in the brothels of Tangier. / Oops! Wrong century. All right, then..."). The earlier poems sometimes have a winsome quality, like observing the "Arkansas Landscape: Wish You Were Here" poem where "red-nosed boys from the hills / walk free from sin-shod shoes / through the collegetown mall. / Everywhere there's hair blowing / (brown mostly) / and the bushes huddle together / animated in conversations about the sea..." The consistency is within the craft. Most poems have killer openers ("He sits stiff as Lincoln / on my Salvation Army chair...) and killer conclusions ("The good ones have died / or can't afford a face-lift / and wont answer the phone"), fitting since Cory notes Tierney was meticulous about both filing his poems and writing and editing them. Though none of the pieces have a sterile quality--they are very much alive and reeling. And many intricate portraits emerge--the ghosts of Tierney's times--from the bar rag publisher (his "obituaries ... another / name to scratch and claw from his great black book") to the "Adonis at the Swimming Pool," elegantly drawn until the stinging closer "Who would have me discussed in seedy cafes / and ruin me since I'm deaf to the hiss / behind the teeth in that inspid smile." And the poems are deeply rooted in the changing Castro neighborhood, on the brink of and in the midst of 90s gentrification: at a film retrospective "that closes with this Salò, this controversial / gem, the poet-filmmaker's final reel before murder, shown in / a neighborhood whose men are mostly dead or about to be." These are thorny, unpredictable poems of people in the midst of death and great social upheaval--clubgoers (painted fantastically in "Club Uranus" after Auden--"hounds tie bandanas round sagging necks / coyotes buckle silver above crooked tails / old wolves smolder in leather / and sly young foxes preview naiveté in shorts / when not the season / this is called going out"), yuppies, punks, pretty boys, "twinkies" like "Skippy" from "what everybody's calling Generation X / which is something like a brand-name credence / suffering from what Bush called "the vision thing." / Issues around lack, very American"--all of these people are sketched out in multitudes. The country at large is changing as well as the collection hints at the fading of the old American political gatekeepers (like Nixon and Jackie O) for the incoming powerful like Bush and Elizabeth Dole ("... this cold-tit whore you present in ridiculous pumps / as some sort of liberal is far away your worst assault on truth") of the new conservative movement of their time. "Brutally Honest" and labyrinthine is how I would describe Tierney's portraits and [poems and they always link back to the speaker's psyche, pain and predicament. One the eve of turning 40, alive writer / reader to long-gone writer, I feel fortunate to have your collection that I felt I could finally bear to read--one that has specificity, joy, savagery, and now permanence in this world.

-Jeffery Berg

Further reading:

"Language Could Kill Us" by Patrick Nathan

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

space struck

Sometimes a sparkly poetry collection comes along where nearly every line is perfect and extremely clever. For me, that is Paige Lewis's Space Struck. It's fitting that the book begins with the setting up of a zoo of "Normal Everyday Creatures" since there are plenty of animals that roam throughout the collection from a "goose-drawn chariot" to foxes to pelicans to "oysters gasping in unison." It's the most distinct and apt opener in a collection I've read recently. Like a zoo or a diorama (there are a few of those here), the collection acts as a viewing and a cockeyed, sometimes raw and absurd, engagement with the natural world (the speaker asks "for more tactile participation" with the "Terre Haute Planetarium"; the title poem is from the point of view of a meteorite-struck victim; in another, a purple finch is struck by something in space too--"burned / to the grill of my car"). "Space" is a word used a lot in poems and in describing poems to almost banal levels. Those stacked gray rectangles (like "sticks of Juicy Fruit"; like the shadows we're stuck with) on the cover end up being slyly deceiving, as Lewis's spaces ultimately emerge as far more complicated and artful than the ones typically wrought in poetry. Throughout I felt the speaker's unease--"the vice president of panic"--a constant shifting, moving "through life like I'm trying to / avoid a stranger's vacation photo" in a landscape where stirrings of joy and confidence is easily stifled: "I'm ready to shout, / Look at my healthy new life! But my friend / thinks it's a bad idea to frighten people / in a place with so many hard throwables." Among this backdrop are figures of power, saints and such and God ("God's Secretary, Overworked") who are evoked brilliantly and perversely. There comes a point in reviewing a book where I feel like, as I also did in writing about Luljeta Lleshanaku's Negative Space, as someone in Space Struck is noted as one destined for "a prison sentence for anyone caught / explaining magic." I really admire this book and how it's so skillfully-written, arranged, realized and arch, and seemingly effortless in both humor and heart.

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

the back country

I've long admired Gary Snyder's dexterity of language but there was a different feel in approaching one of his single collections than encountering anthologized pieces or his selected. His 1968 book, The Back Country, runs deep with riveting observations, unusual, tactile use of words, and the complex portrayals of the frissons between the natural world and the material world (a "Van Gogh print on the wall: vase of flowers all yellow / & tawny"). It also houses his translations of the Japanese poet Miyazawa Kenji. Fittingly, having the translations at the end of The Back Country, it is immediately clear that their work shares similarities, and that Snyder's work is indebted to him (" flash of a crow flapping / up from a treetop / --spiritless woods-- / --the atmosphere clearer and clearer / cypress trees standing to heaven / in a dead hush--"). Snyder's poems are rich in sound and textures and telling details about the human condition: "The Chainsaw falls for boards of pine, / Suburban bedrooms, block on block / Will waver with this grain and knot, / The maddening shapes will start and fade / Each morning when commuters wake-- / Joined boards hung on frames..." His ability to capture tone, malaise, and those gnarly natural descriptions--more tough and dirty than lush and serene, is stunning. The pieces read a bit like journal sketches along his different journeys in the wild and yet they maintain engrossing perspectives: "... high in a pine-- / from behind the cypress windrow / the mare moves up, grazing. / a soft continuous roar / comes out of the far valley / of the six-lane highway--thousands / and thousands of cars / driving men to work." And later, "... all these crazed, hooked nations need: / steel plates and / long injections of pure oil." Snyder obviously prizes nature versus the human-made, but perhaps because he is so physically immersed in the natural world and his crisp, terse syntax is so involving,  his poems never feel obvious or pedantic. I appreciate the leanness of his compact, noun-heavy lines--intriguing compound words like "nuthatch," "bullhump," and "buckbrush." Among his travels and his forest-living, there are moments of disdain for humans: "... sightseeing buses crammed. / to view bare rock, brown grass, / space..."; and also moments of longing for connection: "I don't mind living this way / Green hills the long blue beach / But sometimes sleeping in the open / I think back when I had you."

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, April 27, 2020

driving without a license

Janine Joseph's debut collection, Driving Without a License, is on a coming-of-age Filipino experience in America--a speaker without the documents, without the license to "prove" citizenry--and it is a frank, lively and illuminating read. What immediately struck me was its kinetics. So much energy, so many verbs tumbling across the page ("we hipped our boxes," "sideswiping"). The visuals of the poems themselves look restless as well, with their twisty indentations. The poems almost spin in space--in junkyards, in childhood rooms, up in the air, and in cars; the poems spin like the speaker, who jumps through memories, investigating belonging. "Assimilation... was only a matter of time... / I had down the Valley girl like, / hugged my binder and books / close to my chest, like in Clueless, / all of my weight on one leg / so the other could be all / like this." Joseph's poems are distinctively Californian, with underlying conflicts of identity. The speaker bravely admits, in "Playing 'Indentured Servants,'" the sometimes mystifying actions of childhood--speaking "the way we in the schoolyard believed Chinese people spoke"--and performative playground power structures of race. Also within the book is an emphasis on naming. Some of the names have been blotted out, just a simple letter (invoking both intimacy and the sense of "Always Hiding") . In "The Name," ("My father's choice was Jennifer..."), a litany of names spill forth along with the speaker's spry associations. "You Lie" drudges up an American moment that still makes me queasy from 2009. Funnily enough, the "You lie" has stuck, but the "reasoning" of it hasn't. And Joseph reminds us in the CNN blurb note that the two words were blurted out by a representative during the State of the Union after "the president denied that health care legislation would provide free coverage for illegal immigrants." In the poem, Joseph writes, "my medical history / was an unidentified coastline." Overall, I found the poems in this book haunting, with sly lines and excellently-wrought pieces in both form and free verse. There are many lovely moments too, such as in "Break" where "I was a ghost away / from wild magnesium / and our braincases were split- / seconds from barreling the mine shafts / with calcium pearls-- / and no search party for me." There are maps--even an era-stamped mentioning of MapQuest--borders, and archipelagos--all indicative of a speaker's on-going searching and defining.

 -Jeffery Berg

Sunday, April 26, 2020

the tradition

"The blk mind is a continuous / Mind. There is a we. I am among them. / I am one of the ones. I belong." Jericho Brown's The Tradition is an extremely exact and beautiful book of poems. It truly feels like an absolute collection--one that builds slowly and elegantly--with a gratifying circular effect. I am thinking in particular of its "Duplex" poems which echo imagery and music through form and repetition-play. In the first one, "A poem is a gesture toward home," and it immediately establishes story, the remixing of memory and one vivid concrete detail (that "burgundy car") that end up being carried throughout until its ultimate, gut-punch conclusion--one that so few poetry collections can deliver, and perhaps the most striking I can think I've read in years. The poems feel of-the-moment, but also timeless, and there's a lovely leanness to them, despite their wide emotional, political scale. The book is flooded with the beauty of flowers, their fragility, intertwined with pain. The title poem is a fulcrum, with the scientific names of flora intermingled with black victims of violence. "Summer seemed to bloom against the will / Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter / On this planet than when our dead fathers / Wiped sweat from their necks." Such a sweeping way Brown is able to capture the oppression, anxieties and deep history in just one sentence. As in the "Duplex" pieces, Brown's poems are often rooted in a concrete image that grows more in its complexity until a final knock-out line, like the ones in "The Trees," where describing the crepe myrtles in the front yard: "It's not that I love them / Every day. It's that I love them anyway." Sonically, thematically, everything clicks. And complexity lies in simple words too, like "big" and "fine," which are evoked as "legend," used "long ago" of men describing women and cars. There is a nick of humor, but Brown, per usual, treads deeper, in describing the eventual "wear and tear" of people and things, once prized. If Brown's art in The Tradition delivers painful subject matter through pleasurable aesthetics (those sturdy capitalized lines; the straightforward diction and internal rhymes), it's akin to a statement the speaker delivers boldly in "Night Shift": "... I am touched, brushed, and measured, I think of myself / As a painting." Abuse and torment and personal and societal perils are lensed through art and succinctness, such as the blues refrains in "Entertainment Industry" ("I don't have kids / Cuz I'd have to send them to school / Ain't that safe as any / Plan for parenthood / Mass shooting blues"). One could slip into simplification, but Brown's poems are extraordinarily-wrought ("Layover" is a skinny poem of haunting power). In "Dark," I am reminded of what Major Jackson does in "Double Major," where the poet has a conversation with himself. Like Jackson, Brown also opens up the poem into something larger about identity and place in the world. In The Tradition, I witnessed the craft on display, but I also was so emotionally connected throughout, that I wasn't just admiring the skill, but deeply affected as well. I recently purchased this book on CD, and am looking forward to its arrival, to hear Brown's work back in all its (morning) glory.

-Jeffery Berg

Further reading:

Invention by Jericho Brown (an essay on the "Duplex" poems--which I'm obsessed with)

Saturday, April 25, 2020

is, is not

"Instead of 'Come in' she says 'Not now.'" Like Stephen Dunn's Pagan Virtues, Tess Gallagher's Is, Is Not is a rigorous read. The poems could be described as opaque, but there's a challenge more in the use of language and the physics of situation. Association and sentences sometimes move past what I felt would normally be a comfortable, familiar stopping point. The book itself is quite a lengthy tome too. I literally felt the language trying to push itself, twist itself. Perhaps the whole "is, is not," the "two doors," is the paradox that lies within many of the poems: "sad-happy"; "live step, dead step" (with each step forward, we get a little closer to death; "steps" also lead to "mystery ... How else let difference tell you / what you are?"). The poems are often having direct conversations with others, friends, or even illustrating a conversation with something itself, like "Breath": "... breathe it / open to the glass world. It / breathes back / to prove neither it / nor you can end / this exchange of breath / for worlds." There are moments in the poems of the unending--of an almost obsessive circularity: "I come. I go. You stay. You keep on / staying. I come again. You are here." Or in the description of "March Moon": "How unsatisfying half is / even when heading / full..." Admittedly, I was doubting myself if this was at least somewhat the intended effect until I reached Gallagher's "Afterword" which, like Kimiko Hahn's essay in Foreign Bodies, gives a fascinating look into craft: "The kind of poetry that seeks a language beyond the very one in which it arrives may travel from edge to edge... I find myself trying to out-leap what I can almost say... I seem to be writing in some sense beyond language." And later "[my poems] challenge dualities which tend to blot out a range of possibilities." So yes, there is something more than just simple paradox, the simple two doors, and the simple "is, is not." Gallagher's lyricism attempts to stretch beyond.

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, April 24, 2020

pagan virtues

With Pagan Virtues, that Stephen Dunn is up to his 19th poetry collection among an oeuvre of dense and intelligent work, is certainly admirable. There's a slyness to the language here and a resistance to the melodious and the pretty. This can make Pagan Virtues a challenging read musically and aesthetically. But there's no doubt that Dunn has accumulated noteworthy skill. The collection becomes an invite to an inner voice of trickery, contradictions and paradox. Optimism becomes a "vulgar passion." In "Misfortune," the smell of it is "clean they way rain that has yet to arrive smells clean." The title poem hints at the moment we're in where "the inner weather of our nation" is "dimming" (and perhaps the moment we are always in): "everything that smells of dogma / or the forbidden... investigate what's good, / attempt to live in a world a person from / another world might want to much around in..." I love that use of "muck" which is vaulted as both a terrible and casually pleasing connotation. Doubling and alter-identities is explored in "As If Chekhov Had Written It," which references The Americans, an ultimate television show of doubling identities physically, psychically, and culturally. Dunn's poems grapple with death here too, such as in "The Ghost Song of the Retiree" or "The Year Before the Election" when "all the poets / seemed to be dying..." and not of "suicide, or" drinking "themselves into oblivion," as associated with poets, but of "natural causes." Or works directed to "my eulogist," such as "A Postmortem Guide": "I stumble and fall, / shake and drool, but history's daily horror / trumps any condition of mine. What is it / compared to genocides and demagoguery?" There's also a series of "Mrs. Cavendish" poems which routes through an intimate relationship. While Pagan Virtues might not be as shiny and enveloping as other contemporary works I've read this month, its adroitness is undeniable.

-Jeffery Berg 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

the carrying

Ada Limón's The Carrying is an astonishing volume of poetry--the kind of book that seems destined to be discussed and studied for years to come. I appreciated its eloquence and its rigor. It seems like nary a word is wasted. There are many poets who discuss the body, in all its flaws and all, but Limón's descriptions are unnerving in their acuteness. In describing Alzheimer's, recalling Stevens: "There are too many things to hold in the palm of the brain." And in describing the sound of grief in "Prey": "The muffled, ruptured voice of a friend / turns into an electrical signal and breaks open / to tell me her sister has died. A muted pause, / then a heaving. Sounds sucked from lungs." The poem is about the changing of the soul when processing close death and Limón's words help take us there to that seismic moment. In the elegy to Philip Levine, "How We Are Made," she sketches him and his work: "You, with your wiry limbs / of hard verse, inky gap-toothed grin / of gristle and work, you who grimly / told us to stop messing around, / to make this survival matter / like a factory line..." Survival and strength are everywhere in the book, even in the pop sense of "Wonder Woman."  The relations of humans to nature, too, and their own tough, weedy survival--from goldfinches to caverns to trees to suddenly beetles pinned to a board, are also invoked. One poem I read a few times was "Dandelion Insomnia," which houses so many crystalline moments: "A neighbor mows the lawn / and bam, the next morning, there's a hundred / dandelion seed heads straight as arrows / and proud as cats high above any green blade / of manicured grass. It must bug some folks, / a flower so tricky it can reproduce asexually, / making perfect identitcal selves, bam, another me, / bam, another me. I can't help it--I root / for that persecuted rosette so hyper in its / own making it seems to devour the land." There's kind of a cross-section of sophistication and words like "bam" that just ignite throughout. That wordplay. Those linebreaks. That insight. I really admire every poem in this book deeply.

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

how to love a country

How do you love a country of so much strife, so much racism and violence? That is on the mind of Richard Blanco's poems here. The book seems to come from a lofty place (with lofty blurbs), perhaps because Blanco read at Obama's inauguration in 2013. That time seems so far away, especially as we have long been mired in rolling waves of information bits and also, the devastation of a new president's era. This, in no doubt, elevates Blanco a bit to a national figure--one to speak with great importance of important events. Yet, I think Blanco's poems are often strong and dexterous enough to overcome a sense of the pedantic. There's a personal connection too that adds to their complexity. The metaphor of America as a bully doesn't quite encompass the country's totality, but there is an effective moment in "El Americano in the Mirror," where the speaker confronts his victim from fifth-grade recess: "Why didn't you punch me back?... / I wanted to say: / I'm sorry, maybe I love you. Perhaps even kiss you." Blanco's empathetic portrait is surprising and raw. When responding to the horrific incident at Pulse, Blanco seems to feel an urgency, a need to write about it but also senses the futility in capturing its horror through language: "Draw a metaphor / so we can picture the choir of their invisible spirits / rising with the smoke toward disco lights, imagine / ourselves dancing with them until the very end." This is what makes Blanco's poems in this collection sneakily conflicted. In "Let's Remake America Great," there's a sardonic tone and a re-working of America, heavily through the lens of popular culture--especially television, and personal reflection: "Let's write-out women like my mother, who fled Cuba broken as / her broken English, who cooked dinner in her uniform after / twelve-hour shifts at the supermarket, set the table with plastic / cups she could rinse out and reuse." Those little details, like the plastic cups, bobbing in the sea of importance, add to moments of spark in the book, and where I find Blanco's poems most compelling.

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


On a whim, I picked up John McCullough's poetry collection Spacecraft last year at Gay's the World  and I am glad I did. This is a terse but expressive volume, with vocabulary, sometimes rectifying the antiquated ("Flittermouse") and lyricism that requires an intimate and involved read. McCullough's voice and poems are unique, with a deep lexicon, sometimes heightened and tempered by emotion. The use of "space" in the title ranges from physical ones: cafes, churches, museum booths, a vault. To the space one leaves behind--especially in the elegiac sense, with McCullough writing about the death of his lover. I found myself pausing on poems that fixated upon a specific object, like the goo of a lava lamp, and later, "The Fog," which I read a few times as I found it so compelling and beautiful. "It is malt perfume and frontiers crossed / over and over. It is a horror movie villain, / chopped away at its roots--dying luridly, / springing up after the credits. It is a casual / voice informing me this was never my life..." I am barely skimming the surface here of McCullough's collection of substantial intelligence and craft.

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, April 20, 2020


Not to play favorites, especially after reading so many great books so far this month, but Tina Chang's Hybrida might be the most effective poetry collection I've read this April. Like Reginald Dwayne Betts' Felon (both featuring the compelling use of the ghazal) and Clint Smith's Counting Descent, themes of racial identity are expressed with rich syntax in unique, complex ways. Chang writes much of the book from the point-of-view of a new mother of a mixed race son. I truly felt this book, with voices so strongly realized. I read the book in e-form, but I yearn a physical copy to sense if it has a different effect, especially since Chang uses so many unusual formats including in her ekphrastic pieces. In Hybrida, there's an underlying worry and fear of bringing a child into this unsettled world and racist country, which is vividly evoked throughout, particularly mid-way through in "Astroturf" when the pregnant speaker rests in the synthetic peace of "plastic grass" and jarred into reality by listening to girls making fun of a black boy and asking him to leave. "My boy would be here soon. Six more days into the future I would meet him. I touched the area that moved. I waited." Chang has a way to envelop the reader in her patchwork of scenes and observations. There is much brilliance in "Hybrida: A Zuihitsu" which takes the associative form and plows forward: "If I grew up with dual language, dual identity, how can anything feel unified?" The piece becomes almost an essay on Chang's collection itself, its ideas of forms, identity and language, with interruptions of questionings: "By raising a black boy, do I understand what it means to live as a black boy? How do I speak of his existence without appropriating his existence? I return to the language of mothers." And later, a quite apt statement: "Media can obliterate a spirited word (world)." I am reminded there of how I felt uneasy dissecting Luljeta Lleshanaku's Negative Space which sometimes spoke of actively eschewing clarity. While there is much ambiguity and resistance in Chang's poems here, like "The field" that "becomes wider and wider," there's also a searing clearness in emotion and visual-making, ending everything with a drawing from the son himself in an almost guttural, heart-stopping way.

-Jeffery Berg

Further reading:

"Waterborne: A Review of Tina Chang's Hybrida" by Jerome Ellison Murphy from The Adroit Journal

Sunday, April 19, 2020


Reginald Dwayne Betts' Felon is a blistering account of the incarcerated and its permanent effects. In his notes, Betts acknowledges "I've always thought of my own writing as having something of the desire of the quilt maker." This stitching of various experiences, texts, music intertwined with the experience of his own, are well-wrought in this collection. Interspersed are effective redacted documents, the bar-like erasures and the text left, giving way to potent lines of poetry. The poems in Betts' collection move with both a steeliness and a delicacy. On re-entering: "You come home & become a parade / of confessions that leave you drowning, / lost recounting the disappeared years. / You say fuck this world where background checks, / like your fingerprints, announce the crimes. / Where so much of who you are betrays / guilt older than you..." And the poems are of complicated thought too, such as "When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving": "in the backseat my sons laugh & tussle, / far from Tamir's age, adorned with his / complexion & cadence & already warned / about toy pistols, though my rhetoric / ain't about fear, but dislike--about / how guns have haunted me..." and later, "...this is / why I hate it all, the protests & their counters, / the Civil Rights attorneys that stalk the bodies / of the murdered, this dance of ours that reduces / humanity to the dichotomy of the veil." All of this complexity and emotion expressed in clean tercets. The opening "Ghazal" reflects the striking cover art by Titus Kaphar: "... painted my portrait, then dipped it in black tar. / He knows redaction is a dialect after prison. / From inside a cell, the night sky isn't the measure-- / that's why it's prison's vastness your eyes reflect after prison." The form of the ghazal itself and its constraints, the word "prison" repeated throughout as the final word of a sentence, open up the ideas how limits and stops are overrun by the effects of imprisonment that are permanently imprinted. This is such a strong collection. Listening to Betts speak about his writings and experiences are vital as well.

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, April 18, 2020

fetch the bolt cutters

Hard to pick a fave from Fiona's fiery new record which is carrying us through the weekend (and perhaps, 2020).

But my faves are no "I Want You to Love Me."

And "Shameika"--those tumbling piano riffs!

telephone poles

I'm currently reading Rabbit is Rich. I love the feel of time and place in the book and of course, the brusque dialogue, where scrappy characters are endlessly nitpicking at one another. It's definitely a book of another era, the end of the Carter era, gas lines and disco, and it's captured in mesmerizing detail by John Updike. Because of this, I was curious to venture into Updike's poetry this month. I had read one of his books Americana around the time of its 2001 release but I remember very little about it. He's never been as much of a prolific poet as  he remains as a novelist, though his poems have been widely shared over the decades. His 1963 poetry collection Telephone Poles is an interesting curiosity. The majority of the pieces were published in The New Yorker and many of them have a pithy, jocular sensibility that you can imagine would pair well with ads for cameras and high-end liquor. I had doubts I would be able to get through the collection once I got to the second poem, "Reel," which takes self-indulgent pleasure in the sounds of "whirl," "whorl," and "wharve." Reading it out loud sounded horrible and I cringed at its conry nature. This play is also a bit heavy-handed in "Upperville, the upper crust / Say "Bottoms up! from dawn to dusk / And "Ups-a-daisy, dear!" at will-- / I want to live in Upperville. / One-upmanship is there the rule..." It might just feel like a dated affectation. Unfortunately, it doesn't move past frivolity. Self-important yearning is played out in "Thoughts While Driving Home": "Was I charming? / Did I make at least one good pun? / Was I disconcerting? Disarming? / Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?" Self-anxieties, especially male, left unanswered, is something I noticed as pervasive in the Rabbit novels and in these poems. When pondering upon existence to a little white star: "You offer cheer to tiny Man / 'Mid galaxies Gargantuan-- / A little pill in endless night, / An antidote to cosmic fright." Even if there's a triteness to Updike's poems, it's undeniable that his attention to language is hearty and singular. Luckily, the poems get resoundingly better in the book's second section--almost like two different volumes of poetry altogether. The title poem is wistful observation: "They will outlast the elms... / These giants are more constant than evergreens." Thus begins a more meditative swath of writing, less jaggedly jokey, eyeing the frisson between the technological and nature. Later the telephone poles appear in "Vibration": "... outside my windows [they] quivered in an ecstasy / stretched thin between horizons." In "Suburban Madrigal": "... looking through my windows / diagonally at my neighbor's house, / I see his sun-porch windows; / they are filled with blue-green, / the blue-green of my car, / which I parked in front of my house, / more or less, up the street, / where I can't directly see it... / my car, / .... a gorgeous green sunset streaking his panes." This reminds me more of novelist Updike and his ability to capture detail, wryness and emotion so effectively and compactly; it strays away from the more self-conscious, showy vibe of the "poet poems." Also at play are Updike's unusual perspectives of modern life. I am especially inspired to write a poem based upon "Movie House," which ruminates on the back of a movie theater where "from this angle only / the beautiful brick blankness can be grasped. / Monumentality / wears one face in all ages."

-Jeffery Berg