FOUR CHAPS by ERNESTO PRIEGO, EDWARD STRESINO, BRYCE MILLIGAN, and OLIVIA CRONKDavid Harrison Horton offers mini-reviews of four chaps: THE BODY ACHES [POEMS AND HAY(NA)KU] by Ernesto Priego; LOST AND CERTAIN OF IT by Bryce Milligan; GAZOOLY by Olivia Cronk; and ON EVERY EMPTY LOT by Edward Stresino.
Chaps Received and Collected
Ernesto Priego, The Body Aches: [Poems and Hay(na)ku] (ExPressoDoble, Mexico City, 2005). 18 pages.
There’s a certain danger with form, even hay(na)ku’s one word, two word, three word stanzas. Oftentimes, form dictates the terms of a poem to its own demise. Priego seems to fully understand and escape all this. Familiar with Priego’s work mainly through his blog (Never Neutral), I expected a hay(na)ku fest, but was pleasantly surprised to find the chapbook starting off with the title poem’s four couplets of varying syllables (16,11; 7, 12; 11, 10; and 9, 12 respectively):
How difficult it is, the body tells you, to keep a promise:
To say, painlessly, j’accepte, and keep your word.(ll. 1-2)
The hay(na)ku make their appearance as the bottom half of “An English House” on page 5:
keep me dry:
my floating board. (ll. 22-27)
As the poem begins with differently syllabled tercets, the seamless shift into a more structured form demonstrates Priego’s care and craft as the reading tapers down the first half’s already quite sparse use of image and words to a core minimum.
“Für Eileen” pays homage to Eileen Tabios, the originator and maven of the hay(na)ku form and also depicts the difficulty that this form—and writing poetry in general—can pose:
wanted to write
very simple lines.
poetry is received:
given away freely. (ll. 1-6; 33-39)
Priego seems to make a differentiation between poetry and hay(na)ku with the subtitle to the book, but the text makes clear that the form is a technique to make the words in these poems carry as much weight as possible.
Edward Stresino, On Every Empty Lot (Editorial ABC, Bogota, 1968). 10 pages.
Super long out of print and out of Bogota at that. There were five copies of this at a Bedford Ave bookstore for $1.50 when I was recently out in the Williamsburg area visiting some friends. My library searches tentatively link the author to a collection of poems published in 1955 and a more recent bilingual phrasebook for child abuse case workers. Perhaps this should also be filed with CA Conrad’s Neglectorino Project.
At any rate, the chap is a single poem. On its face it’s a beautiful–if sometimes shlocky-- eulogy to a departed friend/mentor/lover. What makes this stand out is the deft and calculated usage of marginalia that forces a rereading of the immediate lines and more generally and importantly the entire poem. For example, lines 1-4 read
Ohoh, when you’re famous
you’ll be bald, but allright
we’ll show them you had hair once
and not only where they think.
The marginalia for lines 2-3 read
The beginning is meant
to repel the uninitiated.
The poem begins and immediately the marginalia coopts and overrides what would otherwise be a more or less standard narrative love poem. This is a strong (somewhat flawed, but compelling) example of marginalia as form.
Bryce Milligan, Lost and Certain of It (Aark Arts, London, 2006). 37 pages.
This is the type of chap designed with an eye towards the "book arts." It has a cut away cover that exposes a physical dimension to the psychological state of the full title. On the cover you see "LOST" in a little window. When you flip the cover, you get the full title against a forested backdrop, adding to the lost-in-the-woods anxiety, I suppose. It’s sewn-stitched bound, and printed on paper so good it detracts from the reading of the poems. But, in this case, that’s welcomed, as the poems in between the covers don’t seem to have too much to stand on in and of themselves:
I need a metaphor that will transform
This skeleton of passion into some
Thing that breathes fire rather than the still air
Of considered conundrums, into some
Thing that stands of its own accord against
Time and these chill unseasonable winds. (“Metaphor” ll. 1-6)
Milligan rounds out the chap with a few selections from his songbook. There are few songsters around capable of divorcing the lyrics from the actual musical context: Leadbelly, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen maybe in his better moments… it’s a short list. Milligan tries to evoke this tradition but his attempt falls flat, such as the book's ending “Dark Freight,” a song fashioned after the blues train tradition:
Here she comes rumbling out of the moonrise,
To catch her you’ve got to run fast:
Throw yourself through the doorway to paradise
And let the wheels of fate run freely at last. (ll.44-8)
Olivia Cronk, Gazooly (Beard of Bees, Chicago, 2006). 8 pages. Free online at http://www.beardofbees.com/pubs/Gazooly.pdf.
In her preface, Cronk explains to the reader not only the process (semi-Oulipian) and source (a 19th century table book) for the poems that follow, but also explains that as these have been written to be performed by the readers out loud and in specific situations, that readers should embrace their own sense of agency for their part in the poems: “I have taken great liberty in arranging details to my fancy adding my own flourishes, like any future creator of the poems should do” (iii).
In places the poems resemble more an absurdist drama, as in “To be read in phone tree form, thirteen listening callers, one listener”:
Caller six: I cannot think.
Caller seven: You do not recollect.
Caller six: What makes my ankles grow so thick?
Caller seven: How great a calf they carry! (4)
This poem’s ultimate line is a stage direction that potentially extends the absurdity to infinity: “(fourteenth listener stays on the line, a good faith effort)” (5).
Several of the poems are for more than one voice; the dramatic verse form lends itself to a performance dynamic outside of the usual poetry reading aesthetic. The surprises that come from a processed text and Cronk’s openness for future adaptations makes these poems something that everyone should try the next time they get together with their friends.
David Harrison Horton is author of the chapbook Pete Hoffman Days. His poems have recently appeared in Backwards City Review, eye rhyme, and Five Fingers Review among others. He lives and writes in Oakland, California.