Tuesday, May 16, 2006


ALAN BAKER reviews

Under The Miracle Bridge Flows the Sand by John Bloomberg-Rissman
(Bamboo Books, Culver City. CA., 2006)

The Californian poet John Bloomberg-Rissman has a substantial body of work behind him: several collections, a Selected Poems and a large-scale, unpublished work, 'Travels to Capitals' which draws on the poetry of Michael Palmer and the artwork of Donald Evans. Most of this work is self-published in limited editions and on his website (www.johnbr.com). Bloomberg-Rissman's early work has the American virtues of plain speech and direct statement, with conventional first-person narration. A quiet, humane and humorous voice. More recently however, he has adopted techniques such as random word-generation, and has blended his more conventional voice with alternative forms of discourse. Incorporations from other writers, snatches of news reports, overheard conversations and other 'found' language all appear in a single poem. The result is a fascinating and at times powerful mix. The pamphlet under review is representative of his current output.

The opening poem is in memory of a close relative of the poet; a moving and dignified piece using few words, but hinting at larger vistas and associations (it reminds me of Bunyan and is in fact abstracted from American poet Ronald Johnson’s RADIO OS -- itself an abstraction of Milton):

all is

the O


wonder passing through fire


from noon to

trumpet’s sound

The word “and”, repeated again at the poem’s close, leaves the poem open, expressing the life lamented as part of a larger process.

One of the things that appeals to me about this poetry is its philosophy of life, that it’s optimistic, yet realistic, aware of a spiritual dimension, but never pompous or dogmatic; and there's an anarchic side to these poems that manages to deflate authorial pretensions:

In the film jet fuel froze but
the hero could still light
a match. Is that science?
It's hard to say something
intelligent about a dishtowel, so
I hung one up instead.
Every moment a zen master
Slap. Thanks for the link
to the self-defense nightstand.

but there's also an undertone of grief and sorrow, and some bitterness:

Out the window
Xmas lights,
Ho ho ho,
Torture prisons,
Unseasonable heat…

...When you call
I say ‘yes!’

And count the angels
dancing on a pin.

And the ghosts.

…Old fools
both of us
to feel things.

Maybe it's an American thing, but Bloomberg-Rissman seems to be able to write first-person, anecdotal verse and make it significant and untrivial. Most contemporary British poetry in that vein fails to do that; I'm not sure why, but it may be to do with the American idiom being open and democratic, while the British vernacular always seems conscious of an inferiority which may have to do with social class (although there are notable exceptions: Lee Harwood for instance). In Bloomberg-Rissman quotidian details can have an almost stately quality:

Some days last centuries.

The tire is changed.

The bird has gone

That's part 1

Part 2:

I shook all night
Till the 3rd ativan.

And there's some skillful interweaving of idioms. In the poem 'For K' we have the plain-spoken lines:

You say, I
Wouldn't be young again
For anything. Age may ache,
Is also ease.

and in the same, very personal, poem, we have:

By the

Moon, a vapor X. If
It's a riddle the
answer's obviously. Controlled burn.

cinema verité.

which then moves seamlessly back into plain statement. This is skillful stuff, and a long way from the straightforward manner of his early work; an altogether richer mix.

This collection includes two translations, one by the Columbian poet Héctor Rojas Herazo, and three sonnets by the Belgian Miriam Van hee, both of which work well and fit in with the general tone.

To my mind, the finest poem in this pamphlet is 'After 3, 5 Weeks', a homage to the guitarist Derek Bailey. What does it for me is the musicality and the fluidity of movement, the feeling of improvisation that's just right for its subject:

If blue sky. If twenty
Tiny clouds, quietly, quietly. If
O, if o, if only.
Between fear and fear and
The other thing. 4:48 in

The morning. Stars swirl. Above
Dark trees. I can't
Use every word. May all
Beings find peace. Falling into.
Falling out of. This or

Any other inimitable.


Alan Baker lives in Nottingham, England. He publishes the Leafe Press pamphlet series, is editor of the webzine Litter and is assistant editor of Poetry Nottingham. His most recent (and third) pamphlet of poetry is 'The Strange City' (Secretariat Books, UK).


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