Review: The Living Method, by Sara Nicholson


The cover of The Living Method is reminiscent of that painting, “Vertumnus,” by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, (ca. 1590)—so reminiscent that, save for its red monochromatic color scheme, it’s a close replica of the original. Fertility, this image expresses (as the original does), with all its grape lips and hair and potato cheeks, and yet, the redness transforms the image again—screams blood and fire and anger and love—a fitting cover for a collection whose poems seek to reconstruct nature as it is (not as it seems) with unusual riggings.

Read the rest of my review at!

Review: David Roderick’s “The Americans”


David Roderick’s latest poetry collection, The Americans, is like a massive magnet that draws diverse objects into its field—as any successful book attempting to distill “Americanness” should. A “diary with the trick lock,” “a cherry tree falling,” the collapse of the twin towers, the plastic carts at Target, John F. Kennedy’s death, David Lynch, David Hockney, mothers, Ireland, the Middle East, and fast food restaurants—these are just a few of the wide-ranging materials Roderick amasses around his central lyric about American life, and stunningly so.

Read my full review at Heavy Feather Review.

Review: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet (Vintage Books, 1984), a compilation of ten letters written to a 19-year-old military student named Franz Xaver Kappus, was kind of an impulse buy, bought at Barnes and Noble in tandem with another book I had to buy anyway (because it isn’t available at my local library). It’s also somewhat out of character for me to buy at large bookstore chain brick-and-mortar stores (I have been suckered into Amazon’s low prices despite the havoc the conglomerate wreaks on authors, the bookselling industry, and the publishing industry at large), and, since I’m always looking for a reason to own a book, the decision to “support bookstores” (wink) was therewith instated.

This is the kind of book that I immediately began reading and almost just as immediately finished. It’s certainly brief (109 small, double-spaced pages), and somewhat “breezy” reading, but man, the insights lurking within. As someone who’s been reading about mindful meditation lately, I can say that this book is as loaded with ideas about the practice of poetry as it is about living mindfully. In fact, it’s hard to draw a line between the two. Rilke essentially argues (without ever mentioning the term “mindfulness”) that the practice of mindfulness is the practice of poetry, the practice of poetry being the “search into the depths of things” where “the world arises from a necessity of your being.” (Rilke 15).

Here are some of my favorite quotes (although to say I have included “some” is an understatement):

  • “If only human beings could more humbly receive this mystery–which the world is filled with, even in its smallest things–, could bear it, endure it, more solemnly, feel how terribly heavy it is, instead of taking it lightly…” (38)
  • “To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours–that is what you must be able to attain.” (54)
  • “What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love.” (56)
  • “…perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown.” (84)
  • “What we call fate does not come into us from the outside but emerges from us.” (86)
  • “No traps or snares have been set around us, and there is nothing that should frighten or upset us…We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against the world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses beyond to us, if there are dangers, we must try to love them.” (91-92)
  • “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” (92)
  • “Don’t think that the person who is trying to comfort you [Rilke was speaking of himself] now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he never would have been able to find those words.” (97)
  • “Believe me: life is in the right, always.” (101)
  • “And your doubt can be a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.” (102 – italics mine, for emphasis)

What a man! Mind you, this was all translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell.

The last letter is somewhat of a disappointment (not very substantial, nor does it have much that I consider “quotable”), but if one sees the compilation as a whole as a kind of narrative in itself, it does taper off the way a typical novel does. That slight discontent aside, Letters is one of those books that seems perfectly capable of continuing itself in the readers’ mind. If I have questions about the practice of and purpose of poetry (and they are constant), the Rilke I feel I have begun to know may very well answer…

Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog

Reviewed by Sarah Katz

When I found out that Frank Bidart took the 2014 PEN/Voeckler Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for his recent poetry collection, Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), I figured that was reason enough to introduce myself to his book.

Metaphysical Dog, it turns out, annihilates me. Its unrelenting gaze at the violence and limitations of humanity and their (aging) bodies (the futility of love, the absence of clear answers in relationships and life, the limitations of the body, and limitations of language), kicks me down, brings me back to life, and then kicks me down again. Like a damaged, abused woman, I keep crawling back.

Though his work varies throughout the collection, he pretty consistently employs a combination of couplets, limited punctuation, and colloquial language, which, together, create a sense of intimacy between himself and his reader, and, due to the frequent enjambments and generous white space, the sense that whatever Bidart is about to say could quickly become quite weighty.

Here’s an example: the five-sectioned collection (each of them numbered, two of them titled) opens with the poem it gets its name from–“Metaphysical Dog,” (3). The poem sets into motion the concept of a certain kind of violence that characterizes human interaction:


Belafont, who reproduced what we did

not as an act of supine

imitation, but in defiance–

butt on couch and front legs straddling

space to rest on an ottoman, barking till

his masters clean his teeth with dental floss.

How dare being

give him this body.

Held up to a mirror, he writhed.

Belafont, we learn, by line four and five, is the dog in the poem (and the dog that reappears a few times throughout the collection), and, according to Bidart, he has “reproduced what we did…in defiance.” If we take the “we” to mean “humanity,” I read the dog as representative of the frustration and wildness of all people (“what we did”), and the ugly comportment of that frustration (“barking/till his masters clean his teeth with dental floss”). The “defiance” of the dog, however, comes from the speaker’s view of the dog, which makes one wonder if the dog is also a projection of the speaker(“How dare being/give him this body./Held up to a mirror, he writhed”). What, then, is the body’s role in making one a beast? And this is the question sets the rest of the text into motion.

The poems that follow within this first section more specifically explore the betrayals of the body, the ways it hosts unwanted memories until made “solid” through narrative. As Bidart writes, “It must be lifted from the mind/must be lifted and placed elsewhere/must not remain in the mind alone” (Writing “Ellen West,” 4-10). In a later poem, Bidart warns his reader that this betrayal never goes away, that we’re constantly thinking of ways to eject (and reject) our past: “Woe is blunted not erased/by like. Your hands were too full, then/empty. At the grave’s/lip, secretly you imagine then/refuse to imagine/a spectre” (“Like,” 11), to no avail. He seems to be saying that our bodies use us, rather than the other way around, which is a horrifying conclusion.

In Section Two, titled “The Hunger of the Absolute,” Bidart wanders through other forms of betrayal, mostly via sexuality, and ways that the body fails to deliver what’s needed in whole relationships: “Those nights ended because what was/missing could never be by the will supplied. We who could get/ somewhere through/words through/sex could not. I was, you said, your/shrink: that’s how/I held you. I failed as my own” (Those Nights, 15-16) The poem ends with a twinge of resentment, even anger: “I imagine that becoming untraceable makes you smile.” (16).

What strikes me most about this section is the way in which Bidart seems to simply be talking aloud here as a means of making sense of the body. Bidart tends to stray into talkiness, or philosophizing, as in “Threnody,” wherein Bidart’s exploring the past of actress Harriet Smithson: “Now, at fifty four, she is dead–/bitter that fame long ago abandoned her./I think her fate our fate, the planet’s fate.” Bidart’s sensitive, even if imagined (but realistic), explorations of the inner lives of well-known celebrities (whose bodies are perhaps the most exploited, as they serve as “spectacles” for others), also serve as segues into the ways body defy reality or relationships.

Section Three (“History is a Series of Failed Revelations”) and Four are more narrative in nature; they explore his relationships to his grandmother, to Walt Whitman, and to his mother, who finds difficulty accepting his homosexuality, all under the lens of language, how language fails to reveal the self to the self, or the self to the other. “You sail protested, contested/seas, the something within you that/chooses your masters/itself not chosen. Inheritor inheriting/inheritors, you must earn what you inherit” (“Dream of the Book,” 45-49). Here, Bidart illuminates who the master is (something within you), and that seems to be the structure that governs the self and its thinking about itself (perhaps what the body has learned from language?), which both controls the speaker, and is controlled by the speaker, but the control isn’t divided fairly. There’s something wrong with the body, Bidart seems to be saying throughout these sections. There’s something wrong with the ways in which language works within us, possibly constricting us in our pursuit of truth, and making it nearly (or fully?) impossible to define.

In the final section, Bidart seems to come to another uncomfortable conclusion: that the betrayal of our bodies is vital to us. This excerpt from “Of His Bones Are Coral Made” seems to convey this best:

As if certain algae

that keep islands of skeletons

alive, that make living rock from

trash, from carcasses left behind by others,

as if algae

were to produce out of

themselves and what they most fear

the detritus over whose

kingdom they preside: the burning

fountain is the imagination

within us that ingests and by its

devouring generates

what is most antithetical to itself:

it returns the intolerable as

brilliant dream, visible, opaque,

teasing analysis:

makes from what you find hardest to

swallow, most indigestible, your food.

Ultimately, Bidart’s undertaking is to explore that which we don’t know about our bodies’ role throughout our lives, which, perhaps, we’ll never really know. It’s an exploration of the role of the poet, too, how s/he may unravel certain areas of life (here, the “qualia” of the mind in love, or aging, etc.) which are, as of yet, hard to parse in the scientific disciplines. His dedication to making sense of how we use our bodies–and how our bodies use us: valiant, lucid, and so well-wrought.

My only quibble is that he loses several opportunities to embody his ideas in image. The somewhat intangible concepts behind poems like “The Enterprise is Abandoned,” “Things Falling From Great Heights,” “For the Aids Dead,” and “Ganymede,” could have benefited from more physical detail than he gave them, which would have, in turn, given those poems greater dynamism. That said, it’s the delicate balance of detail and philosophy in the other poems that give them their magic, their intimacy, and their bright light.