Ken Rumble

Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s

Edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks
University of Alabama Press, 2002
446 pages with index. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8173-1097-5


Heather Fuller
Edge Books, 2002
$10.00 (paper), ISBN 1-890322-12-X

These two books are easy to compare since Heather Fuller puts into effective practice some of the poetic theories offered by the essays in Telling It Slant.

One of the latest editions in the University of Alabama Press's Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series, Mark Wallace and Steven Marks's Telling It Slant attempts to rebut two charges lingering around the post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E avant garde poetic community: first, that nothing significant has happened since the early eighties, second, that part of the absence is because writers seeking new territory since then haven't written effective poetic statements. "The essays collected here," write the editors in their introduction, "answer both concerns." Included in the collection are
C. S. Giscombe's essay "Fugitive," a criticism as art piece; Lisa Robertson's writing about the manner and motive of her appropriation of the pastoral, the key to which is to "refuse to be useful;" Christopher Funkhouser's essay on Cyberpoetics which he opens with this telling reversal: "literary journals and new poetic authorship have begun to inject technology with human sensitivities and sensibilities;" and "Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust" by Sianne Ngai, which charts the possibilities of disgust—as opposed to desire—as a territory for expression.

While the views the essays offer are various, there is a subtle and recurring hum in each: the drive towards a poetics of hybridity—referred to in different essays as "sampling," "joining," "free multiplicity of form." Even when in conflict, the poetic hybrid engages a variety of forms, theories, contents, sources, and procedures with sincerity. Kristin Prevallet points out in her essay, whereas collage takes disparate contents and forms and combines them often for the purpose of showing what the original fails to produce, hybridity affirms even as it alters the modes reproduced in the poem. As Juliana Spahr writes in her cogent essay "spiderwasp or literary criticism":

the most distinct characteristic of work by emerging poets of the 1990s: the tendency to violate the aesthetic separations of various schools and to deliberately create an aesthetic of joining … all this work can be characterized by its refusal of allegiance to any specific school and by a parallel proclamation of an allegiance to more than one school.

This multiplicity of content and form that Spahr and others note is the leitmotif of the collection. While this theme recurs, the majority of these essays are not outright manifestos. Instead, the essays provide some of the first lucid examinations of a living, compelling poetic trend that has emerged over the last decade.

"What does living here / mean for my shoes" writes Heather Fuller in "You Follow" from Dovecote, Fuller's second full length collection. This comprehensive, shoe-level perspective runs throughout these poems, as they explore the histories of the poor, the working class, and the homeless. In "Apostal Decision (Time Sensitive)"— an epistolary response to a letter that the poem gives the means to find on the Internet—she writes about people she met while working in a homeless shelter:

the shelter walls were the color of street is
celadon a color because the celadon walls or
was it a prehistory        to speak there means to
speak of the dead        we are now dead as we are
past tense
painted there Heather made poems there except
the wall is not there     was it to prove
technical expertise that resulted in portraiture
on the wall a veil sprouting horns my hair

Jesse asks Heather how is Perreaoult   Jesse's
skeptical because Jesse's the only one not dead
so everything Heather says is an enormous
grain of salt     he was a good artist that Perreaoult

then I know he is dead   as the living is
the convergence of how we got there

The poem poses the shelter as a kind of liminal space between worlds, where transformation is possible. As with many of Fuller's poems, the fragmented history presented in "Apostal Decision (Time Sensitive)" has a here-and-now presence. Similarly, in "Quarter" Fuller looks at the connection between barbed wire and history, jostling words and phrases together in ways that meander in and out of easy meaning. She writes "Virginia tore through Plate / when a child could die / out of pain and Kelly Jo / unborn was a mouthful of dirt / devil to Doc's twister // flesh caught on a barb / was a good question." Images of children, devils, roads, and work recur through the poem as it examines the way pain makes history.

Throughout the collection, Fuller's method exemplifies some of the theories of hybridization that the essays in Telling It Slant discuss. The poems combine first person narrative, fragmented subjectivity, collage, prose forms, drawings, folktales and language, found information, directions, web-pages, composition by field forms, and even, in "retro fit," a poem that is almost sonnet-like. Some of these qualities appear in "You Follow:"

D.C. General Baby A


Baby Boy Morales
Baby Girl Luther 1
Baby Girl Luther 2
Potomac Baby C

                        [ h it]
                        [ hi ]
                        [ex it]
                        [ it]

what head split from so much theft
that the bag on my shoulder

when dispensing aspirin amovement
she was stalking bread ends

because the exchange rate
travelers checks excepted

bitumen pupil conspiracy
mummy epoxy

                        [on loan]

we who will not be forgiven

to seize each 1-800 Mary
women exiting corporations

where Cerberus phone etiquette

all these women I should know
beneath the pentagon

the road one long pressure plate
the camera bloody with shots

The poem traces a path through public space, work space, and prophecy, examining the violence ubiquitous in these structures. Dovecote is a worthy sequel to Fuller's first book, perhaps this is a rescue fantasy, explicitly interested and openly involved in the world, seeking, as she writes in "beggar," "to know the day by not a box but what springs up."

Both of these books are leaving points: stable ground from which writers and readers can begin to see where the next generation of poets will take us. Heather Fuller and the writers included in Telling It Slant will continue to set the pace, suggest possible new territories, and demand vitality from all the camps of the poetry world.


© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review