Friday, September 25, 2009

Wild Orchids

Robert Dewhurst sent a copy this week of Wild Orchids, the new annual he and Sean Reynolds edit out of SUNY Buffalo. Each issue solicits contemporary poets’ responses to a single author—Herman Melville for the debut, Hannah Weiner on deck for next year. This gives the issue more cohesion than you get in the usual contemporary literary journal, even creates a sense of exchange—if not quite a conversation, maybe a gam—between writers who ply the same thematic field.

Benjamin Friedlander’s account of readerly disorientation in Melville’s Clarel, a neglected epic of faith, conversion, and stony materialism in the Holy Land, stuck with me in particular, especially this remarkable encapsulation of the 19th-century crisis of faith:
“In Clarel, what restores awe to the world of stone—at least in theory—is faith. Not just faith in God’s existence, but faith in the reality of sacred history as a whole. For if the stories of the Bible are not literal truth, what would distinguish them from the tempting lies of fiction? And if they were instead a figurative truth, what would make them preferable to the literal truths of human history or science?”
Stacy Szymaszek—whose reading in Portland this summer the week Hyperglossia came out I keep meaning to post about—describes the coming together of a Great Lakes writing scene in part through Melville’s watery sense of geography, where exchange is more occasional and rhizomic, maybe more gift-like, than it is in the buzz of a sexy urban hub. Kim L. Evans, Alan Halsey, Geraldine Monk, Donald E. Pease, Mark Von Schlegell, and Chris Sylvester also have essays and inventive formal investigations sparked by different aspects of Melville’s work.

The piece that seemed to maximize the fun of the theme-based form was “Transpositions of ‘A Utilitarian View of The Monitor’s Fight,’” where the editors invited three poets—Joyelle McSweeney, Courtney Pfahl, and Jennifer Scappettone—“to mark, write, scribble and draw” around Melville’s weird ode to the U.S.S. Monitor, the first ironclad warship and subject of a thousand grade school dioramas. A year ago I tried to get into Melville’s Civil War verse, but quickly aborted. His poem on The Monitor stood out, though, for its recognition that a new kind of war needs a new kind of meter, “more ponderous than nimble,” stripped of pomp and charged with “plain mechanic power,” like the modern ships busy divesting war of its glory and confining it to its proper sphere, “among the trades and artisans” with their bland “calculations of caloric.” Melville may have been among the first to see what professionalization would bring to the mythic process of killing, and to understand what that should mean for modern poetry, where poets, like warriors, “are now but operatives” in anonymous systems more awesome than themselves. It’s a strange, self-defeating sort of poem, parading its own awkwardness as a mimetic necessity for commemorating the ambiguous virtues of the modern.

Each poet rises to the challenge differently; McSweeney with what struck me as a Gurlesque conjunction of “heels and bikini,” “manicures” and “fetlocks” pushed up against Pennzoil, trade shows, pistons, and Gulf rigs to ironize late-capitalist martial display; Pfahl with a lacuna-rich erasure of Melville’s original poem; Scappettone with a similar razor-to-paper collage made from the original poem, framed with a comment connecting Melville to Walter Benjamin and the “Interiors measurelessly strange” of Piranesi. It’s good to see Melville’s Monitor afloat like this; I hope the series keeps moving. Submissions for the Hannah Weiner issue are due by December 15; you can order an issue at WORCHIDS_at_gmail_dot_com.

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