Friday, May 10, 2013



Ahsahta Press and its following books:

Gallowglass by Susan Tichy (2010)

Work From Memory by Dan Beachy-Quick (2012)

The Last 4 Things by Kate Greenstreet (2009)

Zone : Zero by Stephanie Strickland (2008)

Pleasure by Brian Teare (2010)

Sancta, Andrew Grace (2012)

Counterpart by Elizabeth Robinson (2012)

Ahsahta, rising to the challenges

It has been an entire season since seven books of poetry arrived from Ahsahta Press at Boise State University in Idaho. I’ve suffered a seemingly interminable bout with flu since they arrived. But I don’t want that to be the cover story for my inaction. My inaction is rooted in my stunned amazement—and delight—that an American press has accepted the intellectual and prosodic challenges these poets represent and has lavished exacting production values on them: luscious paper, sensitive typesetting, striking covers. This is the poetry of which I had despaired. And I haven’t known what to do about it.

Janet Holmes, Ahsahta’s editor and publisher, had hoped I would write “something” about some of these poets. She knew I often write about poets whose work delights me. I could choose my favorite from among the seven, I could choose several, but could I really write about all seven in the kind of depth of inquiry they deserve? Not without neglecting other work, including my own, I thought.

So I’ve chosen to read each book, meditate about it, let it grow cold, return to it, and then write a short essay about what seems to me its salient aspects. The poets themselves may think I’ve missed the mark. The editor may agree. But my strategy is to say as much about the press as I say in the aggregate about the poets, simply because Ahsahta isn’t just another press, it’s America’s avant-garde in poetry. It is consistently publishing work other presses might find ways to blow off either because of its arduous formatting or because it requires the kind of intellectual investment most people who write with their thumbs are unready to make and most presses are unwilling to invite for fear of losing a perceived popularity contest. 

Ahsahta should be showered with money for swinging open the doors to strange winds, to electrical storms of the mind, to hard rains of speculations and lightning strikes of intuition. It should be showered with funding for instigating a literary climate change. This is extraordinarily hard work. It’s easy enough to make a book, easy to launch a web site and set up a PayPal system. But marketing books is tough business, and marketing avant-garde books is even tougher. Ahsahta’s books are collectibles. They’re objects of art, a good reason to collect them. It’s an incentive for libraries, both private and public. But the imperative reason is that Ahsahta’s books represent the research and development in poetics that will shape our perceptions of poetry in the 21st Century when the next century turns. Ahsahta is doing just what America isn’t doing enough, research and development.

The press is not starting from the spurious supposition that poetry is little read, however, a popular and bogus notion. Poetry is everywhere, in the Bible, in the Qur’an, the Qabalah, in rap, rai, country music, pop music,  rock, in our headlines even. The problem is that we have allowed the popular press to shrink our definition of poetry and thereby to marginalize its influences on us. Ahsahta is unimpressed by media mythologies. Ahsahta and its poets understand how integral poetry is to society.

Let me show you:

Gallowglass, Susan Tichy, 2010, 79pp

I’ve never encountered a poetics so sustainedly hypnotic, like a malarial fever trance. The fever is our collective memory of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, wave after wave afflicting our efforts to carry on our lives, a past that wells up in us when we least expect it.

Susan Tichy’s poems of America in dissolution, wrenching, unremitting, as if they had been uttered by stone-eyed Athena, remind us that nothing that happens can be truly compartmentalized, that we live in an alchemical world and need poetry to explain how nothing is done, finished or forgotten.

These long single-line stanzas and occasional couplets are redolent of the pavane. But here the dancers are naked. The ordinary conventions of language are set aside to reveal the dancer as shapeshifter, a parliament of thought forms in motion:

I was looking up linchpin when I thumbed past limpkin
And looking up at a fighter jet when I drove right past my turn

They say the eye was photographed
Then blown up large as a head

And that man watching birds in a war zone? Don’t mind him
In a city of white domes he’ll say dove

Here is the mind at work, light years ahead of anyone’s ability to write it down, dispensing with connective tissue, leaping from one cognition to another—a poetry wholly suited to the 21st Century, to cyberspace, to cyberkinetics. Not shorthand, but the true lyricism of the mind unencumbered by protocol.

To accommodate Tichy’s line breaks Ahsahta has had to resort to a seven and a quarter inch page width. Not to have done so would have been to marginalize the buckets of ice water Tichy often chucks at the fever trances of her lines:

Beaver-cut trees in an aspen grove. Cutthroat trout in pond shadow/

okay, but then:

Listen to lies on the radio all morning.

Nothing is ever said in Gallowglass the way you think it’s about to be said:

Reflective means you can’t see in
A pewter pitcher of wild sunflowers
A man so confused about heaven, he said
‘You can’t thread a needle with a spy’

This isn’t poetic magic, a class act in trickery—no, not at all, it’s the way the mind truly works. It’s the way we want to speak but dare not for fear we’ll give ourselves away, we’ll say too much, show too much, and reveal we haven’t forgotten the horrors we were forced to take part in, forced to witness. It’s for this reason that Tichy is the most trustworthy of poets, telling us that the fever comes and goes, and that’s the way it is.

Work From Memory, Dan Beachy-Quick, 2012, 96pp

A life describes a book describes a life—so begins a series of quatrains constituting some of the most original poetry I’ve read in many years, clean, aphoristic and pulsing with intellectual daring. Eldritch, freed from punctuation, these classical stanzas interact unpredictably with our own hunches, recognitions and intuitions—a phenomenon that comports exquisitely with the poet’s idea of poetry as research. Work From Memory makes demands of the reader rare in contemporary poetry—and rewards the reader profligately.

One discovery I have made relatively late in life—six decades in—has been the unexpected gratification I take in the sleep of others, begins Matthew Goulish’s Part 3. We think we have come to a prose section. But it only looks like prose. And soon it gives way to a more obvious poetry:

When the fact falls asleep it becomes a face.
One might call the sleeping face a fact but to do so would be wrong.
I recall an experience I do not know if I lived it.

Few presses would be willing to cope with the demands made by this work. Ahsahta has had to accommodate seven-inch text blocs, extraordinarily long lines, like ocean rollers, that the reader navigates by turning the book sideways to catch the winds, to fill the sails of inquiry, and yet these long lines prove to be curiously undemanding, confiding, intimate. The reader has been lured into the writers’ collaboration with their publisher. Startling ideation, shape-shifting and a draftsman’s sense of composition characterize this remarkable book.

The Last 4 Things, Kate Greenstreet, 2009, 89pp, DVD of two movies by author included

Kate Greenstreet is a Cézanne among poets, intuiting brilliantly where bare canvas—silence, restraint—says more than paint. She knows when not to say something; she knows when rhetoric and grammar impede:

The hard thread
between us.

Is it gold? Do I have to be
so outshined by my curtain?

The poet is masterly at undressing what we think as opposed to what we say we think, or as opposed even to what we think we think:

Dear E, I’m glad we got a chance to talk. It was not as nice to see
you as I thought.

Who has not entertained a similar notion? I admire this line not because of its wry humor only but because of the way its line break doubles back on itself: “not as nice to see” means something entirely different than “not as nice to see you.” The poet lets us teeter a bit on that line break, inviting our own speculations. Subtle craftsmanship.

Kate Greenstreet’s prose poems—to carry off prose poems you need consummate discipline—are often staccato notes to the self, left around the house in likely and unlikely places to remind the poet to pursue certain lines of inquiry, rather like overhearing the person to whom you’re talking think. Eerie, exhilarating, disquieting.

Zone : Zero, Stephanie Strickland, 2008, 109pp, CD included

For exploring the outer spaces of poetry Zone : Zero is practically a handbook. Placement is everything here. In a section called “Slippingglimpse” the poems are positioned in a two-column box, the lines placed to correspond intellectually and prosodically. It’s a magisterial feat, recalling as it does the profound commitment of so many medieval Arab, Berber and Jewish poets to mathematics and science. There is no earthly reason to segregate these disciplines other than for the convenience of popularizers who write about them. Consider this quatrain from “War Day,” also in a two-column box, a kind of grid:

Discovery Channel gladiator
slave awarded wooden freedom sword
refusing it to plunge
back into sex star status

For Strickland a scientific possibility, a mathematical cognition is as much the material of poetry as grandpa’s spectacles or suburban hanky-panky or a stone wall. Notice how the poet dispenses with cumbersome articles so that the lightened key words can leap ahead. The grid serves to locate ideas and connections in ways we might not comprehend in a traditional linear aspect.

The facility with which Stephanie Strickland voices her interest in phenomena is breathtaking:

Sand might be getting restless.
How does sand feel about insects
as companions?

This casual meditation, redolent of haiku, characterizes her wide-ranging speculations about existence, not just our existence, but sand’s existence, insects’ existence. The work recalls William James’s remark that an hallucination is about something that happens “to be not there.”

Pleasure, Brian Teare, 2010, 73pp

Because we’ve cheapened eroticism, dolling up pornography to look like it, we’ve forgotten how elegant and subtle it can be. We’ve forgotten that it’s found in nature, in phenomena, as well as in humans. We’ve forgotten that ideas having little to do with sex may be erotic:

And sleep to grief as air is to the rain,
upon waking, no explanation, just blue

spoons of the eucalyptus measuring
and pouring torrents. A kind of winter.

These exactly executed lines represent a sensibility as refined as origami. Their measure is perfect, the caesura mathematical.

In “Dreamt Dead Eden” the poet writes:

Thought tapers and snuffs; its thin wick sizzles. Dead
you die again; I walk the graveyard garden schemata;
it plans assassination, my sex souvenired…

I know of no poet writing today who attends the dance of intellection and sensibility so refinedly. The caesurae are perfect, the cadence impeccable, the imagery exciting. How is sex souvenired? You could write books about that remarkable prompt to speculate.

Brian Teare’s elegiac strophes are immaculate:

To follow in thought
the beloved into death?

To stop. At panic?
At limit? After words?

To burden these lines with another word would be a sin.

Sancta, Andrew Grace, 2012, 83pp

Sancta consist of unnamed poems of no more than seven or eight lines. The concept is unusually welcoming. The second poem begins:

The cabin, once my father’s…

and ends:

In short, this place is a sanctum of all
there is to lose.

Here’s the tip-off that this is not Walden, Or Life in the Woods revisited. It reveals itself rather like a summer rain crossing a still pond.

The lake in this meditation becomes the poet’s mind, as alive and teeming as it is reflective. In a way, the poet is creating a rutter with which to navigate his own recognitions, his own epiphanies.

I wish I could tell you, he says, in other than words how the light goes gray, lemon, glue, then gash. Are we, the readers, this “you”? Is this “you” a beloved? The poet’s, ours? Or is the poet addressing himself? It doesn’t matter, because with colloquial humility the poet is reminding us how subtle, how nuanced speech is—and how much listening is an art equal to or surpassing speech.

This is a listener’s book. Somehow, by the magic of his plain speech, Andrew Grace has convinced us that not only are we listening to him but the poems are listening to us. He makes few prosodic or metric demands. He’s more concerned with a particular alchemy that requires everyone involved—poet, reader, listener—to listen. This is ordinary speech refined in a kiln of intellection and reflection.

I asked myself why Ahsahta had been drawn to a manuscript so seemingly unlike its others, but no sooner had I asked the question than I realized Ahsahta had perceived that, like its other books, Sancta is engaged in an extraordinary feat. It might be clothed in simple scrim, but its ambition is to pull the reader, the listener, into a precarious and demanding project. It succeeds.

Counterpart, Elizabeth Robinson, 2012, 95pp

“When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you,” Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote. That’s what Elizabeth Robinson is doing, and the abyss is staring back.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? What is this self you claim to have, this self you’re apt to proclaim? These are some of the questions this poet probes with these poem-scalpels, which sometimes are reminiscent of René Char.

What in the self could imagine a self
conveyed loss surpassing all resemblance

Here Elizabeth Robinson suggests to us that we know both less about the self and more than we care to admit. “She seemed familiar to me though I could not see her face,” the poet writes. It’s something of an invitation to be querulous. How could she be familiar without seeing her face? And yet we know deep down we’ve had similar experiences. Ah, but it turns out the poet is quoting the superbly appropriate Leonora Carrington, the surrealist painter who explored our many selves.

Robinson’s is a Sufic quest to pierce the veil of illusion. She knows we live in the world of illusions, our own and others’. She inhabits the world of fore-images, after-images, doppelgangers, and ghosts asking to be fed. She knows that asking to be fed is only one of their many requirements of us.

Her spare, intellectually demanding work yields uncanny treasures:

And I met Christ’s sister
who revealed to me
her bliss
by the blue fluid
that fell from her mouth

Later, in the same poem, “Man Facing Southeast,” she speaks of the color of haste. I could have read a dozen volumes of poetry and not encountered such a perfect inquiry. Or such lines as these:

Between heaven and hell,
a new cosmology intervenes

and the abolished mirror
generates light.

What is the work of the adept?, the Sufi asks. It is to disappear, and, disappearing, to generate light.

• • •

These seven books are exemplars of how well poetry can be published. They’re exemplars of the vast realm of language still to be explored. They penetrate the utmost outer and inner spaces of poetry. They are the real news of our society, while the news that purports to be news is merely a sustained effort at illusion. Here is poetry that penetrates the veil and a publisher willing and able to generate the light.


Djelloul Marbrook is the author of two poetry books, Far from Algiers (2008, Kent State University Press, winner of the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry) and Brushstrokes and Glances (2010, Deerbrook Editions), and four books of fiction: Guest Boy  (2012, Mira Publishing House CLC, Leeds, UK), Saraceno (2012, Bliss Plot Press, New York), Artemisia's Wolf  (2011, Prakash Books, India), and Alice Miller's Room (1999, OnlineOriginals.comUK). He lives in New York’s mid-Hudson valley with his wife Marilyn. His poems have been published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Orbis (UK), From the Fishouse, Oberon, The Same, Reed, Fledgling Rag, and Daylight Burglary, among others. 


  1. Another view of Kate Greenstreet’s THE LAST 4 THINGS is offered by Kristen Orser in GR #14 at

  2. Another view of Stephanie Strickland’s ZONE : ZERO is offered by Rachel Daley in GR #11 at