Christian Schlegel, Honest James, The Song Cave, 2015
Hannah Brooks-Motl, M, The Song Cave, 2015
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
For a while, contemporary poetry teemed with the Digital Now: .gifs, .jpegs, rams and roms, status updates and tweets and text-ese. This year, The Song Cave—a newish but formidable press run by Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal—published two full-length titles that boldly eschew our contemporary moment. Honest James by Christian Schlegel and M by Hannah Brooks-Motl (in)directly pedestal the old-fashioned act of #nofilter reading; here are writers championing the not-so-dusty riches offered between the covers of works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Michel de Montaigne. If, as cultural critics seems to concede, the 2000s are manic with multitaskers, Schlegel and Brooks-Motl offer a refreshing and alternative meditation with the world, an unplugged pas de deux of humility and hubris.
Coreops, mendicants, wights. Syrinx, klaxons, blench. Dalmatian elms and ascomycotina, manumission and haecceity. Landau. Philomel. Practicant. Porphyry, threnody, stellate, occiput. Adumbrations, petrifacts, haibun, forfend, admixing.
(And this list excludes the German.)
In Honest James, Schlegel's vocabulary is feast or gavage, depending on your flock's feather. Food, indeed, dictates the tone of this collection from the jump. In "Little Ballad," which serves as an amuse-bouche, Schlegel writes, "A wreath is a lay is a chanterelle/beside a gutted bream and bread;/come gather round and bid me tell/that I am dead." These lines highlight the speaker's twisty simplicity. Beginning with a protracted metaphor that sends a reader to the annals of the dictionary entry for "lay (noun)", which may plausibly indicate a general area (think, the lay of the land) or the orientation of rope fibers or—merci, OED—a lake or pool, two sturdy sounding nouns—"wreath" and "lay"—lead to a mycological delicacy. Or so it seems. Even further investigation into "chanterelle" reveals the word I associate with mushrooms may also indicate a decoy bird, specifically—as referenced by Pliny—a female partridge.
Like a mille-feuille, the French pastry whose name denotes a thousand leaves, Schlegel's poems make palatable the effort of their construction. Take the aforementioned lines from "Little Ballad," which reveal the speaker to be a postmortem transmitter. The wreath becomes funereal flowers; the meal, a celebration of a life. The end rhyme, the bouncy thud of "bread" and "dead"—belies the poem's subject, which is a consideration of one's mortality.
Reading Honest James reminds me of wandering around a resplendent basilica in an unfamiliar country. The iconography is recognizable; the smells are intoxicating and comforting; the stories beneath the floorboards predate history. Behold the classics! And yet, common as the nave's girth may be, such spaces always announce my own lacks and lapses—of faith, of practice, of a foreign tongue. Sometimes I wanted to feel more a part of Schlegel's world, even as I marveled at what his poems showed me. Yes, I recognized the Dostoevsky in "Dostoevsky," but poems like "Jude the Obscure" and "Der Zauberberg" forced me to confront my own gaps in literature, theology, philosophy, and more. I can't tell you about Jude, and I haven't read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain—only Death in Venice.
While my experience may sound foreign to readers with a more rigid canonical background and fist-pumpingly familiar to readers less beguiled by the archaic, I should admit: I admire poetry that makes me feel a little swimmy. I needn't know Schlegel's every allusion, his every referent. (Surely, I missed much in the book's second part, titled "Goethe: Variations.") What patterns this book with a sumptuous pleasure is the writer's language, which accretes with each next poem. In some, like "Fugue Composed Near Boyertown," Schlegel constructs a plangent bildungsroman in verse that reveres its every million-dollar word:
I was a hart,
a philomel, third cushion on the ducal chair, a grub
death's practicant, right sentry by the lodge of Beelzebub,
confusion in a bowing head
that will not start
to save itself … the gear-lock's lip, the titan's grow …
the whip instead.
Fugue indeed. In "A Quality of Portugal," my favorite in the book, Schlegel conjures a Robert Altman flick in miniature, complete with voicey interruptions and lavish backdrops. In this poem, he creates an accessible and literary cacophony that collapses time—something the collection as a whole aims to do.
While Honest James offers a Great Books survey, M by Hannah Brooks-Motl is an abbreviated dissertation, a seminar extended above and beyond semesters, a billet-doux to those writers who ensnare us. Brooks-Motl's second collection begins with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf's own examination of essayist Michel de Montaigne: "As the centuries go by, there is always a crowd before that picture, gazing into its depth, seeing their own faces reflected in it, seeing more the longer they look, never being able to say quite what it is they see."
Woolf's appraisal of close reading ushers one into Brooks-Motl's engagement with Montaigne. "I went into M and read there," she writes in a preluding piece. "To be strong I thought a lot of different things." This collision—between reading and thinking, and writing, too—guides M. Only the first entry in the collection, "Poem for M," withholds direct—and clearly cited—quotes from the essayist (of whom Frederic Nietzsche said, "That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this Earth"), and rightly so. Brooks-Motl's book succeeds when Montaigne is a scrim through which the speaker reveals herself: self-portrait in the M mirror.
Unlike Schlegel's, Brooks-Motl's poetry includes banal and ribald bits of our contemporary moment. These moments—when the speaker's life abuts Montaigne's language—are the book's most stunning. In " ‘Now I Am All Face,'" Brooks-Motl writes:
The garden turned cold with our garb
Its long lovely lines
Simple words fashion a scarf
The sequence of huts
"In which they bury their fruit trees in winter"
Someone's in fun fur, just like a proverb
Not since Unzipped, the 1995 documentary about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, have I been so delighted to see fun fur. Brooks-Motl's lineation—composed, elegant lines that float between double-spaced banks of white space—calls on the reader to take care, to measure one's speech, to read with one foot hovering over the break. "Fun fur" allows for a gleeful acceleration, a zoom into the concrete.
That juxtaposition—of meticulous embouchure with fast, loose, sometimes-base newness—reveals what Montaigne offers this speaker. In "A Consideration Upon Cicero," she muses over effectiveness and inaction:
Sometimes the moon is out my window, sometimes not; sometimes one silver hazard full in the street, walking my mouth.
‘Fie on the eloquence that leaves us craving itself not thing!' On that subject I drove into town, a long-ass email at work in my head."
One risk a project like M runs, as I see it, is of becoming a sort of greatest hits—or, to be less anachronistic—a common book of Montaigne's choicest bits. Instead, in the tradition of a radically different volume of literary fandom—Nicholson Baker's hilarious U and I: A True Story—one finishes M with a desire to read both more of its subject and more of its author.
On its website, The Song Cave lists as its mission a dedication "to recovering a lost sensibility and creating a new one." Deliberately, I'm overlooking titles this press has published that engage more enthusiastically with today's world (one might turn to Arianna Reines' fine pair of chapbooks the press recently released). What excites me about Honest James and M, however, is the way in which these collections challenge what today's poetry can do by turning humbly toward the past. Here are homages that bear no kinship with pastiches, collages crafted with the nimblest shears. In nodding to their forbearers, Schlegel and Brooks-Motl very well may have fashioned, in their own titles, new classics.