Reviewed by GEORGE WALLACE
Both Sides of the Niger, by Andrew Kaufman (Spuyten Duyvil Press, NYC 2013)
Many years ago I traveled through the Khyber Pass with a French photographer who shot pictures with a rapier-like rapidity and speed, which I could barely comprehend. "The shutter does its work. Then I do mine," he explained to me simply. In Both Sides of the Niger, American poet Andrew Kaufman—traveling through Western Africa—has followed that advice, to devastating effect. Inside these pages are fleeting, impressionistic moments—hunger, want, violence, sex, exploitation yes, but also an incredibly ingratiating humanity—swirling in an age of complex cultural inter-penetrations. The images speak for themselves, and yet like any truly cross-cultural experience offer only in the aggregate an insight achievable through the pre-selection of the observer's political or social agenda. That makes for good anthropology— and it makes for good reading. Both Sides of the Niger is one of those rare books of poetry you can read straight through without tiring—in fact I couldn't put it down. It's a feast of truly exotic impressions which refuses to bludgeon you with their meaning. The urge to search for a human explanation to the dazzling experience of each moment compels the reader to plow on through image after image with the eagerness of a cross-cultural explorer. That Kaufman has held back judgment in his process long enough to let his experiences' meaning offer itself is a testament to his skills as an anthropologist and a poet. Rimbaud sold arms to Africa, it killed him. Kaufman has given his poetic heart to Western Africa, and he's brought back an incredible gift, a cadeau to his readers, to be treasured. This is a volume of poetry I will read and read again.
Divine Comedy, poems by Ron Kolm (Fly By Night Press, NYC, 2013)
Ron Kolm is the kind of guy I'd like to sit next to at a wake. Confronted with the human drama we are all confronted with—dare one call it the post-modern existential inferno—he can't help but crack a few jokes. Why? Why not. To defuse the situation. To offer a non-intellectual counterpoint or commentary to what is essentially an absurd and contemptible existence. To make a human connection with his reader at the exact moment humanity has palpably failed. I didn't know why, but I like it when I experience it—and that’s what's in Kolm's new poetry collection Divine Comedy—enough wry wit to make you laugh out loud and gasp, by turns. Kolm possesses a deft gallows-humor that appeals to me. He turns Dante's after-life inferno—inhabited by those who have fallen into the clutches of three deadly sins of self-indulgence, violence, malice—inside out, offering up vignettes of the inferno which is the 'now-life' of the already-dead living. Through irony, aplomb and a brilliant sense of comedic timing, Kolm's Divine Comedy is a Marx-brothers treat, a deadpan dada beat we can’t help but get up and dance to. Yes, there is a fine art in knowing how far to go with this kind of thing without straying across the line from wry engagement and into the realm of hysteria or bad taste. In this collection, Ron Kolm demonstrates that he knows how to tease that line. It's a surefooted book, part levity and part existential levitation. One that affirms his ability to attend this funeral of the heart we call modern life, state his case, and not get kicked out in the process.
ISM is a Retrovirus by Matthew Hupert (Three Rooms Press, NYC 2011)
There is a quality of self-referential meta-poetic observation in Matthew Hupert's collection Ism is a Retrovirus, which tantalizes the practitioner of the poetic arts. Where does authenticity live—in the human experience? In the flight of the imagination which comes from that experience? In literary criticism? Or in the self-referential meta-poetic moment, when the poet contemplates the work of art of his or her own which has emerged? In this collection, published by Three Rooms Press, Hupert offers us a range of answers—offering humorous and dead serious poems by turn which suggest that authenticity may live in one, in several, in all of the above. That's why there is so much to find not just satisfying, but memorably challenging, in an otherwise simple poem like 'Avoiding Port Authority' which reads, in sum, "That poem required a Ginsburgian touch/and since I wasn't about/to blow boys at the bus station/the line spacing/was all I had/to work with." Especially for fellow writers who are confronted with the issue of authenticity every day, Ism is a Retrovirus will be companionable reading. "Our brains are shaped by tigers," he writes, and then punctures his own assertion with the skill of a surgeon: "Tiger. Not tiger. Tiger. Not tiger…isms and aint'sms lie…you tiger: not tiger and your vision is blurred." These are poems which, for all their straddling of reality levels—no, because of their ability to straddle them—unblur the vision.