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  • This Land Remained Their Land
  • Sharon Olinka (bio)
Four American Poets
Anthony Costello,
ed. The High Window Press
131 Pages; Print, $18.00

Published in England, this anthology declares itself to be “an incandescent collection of poems which gets beneath the surface of life in America,” or so the back cover claims. However, don’t expect Whitman’s exuberant America. Or even “What Thou Lovest Well Remains American.” It’s soon obvious we’re in Kevin Prufer’s America of empty promises, hidden violence, and consumerism.

Decadence haunts every page, wasted resources. Despair dresses up in even more intricate arrangements of language, like an ikebana display in front of a corpse.

The poets in the book are Michalle S. Gould, Philip Fried, Jay Passer, and Nicole Callihan. Their voices are all clever and nervy, reminiscent of the friend you had in high school who could party until dawn and still get all his homework done. Michalle Gould’s language owes much to experimental precedents, and involves a delicate weaving of abstract statements with imagery that has the beauty and precision of gold leaf on medieval parchment. While not all of the poems open up the white space of the page to interact with the text, her poem “Reconstruction 27” manages to do so in a way that suggests mountains, tipis, and the conflicts between white settlers and Native American tribes. Some of the phrases she uses are “A hive givers,” “lacerated dread,” and “the anvil quivers.”

Philip Fried warns readers with questions concerning issues that they might find hard to address, namely the extent of militarism in our society, and our responsibility for using its language, and acceding to its demands. “Have you brought forth the Predator Drones? Have you armed / them with Hellfire missiles and fledged them with glycol-weeping / wings?” With titles such as “Homeland Security,” “Press Release,” and “Words at War,” Fried employs a vigorous listing of actual military references, and while the tone is mainly serious, satire can come into play, as in his depictions of God as a lounge singer in cummerbund, and gleaming modern American kitchens with “Lares who guard the path of empire between / two walnut-glazed cherrywood islands with echoing soffit.”

Jay Passer’s poetry is a delightful surprise. Raucous as the best of the Beats, his staccato bursts of language manage to be both provocative and gently humorous. His signature poem here is called “I Can see the Future but it’s not seeing and it’s not the Future.” After a series of misadventures in which the narrator goes to jail, has his Hungarian girlfriend cheat on him, falls asleep in a shopping cart parked on train tracks in Tacoma, Washington—and so on—he declares that his good intentions and idealism no longer cut it, and “Nowadays / I see flab and tomfoolery / consuming all the smug smiles.” And finally, the narrator states “It’s all about / Cats.”

Like a virusLike an earth-borne asteroidLike a bitty drop of cyanide dribbled on the dictator’s tipof World War’s finaleI see itLike a lucid dreamReallyAt the final curtainIt’s all aboutCats

How does the narrator know? Because Passer, with clever twists, adroit phrasing, leads the reader to the climax of the poem by making the reader identify with life’s absurdity.

Ask the EgyptiansCats got it made

They don’t give a good goddamnThey don’t care if there’s dolphinMixed in with the tunafish

Somehow I can just imagine British readers picking up this book, pleased with the mea culpa on display regarding American mistakes and foibles. It’s preaching, after all, to the converted—good supporters of PEN International, The Guardian, and so on. However, I hope the even tone and deep well of humanity in Nicole Callihan’s poems will not be overlooked. I will give her the last word, in this passage from “Message Shoved into an Empty Bottle of Rosé and Tossed into the Hudson on a Sad Summer Night.”

I am smalland dumband brokenand so veryvery alivestranger:I hopethe same...


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