Newsletter #117 May 2021

Newsletter #117 May 2021
September 1, 2021 Christina Mullin

Richard Prince, “Unnamed”

May, 2021

Welcome to Plume Issue #117 —

May: and, naturally, one thinks of Baader–Meinhof  — not the notorious terrorist/anarchist Red Army Faction of the 60’s and 70’s starring among others “Red Rudi” Dutschke – but the phenomenon of that name, also tagged more Matrix-like as the Frequency Illusion: you know how, when you’ve finally bought that elusive new Trex Domane SL 6 in matte onyx, and suddenly you see every third cyclist pedaling that same très chère  mountain bike? That’s it. Or at least that was my reaction to this month’s cover art from Richard Prince – one more Covid image/metaphor. The out-of-nowhere crazy tire tracks, whose beginning is obscure, whose end one cannot really ascertain. The eerie still-life watchfulness of that vegetal berm.  Like them, it seems everything I see or read, these days, sparks some association with our current troubles. And I wonder, after Prince’s photograph, if we ever will know exactly what happened, if those tracks trace a long moment’s terror, did the driver recover control or meet a worse fate? Perhaps it’s the same for you? I hope not.

Anyway, such are my rather bleak thoughts this evening, Sorry.

So, more masterfully now to Joseph Campana, on Alice Oswald’s masterful Memorial…


Like bird families feeding by a river
Hundreds of geese and herons and long-necked swans
When an ember of eagle a red hot coal of hunger
Falls out of the sky and bursts into wings

Like bird families feeding by a river
Hundreds of geese and herons and long-necked swans
When an ember of eagle a red hot coal of hunger
Falls out of the sky and bursts into wings

from Alice Oswald’s Memorial

Of course, it doesn’t look like a poem, not at first. When the stanzas appear, we’re sure. Perhaps an enterprising classicist or a great lover of Homer remembered the names of the minor dead, which is what this poem is made of. And this “poem” of course isn’t a poem. It’s a small selection, a snippet really, from Alice Oswald’s Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad. What version, one might wonder. It’s the version of the Iliad that happens when the gorgeous and brutal stars of the poem—Helen, Achilles, Patroclus, Nestor, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Odysseus—become merely names among many. In fact, the poem is much more about the ones you never heard of: Iasus, Mecisteus, Echius, Clonius, Deiochuis. The stars recede, the stories recede and all that’s left is an accumulation of dead. Remarkable, is it not, that a powerful poem—an anchor of the epic tradition—becomes powerful through reduction?

Not just reduction—bit players instead of heroes, names instead of stories—but repetition governs Memorial. I have to think that there’s something remarkable, too, about making one of the most apparently pedestrian of forms, the list, into something so moving, so overwhelming even though the names themselves can seem so remote. Perhaps this is lyric brevity at its most extreme, when there is room for little but names and yet the impact is so profound. This is the effect of the painfully expanding list in Claudia Rankine’s remarkable Citizen, at the end of which an ever-growing list of victims—Jordan Russell Davis, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Michael Brown—appears, each printing of the book augmenting the list. What words are left when the slaughtered appear on the fields of battle or in the streets of American cities? Too many words, is the answer, which is perhaps why these poets give us a precious few in the form of a list of names.

I’m overwhelmed by Oswald’s lists but nothing about that feeling encourages me to set Memorial down. Quite the opposite. There’s a compulsive rhythm. You don’t even have to pronounce the names correctly (and I’m sure I do not when I say them aloud or to myself). The remote, minor figures become familiar in their strangeness.
That brings me to another remarkable feature of Memorial, which is the extensive use of epic simile, the extended comparisons that became central to epic composition in later centuries. Whatever their origins in the oral poetics of the era before the Iliad was written down, epic similes became a point of competition: who can outstrip earlier epic authors with greater quantities and qualities of epic similes? Perhaps no poet excelled the way Milton did, with his extravagant lists and epic similes. But I digress.

Digression is partly the point of these extended comparison, the vehicle seeming to veer away from the tenor only to rebound. What, precisely, is like “bird families feeding by a river” if not the numberless flocks of the dead, those “hundreds of geese and herons and long-necked swans.” But it is the scattering, that is the point, and the subsequent hunt. The gorgeous avian eruption emerges from another threat of death, the eagle here an “ember,” a “red hot coal of hunger.” Hard not to see, flickering the eagle’s flames, the burning towers of Tory. Hard not to hear Christopher Marlowe’s iconic distillation of the Iliad in Doctor Faustus:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

And isn’t it something that the predatory eagle “falls out of the sky and bursts into wings?” It’s something so striking, like Helen, you don’t notice its talons in your flesh until its too late. It’s as if simile is always what gets us in the end. Then the simile is repeated. Death is a ritual no one can avoid.

Perhaps, too, death is a ritual no one can look away from. But what are we looking at? The sad waste of the slaughtered or the gorgeous and glittering pyres? Memorials aren’t just made for or of the dead. They’re made of intentions by builders who must decide whether they love the lost or the thrill of loss.

You can read about the extraordinary Alice Oswald, poet and trained classicist, here.

 Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not?  — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.

What else?

As previously noted, our annual anthology, Plume Poetry 9, is at the publisher’s now.
Dou to, yes, Covid-related supply chain disruptions, we look for a late May, even early June release date. I’ll keep you posted.

As promised last month, in support of the anthology, we are hosting, thanks to the good offices of The Writers Center, a number of interesting Zoom readings, each featuring two sets of “partners” from Plume Poetry 9, moderated by members of our crack Plume staff, Leeya Mehta, Amanda Newell, and Nancy Mitchell. (Not by me, you’ll be happy to learn.) Please consult the calendar at The Writers Center. All are scheduled for Saturdays, 5:00 – 6:00 PM.

May’s reading, on the 10th, features “partners” Chase Twichell and Dennis Sampson, and David Kirby and Alejandro Escudé. Quite a foursome, I think!

Again, our cover art cover art this month is Richard Prince’s “For more information on the artist, a good start might be made  here  or here

Finally, some new/recently/forthcoming releases from Plume contributors – thank you to all, and to all our wishes for great, well-deserved success.

Terese Svoboda                          Theatrix: Poetry Plays

Salgado Maranhao
tr Alexis Levitan                           Mapping the Tribe and Consecration of the Wolves                 
David Keplinger                           The World to Come

Ted Kooser                                  Kindest Regards: Poems, Selected and New

Charles Bernstein                        Topsy-Turvy

Cole Swenson                              Art in Time

That’s it for now – I do hope you enjoy the issue!

Stay safe!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume