June 7, 2016KR OnlineReview

Anything’s Art: Two New Books of Poetry from Ugly Duckling Presse

Corina Copp. The Green Ray. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015. 104 pages. $16.00.

Ben Fama. Fantasy. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015. 88 pages. $17.00.
(Click on cover images to purchase)

Like the friend who makes you wish you knew more French film, Corina Copp’s The Green Ray is both dazzling and taxing, invitingly too much and just right. Copp’s book is a torrent of offhand reference and non-referentiality, full of good cheer and possessed (as little post-Language writing is) of a strong abiding personality. This isn’t to say that the book’s twelve poems present themselves as the speech of a single feeling or reflecting speaker. Instead, each poem is an assemblage, and each seems assembled according to different means or principles. Much of The Green Ray feels filmic: as in a movie edit, the cut is the continuity. Here’s a chunk of “Praise Pseudograph V. 2 (La Vue)”:

Lost, my affiliation never been
a privilege to get party to public
fiction, sticking—also your torrent
of simple, raging parchment,
Scorpion in Titian-red
herbicide blossoms has some variety
of human experience whether
logement, disque. earth
in such as a glass-dome paper
glare at other women

In a poem like this, the leaps that the reader’s mind must make between voices and syntaxes is the interior “action” the poem wants to call up, rather than the projection of an inner picture or the sympathetic response to a speaker. But other poems in Ray move differently, sometimes caught in a rush in which even delineating the “cuts” and units is impossible, sometimes (as in “Miracle Mare,” quoted below) almost telling a story. “Mare” grafts together a verbal music across phrases whose rhythms form a kind of counterpoint rather than delineating the beginnings and endings of argumentative thought.

I gallops from, words your eat, eaves I ate,
beheaded slowly by a painter’s voided
boilish deer-hair and a twinge of bells
falls to unclean substances. Lost indicator
lights present as possible as clay sunk in
your plated eyes a finality extra can leave
feelingly. Within minutes, a small light was
pro in bed. Admit me to reach after, reach
after the poem I longs for not for long

How does “personality” manifest through poems like these? Through energy and abundance. Much poetry bent toward syntactic and disjunctive experiment is aridly serious. Its concerns are formal, its topic is the dramatized struggle to make meaning, and its larger purpose is to disabuse the naïve reader of the idea that language (especially narrative realist language) is transparently representative of reality. As such, this sort of “experimental” writing is usually more instructive than enjoyable. In contrast, the temperament behind The Green Ray—the sense I get of Copp as the arranger of its materials—is joyful, energetic, and arch. (How arch? When speaking voices are interpolated, Copp indicates it with French guillemets rather than American quotation marks.) Copp’s poems radiate a delight at the multitude of their own means, and the delight is contagious even when I struggle to hang on. “That’s / what to do with our bismuth brains,” one poem (sort of) counsels.

The boring received idea that “nowadays anything can be art” actually demonstrates the opposite: that when initial discrimination among materials is no longer intuitive, the artist must be more discerning, rather than less. Likewise, the variety of Ray puts demands on Copp that Copp is happy to meet:

Everything one writes about
disappears by a strong-arm plunging a set
of tasks in a stream of vital belligerence
[smile] s o t h e s l o p e s are
deep, so they deepened, and everyone
continued to be referred to as Happier, and
happiness noiselly and in a Tanker
was complicated / by your sweet ears
of corn

The Green Ray asserts the energy and willfulness of language as a medium, its refusal to simply signify. Ray’s bravura splicing may not be exactly new—I’m reminded of antecedents as far back as Breton or young Kenneth Koch—but the book’s see-what-I-can-do delight suggests that Copp is not intimidated by the glinty haze of data, opinion, culture, and click-throughs where Global Northerners live. The Green Ray (its title suggesting a beam of energized vision rather than an outside force) stares into the cloud and sparkles right back at it.


Ben Fama’s Fantasy, by contrast, takes our immediate and noisy information culture not only as its subject, but as its sole formal means. Fantasy browses through all of it—trash and gossip, appetite and non sequitur—without asserting much.

Satanic physical allure
Tropical contact high
Diane Keaton young
Diane Keaton hot
Celebrity impersonators
Soba Noodles
Salmon Wraps
Sushi Rolls
I just had dreams so intense it’s like a sea-wash over all reality
Like I actually had to remember the details of my life
As they came to me
Gossip is better than pornography
But they both make great screen grabs

Fantasy is one of Ugly Duckling’s most talked-about recent titles (making—a month after it was published!—Flavorwire’s list of the 50 Best American Poetry Books of the Decade So Far). Perhaps that’s because a wide swath of tastemaker-y poetry readers are into what they perceive as Fantasy’s reclamation of a daringly un-lyric linguistic territory. Or maybe, contrarily, they feel in on the book’s joke, and are delighted at the perspective Fantasy offers on what is trivial, gaudy, or vacant.

The truth is, Fantasy itself is unsure how it’s oriented. Neither “belief” nor “irony” especially sticks to it. “another violent news cycle this week. you’ll wanna be high for this. a chevy blazer playing Eminem passes the apple store on 14th st. did you see that email? people are writing the worst poetry.” Most of the book is not interested in attempting—or just not up to?—either a satire of the impoverishment of the contemporary culture whose materials he employs, or a contrarian stand for the lyric and emotional significance of streaming porn and cocktail events, Hilfiger towels and Forever 21. Instead, the poems are primarily about mood. Fantasy’s central aim is to create an environment designed to gratify the reader who is capable of recognizing its contents and tone.

This isn’t to say the book is unironic. In fact, part of Fantasy’s mood involves the poems enjoying themselves, like someone sharing a red-carpet-face-plant video, while reminding the reader that they exist at a knowing distance from their materials. And what could be more contemporary than that?

Today it will rain
I should take you into town
To the galleries
In a Japanese yellow raincoat
To have some champagne
At a group show of landscape paintings
I’m sorry they will probably be shitty

But beyond this unsteady self-awareness and dissatisfaction, the poems rarely point toward any other (freer? happier? nastier?) conception of the individuals—briefly giddy or pervasively anxious, horny or embarrassed, pill-quieted or gloomy—whose lives they describe.

The exception to this, and the best thing in the book, is “Conscripts of Modernity,” a long prose piece that is genuinely interested in the moral meaning of its cultural inhabitation. The poem begins “persona. brand. empire.” and takes the reader from André Balazs’s purchase of Chateau Marmont, the gloomy weather of Cape Cod, and Britney Spears’s 2001 snake dance (remember?) to first-day-of-work nightmares, Chelsea Manning’s incarceration, and a mannequin-smile dystopian future of chemical castration and tax-supported euthanasia. The poem’s feeling of chipper dread and the discomfiture of its materials actually do signify.

kate moss saint tropez no tan lines. the huffington post reported that individuals engaging in bdsm sex suffer less anxiety and enjoy greater well being than others. july emotional heat index. diamonds fur coat champagne. totally gorgeous sunsets. netflix under the drone of box fans. air conditioners reportedly in peak use on weekdays at 6 pm. watching television online and wondering if my fashion has become normative and cinematic. when you start by imagining what it might be like, you step back, you think. how it makes someone feel. the experience of the product. this is what matters. this is it.

Until a silly ad-language ending dissolves the poem’s tension, the reader is forced up against the history-erasing power of neoliberal rhetoric (“this is it.”) and the numbed loneliness of the downwardly mobile people caught in it. For the space of a poem, the fantasy of the book’s title takes on nuances of mass surveillance, shrugging compliance, and furtive pleasure, a disquieting feeling that lasts much longer than the simple gratification of being deep enough in the cloud to follow along with the rest of Fama’s Fantasy.

Jay Aquinas Thompson is a poet, essayist, activist, and teacher. He has recent work in Berfrois, THEthe_poetry, and Young Adult Catholics, and is a contributing editor and columnist at Poetry Northwest. He lives with his family in Seattle, where he teaches creative writing to women incarcerated in King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.