July 2007

Olivia Cronk


The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century edited by William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi

“What we call innovative in poetry is a portrait in language of the world as is and therefore, as possible; it is a form of realism.”
-- Paul Hoover, in his foreword to The City Visible

Anthologies are tricky things. When organized under a theme, the pieces can begin to seem repetitive; when more loosely arranged, sheer quantity can unravel the tightness of individual moments. Anthologies, I think, are best acquired as investments. The wide range of writers can prove useful in future reading and trivia. The ownership of an anthology acts as a little gem, a brick, in an evolving collection -- “Get it just so you have it,” my mother always says about novelty jewelry and the like. There is something to be said of the obsessive snobbery of a collector, someone who gathers nicely shaped items in a series -- for a shelf, a lit cabinet, an overflowing brain.

The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century is a prudent investment for any reader of contemporary poetry. While not always completely true to its premise (writers in the book need not be absolute Chicagoans -- they may be scattered across the Midwest or dropped in entirely different regions), the book is a nice, hearty, earnest sampling of interesting poets. As the curators of the collection -- William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi -- cheated the boundaries, they also reserved the right to choose poets of their favor. I do not mean this as a criticism. The Introduction and Afterword are quite frank about the limitations of a slim anthology. Certain angles of Chicago poetry are left untouched. City Visible attempts to gather in its arms poets in “dialogue” with one another, “poets who more or less care about the same things and whose work has influenced each others’.” As an underlying ideology for the art makers in any region of the world, this seems the freshest and most embracing view of how we interact with stimuli. In the book’s foreword, Paul Hoover (big name for a local book, huh?) quotes himself in a previous article about “postmodern, new millennial poetry”:

At the turn of the century, consciousness is increasingly multiple. This is partly due to our changing models of communication, from the singular to the plural... But representation has always been “double”... Poetry reflecting that doubleness is more realistic because it acknowledges the impact of the writing act on the resulting text.

As a model for an anthology, this recognition of many voices weaving a space into existence is just right. As a concept, it’s lovely. As a mode of organizing the components of a collection, it requires a Max Ernst-ish dedication to fine cutting and collaging.

The failures of City Visible are negligible: they are issues of ambition and idealism. Although I found nearly every poet somehow important and “new” (even when not), the book suffers from being too tightly packed. I found the Introduction a little stiff. The author bios are not in a consistent tone. In fact, while the technique is admirable and sort of DIY-charming, it appears that poets were given no constraints when composing bios and poetic statements. The result -- again, it’s kind of charming anyways -- is that each poet’s section of pages wildly differs in density and kind of information.

I absolutely adore the notion of including poetic statements before each sample of text; it’s just that the statements vary so greatly that the reading of them becomes a little messy. That said, one of the true pleasures of the book is finding these reading notes. From Srikanth Reddy: “[T]hese experiments in language can make ‘old’ ways of thinking about how to treat one another ‘new’ all over again.” This is William Fuller’s entire statement: “A false abstracte cometh from a fals concrete. / The lesion is word, wounding is the work.” Another brief one from Michael O’Leary: “Poetry is an atlas to the world of language, its longitude consciousness, its latitude music.” From Ed Roberson: “[T]his may be a version of the feeling that each new poem is a new definition of poetry, a new statement of poetics.” Kerri Sonnenberg’s statement frames a notion about stimuli:

At the beginning of a long summer, a friend left a book on my living room table called Practical Art Criticism. It was a thin paperback scarcely 150 pages with an abrasively stark white cover and black text. It glared at me everyday as life was lived around it, a life, as any life, not separate from art itself. Both are experience, marking and being made by/amid the wily ephemera of the American semiosphere, culled and gussied up by the sensual experience and held in some recess of the mind for further study. I never read the parent book, but wrote this brief tract to it, and for a renegotiation of language and art in a time of truthiness and reality television.

From Bill Marsh: “All writing is plagiarism except where it pretends to be something else, and these poems are no exception.”

The statements alone are an excellent read. (Actually, a selection of Chicago poets simply writing about process, ideology, form, and philosophy would make a great book, as well.) There are also, of course, some exceptional poems in here. The thing is to go slowly. While the editors have clearly taken some care to build an evolving path -- wife and husband poets Robyn Schiff and Nick Twemlow, for example, are next to each other -- it is best to read this as a long series of short bursts. In this way, you will not tire of the work; each moment will seem to have just grown in your hands. Maxine Chernoff, Erica Bernheim, Luis Urrea, Kristy Odelius, Laura Sims, and the aforementioned Nick Twemlow were some highlights -- for me. I also delighted in seeing more familiar (again, to me) favorites like Dan Beachy-Quick, Arielle Greenberg (“I’m halfway to sixty, halfway to an attic”), and Simone Muench. Eric Elshtain has an elegant statement and set of poems to follow it (“Christ, yes, my voodoo / organism crackles 3 ways fuels / that into formal glories turn"). Jennifer Scappettone has some great weirdnesses to comb through. A poet new to me -- and dazzling -- is Shin Yu Pai, whose statement cleanly frames her work and dovetails nicely with the overall themes of the book. Another lovely spot is Jesse Seldess’s poetics built around his time with Alzheimer’s patients. There are so many others, as well, that I’m missing here. The book is, after all, 250 pages of words colliding.

I’ll end by mentioning that I myself am a product of Chicago poetry, having grown up in the city (with piles and piles of Carl Sandburg books and local ghost stories) and returning here from Wisconsin to get my MFA. There is, indeed, something rather exciting happening with poem-makers here; this new anthology argues that maybe such fizz will help to counter the never-ending painting over of the city (and many unlucky spots all over the country) with the homogeneity of other media.

This, from Ela Kotkowska:
When I come here, I come home. I do not come from here and, as I
leave, it is not from here that I go. Here, I am at large. I wed the
the lineage of its etymologies. I translate...
Swallowed. Fluent lung. Listen. Slow down. Exhale the land. I
belong to the unbound. Always less. Liquidated. As Algonquin or
Illinois. Quicksand sails. I come second.

The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century edited by William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi
Cracked Slab Books
ISBN: 978-0-9786440-1-7
251 pages