Bunker Book Recs: Franklin Bruno

Reasons to be Cheerful by Paul Gorman

I probably won’t read from it on Saturday, but a couple of years ago I wrote the entry on Elvis Costello’s 1979 album Armed Forces in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series.  One book I wish had existed while I was writing is Paul Gorman’s Reasons to Be Cheerful (Adelita), an inspiring, informative, and copiously illustrated retrospective of the work of British graphic artist Barney Bubbles.  Bubbles – born Colin Fulcher – created the innovative ‘look’ of Costello’s albums, singles, posters, ads and other ephemera from 1977 until his death in 1983.  At his most imaginative, Bubbles treated the medium of the record cover as an object in its own right, experimenting with inside-out sleeves (the “Accidents Will Happen” seven-inch), pre-worn or damaged effects (Get Happy!), and elaborate die-cut arrangements beyond the traditional gatefold (Armed Forces itself), commenting on pop music’s commodity status as surely as Costello’s image and songs.  These examples only scratch the surface of Bubbles’s work, which Gorman tracks from his art-school roots creating light shows for post-Floyd psychedelic acts (Hawkwind, Quintessence) through his punk-and-new-wave-era role as house designer for Stiff Records (Ian Dury, The Damned) and Costello’s short-lived F-Beat label – and, toward the end, as pioneering director of the Specials’ “Ghost Town” video.  Though his name isn’t as well known as that of Factory Records’ Peter Saville (who contributes an appreciative foreword), Bubbles exerted a massive, under-acknowledged influence on the material culture surrounding popular music as it entered the post-modern age.

Squeezed: What You Don’t Know about Orange Juice by Alissa Hamilton

Were you aware that, since 1985, most of the orange juice Americans drink has come from neither Florida or California but Brazil, which nearly all of its output to us as concentrate – in part because Brazilians themselves hardly drink the beverage?  This is only one of the revelations of Alissa Hamilton’s Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice (Yale), which I encountered, more or less by luck, while trying to track citrus sinensis (the sweet orange) through its appearances in poems by Wallace Stevens, Frank O’Hara and Kenward Elmslie.  Hamilton’s quixotic history hasn’t helped directly with that project, but the stories she tells have turned out to be fascinating in their own right.  The “freshness” and “wholesomeness” supposedly contained in that glass beside your breakfast plate turn out to be ideological products as much as agricultural ones, the result of negotiations among government, consumer advocates, and the citrus industry over the labeling and marketing of various forms of frozen, pasteurized or reconstituted juice, not to mention spokeswoman Anita Bryant’s housewifely appeals to “come home to the Sunshine Tree.”  Buttressed by a meticulous reading of the FDA’s 1961 hearings on “Definitions and Standards of Identity” for orange juice, Squeezed isn’t literary in intent, but its expression of the strangeness and complexity of a substance most of us barely think about is inadvertently poetic.
Franklin Bruno reads on 12/12 at Bushwick Reading Series.


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Bunker Book Recs: Farrah Field

I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation by Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia is one of my favorite dada painters. MoMA has two of his paintings in its permanent collection; you’ll always find his stuff next to Duchamp. The poetry is kind of messy, but I still really like it. The book is very well designed by MIT Press—visually stunning.

Maximum Gaga by Lara Glenum
Don’t you want to change your vocabulary? Don’t you want orifice and power? Did you say yes?

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
I steal most of my titles from phrases in this book. Unbreakable narration. Through and through story telling. Photos of Romans.

Snow in America by Bernard Mergen
Is American snow different than other kinds of snow? I’m not sure but you should still read this book. “Snow is the unwanted reminder of the limits of human mastery of nature.”

Afterpastures by Claire Hero
Most of the poems in this chapbook are found in her book Sing, Mongrel, which you should also read.

French Girl Knits by Kristeen Griffin-Grimes
So knitters aren’t good with titles, but this is a great knitting book. The knitting projects, sans the sort of cave-girl/hippie section, are quite lovely and well designed.

Sock Innovation by cookie a
This is one of the best sock knitting books that I’ve seen. Cleanly written patterns. You’ll have to get used to tiny needles. Sorry about that. You could give this as a gift with a skein of merino superwash.
Cover images here.  Farrah Field reads 12/12 at Bushwick Reading Series.

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Bunker Book Recs: Joanna Penn Cooper

Break It Down by Lydia Davis

I first started reading Lydia Davis back in 2002, at a friend’s suggestion. Encountering this book was for me one of those “oh, we’re allowed to do that?” moments. Davis writes stories that blur the line between deadpan prose poem and short story, between short short story and overheard internal monologue. It’s delightful and unsettling to read someone who writes in a form that seemed to be so much her own. There’s a flatness and an urgency, a low-level angst and a good-humored absurdity here that I can’t help but like. Lydia Davis’ work belongs in a category in my mind with American writers like Eudora Welty, James Thurber, Lorrie Moore, and David Sedaris. Is that a category? Maybe not. But they all have genius of voice that has to do with a desire to explore the intersection of the absurd, the poetic, and what we might think of as existential itchiness.

Wedding Day by Dana Levin

Many of Levin’s poems in this 2005 collection are crafted and engagingly elliptical treatments of the how and why of writing poems. There is desire woven through these pieces that often appears as a desire to explore and explain the relationships among aesthetics, ethics, and meaning.

In the poem “Quelquechose,” for example, Levin writes,

  I was in the fish shop, wondering why being experimental means
                not having a point—

                why experimentation in form is sufficient unto itself
                       (is it?)—

  But I needed a new way to say things: sad tired I
                with its dulled violations, lyric with loss in its faculty den—

  Others were just throwing a veil over suffering:
                glittery interesting I-don’t-exist—

  All over town, I marched around,
                ranting my jeremiad.

  Thinking, What good is form if it doesn’t say anything

  And by “say” I meant “wake somebody up.”

Other poems in this collection evince the same intriguing tension between a desire to “say something” or “wake somebody up” and their concern with helping shape contemporary poetics. Levin’s poems exist at the intersection of the experimental and the lyric, and part of the draw for me here occurs in our sense of watching an artist at work as she finds “new way[s] to say things,” while avoiding the “sad tired I/ with its dulled violations.”

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Reading December 12th, 2009

Four readers:

Franklin Bruno
Farrah Field
Joanna Penn Cooper
Jason Helm

It’s going to be brilliant.  See you at the library on 12/12 at 3PM.

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Bunker Book Recs: Eve Bates

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving


A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving saved me from becoming one of those obnoxious teenagers who “hates to read.” I was a high school freshman when my father recommended it and haven’t read it since, but I always credit it as the novel that forced me to stop rebelling against my own adolescent bookishness. I remember reading it during class, disturbing the study hall quiet by laughing out loud at a scene in which two children dressed as a camel in a nativity play trip over each other and struggle to stand back up. It’s hard to deny that kind of behavior.

colorsinsultingColors Insulting to Nature by Cintra Wilson is the most entertaining thing I’ve read in the last year. It’s hilarious and tragic and addictive. I would stay up reading it until 3 in the morning, spend my lunch hour reading it instead of eating, and come home from work and read it until I could no longer delay eating dinner. There’s a lot of fame-obsessed culture commentary which drags a bit at times, but which is always relevant. The central character is at once ridiculous and extremely relatable. I wish I were capable of writing something even half as witty as this.

Eve Bates read November 14th at Bushwick Reading Series.

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Bunker Book Recs: Martin Rock

Road Side Dog, by Czelaw Milosz. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

road-side dogThis collection of prose poems seem at times a book of micro essays, at times allegory, and occasionally simply the musings of a profound old man. Though some of the book’s charm is its assertive voice, statements are made that I don’t want to agree with, and am cajoled into. Not heavy on imagery or word play, but Milosz’s musicality is unavoidable, and his meditations on reality are almost palpable. One of my favorites:


A poet as a child among the adults. He is aware of his childishness and must incessantly pretend he participates in the actions and mores of the adults.

A flaw: awareness of being a child inside; i.e., a naively emotional creature constantly endangered by the coarse laughter of the grownup.”

Dear Body, Dan Machlin. (Ugly Duckling Presse)

danmachlinA book in three sections; the first, “Dear Body” is a collection of letters to the body. A wonderful project, existing in dialogue between mind and the body; the theoretical and the physical. At times, the body seems to be his own, as in “if only I could give you the accident/ and you could give me your non-acceptance of the event.” Then there are times, when it seems the letters are in longing, from the body to another, as in “The one thing I’ll never forget about you/ is the one thing I most often forget about you.” The second section, “Antebodies” is also wonderful, and presents a self aware project of poems, all of which are six, seven syllable lines. I love this, as it supports me in my own exploration of self imposed rules for projects, and it is pulled off incredibly well, with a kind of meditative resolve and intellectual playfulness. The third section makes the other two seem tame. The poems begin to move back and forth across the page, most punctuation is dropped, and the mind seems allowed free reign of its territory. Personally, I prefer the first two sections, though I recognize brilliance in all of them. Among my favorites (from antebodies):

Finally you were this thing
you couldn’t make go away —
a thing with a certain weight
that hung over your thin frame.
It was a thinking being —
you stepped and it stepped also.

Martin Rock reads November 14th at Bushwick Reading Series.

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Bunker Book Recs: Jen Bartman

I’m recommending two books, the first of which influenced the second: The Essential Haiku edited by Robert Hass and Seven Notebooks by Campbell McGrath.

The Essential Haiku edited by Robert Hass

essentialhaikulrgThe Essential Haiku is a collection of poems by three Haiku masters, Bashō, Buson and Issa. When Robert Hass selected and translated the poems, he was struck by “how deeply personal” they were because he’d been taught that haiku were never subjective.

As with photography, though, a haiku master makes a deliberate choice about what to include in the frame, or in this case, about which words and images to include in the very small poem. When a reader becomes familiar with each master’s body of work, narratives, obsessions and a unique conscious experience come to light.

Hass describes the masters in the introduction to the book: “Bashō the ascetic and seeker, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist.” He describes Bashō’s style as “poignant calm and spiritual restlessness”:

              A cicada shell;
          it sang itself
              utterly away.

He calls Buson’s a “painterly mix of precision and strangeness”:

              They end their flight
          one by one—
              crows at dusk.

He says Issa’s haiku contain pathos and humor:

              The man pulling radishes
          pointed my way
              with a radish.

Each tiny poem is as rich and haunting as the natural world from which it is distilled. Haiku writing is serious business, and studying haiku is a seriously good way to learn to craft images.

Seven Notebooks, Campbell McGrath

7notebooksPoet Campbell McGrath learned this lesson well and incorporated both original haiku and Hass’s translations of Bashō into his 2008 collection Seven Notebooks. Just as haiku traditionally refer to a particular season, McGrath’s book is also about the passage of the seasons, and the book represents a year in the life of the poet.

Seven Notebooks is no haiku diary, though. McGrath grappled with many topics over the course of a year, and the different subjects and seasons necessitated different modes of expression. Besides Haiku, he also employs narrative, lyric, prose and quotations from a variety of sources, and writes on topics as small as an ant and as large as the universe.

As it says on the flap, “These seven poetic passages offer diverse reflections on language and poetry, time and consciousness, civilization and art—to say nothing of bureaucrats, surf boards and blue margaritas.”

Robert Hass’s Time and Materials won the Pulitzer in 2008, but I thought Seven Notebooks was equally good or better. I particularly love the poem “January 17th” from Blueberry Notebook, which enacts in language the way a poet’s consciousness can travel far and wide while his body is busy picking strawberries in the South Florida sun.

I hope visitors to the library will enjoy these two books, and that other young poets will find reading Bashō, Buson, Issa, McGrath and Hass as inspiring and useful as I have.

Jen Bartman reads November 14th at Bushwick Library.

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