Category: Poetry

Read More
Photos of Maxim D. Shrayer (Максим Д. Шраер), one with "dunce" written on his forehead, one with a Soviet hammer and sickle across his face, and another with the flag of the Khmer Rouge blocking out his ill-shaped head.

Maxim D. Shrayer Is A Post-Soviet Fraud & Murder-Apologist

It’s been years since I’ve written a takedown of a poseur or freak, largely because they are such time-sinks, yet offer so little themselves. They seek unearned attention, and, if attention is given, seek to take one away from deeper aims. To wit: Ben Shapiro (does it not damage my essay that I expect you to know who this was?) might ultimately get exhumed by trivia hunters, but this would only be slightly better than Shapiro’s own goings to and fro on the earth. Coleman Hughes certainly represents a ‘type’, but hasn’t this type been discussed to the point of acquiring its own slur? Such cons are obvious, yet the Russian émigré poet Maxim D. Shrayer lords over a grift many won’t pick up on, not only due to their ignorance of immigrant politics, but also the ease with which nonimmigrants get brow-beaten by American liberals. Shrayer’s recent essay on murdered Palestinian academic Refaat Alareer has exposed this grift, though it requires another ex-Soviet to identify its parts. And so, as I enter a more mindful middle age, I can only justify writing of losers if I also expound upon their fiefdoms—particularly if these are lesser-known fiefdoms with poorly understood dynamics.

Maxim Shrayer, a professor at Boston College, was born in 1967, in Moscow, at the start of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. This conflict entailed geopolitical re-alignment as the Soviets backed Egypt, America backed Israel, and Russia began to suspect its own Jewish citizens as insufficiently loyal. His father, David Shrayer-Petrov, was (is) a writer, war veteran, and medical researcher stripped of his title upon application for an exit visa in 1978. This was a typical outcome for (upper class) refuseniks, whose contributions to the Soviet Union were deemed too important remit. After years of harassment, Shrayer’s family was allowed to leave for America in 1987, sparing them not only the final years of empire, but the violence and destitution which soon befell Russia. By most metrics, then, Maxim Shrayer is one of the truly fortunate. Moving from the Pale of Settlement, to postwar Leningrad, to Moscow—Russia’s wealthiest city—his family, unlike most Soviet Jews, even had the foresight to skip Israel in favor of joining the academic elite of Rhode Island, where they were quickly accepted. This is unlike the treatment most refugees get, since they are not educated, not (passing) white, and not easily used to score political points. One of his first bits of self-description (‘refusenik’) recycles his father’s identity, while his flaunting of an Israeli flag must be especially galling to an ethnostate which has ‘lost’ Shrayer to America. His career focuses on the Jewish experience, Russian translation, the writing of (bad) poetry, a devotion to the overrated Vladimir Nabokov, and, most recently, the justification of Israeli war crimes. Indeed: take away the accidents of birth and Shrayer could have been quite comfortable as a Soviet functionary. He has no personal center, no obvious gifts, and would already be forgotten if it weren’t for his willingness to patsy for a dying regime. As an apparatchik, however, Maxim D. Shrayer hasn’t quite learned that merely separating oneself from the hoi polloi is not really individualism, but an absurd mix of might-makes-right, on the one hand, and Nietzschean slave-morality on the other. Put another way, he is encouraged to speak as a victim, then leverages real-world assets to punch down. […]

Read More
A photo of a young, red-haired Bruce Ario in a hat, eating seafood.

The Revered Rebel: Bruce Ario’s “The Lovely Tree Branches”

It’s not uncommon for the artist to live in search of validation. After all, life’s navigation can be painful, especially when forced to interact with those unable to appreciate or recognize the value in one’s work. Just reading about Vincent Van Gogh and how his many peers thought him a nobody, or how Paul Cézanne’s father would rather his son have become a lawyer or banker—the frustration is evident. Sure, a parent wants his kid to make money, but at what expense? What if Cézanne had instead become Banker Paul rather than Painter Paul? What a loss the world would have suffered.

The life of an artist is one of sacrifice. To pursue it, one must be willing to adapt to the slog of overlooked, lower-rank jobs, and forgo the material. This is not to say that one must inevitably accept a life of poverty, but to expect a high-rank career is highly unrealistic, given such an occupation would likely leave one with little creative time. Yes, Wallace Stevens was president of Hartford Insurance, but he chose that job over an academic career because the work yielded little drain on his brain. While providing him with a comfortable living, selling insurance is far from glamorous. Moreover, Hart Crane was lucky enough to land a job as a copywriter, and Vivian Maier worked as a nanny, affording her the freedom to walk with her employers’ kids and photograph.

And as for me—even while spending several years working in a technical field, I recognized the lack of glamour in such a pursuit, but it paid the bills. This did not, however, stop me from encountering the small-minded and envious individuals who felt the need to reduce my writing talent to a moment of air quotes, dismissively referring to me as a “writer” who “took herself too seriously.” (Must I have the imprimatur of fame?) […]

Read More
A stylized snapshot from Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap", where the group performs "Gimme Some Money".

POEM: “Thought Our Film Would Say It All”

THOUGHT OUR FILM WOULD SAY IT ALL

And then some scumbag wanted money for the footage
Of my friend. Well, HIS friend, as a fact
Was a ponderer’s poet, while he cannot

Think. Well, he IS thinking
Of himself, bobbing down a perfect sea
Storm loosened from the surface

Of our lens. Guess which had a brain
Injury and you’d guess wrong. Say CHEESE
Bitch! Or that’s what HE did at any rate

Offered. Not even poets deserve riches. […]

Read More
The manuscript copy of William Stafford's "Traveling Through The Dark", written in long-hand in a notebook.

Improving William Stafford’s “Traveling Through The Dark”

Decades ago, when I first came stateside, & was catching up studying the collected works of mostly great American poets I had only heard about, since I didn’t have access to their books in Zimbabwe, one of the poems I stumbled upon in an anthology, pre-internet, & liked a lot, was William Stafford’s very American Traveling Through The Dark – since all across this nation roads such scenarios are quite numerous. Myself, then, an idealistic, young but naïve poet who had a handful of decent to good poems under my wing – & having written for less than five years, I simply lacked the technical competencies, poetic instincts & wisdom to see the glaring flaws inherent in it.

Now let me be brutally honest – no matter what you’ve read, heard or seen elsewhere this isn’t a great poem, nor is it even near-great! At best it’s a solid &/or good poem but what prevents it from greatness of, say, W.B. Yeat’s Leda And The Swan is its documentary style which, in the hands of a lesser poet, leaves little room to expand on its themes, its clunkiness, repetitive verbosity & William Stafford’s need to explain then overstate instead of trusting the reader to make their own quick connections by just giving us the necessary facts succinctly, efficiently & in the right sequence, so the words heighten each other in their setups into that purview of poetry not prose. Also, there’s no sustained vigor which is a by-product of brevity & being bold with the materials at hand. Yes, as poets we often love words excessively to our own detriment in their use so I’d advise to only love them to the same extent you’re willing to ruthlessly cut them, if need be. While I like the English language – I come to it as a second language so I’ve no qualms editing it rigorously. Tellingly, in this short video Stafford explains how it came about, his not knowing how to finish it, but upon taking it to a writers’ group & noticing their reaction to his reading of it, wisely stuck to his ending, yet unfortunately in the same breath, gave up revising it anymore. Then, he sent it off for publication, into this its famous but overwrought version – I no longer objectively like, at 157 words: […]

Read More
A stylized photo from John Ashbery's dusk jacket for his poetry collection, "Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror". Ashbery is looking at himself in a tall, narrow mirror.

Flames Against Indifference: On John Ashbery’s “Illustration”

So much has been said of John Ashbery, pro and con, regarding the man’s poetic accomplishment, that to go over the details here would be to dither between a number of points better analysts have already raised. Since his death in 2017, there have been and will continue to be many encomiums, and I’m sure a few open critiques, too. I won’t engage in such, here, as I haven’t read enough of Ashbery’s entire oeuvre to launch into full-throated hagiography, and I’m more than happy to let a hardier soul tackle whatever the hell Flow Chart is.

But “Illustration” from his 1956 collection Some Trees is a perfect example of John Ashbery at his best, although less mysterious, and less remarkable, than some of the pieces from, say, 1976’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In this way, however, such sensitivity to frontal analysis lends itself well to younger poets learning the craft who might otherwise be stumped by the later book’s longer, more densely-packed enigmas. […]

Read More
The cover for Moira J. Saucer's poetry collection, "Wiregrass", which features a hand-made cover with a physically decorated yellow flower.

Beautiful Books: On Moira J. Saucer’s “Wiregrass” (Ethel Zine)

Big box bookstores rarely carry small press books, and although some independent bookstores might shelve small press publications, they do not usually offer handmade books. There are also artist-made books, most often a single volume that can be a stunning example of what a book can be: a sublime experience of combined fibers. Books as an art form have been a genre most often seen in either craft shows or esteemed special collections, and can vary from exquisite blank journals to fragile historical treasures. It is not often enough that the ordinary bibliophile will curate handmade books into their collection, even if that personal library includes small press volumes.

Yet in Ethel, we have a small press that has consistently produced an impressive catalogue of handmade books. In addition to side sewn bindings that speak to a serious home sewing machine, each cover features collage and sewn elements—obvious work by hand yet done in the sequence of an edition. A recent release from Ethel is Wiregrass by Moira J. Saucer, which is an apparition in yellow, a textual and tactile experience that begins with holding the yet unopened book. The cover image itself has hand painted elements—a leaf, a flower (done is a yellow that is akin enough to the cover’s yellow to give the impression of depth of perception)—and then outlined with some lines sewn onto the cover. Our consideration of the artist-editor painting, then sewing a sequence of covers must pause at this achievement alone; of the hundreds of small presses whose editors consider a manuscript by the effort and reward model of production, Ethel’s commitment to the manuscript includes this level of commitment: handcraft is hours upon hours upon hours. […]

Read More
A stylized photo of poet Pattiann Rogers delivering a lecture on Walt Whitman.

Nature’s Nurture: On Pattiann Rogers’s “The Determinations of the Scene”

I’ve never been deeply interested in discovering some knock-down argument for the question of determinism, hard or soft or what have you. It seems a given that we are thrown into existence equipped with certain capacities, which are, to a degree, non-negotiable; and our choices, going forward, will always be curtailed both by the limits of those capacities as well as the inevitability of outside interference, whether it be from environments or other actors—who are, of course, similarly limited by their own subjectivities.

While this seems to me to be almost boringly obvious, it’s at the same time difficult for me to square away the reality of human freedom. Yes, we’re pre-equipped with a particular physiology, rising out of protein codes and the processes of gestation, and on top of that are blown hither and yon by the previously mentioned exteriors; but it’s also boringly obvious that an essential element of our existence involves the ability to “mind” oneself, to abstract real decisions distinct from biology’s sundry impulsions and the effect of circumstance. While it may (or may not?) be technically possible to draw out a fully elaborated causal chain starting with the origins of the universe all the way down to my choice of sausage or pepperoni for last night’s pizza order, this still tells me nothing whatsoever about the role intentionality plays in this otherwise brute sequence of events. […]