Fiorentino blends oblique with di­rect

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE - By Jonathan Ball

AFORMER Win­nipeg­ger and cur­rent Mon­trealer, Jon Paul Fiorentino presents his best book as his worst, with the ti­tle Needs Im­prove­ment (Coach House Books, 88 pages, $18).

Fiorentino, who has also pub­lished prose, blends oblique state­ments with di­rect ones, to draw at­ten­tion to the ma­te­rial qual­i­ties of lan­guage and how it shapes com­mu­nica­tive ex­pres­sion, while still speak­ing straight: “Com­mon para­plec­tic sorry / ruin and rune comma apol­ogy // I’m too old it hap­pens / it hap­pens.”

The ed­u­ca­tion in­dus­try’s in­sis­tence on com­pli­ance and con­form­ity, and how stu­dents who avoid bul­ly­ing are bul­lied by the schools, find a foe in Fiorentino. One high­light of the book is a se­ries of in­struc­tions for in­vig­i­lat­ing ex­ams: “Ex­is­ten­tial angst should be in­stilled in stu­dents AT ALL TIMES. Mean­ing­less­ness MUST be in­sisted upon.”

Of­ten funny and al­ways ir­rev­er­ent, the writ­ing makes sud­den turns to side­swipe the reader. The po­ems in Needs Im­prove­ment don’t.

Seven Amer­i­can Deaths and Dis­as­ters (pow­er­House, 176 pages, $24), by New York’s Ken­neth Gold­smith, con­sists of tran­scribed re­ports of events rang­ing in scope from the death of John Len­non to the World Trade Cen­ter at­tacks.

Gold­smith plagiarizes and re­frames lan­guage, and owes more to vis­ual artists like Andy Warhol and Mar­cel Duchamp than other po­ets. By writ­ing about th­ese deaths and dis­as­ters, many oft­treated in lit­er­a­ture, through quot­ing the words of those re­port­ing the orig­i­nal event, Gold­smith high­lights the vam­pirism of artis­tic ges­ture while out­strip­ping the re­al­ism that “more creative” au­thors seek.

Re­framed po­et­i­cally, as if chap­ters in an ex­per­i­men­tal novel, th­ese tran­scripts over­whelm and dev­as­tate, a tidy counter-ar­gu­ment to those crit­i­cal of con­cep­tual po­etry for its seem­ing in­abil­ity to rouse or con­vey deep emo­tion.

Dis­cussing the space shut­tle Chal­lenger disas­ter, a re­porter notes that a young boy called the stu­dio and “asked if the ap­ple had any­thing to do with it.”

Christa McAuliffe, a school­teacher who would have been the first Amer­i­can civil­ian in space, had been “handed an ap­ple for the teacher” just be­fore she boarded the shut­tle. “This young lis­tener said — did any­one check the ap­ples?” A nov­el­is­tic mo­ment, ab­surd and crush­ing, that Gold­smith man­ages with­out writ­ing one word.

Van­cou­ver’s Dina Del Buc­chia par­o­dies the self-help genre in Cop­ing with Emo­tions and Ot­ters (Talon­books, 116 pages, $17), by pre­sent­ing her po­ems as ad­vice on how to use and im­prove mostly neg­a­tive emo­tions.

“If you still ques­tion your com­mit­ment to shame or are un­sure if you have enough built up in­side you, don’t be dis­cour­aged,” writes Del Buc­chia to pref­ace a se­ries of “Shame Af­fir­ma­tions.” Shame not your thing? Maybe try this ex­er­cise in jeal­ousy: “Be­tray a dol­phin.”

“Feel songs as though they were hands / set to make you re­mem­ber / what it’s like to be com­forted” — a sure-fire way to feel sad. Both mock­ing and re­vi­tal­iz­ing the po­etic de­sire to in­voke emo­tion, this whip-smart de­but crack­les with manic en­ergy.

Dan­ish poet Morten Søn­der­gaard pre­scribes his Word­phar­macy (BookThug/Bro­ken Di­manche/ Dan­ish Arts Agency, 10 boxes, $65) — a batch of medicine boxes con­tain­ing the 10 word groups in the lan­guage, along­side in­struc­tions to guide your use of the words.

Trans­lated by Bar­bara J. Have­land and de­signed by Chris­tian Ramsø, Søn­der­gaard’s faux med­i­cal pre­scrip­tions equate the mind-al­ter­ing ef­fects of lan­guage with those of drugs. “Use of Nouns® can cause you to doubt lan­guage’s abil­ity to cover the world. Please note, there­fore, that there is a big dif­fer­ence be­tween words and things. You can­not, for ex­am­ple, knock in nails with the word ‘ham­mer.’ ”

Why use “Nouns®”? Well, they “coun­ter­act name­less­ness and for­get­ful­ness and are pre­scribed for de­pres­sion at the un­be­liev­able num­ber of things in the world.” Fair warn­ing, though: “Nouns® should be used only as pre­scribed by your poet.” What a won­der­ful vi­sion, that peo­ple might con­sult po­ets the way they con­sult doc­tors.

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