Logic and Lack of Logic: Best American Experimental Writing 2016

Reviewed By

Charles Bernstein is to experimental writing what Lawrence Ferlinghetti was to the Beats in their early days—a passionately enthusiastic listener and an attentive writer, nurturer, and promoter of work by others. It is no surprise that he and Tracie Morris, who teaches performance and performance studies at Pratt Institute, are the guest editors of this collection. Her record in this field is also extensive, and she and Bernstein have collaborated in the past. It is surprising, especially for practitioners of close listening and reading, that in their thoughtful, slightly defensive introduction, they use the depressingly common term “poets and writers,” suggesting, as it always does, that poets aren’t really writers. Fiction, essays, reportage, and poetry. Anyone who practices these forms with any degree of artistic (as opposed to just financial, or even poorly paid, public) success should have an ear that values the implications of every word and it’s shape on the page, and should be as precise as possible. Other than this troubling lapse, Bernstein and Morris, together with series editors Seth Abramson and Jesse Damiani, have produced a collection that is meaty, daring, and beautiful.

A crucial part of what makes experimental writing fresh is the way sight works with what is said, whether the material is performed or read in silence. Janice Lowe is a poet, composer, and performer and her piece, “Boy Flower Tamir,” is a spirited collage of anxiety, with a variety of typographic styles easy to imagine being paraded on a stage. One section of the piece begins:


“and pointing it at people.
Probably a juvenile you
know? …I don’t know if it’s
real or not, you know?”

In a separate, right-hand column of text on the same page, are words with larger type and more whitespace between lines, suggesting a troubled urban summer:

Think July and



too damned well

a time ago

This piece can’t be ingested without facing the very evident fact that, as Bernstein and Morris say, America is an experiment. Many pieces in this volume directly acknowledge the terrible truths of living the American experiment. Joseph Harrington’s poem, “Cotton Still Tops in Area Economy,” does so with crisp panache:

The vote split almost completely along racial lines

______Little obelisk on bluff:

____________________________TOM LEE

_____________________A WORTHY NEGRO

______“inculcation of racist ideology inadvertent. ..happened
almost organically…”

The vote split almost completely along racial lines

In the Peabody lobby, around its marble fountain,
over mint julep and ducks, Mason and Faulkner
delineated about the beginning of the delta, north and south
Mississippi crackers joked about the Yankees, who “put sugar in their meat…”

The vote split almost completely along racial lines

The piece goes on for two pages, concluding with a list of of “sources” that takes up about half a page, some of which go back more than twenty years. The “sources” section of the piece succeed the way a fine found poem does, and they remind us of the excavation that poetry sometimes must undertake. “Memphis is beautiful, with Spring as you remember,” writes Harrington at one point,

with azaleas and dogwoods flowering,
here & there, for some.

Mixing research and journalism with verse is not uncommon in American letters, and here it is especially successful.

Some of the work in this collection will bring to mind visual artists who engage with words, but who do not consider themselves writers. Excerpts from Sandow Birk’s treatment of Dante and his California visions of dystopia would be at home here, as Corbin Louis’s “Buck Moon” and “Hooves” suggest. His non-verbal visuals include circles that can be stand-ins for planets and are effective as glyphs. There’s also a drawing of a hoof on the same page that contains three open eyes in an angled line, each eye looking at a different word or group of words. This is not comfortable, or even quickly comprehensible, and it doesn’t have to be to illustrate incorrigible realities writers and artists are forced to live with in this present moment.

There are a number of compositions in this book that take more visual liberties and are even more clearly challenging. They are hard to look at and sometimes seem at odds with both logic and lack of logic. Jennifer Scappettone’s collage-poem, “Imagine a Cinder-Wench,” contains phrases that, in their placement, mutilate a conventionally pretty young woman pasted in the background. The piece is a searing, compact manifesto that exudes whiffs of Barbara Kruger, while being singularly itself. The verbal portion of Scappettone’s piece begins, “CERTAINLY a picturesque, if not very tidy…” Then, appearing toward the bottom, in a larger font than most of the verbal elements of the piece, “ashes they called her.” We are dealing here with a paradox of permanent ephemera, including the parts that have been cut away, and burned to cinder, much as the female body politic is being cut—with words and other weapons—as I tap away at my keyboard.

Clearly I am not alone in being very jittery about how the next few years of the American experiment will proceed. I am also not alone in my many moments of very specific fear. Carrie Fisher once said that we should “[b]e afraid. Then do it anyway,“ and though she probably wasn’t talking about citizenship, her words are encouragement for writers and readers. Patricia Spears Jones, in “Self-Portrait as a Shop Window,” faces fear and bravery with originality and verve:

_______On the bus

Thus the passing parade—All Hallows Eve

Winds swing the hoop skirt beneath the milk maid’s dress
Of the little white girl complete with Marie Antoinette
Mole on cheek

While into central Brooklyn, the costumes are home
made—the best a young blood
In Diaper—complete with pins—Oh, P. Funk or Red Hot Chili Peppers

_______Cheekbones apparent & rivulet of veins
Rhymes with what—plains, gains, claims, trains

Bus stops & the texting children act as sentinels
Letting us off or on as they please

_______I have often mistaken the mocking bird for an owl
It’s a problem I cannot solve. There are other ones, more difficult.

I listen again for the bird’s call.   It’s mocking me.   There seem
To be cows in Roethke’s poems and birds in mine. Nature is
ever present even unto this great city that grumbles and crumbles
And yet allows the mocking bird’s song and hummingbird’s wings

to flash like a taste of the cosmos. Oh damn the wind and light
Or praise the rain and bright desire for different weather. I stand

in front of these beautiful things and curb my appetite for murder.

This a poem that deserves to be read often, in silence and aloud, as are many others that surround it. That this composition is accessible makes it no less “experimental,” especially when considering the non-linear thought process on display. It’s fair to say that all creative writing should aim for a “taste of the cosmos,” and it’s a pleasure to say that Jones succeeds so well.

Not surprisingly, much prose in these pages reads like good poetry and the product of intense concentration. This excerpt from Lisa Robertson‘s “Notes on Form and Belief” makes my point:

When I use the word language I don’t mean an autonomous product of an individual or an institution. I am not positing that language is a closed system of signs. My sense of language is that it carries and activates a profoundly historical and volatile unconscious that can sometimes shift into vivid consciousness. By historical, I mean a movement between and among persons in time. We speak only the words of others. Within language there is the incomplete history of the human community, including injustice, atrocity, cruelty and their institutions, as well as empathy, spiritual devotion, convivial joy, and co-evolution. Each sentence uttered or composed in a room or in a text, toward a present or an imagined receiver, carries its lexicon and in its formal arrangement this tragic and ecstatic lineage and potential.

The music in these lines is stark, the thought process impeccable and necessary, like so much of the work in this strong, challenging volume.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →