Beard of Bees Press: Three e-book Reviews

Exchanges of Light (Echanges de la Lumiere) by Jacques Roubaud, tr. Eleni Sikelianos. 2005.
Reviews by Amy Newlove-Schroeder.

The great French poet Jacques Roubaud, known in part for his relationship to OuLipo, has produced a piece that is part poetry, part dramatic verse, part Neo-Platonic philosophy. Exquisitely translated by Eleni Sikelianos, this excerpt from Echanges de la Lumiere is both wide-ranging and yet closely focused, expressed in language that is always lyrical and intensely moving. Drawn from a full-length work in six parts, Sikelianos has translated the first section, or chapter: each section comprises six characters meeting to discuss, "in the manner of an 18th century philosophical dialogue," the meaning and tangible manifestations of light.

The six characters, all of whom are identified by a name and an initial (M. Goodman, or Basil of C, for instance) are differentiated by philosophical inclination and style of diction. Basil of C speaks about God more than anyone else; M. Goodman is the representative of pseudo-rational thought: "I have chosen that we assemble in this place for a few evenings, at the moment when the lamps are being lit"; " William H. is the most "poetic" and non-linear of the six: "Night you            come  the light  pushes / against the       emptied slopes of day." Because the characters are given no distinguishing marks, apart from their dialogue, the work is as ephemeral and indefinable as light itself. We meander from statements like "Light doesn't turn the street corner" to "Light has already, while you were giving it boundaries, while you made light of the impossible, turned the corner of the street."  We are reminded, inevitably, of Beckett - but Roubaud's work is less rooted in the need to demonstrate the absurdity of life than in the desire to linger over one of the great poetic tropes: light, and its meaning. Do we arrive at any sturdy meanings here? No, and we hardly expected to. William H. expresses it best:







                have grown



                the grass, the slopes




                light, the

                lights have


                arrived in the absence

                of light



                of light lost


                of light that was


We are left then, both wanting to read more of Roubaud's Echanges de la Lumiere, but also wistfully satisfied, as though we had spent the day watching light play over water, until the sun made its slow movement over the edge of the horizon.

To Build a Cathedral by Theodore Enslin. 2006.

Much in the leisurely manner of Roubaud's explorations of the nature of light, in his 10-page poem, Enslin ponders the work of Viennese composer Anton Bruckner. Following Goethe's assertion that "music is frozen architecture," Enslin envisions Bruckner actually building a cathedral, rather than writing a piece of music. The epigraph reads, "What is done and yet undone," thus cluing us in to the chief theme of Enslin's poem, the open-ended nature of art. Bruckner is an ideal candidate for this sort of consideration, as he left many pieces unfinished, to be completed later by students.

Enslin focuses closely on the ways in which art is made not only by the artist, but also by those who receive the artwork (in other words, he's working within the realm of reader response theory.)

Later there were those who entered

not quite trusting where they were

the silences of what was left

a need in part fulfilled

Carefully yet tenuously exploring the nature of the creative process, Enslin examines how time works in the midst of art-making: "Where did time go      unanswered / 'The mornings of genius are long' / length is no answer       to ask." Enslin makes no affirmative statements here about the nature of art-making, except that it is never complete: "The cathedral is never finished."

Employing short lines and simple diction, Enslin's poem is meditative, but never heavy-handed. He is musing, here, not dictating. "A gap     distance which conceives a presence / how it might cohere in separation / Bruckner could not know            always              where to go." If the poem confirms anything, it confirms the mysteriousness of art-making - and the way in which the art is never finished until the audience receives it. "[T]he builder owns no power."  While Enslin's poem cannot exactly be considered a breakthrough in aesthetic theory, he does amply illuminate the postmodern open-endedness of art-making, the manner in which no one, neither the artist, nor the audience member, has full control over the autonomous work of art.


7 Poems by Rae Armantrout. 2005.

This selection of Armantrout's poems places us squarely in territory that will be familiar to her fans. Considered by some to be a "lyric language poet," Armantrout does here what she does best: Terse, quick, always poignant poems that evoke so many of the problems of living in our contemporary age. Always smart, witty yet emotionally engaged, Armantrout can manage in to do in a handful of words what many can't do in entire books.

In these poems, Armantrout makes use of a potpourri of references to popular culture: the jingle from a bladder control ad, the buzz words of Fox News ("balanced reporting") and "the camp melodrama / of Dan Rather." She's up to something quite specific with all this dabbling in the free-ranging world of television signifiers: The way in which our minds have grown to echo the ever-changing, ever-shifting pictures on our screens.

                Since we're being escorted

                from moment to moment


                by what's already



we should be able

to follow this track




to our previous thought.

The use of the conditional "should" is what's critical in the above quotation, as in we should be able to, but we're not. In the Armantrout's view, we can't ever quite seem to get back to that previous thought. Instead, we're constantly freelancing on the razor's edge, unable to make one instant of time connect to the next. "The opposite of nothingness," she tells us, "is direction."

This small collection of poems might be best described as a sampler, or maybe an appetizer, designed to whet the appetites of those who haven't yet read this poet's marvelous work. Contradiction, confusion, the dislocation of the self - all of Armantrout's themes are well-represented here. "Everything that stays / once meaning has cleared out // is true?" She asks, and we know the answer. No, but we'd like to read a lot more about it.