12 June 2008

Review of Ten/Ampersands by Clarence Wolfshohl

Ten Poems About East Asia & Kitsch Nebula Ampersands And, by Ralph-Michael Chiaia (Coatlism Press, ISBN 978-0-9802073-0-9, pb, $13.95)

The press release for Ralph-Michael Chiaia’s Ten Poems About East Asia & Kitsch nebula Ampersands And calls it a book of experimental poems. What do we make of such a label? We could consider any free verse poem experimental or any genuine attempt to say something new and personal in any form as an experiment in language. But obviously something more specific is meant if we say “experimental poem.” Something that is out of the ordinary—perhaps extraordinary—and displaces the familiar.

As the title may indicate, this book is two chapbooks in one, and the first section—Ten Poems About Asia—is fairly familiar unless you count the poems. There are twelve. The titles are place names from Asia, and the poems are visual or psychological snapshots of those places. Of the cities, as in “Bangkok,” which catches the multiplicity:

It’s moving like its [sic] set to bhangra music:

all the massage parlors, clothing stores,

schoolgirls in uniform, perverts.

It’s seething like a flu patient

yet calm as a Buddhist in prayer

wearing his shaved head and saffron robe.

Or of individuals, as in “Kuala Lumpur”:

She’s up early to go to law class

in her tank top and skirt

sunglasses on.

The Imam sings.

After a movie

she’s on the grass with a notebook under her

looking at the twin Islamic star towers.

The Imam sings.

And the snapshots cannot avoid the history of the last half-century. In “Phnom Penh (circa 1975)”

. . . the Khmer Army,

all boys,

took all the guys wearing glasses,

the doctors, the teachers,

the nurses

to labor camps

the killing fields . . .

In “Phnom Penh Revisited”

one little girl still retains

the moves of ancient Khmer dance

her mother kept its secret in her blood

throughout the labor camps

of the Khmer Rouge.

In the second section of the book, as again the title may indicate, the poems are more consciously experimental. Sometimes with subject matter—“Ode to the Pillow,”

“Ode to the & sign (the ampersand)”—or sometimes with form as in the four parts of “Conversation between Person and Mushroom” scattered throughout the section. The poems in the second section abound in wordplay, as the opening line or URL of “Error 4(♥)9, 357”:


or the intricate assonant music of

it’s damn tough to tie one on

easier to untie bras

regret it the next time you see

her, an unending ethics question:

restraint. Better to get slain

by indulgence rather than restraint. (“Mind Slain in Nebulae”)

Chiaia’s formalistic experiments appeal to our curiosity, but his experiments in conjuring a familiar world in a personal language are compelling. We get both in this nicely produced book from Coatlism Press. The press and Ralph-Michael Chiaia are new to the small press world, and I look forward to more from both.

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