(University of California Press, 2012) 


A banjo clock—a real one, not just made of words—would certainly be an odd construction, twanging out the time. Thus, the title of the title poem of Karen Garthe’s second collection The Banjo Clock nicely sets up the poetics in play here: a poetics of odd constructions, pieces of meaning removed from their original context (even if Garthe originated them, many of her lines have the feel of appropriations) and cunningly, even madly, recontextualized according to an oblique musicality that the late Barbara Guest would have appreciated. I would be prepared to claim these odd constructions for surrealism if they did not so obviously lack innocence. The collage work, both visual and linguistic, of classical surrealism aimed to reconcile reality’s oppositions within a higher- order surreality (Breton did overprize Hegel). But Garthe’s thrown-together lines dream of nothing like such reconciliation. No alchemical weddings here— instead, her wide-awake juxtapositions serve as divorcements: the parts of her poems are not all on speaking terms, but their silent glances toward one another are simultaneously sly and remorseful, mocking and self-mocking. Setting the hour a little later on the banjo clock, I could consider the debt Garthe owes to the New York School’s très ironic take on surrealism, or later still, to Language poetry’s this-is-NOT-surrealism school of disjunction. These influences are surely present in Garthe’s work, as they are inescapably present in the work of just about every other (ahem) innovative poet. But Garthe’s innovations are real enough to require no teacher’s note of permission: she pirouettes into the void, if not of her own free will, then by her own necessity. To quote the opening of a poem whose title leads straight into the body of the text: “Outside’s” 


none of the pranks of void         a furred sizzling

                                                a murmured
& outside is also a creature hunching his comma

his fervid glyph bells the roof
                                 leaf in the crowned body of the martyred lack   


It should be noted that Garthe makes liberal use of the potential of typography; her poems exhibit abrupt shifts between capitalized and italicized letters, often right in the middle of a single word. Garthe’s baroque style of inscription alters time and space on the stage of the page—not merely as a now-familiar gesture toward the materiality of the text, but as a way of overworking that materiality until it cries. The poem brings no lesson but release. The cry of dissonance that runs through these poems is exemplary of Adorno’s understanding of dissonance as “the truth of harmony.” Moreover, Garthe keeps her dissonances keyed to a high Romantic register, to the sublimity of a chaos-pattern resembling what she calls the “gassy wisps” among the stars. Aghast at their own beauty, Garthe’s poems are liable to melt down, letting their lines run away in rivulets: 


                  Ink Run damn ink
with its bit-play on startle
the temporary lease curls
       its glycerin, its fancy quiver

                                                    bears struggles, repeat: struggles
                down quibbling sludge eddies and mercury bumps
transport warmed from holding the quiet, repeat
                       The Quiet sinking down moves on 


It’s not hard to find an anti-narrative underlying many of these poems, yet the commands that are normally issued between subject and object have all been overridden (overwritten) here. The poems’ surfaces are highly prone to excitation and mutability at the slightest contact. 


                Another sleeping limo driver and too much guessy


Overnaming,      hopping    the    maginification   of   any   resemblance  to  100% 


There is, along with Garthe’s typographical enlargements and shrinkages, a restlessness of scale (including swerves between high and low culture, “Callas bouffant, Flatt & Scruggs Rubenstein”) most pertinent to our present state of lostness between all frames of reference. Her poems say to us: 




            The Loss (ride with it



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