Small Press Spotlight: Fence Books by Ben Mirov

Small Press Spotlight is a new monthly column at BOMBlog that explores the incredibly varied world of small literary presses, one at a time. First up: poetry powder keg FENCE Books. Check out our rundown of their recent releases.


The FENCE catalog already boasts an impressive array of authors such as Ariana Reines, Chelsey Minnis, Carl R. Martin, Michael Earl Craig, and Anthony McCann to name just a few. With the recent publication of Douglas Kearney, Catherine Wagner, Laura Sims, Macgregor Card, and Elizabeth Marie Young, FENCE seems intent to both widen the scope of its publications with its annual Motherwell and Modern Poets prizes, while maintaining their connection to previously published authors (Wagner and Sims both have previously published collections with the press).

Douglas Kearney, The Black Automaton National Poetry Series Winner, 2009)

Selected for the 2009 National Poetry series by Catherine Wagner, Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton encapsulates lyrical fragments from hip-hop luminaries like Young Jeezy and Dr. Dre, cultural and historical wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, references to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and an array of folk and pop culture icons. All these aspects are reanimated in Kearney’s poems in the form of calligrammes, elegies, and emotionally wrought lyrics.

The collection has the feel of a stylistic tour de force. Although many of the poems might be mistaken for nothing more than pyrotechnics, The Black Automaton is grounded in a foundation of potent emotion, and cultural artifact that give the collection a radical architecture.

One of the most potent aspects of The Black Automaton is the sense of anger and discontent bubbling beneath the collection’s 95 pages. In reading Kearney’s poems, one gets the sense that they are experiencing a kind of dormant force that, like Voltron, is a mixture of potentiality, immense destructive/constructive power, and importance to the culture it both represents and protects. If I could give one book of poetry to President Obama this year, it would be this book.

Laura Sims, Stranger (2009)

Fragmentary, elegiac, and ghostly, the poems in Laura Sims’ Stranger chart the life, death, and afterlife of Sims’ mother and Sims’ attempt to grapple with her loss. Her second book from FENCE, Stranger contains fluctuations of memory and dream-like clusters of imagery. Made up of four sections that explore the topography of Sims’ mother’s early life, her passing, and the poet’s posthumous efforts to quantify her mother’s absence, Stranger is a heroic collection of poems that will appeal to many readers.

One of the powerful aspects of the poems in Stranger is their application of silence and white space. One can’t help reading Stranger without feeling the presence of an absence, like a shot in a movie where half the frame is left empty in order to suggest a ghost, which, in a sense is what Stranger is about. Sims’ lines, though important in themselves, function as signifiers that point towards the void that engendered the book in the first place.

Stranger delivers a lot of what makes poetry vital: complexity of emotion, supernatural language, a sense of intelligence that bolsters the sparseness of Sims’ lines. However, it’s hard to consider this book without linking it to other recent, successful collections of elegies that tread the same ground with as much, if not more success. Although the poems in Stranger maintain their essential mystery and integrity they lead the reader to the edge of a realm that is at times inaccessible in its isolation.

Catherine Wagner, My New Job (2009)

Catherine Wagner’s poems in My New Job, her second collection of poems from FENCE, effortlessly map a quotidian mindscape wrought with feminine largess. Separated into five sections, Wagner’s collection seems more like a series of loosely related chapbooks than a unified collection. What keeps the collection together ideologically is Wagner’s ability to invigorate the otherwise unremarkable. Topics like yoga, fucking, baths, motherhood, relationships, and dating are treated with intensive wit and intelligence, leaving one with the feeling they’ve partaken of a spirit that is as idiosyncratic as it is full of grace.

The collection suffers a little due to its length. Despite their apparent quality, certain poems seem extraneous. One is left to wonder if My New Job would have been better with 10 to 15 fewer poems. However, Wagner is more than able to sustain her rare energy throughout the course of the book’s 114 pages. There is something undeniably enthralling about the collection.

“Exercises,” perhaps the book’s most successful section, conveys the essence of the poems in My New Job, encapsulating Wagner’s wit and verve in a series of terse, meditational poems. These poems treat poetry as a daily workout, the kind of thing that must be done, whether the practitioner feels like it or not. What’s best about these poems is the latent sense of responsibility and commitment that lingers behind the elegant movement of their lines. They bring to bear a sense of responsibility and commitment that catalyzes the poems’ preternatural ability to move from line to line and image to image with seeming effortlessness.

Macgregor Card, Duties of an English Foreign Secretary(Fence Modern Poets Series Winner, 2009)

A collection of mercurial lyric poems, Macgregor Card’s Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, is at turns brilliantly humorous, emphatically strange and unabashedly confounding.

The predominant aesthetic thread that ties the poems together is their antiquated tone, which references 19th century English ballads (the collection opens with an epigram by Sydney Dobell). Certain themes recur throughout the collection, but their recurrence seems secondary in light of the collection’s lyrical qualities. The majority of the collection seems content to forgo traditional ideas of poetry and poetic subject in order to proffer poems of musical experience. At the center of Card’s collection lies an attitude of skepticism about poetry’s ability to convey meaning.

There is a lot to enjoy in this collection. Card’s humor occurs at surprising, irregular intervals. Each poem has strong formal qualities that feel vibrant and idiosyncratic. In another sense, many of the poems travel too far into their own ether, often to their own disillusionment. At worst they leave one feeling empty, like they’ve just watched a roman candle sputter out halfway before it’s supposed ending. At best, the poems offer a sort of crazy meditative song, which gains its power and momentum from the permutational qualities of the song itself.

The heart of Card’s collection, its focus on lyric for lyric’s sake, is an aspect of English poetry worth preserving. If nothing else, the essence of the collection reinvigorates an extravagant, isolated, deeply fallible beauty, which is all but missing from contemporary poetry.

Elizabeth Marie Young, Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize (Motherwell Prize Winner, 2009)

Elizabeth Marie Young’s poems feel like they were written by an eight-year-old genius. A collection of fantastical, dense, story-like prose poems, each individual piece in Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize, mixes playfulness with vigorous intelligence and imagination into bombastic tales and personas. Many of the poems reach outside themselves into history and literature exceeding their self-contained story-like architecture by addressing issues of gender and power. Whether taken as little more than impressive panoplies or multi-dimensional constructs, each of the poems in Young’s collection is undeniably charming.

One of the best aspects of Young’s collection is that each poem seems to lack a center. Rather than deal with a singular strain of meaning or plot, the narrative aspects of the poems act as a pretense for their fractal-like potentialities of meaning. Each poem is something like a terrarium that holds a Japanese garden, a holographic image of Sappho, several bathyspheres and a partially burned Latin textbook. One feels free to move thorough each construct, picking and choosing from the dreamscape’s lush details without committing themselves to any one.

Behind the apparent playfulness and imagination is a spirit of serious intent, one that aims to condense history, literature and language into breathtaking novelties. Probably my favorite of FENCE’s recent releases, I hope Young writes again, soon.

Two Poems by Tyehimba Jess
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