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Review of Looking For An Out Place, Dennis Formento. FootHills Publishing, 2010

Much of Dennis Formento's 2010 collection, Looking for An Out Place, is suspended in abeyance, in a  tension between the recently destroyed and soon-to-be restored.  At times an index of an observed Gulf Coast landscape, at times a meditation on the latent potential of that landscape, Formento's formally varied work considers the dialectic of text and performance, reflection and action, devastation and recovery.

The book comprises three sections.  The first, “Blow,” catalogues the fragments of a vacuated New Orleans that has—in the words of Charles Olson—moved over to let the death-blow in.  Hurricane Katrina's specter looms not only in moldy relics and homes thrown open to the street, but also in the   politics and systemic disenfranchisement that fester in their presence.  In “new orleans is drunk,” for example, Formento laments the “bushite african-dispersal/practice of cleaning the slate//of the African-American/voting bloc//the only progressive majority in louisiana//g.o.p. wins the state/hands up/go quietly.”  The civic, the domestic, the electorate—nothing has escaped intact.  Here even the region's wildlife is merely skin with nothing inside.  Roadkill appear variously as “a deer's belly ripped open,” “a hawk squashed on US 11 bridge,” “rotten pelts of nutria,” a metaphoric alligator hide, the same hide once again (as its own haiku), and “dead cats and dogs/out of place on a roadway cut/through swamp,” all within the book's first twenty pages.

Though pained and thoroughly death-haunted, Formento's elegies are also grimly optimistic, informed by a faith that what is emptied will refill, like a lung. Consider this passage from “death song”:

A city emptied of its heroes,
its sheroes, its heels and
We had fallen so far
and couldn't get up.
How much farther have we now
And we must get up.
We must.
Death is a temporary condition.

Elsewhere in the book's first section, one poem's speaker is spiritually renewed by a “train song coming/through the blinds/saying cargo's going back/into New Orleans.”  In the warm, wonderfully rendered milieu of “Coffee House Kisses,” people similarly get back to their business:

Where Fair Grinds holds its own giving away free coffee six
months after the Apocalypse with a jar of dog biscuits on the stairway
—first it was a biker bar, then True Brew, and poet Bill
Myers lived above it, threw mighty poetry parties in his
livingroom where you got water gunned if you went on too
long, and the bathtub leaked into the coffeeshop downstairs
where the granola was stale but I ate it anyway because the
barista was cute, and now I'm marrying her.

Formento has described his work as “written for both the page and stage,” and one should really see him reading (on YouTube at least), with musical accompaniment, to get a sense of this book at its strongest.  His performances of the above poems in particular are a treat: reflective, yet clearly reveling in the immediacy of the poem as event, as the vehicle of authentic participation in a community.  His poetics entail not an insistence on the self as a center, but an experience of oneself in the world through the agency of poetry.  In this way the collection enacts Alfred North Whitehead's process of emergence—union between mind and world, through language––as well as Charles Olson's revision of the concept, employed as an epigram herein: “only if there is a coincidence of yourself/& the universe/is there in fact, an event.” 

Jerome Rothenberg, in conversation with William V. Spanos, speaks to this historical momentum within American poetry:  “It seems to me that since the 1950s (in some ways for several decades before), we have been working increasingly with a performance model of the poem, for which the written versions serve as the notation or the score."  He's addressing a movement toward an oral poetics, as in the work of Creeley and Baraka, distinct from New Critical prescriptions that would consider the poem realized only on the page.  Rothenberg invokes a model, rather, in which a poem's written iteration is assumed to have many spoken counterparts.   The implication of such an attitude toward the text, in which the poem is realized by flesh-and-blood people and not a disembodied intelligence, is an argument for the role of poetry itself.  For Formento that role is not circumscribed by  screen or page, but is instead a part of performance —for many New Orleans artists, the heart of cultural existence.  As “scores” for potential performance, these poems create improvisational or collaborative space where the community might incrementally be restored.

Working in this mode to varying degrees, some of Looking for An Out Place seems slighter as text than one imagines it does in the flesh.  At times the poems themselves appear incidental—“My woman's fine she is/nice and fine!/She's nice and fine!/She's sure mine!”—but this is rarely the case.  The collection's final section, conceived as a series of untitled sonnets and near-sonnets about the felicities of new marriage, is perhaps its strongest.  The poems are inflected by voices calling and responding, song lyrics, and half-heard quotes, yet all emanate from a lived, intimate, brick-and-mortar world.  They are voices that have known and shaped each other.  They are bound to a time and place.

Reviewed by James Capozzi

James Capozzi is an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia State University. He was born in West Milford, NJ. His first book, Country Album, won the New Measure Poetry Prize and is published by Parlor Press.