Choose: Selected Poems by Michael Rothenberg.
(Big Bridge Press, 2009)

Pat Nolan


Rock poet Patti Smith, in a radio interview, years ago at the beginning of her career, characterized print poets as “sleepers.”  Considering the elevated energy quotient in Choose, Rothenberg’s first selection of poems in six years, sleep doesn’t stand a chance. And though six years might not be considered a hiatus of unseemly length since the publication of his engaging and incisive Unhurried Vision (La Alameda Press, 2003), neither has Michael been snoozing.  In a mere six years, he has managed, through his affiliation with Penguin Books, to present the reading public with poetry selections by David Meltzer, and Edward Dorn, as well as edit one of the most important and radical collections of late 20th Century Modern American poetry, The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press, 2007).  Rothenberg’s own work, in Choose, is a compendium of the public and the personal: political conscience, relativity of self, matters of fact.


We want to live like movie stars

We don’t trust politicians but still

Let them run our lives

What’s another landfill of radios at 20 ft

Computers at 10ft. Poetry at five

Polyurethane embryos and vinyl blood

Take a sample, smear it on a slide

Bombard it with laser, atoms, literary criticism

Snow falls in Sierras 3 inches an hour

Chains required on major passes

Too late to turn back

The poems in Choose are acute in their apprehension of the quotidian and their accompanying edginess acts as the engine of their perpetual motion.   In command of the imperative, Rothenberg drives the seriousness of his concerns with a deliberate awareness of the rhetorical accrual of naming.  This is most evident in poems like Katrina, and Redwood Flood Watch.  Rothenberg catalogs his reaction to the catastrophe of a hurricane on the Gulf Coast and imminent flooding along the Russian River in Northern California.  Both poems employ a paratactic fragmentation that hammers away at the horrors of natural disasters, as in the case of Katrina, and at a government either unprepared or unwilling to react.  The effect builds a crescendo as in a musical piece, in the repetition of theme and the parallelism of recurring syntactic structures. Similarly Mink Household, through the sheer joy of naming, becomes a droll inventory of the vacancy of privilege.  In an orgy of nouns, both proper and common, Rothenberg creates a fizzy cocktail of animal, vegetable, mineral, people, places, and things.  Just as in Kerouac’s The Railroad Earth, where the litany of whistle stops engages the lyric sense, the nouns in Mink Household roll off the tongue with a pleasure that evokes an ancient resonance. There is an implied music to these poems, sometimes operatic, sometimes folksy, but always with an exhortative immediacy.  

Although George Steiner’s contention that all poetry is lament could be disputed, the generosity required to elegize is a gift.  This gift and the spirit of ubi sunt permeate much of Rothenberg’s work as a dominant sentiment.  The more lyric and concise poems, including Princess Of The Broken Vow At Mt. Nebo Cemetery, Grasshopper, and Rosemary Clooney Died Today, modulate like songs, using rests (pauses) in the way an improvisation works its way through a piece of jazz.   Poems for an old love, for a parent, friends, and departed poets speak directly, unadorned of self-consciousness. Rothenberg treads terrain where sleepers fear to walk.  The thirty plus poems in this selection are driven by a restless dynamism.