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With a Bang

Karen Weiser and the poetry of first things

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Karen Weiser. (Photo: Anselm Berrigan)

Karen Weiser’s first book of poetry, To Light Out, turns on a cosmic conceit. In 1964, two scientists realized that the static they heard on their radio device was the sound of the Big Bang. They were, in effect, listening to the origin of the universe. Weiser riffs on this in her introduction:

When I became pregnant my brain and body were suddenly filled with static. This static was less a sound than a sense that the flickering of snow on a tv screen had been made into liquid and pumped into my veins. It was difficult to think, hard to do anything at all. After a while, I realized that it was her signal. I couldn’t hear my own ways of thinking or feeling with this other person’s atoms multiplying inside of me. It was the sound of the big bang, and my own radio brain was tuned in.

Everything gets crossed in this passage: sounds and liquids, big and small, inside and out, baby and universe, time and whatever it was that was before time. And the poet, somewhere in the middle, registers it all.

I’m not sure what the hiss of poetic static would sound like, but I guess it would require a uniformity across the bandwidth, a murmur without specific information. Weiser gives us something else, a fine jumble that signals too much, not too little information:

A person sits next to a world of almost situations
making a living as a memoir
thoroughfares fill with drizzle scrambling
progressive strangers with their ding eyes
I am sure a fugue is near
in the almost-echo of park benches—
this is not the city of the blessed worker
Americana seduction like original face paint
reflected in a gridiron puddle

The lines veer off from each other after an initial point of contact—you can reconstruct how punctuation might connect them. There is even a kind of electrical tension between then words, especially when Weiser makes her nouns act as adjectives. You get the sense that the phrases “ding eyes” and “Americana seduction” are merely momentary hookups. Momentary, but not necessarily or completely arbitrary. Weiser’s disruptions serve a clear purpose. She is trying to get at something between the senses and between sense. She is trying to get at what she in one place calls “the ocean of more everything.”

We Jews call this ocean and this plenitude God, the Big Bang’s Big Bang, and it is tempting to read Weiser’s poems as something akin to an expression of faith. She definitely nods in this direction. She articulates a very Jewish notion of revelation:

Revelation is at heart a linguistic event
and all creatures with lungs can speak

After all, God reveals Himself by voice and in writing. He talks to the Jews. And He makes sure that the Jews and that Nature talk back. The psalmist tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God and that their voice fills all speech and every language.

But these lines appear in a poem about “macguffins,” the false leads that drive the plot of thrillers and mysteries. Our Adamic acts of naming, of finding the real names of things, might be nothing more than our own “bludgeoned burgeoning of sleep’s asymmetry.” By the same token, names are all we’ve got.  In other words, while all creatures with lungs might be talking, we can never be sure what exactly it is that they’re saying. We have to pretend—for the moment at least—that we do.

So, Weiser is really much more a skeptic than a mystic. For all that, she is a cheerful improviser on infinite themes. She sees ahead of her “an endlessly opening frontier of rapid sketches/ pressed between the pages of knowing.” The vision thing can get awfully dreary unless—like William Blake or Henry David Thoreau—you can muster a sense of humor. Karen Weiser has a sense of humor. She likes to play. She mixes up her diction and lets music direct her lines:

when I imp my wing to sing
and thrice appear a melancholy thing:
I should sleep-wake in my third-best days

On her first-best days she doesn’t seem like a melancholy thing at all.

There’s no reason for sadness. The driving force behind the poems—at least as Weiser presents them—is childbirth, not death; a potential gain and not a certain loss. At bottom, her book is predicated on the possibility, almost the certainty, of being able to meet and greet at the appointed time:

It’s small, the moment of opening between us
and I will meet you here without fail

She counts on what she terms “the generosity of opening.”

This opening might be spiritual. It is also quite literal—there is nothing  as concrete as pregnancy and childbirth—and thumpingly American. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, that quintessential, boys-own dream of freedom, Huck tells us that he is going “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.” Weiser wants to light out for new territory as well, but she’s not a guy and the adventure is internal. At the same time it’s also out there in the ether, in the linguistic equivalent of an electromagnetic hum.

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Rachel says:

It’d be nice to know why you’ve chosen to write about Karen Weiser. Her writing is enjoyable but I have no idea who she is and why she’s come out of left field.

Also, did Twain spell “civilize” with an “S”?

David Kaufmann. says:

I like to switch off. One month I write about an established poet and the next I try to write about a lesser-known one. I would like to introduce readers to good poets they might not otherwise find–that is, writers who come from “left field.” So I wrote about her precisely because her poetry is enjoyable and I hope that others will agree with both you and me.

Actually, she is not quite out of left field–she has been publishing chapbooks and giving readings for the better part of a decade.

In my edition of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Twain does indeed spell it the English way.

miha says:


Just type Karen Weiser on Google, and you discover her poems, some bio, published poems here and there. It is very original voice. I have not read anything similar:

She is not readily accessible to anyone. Great poets rarely are. A poetry reader is like student one student in a classroom: some learn faster, some take longer, some never learn what some words are all about.

I am somewhere in upper middle group of poetry readers. David Kauffman review opened my eyes. The analogy with Huckleberry Finn is amazing.

“The novel of Mark Twain’s is about a young boy, Huck, coming of age. It is a story of Huck’s struggle to win freedom for himself and Jim, a runway slave. The many adventures that Huck goes on become a learning process to maturity by learning to be self-sufficient, sic “sivilize”, adverse, and adventurous.”

Here is another poem I found of Karen

To Light Out

To light out is to burst into young legs
toward an opening in the newly made wild
toward the stain of gold machines we have set in motion
around the curtain of bad weather

in the opening of its glimpse the conversation flutters like gardens that are the garden’s brother
I say Pass me my book of gardens
to cultivate a generosity of opening

You say the gardens are heavy with saffron associations
and we are kneeling in its applied territory
a blistered web of circumstance
is distributing the way we desire ourselves
having been built by these environments

Take your horn out of the night garden of constellations
and vow me a club of body
an endlessly opening frontier of rapid sketches
pressed between the pages of knowing

To light out, is the other option than letting others to “sivilize” us.

At any age, we need “young legs” that we can get as soon as we see “an opening”, a new wild that few others see.

The Exodus is exactly having this vision. This week’s parsha, Eikev, about conquering the New Land is one of many examples of “lighting out” in our tradition.

N.Shum-Ish says:

Mr. Clemens wrote “sivilize” for comic dialect. The English, knowing their Latin and perhaps tending to “civilise,” would feel insulted.

After Reading ‘With A Bang’

There are two kinds of power, the grand CATHEDRAL and the manger, the
CASTLE OF THE EMPEROR and the thatched hut of a Basho(or a Weiser.) None of us has to choose, but may be chosen. And all of this in one world.
A Plato, a Kant, an Aquinas chooses to know all, A Jesus. a Mohammed, a Buddha to save all. A Homer, a Dante, a Shakespeare to say ALL. We may sing our some. Our sum!

miha says:


“sivilize” makes the English insulted? The English who gave us Shakespeare, and the sense o humor will capture this much better than most Americans, some of them unable to read poetry, never mind Karen’s poetry

David Kaufmann. says:

My apologies. I didn’t read the question correctly or check my check. Yes, it should be sivilize. And the English, who are wonderful at insult in all its forms, deserve better than what I (mis)wrote here.

Margaret says:

I really appreciate that you highlight lesser-known poets. As a young aspiring poet myself, I find reviews like this to be very encouraging. Thank you!

N.Shum-Ish says:

Well, I’m hoist too. Huck is the noble savage, illiterate yet articulate. But via Twain’s sharp yet subtle pen Mr Finn is testily (but nobly) sending us all up for our affectation to even think the first consonant could be enunciated some archaic way closer to the Roman, as if spelling it “civ” or “siv” mattered.

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With a Bang

Karen Weiser and the poetry of first things

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