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Volume 27, Fall 2016
The Penny Poet of Portsmouth,
by Katherine Towler,
Counterpoint Press, 2016,
282 pages, paper, $16.95,
In the hands of the most gifted memoirist, (seemingly) ordinary lives are shaped into extraordinary lives; their subjects becoming through the telling of their stories larger than life — perhaps even mythical — when taken in full context, to include post–scripted entries made during those immediate years after the subject has passed away. You’ve heard of The Great American Novel? Well, this is The Great American Memoir, one that does not have to depend upon hyperbole and invention to make it a compelling read.
The Penny Poet of Portsmouth is not simply an amassed collection of anecdotes and stories about Robert Dunn as told by the author. Dunn is very much alive and speaking throughout the entire memoir in his own words via actual spoken dialogue between he and Towler, between the quotation marks. If but one sentence spoken by the man himself defines his destined purpose on this earth, it would be from page 200: “Without poetry, I do not see that life is worth living.” Towler’s relationship to Dunn could arguably be defined as the role of Zen student to Roshi master.
Towler manages also to reveal to us the full spectrum of how a writer must live in order to produce a lasting and valuable body of work, the daily balancing act of securing the critical alone time to write while having to accomplish the necessary mundane chores and still find the time for spouse, family, and community friendships. It should be stated here that Dunn, though an amazingly gifted poet and genuine fey presence in his own right, was not a saint. He could at times be very demanding and passive aggressive, and that in turn imposed an ongoing burden of guilt upon Towler, who was not only a friend but took on the role of errand runner and caretaker to Dunn during his last few years, as his health began to rapidly decline. From the notebooks of Robert Dunn:
The most hideous moments of the last judgment might be the
discovery that I had barely tolerated people who are much
better than I. It would be such a loss not to delight in the
differences. People are strong and weak, wise and foolish, here
Towler’s memoir (she is also a novelist and poet) is almost as much about the growing pains in the evolution of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from circa 1990 to the present day, as it is about Robert Dunn, a recognizable fixture who could almost daily be seen strolling the downtown streets or sitting on a public bench. Dunn was a throwback, a modern day Basho, and a Luddite of sorts. Though physically diminutive, Dunn was a cerebral titan: “He was able to read French, German, Latin, and Greek, though he never studied any of these languages, except perhaps briefly, in school.” He composed each of his poems in his head over a period of two to three months and was able to recite all of his poems from memory. He committed a certain number of poems to paper in the form of small handmade books to sell for a penny to his friends (hence the book’s title) or to send off to literary magazines. One can only imagine how many poems died with the man, poems that were never captured on paper. Dunn was amazingly tough as well, having stoically survived through COPD, a collapsed lung, pneumonia, a broken hip, and congestive heart disease before passing away in 2008 at the age of 65. The Penny Poet of Portsmouth includes many excerpts from poems, complete poems, and notebook entries. Here is one poem in full, and typical of most all of Dunn’s poems, untitled:
Walking by day through the
Historic District you feel uneasy,
as though someone was trying to
tell you something, and that untrue.
But at night the whispers tell
how Flash Charley passed out right
in Pig Turd Alley, and what
Gimlet Alice said to the piano
player before she and everyone else
For those who wish to obtain and read a well–edited selection of Dunn’s published work, one need go no further than to pick up a copy of his 2016 Selected Poems, One Of Us Is Lost, from Hobblebush Books.
— Wayne Atherton
Story & Luck,
by W.E. Butts,
Adastra Press, 2015,
26 pages, paper, $17,
“W.E. Butts understands . . . what the great jazz man Charlie Mingus meant,” writes David Allan Evans, “when he said that ‘anybody can play weird, but what’s difficult is to be simple.’”
Fundamentally sound, a poet of immense depth and consideration, Butt’s work is primarily informed by two seemingly different eras. One influence is the post–WII period, with its well–earned nostalgia for home life and its attachment to honest living, dignity, and tradition, which makes for a poetry highly reflective and quietly infused with the language of his Catholic upbringing, ever reaching at earnestness, and given over to a lower–case truth–telling. A second influence is the 1960s, with its inherent tensions, upheavals, and mad rush into experiment and text–distrust, resulting in a heightened engagement with the world, more questioning, and even some strands of ambivalence and disillusionment — though all of it tempered by a Near–Eastern economy of gesture and preoccupation with the thought–ordinary image, this idea of writing–as–practice or inquiry, and an almost noir–ish nod to the past with a loosening up of his diction and lines.
Eventually, he would combine the two strains into a lyric–narrative hybrid that is remarkably thoughtful and wise, clear–eyed and urgent, and mightily concerned with humanity and its shaping, ongoing push towards the ideal. Regardless of what stage in his evolvement, Butt’s poetry is always unfailingly devoted, ever–measured and studied, to the rooting out of one’s voice, the perfecting of form, and the demands placed on us by being: the self–made–poet.
So it’s fitting that Story & Luck kicks off with this house brand of mysticism from another great jazz man, Fats Waller — “One never knows, do one?” — with its makeshift narrative, this strut of sorts, trained as best as it can on uncertainty, fate. While still interested in the same time–tested matters of his earlier work, Butts’ delivery feels even steadier, more determined, as he knowingly metes out this wisdom that, while modest, risks being dismissed by a younger audience seemingly addicted to the slickest of skill sets, power pointed–ness. Unlike the mass of writing today that opts for either stylistic overkill, cleverness (for not even cleverness’ sake . . . ) or these lists making much too much of one’s (you must forgive me . . . ) listlessness, he can always be counted on to meet not only memory, and all it asks of us, but his readership, more than halfway. Butts does so from the opening poem, “Primary”— a short and rarified briefing on politics, both local and not so, that draws more from the natural world than it does from the humanly legislated (“Weather reminds us / we too will settle”), its final gesture more bent on firming up and abiding–in, bringing to order, than it is about resignation, putting desire to rest — to the last, “James Wright’s Horses” which signs off with a familiar blessing still essential even when stared down by a battery of ailments (“There are certain words / that will transport us / to that other, flowering self ”), a benediction not only in mind of the words but the breaths that go into it.
Yes, grief figures in some way, in all of these poems, how the letting go of things, living, is both sired and resisted in the telling of it. But while the mood is meditative, tenderly voiced, its cast is democratic and masterfully commanded, whether it be the near–metaphysical trek of “The Cabin” with its half–imagined
gaining–on (“ . . . the higher you go / the cooler the air, the more / you feel elemental / and necessary”) or the tenaciously summoned reminiscences of loved ones in “Story”:
You look at the photograph hanging on your wall,
the one your friend took after a snow storm
of you and your wife, alone on the street, remote,
that could be anyone, and above your heads
the Rosa’s sign in red script glowing against a
Butts also gives numerous shout–outs to art — to music (“Some Small Blessing”), sculpture, photography (“In the Hand of a Graveyard Angel”), and, not surprisingly, literature. It is here where Story & Luck gains its hardest thought insights, its final
three poems registering one’s first and furthest initiation into that most noble of start–ups, where our words are forever working their way out from the dark:
First, “Lucky Deer,” a poem, which Walter’s wife S Stephanie explains in the Introductory Note, was “inspired by his grand–daughter Catherine, and his reading aloud a book (Brothers of the Senecas, which was actually written by Walter’s uncle Walter E. Butts Jr.) to her and her sister Chloe.” He reads the poem reverently, stirring to the line “Because history holds us to who we are,” before retiring, after several beddy–time misreads, with “The story changes, but it is always ours.”
And next–to–last, “Learning Williams,” in which a teacher’s animated lesson sells him on that most lyric of doctors, leading to this sermon–like moment: “I had come here an outcast, a kid in trouble but / one who loved / what words could do, how they silenced poverty / and shame, / and showed me things for what they truly were.”
And then, finally, “James Wright’s Horses” where that earlier seed–planting pays off with a wealth of what is most pressing.
And so, let us all say it now. With new meaning: Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.
— Mark DeCarteret
The Kerosene Singing,
by Alistair Noon,
Nine Arches Press, Rugby, U.K., 2015,
64 pages, paper, £9.99,
Alistair Noon is a native Brit who has lived mainly in Berlin for the past twenty years or so, and along the way mastered not just German but Chinese, Russian, and good bits of several other languages. His poetry, as his recent collection The Kerosene Singing reveals, is a product partly of a deft sense of logopoeia — or “dance of the intellect among words,” as Ezra Pound instructed us — and, moreover, a masterful skill with the musical properties of words, or melopoeia, and the dreamlike states music coaxes from reality.
Noon’s subject matter covers, in a British ex–pat idiom, the gist of the postmodern sensibilities of this era: the relationship of personal to sociopolitical life; the ironies of power, especially in foreign lands; the strangely meaningful emptiness of the everyday; and the general ridiculousness of practically everything.
These subjects are bound mainly into little narratives that tend to start out as some kind of a foreign excursion, journey to a friend’s apartment, or shuffle home. At the outset of “Riding Home with Michel Foucault,” the speaker is on a train platform peering at its surrealistic announcement board. Then:
I run for the doors
to take my temporary seat
and read the origin of laws.
The books beside me speak:
“Where are you now on the market?”
“Are you sure you’re on the right diet?”
This State is my life, it asks me
to ride and read by night . . . .
Here, and often in Noon’s world, the everyday is permeated in dreamlike ways by sociopolitical pressures. In “Ode on a Bottle of Maotai,” the packaging itself becomes a wry, ironically nightmarish figure of a Chinese communist approach to the politics of marketing:
Rip off the red plastic, friend, unscrew
that top! Now pour. Downstream of the Dam
the engineers have raised their toast,
a hint of vomit in its scent and taste:
Oh hold your drink and don’t fall down.
Likewise, “Khakassian Masks” takes us on a dreamlike journey through Central Asian history, with all kinds of implications about the Russian present. “Dream,” he writes, “and the narratives arrive. / There, in the smoke, the souls rise.” No coincidence here, either, that one of Noon’s explicit guides in poetry and politics is Osip Mandelstam, whose poetry he has translated.
The tenor of all this is conveyed in exquisitely wrought sonic patterns. In the lines from “Riding Home with Michel Foucault,” the slant rhymes in “seat”/“speak” and “diet”/“(life)”/“night” form a sonic thread. These assonances also are not accidents.
The best example of Noon’s music from The Kerosene Singing might be “An Update on the Status of Frost,” in its entirety:
Windows make fine translators
in cold, white morning light.
Gingko leaves, barbed wire lines,
rivers when viewed from space.
About our future, I would say:
the management of forests,
new languages of frost,
the constant labour of status.
The slant rhymes “light”/“lines,” “forest”/“frost” are immediately chordant on the ear, and a subtler thread is the assonant long A carried across “translators”/“space”, “say”/“status” (in the British pronunciation). These patterns shape the melopoeia that, in Pound’s words, creates “the bridge between consciousness and the unthinking sentient or even unsentient universe.”
Despite these poems’ persistent ironic humor, it sometimes feels like history is the proverbial nightmare from which the poet is trying to awake. But he says the emphasis is in the opposite direction: “I am slowly trying to emulate Mandelstam’s futurism, in the widest sense,” he has said, in response to a question about history and poetry, “and redirect what I write that way out of the present, if possible.”
The Kerosene Singing is well worth looking into, as are his previous collection, Earth Records (Nine Arches Press, 2012), and his chapbooks, like Swamp Area and Across the Water (Longbarrow Press, 2012), Out of the Cave (Calder Wood Press, 2011) and Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution (Gratton Street Irregulars, 2010).
— Dana Wilde
Volume 27, Summer 2016
Bright Scythe, Selected Poems,
by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane,
Sarabande Books, 2015, 240 pages, paper,
Sweden’s great poet, the 2011 Nobel Prize winner, Tomas Tranströmer (1931–2015), produced a relatively spare and exquisite oeuvre over the course of his life. He published his first works at age 23, and proceeded, with great regularity, to produce numerous slim volumes of poems over the following fifty years. During that time, he balanced writing with his work as a psychologist and his family life. He also found time to become an accomplished pianist (playing concerts and recording a CD) and an amateur entomologist. In 1990, Tranströmer suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side and impaired his ability to speak. He continued writing, with great and increasing difficulty, publishing two more books of poems and a memoir, and trained himself to play piano with only his left hand.
Tranströmer is a poet of borders, boundaries, and thresholds. Always crossing and re–crossing, his was a restless intelligence that challenged supposed dichotomies of space and time, the conscious and unconscious, penetrating barriers and rendering them much more murky and mysterious than previously assumed and, in a sense, less clear and more gray, in the way we know life really is. The poems contain countless occurrences of dreaming and waking, thresholds between life and death, and boundary markers in the human and natural landscape: the edge of a forest, a half–open door, a window. Vehicles in the poems transgress and move through these boundaries: trains, cars, vans, and boats carry the speaker and reader through liminal spaces.
Translation, too, is a process that crosses spaces and challenges borders. And much like Tranströmer’s poems, it permits us, notes Edith Grossman in Why Translation Matters, “for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.” Translation allows us to experience the “otherness” within ourselves and in our own lives, not unlike the uncanny otherness that Tranströmer cultivated in his poems. And nowhere is that understanding more prevalent than for the translator herself. “I felt as if I were discovering a third language where English and Swedish intersected,” says Patty Crane, “And that language is mirrored in the poetry itself, where the boundaries between inner and outer landscapes — the psyche and the world — seem to shift, open and somehow merge.”
One of Tranströmer’s first poems, published in 17 Dikter (1954), is “Stones.” May Swenson translated the poem in 1972, Robin Fulton’s translation of Tranströmer’s entire body of work was first published in 1987 (and updated in 1997 and 2006 subsequently), and Patty Crane has again translated the poem here. The differences between these translations are not small, and have to do with when and how the action is occurring — verb tense — as much as with sentence construction or word choice. Swenson’s translation begins: “Stones that we have thrown I hear /falling, glass–clear through the years.” The opening line of Fulton’s translation begins, “The stones we threw I hear /fall, glass–clear though the years.” And Crane’s: “The stones we have thrown, I hear /fall, glass–clear through the year.” Fulton’s phrasing seems to direct the throwing of specific stones to a very specific time, whereas Swenson’s and Crane’s choice of the present perfect locate the action in the unspecified past. In all cases, the speaker continues to hear the stones “glass–clear,” a hybrid word chosen by all three translators, taken from the Swedish word glasklara, meaning “crystal clear.”
One of the real delights of the Crane translation is the accompaniment of the Swedish text on the facing page. It allows the reader to note the poem’s original shape and form, and to recognize relationships between the two languages. It allows us to see that the rhythm and repetition in the Swedish “trädtopp till trädtopp” and “bergstopp /till bergstopp” can be carried forward in the English “treetop to treetop” and “hilltop /to hilltop” (Fulton) or “mountain–top/to mountain–top” (Crane). Other significant differences in word choice between the translators of “Stones” include how the “confused actions of the moment” (Fulton and Crane), are “made mute” (Swenson) or “become silent” (Fulton) “in thinner air”; while they are “quieting /in air thinner than now’s” in Crane’s version. In a sense there is a difference in the agency of the air itself — air “made,” “becoming,” or “quieting” — that affects the movement and energetic arc of the poem. Crane’s deft solution allows the rhythm and tone established in the first lines to continue.
To my ear, Swenson’s is the most wooden of the three, incorporating what feel like too many excess articles and conjunctions — “in thinner air than that of the present” (my italics). But often this sort of complication belies a fidelity to the text, a direct translation. Crane’s translation seems to avoid this awkwardness while maintaining fidelity to the form. And while Fulton’s rendering of the poem falls more firmly in the past — and his translations are widely considered the most literal — Crane’s translation allows the poem to remain more temporally open, suspended in the in–between, through the use of gerunds — “quieting,” “gliding” — until the final, ending lines, “Where /all our deeds fall /glass–clear /to no ending /except ourselves.”
In longer, more complex poems, Crane’s translations remain spare and seem tightly cleaved to the form of the original Swedish. In the beautiful longer poem, “Vermeer,” Tranströmer imagines Johannes Vermeer’s studio shares a wall with the raucous world of a lively tavern; “No sheltered world . . . ” it begins. Crane’s translation moves more “comfortably” for the English reader, with phrases such as “The great explosion and the delayed trampling of rescuers, /boats swaggering at anchor . . . ” in contrast to Fulton’s: “The big explosion and the tramp of rescue arriving late, /the boats preening themselves on the straits. . . . ” Crane’s is less searching, and more directly conveys meaning. While the “making strange” — or of language may serve to engage a reader in productive tension, the contents of Tranströmer’s poems contain enough strangeness to keep us more than engaged: it is paradoxically the spareness and linguistic concision in his poems that lets us float in the wonder of his borderlands.
In “Vermeer,” the thin wall that separates the private painter from the noise of the world becomes one of the insurmountable walls in our lives; we must pass through it, yet with excruciating difficulty. And then, in the beautiful, transcendent last stanza, translated identically by both Fulton and Crane, he surprises us:
The clear sky has leaned against the wall.
It’s like a prayer to the emptiness.
And the emptiness turns its face to us
“I am not empty, I am open.”
It is often said that a great poet deserves many translators. Tranströmer welcomed the differences his translators brought to the poems. When John Deane brazenly wrote Tranströmer regarding his impressions that previous translators — Robert Bly, May Swenson, and Robin Fulton, among others — were unsuccessful, the poet replied encouragingly and challenged him to do better. (See his translation of For the Living and the Dead.) It is my impression that through multiple translations, a community of readers learns a poet and his poems, deepening our understanding of the qualities of a unique intelligence. Through this collective project, the translations get better. Each new word choice, each grammatical moment challenged and fussed over, brings us closer to the meaning inhabiting the work. And yet, as with Tranströmer’s poems, the closer we approach, too, the further away we become. There is no “one text”; there are many texts overlapping in murky territories, these boundaries that so often falsely divide us that Tranströmer sought to transcend. Patty Crane worked closely with Tomas Tranströmer and his wife Monica for three years to craft the meaning in these carefully selected poems. Bright Scythe is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of Tranströmer’s concise and penetrating body of work.
— Julie Poitras Santos
Literature for Nonhumans,
by Gabriel Gudding, Ahsahta Press, 2015,
144 pages, paper, $22,
I was born in Chicago, “the great bovine city of the world,” “the historical city of the slaughterhouse,” as Gabriel Gudding aptly refers to it in Literature for Nonhumans. I was vaguely aware of Chicago’s, and all of Illinois’, slaughterhouse history, which Gudding examines shovel load upon encyclopedic shovel load, but like so many of us, I buried that knowledge deep in the back of the mind, where I conveniently don’t access it very often. That history is in the not–so–distant past; also in the not–so–distant past are my many years of vegan — and vegetarianism. Once the young man who stocked barbeque tempeh (“it’s not that bad, right!!!?!!?”) in
his parents’ refrigerator, now I count myself among the masses of lapsed vegetarians. There are many of us out there, plugging the holes in our conscience with organic sliders and free–range beef pups. As Gudding writes in his stunningly direct and spare Afterword, “the very thinkers who love animals and grow disturbed by their mass slaughter still eat them . . . still tell themselves it’s possible to humanely slaughter.”
I am among the guilty, and let it be said that I feel appropriately shamed. And yet, this is a poetry review. And Literature for Nonhumans is supposed to be a book of poetry, though it doesn’t always feel like it. I brought the book to the first day of my creative writing class, and we played “the novel game” with it, even though it isn’t a novel. For this game, I read the book’s back cover to the class, and then they tried to write the first sentence of that book. I’ll explain more of the game later in the review. However, after reading the book’s back cover to my class, I could tell I’d lost them. Eyeballs rolled back in heads; sighs escaped with obvious force. One young man laughed uproariously like he’d just heard a great joke: “Wait, wait . . . no, seriously . . . seriously . . . what did you just say? What’s this book about?”
What indeed is this book about? I told my student it was about slaughterhouses and animal rights. “Cool,” he said, but I could tell he wished it wasn’t about that. In retrospect my answer was rather stupidly reductive, but I chalked that up as yet another failed moment in the teaching of poetry. What can we do? This book is about many, many things. As the blurb on the back reads, it “links rivers, slaughterhouses, cars, buffalos, geology, churches, corn, defecation, piglet management, zombies, watches, sex. . . . ”
But mainly, it’s about nonhumans (meaning animals) and why we shouldn’t kill them. It all comes back to this refrain, though I couldn’t help but think that if, as the title suggests, this is supposed to be literature for nonhumans, wouldn’t my dog choose something a little more straightforward, a bit simpler, than this? Maybe something like . . . Hemingway? I could imagine my dog pointing to Gudding’s book in a bookstore, saying, “That’s a great book.” Then he’d choose All the Light We Cannot See.
Gudding is a seriously skilled poet. For example, take this passage from the section “Rivers for Animals”:
the sea is such an immense, babbling reservoir of urine . . .
sinking bags of organism, hull bottoms, dead children, ions,
and over it lolls the solar ovum banging through a park, the
south trees of a park, and there it goes getting onto a boat
under a river.
I love the galactic leap from “dead children” to “ions,” and then I really love the assonance that butts and smooths together “ions” and “over it,” and then the satisfying switch of the tongue to the roof of the mouth for the three “l”s in “lolls,” echoing that again in “solar,” and finally returning to the ghost of the assonance with that banging ovum. All ova will forever bang for me from now on.
Gudding’s prose (though I even feel forced to call it that) is far from prosaic, and I’d also not say it’s prose poetry, but more a poetic prose, wave upon wave, and it washes over you with the rhythmic lapping and sometimes crashing of history, economics, philosophy, and ethics: prose as a letting go of syntactic sense. “Rivers — their reason.” Poetry, its own reason.
But that’s not to say Gudding lacks a sense of humor in the midst of his vegan river rage. Body parts and functions litter the text, but I suppose one would have to find these funny, as I do, to consider it humor. I mean, how could you not think “Tart smell of farts over river water” isn’t a little bit funny? He also manages to use “anus” three times (unless I missed one), which prompts me to ask, how many times can one use “anus” in a book? Three times? That too much? Each one causes puckering.
But I have a feeling that this is exactly what Gudding is going for. He wants us attuned to our bodies so that we cannot so easily dismiss the bodies of our nonhuman brothers and sisters. Sometimes, he hits us with a moral slab of tofu: “We can feel comfort and love while eating a turkey while collectively denying the turkey’s wish for comfort and love, her desire to play and live.” Even with the syntax slightly off, the line hangs heavy, and feels less like poetry and more like polemics. That, indeed, is exactly the line this book walks. In fact, Gudding distances himself from a–ethical — ethically neutral — poetry that possesses a “performative indifference” to things like animal slaughter. Such conceptual poetry, as described on the Harriet Blog by K. Goldsmith and quoted by Gudding, “wouldn’t dare make the presumption that it has the power to affect the world for better or worse.” Indeed, that is the stuff that gives poetry a bad name.
It’s this sense of anguish, sometimes rage, that fills the book. When I finished reading it, I felt like I’d finished a novel, albeit one that moves primarily on one plane, ranging out widely to touch its topics. The book pulses with energy. In a highly entertaining and informative section about clocks and pocketwatches, Gudding writes:
Praised be the escapement, a device which through repetitive
mechanical motion regulates the running down of the
[e]motive powers. [reviewer’s creative emphasis]
This quote applies to Gudding’s entire book, which is a device to regulate and distribute the significant emotive powers at play. It feels measured in its passions because it needs to be. Otherwise, primal rage rarely sways a reader.
To end this review, I return to “the novel game.” As my students wrote their first line attempts, I copied down Gudding’s interestingly spaced first line (“The plan ets are old co l ore d platforms, almost porches.”). Then I collected all first lines, shuffled, and read them aloud, mixing in the real first line, and asked my students to vote. Surprisingly, no one voted for Gudding’s poetically unique opener; instead, a line about Hogwarts received the most votes. A professional hoop dancer in the front row, after hearing the real first line, said: “Yeah, I heard that one, and thought about it, but then I decided it was the worst of all.”
“No, no, wait, give it a chance,” I said to him. “It grows on you.”
— Jefferson Navicky
Volume 27, Spring 2016
There are no reviews this issue.
Volume 27, Winter 2016
Cartographies of Scale (and Wing), by Anca Vlasopolos,
Avignon Press, 2015, 91 pages, hard
Cartographies of Scale (and Wing), Anca Vlasopolos’s third poetry collection, is an unnerving book — a warning. Her resounding concerns are with what humans do to the world, in our quest to explore, to conquer, and to exploit. For that, the thrust of this collection makes clear, is what humans have done through time: discovered new worlds, and then systematically destroyed them.
In the opening sections of her book, the poet writes to and about the scientists Gerardus Mercator (the creator of the Mercator projection map) and Samuel Bowditch (whose Bowditch Navigator revolutionized ocean navigation). These are, in her estimation, the men whose work enabled man’s conquering of the world. Yet Vlasopolos circles her subjects warily: Could these men have known what their work would lead to? She hints at this in “Mercator Makes Maps,” when, wondering how he came to his “geometric genius,” she asks:
was it a grape
as you walked
The violence Mercator has perhaps done to the world by metaphorically flattening it for the rest of human exploration becomes more obvious as Cartographies widens in scope. Vlasopolos writes of what the world has lost as humankind willfully tramples it underfoot. In “That and We,” the speaker, “exploring a stone’s throw / from a four–lane street,” reflects upon a progress which appalls her, with people who
sank dead posts
The natural world of insects and birds with which the speaker has a natural affinity has been displaced, then lost. The poetry touches upon dwindling monarch butterfly populations in “At Water’s Edge”:
this year bereft of butterflies
are left from plenty’s tapestry
It is the language of both beauty and despair, the plenty set in juxtaposition with the tatters left as the butterflies disappear from their habitats. Vlasopolos also writes of dwindling and extinct bird species, such as in the tragic “Empty Spoons,” where a southeast Asian family which formerly lived on birds caught for food now starves, as those birds’ habitats are replaced by “abandoned concrete walls.” The imagery of this collection is meticulous and ruthless.
Interesting, as well, is Vlasopolos’s use of white space in the structure of her poetry. So many times, in pieces such as the aforementioned “That and We,” she places lines on the page in ways that echo both the exploration and exploitation of the world about which she writes. Willful destruction is emphasized by short, hammering lines, pounding human constructions into the ground, or into the reader’s head. Gerardus Mercator, in “Mercator Makes Maps,” exists in lines that are snapped to the margins, much as he attempted to snap the world to lines of latitude and longitude, when he
nail[ed] to the wall
now emptied of loving roundness
In nailing the lines to the margin, the poet makes more horrifying the metaphorical and subsequent rape of that “little globe.” In contrast to these left–justified lines, symbols of the natural world, such as the icebergs in “ID Denied,” float across the sea on the horizon:
four ice floes no
small icebergs maybe iceberg tips
moving west in blinding line of winter sunset
Structure, for Vlasopolos, is a favorite tool to support meaning; the readers get the that sense that for her, the world is open, save for when human progress closes it down — and for her, the danger of the world closing down entirely is imminent.
Mercator and Bowditch, Vlasopolos argues with layer upon layer of painstaking detail, opened the world for us. But rather than marvel at the wonders, we have destroyed them, and, as a result, are destroying ourselves. We are, she implies, blind in our arrogance, and in this collection, the poet (always the messenger who is scorned, or worse, ignored) hauntingly warns readers that
so much depends in each of these (to us) invisible links
— Anne Britting Oleson
Ellery Street, by David Ferry,
Grolier Established Poets Series, 2015,
36 pages, $25 for the benefit of the Grolier Poetry Book Store,
Bewilderment is the title of David Ferry’s last collection before his latest book, Ellery Street, and Ferry uses “bewilderment” to enact the language not only of old age, but of our entire human condition.
For example, consider this snippet of Ferry’s nearly completed Aeneid translation, parts of which were published in Bewilderment, which describes the soldiers coming out of the Trojan horse to disorient and overwhelm the city at night:
And then they enter the city that’s deep submerged in wine
sleep. . . .
Here, again, is the language of bewilderment in one of Ferry’s poems, “At the Lake,” in which he describes the lake not only as susceptible to climate change but also to emotional change:
It is a summer afternoon in October.
I am sitting on a wooden bench looking out at the lake
through a tall screen of evergreens,
Or rather, looking out of the plane of the lake,
Seeing the light shaking upon the water
As if it were a shimmering of heat.
Yesterday, when I sat here, it was the same,
The same displaced, out of season effect.
Seen twice it seemed a truth was being told.
The pitch–perfect ear that picks up something out of joint is now carried forward into Ferry’s new compilation, Ellery Street. In the preface, Ferry’s longtime friend and colleague Ifeanyi Menkiti describes some of these poems that have haunted Menkiti for half a century:
A lapsed awareness, or elapsed memory, will often come
back with your life, as if
the poems were saying that we are not yet done with our
days, that something else
is around the corner.
This compilation becomes an extended metaphor for and meditation on living in a place for a long time. That place, an historic house in which Ferry lived for over half his life, is the focus of this consciousness of living in a place.
Ferry and his late wife, Anne Ferry, were not the first poets to live there. Ellery Street was a house in Cambridge where Margaret Fuller had once rented a room, and where Emerson came to visit. But in this collection, the house is permeated by Ferry’s language of actual living, rather than any vestiges of Fuller or Emerson.
Beginning it in the reading room (isn’t it nice to have a room in your house that you call the reading room?), the poems move through a succession of vantage points, from the rooms to the street to the garden — often encountering neighbors and strangers walking around. The whole collection retains the view of living in a house next to others in a neighborhood, and perhaps even more interestingly, the poems in the collection become the rooms in the house and the areas surrounding the house.
Once we are thoroughly at home with the place of Ellery Street, inside and out, Ferry invokes classical figures — for example, Eurydice at the bus stop or Lazarus in his makeshift backyard camp — and thereby integrates ancient and modern figures into everyday roles. These allusions and translations, far from being off–putting, bring us more deeply into the life of the place and its surroundings.
A poem that brings together all the aspects living in Ellery Street is “Lazarus,” Ferry’s portrait of his homeless neighbor.
The dogheaded wildman sleeps in the back alley,
Behind the fence with bittersweet adorned,
In the corner of the garden over near
Where the viburnum flowers or fails to flower,
Depending on whether or not we water it.
Many times over again it has survived.
The leaves are homely, crudely rough–cut, with
A texture like sandpaper, an unluscious green,
Virtuous in look, not really attractive;
Like Kent in Lear plainspoken, a truth–teller,
Impatient with comparison as with deceit. . . .
The peaceful portrait of Lazarus sleeping among the viburnum blends perfectly with the poems that precede and follow it; it is at the center of Ferry’s universal care and understanding. He invokes Kent in King Lear, “plainspoken, a truth teller, / Impatient with comparison as with deceit.” The final image of Lazarus sleeping among the detritus of Ellery Street centers these poems.
This is in fact a perfect collection of poems, culled from Ferry’s other fine collections (Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations and Bewilderment). I say “perfect” because if the goal of poetry is to remind us what it means to be human in a certain place and time, then Ferry’s extended metaphor, Ellery Street, perfectly succeeds in this function.
— Mark Schorr
The Truth Is We Are Perfect, by Janaka Stucky,
Third Man Books, 2015,
76 pages, paper, $15.95,
“The Art of Loss Is a Lost Art,” reads the title of the third poem in Janaka Stucky’s volume of poetry, The Truth Is We Are Perfect, recently published by Third Man Books. Unlike Bishop’s infamous poem “One Art,” the narrator in Stucky’s collection does not concede to loss nor accept prescribed stages of grief. Instead, he approaches loss as a spiritual initiation through which one is broken open and transformed. More ecstatic dirge than “grief poetry,” the verses are tough, unpredictable, and spare.
The aforementioned poem* sets the tone for the first section of the book, which preludes and sets the tone for grief as does death itself. The poem opens with ritualistic images, the speaker vacillating between acceptance and denial:
Because I love a burning thing
I made my heart a field of fire
In this way I own nothing
Can lose nothing
The first stanza speaks to the impermanence of love and life itself; the image of fire in the chest is stunning in this metaphor. Reading the second stanza, with its “I own nothing / Can lose nothing,” I think, I’ve met this guy before; he wants to make himself insusceptible to hurt. But as the poem carries on, he can’t defend himself against the pain of love lost, admitting, “The mooncake you fed me remains / A ghost upon my tongue.” As the poem ends, we see just how vulnerable the speaker has become:
I make with my mouth
The hour of your arrival
Again and again
In my indefinite sleep
Many of the poems end with stark images that seem to encapsulate the felt sense of loss in the body yet remain stubbornly mysterious in their literal meaning, the effect of which can be quite awesome. For example, “I’m a Fool Who Are You” haunts with visceral images that give the reader just enough to feel the hurt:
When you begin my world buckles into
Your skin glows like a sidewalk in the dark
Your mouth an alley with my murder inside
The longing and betrayal evoked in these images are at once wonderfully real and dreamlike. Certainly when one loses a loved one, a part of himself or herself is lost as well, but the author takes this cliché and exaggerates it to the extreme wherein loss means murder, a cutting off of the part that was connected to the loved one. By embodying the absence of the lover, the speaker is transformed and becomes something else entirely.
Similar tropes used less effectively in some of the shorter poems in the collection feel more like rough sketches than finished drafts. For instance, “Suicide Balm,” puzzles rather than intrigues:
Your lipstick strapped tightly to my chest
I run into a crowded restaurant
And plug it in
While I appreciate the imaginative figuring of lipstick as grenade, the unfortunate pun in the title does not help clarify what the speaker is hypothetically doing when he plugs in the tube of lipstick. Assuming that a clip must be removed from a grenade, rather than plugged in, in order to explode, is the speaker imagining himself blowing up the restaurant or plugging into an electrical socket?
Luckily, though, these missteps are the exception to the rule. The transfixing elegy in the last section of the book exonerates all previous sins. Because each poem is titled “Recreating a Miraculous Object,” this group reads like a series but also feels like one long poem. The most surreal and wild section of the book, it contains short pithy poems, long chants, and non sequiturs. Whether reckoning his entrance into the world from the belly of a whale, chanting “I perish in amazement,” or bolding declaring, “I want to be a part of all / Things I am a part of,” Stucky ultimately asks us to wake up to our own broken hearts. In a culture in which we are given infinite means to numb out rather than engage, it is not only refreshing but pertinent for us to follow suit and begin to “unlearn ourselves.”
*Janaka Stucky reads his poem “The Art of Loss Is a Lost Art” at
— Kristen Stake
Volume 26, Fall 2015
There are no reviews this issue.
Volume 26, Summer 2015
Translations from Bark Beetle, by Jody Gladding,
Milkweed Editions, 2014,
96 pages, paper, $12.40,
We like to write on things. It’s what we do. Mostly on paper, but . . . I once got in a bit of trouble in college when I got a little carried away while chalking the campus quad for a student activist group. Maybe it was my inner Jody Gladding coming out. Whatever it was, I now regret my callow chalk self, but in that dusty moment of chalking, there was such a rush to write upon the unexpected. I think Jody Gladding knows what I’m talking about.
The poems in Translations from Bark Beetle are playful, limited and desperate. Let me explain. In the book’s second poem, “Spending Most of Their Time in Galleries, Adults Come into the Open on Warm Sunny Days: Translation from Bark Beetle,” Gladding says, “•’ve learned through wood / yo• can only travel in one direction.” The dots are explained as translation challenges, but I just ignored them and read on, and with Gladding as guide, I too learned through wood, and stone, ice (melted), tea bags, fear (!), and liver scans, among many other things (photos in the back of the book).
I couldn’t help but feel how fun this all was, especially when I read the poem written on the icicle, which, by the time it was photographed, had melted. Gladding’s poetry is a radical mark making. These hark back to the declaratory act of chalking a sidewalk, such a physically satisfying medium, the concrete page, and then the poems transform the pedestrian into the poetic, surpassing my petty college act and moving into the realm of art. What Gladding is doing is devilishly fun, and more than a little subversive.
Such an experiment also feels necessarily limited. We place confines around us to give us structure with the hope that within restriction we find freedom, and thus surpass our limitations. This doesn’t always happen for me in reading these poems. When one is writing a poem on /in a change-of-address form, there’s literally only so much space to move around (pun intended). Sometimes these experiments feel epigrammatic and easy to dismiss. And yet, sometimes these limitations allow for true flights of beauty well beyond the physical. “Swallow,” written on a tongue depressor, is one of these:
That poem crackles. It’s fast and dangerous. “Seal Rock,” written “on split slate,” is another such poem that takes a halved stone to create one of the most beautifully sparse and lovely marriage poems I’ve ever read.
I most feel these poems are an act of desperation. It’s something I continually felt as I read the book. From “roc”: “but what if / the invisible is / simply / the unseen.” One can’t ignore that this poem was written on a feather, both a flimsy relic of flight and the archaic instrument of poetry. Gladding, in these poems, wants to bring the invisible onto the visible, to make tangible the ethereal. How could this be anything else but a desperate attempt to make sense of a cruel, dumb world? Poetry as insurance against overwhelm. What else has poetry ever been in the history of the word? What can poetry do when “we [drive] our inflated cars to our box stores and [fill] our giant shopping carts”? Jody Gladding takes our collective desperation — and my chalky regret — makes it hers, and gives it substance.
— Jefferson Navicky
Heliopause, by Heather Christle,
Wesleyan University Press, 2015,
112 pages, cloth, $24.95,
Heather Christle’s new book, her fourth, takes its name from a zone of transition: the edge of our solar system, where the Sun’s area of dominion shifts into interstellar space. As the book notes, the public was recently reminded of the heliopause when the Voyager spacecraft crossed it in 2013 on its way to deep space. The metaphor of a transition zone remains a striking presence throughout Heliopause, in which, against the backdrop of a dismantled space program, Christle makes record of personal and national loss.
Heliopause situates itself in a post-9/11 landscape that is not, in fact, very post- at all. The collection is organized around several sequences; the first, “Disintegration Loop 1.1,” is a compelling ekphrastic response to William Basinski’s September 11th footage and “decaying pastoral loop.” Drawing on the concept of challenging reflexive loops for conflict resolution, Christle wrote each morning for several weeks alongside Basinski’s video. The resulting sequence is a fascinating meditation on fear and falling, as well as the limits of structure and structures. In this procedure, “every morning the diminishing returns” and light is tempered with the trace of darkness.
Throughout the collection, Christle’s formal movements emphasize the repetition and randomness of loss. An erasure from the transcripts of the first moon landing, “Elegy for Neil Armstrong,” presents text in white against a black page, compressed into short articulations of presence. One of Christle’s gifts is the ability to express even the most abstract pain as personal, oscillating between a collective “we” and a personal voice to address Armstrong. “Neil,” she writes, “I’m with you / (garbled).” The epistolary “Dear Seth” reaches across a long-distance friendship, as does a poem for the late Bill Cassidy: “Hey Bill / where you are / do you see letters.” In each poem, Christle explores the use of language to frame each shifting circumstance of being, a tool to “consider” or “confess”:
There is fear the baby
when it arrives will be wrongly
or poorly loved
that the world is no place
for helpless things
You will see
reading this through your good beard
I have left myself out
though I understand
such grammar tricks
will no longer work
Christle’s striking honesty is tinged with the eeriness of public consciousness; a choice of movie times is driven by calculations of the likelihood of mass shootings, and even the lights themselves tremble. Each line asserts itself with a subtle elegance, reminiscent of Rae Armantrout, and an openness that allows the simplicity of life to be reflected in the lines: this morning worthy of significance as readily as meditations on the nature of mortality. Both life and language are bare and painful in Christle’s composition, and this precision allows us access to the speaker at her most vulnerable, and often most charming, moments:
in the winds
just remnants of the storm
that wouldn’t stay
I have thought
to run away from what I own
but what else do I have
Where would I go
The sky is everywhere
at once like a big movie
and though I think I know how
it’s going to end
and with what music
there is uncertainty enough
to hold me still
As the book progresses, the sense of complete envelopment in the “pathless field” is remarkable; Christle writes, “It’s the same problem / in any direction.” Yet despite the speaker’s assertions of her own “dumb” responses, what emerges here is a bright and thorough meditation on what it means to be inherently irresolute. With sincerity and intelligence, Christle’s book bravely seeks connection amidst chaos; in doing so, she offers a model for how to find meaning in the impossibly brief and immeasurable. Rather than seeking to dampen the impact of fear, these poems offer a nimble portrait of its daily iterations. In a time when we are distinctly aware of the limits of human intelligence and empathy, Christle’s Heliopause gives voice to an essential plea: “touch me / touch me.”
— Kate Partridge
From the New World, Poems 1976 –2014, by Jorie Graham,
Ecco / HarperCollins Publishers, 2015,
384 pages, cloth, $29.99,
This is the heat that seeks the flaw in everything and loves the flaw.
— Jorie Graham
In 1923, Marcel Duchamp referred to his work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even as a “delay in glass,” much like a “poem in prose” or a “spittoon in silver.” Suspicious of words and yet enamored with them too, Duchamp literally suspended an image in space and time; creating a “delay” — of arrival, of meaning, in relationship to representation, in relationship to an “indecisive reunion” as Calvin Tomkins named it in 1996. The amount of time you wait for something that is held back, a period of time in which something is postponed or slowed down, this delay in Duchamp’s work, as in the poet Jorie Graham’s, creates the conditions of desire.
The occasion of Graham’s new selected poems, From The New World, Poems 1976 – 2014, tracking nearly four decades of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s work, provides an eloquent opportunity to regard the specific obsessions and investigations, and the aesthetic and ethical development, of her work. The collection creates a new trajectory through her eleven volumes, and is rife with “delays” of the best kind: gaps and lulls and flaws that seek mending or to be knit, that seek connection and dialogue. Graham moves from using language to describe delay and its accompanying desire in her early work, toward creating the conditions of a delayed arrival for her reader in the structure of the poems themselves in later work. The later poems elicit a breathless haste in their desire to arrive at new meaning.
An early poem, the third in this collection, “The Geese,” from her first book Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, takes place in a yard in Murray, Kentucky, where the speaker is hanging out wash beneath the migrations of geese, while spiders imitate the paths of the geese above “to no avail: / things will not remain connected, / will not heal.” In this gesture, “the world thickens with texture instead of history, / texture instead of place” and the longing to connect is a desire to help things “recover their meaning”:
There is a feeling the body gives the mind
of having missed something, a bedrock poverty, like falling
without the sense that you are passing through one world,
that you could reach another
anytime. Instead the real
is crossing you,
your body an arrival
you know is false but can’t outrun. And somewhere in between
these geese forever entering and
these spiders turning back,
this astonishing delay, the everyday, takes place.
In many of Graham’s poems throughout her oeuvre, the shuttle moves back and forth across these kinds of delays; the poems are filled with metaphors of weaving, stitching, and sewing, making a fabric of the page we navigate and the ideas and images she provokes. For example, in “Girl at the Piano,” the speaker says of the daughter:
. . . Your sleep beside me is the real,
the loom I can return to when all loosens into speculation.
Silently, the air is woven
by the terribly important shuttle of your breath,
the air that has crossed
your body retreating, the new air approaching.
In the poem, “Self Portrait as Hurry and Delay (Penelope at Her Loom),” from Graham’s third collection, Penelope enacts delay as a strategy for fending off suitors, weaving and unweaving the story cloth daily, doing and undoing, effectively suspending time, and holding the story — her life — in place. The poem unfolds in a series of twenty-three numbered sections that provide occasion
for breath within the poem, pauses within the unfolding narrative. They also begin to employ a layering technique that becomes more nuanced in Graham’s work over time, creating a stratigraphy and accumulation of meaning. In this poem, she begins to ask readers increasingly to fill in the gaps, to enter the text and engage the delays, to engage in the stitching and unstitching themselves. Graham asks, “Oh but is it wide enough to live on, immaculate present tense, lull / between wars, // the threads running forwards yet backwards over her stilled fingers,” and later, “Yet what would she have if he were to arrive?”
“Le Manteau de Pascal,” the poem at the center of her sixth book, The Errancy, and located at the center of this new collection, regards René Magritte’s 1957 painting of Pascal’s coat, the Surrealist image of a coat full of holes hovering in the night sky above a distant urban horizon. In the endnotes Graham says, “One presumes it represents the coat in which Pascal was buried, and in whose hem or sleeve or ‘fold’ the note containing the ‘irrefutable proof of the existence of God’ is said to have been stitched at his request, unread, by his sister upon his death.” This poem, too, unfolds in a series of sections, including excerpts from Hopkins’s journals and Magritte’s notebooks. The breaks between sections, and the leaps in content and meaning, again create the conditions for great intimacy and exchange within the text. As Graham notes, “The sky can analyze the coat because of the rips in it. // The sky shivers thought the coat because of the rips in it. // The rips in the sky ripen through the rips in the coat. // There is no quarrel.”
The final page and a half of this poem are tightly packed with phrases previously uttered in the eight-page poem. Through this sudden dense layering of lines, an accumulation and acceleration through material investigated before, a kind of “learning” occurs for the reader that creates an uncanny experience of déjà vu. Increasingly, Graham’s poems illicit a breathlessness as they careen toward their end, layer upon layer, at times creating a sort of panicked haste, a desire to encounter meaning, to arrive, to become “real.” As the poem ends, she notes, “ . . . floating in the air before us with stars a test case . . . I saw clearly the impossibility of staying.” The poem draws tightly in on itself like a jacket, across the gaps and holes, but the wind — the sky, the reader — can still move through it.
Acceleration in the poems is created through techniques such as listing and anaphora, and structurally, through the shape the poem takes on the page. Towards the end of this collection, the poem “Lull” creates a visual stratigraphy composed of long phrasal layers interspersed with a “core sample” of very short lines that run through the right side of the poem. Navigating both the horizontal of extended thought and the penetrating depth of rapidly moving, layered short lines, the poem deftly navigates the forest’s edge where a fox has come out into the open and stares at the speaker. The speaker contemplates “the dream / of ownership”; “How much / did you think you / could own,” the poem asks. The fox replies as the world is given voice in Graham’s poems:
— fox says
what a rough garment
your brain is
you wear it all over you, fox says
language is a hook you
try pulling somewhere on the strings but no
they are all through you,
had you only looked
down, fox says, look down to the
road and keep your listening
up, fox will you not
move on my heart thinks checking the larder the
says your greed is not
Through all the poems, there is an impulse to look with greater precision, deeper and longer, to not look away, but to engage war, climate change, our mortality, our gods and, too, to question our very presence on the planet. In this dialogue — this discourse — between self and other, real and metaphor, between known and unknown, history and the present, between fox and heart, geese and spiders, there is a constant desire for connection and to stitch together meaning, some kind of a garment we can wear, even if full of holes. And that garment seems to be made of language. Graham reminds us that this dialogue is where we connect, after all, and that “desire / is the honest work of the body, / its engine, its wind.”
— Julie Poitras Santos
Volume 26, Spring 2015
No Girls No Telephones, Brittany Cavallaro and Rebecca Hazelton,
Black Lawrence Press, 2014,
28 pages, paper, $8.95,
Probably the finest essay on poetry I’ve read this year is Matthew Buckley Smith’s “Why Poems Don’t Make Sense,” which can be found here in 32 poems. In it, he explains what sense is, how it differs from logic, and what nonsense entails, while illuminating the concept of theory of mind in relation to poetry. It’s a smart, accessible, and important piece.
I start there because at the time I first read Smith’s essay, I was also in the midst of reading No Girls No Telephones by Brittany Cavallaro and Rebecca Hazelton. A collaborative chapbook of paired poems that take their shared titles from lines of Berryman, NGNT comes with an author’s note at the end that I’ll reproduce here in part, as it’s necessary for understanding how I’m coming at this review:
Brittany had the idea of writing an opposite imitation of a
John Berryman Dream Song, and suggested that Rebecca write
an opposite of that opposite. It was a strange game of literary
Simone Muench blurbs on the cover that the poems operate as a game of telephone to filter the sense of poems by John Berryman through Cavallaro and Hazelton. The authors’ note explains the process whereby noise was added to the system, so to speak, with opposites of opposites reflecting off one another to introduce distortion. As you might expect, just like in a game of telephone, the message at times becomes garbled well beyond lyricism, crossing into true nonsense. I tried all the usual ways of maximizing the poems’ content: reading aloud to myself, reading to someone else, reading out of order. Nothing worked. And yes, there’s a natural pleasure born of unexpected and unexpectable constructions, but I kept thinking about Smith’s essay and my native distaste for nonsense.
So, brief aside, what’s wrong with nonsense? To me, it smacks of a writer who, though having nothing to say, nevertheless seeks an audience. And was that what was happening in NGNT? No, but I was having a hard time figuring out what was happening. While I’m only marginally familiar with Cavallaro, Hazelton’s poems are not merely sensible but frequently profound. The meaning had to be in there somewhere. Berryman may be ethereal or even transcendental but he isn’t nonsensical, and the best games of telephone retain echoes of the intended message despite the accidents of flawed transmission.
Then, once I saw it, how had I not seen it? There aren’t just structural parallels between the paired poems; they are like transparencies to be laid one over the other. I suspect my initial blindness to this came from holding too tightly to the game of telephone concept. I kept trying to understand it through that lens, however figurative, despite my deepening frustration. While I can certainly see how it was relevant to the composition of the book, it put me on false footing to assume this would be the most fruitful way to read the poems.
This misstep was admittedly my own fault. That the method of composition does not imply the method of interpretation may be self-evident to others, but this was a learning moment for me. Anyway, what was genuinely captivating about the book was how two strophes of nonsense, on opposing pages, would give rise to something sensible if non-concrete, “sense without reference,” when considered simultaneously, and that this sensibility resonated as authentically Berrymanesque. It’s not the intuitive way to read poems, and it’s not exactly easy, but it taught me something. Not in the way of aphorism or analogy, or any of the pleasant methods through which I expect to encounter a lesson in most poems, but by frustrating my understanding and then composing sense in a manner I had never before experienced.
The last thing I want to get into is how Cavallaro and Hazelton play with opposites throughout NGNT. I’m fascinated by opposites, not so much in the antonymic dark / light, land / sea kinds of couplings, but when we think, for example, of the opposite of a park. The first thing that comes to my mind is wasteland, but what about office the opposite of park? This way of thinking can work as a lever for the imagination. For instance, what if the opposite of plant is not animal, but something that thrives on moonlight and vodka? The opening lines of the poems “Mission Accomplished” demonstrate this effect to highlight a mode of seeing and thinking that is acutely poetic:
Her inner life was left on a marked tree
And its opposite:
Our outer hearts are found in an unmarked grave
That’s just for the flavor of what’s happening. Overall, my experience of reading NGNT was non-recreational but rewarding. I don’t know that it’s exactly avant-garde, but for me it expanded the possibilities of nonsense in ways far more sophisticated than the attempts made in the vast bulk of conceptual poetry I’ve come across. And it has me thinking I perhaps ought to mail my copy to Mr. Smith
— Andrew Purcell
Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch,
Knopf Doubleday, 2014,
96 pp, hardcover and paperback,
ISBN: 978-0-385-35373-1 (hardcover) and 978-0-8041-7287-5 (paperback)
Poetry has replaced religion for me as a sustaining force in my life. Often when I go to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop on a Friday night, there are flashbacks to the Chicago synagogue that sustained me through my eighteenth year. Poets like Marge Piercy and Ed Hirsch — not the synagogue or the Bible — are now the places that I go for spiritual refreshment. Thanks to poets like the aforementioned and my focus on poetry, I have come to believe that there are high tides and low ebbs in every spiritual tradition. All should be respected, and none should be taken for granted.
Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch, has taught me more about the unconditional love a parent must always have for a child than I thought I had learned while teaching and raising children. Full disclosure: I graduated from the same small college as Ed, who is about ten years younger, so he has always been in my rear view mirror. We’ve had many good conversations. I’ve known about his son Gabriel’s unconventional life and the diagnosis of Tourette’s that never quite fit the actual case.
Since hearing a few vague details of Gabriel’s death, I had not been able to fathom the pain that Ed must have been going through — that is, until I read his masterful poem. The poem is so powerful that I can write to Ed again, and say, I think I understand. Even though you have a broken heart, you are a fine father. You will never stop caring for the world’s children and writing poems that care for them. I can say that his poem is completely accessible to any parent who has reached, with a child, impasses that can be overcome with unconditional love.
While Gabriel was very much alive and full of promise, Hirsch wrote a chapter on elegies, “Three Initiations,” that appears in his now classic How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999). Much of this chapter gives clues to how to approach Gabriel: A Poem, Hirsch’s own heart-rending elegy. So I use Hirsch’s own words to guide me through.
In the book-length poem, Hirsch mourns and looks for solace in the act of writing. He does, he says, “what Freud calls the work of mourning, ritualizing grief and thereby making it more bearable. . . . ” He “turns loss into remembrance”:
I peered down into his face
And for a moment I was taken aback
Because it was not Gabriel
It was just some poor kid
Whose face looked like a room
That had been vacated.
Again, I turn Hirsch’s own words, from How to Read a Poem, to what I hope has happened for him in Gabriel: “The elegy opens up a space for retrospect (‘I see now’), for overwhelming personal feeling, and it drives a wordless anguish toward verbal articulation.” Again the parent at his child’s bedside, Hirsch gains that tender view:
But then I looked more intently
At his heavy eyelids
And fine features
The elegy also “establishes a precise relationship” between Hirsch and his beloved son. Hirsch reaches the point he describes by immersing himself in the poetry of grief. In this process, he passes through a white-hot intensity, out of which comes utter honestly about his loss, which finally brings him to — for this reader, and fervently I hope for my friend — a true “richness of feeling” for his departed son.
He had always been a restive sleeper
Now he was weirdly still
My reckless boy
By praising Gabriel as “My reckless boy,” Hirsch also names the most recent of his son’s dysfunctions and arrives at some sort of understanding.
Another clue of how Hirsch feels for his son comes in his glimpse back to the Humanities class in which a young Grinnell teacher named Carol Parssinen led him to discover the healing power of The Iliad. Homer’s epic “opened up a space in me that made it possible to name what I would feel. . . . ” His descriptions of Gabriel are infused with much of that power:
Dressed up for a special occasion
He liked that navy-blue suit
And preened over himself in the mirror
Hey college boy the guy called out
On the street in Northampton
You look sharp in those new duds
Hirsch says that he loved how “unflinching” Homer was: “I recognized [the Iliad’s] demonic power, its outsize emotion and epic grief. I was wounded by its truth. And I was also healed by it.” Finally, we can only hope that what Hirsch learned about that ancient poet’s poetry — “I was also healed by it” — is also true today about his own words to Gabriel.
— Mark Schorr
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine,
Graywolf Press, 2014,
169 pages, paper,
It is the late 1970s. Our family has recently moved to a four-bedroom home amidst the tree-lined community of Palmer Woods on the outskirts of Detroit, where doctors, lawyers, and college professors of color have resided for many decades. My father, a college instructor and real estate broker, uncharacteristically wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt, is seated on a bench facing the backyard gardens, smoking a pipe. Three middle-aged white men, who work for the company he has hired to repair the leaky lawn sprinkler system we inherited, are surveying the landscape. After they have made their assessments, one of the men walks up to my father, clears his throat and asks: “Could you find Mr. Donaldson and tell him we’re ready to give him our estimate?”
This is the kind of racially-charged verbal slight that Claudia Rankine, who was born in Jamaica, an island of varied nationalities, explores in her recent poetry /prose collection, Citizen: An American Lyric. The book is the first to be nominated for two categories for the National Book Critics Circle Award, poetry and criticism. Rankine’s literary style is indeed diverse and boundless, weaving poetry, essay, dialogue, visuals, as she creatively documents the psychic damage to people of color caused by daily life insults, unconscious or intentional, uttered by white people. Through her words, we learn how words, spoken in the classroom, in the supermarket, on television and the radio, and in corporate settings, define a person from outside the color of their skin.
“Poetry allows us into the realm of feeling and it’s one place where you can say, ‘I feel bad,’” says Rankine, who is the author of four previous books, chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and a professor at Pomona College. She elaborates:
Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the
tongue. . . . Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in
your friendship would call you by the name of her black
housekeeper? You assume you two were the only black people
in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this but she never
acknowledges this slippage. And you never called her on it
(why not?) and yet you don’t forget. . . . Do you feel hurt
because it’s the “all black people look the same” moment, or
because you are being confused with another after being so
close to the other?
Rankine’s writing about such painfully visceral situations is often beautifully fluid. Though primarily focused on racism against African-Americans, it is possible for, say, women, gays, the disabled and the aged to visualize themselves in similar scenarios. “These tales of everyday life . . . expose what is really there: a racism so guarded and carefully masked to make it all the more insidious,” wrote poetry scholar Marjorie Perloff of Citizen. Rankine describes ominously ordinary moments in her academic’s life:
You are in the dark, in the car watching the black tarred street
being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him
hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out
there. . . .
Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are
reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical
term John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses
stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death
trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. . . . You hope by
sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
This poem in its entirety takes us well beyond a simple awkward moment. These are experiences unique to black people and occur largely because of their skin color. It tells us that a racial divide persists in American culture regardless of how close relationships may be. Rankine also alludes to the psychological confusion and frustration created in the minds of the recipients by these seemingly thoughtless words and actions. She speaks of the accumulative stresses that bear on a person’s ability to speak out, perform, and maintain emotional health.
The media does their ample share of perpetrating color divisiveness. The acute insensitivity and obliviousness of many whites is illustrated in her essay about tennis players Serena Williams and the late Arthur Ashe, when sports commentators praised Williams for “growing up” and Ashe for being “dignified and courageous,” when they rose above the blatantly racist onslaughts they had encountered. The implication is that being angry about racism is somehow immature and ungracious, and that the best way to confront injustice is to do so without emotion, and certainly without making a scene that embarrasses white people.
The title Citizen: An American Lyric is not accidental. “Our addressability is tied to the state of belonging, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship,” Rankine argues. Her book is a muscular confirmation of the effects of racism on both the individual and our collective society in a so-called post-racial country, and yet it still exudes optimism for a better world. The cover itself, a 1993 piece of artwork by David Hammons, depicts a hooded sweatshirt reminiscent of the “hoodies” that became an iconic protest symbol of the Trayvon Martin killing. A black and white photograph of a suburban sub-division with the street sign “Jim Crow Road,” taken by Michael David Murphy, speaks volumes.
Though making sense of racism is not the goal of this collection, it does give us warnings signs about the danger of merely accepting racism as a given in American culture, to the extent of passively doing nothing to change destructive mindsets. “If that rude shopper finds himself in a position of power — i.e. on a jury, organizing Katrina evacuations, or if you arm that fear and call it policing — then you’re going to get these explosive events,” Rankine asserted in a recent PRI radio interview.
Her book of meditations on racially charged encounters reminds us of countless current events, including when politicians and other public figures have made outrageously offensive statements about people of color and, instead of acknowledging the tragic
history, as well as their own culpability behind their affronts, they either dismiss the action or merely apologize for upsetting a perceived over-sensitive, politically-correct group of individuals who can’t take a joke.
When my father was confronted by the lawn sprinkler man, he turned and walked into the house, then later returned dressed more formally to go to his real estate office. “I understand you’re looking for Mr. Donaldson. I’m Mr. Donaldson,” he said. The expressions on those three faces made a perfect tableau of a wake-up call. Because of my father’s forbearance and sense of humor, those men would continue to work for him over the years. Together, they bridged an ethnic chasm. Citizen: An American Lyric is a collection of extraordinary social commentary that helps us see our lives more clearly through the suffering we both inflict and allow, thereby making it possible to see a path toward reform.
— Leigh Donaldson
Volume 26, Winter 2015
Down, by Sarah Dowling,
Coach House Books, 2014,
88 pages, paper, $17.95,
Sarah Dowling’s Down ends with a process note, which is where I began reading. Dowling offers up her source texts, which include songs by the Temptations and Aaliyah, Frank Ocean’s coming out letter, Frank O’Hara’s poem “Morning,” and an interview with Andy Warhol, among others. Because these sources were unfamiliar to me, I went searching for the original texts to better understand the ways that Dowling “flattened” the language as she worked through the project. The research became the poems as I read O’Hara’s “Morning” while listening to Ocean’s “Lost,” unknowingly also hearing a recitation of O’Hara’s poem overlaid on the song. This is how I can best describe these poems: the words morph into one another to create a new narrative — sometimes familiar and sometimes disorienting. They contain threads of love and danger; they feel new at the same time as they feel known. These are poems to live with until they are in your veins, like songs.
Dowling’s explanation of her process helped me to see the complexities of thought that create these poems’ form. Thinking about process took me into the making of a book, which includes the finishing. Here, Coach House delivers a book as well-crafted as the poems on the page. First, I am taken by the texture of the paper and the texture of words and space. The text creates a sense of wandering into the gaps between intimacy and secrecy.
The poems speak to the reader in low tones, call us “Honey” and “Baby,” get down to the birds and the bees from the beginning. “Sunshine Honey” immediately creates an intimacy between reader and poems — we are connected by the familiar song, the sex and the sexlessness, the distance and the longing for some other feeling. Except that we don’t really know who this “me” is — it’s like having sex on a first date. We are feeling and being with the body of the poems, but we haven’t had many conversations, so we’re not sure what this narrative is all about. It takes a few readings to delve into the depths that Dowling offers us in Down, but it’s worth the exploration. She asks:
What could make this aesthetics. What could make me feel
that. Make me many. Make me better. What could make me
sexless and sexual. Make me feel we. Make me feel made.
Make me feel us. Make me feel matter. Make me feel this,
for one. What could make me feel this commotion, this
relationship to energy. What could make me feel this way.
The poems teach us how they “make this aesthetics” — they layer what is familiar with what is completely disorienting. We come through the first section of the book feeling a little bit wooed by the words. This is a fragile kind of adventure. We want to keep feeling this way, so we turn the pages over and over, keep being that somebody who is reading. We get sentimental. We get dreamy. We want to tell someone else how we feel. And so do the poems.
Later, the book moves into darker spaces. The text juxtaposes sunshine and beaches with house fires and graves. The spaces between words create more deliberate disorientation. The feeling of not knowing where you are, where the burial is taking place, comes over you. This crescendo peaks with the poem “Starlight Tours”:
winter taken screaming he on
night out bitterly outskirts
on him last cold on the
seen nights river
cold of cold and
The poems in Down settle us firmly in the hinterlands, in the “waste fields around ports and airports,” in the “locations of secret pleasure and concealed terror.” Dowling takes us into warmth and desolation, speaks to us sweetly in a language that we do not quite yet understand.
These poems will keep you company at night, and remind you simultaneously of our interconnection and our isolation. Down offers intimacy and asks you to do the work that is required to maintain it. This is a book of relationship and revelation, surrender and devotion. These are poems you’ll want to keep near you as you the weather transitions. Read Down — let it sing to you.
— Cathleen Miller
Parallax, by Sinéad Morrissey,
Carcanet Press Limited, 2013,
69 pages, paper, £9.95 ($15.56 USD),
Hold your finger out in front of you, close one eye, then quickly open it and close the other. Rapidly switching back and forth, you will see your finger shift from left to right and back again. This displacement, or shift in apparent position of your finger seen from different points of view, is parallax. Parallax is measured by the angle of inclination between these two points of view and the object. Astronomers use the principle of parallax to measure the distances to closer stars, and photographers know parallax error as the difference between what is seen through the viewfinder and what is captured by the lens in a single-lens reflex camera. It is this reference, to the shifts that affect optical perception, that is initially most applicable to the poems in Sinéad Morrissey’s extraordinary collection Parallax, the winner of the 2013 T. S. Eliot Prize.
Inspired initially by the discovery of a trove of 1911 plate glass negatives of Belfast’s slums taken by Alexander Robert Hogg, Morrissey’s poems use ekphrasis to confront the radical possibilities of seeing and not seeing, of truths and lies, and of looking at and looking away. The poems are replete with photography and film, with television screens and early viewing devices, with blindness and light. In “The Mutoscope,” early motion picture viewing devices rattle to life for the singular viewer:
Only for you do the two mute girls on stage
who falter at first, erratic as static
in the synaptic gap between each image,
imperceptibly jolt to life —
grinning, tap-dancing, morphing into footage,
their arms like immaculate pistons, their legs like knives . . .
It lasts a minute, their having-been-written onto light.
Morrissey’s use of internal rhyme punctuates the poem as it, like the mutoscope, picks up speed. This rhythmic coming to light, and to life, is repeated throughout the volume, often in contrast to a reciprocal darkening. In “Home Birth,” as in “A Matter of Life and Death,” the arrival of one person eclipses another. In the latter poem, the actor David Niven flickers across the 1946 film of the same title, ascending a giant stairway to heaven as the speaker in the poem gives birth and recalls the recent death of her grandmother.
The poems navigate these exits and entrances, and questions of perspective, through masterful poetic form. In “Fur” we discover Holbein’s famous anamorphic skull, appearing as “driftwood / up-ended by magic from the right hand-side / of the tesserae carpet” in his 1533 painting, The Ambassadors. And even as the speaker in “Photographing Lowry’s House,” a persona poem imagining the experience of photographer Denis Thorpe, recognizes the effect of erasure his photographs simultaneously have on the artist’s life — as breath has on drawings of fawns in the caves of Lascaux — other actors in the poems engage in more willful concealment and erasures. For example, “The Doctors” imagines photographic alterations in Soviet-era Russia before Photoshop: “With scissors, / nail files, ink and sellotape, he has been vanished — / alongside other party operatives who touched / his sleeve.”
Throughout Parallax, in addition to poems that regard photography and film, there are other poems that explore Russia from differing perspectives. The sonnet “Puzzle” responds to a popular 1950s Soviet book of mathematical puzzles, and “Shostakovitch” imagines the composer writing under the restrictions of the Great Terror. Metaphorically and philosophically, parallax can also be considered a literary tool by which an author presents the same story from different points of view.
From one man’s sudden onset of blindness, to wanting to look away from flies on a dead rat, to a speaker’s observations in the poem “Shadows” that they “retract [ . . . ] back like drowning soap,” the interdependent play of light and darkness is revealed, and the double nature of light leaves its mark: “Shadows of candles on church walls at Evensong / manifest not as flame, but as smoke.” In “Lighthouse,” the speaker’s son lies awake at ten in the waning light of late summer solstice,
a lighthouse starts its own nightlong address
in fractured signaling; it blinks and bats
the swingball of its beam, then stands to catch,
then hurls it out again beyond its parallax.
Here, counting “each creamy loop” and “each well-black interval,” the boy enters a world that is only partly visible, “partly seen.”
Because our eyes have different and overlapping fields of vision, parallax is what allows us, through stereopsis, to perceive the world in three dimensions. This effect is what the poems in this volume full of electricity offer us: more seeing, more revelation and doubt, greater depth.
— Julie Poitras Santos
Wolf Centos, by Simone Muench,
Sarabande Books, 2014,
66 pages, paper, $14.95,
The ancient form of the cento provides a beautiful excuse for us to revel in the poetic line and in the craft of our literary forbears: named for the Latin word for a patchwork cloak, the cento calls for its creator to piece together individual lines from the works of other poets. In Wolf Centos, Simone Muench assembles an entire collection of these patchwork poems, all in service of one common, evocatively wild object of meditation: the image and symbol of the wolf.
Muench draws upon a pantheon of greats for her lines — from Akhmatova to Yeats, Atraud to Jake Adam York — and a natural first instinct is to try to identify each author, to deconstruct Muench’s cloaks back to their original fabrics. (“Sans teeth, sans eyes” — Shakespeare. “I shall speak not of myself, but of geography” — Neruda.) Soon, though, we come to focus less on the source of each line than the textures, colors, and music for which Muench chose it, and she’s plucked some striking ones. But the cento’s real art lies not just in choosing individual lines, but in arranging them: we look for the flow or leap between lines, for resonance or juxtaposition, for how the assembled pieces build and sustain meaning and momentum. Do the patches not only create a new whole, but transcend their piecemeal sum? At their best, Muench’s stanzas turn with luminous, startling clarity:
I take a wolf ’s rib & whittle it
into little months, little smokes
And here, relish the tinged tactility of Muench’s piecework:
of light is broken: the room dark
as black mullein, a clutch
of burnt paper. Every face a stain.
Muench wisely breaks up her volume of centos — each of which is titled “Wolf Cento” — into four sections. The first section’s epigraph, from the screenplay of The Doors, is delivered with a playful deadpan directed at Jim Morrison’s wife (“All the poetry has wolves in it, Pam.”); the next one is from T. S. Eliot: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Her use of Eliot suggests that such an archaeological act as the crafting of a cento is not just creative, but survivalist.
Over the progression of her four sections, Muench offers a range of variations on what the wolf might mean to us. Wolves seem sometimes to represent an inner human strength, something ancient and feral: “In the space of a half-open gold door / your body’s animals want to get out.” Other times, the creature is a strange Other that we both fear and envy from a distance: “We: spectators, always, everywhere . . . / we wanted to be wolves.” In or around the wolf there is also a human love, a lust (“Eros is a wolf, Caesar”), a loss. The wolf reminds us of our human limitations (“More & more I see the human form, / a nothingness which longs to be the sea”), but Muench also reminds us of the possibility for communion, and for transformation thereby:
“I have lost my being in so many beings.” Finally, the wolf presents the possibility of salvation, a way to save our wildness in the face of loss, civilizational clutter, and time: “Shrewd wolf of dark innocence, / rouse us from blur. Call us.” We are encouraged to consider the wolf in the spirit that Stevens asked we consider the blackbird: “The question of the wolves turns and turns.”
In a project of such singular focus, some missteps and weaker moments are inevitable. Given dozens of “wolf” lines culled from the canon and beyond, some are bound to court wolf-cliché (“we licked the blood from our paws”), and Muench’s lines sometimes just feel like a patchwork of good lines. And, over time, despite the pacing device of the section titles, the book’s momentum flags a little, and it isn’t helped by the continually reiterated “Wolf Cento” at the top of each page.
But at its best, Muench transcends the centuries and continents she spans. Reading Wolf Cento offers not only myriad gleams of beauty and strangeness, but also the comforting sense of submerging in a rich collective consciousness of what we’ve written. The result is sometimes diffuse, dizzying, not to be read for literal coherence. Read these poems instead like meditative mysteries, as one reads the cumulative couplets of a ghazal. Delight in this evidence that our works and days — and our best lines — can be woven and rewoven into so tangible a pleasure. Praise the luxury of inheriting so many good ones.
— Megan Grumbling
Volume 25, Fall 2014
Cactus Body, by Blanca Castellon,
Translation by Roger Hickin,
Cold Hub Press, 2014, 44 pages, paper, NZ$19.50,
Blanca Castellon’s slim Spanish and English chapbook, Cactus Body, is one I’ve returned to regularly this past year, thanks to New Zealand poet Roger Hickin’s eloquent translations. Castellon, from Nicaragua, manages in the eleven poems collected here to be both political and lyrical. Mario Vargas Llosa has said that, in the western world, “to be a writer means, generally, first (and usually only) to assume a personal responsibility,” but that to be a writer, in at least some Latin American countries (Nicaragua makes his list), means “to assume a social responsibility.”
Blanca Castellon certainly gives us the personal in Cactus Body. In “From B. to B.” (with the parenthetic subtitle “When I lose myself ”), she writes a poem about herself addressed to herself. If someone at an open mic prefaced the reading of a poem with such a description, I’d head quickly for the doorway, but Castellon pulls it off, sounding neither narcissistic nor solipsistic. Of her absent self, she says:
I guess you’ve used
to the clouds
you like so much
. . .
Blanca, come down
I need you
and a sudden breeze
brought tears to my eyes
One suspects it’s her muse she misses (“Dear Blanca / I haven’t seen you of late”) though the wistful rather than urgent tone suggests inspiration might soon return.
Inspiration comes up again in “Vademecum,” another delightfully personal meditation in which she identifies poetry as a calling without regard to place or time, and tells us that stereotypes of the poet should be ignored.
To be a poet
the main thing is to be a poet
no matter if you wear
a moth-eaten overcoat
to know by heart
the best route to take
to the great beyond
This poem is not about calling out poseurs and poetasters; it celebrates a universal vocation, “be it dust in love / you breathe / or Marilyn Monroe you invoke.”
Yet Castellon does not fail to do her Latin American duty. “Outside Times Ten and One Within” is a political poem of 11 sections, which in Hickin’s terse translation evokes Juan Gelman’s poems about Argentina. In Part IX, Castellon tells us:
The poor come back
to die in traps
and a closed horizon
and a welter of bodies
in a common sky.
Those last lines recall Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s discussion of how many people have died because of political tyranny in Central and South America. The sense of menace here is amorphous and not identified with any one war, coup, or despot, but in Part IV she writes:
field on field
Yet the volume does not end with the sense of defeat that Carlos Fuentes once identified as a distinctly Latin American affliction. In “Anonymous Tree,” her nature poet’s heart leaps up as she observes a tree which “beckons lovingly” and is “utterly green / and lush with mysteries.” In “Sometimes However Earth Is Affectionate,” she seems to be writing about some imagined setting where the earth is fecund, friendly, and evocative of joy. There is no repression or imminent violent death in sight.
Appropriately, she concludes with a poem called “Birth.” What’s being born is a poem whose “cactus body” she tells us, “stores water, for days of thirst.” Castellon’s poems, thanks to Hickin, have been a source of sustenance for this reviewer, who hopes to keep drinking, and to hear from both of them again soon.
— Kevin Sweeney
Oherwise Unseeable, by Betsy Sholl,
University of Wisconsin Press, 2014,
78 pages, paper, $16.95,
How can we properly cherish the beauty in the world while also embracing its harsh realities? In Otherwise Unseeable, Betsy Sholl’s eighth book of poetry, the author investigates this paradox in both personal and political narratives, with a hungry lyric that could only come from someone who’s survived much. Whether re-writing a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, painting a portrait of a burnt-out gambler, or reconciling feelings over the loss of a parent, Sholl offers a rich tapestry of insight and humanity.
Sholl’s mastery shines in her ability to show us a well-known idea from a new angle. This is most evident in poems that take on fairy tales, as in “Rumpelstiltskin,” “The Woodcutter,” and, especially, “Frog to Princess” which retells the Frog Prince story from the perspective of a frog with no ambitions of becoming royalty:
Yes, I’m a croak cloaked in green slime,
a bulging gullet, a mouth full of mud.
But with great quads, Princess, and a tongue
quicker than flies. If you kiss me you’ll taste
where life comes from, its quagmire scum . . .
. . . Not your marble halls and canopied bed . . .
With great music and humor, Sholl introduces us to a re-envisioned frog who is proud of his slimy grit and has come to teach the princess a lesson, noting that her “world paves over what it needs most.” The frog is the gut, the instinct for telling “whether the world’s going on or out.” He warns: “Without me and my kind, Princess, no pond baubles bubbling up new life.” Wishing for a handsome prince is actually the princess’s downfall, because she is waiting for something better to come along while ignoring the muck of life. The frog insists that the princess’s dream of the prince is “a curse, the world’s hearse. I’m what you need . . . the world’s wettest sex, green putty — right here — in your hand.” With this retelling, Sholl asserts that we need to not only accept life the way it is, warts and all, but also to seek to understand the messiness. By wishing for something else — a different lover, a bigger bank account, what have you — we miss the chance to create our lives, with “green putty,” in the often-grimy reality in which we exist.
Another element consistently present in this collection is that of wind as a visceral image to depict life itself and its never-ending changes. From the “voice of mist” that enters in “Alms” to the tumultuous currents that create music in “Wood Shedding,” “Bass Flute,” and “The Aging Singer,” to an exacting characterization in “The Wind and the Clock,” one cannot read this book without becoming roused by “its little eddies.” In particular, “Vanishing Act,” a poignant lyric on the looming reality of death, starts quietly:
Over the phone we’re already bodiless,
though remember, Love, sound has a source
and even a kiss made of mist
can touch a cheek and lodge in the mind.
But the lyric soon builds. The kiss of mist demonstrates how even a whisper can make an impact and set off a flurry of thoughts and emotions, and as the poem continues, the speaker frets over whether she or her partner will die first:
I can’t help fretting about our next porous
existence, which one of us
will go first, last breath disappearing
in a crowd of molecules,
while the other is left alone
with a closet full of empty clothes.
The porous existence extends the wind/air metaphor, depicting death as a process of evaporating into another dimension: That imagined last breath that vanishes into molecules might as well be a crowd of ghosts. But to land, finally, on the image of empty clothes makes the speaker’s fears heartbreakingly solid.
Later in the poem, she states plainly: “Until it’s our turn, what do we really know?” It is a haunting truth of being human that we don’t know what death and beyond will be like, and yet we have to live with this ominous unknown, and what’s more, accept the end of our beloveds. However, the speaker continues to say that “even despair . . . is good,” and can inspire us to live more fully, even “cause a woman / warming herself under five skirts / to throw back her head and sing.” With great skill, here, Sholl gets at our fear of death while still managing to invoke hope. It’s another version of the message from the frog in the swamp: Sholl challenges us to stop resisting and step into the difficult feelings that hold us back from actually living.
But to limit the value of these poems to their spiritual message would be a disservice. It’s Sholl’s ability to withhold sentimentality, execute dynamic language, and to choose images strategically that make her poems powerful. What’s more, this book inspires the writing of poems — what could be a better gift than that? Amongst the many images burned into my memory — a deaf woman pounding the side of her head, a tramp stamp tattoo in the shape of a dog, a fragile parent in form of a tea cup — the simple image of a gold finch seems most apt at describing the poet herself: “How fragile genius is, anxious, always ready to leap from the sill, always an eye out for the informer.”
— Kristen Stake
Jesus Was a Feminist and other Poems, by Robin Merrill,
Moon Pie Press, 2014, 36 pages, paper, $12,
Same Old Story, by Dawn Potter,
Cavan Kerry Press, 2014, 87 pages, paper, $16,
Earlier this year, poets Dawn Potter and Robin Merrill both came out with new books. They write very different poems. But because they both write about rural Maine, about the tough lives of those who live on the margins, and about the place of women in a predominantly male culture, they are an excellent study in the difference between spoken word /slam poetry and formal lyrical verse.
With a slam poet — and Merrill is one of the best — the pace of the poem rushes forward as if it can’t delay, and, if it does, the race is off. She uses, as any skilled public speaker, a range of rhetoric techniques to heighten the intensity of the poem and to press it toward its conclusion. In a poem “Hello Wagon,” about getting sober, she spills out her feelings using anaphora and parallelism. Notice how quickly these lines read:
I don’t care what those dastardly demons put in our path
what hurdles, what cliffs, what fire-breathing dragons. . . .
I don’t care what ghosts pay me a visit.
For Potter, in contrast, in her poem “Son-In-Law” about a ne’er-do-well young man, the poem thrives in the delicious hesitations, the gradual building up of a sentence, even the break of a stanza, so that it can spring open and release. Her parallelism is used to set a scene:
. . . while she was emptying last year’s freezer-wizened beans
into the chicken pail, while she was counting
cans of juice and packages of pork chops.
Here the two subordinate clauses are packed with elaborate details and with activities that ask us to dwell on an image. In the third-person voice, the poem lets us watch the woman interact with her son-in-law and, by the exchange of words, we find that he’s still like “The boy he used to be, / the one she recalls at summer Bible School, / pouring Kool-Aid on her little girl. . . . ” There’s no rush to the startling, painful conclusion of the poem. Like a fine musician of words, she lets each word note sound its distinct tone to create its full harmony.
But when Merrill introduces love in “Louisiana Sharecropper’s Chapel,” we’re flung immediately into a moment with a sentence that runs everything together:
And often, I’d only be across the aisle, my tongue so far down
Steve Davis’s throat that I could taste the black licorice he’d snuck
the night before.
Full of lovely sensual details, these lines leap into sexuality with him “unbuttoning that thrift store dress” and her, in church, “calming [her] breathing lest the deacons think” she’s “been touch by the Spirit.” With humor and directness, we experience sensuality with no brakes on. Potter, however, lets the love moment unfold itself line by line, the sentence pulled apart so every move is distinct and gradual, as in her poem “Letter to Will”:
Last night he
Ran his hands
Through my hair,
Down the nape,
Of my neck,
Kissed me between
The shoulder blades,
And so on.
Her words aren’t in a rush. They linger over an image, as in “Dog in Winter” where the phrasing delays in revealing the subject for four lines: “Up the boggy headland, frozen now, where a stone fence / submerged in the snow and earth-sink hints at pasture / so long vanished that the woods are convinced / grassland never existed, two bodies climb. . . . ” Her poems relish delays.
But that does not make Merrill’s poems any less forceful. It’s just that the demands of spoken word, the way the format of a slam is set up — you have to recite in a minute or three minutes a poem that will grab the attention of the judges — delays and hesitations are the death knell of a poet. You need to get their attention and, in quick order, set up a situation, a narrator, and some tension that, after some elaboration, can be resolved quickly. So her poems tend to jump at you the way a salesman on the phone launches into a spiel.
Potter’s poems invite you on a leisurely walk on an unfamiliar pathway where, much to your surprise, you find, as in “Cinderella Story,” a dove:
She crouches, hogging the feeder tray,
pebble-eyed and jaunty despite the ice cube
that, for two arctic days, has encased her pink left foot
like an elegant cement overshoe.
Such description, finely hewn, is filled with delight. Yet Merrill, too, has a delight that is wholly refreshing, as her “Jesus Was a Feminist,” when she takes on organized religion and slams the self-righteous men who choose to use scriptures to censure women:
But as for this woman? I know that:
It was a woman who followed Jesus around, sleeping in caves.
It was woman who stayed at the cross when the men grew faint.
And it was women who returned to find an empty grave.
The spoken word demands that the poet grab her audience and speak to the point. And Merrill does. The lyric poet can take her time and weave her web of words around you so that you feel as if you’re rocking in them, carried away to places you’ve never been before. And Potter does. They both have much to offer the reader, and, in comparison, much to tell of their different poetic forms.
— Bruce Spang
Volume 25, Summer 2014
Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, by Jeffrey McDaniel,
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013, paper,
88 pages, $15.95, ISBN: 978-0-8229-6260-1
After reading his fifth book of poems, I propose Jeffrey McDaniel as the Louis CK of poetry: He’s sincere and unsanitized, flinging humorously dark insights from a position of middle-aged white-male self-awareness. Like the comedian, McDaniel’s voice makes the recognizable male desires and insecurities seem fresh and relatable, exploring the engaging middle ground between vulnerability and masculinity.
The first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” sets up the themes of lust and infidelity that permeate the text. The book’s introductory poem, “Hello,” deposits the first of many references to Adam and Eve and human failing:
but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.
Have you ever cringed with your whole body? Been so filled with shame
you wanted to wriggle out of your flesh, like a serpent in a forest,
like the snake that betrayed Eve?
McDaniel’s humor keeps even loaded passages like the above from turning sluggish or dour. Later, in a persona piece from Eliot Spitzer’s point of view, McDaniel asks, “Lord,/swaddle me in a blanket dipped in smallpox,” and expresses a desire to “open my mouth and bite/into the snake’s Adam’s apple.” Again, playful language buoys the dark content.
Sexual desire, from both the male and female perspective, as a means both of alienation and validation, is a primary concern here. In “Track of Now,” a virile voice experiences “what it feels like to have sex with the universe,” as he imagines that “each woman in Tompkins Square Park/eats her ice cream just for me.” The self-assured male voice reemerges in the later poem
“A Brief History of Immorality,” which features a twenty-two year-old man strutting through Manhattan after a sexual conquest.
McDaniel explores female desire as well, in poems like “Happy Marriage,” which describes a woman’s urge to break free from the monotony of married life:
You’re sitting on the sofa. Your husband
is upstairs, your child sleeping. There are dishes
in the sink with your name on them. A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind.
This feminine yearning sets the stage for the book’s second part, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies,” wherein a number of male voices react to the infidelity of their wives. While sometimes heartbreaking, these poems crackle thanks to McDaniel’s imaginative and precise language:
so years later, when your wife stumbles home
with that glazed, seen-god look in her eyes, the sweat
of his trigger-happy fingers still greasing the white
napkin of her thighs, you can settle into that moment,
ask her how it was, if you can witness next time.
The last line here reflects the acceptance that many of these male voices arrive at as the cuckold poems continue. They are defeated in the way that the men in “Track of Now” and “A Brief History of Immortality” are victorious. McDaniel does some of his best work in describing the emasculated male.
In “The Cuckold in Autumn,” an older male voice watches a young couple trying to start their truck:
He shuffles towards me, mumbles
something about a jump. My loins
ignite like a furnace. Welcome
to my world, I think, attaching cables
under the sprung hood, revving the juice.
This mindset reaches a crescendo in the poem entitled “Middle Age.” In it, the speaker explains how his “testosterone feels like watered-down lemonade,” and how he couldn’t even “impregnate an awkward pause.” All of this is in stark contrast to the younger male self, the one who walked next to a pregnant wife feeling so masculine that he imagines “being a crop duster/filled with semen and pollinating all the women/passing in springtime dungarees.”
All of this sounds rather pessimistic, these poems about the fading power of the aging man, unable to maintain either an erection or a relationship. But McDaniel’s cumulative effort reveals the modern male as master of the universe, neutered cuckold, and caring father all at once. He ends the collection
with its uplifting titular poem. In “Chapel of Inadvertent Joy,” the speaker urges us to savor the good moments, whether that’s
“a white horse in a sunlit pasture at the end of summer” or when a “garden hose slips out of your hand/and sprays you in the face,” or simply watching your “wife and daughter lollygag in the grass.” McDaniel’s voice, capable of portraying all this with wit, empathy, and metaphorical pyrotechnics, is one we would be wise to savor as well.
Churches, by Kevin Prufer,
Four Way Books, 2014, paper,
96 pages, $15.95, ISBN: 978-1-935536-43-7
Many of the poems in Churches, by Kevin Prufer, are full of fire, smoke, and broken glass. Their speakers often find themselves in a world figured as a womb of violence, forced to face—without the solace of religious abstraction, and often under the harshest of conditions—human mortality. Out of these wombs is born, for the reader, a necessity to contemplate the role of faith in our attempts to survive and understand the harm done to us by circumstances, or by others, but also to consider that the harms we suffer are often of our own doing. These poems frequently illustrate the failure of the coping mechanisms that we have come to rely upon in a post-Nietzschean world where religious faith is either absent, or, even worse, destructive.
The opening poem in Churches, titled “Potential Energy is Stored Energy,” highlights this question of faith. A porter lying in the snow, a victim of the explosion of a bomb planted on board a train, thinks of the infant son he and his wife had lost to fever. Neither the porter, now approaching death, nor his wife, in his memory of their son’s passing, voices the supplications a reader might expect. Rather, it is the anthropomorphized bomb that utters its prayers, ominously, to heaven, just before its stored energy is destructively released: “I give this to you, Lord,/in a wisp of smoke, in splinters/scattered in the wind and love.” These final words of the bomb are set beside the porter’s last moments in which present and past have become one, and his wife’s words to their fevered infant are now applicable also to himself: “Oh breathe, breathe, his wife was saying,/while the great unmelting snows concealed his eyes,/and up to the waiting heavens/this black plume rose.” The God of the poem is the God of bombs (and bombers) and while his heaven may be waiting, it is a heaven that admits only the smoke of wreckage.
If religious faith can no longer be of any consolation, then where do we seek solace against a harsh world? One replacement for faith, portrayed as largely ineffective and even harmful, is the numbing power of medication. The little white paper pill cup is ubiquitous throughout the book, a grail in which the speakers of the poems often seek solutions. That white cup looks bright against a backdrop of black smoke, but it is a brightness, the poems seem to argue, that obscures rather than reveals—its promise of cure seems as unreal, as unattainable as heaven. The poem titled “Paper Cup” offers the constant refrain “Here are your pills” until, in its final line, we are told: “Here are the last of your pills, little white zeros in a cup.” In a world that rains down the pain-killer Lortab like manna, there still aren’t enough pills to cure what ails us.
Churches approaches the existential problem of the death of God primarily in order to illustrate both the insufficiency of our answers and the effects of this failure. Consider the elderly speaker of “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” who, rather than being situated in the scene of the title is, instead, a mere observer, trapped within the linoleum floored world of a retirement home where the orderly’s cry of “Pills, pills, pills” leads the speaker to identify her as “the crazy woman/down the hall.” Such an institutionalized existence pales in comparison to even the quotidian world of people waiting for buses that exists outside the speaker’s window. After making some perceptive observations of the scene, the speaker wistfully, and tragically, declares,
How I love a cool Sunday morning
high above the park
after a rain.
If I could, I would jump
right through this window.
These lines are tragic largely because they illustrate real human potential, struggling, however unsuccessfully, against terms of confinement that, unlike mortality, are not necessary. We don’t have to keep the elderly drugged and shut up in homes, and the poem reminds us that this problem, among others, is man-made. It requires a God neither to blame for it, nor to solve it.
The Gorgeous Nothings, by Emily Dickinson,
edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin with a preface by Susan Howe,
New Directions/Christine Burgin, 2013,
hardcover, 272 pages, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0-8112-2175-7
The Gorgeous Nothings volume finally collects the poems that Emily Dickinson wrote on the backs of envelopes. This effectively presented text holds myriad clues for present day readers, poets, and scholars, as these odd, almost unclassifiable scraps of paper provide an amazing window into the way Dickinson worked.
Building on poet Susan Howe’s insight in The Birth–Mark, that the manuscripts “should be understood as visual productions,” this volume presents a whole new side to Dickinson’s work that has implications for the treatment of other writers’ work as well. Co-editors Jen Bervin and Marta Werner make a key decision to set transcripts of Dickinson’s poems on left-hand pages, opposite facsimiles of the envelopes on which Dickinson first penned them, on the right-hand pages. The volume also includes a scholarly apparatus consisting of a preface by poet Susan Howe, an introduction and visual index by visual designer Jen Bervin and, at the back of the book, an essay, formal listing and bibliographical description of the envelope manuscripts by scholar Marta Werner. If you are a fan of Dickinson’s poems, or a poet, I suggest begin with the presentations of the poems themselves, and only then delve into the scholarly sections to enhance your reading of the poems.
Even if you’ve not read a lot of Dickinson before opening this book, the poems presented in graphic form will convey how Emily Dickinson created her world one poem at a time. For example, the first poem, about an inner shipwreck, unfolds in two dimensions, in text and on paper:
On the text level, the reader can follow Dickinson laying down lines word by word, like a bricklayer, until she comes to a decision point and stack her words on top of each other: The poem sets up a number of oppositions: “havoc” and “damage,” “tale” and “witness,” “mighty freight” and “dread occasion,” “sea” and
“land.” Taken together, they convey states of the human mind as items lost at sea or freight destroyed on land; they express the foundering and despair of the human mind.
On the paper level, you can watch how Dickinson, like a builder, uses the space, folds, and boundaries of the envelope. Wide spaces between lines allow her to stack her word choices, and the envelope’s shape conveys the sense of a closed tomb “that told no tale and let no witness in.”
Even though Dickinson would never have suspected that her envelopes would be read by her readers in this way, The Gorgeous Nothings presents her work with such simplicity and intimacy that the reader feels almost as if Dickinson were there at the same small table, allowing the reader to look over her shoulder as she drafts. I’ve only found a handful of books that let you have this kind of close contact with a poet actually in the act of drafting. Curtis Bradford’s Yeats At Work is one, and The Gorgeous Nothings is another. The co-authors Marta Werner and Jen Bervin deserve enormous credit, as does poet Susan Howe for her thoughtful introduction. New Directions editor Christine Burgin, in association with Granary Books, has produced a thoroughly agreeable volume that yields new surprises every time the reader opens the covers.
Once the reader has made these discoveries in the poems themselves, there is time to turn attention to and admire the generations of scholars whose work lies behind this volume, the Amherstites vs. the Harvardians, and how eventually good sense prevailed to share with the world the folder that the first scholar had labeled Dickinson’s “scraps.” The backstory shows how easily these poems could have been lost.
In bringing these poems to light, with well-conceived layout, design, and scholarly context, Bervin and Werner allow the reader a sense of Dickinson’s process in finding “the certain slant” and choice of words that make each poem arrive at and convey its present moment. As the Danish poet and scholar Niels Kjær has written, this presentness is the hallmark of Dickinson’s
work, and The Gorgeous Nothings lets us experience it up close. Such intimacy makes this work not only a scholarly tour de force, but the freshest presentation of Dickinson’s poems to have come to us in a very long time.
Volume 25, Spring 2014
Calendars of Fire, by Lee Sharkey.
Tupelo Press, 2013,
60 pages, paper, $16.95, ISBN: 978-1-936797-26-4
“Why do we war on each other? This is an unanswerable question we should never stop asking,” writes Lee Sharkey in the reader’s companion to her latest book of poems, Calendars of Fire. Weaving together images from multiple wars, mythology, and personal accounts of grief, this collection of poems addresses the writer’s outrage and disbelief at a world of humans who enact violence upon one another, while also grappling with the inescapable truth we all face: mortality.
The poems often take the form of elegy, prayer, or vision. The theme of transience, introduced in the volume’s first poem, “In the wind,” creates an ominous feeling at the outset:
If you walk the same path everyday through the woods
clearing the way in your coming and going
you know when branches have fallen. Each branch downed
has a trace of the wind of descent vibrating through it.
Immediately Sharkey establishes an eerie sense of fate in this forest of “coming and going,” a barren container for the short experience of life itself. This is a timeless space where “you can read the night, the wind, the lack of it / what has happened back to happening,” a place through which every human and their ancestors have passed.
Desolate images of war proliferate throughout the second section of the book, with many poems formed in sequences of one- and two-line stanzas whose emotional and thematic strength resembles that of a ghazal. In “Hunger recounts it,” she presents the raw desperation caused by war in a scene where personal belongings and furniture are burned for temporary warmth: “Burned the books, first the history, last the poetry, page by crumpled page /No no, give that to me, a neighbor insisted, trading Akhmatova for 2x4s from graveside crosses.” This haunting parataxis creates an unsettling and believable depiction of starvation during wartime.
Juxtaposed against this despair comes the series “Tiresias at last,” where the Greek god appears: a transgender, blind prophet who sees what others can’t. Strikingly more accessible in style and language, with shorter lines and a sensual tone, the Tiresias series offers respite from the hardship that’s come before. In a tighter, lyric narrative, Sharkey begins with a poem about his transformation from male to female, and continues with “Tiresias tells it”:
Desire is the snake that courses the body
The mouth is one door of its house, the vagina another
When you lie down you lie with the snake
When you rise up you rise with the snake
To insert a shape-shifting, sexualized being at this point in the book seems, at first, an odd choice. However, as Sharkey explains in the reader’s companion to the volume (which is accessible on her website), “All poets are at least in part Tiresias, senses attuned, listening from the sidelines; coveting vision, powerless to make that vision come to pass or prevent its coming.”
Indeed, Sharkey introduces a new strength with the sensuality and prophetic perspective of Tiresias, who, unlike humans, can see beyond the grip of war. Whereas the powerless subjects that appear in preceding poems evoke helplessness, Tiresias accepts human weakness without becoming the slave of it, as in “Seer in vigil”: “Tiresias stands in winter wind / doing nothing but stand in winter wind.” In submitting to the truth of human violence, s/he can rise beyond, redeemed by a broader knowing, as in “With birds on his shoulders”:
Violation rises like a planet
its own sound something quiet
like sliding bodies into water
Altogether, Calendars of Fire offers an evocative redefinition of what we might conceive as “war poetry.” Sharkey’s careful interweaving of language fragments and white space — to connect the personal and global — is most effective when a simple narrative emerges, and is not quite as successful in longer poems, like “Possession,” in which too many worlds and memories are merged to be easily grasped.
Her lyric becomes most clear and beautiful in section III, which presents the aftermath of war, the ruin of sacred places, charred and broken musical instruments, psychic demoralization, grace, and the rebuilding of lives. Amidst the rubble, there is “Listening”:
sleep with me now under the clouds
with your lucid eye open
What is it that I love when I
form the letter with an arc and a down-
The curve of your head,
my hand rounded to stroke it,
habitat, sphere of a new planet.
Indeed, with her keen vision, Sharkey honors the brutal suffering of the human world while still managing to seed hope for a new, more whole one.
— Kristen Stake
In a Kingdom of Birds, by Ken Fontenot,
Pinyon Publishing, 2012,
73 pages, paper, $15.00, ISBN: 978-1-936671-07-6
Can ordinary lives be written simply? Too much mundane detail, and readers drown in trips to Walmart for cat litter, or must grapple with prose poised like safety pins on used clothing, as if literature is a Goodwill bin of the past. Then again, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s great novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, among the almost mind-numbing repetitions — similar sounding names, the descriptions of the family’s house being freshly painted or going to seed — there resounds a single, clear bell of loneliness. That kind of purity recalls Ken Fontenot’s poetry.
There’s a contrast in Fontenot’s work between enduring daily routines and a longing to transcend boundaries. He listens for “the high-pitched sound the universe made when it began.” He startles readers with these lines from “Let’s Go Out,” a poem with a clearly stated challenge:
Listen again. You missed it the first time.
Your thoughts were elsewhere. We say,
enough of love, and we mean it. We say,
enough of money, and we mean it.
I wouldn’t give one solitary cent for a new car.
You neither? Let’s go out. The lightning bugs
are as bright as your eyes.
The night is as young as the world.
Fontenot’s narrators in these poems speak from solitude. Their observations are given to readers in a bright, colloquial tone that often contains undercurrents of irony or despair, creating poetic tensions. Family life is also described, with memories of an aunt who says, “The dust has gone to Heaven,” along with Evangeline Parish, in Louisiana, and all the hard-working men with “their belts six or seven notches / on the good side of hunger.” A poem called “From a Son Who Knows Only Books” is a meditation on men who do honest, skilled work with their hands, and on the narrator’s father:
A man is happy with his gun, his boat.
A man is happy with his lawn, his dog.
Just think. I’ll not grow up to be my father.
A childhood full of light and shadows permeates the book, as well as the keenly observed movements of birds. Their cruelty is noted, such as their raiding of nests, but birds also serve as quirky, unpredictable metaphors that imply transcendence. Idealism is never entirely destroyed, even in adulthood. All of us, says Fontenot, hold the kingdom of birds within us, as in these lines from “Our Lips Are Gates”:
Grief: that child in cold weather without
a coat. It sings dirges. It writes elegies.
We with half our noses in shadow, half in light.
We with our bodies soaped and scrubbed.
The dark houses. Conversations in other rooms.
A fireplace. Of two doves
both will forage. Neither will wait.
Perhaps solitude begins to be valued in childhood as well, clarifying perceptions that often conflict. This is something readers can identify with, just as we do in Marquez’s novel. And Fontenot’s moths — they could be the cousins of Macondo’s butterflies, as in these opening lines from “The Words for Containment”:
In my dream, moths are pursuing me
the same way they always have to touch us
in real life. Daylight brings the dream to an end.
Memories of the poet’s childhood, savored as an adult, are turned over like beautiful oak leaves pressed between pages. In “The World Without Me,” as throughout In a Kingdom of Birds, Fontenot’s voice transcends sure boundaries:
I am close to my bed. I am close to my book.
I am close to my chair. And my silence lights the room.
— Sharon Olinka
I See Hunger’s Children, Selected Poems 1962–2012, by normal,
LUMMOX Press, 2013,
111 pages, paper, $15, ISBN: 978-1-929878-80-2
My favorite poem in this book is “green buses,” set in Newark, 1963, when men began thinking of ways to flunk their draft physical. The narrator shows up as: “98 lbs / pigtailed, silver fish ear ringed / gold lamé coat.” He recalls, “crew cut guys yelling / ‘sweetheart! hey sweetheart . . .’”
but I was naked
& my dick was average
your typical run of the mill medium sized Jewish dick
Asked what he does for a living, he responds “imam jazz poet.” The sergeant says, “section 10 — GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!” Soon the narrator is laughing with an old friend, also “section 10,” who wore “. . . a sandra dee skirt / an annette funicello hairdo / & a joan crawford dinner jacket.”
This poem captures the nascent counter-culture / anti-war movement from the perspective of a streetwise Jewish kid — part Allen Ginsberg, part Lenny Bruce — laughing back at the unenlightened macho boys. He already knows it’s better to make love not war. This poet understands how the world works — or at least how America works. In “American Child,” “the baby is diced up in dinty moore stew” and “the newspapers are shouting from sea to sleazy newspaper sea . . . from the sands of sam’s club to the halls of home depot . . .” His poem “awakening —1967” has this epoch-defining passage:
the summer of love saw all the brylcream
boys I used to play chess with go to
viet nam & go to my lai & come home
in body bags & throw bricks thru the
windows of 7-11s & take hideous lsd
trips & have satoris in front of the
tasmanian devil pit at the san diego
Although the collection opens with the seven-page title poem, I prefer the shorter poems like “at the end of the beam with mick and lou,” the story of a twenty-three year friendship between two construction workers, one of whom gets cancer. There’s a Philip Levine-like setting with Richard Price-like dialogue. Not long ago, Tony Hoagland wrote a piece for Harper’s about “imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon.” This poem, which shows us the awkward ways men, especially working class men, try to be friends and express feelings, no matter how inarticulately, would be a contender for my list.
In the introduction, publisher RD Armstrong calls normal a spoken word (italics his) poet before the phrase existed. Some of the longer poems in particular would seem to fit this description. However, in my experience, many of today’s “spoken word” poets could afford to spend a little more time with the written word. Spoken word or not, no one can doubt that normal is a reader. One of the delightful details in this volume is his choice of epigraphs, from Brecht, Camus, Lorca, and Vallejo to Sri Rama Krishna, Gandhi, Thomas Merton, and Bob Kaufman. (“Crossroads” is a wonderful poem about him and Kaufman listening to jazz and getting high together.)
It would be easy to typecast normal as another post-beat iconoclast tossing barbs at everything coarse, crass, and greedy about America, but this volume also contains some very tender and compassionate poems. In “luna and the late sun” he writes of the relationship between his dog and his neighbor and how much he enjoys watching them cavort in his yard:
luna is last stages middle age
plump almost hairless no make-up
lost 2 kids — one to cancer
one to aids
luna is single & what she calls
a “late in life lesbo”
quiet no money torn gray parka
shuku loves luna almost as much as
shuku loves me
This tough guy from Passaic can do more than shoot salvos. Bio notes tell us he’s spent 35 years as an RN. He has a heart too, conspicuously on display in a poem dedicated to the late singer Suzannah McCorkle, “where the songbird sang”:
last yr I heard you killed your
something about depression & that
empty void where the songbird sang
i would gladly have flown into
that void & filled it with
my own singing
This is not the voice of the grizzled survivor, the unbowed cynic, but the caregiver who, in “The Request,” says, “God asks nothing more of a poet / Than to chart the rain.”
I did a double-take at “Appalachian Cabin.” The title is so different from “don’t rape the singing bird,” the bucolic locale a bit far from “upstairs at the hotel dante” (the first line of “the shooting gallery”). It concludes:
The place has survived:
A supreme testimony to the
Genius of a hammer —
Long ago, when the world was
Still trying to live a simple life.
This poet has seen a lot, most of it not very simple. Readers of this book are the benefactors.
— Kevin Sweeney
Volume 25, Winter 2014
The Messenger, by Stephanie Pippin.
University of Iowa Press, 2013,
70 pages, paper, $18, ISBN: 978 -1609381646.
Birds of prey hold a place on the arm of poet Stephanie Pippin’s narrator and especially in her consciousness in her book, The Messenger. In this clarion collection, which was awarded the 2012 Iowa Poetry Prize, Pippin meditates on the liminal boundaries and relationships between the human and the wild.
The narrator’s connection to falcons, vultures, and ravens, as she helps to hatch, heals, tethers, and releases them, is a commingling of awe and need. She is consumed in awaiting their birth, in “Hatch”: “The hours from pip / to hatch, days / to trace the breaks, to see / the shell breached, are agony.” She feels dwarfed by the vastness and vitality of the wild, musing in “Red Pines” that “the egg // is its own law and more real than I, more / alive — a galaxy her wings obey / in everything they do.” She vibrates with awareness of the power dynamics between the winged creature and the human who holds her; in “Summer,” that creature is a messenger of both the wild world and Pippin’s own mortality:
As if to break my wrist,
she foots the glove —
makes me know
Complex powers of life and death play out in “Propagation,” amid
the narrator’s efforts at stewardship, to keep a species alive: “We,
too, are in servitude / to vultures. They hiss / as we back from their nest.
/ They have a future / to protect. It is in my hand — / heavy,
alive, a warm / globe breathing in its shell.” And her ambivalence
finds yet more personal expression in “Raven”:
I am afraid
her trust is temporary, that the world
in which she
cannot live, cannot save herself,
is the world she will want
eventually. And I
the cage that keeps her from it.
Elsewhere, human intervention in the wild is murderous, as in the sequence of poems called “Lone Elk,” which addresses the systematic U.S. military extermination of Missouri elk populations in 1958. In “Live Weight,” a military participant observes: “We keep the heads, the ovaries, the stomachs. We make notes.” In the sequence’s last poem, the narrator addresses the sole surviving elk, acknowledging the human urge to mythologize nature:
Your existence, inexplicable —
a hellish magnificence,
from the dead. Or just
a lonely animal.
This projection of human meaning into the wild is a recurring notion in these poems. Pippin writes often of a visceral, bemusing empathy she feels for wild creatures, as in “Morning,” in which a songbird is loose in a room:
What I can’t understand is the hold
this has on me: that it will hit and fall
eventually, that after the bird is down, my
mind will confuse its pain with my own.
Elsewhere, nature offers now a spiritual balm, now a welcome respite from it. A stork’s head, suddenly glimpsed, is an “[a]nnunciatory gesture / pale as the angel’s sleight of hand.” But even as she’s moved to lyricize a divinity of wilderness, she is wise to her romanticism. As she remarks in “Iris,” “We’ve all mistaken windowed sky / for heaven.”
Pippin navigates these shifting ways of knowing with absolute clarity and a plain assurance that’s both humble and incantatory. There is power in the candor and ache of her voice, as well as, often, the sudden richness of earthy, fertile music worthy of Seamus Heaney, as in the terrain gorgeously described in “Riverlands”: “open, sogged with
August, / morels swelling like lungs / in the muck.” Her open-form lines and often striking enjambment draw us to slow, hang, and turn amid layers of meaning and feeling. After gutting a doe, Pippin muses,
I find her hollow
shape is the form I want
to sink into.
Life and death are inextricable in these poems, and Pippin mourns
the eventual loss of the bird she once tethered and half held, half
found herself held by. Despite the almost maternal ache of her
grief, she ultimately embraces joy and gratitude for the life she’s
momentarily clutched so close, as in the lovely, airy “Pinion”:
Now that I’ve lived
to see you
vanish, I see
what you mean
is the same
as what you meant
my luck entirely.
Pippin ends the volume with promise and continuance in “Candling Eggs,” in which she embraces the brief, fragile, ambiguous bond of her human body and a wild creature-to-be:
to this —
warm egg, my palm
made momentary cradle.
Her voice, hailing from such primal borderlands of beings, is itself that of a messenger.
— Megan Grumbling
The Boss, by Victoria Chang.
McSweeney’s Poetry Series, 2013,
64 pages, paper, $16,
“Her boss is somewhere where is her boss” Victoria Chang asks, flouting grammar, in her new book, The Boss. This past summer, I found one Boss in Pavlov’s Music, in the small Ohio town of Cambridge where I grew up. In the back of Pavlov’s, there’s a selection of used vinyl, which is where I found The Boss — in a dusty copy of his Nebraska that I had a feeling had been sitting in Pavlov’s since the day I’d bought my first guitar almost 20 years ago. As Chang knows, one can find the boss many places — at work, at home, in an Edward Hopper painting, in one’s self, or in Pavlov’s Music in Cambridge, Ohio. Was Bruce Springsteen who Chang meant as her ubiquitous boss? Probably not. However, the spirit feels right. The boss is everywhere.
“The boss is not poetic writing about the boss is not poetic,” Chang says in her poem “The Boss Is Not Poetic,” and that’s for sure. To write about the boss we all have, yet want to be, is to expose our power-hungry, power-deficient, masochistic selves. Definitely not comforting, and The Boss doesn’t leave a reader with a warm, fuzzy, I’ve-been-poured-over-the-landscape-by-poetry feeling. It’s more like the constant fear of checking your email at work one too many times and now the boss is on to you, and you are screwed because the boss don’t play games. Haven’t we all been there? Maybe, but most of us don’t want to think about it so much.
Chang is careful about how she doles out The Boss. Almost every poem is exactly a page; they all meander along the left and right margins and none of the poems have a stitch of punctuation, unless you count capital letters as punctuation, and even those are pretty slim: “can they do that / can she do that yes she can in this land she can.” The result is a rhythmic, blurry and hypnotic syntax that keeps a reader going forward and backward to catch the phrasing. One could find this irritating, but for the most part, I found it pleasing. It wasn’t hard to do, and in fact, because of this syntax, I found myself chanting in my head my own riffs about the boss: the boss is going to the bathroom to bathe in his room the boss is still the boss in the bathroom. . . . I recommend any potential reader to try this. It’s very fun and you’ll be bossing yourself in no time.
So, who is the boss? Who indeed. One boss becomes many. I’m a boss, you a boss, boss, boss me, okay, boss? The poet is a boss with her kids, but is bossed by her boss and, most poignantly, the poet’s father, once a Big Boss in the Business World, suffers a stroke and “when I / ask him the name of his old boss / he says his own name.”
This is a sadly delusional, stroke-impaired moment, but isn’t it true that we all would like to think we’re our own boss? You’re not the boss of me, I’m my own boss! (Insert here: some Ayn Rand/Libertarian/laissez-faire capitalism bullshit.) Well, that’s nice to think, but Chang knows better. You have to serve somebody, and for the most part in this book, the boss is a no-fly zone, the one who sits in the back of the office and points the employees toward the edge of the roof and says: jump, or you’re fired.
And yet, “We are still in awe of the boss and / the law and all the dollars.” The boss is still, and always will be, the boss, whether you find him in Pavlov’s Music (The Boss forever!), or if she haunts you as Victoria Chang’s book did me, bossing me around for days before I resigned myself to the fact that “[t]oday is the boss the boss is today.” I have a review to finish; the boss wants it, and the sooner I accept that, the better. She the boss.
— Jefferson Navicky
Volume 24, Fall 2013
As Long as Trees Last, by Hoa Nguyen,
Wave Books, 2012, 69 pages, paper,
Next time I’ll crack
more pepper also knead
more cheese in there
(insert an involuntary
In her third full-length collection, As Long as Trees Last, Hoa Nguyen is still challenging expectations of the lyric voice in poetry. This last phrase, offset as parenthetical, provides a distinction between the initial voice and the aside, a kind of internal monologue or stage direction, adding another layer and complicating the speaker(s) therein.
In these poems, Nguyen prefers multiplicity over a single authority, the demotic over the omniscient, and incorporates an uncensored world, clunky and inelegant as it can be. With an unorthodox syntax, Nguyen creates her own space. Often, she arranges a poem on the page as a beautifully set pillar, using minute and irregular spacing. In her poem “Unused Baby” she writes:
I tried to glue the ripped
paper back to the religious
art but it doesn’t work
Making a mess of it
Here, the mystery is more provoking and perhaps more central than any answer. Her sound at times is dreamy, timeless, while she still appropriates today’s diction: phrases such as “asspatched jeans,” “SpongeBob SquarePants Band-Aid” and “Charlie Sheen” appear in this collection. The zip and immediacy of this public
and often commercial language adds levity to her serious, theoretical meditations. In the poem “Stimulus Drive
Bulge,” Nguyen writes:
2001: Three point three trillion
2009: Seventeen point three trillion
“It’s simpler now to retire—
you just die in the office”
This last phrase closing the poem is offset as a quotation, making it, perhaps, a phrase overheard, one that cannot be unheard or forgotten. This quote’s placement, separate from but following corporate language, is striking; it addresses the reader directly and with resonance.
Nguyen, engaged with the world, is interested in poetry of warning. Her ecopoetics begin with language; though she writes of contemporary events and the concerns of a consumer society, her style challenges ownership and authorship, and makes the reader question who, exactly, is the voice? In the poem “Intimate,” she writes:
(intimate) I know where the meat comes form
my blah blah boring day blah
Blunt my appetites for today
In these poems, questions and thoughts self-interrupt. What’s omitted, what’s confusing, and what remains silent are just as important as what is present. Nguyen’s poetry is not closed, nor does it explain itself away and thus lose itself to meaning. At times, the poem is in the leap between stanzas, as in “The Soul They Say”:
The soul they say has no
estimated at 20%
This leap is another way to make meaning. Charles Olson wrote in his essay “Projective Verse,” 63 years ago, of poetry’s capacity for invention, and of poetic forms’ openness and availability to the writer. In his words: “There it is, brothers, sitting there, for USE.” Here, form is indeed explored in experimental ways. In “Words You Should Know,” the reader is presented with what seems an erasure of an abecedarian poem. The poem “Us” (or “US”) is a palindrome. The poem “I’m Stuck” reads as notes from a to-do list:
What it means to be
out of work:
Write a crime novel
Work at a food bank
In As Long as Trees Last, these short poems manage to be multi-tonal, commanding, strange, full of verve. They force the reader to listen, to question, and to pay attention.
Translations from the Flesh, by Elton Glaser, University
of Pittsburgh Press, 2013,
$15.95, 85 pages, paper,
The first time I stumbled across Elton Glaser was in the Fall 2011 edition of the New Ohio Review. I was hooked immediately by the fervent and didactic tone of “Solo in the Skeleton Key,” a voice that spoke with seemingly ageless experience and authority on the subject of love. “Translations from the Flesh” is Glaser’s seventh full-length book of poetry, and in it I found a poet completing his mastery of wit and seduction. Glaser speaks with a voice that is both pondering and affirmed by its purpose, alternately resigned and vigorous. Surprising and intricately paradoxical, his poems express vivid and ecstatic prophecies and musings that develop the concepts of love and transcendence.
A longing for both metaphysical fulfillment and erotic satisfaction pervades many poems, and none can summarize it better than a passage from “Unrequited Dialogue by Moonlight”:
I’d like a few answers that would
Make the missionaries trade their Bibles
For a jukebox and a sharkskin suit; that would
Convince me to walk this earth
In the only serious position, on all fours,
Like a hound sniffing out the backside of paradise.
Glaser crawls through the dirt on all fours in search of these answers, proselytizing as he goes. The voices of his poems roam through risqué subjects with cheeky expressions and illustrative analogies. Glaser speaks in a contemporary voice that uses luscious language without becoming verbose: each poem is filled with hooks that will catch in the mind. “A Contrecoeur” is a keen example of the natural and colloquial prose that makes this collection so memorable:
Sometimes I feel afraid for it, my heart
like a mouse in a windmill,
in an avalanche of grain.
While many of Glaser’s inconspicuous metaphors and analogies are playful, they often belie the yearning and urgency that constitutes much of this collection. The sultry “95% of Love is Half of What You Want” spins the reader onto the dance floor with sexual kinesis, and “Pitching Woo” speaks with confident assertions but the nagging precognition of loss. As I delved deeper, I found myself wondering what else could inspire these stormy lines other than a private life filled with disaster, and additionally, what else could be more provocative and engaging?
The title of the book serves aptly to introduce the recurrent association of the intellectual and the physical spheres. No poem more aptly epitomizes the title as well as “Solo in the Skeleton Key,” a raw and evocative ode to passion and the damage of time:
Love’s no trick of ecstasy, no lightening strike in the mind.
Each new child
Struggles out, bloody and stunned, one more last chance to
get it right.
For the reader seeking ideas of universal order in poetry, the gravity of this stanza is especially poignant. Glaser’s thesis on the human condition is a tribute to the labors of his lines; throughout the book, he translates from “this stony ground” a host of reflections that relate the struggle of the heart as “winter withers the stalks” of youthful deviance, ardor, and enthusiasm. I found great beauty in his tenacity in the face of the inevitable.
Eventually, Glaser’s roaming quest leads him into dark places. Underneath the masking stoicism of “Downloading the Meltdown” and “Not Dead but Deading,” which asserts, “There’s no unified theory of the heart, only fiction and flesh,” there lies a plaintive soul at odds with reality, resurfacing again in “Coupling on the Edge of Entropy” where the speaker exclaims, “What’s one man against the laws of a raucous universe?” In a book full of intrigue, Glaser eloquently frames the questions that haunt the pensive mind so that the answers are unnecessary: pondering the questions is itself enough.
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Volume 24, Summer 2013
The Trouble Ball, by Martin Esapda,
W.W. Norton & Company, 2011,
66 pages, paper, $15.95,
Martin Espada is no longer a legal aid lawyer in Chelsea, MA, a job that provided him with at least one book, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. He has moved to the safe quarters of academe, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, located in what some call the “Happy Valley,” a term recognizing the Utopian initiatives in bucolic towns north of grittier Springfield and Holyoke. But Espada, whose style has always been more Springfield/Holyoke than Amherst, hasn’t gone soft. His latest poetry collection, The Trouble Ball, has plenty of his familiar punch. Some poems feel a bit ponderous in the effort to take on historical heft, but Espada retains his wise-guy sense of humor, an important tool for a writer of polemical poems, as he once observed in his essay collection, Zapata’s Disciple.
In “Blessed Be the Truth-Tellers,” he speaks of his mother warning him to “just walk away” if someone starts a fight.
Then somebody would smack
the back of my head
and dance around me in a circle, laughing….
Bio notes in earlier Espada volumes have listed the variety of low-level jobs he held before obtaining a law degree. In “My Heart Kicked Like a Mouse in a Paper Bag” he recalls days on the cleaning crew at Sears:
I once removed the perfect turd from a urinal, fastidiously
as an Egytologist handling the scat of a pharaoh.
In the next to last poem of the volume, “Instructions on the Disposal of My Remains,” he says, “I want to be stuffed and mounted at the White Castle/in East Harlem.” This street-savvy lighter touch entices readers to stay with him when he becomes more serious, as he does in “The Rowboat.”
The beggars cannot swim to the private islands of Lake
they wander through the plaza in Granada, trailing after
the investors in paradise.
This is Nicaragua, where affluent tourists “climb the steps of the cathedral, to point cameras, to light candles for the dead/and ask forgiveness.” “The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi” is set in Chile, where “blindfolded prisoners” are put in “cells too narrow to lie down” and taken to rooms “where electricity convulsed the body.” He writes of the “parking lot where interrogators rolled pickups/over the legs of subversives who would not talk.”
While such poems recall Witness poets like Juan Gelman or those in Carolyn Forche’s landmark volume, Against Forgetting, Espada knows that to be subversive means nothing more than expecting your apartment to be reasonably maintained (heat, hot water, no rodents) even if you only speak Spanish. This explains the irreverence he expresses towards one of poetry’s most iconic figures: “How to Read Ezra Pound” appears in part two of The Trouble Ball, appropriately titled “Blasphemy.” Espada quotes someone from a “poets panel” who recalls the Spanish Civil War:
If I knew
that a fascist
was a great poet,
I’d shoot him anyway….
In “The Day We Buried You in The Park,” Espada and a co-conspirator inter the ashes of Alexander (“Sandy”) Taylor, co-founder of Curbstone Press, in an unnamed park, in violation of city law. The poem includes an epigraph from Whitman, an Espada favorite, whom he notably invoked in his earlier, much controversial, banned-by-NPR poem, “Another Nameless Prostitute Says The Man Is Innocent,” about Death Row Inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal: “If you want to see me again look for me under your bootsoles.”
Another act of civil disobedience occurs in my favorite poem from The Trouble Ball, “Isabel’s Corrido.” The 23 year old Espada enters into a marriage of immigration-convenience with a 19 year old Mexican, at the request of her sister. Isabel, his bride, has a boyfriend. It gets complicated. Eventually Isabel takes off on her own; later the sister calls to say that Isabel is dead from an apparent brain tumor. Espada recalls her headaches and no one calling a doctor: “We lived behind a broken door. We lived in a city hidden from the city.”
If Espada fans have any complaints about The Trouble Ball, it might be the title. This poet has given us “Rebellion is the Circle of A Lover’s Hands,” “For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks,” “A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen,” and my personal favorite, “Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in The Freezer.” The latter, both funny and chilling, recalls Espada’s job in a lab where the treatment of animals illustrates the human capacity for casual cruelty.
Regardless of titles, Espada assures us he will keep “walking through the world, soaking up the ghosts wherever I may go.” Concluding “Isabel’s Corrido,” he writes, “There was a conspiracy to commit a crime. This is my confession: I’d do it again.”
Look Back, Look Ahead: The Selected Poems of Srecko Kosovel, by Srecko Kosovel,
Translated from the Slovene by Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Seigel Carlson,
Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY, 2010, 220 pages, paper, $17.00,
Most English speakers have probably not heard of Srecko Kosovel or hundreds of other poets who wrote in their native tongues, who spent their lives struggling to bring light and justice to a primarily imperialist world. It has been the work of translators to bring these voices into our hearing and our hearts, re-building them carefully and gently so that poets like Kosovel, a Slovenian, live for us again. As the translators say in their notes:
…we came around a dirt road to a high stone wall with a
fig tree on the other side whose high branches were laden
with fruit. One of us climbed the wall and, balancing just
so, reached up for a few plump figs and handed them down
to the other. So it has been translating Kosovel’s poetry: to
be given this sweet fruit born of what we can never wholly
recreate, and handing it down as best we can. (xxi)
While this is not the first collection of Kosovel’s poems, it builds on previous collections and offers previously unpublished poems by a young poet who wrote with a tenderness and ferocity beyond his years, as in “Who Cannot Speak”:
Who cannot speak
has no need to learn.
You look for a new word—
today it’s unclear
which word it is.
You must wade
through a sea of words
to arrive in yourself.
Then alone, forgetting all speech,
return to the world.
Speak as solitude speaks
with unutterable mystery.
Kosovel had published only some 40 poems at the time of his death, but he left approximately four thousand poems and fragments, more than a lifetime’s work for many poets. Kosovel died in 1926. He was 22 years old. Growing into his voice at a turbulent time in European history, he wrote in a wide range of styles: traditional pastoral poems that evoked his deep ties to his homeland, political poems that stoned the impenetrable walls of nationalism, experimental work that included mathematical symbols, unorthodox word placement, and other avant-garde experiments, while including stunningly lyrical moments. Here is the voice of a poet coming of age at an earth-shaking time. His work spins on a wheel of changing politics, social upheaval, new technologies, and alternative spiritualities. Kosovel gave voice to an age even as he stretched his work to include all these changes. His vision was local and global, personal and universal.
The work of Carlson and Jelnikar in bringing these poems to us feels like the recognition of poets for a lost friend’s work. They bring examples of Kosovel’s varied voices, yearning or strident, challenging or fearful. Their translator’s notes help us understand the extreme attention demanded by the work of carrying the complexities of sound, rhythm, and underlying levels of meaning of a poem while attempting to be true to the voices of both languages and the poet. Poems are chosen to represent the whole body of his work, not merely the comfortable. The introduction, by Richard Jackson, and the afterword, by Ana Jelnikar, give us windows into Kosovel’s life and times and provide us with some historical context for his writing. A contemporary of James Joyce, who was living in Trieste as the young poet was lighting the torches of his poems, and Rilke, who was writing his elegies nearby in the castle at Duino, Srecko Kosovel has been called “the greatest Slovenian poet of the twentieth century” by Tomaz Saluman. It is only the work of dedicated and sensitive translators that allows us to hear him. They deserve great thanks.
Often the task of a reviewer is to make judgments based on his or her personal response to a poet’s work. In this case, I can only say that I feel fortunate to have spent some time with the translators in Slovenia a few years ago and the beauty of the place is deeply haunting. Through these poems I will return there again and again:
I wish I could say one word
just like the spring wind
softly enters your heart.
I wish I could say one word.
But look, I have nothing else,
my heart is an altar cracked in half.
My words are like wounds,
each one of them bleeds.
Dreams don’t vault into this dark,
only black walls’ rough edges
rise like memories of old times
into the deserted terror of the night.
But still there is, there is still
one word—one word at least!
Come, you night-wounded man,
So I can kiss your heart.
This collection is your opportunity to hear a voice that could have been lost. Do not walk away.
Colony Collapse Disorder,by Keith Flynn,
Wings Press, 2013, $16.00, 103 pages, paper,
Keith Flynn is a direct heir of the Beats in that he questions surface realities, often harshly, yet also creates empathy within readers for human frailty. There’s nothing cheap or facile about his questions; they provoke the reader and disturb with musical phrasing and stark imagery, as in the following lines from “Easter in Palestine”:
On the face of it, the landscape bore
an astonishing nostalgia for lies.
The tapestries cried; the gates of Paradise
opened and shut like the jaws of a shark
in the frenzy of chum.
With an intuitive heart, Flynn takes us all over the world, back and forth in historical time, and uses as his pivotal metaphor the sickness and disappearance of almost half of American honeybees, and the death of bees rapidly spreading to other countries. Instability is a given, Keith Flynn’s poems tell us. Labadee, Haiti, “fat and warm,” a navel in the world, is changed during an earthquake “like a woman slowly dropping her slip from/one shoulder as she slides away.” Unwanted immigrants ride the bus in Berlin, men shoot at pillows and glass window panes even after the war ends in Kosovo, people wander Atlantic City, “where the prelapsarian middle class of all rotted/ American Dreams comes to be fleeced/and calls it fun,” and in Dothan, Alabama, things are also not well. Here are a few lines from one of the strongest poems in the book, “Alabama Chrome,” about people whose only sin is “proximity to poverty.”
Handsome warlocks, strapped to strip
malls, and mauled by the perfection
drop poison pellets from their
raven beaks onto the lips of sun-streaked
Meth-pocked blondes in the windy
parking lots of ritualistic pawn shops
and close-cropped itchy trigger teeth
gritted in the Marine recruiting station,
whose volunteers choose grief over
An elastic, fluid language permeates each poem, often with staccato bursts like a trumpet solo pointed towards the stars. But Flynn takes a quieter mode in several of the poems; deeply reflective, willing to look long and hard for a hidden shaft of light, a clue from a fragmented history that will speak to him. In “Coffin Not Included,” he says “The walls/between this world and the next/are leaky as an old rowboat.” For “The Seven Islands of Izu,” short stanzas push forward like an oar through cold, ancient water. The tone of the poem is like gray brushstrokes on a scroll, and the reader can almost feel clouds above, or gusts of wind. And one of my favorite poems in this book is “God Gives Us Each a Song.” Here’s how it ends:
The worm’s tiny groan as it pops out
of the apple’s skin and finds itself
alone, filled with the right
of the Spirit to be known.
Not every poem in Colony Collapse Disorder rises to this brilliance. “Present at the Revolution” falls flat, the Parisian fashion designers in “The Resurrection of Haute Couture” seem superficial, and Andrew Jackson’s persona in “Old Hickory Gets the Bends” is ponderous. A little pruning would have helped, or perhaps two or three poems eliminated and others substituted, without affecting the book’s basic strength and structure. And truly, the book’s greatest strength is that raw voice that speaks so honestly to us, intimate as a low, hoarse train whistle late at night.
For me, Flynn asks the big questions. He can’t completely answer them—no one can. But he asks, How can I be whole as a man, on this damaged planet? And also, Why do people hurt each other so badly? In “The Exile,” a short, sweet poem, the narrator says “I’ve tried to rope the world in countless/ways and have
done the best I can,/with tangled prayers and no reprieve.” And if this echoes Richard Hugo, that also seems like a blessing: compassion for wounded souls, such as Hugo’s Mrs. Jensen, can never be learned or faked. Keith Flynn is like an EMS worker in the world of poetry: risking the deep places, and born to heal.
Volume 24, Spring 2013
Then Go On, by Mary Burger.
Litmus Press, 2012, 93 pages, paper,
When I read the poems in Mary Burger’s Then Go On, I have the feeling of floating up along the ceiling, up near the maple-leaf molding, up where the day’s heat collects. From this elevated, even light-headed, position, I observe the world of my parlors, and I find the surprisingly precise ability (I am, after all, hovering fourteen feet in the air, and I do not usually find myself at such a perspective—I am not such a light person!) to point with confidence and name exactly what I see. This experience is like a version of “I Spy”: “I spy with my little eye….” What I spot is not limited to the child-like—a fire truck, a tiger, two little
mice—but also includes floating abstractions: accepted premises, optimism, futurity, arbitrariness, and synesthesia. This is indeed a heady game, not only for the range of pointed-at things, but more so for the confidence Burger inspires in my otherwise rather doubtful pointing. After all, as a reader, I am not all that confident in my ability to identify “synesthesia of attachment,” for example, but with these poems, I find myself an “I Spy” master. I’m hitting everything: Social Identities, Energy, Light, Chairs and Plastic Farm Animals.
Burger’s book is perhaps most poignant when its author, so comfortable in helping readers hit new philosophical ground, really grounds us in her reality. Poems like “Fire Cat” do that easily, bringing the reader through the phonetic poem of a seven year old:
A small hole appears in the middle, a dot of white in the
image, and spreads toward the edges of the frame, orange and
black and white
and blistering, eating the shapes around it, hungry
until it eclipses even itself and there is only
white, light, unimpeded, unfilmed, unfiltered….
i like tuu bee a fier cat.
I too like when Burger is a fire cat. Her crackling language can roar back words telescopically through space and time to aid this reader in hearing the constant soft-sound drone of Interstate 70 that passes far from, but near, my parents’ house in Southeast Ohio. From “Energy, Light”:
The background roar of the distant highway, that some might
hear as an explanation of origin, that some might regard like
the microwaves that permeate the universe, evidence of the
beginning, of the beginning of the real….
I felt grateful that Burger so quickly took me back to this sound memory.
Later, she’s downright funny in the poem “Snoring is Waking,” in which the narrator butters toast at 3 am, blithely battles with her bed partner, Snoring, who does not suffer the narrator’s insomnia. It’s this tension between the ignorant bliss of Snoring and the narrator’s wakeful amazement at Snoring’s ability to sleep that gives the piece its spark. Anyone who has laid awake at night staring incredulous and jealous at a partner’s supine slumber will especially appreciate.
The other piece that stuck out to me was the commiseratingly conspiratorial “All New Yorker Stories.” As broad as the title may at first appear, Burger’s analysis rings startlingly true. The piece deconstructs two actual New Yorker stories, one from Mary Karr and one from J. Robert Lennon. It’s humorous—see reference to Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty—but after reading the piece, it left me mightily impressed by Burger’s analytic ability as a far-from-the-mainstream artist to so brazenly and insightfully lay bare the establishment.
This returns me to “I Spy,” and my happy, languid, peaceful floating along my parlor ceiling. I want to take this confident pointing from the pages of Then Go On out into the outside world. After all, I could use—and who couldn’t?—a little extra brazenness against the establishment. The book is a pocket guide for such insurgences of sight.
Our Andromeda, by Brenda Shaughnessy.
Copper Canyon Press, 2012, $16, paper,
We do artists few favors when we say, as a means of praise, that a work “hits home”—that some subject matter or other (oh subjectivity!) struck our sympathetic frequencies.
The ex-baseball player (for instance) whose favorite film is Field of Dreams, or the speedboat-owners toasting with Coronas before a Jimmy Buffett concert—how much do you trust their assessment of Kevin Costner’s emotional range or the lyrical depth of “A Pirate Looks at 40?”
They’ve seen a version of themselves, and they like what they see. And yet here I am under the spell of some poetic Propinquity Effect myself, wanting to tell you about weeping while I read Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda aloud to my newborn daughter, as if a few tears might recommend a book.
How can you reconcile catastrophe and gratitude; burdens and blessings; terror and joy?These are the concerns that sweat at the edges and burn at the heart of almost every poem in Our Andromeda.
Shaughnessy, whose son Cal suffered a brain injury during childbirth, uses Andromeda (both the book of her own making and the distant galaxy to which it refers) as a world of parallel projections. This is a world, as she wrote in a Poets & Writers essay, “in which my son was not injured at birth, a world in which he’d been allowed to live in his own body without the pain and restriction of cerebral palsy.”
A fantasy. A double-life. A different life, as she states in the title poem (which takes up roughly a fifth of the collection):
Wait till you see the doctors in Andromeda,
Cal. Yes, the doctors. It’s not the afterlife,
after all, but a different life.
The doctors are whole-organism empaths,
a little like Troi on The Next Generation
but with gifts in all areas of the sensate self.
Yes, 2012 seems to have been the year of refreshing sci-fi references in popular poetry. Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars got its lift from the space-stuff of Ziggy Stardust, Stanley Kubrick, and Edwin Hubble—searching the inner and outer dimensions for a mutable soul.
And in Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda, where the fragile delivery of her son is described in terms of intergalactic travel, we get lines like this:
You came from Andromeda, Cal,
that other galaxy. Came to me, to us,
the moment you were born,
when the membrane between
worlds snapped and all that alien love
flooded my body. It came from you.
In her second collection, Human Dark with Sugar, Shaughnessy mixed the mythic with punk rock vim to decode moments of romantic longing. This time around, her desire is not zeroed-in on one specific absence, but aimed like buckshot at every future that would refuse her or her family, as in “Liquid Flesh”:
He howls with such fury and clarity
I must believe him.
No god has the power
to make me believe anything,
yet I happen to know
this baby knows a way out.
This dark hole closing in on me
all around: he’ll show me
how to get through
the shock and the godlessness
and the rictus of crushed flesh,
into the rest of my life.
And there is the hope, the stubborn motion forward. Shaughnessy is able to portray Cal not simply as an anchor for the book, but as the life at the center of her life, as the star feverishly pulsing in two galaxies at once:
Galaxies exploding everywhere
around us, exploding in us,
Cal, faster than the lightest light,
so much faster than love,
and our Andromeda, that dream,
I can feel it living in us like we
are its home. Like it remembers us
from its own childhood.
While the poet herself is suspicious of the intersection of “truth” and artifice (“Heart, what art you?”she writes in “Artless”), I’m never far from feeling the off-the-page reality of these poems, in the most confessional of senses.
But why the tears?Well, my girlfriend and I and our daughter had just gone through a highly traumatic birth experience, spent a couple weeks in the hospital, and come home to make our big adjustments. When I checked the mailbox on that first day back, Our Andromeda was waiting to be opened. All in one afternoon we read it to our daughter, and I cried, and cried, and cried.
Of course it would be crass as a reader and as a new father to say Our Andromeda “hits home.” My daughter recovered; Cal’s debilitation is permanent. And I hope that in making such contrasts and comparisons I’m not further condescending to Shaughnessy’s “sad new family struggling to find/blessings where blessings were.”
It’s just that in reading Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy’s defiant faith in love, all the more compelling for being hard-won, helped me better understand what it means to be a parent. Her poems help us see more clearly the ways in which love, if not the body, can be regenerative.
And “… ifall possible/pain was only the grief of truth,” as Shaughnessy supposes in “All Possible Pain,” then solace must be possible in spite of that truth.
Or as she says in “Miracles:”
A light. Sailing a signal
flare behind me for another to find.
A scratch on the page
is a supernatural act, one twisting
fire out of water, blood out of stone.
We can read us. We are not alone.
Shaughnessy is the kind of poet for whom writing is not an act of mere relating, but of relation.
Volume 24, Winter 2013
Aftermath, by Sandra M. Gilbert.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, 160 pages, hardcover, $24.95,
I have to admit, when I picked up poet Sandra M. Gilbert’s ninth volume of verse at first I found it slow going, not because the verse was too difficult or poorly conveyed, but because the first section, “Old Recipes,” struck me as downright dour. I’m very pleased, however, that I admired this writer’s talents enough to stick with it, because as the book unfolds, it reveals territory that could perhaps only have been written by a female poet in her mid-70s. And a rich landscape it turns out to be—elegiac, certainly, but also mesmerizingly blunt, insightful, and humorous.
Gilbert is most popularly known for her academic feminist work, in particular The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth–Century Literary Imagination, written with Susan Gubar. Her poetic output may have been somewhat eclipsed by her literary criticism, but I have been a fan of her poetry since my encounter with her third book of poems, Blood Pressure. The years have not diminished her talents but have deepened them. Her poetry is not obscure, but neither is it plain; under the well-wrought surfaces, one finds deeply considered meditations on loss, departure, nature, religion, time, aging, and beauty—rather what one might expect from an academic feminist. What is not expected are the masterful rhymes wrapped into stunning little sonnets. What is not expected are poems about cataracts, a colonoscopy, dental surgery, and an old cardigan. These poems are not merely funny and wise—they are alive. They bring to mind Donald Hall’s late-career books Without and Painted Bed, written after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and which embody some of the finest work of his career.
Much of the material is centered around the death of Gilbert’s 15-year partner, the game theorist David Gale, to whom the volume is dedicated. However, Gilbert’s grief is expansive and sly, not merely an emotion, but a portal, as in “Grief: A History,” which arcs from a grief that moves from comparisons to a “dull pot at the back of the stove,” “a hurricane with your face,” and “a fog over the harbor,” to a troupe of musicians who “stomped on my glitter/ of grief my shards of/ rage,” ultimately leading to a “solitude of grief.” Gilbert’s imagery is often startling, and this serves her well, as in the couplet that ends the sonnet “Crochet Hook,” a poem about a life lived in isolation, crocheting in front of the TV, as the world ironically flickers past:
until at last she drowsed in her solitude
and the fallen yarn pooled at her feet liked blood.
In “Question and Answer,” a poem about the Holocaust that takes the deep unthinkable nature of loss to a historical, global level, Gilbert demonstrates her honed ability to depict strong emotion within tightly crafted verse:
And the ghosts
Of bullets disappear in dirty mists,
Of kids in puffs of dust, demented lists.
Not all the work is cohesive—“Scouring” and “Edge of Winter Sonnet” come to mind—but the occasional unevenness is vanquished by the brilliance exemplified in “Variations on an Old Issue of Woman’s Day,” a wryly fanciful commentary on the tragicomic nature of women’s advertising. Where we might expect to find a feminist diatribe, we find something more artful:
Light the oven. Fast.
Note this minute’s
recession of darkness.
Avoid money mistakes.
Hurry up. Unfold
Your flat pale leaves
like the skirts of a dancer.
The final section, “Lei Soup,” is ostensibly a celebration of life, containing remarkable considerations of parasailing, mice, sheep, seals, hearing aids, and other topics. Though they are the most sensual, joyous poems here, I found their cheeriness to be somewhat forced, a distraction from the preceding, more somberthemes, although the final two pieces, “Lei Soup” and “Knowing,” return us to an appropriate ending point for this particular journey.
Some might be tempted to classify this book as “women’s poetry,” especially given Gilbert’s background, but it is not. It is a book that does not shy away from the grim aspects of loss, grief or aging, but shapes these realities into a deeply resonant collection. Loss may be devastating, but ultimately it is not antithetical to life.
MarengoStreet: Selected Poems, by Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel.
Moon Pie Press, 2012, paper, 89 pages, $12,
History slips by us like exits on an expressway—fleeting signs for towns and streets that we will never see since the accelerator is pressed to the floor and we are bent on arrival, getting where we want to be. As a history teacher and poet, Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel knows that too often we drive past what we need to remember. To counter our forgetting, she asks us to go where we do not want to go, and to see what we have conveniently forgotten.
Wrobel tells us of a world that holds the “unholy egg/ conceived in Auschwitz,” where “legal minds/ split…hairs over a definition of genocide.” She writes of a “crushed and ailing humanity” desperately trying to repair itself. We are asked to stop our headlong rush to be something or someone and to instead pay attention to what is happening to us. That is no easy task, since, often, our busyness is a way to avoid the horror surrounding us. And that is the question: How can any of us go on with our mundane activities when, if we pay attention at all to the news—to the violation of our land, of our fellow men and women, and of our children—we might as well throw up our hands?
Rather than throw up her hands, Wrobel embraces the world. In the poem “Rosh HaShana, 1992,” she contrasts fears for the new year with a lovely recounting of a day’s pleasures:
You know when you want that
hot morning shower to never end.
Or the baby to sleep on one
Evermore peaceful dreaming hour.
Times alone in clean rushing water,
Early morning solitude…
Soft whistling of
Little loved one breathing sleep.
She then contrasts such solace with the agony of knowing that:
We stand in hot morning showers
gathering splintering bones together.
Inhaling courage with the steam….
And finally, she unites the two emotions: “Wearing anger as an amulet/ and mercy as a glove.”
Living with a sense of history requires us to let the “ungloved hand/ reach down inside,” to “see [one’s] open heart…in the strong slanting rays of/ the sun we nevertheless share.” It requires knowing the essential in our lives. In “These Things First,” she captures such moments:
The first thing I have to do is make my bed
so when I return home
it may be unmade
in a ritual…
of closing what is open
and opening what is closed….
That is the poet’s task, and it is the charge that Wrobel fulfills in this masterful collection: to let us see what is hidden and to make it fresh, so we can find acceptance—but never resignation—in what is wrong, as we strive to make it right.
Lake Studies: Meditations on Lake Champlain, by Daniel Lusk.
Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2011, 96 pages, softcover, $14.95,
From the preface of Daniel Lusk’s Lake Studies, we learn that its poems are the result of “two years of research, of the underwater character and human and natural history of Lake Champlain.” For some of us, this carries the enticement of works bathed in natural history, sprinkled with science. Not quite. These are “works of imagination,” not to be confused with “history, archaeology, journalism or other science.” They’re poems. And yet, how do two years of research into a big lake manifest as poetry?
By going under. There, Lusk has us peer into darkness and hear sounds muffled. There is less clarity and more mystery; all is otherworldly. But before the poems actually dive, we wet our feet at or above the surface. There, Lusk often draws our attention to sound, as in “Story”: “Whisht! Listen.” In this case, the soundscape is an ancient one of thunderous, shrugging glaciers. Whispers, voices and cries, populate another early piece, “People,” and in a sequence of poems about nautical disasters, the sounds at the surface are wild and cacophonous, mostly human, soon stifled forever.
Lusk gives us bearings before the dive. A map is a logical tool for this, and a graceful 18th century one accompanies “Drowned Lands,” our first bird’s-eye view of the “winding, riverine road” along the southern half of the lake (the only map or aerial photo in this collection of images and text, regrettably). We encounter familiar animals—egrets, mallards, otter, and mink. Here, as elsewhere, though, Lusk inventories so much in the way of species or cargo that he often distracts from the narrative.
The lake setting established, Lusk takes us down with the piece “Nocturne”: “When we go below,/ we almost expect to see the stars/ …fixed in their places along the bottom.” The poet applies philosophical ideas with a deft and wry touch, as in “Salon Noir,” in which he re-imagines the light and shadows from Plato’s Allegory submerged. In “Lake Apparition,” he merges monster, silence, and shadow: “The lake, like our dreaming selves/ redolent of secrets/ wondrous and perilous.” His descriptions of fish (sculpin—“Full-lipped/ as tulips in their turbans”) led me to imagine a new breed of field guides in which species descriptions would be penned by poets, not scientists.
Most of this succeeds as a multidisciplinary work “of imagination,” in which facts and myths are woven together. And, I was pleased, as a student of biology, to see ecological and evolutionary concepts referenced in the poems. For instance, the introduction of the invasive zebra mussel to the lake ecosystem and the irony of the resulting clearer lake water is addressed in “Seeing the Bottom off Thompson’s Point.” However, this phenomenon, one of the greatest ecological tragedies of many lake ecosystems in North America (“mistakes we made/ in our youth”) is too briefly explored in only one poem, the shortest in the collection. Elsewhere, a line like “When evolution was yet to come,” which concludes an otherwise lovely elegy to ancient, fossilized life, is puzzling, as it suggests that this process began only when larger multicellular organisms appeared on land. The attempt to merge science and poetry is appreciated but sometimes falls short.
It is the more comprehensible human history of vessels and people that is conveyed most effectively, and then fixed in the lake mud. This long, relatively narrow lake has been crossed countless times; not all attempts succeeded. Lusk reminds us that when we cross water, we cross over a place to which we do not belong: a tomb, so easy to overlook. These poems take us there, from riotous squalls on the surface to the dark, muted lakebed of unseen wrecks and forgotten history.
Volume 23, Fall 2012
There were no poetry book reviews in this issue.
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Volume 23, Summer 2012
There were no poetry book reviews in this issue.
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Volume 23, Spring 2012
Little Boy Blue: A Memoir in Verse, by Gray Jacobik,
Laurel Books, CavanKerry Press, 63 pages, paper, $16,
The art of being a parent is often portrayed like a Norman Rockwell painting, an idyllic frieze with a parent looking fondly at a freckle-faced child who smiles dotingly back. It is a well-polished image of what we want parenting to be. When we ask the question, “How are the kids?” we like hearing how they graduated, have a new job, a good one, and have met someone—a fairy tale with the prince and princess getting married and starting the lovely cycle of life all over again. But that isn’t how it always is.
In Gray Jacobik’s new book, she turns the parenting fairy tale on its head. She reveals not only how she as a parent often failed—failed for reasons any of us would fail—but how her bi-polar son would never live a normal life, would inexorably change her own life, and would lead her to do things she’d never imagined she’d do.
Not often do I find a book of poems that I read from start to finish, but this book moves so furiously forward, taking us from her teenage romance to a pregnancy that her family sought to cover up, from her desperate struggle to parent a child who seemed charged on an Eveready battery to the agonizing slide of her son into mental illness, that I could not put it down. What is so refreshing is how unsparingly she speaks of her own feelings: her not wanting him, her needing him, her being exhausted by him, charmed by him, frightened by him. Her wanting her own life, her seeking men to replace those he wore out. Her wanting to escape. As a parent, I have felt the same way. The wanting out is not a pretty thought, but it’s there like a loaded gun.
For all the agony, however, this book is filled with tender moments of wonder as she discovers who he is:
Hyperactive was the diagnosis.
What, in the ancient world,
would they have said of you?
Or in Charlotte Bronte’s Spawn
And yet such a sweetness
in you too, a tender-heartedness
& sympathy…hypersensitive, living
in a culture that had to brutalize
She watches him as he talked to birds, dogs, cats, any small animal and, eventually, with his own radio show, to the air. She recounts the little episodes that made—and make—his life endurable: the over-the-edge jokester as a child and, as an adult, his radio show “The Atheists Hour,” mocking the religious right. She carries us through several marriages—men as lost as her—and how, even after long drives to bring her son home, she takes solace in the little boy who pesters her:
Hey, mom, make a wish…..
In the boy who tells her:
Mom, you’re most like a zebra—calm & flashy.
Who asks again:
…Mom, be serious. Make a wish.
And she responds,
I wish I’d never hit you or screamed at you.
Any of us who are parents nod our heads and say, “Yes, yes, we are with you.”
This is a book that will take your heart, but you will feel safe in the hands of a woman who speaks clearly and honestly about what is behind the pretty pictures: our lives.
Heavenly Questions, by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Winner of the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize,
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Paperbacks, 2011, 80 pages, paper, $13,
Heavenly Questions: Poems Present Yet Outside the Grief
If fortune bygan to dwelle stable, she cesed[e] an to ben fortune.
If Fortune’s wheel spins too many times, it ceases to have Fortune’s power.
Poetry has a long history of being able to console its readers. After my stay in the hospital last summer, with plenty of illness and grief to go around, I revisited the question of whether a private illness or grief can be shared in a public way through poetry.
Usually, the more regular the verse or meter, the less I feel part of that public grieving. However, with the first poem in Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s beautifully constructed philosophical poems, the regular meter becomes a lullaby that intends to console the patient. As with many lullabies, a story is shared; in this case the subject is Archimedes, philosopher and inventor of ancient machines. She sings:
A visit to the shores of lullabies,
Where Archimedes, counting grains of sand,
Is seated in his half-filled universe….
The rocking, lulling iambic lines mime the first of many heavenly questions that this volume will pose. The cycles of the sand, water, earth, and waves frame a scene that we somehow know is a sickbed or a hospital room:
And all is well now, hush now, close your eyes,
And one….by one…by one….by one…by one….
The flakes of mica gold and granite-crumbs
Materialize and dematerialize.
Here Schnackenberg uses Archimedes’ work as an extended metaphor for medical technology and its limits, and the effect is like that of a medieval manuscript found in the middle of a modern hospital. The poem partially removes us from the scene of the dying in the clinical way, but it doesn’t yet console any more than the “pastoral services” that modern hospitals still may offer. The patient is only illuminated in an imagined corner of the text.
Eager to find more of Schnackenberg’s work, I did not have to look far to find a beautiful short poem called “Night Fishing,” which opens her selected poems in the volume Supernatural Love. This poem metaphorically embodies the first signs of illness in a muted voice, less heightened than the hospital poems but just as distinct:
Just as a fish lurks deep in water weeds,
A thought of death will lurk deep down, will show
One eye, then quietly disappear in you.
Not since Amy Clampitt’s “A Silence Opens” do I feel so much humanity and tact in poems that hover around the idea of death, materializing and dematerializing it without violating the patient’s privacy and sense of self.
Why do Schnackenberg’s poems console me? A lot of poems that used to console me do not. I’ve read over Milton’s “Lycidas” and Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”—poems that once consoled but no longer have that effect. The poems that console me these days seem to operate by how effectively they remove us from the scene of grief. Paradoxically, the poet or the speaker, however removed, remains present. Such a poem is Szymborzka’s “A Cat in An Empty Apartment”:
Die? One does not do that to a cat.
Because what’s a cat to do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls.
Caress against the furniture.
It seems that nothing has changed here,
but yet things are different.
Nothing appears to have been relocated,
yet everything has been shuffled about.
The lamp no longer burns in the evenings….
What more is to be done?
Sleep and wait.
Let him return,
at least make a token appearance.
Then he’ll learn
that one shouldn’t treat a cat like this.
He will be approached.
as though unwillingly,
on very offended paws.
With no spontaneous leaps or squeals at first.
This poem lets me grieve for Szymborska, who died recently at age 88. I can enter her Warsaw apartment through the cat in this poem. The observer, who is located close to, yet outside of, the human scene, personalizes the grief.
“Sublimaze,” the second poem in Heavenly Questions, picks up the bedside vigil in a hospital. Unlike the first poem in Heavenly Questions, which is furnished only with the ancient machinery of Archimedes, the new machines of high-tech medicine are part of the scene:
The door I crazed with knocking reappeared.
A transitory door, lit on the wall,
drenched radiant orange, ablaze beyond the bed…..
In the presence of such machinery, the nurse has “materialized and dematerialized” as the metaphors trace the progress of the disease. This is no mere hospital visit, though. These poems bear witness to an illness and a death in much the same way as Auden’s and Stevens’ great hospital poems visit Yeats and Santayana.
Schnackenberg succeeds in locating herself outside the grief in her final poem in the collection, “Bedtime Mahabharata.” This poem effectively closes off her Heavenly Questions collection not without the possibility of heaven or spirituality, but outside of it. The poem is a retelling of a dog-eared paperback that the poet and the patient have shared in their lives. This final retelling gets outside both the grief and the medieval manuscript that Schnackenberg has lovingly created in the previous poems.
In her retelling, the poet of the Mahabharata speculates on the moment when the writer breaks his pen, and the beautiful exit from story within story. We finally share in Schnackenberg’s grief as the patient squeezes her hand.
In northern India—
He squeezed my hand:
What sentence was he writing when it broke?
A smile, in such a night, with weeks to live.
Pajamas fever-soaked, trying to stave
Annihilation off another night.
The gentleness that nothing could repay.
I pressed his hand’s blue veins against my lips.
A bedtime story, all that we had left,
And mirror-image towers moving off….
Clearly this retelling suggests no ordinary bedtime story, but rather a final meeting. The poet and the patient become integral to the tale being told.
For all of the above reasons, Heavenly Questions is a book I would freely give to console a patient or a poet. These poems understand that what makes us feel grief is the uncertainty, as how she here suggests but does not describe final moments:
In wars we can’t say where, we can’t say when,
Their stories broken off, the fragments fused
Annihilation gusting nearer, here—
Here the god of writers broke his pen.
Volume 23, Winter 2012
Happy Life, by David Budbill,
Copper Canyon Press, 2011,
119 pages, $16.00,
It seems that the title of David Budbill’s latest volume of poetry tells the truth. It is not a sardonic commentary on life in the twentieth century. It is rather a collection of warm and accessible poems that grow out of the poet’s experience and his meditations on who he is and how he found himself over the last forty years. What keeps these poems from being just another man’s reflection on aging and vanished hopes is Budbill’s clear language, his wry, self-effacing humor and his humble recognition of all the poets to whom he owes his poetry. Oh, and it also includes verse dedicated to chainsaws, sex and ambition, and an over-riding arc of stillness in the face of natural beauty.
So what happens if you take a working class boy from Cleveland with a love of jazz and a penchant for Zen poetry to the woods? Something like the poem “A Day Off,”which, after an opening ofspring planting and endless work, work, work, opens its second stanza:
until, that is, I hurt my foot and now
I’m so lame I can barely stand,
which means, I have to spend the day in bed
with tea, the history of
Sung Dynasty poetry and the life of Yang Wan-li—
Showing once again how
sometimes brings the opposite.
This is not to portray Budbill as out of the loop of current events. One of my favorite pieces in the book is the terse poem “Cynical Capitalists”:
Socialize loss. (40)
After listening to endless social commentary on the radio, it is comforting to read such a pungent distillation.
While to some these poems may seem uncomplicated, even simple, they have the feel of a thing made, filed sharp until the rough edges run smooth, then oiled until the words slide across the page. Too often I think contemporary poems run to the jagged and fractured, the overly complicated and dense. Sometimes the simple thing is all we need, and belief is all the poem asks of us. This is a lesson Budbill has learned in his forty years in the woods. It is not the only lesson, but it is an important one.
At times among these poems, we get to go to the city, as in “Three Days in New York: A Blues in B flat.” The poet wanders the city eating freight cuisine, pondering wonders of the non-European world at the Metropolitan Museum and musing: “Who told us Europe discovered the world? ” But it is the final stanza of this longer poem that pictures the poet as he is:
And here I am this old white guy all decked out in my
yellow, orange, red, black, blue, and white dashiki
and my blue and gold African mirror hat playing
Japanese bamboo flute and ropes of bells from India
And a gong from Tibet, with these far-out, crazy
jazz musicians what come in how many different
shades of flesh and nationality, and me right here
on the Lower East Side in New York City reading my cracker,
woodchuck, honky, ofay, green mountains,
ersatz Chinese wilderness poetry.
Whatever David Budbill is, he is in the middle of it. Whether as an observer diving into his dreams, as a jazz musician, a poet, a playwright, a wood-cutting monk, or a scotch-drinking old man with his cheeks to the wood stove, he is all in. If we all went that far, wouldn’t it be a happy life?
As he says in the sixth stanza of “Three Days in New York”:
Polyglot Gumbo Masala Stew
Hybrids Bastards Mutts All of us
All sloshed together Ain’t it grand?
I, for one, need to be reminded of that.
N.B. A Happy Life is the third in a series of books which also includes: Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse (1999) and While We’ve Still Got Feet (2005) published by Copper Canyon Press. Each of these is part of the chronicle of Budbill’s journey which involves spending nearly forty years on the side of a mountain in northern Vermont.
Fabric, by Richard Froude,
Horse Less Press, 2011, 120 pages, paper, $15.00,
“Yesterday, aged 29, I bought a dustbuster.” Such declarative sentences fill Richard Froude’s Fabric. The “I” of the book is a likable fellow who buys dustbusters, likes a good wheeze (albeit while staying up all night rewriting the dictionary), and likes to eat cold grilled chicken from Ziploc® bags. He possesses a willingness to participate that beguiles the theoretical complexities that vie for supremacy in this hybrid of poetry/fiction/memoir.
At first glance, the book is arranged in prose chunks, possibly termed poems, that each take up roughly a half page. A reader may smell poetry leaking through the pages, but Froude shies away from such a moniker: “The word ‘poet’ makes me uncomfortable.” And one sympathizes with him, as Poets come to mind, dressed in all black with well-placed berets atop boozy breath.
In fact, Froude shies away from most gestures of qualification, but he does so in a paradoxical way. His quick, direct sentences give a reader the sense that he is telling straight facts, but this definitiveness quickly undefines itself as a reader realizes that what Froude is saying is anything but explanatory. Froude mentions that “fiction is revealed to be the most popular form of immortality.” So perhaps there is an element of ambition, of immortality here (can it ever be very far absent from any writer?), but Froude immediately follows this statement with: “I don’t think I’m going to explain this any further.” It is this theoretical push, and then quick retreat, that characterizes much of the book, and one almost begins to feel that Froude is too modest to fully explain himself, or even to fully acknowledge the ambition of the book. He is even more likable as an author because of this modesty, which feels genuine as opposed to a false-bred modesty.
The book is really a book of transitions. How a reader is able to experience and follow these transitions determines the level of enjoyment extracted from the book. They are quick turns, fast theoretical yanks of the wheel to accommodate such drivers as Deleuze, Jabes, and Barthes, and to be honest, I didn’t follow all of them. But that’s not so surprising; I rarely ever manage to do this. As a reader, I sometimes feel my driving/reading skills are more attuned with my inner grandmother, who perpetually drives ten miles below the speed limit. But this did not inhibit my reading pleasure of Fabric. And in fact, Froude at one point says: “I do not understand the transition. I hold you until you disappear.” It’s a pleasurable, if fleeting, embrace.
Some of these transitions are more successful than others. From page 33 to 34, Froude elegantly moves from a beautiful poetic sequence about constellations, blood and cities into an anecdote, on page 34, about a family trip to Orlando and on to the invention of the stadium wave (I told you the transitions were fast). However, on page 35, two prose sections are linked by the clunky transitional phrase, “That is,” signifying to this reader that this particular turn felt a little forced. In a book with so many fast turns, a few slack ones only feel inevitable.
In order to really appreciate the denseness of Fabric, a reader must have a certain postmodern/New Prose appetite for theoretical acrobatics that can, at times, feel like they exist for their own sake. I enjoyed Froude’s anecdotes over his aphorisms, small narratives about Jackie Robinson’s rookie card or the detonation of the 29-kiloton nuclear device named “Apple II.” It is a heady mix of trivia and history mixed with a high-pedigree of abstract poetics.
Towards the end of a piece about Richard Brautigan’s A Confederate General from Big Sur, Froude mentions Erik Satie: “reading (as well as writing) can exist as a practice of measurement.” This feels appropriate for Fabric as well. There is an exactness to Froude’s exploration, a writer’s scientific reveling in history’s ephemera. One constructs an image of the author joyfully sifting through the spilled contents of an enormous Ziploc® bag that had contained not cold grilled chicken, but fact after theory after fact, and all of it awaiting the dustbuster of his pen
Volume 22, Fall 2011
Impenitent Notes, by Baron Wormser,
CavanKerry Press, 2010, 87 pages, $16.00,
I first encountered Baron Wormser five years ago at a talk he gave at the Portland Public Library, in Portland Maine, about his book The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memory Living Off the Grid.
I was fascinated by his unassuming account of living with his family for nearly twenty-five years in a house in Hallowell, Maine, without electricity or running water. They carried water by hand, grew much of their own food, and read by kerosene light, settling into a life that centered on what Thoreau had called “the simple facts.” Yet ironically, as Wormser claims, their choice to “live off the grid” was neither statement nor protest: they just happened to have built their house too far back to afford to bring in the power lines.
Over the years, Wormser has been described as a realist whose poetic voice is rooted in everyday life, popular culture, and the emotional complexities of ordinary people. In his ninth poetry collection, Impenitent Notes, the former poet laureate of Maine, who is widely published and the recipient of numerous prestigious literary awards, leaves the impression of a man comfortable in his own skin, yet equally perplexed, angered and enlivened by the world around him.
Many of his perceptions in these poems profoundly capture men and woman in a state of social, political and economic crisis. In “Ode to Time,” Wormser writes: “You’ll get to sit around the assisted-living facility / and make bets on who will go next.” He writes about “another Republican president / who squares morality with greed and smiles about it,” then remarks: “Time is an ugly polluted river.” In his poem “Evenings,” he observes: “Futility rises as well as anyone in the morning.”
In his especially poignant poem “Millions,” he contrasts the lives of a hedge fund millionaire and owner of a tree service company with “a few poets / who have mastered the trick of living solely on oxygen”:
…When a ten-dollar check
Comes in the mail for a poem they laugh and use it
To start a fire in the Jotul of blow-down—
Wood that lived its life without cash whatsoever,
That grew from random seeds that blew in the wind.
His poems cover an impressive range themes, such as the still-sensitive issue of gay awareness in “Winning”:
It is Thanksgiving
The day the family salutes the notion of family
And I was invited as Rick’s college roommate.
Rick, who was gay, told me he was going to tell
His folks officially and wanted someone straight
To be there to “thin out the flak” in Rick’s words.
Later, the father and mother of the gay son retire to Florida, where he still builds model fighter planes and she bakes pies. And:
Rick’s been with the same guy for over a decade
And sends me Christmas cards each year
In which he frets about his waist size.
Like many great poets, Wormser doesn’t avoid difficult subject matter (“Subject Matter” being the actual title of one of his earlier collections)—a mother succumbing to cancer, Americans being ripped off by Wall Street, torture in Latin America, the murky life of prostitutes, the despair of the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. Indeed, Wormser often startles us with how people tend to dodge challenging subjects, as in “The Oil Man”:
Every drop of oil is the earth’s blood, a sensitive
Girlfriend once told me while I was putting a quart
Into my ‘64 Ford. Is that good or bad?I asked her.
Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of metaphor.
No wonder it largely keeps to poetry.
The absurd unreality that advertising offers its viewers and its debilitating effect it can have on the psyche is well captured in “Bud Light”:
The guy who is buying a twelve-pack at the convenience store
On a Wednesday evening isn’t listening to why we are
The way we are and how, through words and sincerity,
We could get better. Even as he puts his hard-earned down
On the slightly greasy, Formica counter
He’s already sitting on front of the TV
Drinking one beer after another, quickly.
Readers have become accustomed to Wormser’s range, depth, and uncanny ability to get inside the hearts and minds of his characters. As his probes beneath the skin of simple folk, we see our shared aspirations, disappointments, and defeats, as well as the maddening controlled and uncontrolled influences that threaten to consume us, in a new and refreshing light. And as the word “impenitent” implies, the author achieves this without regret, sham or remorse.
One With Others, by C.D. Wright,
Copper Canyon, 2010, 168 pages, paper, $18.00,
C.D. Wright’s One With Others, her portrait of one spitfire white woman in Civil Rights-era Arkansas, is not, she advises, a work of history: Rather, it is a “welter of associations,” a “report full of holes.” In this riddling of documentary, memory, and meditation, Wright returns to her native home as poet, investigator, and witness, to conjure her old mentor and friend V, an iconoclastic firebrand for literature and civil rights who in 1969 crossed the color line to join a civil rights march, and was driven out of town forever. Through interviews, news clippings, and her own recollections, Wright has crafted a book of verse with the momentum of fiction, by turns elegiac, slyly funny, and horrifying, in homage to V, a vibrant moral and cultural anomaly of her time and place.
That time and place is provincial Big Tree, Arkansas, smoldering with racial strife at a time of similar conflagrations across the nation. Wright calls it up through the words of radio ministers and the local veterinarian, with jokes and Dear Abby columns. She evokes it in its smells (“The faint cut of walnuts in the
- … The pulled-barbecue evening.”); its grocery prices (“A Whole fryer is 59¢.”; “Two pounds of Oleo, 25¢”); and the headlines (“Los Angeles enters its sixth day of rioting, 32 dead.”) She interviews the black man, a former state senator, who was beaten “by the sheriff who kept a man’s testicles in a jar on his desk until the word got around.”
As a woman and a homegrown intellectual in this world, V is fierce and ever-seething: “She woke up in a housebound rage, my friend V,” Wright tells us. “Changed diapers. Played poker. Drank bourbon…. Yeats she knew well enough to wield as a weapon.” V emerges through an array of recollections. From a friend: “Dragged her sewing machine to the porch because she did not want to have to look at it.” An old neighbor: “Oh yeah, I remember her, she celebrated all her kids’ birthdays on the same day.” Wright on her talk with another neighbor: “Flat out, she says, She didn’t trust me and I didn’t trust her. / Then she surprised me, saying, She was right. We were wrong.” The act that shunt V from much of the white community was to join a black organizer Wright refers to as The Man Imported from Memphis (aka “The Invader”) in The March Against Fear, a decision that got her her own headline: “WHITE WOMAN BACKS NEGROES, LOSES FRIENDS.”
Wright reveals V’s story and that of the March through a range of voices—friends from before and after her banishment, activists, and observers. Her storytelling is vertiginously non-linear, in fragments, verse, and prose poems that zoom in and out of time, that circle and refrain. The name of a movie playing in a segregated theater is forgotten one moment, but remembered some pages later; a radio preacher is possibly misheard (“Now get in that goddamn water and swim with the rest of them.”) Wright’s work is rich in changing tenses and shifts in narrators; her own voice withdraws for a time, then returns with an intimate lurch. Here, telling of V’s car blown up after the March: “She had just begun to drive, I mean she just learned to drive and she had many miles to go. Then whoa, Gentle Reader, no more car.” Wright’s piecemeal, circuitous narrative evokes the very shape and rhythm of memory, and the investigation of memory.
That investigation sometimes lands in a searing philosophy of the South’s ills. On the nature of institutionalized bigotry: “King called ‘it’ a disease, segregation. [sounds contagious] / It’s cradle work, is what it is. It begins before the quickening.” And on the emotional contortions of the regularly wronged:
…those so grievously harmed, who do the forgiving, do
so, that they not be deformed by the lie, must call on
reserves not meant to be tapped except for a
But in this case, the reserves are needed every day, every hour of every day, because the warp is everywhere…. It is, in fact, the law.
By a gradual accumulation of glints and fragments, Wright also reveals a culture and V over time, the grown children of Big Tree and V ever-rebellious in 2004, on her deathbed in a one-room Hell’s Kitchen apartment. In these moments, there is the temptation to find relief in the contemporary, in having caught up in time to a saner, reason-driven present, the after to the before. But in Wright’s magnificent, important “welter of associations,” in the jukeboxes, radio, and people she hears in today’s Big Tree, there is a stark reminder that history’s shifts, its remembering and forgetting, its outrages, are inextricable from a modernity that’s anything but finished:
Sound of the future, how close
to the sound of the old….
A City of Angels, by Ben Mazer, Cy Gist Press, 2011, 36 pages, chapbook, $9
How to Carve an Angel,by Peter Fulton,
The Seventh Quarry Poetry Press, 2011, 44 pages, paper, $16.90
(with CD of original musical compositions),
Because of the number of channels increasing every day on cable and computers, almost every person now has access to a video store in the house. In that position, like many couch-bound reviewers, I am confronted with the simultaneity of many—too many—works of art at my fingertips. In such an embarrassment of riches, it is refreshing to shift our focus to verse plays, which drastically limit our number of channels to the language of the poem in front of us, and to the music and voices that support that language. A renaissance of verse plays, revived in small theaters, and even café and home performances, could be a balm to our age.
When I started reading poetry in high school and college, verse plays were elusive to me, until I realized that I could simply suspend my disbelief and enjoy the language as it unfolded. Recently reading and seeing three successful verse plays performed confirmed how the form makes the language of lyric and narrative poetry even more accessible—and without elaborate productions.
In the case of Ben Mazer’s play, the channels are subtle and subjective: Nineteen-forties’ British dramas, Frost, Camus are the three I picked up, along with a hint of the Dudley Fitts translation of Oedipus. Which isn’t to say that a full scale tragedy ensues. The figure of interest is a young man, a tragic figure, who returns home to his destiny, which is to live the life of imagination—in this case to propose a play that no one can quite understand, but still they believe in him. The young man comes back with dreams that probably won’t be realized, but any tragedy is unnamed and depends upon each individual imagination:
….Say this for the new drama:
It bought you fully to the edge of sense
where evils are met with indifference
and love has power to launch a new surprise,
intelligence communicated by the eyes
ignites the fire of activity
in the calm ticking of the calendar
released into the night’s ethereal
and blessing cognizance.
One can reread this verse play multiple times and experience the pleasure of the play building cyclically though the shape of “the new drama,” and the voices added to the voices that shape it. The cast consists of John Crick, who is the son of the best friend of John Wells, the president of a college. Crick returns to this college to propose a course in a life-defining “new drama,” but encounters the resistance of another group of townspeople. In addition, a family feud has broken out between the Cricks and the Crosses, and Crick’s father has been killed. Crick, then, is both a Prodigal Son and a Fisher King rolled into one. Likewise, many of the main characters, including Mary Wells, John Wells, and John Cross, are more archetypal than realistic:
CRICK: What keeps you at this place?
MARY: The sound of the bells
Is like no other. The edge of the city’s walls
Instill a strong remembrance of things past.
I don’t know. I was a little girl here…
The minor characters function brilliantly as a chorus, supplying details that eventually coalesce into a lyric resolution, becoming part of the larger poem.
For that reason I would love to see this play simply read at a cafe by a dozen strong voices. No fancy production is necessary. I believe it would help an audience to have a brief sampling of each character’s voice, followed by some artful repetitions. Each stanza unfolds part of the action—but not all of it—so that you’ll want to read multiple times, each time finding more. A sophisticated young troupe with an ear for the musical play of dialogue could have much fun with these lines.
In the shadow of Dylan Thomas’ home town, Swansea, Wales, a number of verse plays were performed this year at the first Swansea Poetry Festival. Peter Fulton’s play “How to Carve an Angel,” Swansea’s production of which I watched on DVD, spends most of its energies in lyrics suggesting the inner weather of the sculptor protagonist:
They cannot imagine your revisioning
bursting thunder pinwheel’s cortex
skulling light reels of recollecting
No tick across your stoic mask
features your revelations’ revolt.
More of the scene is filled in by Fuller’s italicized stage directions that add precision, and the simple staging of Swansea’s low-fi production worked in service of the verse. The moving figures of the dancers firmly control center stage. Stage left, the characters are frozen in a tableau vivant. The reader and fiddler hover around the opposite edge, adding just enough to focus the audience on the complicated internal rhymes and the rising action: an angel sculpture being born. By the end of the play, the sculpture is firmly envisioned in the mind’s eye. The simple staging helps the audience focus on lines given to the Angel:
Did ignorance and want
ashame me into illusory seclusion
Are these torments my world’s
scrap of chips carved away:
everything that is not
my sculptor’s pure creation.
I could see both Mazer’s and Fulton’s plays having second lives as opera librettos. If that happens, my hope is that production values will not outstrip the words. And the form itself of the verse play, whatever its next incarnation, should not be overproduced. Nor should it be overwritten. It is tempting for a playwright to add more back story and to fill out the characters’ lives, but the verse play calls forth the gods of metaphor and synesthesia—the art of presenting one modality in terms of another.
Fortunately, both plays under review keep their focus on the language. Years ago I went to see a production of Amy Clampitt’s verse play in which she attempted to shine more light on the life and work of Dorothy Wordsworth. But the dramatic form was too elaborate, and at the end of the evening Dorothy was still overshadowed by William and the other Romantic poets. Clampitt had pointed out to me that each of Dorothy’s journal entries begins with a “weather tag,” like “A fine mild day.” However, in that night’s performance, Clampitt did not follow her own special insight into Dorothy’s language. Clampitt’s subject would have been better served by a less complicated play that focused entirely on her journals.
This leads me to formulate a rule of thumb for verse plays: Any production should not exceed the number of channels that the poetry supports. Start with The Poetry Channel. Then add in The Sculpture Channel or the Place Channel—not the other way around.
That is why I believe these two verse plays, whether on the page or minimally produced, are successful in their current forms. In this age of overproduced operas and music videos, here’s hoping we will see more ad hoc small companies form from these original productions. The Swansea group, including fine work by Peter Thabit Jones and John Dalton, is taking their verse plays to small but significant venues in America such as the Frost Farm in Derry, NH, and the Grolier Poetry Shop in Cambridge, MA. The first scene of Mazer’s “A City of Angels” first appeared on Eyewear (http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2010/08/ =verse-play-by-ben-mazer.html). If more small companies take such initiatives, more plays and scenes will be coming to a small playhouse or a cell-phone near us soon.
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Volume 22, Summer 2011
Farang, by Peter Blair,
Autumn House Press, 2009, 64 pages, paper, $14.95,
“Farang,” we quickly learn in Peter Blair’s book about his years in the Peace Corps, means “foreigner” in Thai. The clear images of these melodic narrative poems evoke the legacy of the Vietnam War years, the tensions between Thais and ex-patriot Americans, the struggle to cobble together a pathway between cultural differences, and the lyrical beauty of Thailand and its peoples.
The book introduces the first of its four sections, “November Full Moon,” with the poem, “Discussing the Dream of Culture with Professor Kwaam,” in which an ethereal, clean-shaven, smiling Professor Kwaam pontificates on Thai and American cultures—“two dreams / of one world, the Dharma. A few months ago / he taught me Thai and how to read palms: / A good way to hold hands with a girl. He winked.” The novice poet-traveler is in need of instruction:
Noodles slip off my novice chopsticks.
My soup darkened by soy sauce, peanuts,
sugar, the strands disappear in my bowl.
Kwaam’s noodles twine in clear broth.
Of course, the poet meets a girl. Her name is Siripan. She’s young and beautiful, a school teacher who instructs the poet in vocabulary and demonstrates the ramwong, a kind of waltz, “spinning / through all the positions that turn / a man and woman into blossoms.” But Siripan is already lost, drifting from her family, which does not approve of her dating farangs. Siripan and the poet share stories of their fathers and grandfathers. “They traveled far to find their wives,” Siripan says poignantly. “Our kiss feels like an ocean, / its waves breaking on opposite shores.” So far no one has traveled far to marry Siripan, who appears later in the book only as a longing, a memory.
After visiting a Buddhist temple, the poet tours the bars and brothels of Bangkok, the Angel City, with his boorish American friend Harry, who “tramples / his shadow with his feet / seeking all joys but wisdom / among the metal-grated storefronts, / the butcher-shop, fortune-teller, apothecary, serving the bodily / charkas of the city.” Leaving Bangkok for the countryside, the poet is haunted by ghosts and nightmares featuring Kukrit from The Ugly American, and wakes to the slow turning blade of his ceiling fan: “farang, farang, farang.”
In section two, “Up-country,” the poet-narrator keenly observes scenes of village life: He visits temples on whose walls human figures “pursue their karma”; he joins in the rice planting, standing ankle deep in the fields beside the buffalo; he attends a village fair where he is accosted—farang!—by village youths and wins an ivory Buddha which “hangs on my chest, / smooth as a stone that’s been sunk / in flowing water for 25 centuries.” In “In the Hot Season,” a boy not much younger than the poet’s own twenty-one years floats on the river in the noonday heat. This poem, exemplary of Blair’s best, describes a boy floating on “wide, brown water” in a river “starved of rain”, where tree roots “show through like gray ribs / near the banks.” The boy’s canoe is merely a packing tin “emptied of bamboo shoots.”
The poem’s easy cadences foreswear meter and rhyme for subtle alliteration—“gunwales gleaming,” “wide, brown water”—and strong, graceful lines and syntax, with line breaks punctuating the unfolding narrative, following the grammatical units of meaning. While not especially playful, inventive, or surprising—highly valued qualities in much contemporary poetry—Blair is adept at seeing beneath the surface of the sensory world to the feelings and desires of the boy, the boy’s pleasure in a lazy day on the river, his cotton shirt “a white flag draped over the side, signaling / his surrender to a day without desire.” Blair imbues the boy with the deep qualities of his culture: When the boy’s “eight-fold path lies across / low water cradled by gnarled hills,” he becomes an emblem of his culture’s Buddhism. The final stanza zooms out, giving the reader a wide-screen view:
As the rumbling, spattering caravan
of trucks, buses and tuk-tuks pass
over him on the bridge on their raucous
way to Bangkok, the Angel City,
he floats diamond-bright and solitary
in the middle of the sweltering town.
Halfway from either bank, he finds
the bright center of the afternoon.
And the poet, too, finds the bright center of the poem.
At the close of this second section, the poet travels with his students by bus to the Gulf of Siam, where Ampon, one of his young students, has promised to reveal his secret beach near his house there. But then, suddenly, the festive occasion turns hollow and ghastly: Ampon drowns.
Word spreads through the palms, mangoes
and village streets. His father descends stairs
under his house, walks out into the light,
watching me. My skin never feels so white.
In the house, his mother wails, prepares the body.
“My skin never felt so white” is one of several striking expressions of the poet’s own otherness. The moment of silent confrontation between the father whose son has died and the poet, the climax of these first two parts, has its formal complement in sections three and four, “The Dream of Culture” and “The Land of Transit.” Among Blair’s reflections on the two cultures, he tells us that word has come from the American Consul of his own father’s death in Pittsburgh. He is now the fatherless boy, the one abandoned.
Back in the States for the funeral, at the close of this tender, sensitive collection, the poet stands awkwardly at O’Rourke’s Bar and Grill with his old classmates. And once again, this time to the big, hairy-chested American boys he’s known since grade school, he finds himself farang.
—reviewed by Zara Raab
Almost A Remembrance: The Selected Shorter Poems of Jack McCarthy,
Moon Pie Press, 2011, 75 pages, $10.00,
If you’ve ever heard one of Jack McCarthy’s slam gigs (and I am fortunate enough to have done so), you’ll recognize the qualities that dominate this tome: Entertainment with a capital E, edge
with a small one. Remembrance is a virtuoso recital that demonstrates his verbal range. Two key epigrams are placed before the table of contents. First, there’s Keats: “Poetry should strike the reader as his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” (Even Keats acknowledges the virtue of accessibility!) This gets echoed by Nebraska’s Ted Kooser: “All I ever really wanted to do was give the regular guy something special that he didn’t expect.” We readers are then presented with the polarities of High/Low language and culture, and rhyming vs. free-verse formats. All this is orchestrated in a playful but sometimes self-excoriating tone. The following snippet from “Poet Detained in Airport” reflects the former quality, but suggests the latter:
The clerk asked,
“Are you carrying anything on
from a strange person?”
The poet said, “Lady,
I am a strange person.”
. . . “Have you been leaving
your baggage unattended?”
. . . “Of course I have.
That’s how it got to be
Yet this work does not lack gravitas . . . Indeed, McCarthy, ex-King of Cambridge’s Cantab Lounge, can “paint a swath” worthy of the B.U. Confessional School (Plath, Lowell)—at will. In the bravura “Irish History Explained in 16 Lines: or, Did You Ever Wonder Why So Many of the Great Writers Are Irish? ” there’s the lilt of Gaelic syntax, but its brazen first sentence bolts at the reader! Here’s most of it:
As anyone who’s considered being God
will know, at Pentecost the gift was not
of tongues, but ears.
Their lovely bloody language
was the weapon did us in . . .
They pronounced death sentences; listening,
we heard troubadours . . .
It wasn’t us they betrayed, but English.
They didn’t live up to it, they were not grand
enough, magnanimous, and now it’s ours.
. . . because we let
it charm us and seduce us, we own it now
in ways they never did, and never will.
In this astounding paradox, McCarthy maintains that the Irish, who had the bloody English language thrust upon them by their persecutors from the south, actually work the English tongue better! (Subversion, anyone?)
In his most accomplished poem, “Music Night at Boston Latin,” McCarthy owns up to being captivated by a budding beauty—a girl his daughter’s age. Despite its what-could-be-disquieting subject matter, this poem is filled with uncommon tenderness and irony. It begins:
I wish I could accredit properly
every act before my daughter’s
group, but in all honesty, the only thing
that sticks out in my memory
is the left leg of the first violinist
in the string quartet.
The penitent disclaimer (“I wish I could accredit properly”) is buffered by an arcane meaning of “accredit”: “to make creditable, or reputable; sanction.” And “the only thing that sticks out” is another pun, lending a dose of levity. (Note the objectification of the leg: another reason not to take this soul-baring seriously?) McCarthy then takes us, circuitously, down the path of physics, describing how footlights met said leg:
. . . Einstein’s theory about light bending . . .
irrefutably demonstrated here:
in the little sphere of glow
that emanated from a left tibia, which,
in casual repose, seemed slightly curved—
as space itself is curved. . . .
Yet it soon takes a turn for the darker, ending with:
and I supposed that somewhere with
me in the darkness sat a father thinking
gender-treacherous thoughts . . ..
. . . that the boy
had not been born and never would
who could do justice to his radiant jewel.
And somewhere also sat proprietary
the music teacher . . .
who loved her with the kind of old-fashioned
passion that would go to its grave
without ever once becoming
McCarthy, in the course of the book, leaves behind another travail, that of “Scenes From a Marriage (very late)”: “The counselor said, / ‘I want to begin this session / by asking each of you to say / something nice about the other.’” The voice of Jack’s wife concludes the poem with these remarks:
“When we first married
and we’d disagree,
I would always defer to him.
For years I did.
Sometimes I’d ask myself why,
and I’d suppose it was because
he had a fine mind,
that he just knew
more than I did.”
“Now I think it’s simply because
he speaks in complete sentences.”
Eventually, McCarthy finds contentment with “the fabulous Carol” (as described in his bio). The quality of their late-life marriage is drolly “qualified” by this Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: “We are as happy as people can be, without making themselves ridiculous, and might be even happier; but, as a matter of taste, we choose to stop short at this point.”
The last section of “Remembrance”—“BRITISH ADDRESSES”—is, unfortunately (to my mind), uneven. Here McCarthy puns in a racy manner on clunky place-names conceivable only in the U.K.
(gleaned from a job compiling databases). Yet some elbow-pokes, on the page, lack the ever-effective inflections that Jack’s noted for on-stage.
On-stage, they rock! National and international crowds have had their cover charge amply repaid with golden metaphor; I witnessed the McCarthy Mesmerism Act when I booked Jack to read at Geno’s Rock Tavern, back in the Brown Street days. SRO, as befits a legend.
As to the present: Jack is battling lung cancer. Buy this book. (A mere $10!) The karma you earn will be a blessing to him; the text will be a blessing to you. One final epigram, a Dylan Thomas quote printed opposite the author’s bio and photo, is sadly appropriate: “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
Godspeed with your next book, Jack.
—reviewed by Peter Manuel
Bathsheba Transatlantic, by Sarah Wetzel,
Anhinga Press, 2010, 98 pages, paper, $17.00,
Reading the cover of Sarah Wetzel’s mind-shaking debut volume of poems, I was struck by Timothy Liu’s comment that he saw this book as a “dialogue between the Middle East and Manhattan, between a Bathsheba depicted by Rembrandt on the one hand and mythologized by the Old Testament on the
other. . . . ”
I think much of the conversation here occurs, in fact, between the selves that Sarah discovers within herself as she tries to learn the map of her own heart.
We are surrounded by conflict. Every day another portion of the world erupts, and yet we worry about being on time for our appointments, meet friends for dinner, call our children
from the back steps as evening comes. Wetzel lives in Israel and Manhattan, and the activities of daily life that fill her poems stretch like bridges between razor-wired borders. They speak not only of the conflict between countries, but of how infiltration occurs within hearts, within families. Her lines hum with tension and pause to catch moments of beauty and terror with either hand, because any moment could explode. Reading this book is like riding a rocket that may fall at any time. Even a short quote from the poem “Rehearsing for Rockets” loads the tension of impending violence against the plan for survival:
The six-year old girl under my hand squirms
as I fit a gas mask to her small face.
Behind a chemical toilet we’ve stacked
canned food and bottled water, crayons
and coloring books. We’re practicing
for when the rockets drop.
Wetzel’s language here is as straightforward as a catalogue, but behind it lays the fear, the one eye and one ear that must always be focused on the sky while trying to comfort the child. What is not written in these poems often has a greater presence than the words. Can one learn to be ready for the sky to fall?
While the language is often, of necessity, commonplace, the images and the spaces between them hold a greater song. Consider the first half of her poem “Sighthounds, for Gai”:
My best friend wrote she’s gone blind
in one eye, diabetes exploding
the small veins in her eyes. She loves chardonnay
and cake, said things
might get worse.
In the last world war,
one out of four planes shot down from the ground
were friendly. More on cloudy nights
when the radar failed. Tonight though, the sky
is clear, a full moon bleaching each corner
Even the shadows gleam,
and my small dog, foolish in the glow, barks
How immense the grass smells.
Somehow she manages to write the way we often think, jumping from her friend’s letter to the fate of things not seen clearly, then to the moon on the garden. She creates an abundance of the visual until the last line of the stanza, when the sweet smell of grasses becomes larger than the world. We do not think twice about the distances we cover in space or time, but leap willingly, as eager for the next line as we are to open ourselves to the night sky, while gazing at the face of the moon.
As Wetzel maps herself and the landscapes she lives in, emotional and geographical, we see the tracks of animals who wander through her: Borges and Bernini, Rembrandt and Plato. From beauty and dust, from the deaths of children and the hunger of refugees rise poems as if they held to the power to scatter everything into its component atoms. These are not poems that pretend to answer. They say what is and has been. We are left, like the poet, to find someplace to stand. How is it that we live with conflict and war? With love or without? The poem, “Letter in the Hand of an Illiterate Woman,” with the epigraph, “After Rembrandt’s painting, Bathsheba at Her Bath holding King David’s letter,” continues to describe her quest for understanding how even love is fraught with danger. Though Bathsheba cannot read David’s letter, she feels the keen edge of each word:
Black ink brewed from the residue of oil
etched on papyrus thinner than skin
of an animal. The smell on her hands as if
something burns. She traces the pain taken
over each word, the geometrical rhythm
of angle and slope, curves like caves, their
mouths wide open, lines crumpled
and bent, lines crossed and combined.
He’d placed dots and dashes beneath
particular letters. She knows those marks
insinuate ahs and ohs
of speaking. She can’t read, yet sees
each word has an edge. What kind
of man sends a letter to a woman
who can’t read it? What kind of man paints
her portrait holding a letter?—
how carefully she keeps turning it over.
In each of the poems in this book Sarah handles words as though each were a bomb and a treasure. As Bathsheba traces the letters she doesn’t understand, she finds “the smell on her hands as if / something burns.” Wetzel concerns herself with fanning the flame of understanding. She shares openly the worlds she lives in: New York art museums, Tel Aviv bomb shelters, her dying garden. As she says in the poem, “Infidelity,”: “Yet if we can’t speak / of deceit / to one another, how can we speak of love?” The poems here rattle the cages of complacency. In a world that seems content to gloss itself, being startled reminds us to live.
—reviewed by Michael Macklin
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Volume 22, Spring 2011
note regarding the following two reviews: In the Human Zoo and Transistor Rodeo both won the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize sponsored by the University of Utah Press; Zoo in 2010 and Rodeo in 2009.
In The Human Zoo, by Jennifer Perrine,
University of Utah Press, 2011, 88 pages, paper, $12.95,
How long has it been since you’ve felt sucker punched? I’m talking about having to put In The Human Zoo down after a first read, weighting it under a rock on my desk, and going out onto my porch to see if the stars were still where I last saw them. They were there, but my heart was still slamming about in my chest. On first impression, these skillfully crafted poems click shut at their ending like jewel boxes full of wasps. Even afterward, one swears they are waiting for the next innocent victim.
There is little in any of these poems that is not fraught with danger, whether speaking of human origins, the light of fireflies “waiting to scoot their lemony asses / right up to my skin,” “crows unfolding a possum’s / skin,” or how to deal with lemons: “cut your teeth on the rinds. . . ..” Each poem presents another path through ordinary days filled with edges, stingers, “pain wedged on the salty rim / of your face.” Hence the rock. Though we live in a dangerous world, it is rare that we are reminded in such an elegantly brutal way.
Jennifer Perrine might also be a verbal alchemist, given the way she has me reaching for my OED. Her language is by turns common and esoteric, scientific, and surgical. This is language used for its original purpose, to edge words as close to the bone of truth as possible. Having read a lot of poets who seem to want to impress with weighty vocabulary, I was relieved to feel included in digging through the word bins. Once I researched fritillus, spathe and spadix, spirulina, and mammatus, I found she was precise in their use and conscious of their music as well. Her lines are compelling. My limited vocabulary has been expanded by her invitation.
These are not poems of despair. They are survival lines. Perhaps the only way to help you understand is to give you a sample from “Walking Home After the Graveyard Shift”:
. . . I grow talons of housekeys
that slash the August air, that sad frotteur
that pushes against my shirt. Its little huffs
of damp wood and mud pour a fluvial
soup between my breasts. Behind me the owl
whistles its come-on, and I snap my legs
open and shut, a switchblade in the dark.
These are poems that will keep you alive—not necessarily comfortable, but able to fight or flee as you must.
Transistor Rodeo,by Jon Wilkins,
University of Utah Press, 2010, 69 pages, paper, $12.95,
If what you are looking for is poems that surprise, let me mention this unassuming mother lode. Try these lines from “Love Song”:
Words leapt from your mouth then
like a gymnast on the moon. You were so
lively and full of pockets.
Don’t worry, I am not giving away secrets: There are a number of poems entitled “Love Song” in this slender volume. But I would use this opening stanza as a description of what Jon Wilkins, the poet, does. Using the same title for each of a series of poems, he sends words zipping and zinging through our senses like a knife-throwing magician, then ducks behind the nearest title for a new and completely differently balanced set of knives:
Always assume it is your lover
who stands you said at the end
of every tunnel and is waving
a scarf or an axe. . . .
Leap to the next “Love Song,” and so on. But Wilkins is not just fast or flashy; he prays, catalogues, theorizes. He does these things by himself in the loneliness of space, or else naked and drunk after the prom with William Carlos Williams in his own Mean-Joe-Green-meets-the-boy-with-the-Coke version of “Kenneth Koch’s Unfinished Sestina.”
In the section called “Prayers,” Wilkins uses the titles to place us in a specific time, physical space, and attitude, i.e. “7:34 am, styrofoam cup, metal table / Prayer”:
Still too early
mask / leaf
may / may not
truancies and that scar.
His prayers are bright, twisted pieces of cellophane that wrap the everyday in what feels like the mathematics of modern meditations. He uses slashes to turn his short lines into fractions, as though he were working out the balance necessary to prove his theories on God / world. He ends this prayer, “Lord, make me hot as coffee, / and I’ll melt this world like sugar.” Wouldn’t we all like to believe that of ourselves?
If I had been taught prayer or mathematics by Wilkins, I might have stuck with them. Not because I always agree with him, but because he would keep me fascinated by what was coming next. His ability to keep us off balance and interested is uncanny. As he says in “Please don’t hate me because I’m perfect”:
God, I wish I had a nickname like Rabbit.
I wish I’d spent more time swimming as a kid.
He leaves us wishing as well.
Shahid Reads His Own Palm, by Reginald Dwayne Betts,
2009 Beatrice Hawley Award, 2010, Alice James Books,
80 pages, paper, $15.95,
In Reginald Dwayne Betts’ first collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, the body of the speaker is haunted by the man he once was and the shadows of the men who came before him:
the six fingers
I need to number
the bright orange
of my country
my shackled feet, the
around my waist
& yesterdays yoked
into my cuffed hands.
Placing his “shackled” body within the modern prison block, Betts offers a connection to slavery’s scar over the American identity. This unavoidable history is bound to the self like a yoke, like cuffs around wrists. Betts cleverly negotiates multi-cultural connections that inform the speaker’s voice within the context of daily life in prison.
Betts seamlessly combines his own history and larger cultural histories with his poetic lineage, creating a speaker who is aware of the way legacy informs identity. These poems conjure a world of
ruined cells where ten thousand
years of sentences
beckon over heads & hearts,
silent, a promise, like mistletoe.
In this prison realm, Betts documents the judge-imposed sentences of men in cells while giving honor to the enduring legacy of poetry and poets who craft art from diction, repetition, other kinds of sentences.
We don’t know exactly what put the speaker behind bars, but we see the “heads bowed in abeyance”; we know “tongues touching pain / so rich it crawled inside bruises / and began to beat.” This past is inescapable as the speaker’s life moves forward. It is a life marked by questions: “Have you ever had sex with a man? / Were you raped?”
The energy of this collection is ultimately about the creation of one sustained, informed narrative voice across the book. Betts does this by identifying those earlier writers who claim some ground on which today’s poets stand, calling upon Agha Shahid Ali, a master of Middle-Eastern forms and gifter of ghazals. With careful control the reader is reminded that even behind closed and locked doors, the speaker exists in “a room full / of fathers” and that “the history / of heat & street / corners we claimed / we owned” are owned by Betts and by those poets like Ali who came before.
Ali’s legacy, both in form and theme, finds an evocative place in Betts’ work. Both poets try to reconcile the discordant harmony of past and present, and both use structures like the ghazal as a means toward free expression:
He held the night’s air in his fist and screamed,
then sent word by scribbled ink in prison. . . .
But, for real, why does any of it matter?
Some men never pray at night in prison.
Blame me. Write another poem, a sad psalm.
Shahid, sing for the gods, right in prison.
Most of these poems have a clear structure and rhyme, but it would be a mistake to read these metered lines and inexorable rhyme schemes as a misguided metaphor for the chains and cellblocks of today’s prison system. That would be too easy, and Betts is too smart for that. Rather, these poems create an identity within the legacy of poetic tradition. This meticulously crafted collection rises to the challenges of form and fractured contemporary influences.
Here are a few things that rise: orioles, steam, white smoke from a glass pipe, kites as pieces of paper tied to a string “as if a word can make wings.” Just as these astonishing poems take flight like the paper tied to a string, the men in these poems place words on their bodies (“the miracle / of the prison tattoo gun, / ink stolen from smoke”) as if those bodies too might be as weightless as paper, might rise.
Volume 22, Winter 2011
Nox, by Anne Carson,
New Directions, 2010, illustrated, unpaged, $29.95,
Anne Carson’s beautiful book in a box has already been excellently reviewed in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Believer, and the list goes on.
And so, despite my excitement at the prospect of writing this review, Nox’s two-inchthickbulksat on my book pile, and continued to sit.
I read it three times, loved it, and it still sat. What could I say that hasn’t already been said, and said much better than I could say?I took it with me to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. My mother, seeing the cover image of Carson’s brother Michael as a ten-year-old boy in swim trunks, flippers and goggles, told me the picture looked exactly like my Uncle Carl. And so she wanted to read the book, but because of turkey distractions, she did not get around to it. I offered to leave the book with her, but she objected: “You’re the one who has to write the review. Won’t you need the book?”
In my mother’s comment about the cover image is a place to start. The book is essentially an elegy to Carson’s brother Michael, who died in 2000 in Copenhagen. It was, in Carson’s words, “a surprise to me.” Carson’s brother did in fact resemble a ten-year-old version of my uncle, but I have the distinct feeling that many people will recognize this goggled sliver of a boy as one of their own. He has that amorphous quality that radiates from the black-and-white photo, calling out, “I’m cute, and I’m prickly. I don’t want you to love me, but you won’t be able to help yourself, will you?”
Of course not. Such is the energy of the distant and the departed.
Who is this boy? And why am I compelled to like him?
Thus begins the asking. But the asking is not idle, as Carson says. To ask is an action, a moving forward in time until answer. As a child, I asked my mother so many questions—why are there tummies? why door panels? why church Latin? why armies? why flight?—that at times, when the onslaught of questions threatened to overwhelm my good mother, she’d respond, “Why is a cow?” Why indeed. I never knew the answer to this question. It often made me mad. How should I know? It made me ask more questions.
I love the old questions, Carson says. Why go on? Why language? What is a voice? Why is a cow?
This asking is something we carry with us, fashioning it into a thing that carries itself.
An accordion book in a box. A hollow book, and not so easy to carry.
My aunt, when I was a child, had a wall of bookshelves, hundreds of volumes. One of my brother’s and my favorite games with friends was to find the hollow book somewhere in the vast bookshelves that contained not words, but jewels—my aunt’s rings she had kept from her own grandmother’s treasures. My aunt didn’t particularly enjoy this game, but we couldn’t resist searching.
The searching has wings. And as we read Carson’s book, we become aware of all the questions of History, a phoenix, flying above us as we read.
A shadow crosses the page, wings, and in this passing shade we come to see the immensity of the mechanism in which we are caught, the incredible fragility of our own flight of shadows, and we are able to fly because of the motor of our asking. The asking makes our bones hollow.
“The immensity of the mechanism in which we are caught.” Such a beautiful phrase, and Carson uses so many others. I would mention the page number, but there aren’t any. What is this mechanism that catches us?
By far the strangest thing that humans do is history. Herodotus is firm on this, as Carson asserts.
The sad anthropologist was not wrong in saying that history allows the enslavement of humankind. A voluntary enslavement, much more pervasive than television or wireless hand-held devices. “What else can he do?” What else can we do? We, literally, asked for it. Like Herodotus, and Carson, we thus describe and are intoxicated by our efforts.
But this act of history is not grand; we collect “bits of muteness.” From whom? From those who have died? From Carson’s brother Michael, from Herodotus, from my aunt and yours and the others.
Muteness, according to Carson, possesses “a fundamental opacity” that sounds of loss; and the essence of loss is the asking. But, of course, there is no sound to the asking. This book does not speak.
To put it another way, there is something tangible in a lack.
And now we approach the end without really having begun. Dictionary entries of the Greek words in Catullus’ poem 101 on the death of his brother punctuate Nox at regular intervals, giving the illusion of knowledge, the solidity of the parts of speech. They almost function as answers to the asking. But they are only a given structure, empty even in their attractive form, because there is no meaning in suffering. One cannot define it. There is no answer. Carson calls it night, or in Latin, “nox.” On the final page, Catullus’ poem, even if one could read Greek, is blurred beyond recognition, set atop night paper.
Because it is so big and unwieldy, my copy of Nox has taken a beating, corners bent, cardboard ripped like a too-big heart, a too-big book in a small, paperback world. Where does this book fit? On my bookshelf? My apartment doesn’t have enough bookshelves, so we have many little stacks and piles of spillover books. Nox has sat on the top of the one closest to my writing desk for weeks. When I come into the room, it calls to me from its little hill that holds open the glass doors from the kitchen. I’ve been ignoring its call for so long—I don’t do reviews, too chalky— but now I have to start.
I can faintly hear the asking that Carson’s book provokes, questions from my own childhood as a ten-year-old, goggled boy, as well as arcs from the asking of later life, the heavier stuff, some realms I’ve lost, and vaster.
Why did Eric Brokaw die in that car crash? Why did Ralph Walker shoot himself at the old basketball courts?
I have begun to listen to them more closely, and to try to ask questions in return. What else can I do? The muteness has grown too loud to ignore.
Tiny Sabbath, by Helene McGlauflin,
Finishing Line Press, 2010, 27 pages, paper, $12.00,
ISBN: 1-59924-675-9 / ISBN: 978-1-59924-675-8
The word-music in Tiny Sabbath hums like a tuning fork; the vibe’s pitched low, nudging McGlauflin’s subjects center stage, where they play on a Mozartian scale. My first impression, however, recalled the words of a rock music critic, who was comparing my beloved BeeGees to the Everly Brothers: He asserted that both groups produced “harmonies so close they could only be produced by siblings.”
I say this because on the back of Tiny Sabbath, there’s an extensive blurb from the poet’s sister, Marita O’Neill—an esteemed friend and colleague—author of Love Dogs and Evidence of Light. While this close a blood-bond could produce a skewed assessment, Marita ably plucks the major chords. Her blurb begins by quoting Emerson: “Here we find ourselves suddenly . . . in a holy place.”
It’s apropos. An unabashed fervor ends McGlauflin’s “To the Medieval Christian Mystics,” the final couplet echoing Marita’s fusion of the historical and the mystical: “May I offer you a damp cloth for your face, a cold drink for your thirst, / and sit by you a while silently in the sun?” At times, not wholly consoled by the devout “vocal colors” of, say, a Pavarotti singing “Ave Maria,” McGlauflin displays a dissonant relationship with Catholicism, in poems infused with telling colors or the absence thereof. In “White Carnation Club,” she revisits a Mother’s Day rite in which, after Mass, pink blooms were sold to those with living mothers, while those with deceased matrons were obliged to choose white:
I was forty when my turn came to lift a white
carnation from the basket, join the club. Standing in
the inevitable rain at her grave I was unaware of my
status until my bubble of self-absorption popped,
and I turned to see that cluster of black umbrellas. . . .
As mother, teacher, yoga instructor, and counselor, she intuits that the jangling chaos of Today will—someday—make us all yearn for the “snows of yesteryear” (to translate the French bard Villon). The poem “Sirens” exemplifies McGlauflin’s wisdom; she acknowledges the angst one experiences, applying mindfulness to past and present:
In my girlhood
we stopped everything for prayer
when we heard sirens. Our sister
would put down her chalk, wipe dust
from her delicate hands and begin:
in the name of the father, son, spirit
we pray for the care of the afflicted.
Who were they? Where did sirens go?
Note the “accuracy” of the metaphor in this snippet from stanza two:
. . . Now empty of prayer
I still stop to wonder where sirens go
what hand gave the roulette wheel a spin
what chance allowed my marble to fall
in a winning slot at this moment
allowing me to stand whole beneath
a clear September sky.
Quoting half this poem demonstrates its effective, breathless enjambment: For when I hear “clear September sky,” and (later) “tomorrow may be my day to lose,” I immediately flash back to 9/11: the cloudless sky smudged—far-away—by high-jacked jets deployed as missiles.
We “rural” Mainers can give thanks we’re not the bulls-eye of al-Qaeda (remember?—two terrorists flew from Portland early that day!), yet her apt roulette metaphor reminds us that all our prayers can NOT eliminate Chance, whether it’s (in the words of Bush Junior), “for us, or against us.”
McGlauflin’s credo, expressed in her second poem “Companion,” is alone reason enough to buy this book. Here are the final lines, a consolation to those who answer—sometimes reluctantly—to the persistent demands of the Muse:
. . . Oh, there are days
you may want to run away, hide in some dark quiet place,
but she will call for you, search for you, find you, hold you.
Tocqueville, by Khaled Mattawa,
New Issues, 2010, paper, 71 pages,
It is with not a little irony that Khaled Mattawa, the Libyan-born American poet, titles this volume after the famous French observer of 19th century America. In this sweeping, often cynical, sometimes daunting collection, the culture at hand is a modern one, one in which American influence has gone global and viral in matters political, economic, and military. At once condemnation and lyric, both worldly and intimate, Tocqueville takes on this global order, its horrors, and the problem of how to at once inhabit, observe, and tell of any of it.
Early in the collection, in “On the Difficulty of Documentation,” Mattawa addresses an enduring quandary: making art of others’ torment. The poem describes beautiful photos of Palestinian refugees, in which, the speaker rhapsodizes, light-bathed village women “carry the moon on their heads.” But then, he writes,
I recall: Such people have no time for beauty.
I recall: Beauty is one of the great conversation stoppers of all times.
Punctuated with gleanings from Bertolt Brecht (“what beauty does is almost a crime”) and the 16th century poet Thomas Wyatt (“But why do / they flee from me / these beauties / that sometime did me seek”), Mattawa worries here and elsewhere over this beauty, and over the implications of lyricizing what one observes.
Of course, observation has myriad modes and products—photography and therapy, film and foreign policy—and accordingly, Mattawa charges this volume with audaciously varied forms, styles, and allusions. The title poem alone, twenty-seven pages long, reels back and forth between a dozen or more different voices: There are first person narratives of wartime atrocities (a man recalls being forced to place his baby in a cassava-mashing mortar and bludgeon it). There are letter excerpts that muse on the role of the classics in the face of wealth disparity and poisoned water sources (“You only have to see the present to realize how false the past can be”). At one point, Edward Said weighs in on the hypocrisy of Tocqueville, who famously criticized treatment of Native Americans and black slaves, when it came for him to address France’s actions in Algeria. There are dialogues between therapist and patient, and between two anonymous operatives whose conversations are sometimes ominous, sometimes positively vaudevillian (their routine on Condoleezza Rice’s “Electra complex” particularly deserves a rimshot).
Some sections are almost inscrutably fragmented, but cumulatively the volume does conjure a dizzying, absurd, often nightmarish landscape of global capitalism and militarism, much in the style of cinematic montage. Indeed, Mattawa freely employs film script directions, too, and even that most dreaded modern weapon of associative assault, the Power Point sequence. The form plays out ad absurdum in “Power Point III,” in which are embedded a series of matrices. These charts describe four unnamed figures, or “Cases,” each of which is presumably somehow emblematic of the modern era. In the squares of each matrix, the Cases are variously described by way of cryptic, sometimes grave, often snarkily funny crossword puzzle-esque clues. This all may at first be off-putting to the formalist, but the Cases can also be increasingly addictive to compare and riddle out (no one likes a spoiler, so suffice it to say that they include a Russian politician and a former U.S. President, and Case #1 is so obviously Anna Nicole Smith that I’m really not spoiling that much). Across one matrix’s row, labeled “Synthesis,” the text spills freely through all the Cases’ columns, an interesting attempt to “synthesize” these four odd representatives of modern culture into one archetype.
If such exercises sometimes feel a little glib, intellectual, and/or outrageous, it’s equally clear that beneath the cynicism and outrage of Mattawa’s poems lies a deep, searching compassion for dealing with this problematic culture. Take “Trees,” which appears late in the volume. This poem limns trees lost and found—a maple, a eucalyptus in a long-unseen homeland, invasive buckthorns, trees once seen bearing bodies—as invested with memory, hurt, and multiple narratives. How we live with them, the poem suggests, is how we live with history, itself a living thing, and how we tell of them remains a puzzle:
Should I name them to their stories—
tree that hides the stop sign in summer,
tree where I once shot a bird,
tree I planted to cast a shadow on her grave?
“Yes,” Mattawa writes elsewhere, “the need for lyric persists.”
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Volume 21, Fall 2010
The Giving of Pears, by Abayomi Animashaun,
Black Lawrence Press, 2010, 82 pages, paper, $14.00,
The Giving of Pears is an utterly refreshing book of poetry. These delicate and often fanciful pieces are populated by a mélange of ghosts, unborn children, snippets of village life and culture (the author is a Nigerian émigré), and magical tunings. Some of them resemble mystical puzzle boxes, crosses between koans and philosophical conundrums, hearkening back to author Abayomi Animashaun’s study of mathematics. They are clever, sad, amusing and straightforward, without succumbing to pretentiousness. They contain a haunted music and a vigorous imagination, as exemplified here:
I have no words in the machinery of my soul
For how you’ve just pulled me to you.
Released my belt and, now, steadying me
Across the blue flood into the new country.
Divided into six compelling sections, the poems form a colorful travelogue of the psyche, their overriding themes of loss, continuity and hope underscored by an often plain but poignant syntax. In the first section, “Going to School,” Animashaun explores doorways into other worlds, a technique that might quickly become trite; in his hands they have a fresh deftness, as demonstrated in this excerpt from “Tomato”:
Push slowly and enter
A village with its own silent physics.
Its own reddened curvature:
Yellow is the face of the newborn.
Green, the tired hat of the old.
Here sand is red,
And goats lead their shepherd
Through a narrow yard’s edge.
The “Lagos” section acts as hymn, requiem and memoir. The poem “Sunday Mornings at the Barber Shop,” in this section, explores myth, death, superstition and loss through potent imagery entwined with matter-of-fact depictions. This seamless way of braiding the extraordinary with the ordinary is one of Animashaun’s personal hallmarks. Rather than resulting in forced or overly weighted lines, he manages to dance solemnly yet lightly along the edge:
On Sunday mornings
When services begin,
The angels hang their wings,
Abandon their temples,
And come down for a haircut
And nice shave.
“The Unseen” is devoted to ghosts, the unborn, lost loves, and how these beings, whether real or imagined, speak to us, the poetry they engender and the mysterious ways they continue to come and go. “The Other Testament” is an unsettling set of humanistic reinterpretations of religion and figures such as Noah and Mohammed. Animashaun creates an immediacy in these reimagined tales through the use of disjointed phrases, forming a shuffled sense of time in which the present and the ancient become merged. The elegiac musings of “The Tailor and His Strings” form the final section. In “If, In My Next Life,” Animashaun conjures an abstract vision of immortality:
If, in my next life, I have a say
In the molding of clay around
My soul, I’d let my heart be sown
With the sun’s light and traces
From the blue in Cezanne.
Then, geese would find home
In my hands. Birds seeking
Shelter from storms would
Be unafraid to gather and arrange
Twigs on my skull. . . .
The book ends appropriately with an evocation of Rilke, whose imagistic explorations of spirit and time—along with C.P. Cavafy and Kahlil Gibran, and the paintings of Cezanne—guide the poet’s aesthetic journey.
These poems bring to mind Federico Garcia Lorca’s aesthetic of Duende, which often refers to a spirit of evocation, a soulful poetics, an emotional response to music. Christopher Maurer, editor of In Search of Duende, a collection of poems and essays by Lorca, identifies “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical” as elements crucial to Lorca’s vision of Duende. Such terms also serve to describe Animashaun’s mesmerizing voice.
Parable of Hide and Seek, by Chad Sweeney,
Alice James Books, 2010, 88 pages, paper, $15.95,
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to attend a Chad Sweeney reading, then you already know that these events are rapid-fire rehearsals of the word. It’s a different experience, however, when these poems are found on the page, and we are lucky to have a new collection from Sweeney. Parable of Hide and Seek could be described as an inheritor to some of his earlier work in that it builds large, imagistic worlds out of a very keen sense of perception and metaphor. In Parable of Hide and Seek, Sweeney has pared down the language until each poem becomes something of a koan, or a short Gnostic parable.
What I have always admired and appreciated about Sweeney’s poems is their great sense of empathy and emotional maturity. They are never sentimental, but it is clear from the first word to the last that this is someone who pays close attention to the world, to the names and sounds of things, as any good poet should. An example from “The Piano Teacher”:
A music box wound too tightly will explode,
playing its song all at once.
The practice is to unwind the song slowly.
Think of this when you touch the key of C.
In “The Sentence,” Sweeney is at his absurd and imagistic best, insisting:
The bones of Marcel Duchamp
laid end to end
reach all the way
to the bottom of this hill
where a little slab of concrete bridges one
obscurity to another
We go on to discover that the speaker places Duchamp’s jaw in just such a way that “the oblique syntax of bones / repeats its inquiry / in the language of the world.”
This could very easily be written off as an odd ars poetica, but there is more wishing to be expressed underneath this poem. The specificity of naming Marcel Duchamp, for example—the notion that the artist’s bones can be found and re-purposed—gives the sense that all modes of expression are languages that bring us into relationships, and that each strange relationship is a way of speaking to one another on a level of deep engagement.
If absurdity marks the beginning of meaning in these poems, Sweeney’s objective is far from simply causing bewilderment. As he says in the title poem:
I hid as a bullet fired into hay.
I hid as a system of government.
You were my partner in everything.
I lived for you to find me.
This is the genius of Chad Sweeney’s poetry. These poems only mystify so far as to draw you into them, so that the poems become a communion between speaker and reader.
I have personally walked away from a session of reading these poems (and I can’t help coming back to them over and over again) feeling as if I have just witnessed some marvelously catastrophic event. There is terror and pathos in these poems, bullets and governments, but there is also partnership, friendship, and love. In other words, for every complication presented, Sweeney may not give an answer, but hints thoughtfully at a new direction.
Spirits in Bondage, A Cycle in Lyrics, by C.S. Lewis (as Clive Hamilton),
released online by Project Gutenbergin 1999, Ebook No. 2003,
Reissued in print by Cosimo Classics, 2005, 88 pages, paper,
Phantom Noise, by Brian Turner,
Alice James Books, 2010, 93 pages, paper, $16.95,
If we ever have a true history of the Iraq Wars, it will have come from the slant of poets in the trenches, not from embedded journalists or other official spokespersons.
I was reminded of this when, looking for information on C.S. Lewis’ later fantasy writing, I came upon his 1919 first book of poems, Spirits In Bondage,in the public domain on Project Gutenberg. As a 19 year-old, Lewis was thrown into one of the most horrific battles of WWI, experienced trench warfare in one of the worst tank battles of the Somme, was wounded, saw his best friend killed, and finally returned home to care for his friend’s family. Fortunately, Lewis had one resource that most of his fellow soldiers in 1916 did not have: He could write about the horrors of battle.
In the first poem, Lewis personifies the atrocities of war he has experienced through the personage of Milton’s ruined archangel Satan:
I am Nature, the Mighty Mother,
I am the law: ye have none other.
I am the flower and the dewdrop fresh,
I am the lust in your itching flesh.
I am the battle’s filth and strain,
I am the widow’s empty pain.
I am the sea to smother your breath,
I am the bomb, the falling death. . . .
The poems that follow record young Lewis wrestling with the fallen archangel for nothing less than his soul, and those of his fellow soldiers. I very much recommend this text, a free download from www.projectgutenberg.com. Those interested in following Lewis’ mythological trail might read these poems as a roman à clef of his early career.
The casualties in the Somme were horrific. According to John Keegan’s A History of Warfare, the British Army lost 20,000 men on first day of the Somme, July 1, 1916. Lewis was a part of a battle in which machine guns fired six hundred times per minute and killed a thousand-man British regiment in an few minutes. Lewis’ poems directly absorbed the shock of his experiences of trench warfare, atrocities, post-traumatic shock, and reentry into society.
In the most recent wars, I find the American poet Brian Turner confronting war no less earnestly than Lewis did. Over half of Turner’s poems were written in Iraq, at a time when American casualties were flown home under covert conditions. Turner could not keep the battle events at as much of a literary distance as Lewis could; he works in a very different way than Lewis, the mythologist who clothed his experiences in fantasy and myth. In contrast, Turner is a realist, in the sense of Stephen Crane, constantly peeling away layers of experience until he gets to what is real.
His first book, Here, Bullet (Alice James, 2005) was a shot heard round the world. There is nothing between this poet and the bullet, directly addressed to him. Some considered it the first shot in the peace poetry movement. I did not. Poetry cannot stop wars; it can only get us closer to the truth of them. For a long time after encountering these poems, I read no newspaper and listened to no nightly news. This news from Brian Turner in the trenches was not only the truest news I had of the Iraq War; it was the only news. And it holds up well after three years, preserving the landscape of this unfortunate war with bone-chilling accuracy through the voice of a soldier’s deepest reflections.
Brian Turner’s second book, Phantom Noise (Alice James, 2010), is an even more confident collection. Here, the personal wrestling with war and belief is much more in the foreground than Lewis’ struggle was. The book begins with a series of traumatic flashbacks in the longest poem of the collection, called “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” These flashbacks were well known in my own family because my father suffered shell shocks, as they were then called, after World War II. I recalled witnessing them when I encountered Turner’s description of a flashback in progress:
Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and nail aisle,
I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails. . . .
In a steady stream
they pour onto the tile floor, constant as shells. . . .
Turner’s poems shine light on key issues that will not go away. “Insignia,” a poem for women sexually molested by their own superior officers, is both sad and horrifying. The epigraph takes dead aim at the reader and refuses to let us wander from the statistic that “[o]ne in three female officers will experience / sexual assault while serving in the military.” Without letting the reader turn away, the story begins its own unfolding:
She hides under a deuce n’half this time—sleeping
on a roll of foam, draped in mosquito netting.
It goes on to address her terrorizer:
It’s you she’s dreaming of, Sergeant—she’ll dream of you
for years to come. If she makes it out of this country alive,
which she probably will. You will be the fire and the
breath. Not the sniper. Not the bomber in the streets.
As often happens in Turner’s poems, the one about to assault and the one about to be assaulted respond within the hair-trigger constraints of combat. Lewis, too, has poems that suggest the molestation of civilians by his fellow soldiers. Like Lewis, Turner takes the side of individual human spirits held in bondage by war.
Both poets return to society and more hopeful settings “barred against despair.” For Lewis, the poem “Oxford” describes the psychological space of their homecoming:
We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.
She was not builded out of common stone
But out of all men’s yearning and all prayer
That she might live, eternally our own,
The Spirit’s stronghold-barred against despair.
Turner ends up finding that psychological space in Olympic National Park:
. . . I put nothing in The Jar of Quiet Thoughts nearby.
Because there is not one thing I might say to the world
which the world does not already know.
Yet both these poets, who have been in harm’s way, have much to say to us.
Seedlip and Sweet Apple, by Arra Lynn Ross,
Milkweed Editions, 2010, 95 pages, paper, $16,
About a decade ago, as part of a college course on American communal societies, I attended a lecture by Frances Carr, then an Eldress in the Maine Shaker community of Sabbathday Lake. With my strictly textbook knowledge of the Shakers—of the religious sect’s flight from persecution in eighteenth-century England, its strict dictum of abstinence, its devotion to work and simplicity—I was surprised at what struck me most about Eldress Frances’ talk: her sensuousness. As she spoke of her favorite childhood chore, helping make candies for sale in the community’s store, she lingered in loving, luscious description of dipping caramels and figs into warm chocolate. What I heard in her voice, speaking of such simple things, was ecstasy, and in that moment I gained new insight into a religion mostly—and mistakenly—known for its austerity.
The ecstatic worship of the Shakers suffuses the poems of Seedlip and Sweet Apple (Milkweed, 2010), an incantatory debut volume in which Arra Lynn Ross channels the voice and spirit of the Shakers’ founder, Mother Ann Lee. With grace and affection, these poems exalt in the sacredness of food, nature, and the human bodies that receive the word. Ross renders Ann’s spiritual joy luminous, tactile, and present in the commonest stuff, as sung in the creation praise of “Learn to Sing by Singing”:
the loved, my beloved—light in the bone, tender green,
the diner bell ringing; aprons on the line—yellow muslin
and green. . . .
the love, lemon and rind.
Ross guides us through three phases of Ann’s life and work. The first section, “The Word of Life,” is set in the Manchester,
England of her youth, where she felt an early aversion to marriage, buried four children, experienced her spiritual awakening and visions, and was incarcerated by hostile authorities. With a small band of Shakers, including her brother William, a blacksmith, she sailed for America in 1774; in the book’s second section, “The New World,” Ross writes of their arrival in New York City and their resettlement, two years later, on land near Albany. Finally, in the section “Journey of the Word,” Ross moves into the Shakers’ missionary efforts throughout New England, finally bringing us to Ann’s death in 1784.
Throughout this arc, Ross gives equal attention to the mythic and the workaday, conjuring Ann’s first visions with primordial strangeness and intensity. Here, Ann has flown inside Jesus’ lips:
Words swim from our mouth, thwacking hard tails against
teeth; they fall at our feet, and the poor, with bent heads
and dry hands, gather them in woven baskets.
Elsewhere, she lists off the quotidian drudgeries of life in Manchester: “Ten potatoes, six shirts to scrub—and dirty linens, dirty linens are never through—ashes, bread, urine—.” In the same poem, “Bring Thy Gift to the Altar,” she balances that toil with the promise of Ann’s visions, marrying prophesy with common things:
“Joy.” A ewe, an olive grove.
“I will not leave you comfortless.” Blue iris, hyacinth, an
egg under the leaves.
“No more the anguish.” A thing much whiter than an egg.
In the passage above, Ross pairs the words of Jesus, from the Gospels, with fragments of Sappho, and it is exemplary of the rich array of sources and influences she draws upon, from Shaker songs, lore, and written Testimonies to historical accounts and documents. To convey the tenor of Ann’s England, she fills “The World’s Course” with ads from the Manchester Mercury (for “Dr. Lowther’s Specific Powders and Drops,” “A Match of Cocks,” and a runaway apprentice with “a touch of the Evil on the right side of her face”), and in “Manchester Constables’ Log” lists arrests (including that of Ann Lee, for “willfully and contemptuously / in the Time of Divine Service / disturbing the congregation”).
Later, there is the bounty of New World: In “Behold I Stand at the Door and Knock,” common names from a glossary of colonial terms impart the nourishing texture of their life in America, as Ann calls out for communion through things:
Bring me your lanterns, lightings,
your beds of chaff and flock, crocks of jam
and salted pork, your caddis, your holland
and huckabuck, duroy and yellow nankeen,
your hatchel, hackle, heckle and flax,
your warm loaves on the peel. . . .
Like an agile and generous spirit, Ross slips between several characters’ voices as she weaves Ann’s myth. We hear William tell of gifting apples to housewives on missionary trips; of being shy of the young Sisters’ reverence and slipping away to the forge, to the wordlessness of heat and iron. In “Hezekiah Hammond Speaks,” we hear a “winter Shaker” (one who stays only through the hard months) wonder at his sudden helplessness to go, once spring came.
And of course we hear Ann, in both verse and prose poems, speaking to many: Recounting burials and births; telling a parable of hens and plums to a youngster struggling with faith; recalling, in old age, what gave her joy—moss, song, rosehip tea. The result is a work that radiates with the voice of Ann and her fierce, sure, rapturous faith.
Today, Ann’s legacy eases ever more steadily into the realm of art and scholarship. Eldress Frances, now 83, is one of only three remaining Shakers at Sabbathday Lake. More the blessing, then, to have Ann’s story raised in such a joyous and visceral form.
A wise and wondrous exploration of how the spirit lives in the world, Seedlip and Sweet Apple slips us within Ann’s fervent skin, and lets us feel her flush.
Volume 21, Summer 2010
I Was the Jukebox, by Sandra Beasley,
W.W. Norton & Company, 2010, 90 pages, hardcover, $24.95
In a poem from Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox, the poet offers an epigraph from conceptual artist John Baldessari: “As soon as you put two things together, you have a story.” Beyond merely name-dropping the visual arts, it seems that Beasley has accomplished in this book what so many of us have tried to do: She has found a way to make sense of the visual world, not by forcing a personal narrative upon it, but by allowing the mind to make its own connections, and this flexibility of thought and creativity has led to an astonishing and thrilling result.
The poems of I Was the Jukebox give voice to the mute and the inanimate—the platypus, the piano, the eggplant, the long-dead Greek hero on a first date with the narrator—but there are subtle shifts in the tone of these personae poems that keep them fresh as the pages turn. One such poem, “Cast of Thousands” speaks in the voice of an entire set of movie extras “My death is the clip they send to the Academy / later they will kill me in Spanish, then French.” Another utilizes the shape-shifting logic of dreams, allowing the narrator to speak as the eponymous jukebox. In this poem, “You Were You,” the narrator cum jukebox says to the beloved:
I dreamt we were in your favorite bar:
You were you. I was the jukebox.
I played Sam Cooke for you,
but you didn’t look over once.
I wanted to dance. I wanted a scotch.
I wanted you to take your hand off of her.
There is a real challenge in writing poems from the point-of-view of these objects, but on each page of this book, Beasley finds a way to present us with both the newfound perspective of the object alongside the deeply felt pathos or joy of the narrator.
In later passages of “You Were You,” the reader gets a sense of how marvelous it would be to become the jukebox: It glitters and shines and offers up the best of R&B, pop, and soul. And yet, we know that all the jukebox longs for is the partner across the room, seducing another woman.
What makes this collection work so well is not simply the new slant that Beasley gives to the world of experience. She also has a true feel for the sensual details, which makes the universes that these poems conjure as much of a joy to feel as they are to imagine. A particular favorite poem might be “I Don’t Fear Death,” in which Beasley pictures “field after field / of sorghum crisp to my touch.” Later, she describes the clouds, which are “yellow, smelling of / fireworks and salt.”
I can’t help but compare the Baldessari epigraph to Beasley’s first book, Theories of Falling, which was at times autobiographical, but still gave the sense that this poet would never be interested in simple narratives. Experience isn’t worth a thing if you can’t find a flame of desire in each of its moments, the book seemed to say. Here, in this second collection, Beasley takes brave new steps outside of her comfort zone, seeking new meanings, new juxtapositions, and new subject matter.
For some, the consistent disorientation of each newly voiced persona may lose some luster after awhile, but I say: Give it time. This is a smart book, and a well-crafted one. While the book may be challenging to read through in one sitting, these poems are worth many return trips.
The Lilac Thief, by Young Dawkins,
Sargent Press, 2009, 48 pages, paper, $10.00,
Reading Young Dawkins’, The Lilac Thief, feels like the struggle between remembering and understanding. As if we are walking backwards, Dawkins’ poems are both a look back and a progression. We see the dark faces of past lovers, past lives that seem disjointed and disconnected, and yet are essential for the journey we call experience.
In “What I Know About Women So Far,” the forgotten romance of routine turns into a complicated mixture of violence and sustenance: “Our sex / is like shrapnel and oranges.” Dawkins continues to work with similarly pitted images, like “spectacular train wreck marriages,” to understand the “long and dark” bodies of women who invite the narrator to
come inside and witness
the collision and drift
of ancient continents,
watch the dinosaurs die,
and be warmed by the very first fire.
the inevitable rise of civilization,
the ambitious yearning of man.
But she is in the kitchen now,
Happy with her new oil
and olives and cheese.
And I believe it has always come to this,
in the lowering light.
By the end of this remembering, this musing on love and sex, comfort and necessity, we are still unable to tell the difference between love and lust. As the narrator enters into new relationships with new women—“dancing / in the early / ballroom of desire”—we know love and lust exist intertwined, as separate and essentially linked as all humans seem to be.
There are moments in these poems where Dawkins, a poet from New Hampshire who generally creates in the performance and beat genres, allows his poems to struggle in their own creation. These poems waver between the sonics of beat poetry and the lyric emotion of his landscape of ex-lovers; this conflict seems to mirror the narrator’s struggle to understand his own experiences. And for all the trouble that beat, performance, and slam poets get when they try to translate their work from the stage to the page, Dawkins has succeeded.
Reading along with these poems, I forget the sound bite-driven language that often dominates the way we speak to each other today. The reward Dawkins’ poems provide is a vacation from fractured, polarized interpersonal communication. A gift of prolonged engagement, these poems invite a deeper understanding of the more intimate and complicated “collision and drift” between us all.
The Stranger Manual, by Catie Rosemurgy,
Graywolf Press, 2010, 94 pages, paper, $15.00,
In The Stranger Manual, Catie Rosemurgy writes odd, strangely thrilling poems like bite-size morality tales that mock their own relevance with a slyly caustic grin. Her voice is as alive and electric as Saturday Morning Cartoons, back when they were still good and worth worshipping.
There is exuberance in these poems, and a kind of willful naïveté in the tone that renders ironic the cynicism in the content: “At the base of my wet brain—whatever, / of all brains, all allegedly intricate human brains—/ a smallness lies tangled in the roots / of largeness, the one interesting secret is lost / inside the big idea. At least I, in my red socks, hope so.” Rosemurgy steps nimbly from the intimate to the ultimate in those dainty red socks, dancing giddy circles around serious issues. With equal parts wit and whimsy, Rosemurgy comments on the human condition, such as it is, and such as she sees it with all of its contradictions, customs, and confusion.
Rosemurgy tickles the essence of things with pointed description and cutting metaphor, shifting easily from cancer-serious to puppy-playful and back again as needed. “Miss Peach: The War Years” begins with this:
She’s been lobbed,
and like other grenades
can’t help but like
the deeply American ache
where the pin used to be.
She is a squat,
angry seed that blooms
into absence, into big flowers
of what was, a trick fruit
that creates its own mouth,
a wild eye that blinks
its own face away.
This “Miss Peach” is her only named character, yet she defies definition despite being the focus of many of the poems. This is because Miss Peach lives mostly in the titles, intentionally wordy bits of exposition that twist whatever content follows in the body. One title reads: “Miss Peach Imagines She Is an Aging British Rock Star and Considers Bipedalism While Responding to a Beautiful Woman Who Has Just Said ‘I Love You,’” and here is another: “The Monkey Whose Job It Used to Be to Sit on Miss Peach’s Shoulder Takes Up Olde Timey Music.” Any attempt at clear, linear story-telling made by the titles is gently sabotaged, and rightly so, by her playful resistance to what is expected.
Rosemurgy is fascinated with relationship expectations, social taboos, and dating etiquette, and she adds to the discussion in a way that seems fresh despite the high traffic this topic has received. Reading Rosemurgy is like talking to a girl at a party, realizing that she’s a bit on the nutty side, and not caring, because she is the fun kind of touched that wakes you up, slaps you around, tickles you stupid, and in the end, probably has the healthiest perspective around.
There is a playful sexuality bopping around within this book, an impish urge to increase the friction between sweetly disparate images and somehow use that energy to fuel the blowing of your mind.
Snow Chairs, by George V. Van Deventer,
Snow Draft Press, 2009, 27 pages, paper, $6.00
With A W/hole In One: Collected Poems 1970-2010, by Ted Bookey,
Moon Pie Press, 2010, 82 pages, $10.00,
How The Crimes Happened, by Dawn Potter,
2010, CavanKerry Press, 93 pages, $16.00,
Recently at a state park campground on Long Island, as night came on I heard the different campers who staked down their tents talking around their campfires. Although, for the most part, they spoke English, its shape and form—the vowels and consonants—changed drastically depending on whether I was listening to a Hispanic or Asian family, or a family from New Jersey or New York City. I was struck with the musicality of our language, how the words we use resonate in our mouths, and how that resonance not only reflects our heritage, but also shapes our consciousness of our world.
In rhythm and tone, the three poets whose books I review here are as varied as those campers I heard.
Take George V. Van Deventer, in whose new chapbook, Snow Chairs, he tells of summer nights when “families share each other’s stoop / mixing English and Italian like water to grape.” He writes of how, as a boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey, he danced behind “the organ grinder with his parrot,” how he would hang out “under a lamppost / next to a fire hydrant . . . within shouting distance of home . . . and play kick-the-can, ringalario, drifting through / the freight year.” His language has the earthy immediacy of a street kid who knows that, beneath the rough world, he could survive like a fox, its eyes “blazed wild.” He remembers a fox being killed, the hunter whacking it between the eyes, and it then being reincarnated as a stole that his Sunday school teacher draped over a chair every Sunday. He speaks plainly about his remembrances: “The winter . . . coming / the sky . . . fat and heavy / grey and close in a chilling wind.” I can almost see him by the refracted light of a Coleman lantern, telling his stories to his grandchildren.
If I turn my head, I can also hear the rich, distinct tones of a Brooklyn accent, which fills Ted Bookey’s new book, With a W/hole in One: Collected Poems 1970 –2010. Listen to someone who delights in words and word play in his poem “Reflections on Hmslf”:
Also two moles and of which
One cuts shaving.
The other on the elbow—
Picked at, grows.
& can’t stop smoking enough.
Lucky he’s not a mouse.
His distinct voice—a combination of playful engagement with words and deft shifts in pace and tone, along with his willingness to poke fun at himself and, by extension, many of us who are absorbed with appearances—makes his poems delightful. He has created a wonderful character, Yekoob, who ruminates about the absurdities of world—from Original Sin to loss, aging, and, alas, the falling off of sex. Yekoob is like a camper who enjoys staking up only one side of the tent so the other side flaps. He sets us up to think that he is talking about one thing only to deliver, like a good comic, a contradiction that makes you think twice about what you just heard:
No time left for you to lose
You’d try to find, but knew
How again you’d only gain
One more thing for you
To use again.
But this book is particularly special because it collects Ted’s previous work, all within a lovely cover designed by his wife Ruth. His earlier poems, many about his family, are among my favorites. Textured with his unique blend of angst and humor, these poems charm and challenge us, take the agonies and transform them into hilarities, yet, as they do, never let us forget how much harm and love sleep in the same bed. They clip along at a quick pace, so we have to keep alert to all the shifts and turns. But I could sit by a campfire and listen to them all night. In his poem, “Oral Family History with Heavy Enjambment,” he used the disjunctive quality of enjambment to create his zany family history:
Your father married late in life a women broke his
heart he was young and lost his head I helped him screw it
back we had money how much don’t ask! Easy street we had
a limousine & a maid . . .
fell in a plate of soup and drowned. . . .
Finally, if I turn again, just within earshot of Ted is another voice, one that I must listen to carefully: A woman, who is sitting by her husband (their two young sons not far off, confabulating in their own tent) is speaking. It is the poet Dawn Potter. Her voice has such nuance and range that I fear I am missing any of her precious words. Her new book, How The Crimes Happened, also makes for good campfire reading. It pokes fun—and equally reveres—the rural life in Maine. It encapsulates the exhausting demands of being a mom. It captures the sweet paradoxes of being loved and loving. And, as if sometimes tired of this life, it shifts to Fiends and Goddesses who have it no less easy.
She uses language so carefully and adeptly that listening to her poems makes me feel her reverence for the word. She can sling out beautiful similes, one after another, each building on the previous one, using lovely alliterative riffs like “clinking ice cubes,” and then, with a cavalier shift in tone, toss in a line like: “yes, we did, / even if our attainments were admittedly half-assed and fraught with unexpected chickens / flapping home to roost.”
This tonal shift is always perfectly timed and intentional: It grabs your attention and forces you to see that under the guise of rhetoric, she is actually spinning, slightly under the surface, another tale that finally bubbles to the surface and changes the whole direction of the poem.
She can talk about her son playing in his B-string boy basketball league with what appears to be a cynical edge, describing the spectators as “heavy-set / mother and fathers, parkas unlashed, tired haunches, / roosting on the narrow benches,” as the
“eighth-grade girls cluster in a corner / sucking up Mountain Dew,” as if she is a bystander, separate from them. Then, in the middle of the poem, as her boy’s team is being routed by the opponents, she realized that each parent wants his or her son to do well, and “the very air begins to smell of love— / not just for their own sons, but for every clumsy, familiar / body on the floor, for every boy who ever built Lego racecars.” By the end of the poem, we too are transformed into fans, knowing full-well the boys will lose, but not caring because “they belong to us.”
She can speak as a mother, as a wife, as a lover, as a friend, shifting and changing the tone and shape of her poems to fit the point of view and the subject. In a poem about her hometown, Cornville, she imagines herself as a woman driving along a road, looking at the “for-sale lineup / not of corn but of flat-bellied pumpkins, and her son listening to Joe Castiglione, the voice of the Red Sox, and then manages to weave in Cinderella’s godmother, Grendel, Oedipus, Home Depot, and a Rottweiler, his “head thick as brick,” and bring them together in the final stanza. It is stunning. But she does it again and again. In poems about the Fiend (Satan) and Paradise Lost and in poems about loving her husband, which are both tender and ironic, poems that any of us who have loved someone over decades can fondly identify with, she manages to walk the delicate line between her urge to belong and the inevitability of loss. In the poem “Eclogues,” she turns to her husband, as she notices how “sweat rises from [his] sunburnt neck, salt and sweet,” and then proclaims:
My love. Marry me, I say. You cast
an eye askance and shrug, I did.
She ends the poem musing that
the maples redden,
shrivel, and die.
Nothing needs me,
today, but you,
cupping the bones
of my skull. Alas,
poor Yorick, picked clean
as an egg.
These are poems that force us to look at the night sky and see in it its majesty, its beauty and its darkness. Our humanity is not a solitary enterprise—she knows it, Ted knows it, and George knows it. They are poets whose voices, although distinct, remind us of the paradoxical, absurd, and yet loving nature of our world.
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Volume 21, Spring 2010
Radha Says, by Reetika Vazirani, edited by Leslie McGrath and Ravi Shankar,
Drunken Boat Books, 2010, 86 pages, paperback, $14.95,
These last poems by Reetika Vazirani, written before her death in 2003, are meditations on transience and impermeability. Her language is free; lyrical, playful, bittersweet at times, rich in scholarly references, and with an ability to soar and dive within mere syllables. Now, that’s her language alone. What’s under the surface, the bedrock of her poems, is a different story. Barriers are Saturnian, impossible to navigate without pain. Ancient ghosts and guardians loom over us, the readers. Women can share the fate of their own mothers, often unwillingly, ground down by menial chores and misery caused by a father, lover, or husband. And absolutely no one is a god or goddess on this earth.
This is Vazirani’s warning, even as the poems lilt and sparkle. The contrast between her exquisite language and negotiations with shadows create poetic tensions that are powerful, impossible to forget. It’s what Federico García Lorca called “duende”: an urgent dance on the edge of danger, being gripped by primeval forces. Add to this the way Vazirani speaks of cultural or political barriers, their complex negotiations, and we feel an authentic, hard-earned voice.
The “Radha” of the title—she is the mythical Hindu Radha, beloved consort of Krishna—comes in many guises and personas within this book, alternately vain, ambitious, and ambivalent: a bored guest at banquets, a foil for the fickle and elusive Krishna-like man frequently mentioned, and even, in one poem, Doris Snyder, a hat-check girl on Radha Street. While the poems’ narrators often glimpse divine energies, as in “Nuptials” and “Territory,” they rarely realize wholeness completely. Sharp questioning and fragmentations intrude in “Born,” which concludes the book:
I say god to be wed to the dream
of an avatar what could be worse?
listen it could be if god sent no money
Like an illustrious predecessor—the 16th century poet Mirabai, from Rajasthan—Vazirani alternates praise and complaints within her poems. She is done with worldly vanity, as in the disillusionment of the narrator in “Swamp Green,” and in these lines from “Born”:
forget every bit of floral lace lipstick and any other
buffer between glamour and being done for
And even in the achievement of long-held professional dreams, in a contemporary setting, comes the realization that the world for Vazirani’s poetic narrators can be full of cruelty, envious rivals, and hypocrites. A line from the title poem, “Radha Says,” makes this clear:
the suburban stepinfechit smiles
of realtors laughing at your tribe
Surely for Vazirani, an immigrant who was born in India, this aspect of the American dream was painful to live deal with. Yet using the “stepinfechit” metaphor makes it clear that she knows the lackeys of culture, money, and power to be more insidious than all of us even know. All of us, especially women, can turn lackey, as in the narrator from “Born” who says bluntly that “he’s a god and I’m errands” or in the last two lines of “Ambient:”
mother what you lived I learned
smiling at the list of chores
Reading these poems, however, I became increasingly disturbed by the Radha persona. It is like a mask that cannot be removed, with its crimson and gold paint turned toxic, its scholarly allusions useless in a world of fragmentations and harsh choices. I was reminded, more than once, of Muriel Ruykeyser’s “The Poem as Mask,” with its cry of “No more mythologies!” and how it once entreated poets to reject anything that blocked telling their own real experiences. When Vazirani speaks of the life of a single mother, the details themselves, such as a visit to a public health clinic in “Born,” have true clarity, are authentic and compelling enough without the lure of a myth.
In conclusion, what is Vazirani really saying to us? The same thing Rukeyser told us—No more masks!—but with her own painful truths. May a new generation of poets arise, particularly women poets, who really do not need or choose the old masks in any way whatsoever. That’s still my wish.
Poppin’ Johnny: New American Poems, by George Wallace,
Three Rooms Press, 2009, 116 pages, paperback, $15.00,
I’ve often thought of George Wallace as a sort of psychic channeler, so thoroughly does he inhabit the zeitgeist of this age. Fittingly for a poet well-steeped in Walt Whitman, Wallace writes in the voices of multitudes, a sometimes-risky choice, but one Wallace pulls off with credibility and near-perfect pitch. His characters are not caricatures. Though at times broadly drawn, the people who inhabit these poems are accorded respect, even reverence, by a poet whose clear sight is balanced with a deep compassion for the factory worker, the deli clerk, the bartender; for Sally:
waiting for the number eleven downtown which will take
her from that waitress job which even with tips and
kissing ass it doesn’t cover the cost of rent gas groceries
and electric not to mention a babysitter.
Wallace is not and never has been a “political poet” in the naysaying, finger-wagging, sense of the phrase; neither is he a purveyor of the tiresomely introspective, unstructured work incomprehensible to any but the cognoscenti. He is, in the spirit of Whitman, the quintessential populist troubadour; a culturally rich historical context pervades his poems; a seemingly organic understanding of the times, the times of our parents and grandparents.
This poetry flowers forth from the real world, though sometimes the “flowers” are scraps of trash blowing along in the exhaust fumes and gutters of a down-and-out city street. You can almost hear Tom Waits or even Frank Sinatra as a ghostly accompaniment behind these lines:
This is for the guy on nightshift who never knew
a minute of financial peace just a working stiff
sweeping it all up gum sticks candy wrappers
and white plastic knives sweeping it all up in
the rich american night penniless as the day
he was born smoking too many cigarettes.
With his audacious take on American mythology and the overflowing abundance of his painterly imagination, in his poem “That’s You, Man” Wallace re-contexutalizes characters from American popular culture in the jazziest of recitations:
see that kid staring into the midway lights?
see that farm boy hopping off the greyhound? you! you
you you! you are sexy as a stick of dynamite you are
tasty as a ballpark wiener you got plenty of mustard on
you. you are stronger than demolition dust you are
happiest when closed before striking you are horniest
when your lungs fill up with high grade petroleum
Wallace writes a hell of a love poem, too—his work can be dizzyingly erotic:
i loved you once like a fisherman on the edge of
a river, with his fingers to his lips, tasting the
morning air for salmon. i loved you like man
on a horse entering an undisturbed cove. like a
whaler in his scrimshaw dream of hearts and
flowers. like a ship’s mate who catches first
sight of land.
Wallace’s “New World Love Song” echoes the Song of Songs, with a little Pablo Neruda swirled in:
i am breaking bread with the angels
i am walking in the promised
land and o my love she is
a grove of almond trees
she is exotic she
climbs like a
Aptly subtitled, these poems are “new”—so fresh, you can smell the rich, complex soil clinging to their roots—American soil, indeed. Highly recommended.
—Nancy A. Henry
We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, by Nick Lantz,
Graywolf Press, 2010, 96 pages, paperback, $15.00,
During the years of Bush the younger, you may remember, verse arose from an unlikely source: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose evasive rationalizations for the war in Iraq were ironically, angrily circulated as “poetry.” Most infamous was his breakdown of intelligence into three categories: Known knowns, or what we know we know; known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know; and finally, the key to his defense: unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
The thing is, from a general ontological standpoint, the man’s right: There are limits to our understanding, so much so that we aren’t even aware we aren’t aware. The outrage of Rumsfeld’s formulation was that he used it to brazenly conceal the truth, rather than illuminate it—used it, you might say, in service to the dark side instead of the light. His notorious quote is one of two epigraphs that preface a fine first book by Nick Lantz, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, winner of the 2009 Bakeless Prize.
In deeply empathetic poems, Lantz mulls on the confusion, chaos and fallacy that are so often mankind’s lot, and tries to raise them toward the light. In unlikely juxtapositions, he poses the hubris of Rumsfeld against the humility of, of all people, Pliny the Elder, ancient Roman author of Natural History and the source of this book’s other headlining observation, that man knoweth nothing unlesse he be taught. But we can learn our way against the darkness, Lantz thinks. Clear of voice and generous in spirit, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is a volume both clever and very wise, its title at once riddle, lament, and mantra.
Lantz begins with a chapter of “Known Knowns.” In “Ancient Theories,” he lists “knowledge” dubious or disproved: Aristotle’s theory that frogs/ formed from mud; the author’s childhood belief that the world spoke/ in code through flashing streetlights. In “List of Things We Know,” he details arbitrary and questionable factoids (Kindness / is correlated / to detached / earlobes) and vertiginous exceptions to rules: Unlike most substances, water expands when frozen, and for this reason / . . . we can / go on living.
But beneath the bewildering fortuities, absurdities, and errors, there burns our persistent urge to understand and explain ourselves—to enlighten—and Lantz treats this desperate instinct lovingly, even as it falls short or fails again and again.
The failures are often ominous. The chapter “Known Unknowns” consists of one long poem called “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?”—a quote Lantz cites from the 1983 CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual. What follows is a series of obsessive questions directed to an interrogator. Some questions are mundane (Have provisions been made for refreshments?), some are horrific (Will you have an unconscious man dragged past the open door at a pre–determined time?), and some hint at an involuntary intimacy (Will you think of him while you eat dark honey smeared on dark bread in a cafe?).
Haunting the “questioner” are the “known unknowns” of fear, dread, and uncertainty about how he will act and respond, how his prisoner will respond and act, and what will come of their humanity. Ironically, much in those unknowns—Will you risk everything to say [to the prisoner’s wife], He is alive, he is alive? / Will it be true? —is actually within the questioner’s power to decide.
Our very systems of knowing and expressing are inadequate in the chapter “Unknown Unknowns.” Language is insufficient: In “[ ],” Eve laments the birth of words and metaphors, how Adam pointed like a retarded child to name creatures and things. They grow smaller, Lantz writes, each time / she repeats their names. Truth is precarious, an ironic hazard: A verbal tic makes his aging mother preface her lies with in fact, which her parrot repeats over and over as infect.
But we also might know more than we know. To Rumsfeld’s three categories, Lantz adds a fourth: Unknown Knowns. There’s some redemption here, despite so much pathos and futility, as when in “The Sad Truth About Rilke’s Poems,” Lantz assures us that [i]n translation / something / of beauty always dies, but something also is carried over. In this poem, a purer appreciation of that something might call for a simple shift in awareness:
their eyes to listen to your singing, as if it was the light
of the fire that burns
and not the heat at the heart of it.
The final, promising irony is that in exploring the limits of how we grasp that heat, we might, with a little work and grace, know better.
Black Boat Black Water Black Sand, by Dave Morrison,
Moon Pie Press, 2009, 74 pages, paperback, $10.00,
Dave Morrison crafts tall poetry with an XL talent and the assessing gaze of an expert onlooker, poems with an all-over texture—part chamois and part steel wool. With an eye for detail and a bottom line that takes language for a ride, Morrison doesn’t keep it level and moving at one speed but guns it, puts it through loops and dives and steep climbs, reeling into witty, often very funny poems full of simplexity, kidding and not kidding at once—I am jealous of the dead for / their reduced workload—as he strives to make sense of life.
Every line feels cared about, really meant, subjected to crash-testing, even moments of heart-rending beauty. If there’s an overriding theme it is that of an Everyman filled with the aspiration for recognition and personal ripening; a drive toward self-acceptance and fulfillment, always wondering how to shake the feeling that you’re always one day late. These poems acknowledge the ever-present possibility of failure, conflicts never quite resolved, the high cost of breaking even, how a howl won’t heal the / scar, but it helps the / bleeding, lights a match,that even if we fail, we must keep trying to fail better.
Morrison’s poems reference a wide range of interest in and knowledge of science, ancient history, music, and pop culture. He’s one of those rare writers who appear to know a lot about a lot, whose work puts a contemporary spin on the classical ideal of poetry as both informational and highly entertaining: serious poetry that doesn’t crush us with high seriousness.
Though many of the poems are political, they’re never the God-awful preachy diatribes that John Keats loathed for their having a palpable design on us. Morrison doesn’t take an I-know-better-than-you proselytizing tone with us. He never looks down from above.
Too many poets these days seem not to have read much poetry, are unfamiliar with the history of the form and content, and have not absorbed the lessons of the masters—and for that, there’s a tangible hollowness in their work. Morrison has done his homework: Look at this excerpt from his “Care to Join?”—a mordant, satiric take on crowd behavior in all its wonted irrationality worth chapters of sociological analysis.
As the mad group inevitably becomes large and wealthy and powerful and sooner / or later starts to rot from the / inside out, everyone in it
starts to lose their
humanity, starts to get paranoid
and brutal, starts to lose their ability to
recognize bad choices and
repulsive behavior, and starts to think
that they are better than anyone else, and that
anyone not in the group isn’t worth a
damn, and they become this huge slobbering
thing that just eats and shits and eats and shits
and eats, and sooner or later this group becomes like
a drunken sumo wrestler, so that it either topples itself
or is brought down by a smaller leaner more determined
foe, who then begins to eat and shit and eat and shit, and
we never learn anything
and it just goes on forever and makes you lose faith in
the human race, so no, thanks, I’d just as soon not join.
Remind you of anyone? Think Jonathan Swift, his vitriolic disgust for the Yahoos.
Lastly, I want to recommend this poet for the variety of his craft. Morrison is able to write lines that free-fall through history, clutching at twigs of the long-gone and the passing-by to render moments of deep resonance and beauty. There’s something for everyone, every taste: a splendid sonnet, “Unlikely Sonnet;” “Camaro,” a poem in perfect tetrameter; poems that show a fine ear for unobtrusive rhyme; and the wild and surprising wordplay of “Drums Along the Interstate.”
Definitely one of the best new books of poetry, a must read.
Volume 21, Winter 2010
The Great Hunger, by Karen Douglass,
Plain View Press, 2009, 81 pages, paper, $13.46,
In her preface to her book of poems, The Great Hunger, Karen Douglass says, “We are eating ourselves and the world to death” (7). Her poems are windows on the ever-lengthening food chain to which we are shackled and they lead the reader from everyday views of our own kitchen tables and farmers’ markets to vantage points we may have trouble accessing—the plight of the undocumented migrant worker in the fields and or the picture of the entire world from above in which the poet traces the paths our food takes from field or pasture to our tables.
While she’s angry at Monsanto (22) and at having to “[forage] for crumbs from the wide vests of CEOs” (15), she acknowledges her own role—in fact, most of the collection rings with a shame at her own complicity in the processes she decries. While she appeals to our shared experiences, evoking the industry and connectedness one feels at a farmer’s market in, “Thirteenth Street Market” (64), even then there’s a desperation mingling with that sense of useful participation in a community: she’s not shopping just for her own table and her own salvation, but for ours as well—the health of the world and its citizens rests on the purchases she makes that Saturday morning. This fear of judgment marks her observations in “Bloodline” (14) as well as she considers how a processed existence is colorless, transporting the speaker further from nature. Here she leaves the end of the poem unpunctuated to suggest the unknown of what kind of an earth will be bequeathed to the next generation; eyes that see “the underside of things” are sealing the bloodline in a continual circle, not wishing to betray the white existence that began the poem.
This kind of thoughtful layering marks many of Douglass’ poems. “Dear Trout” (25) begins with a self-absorbed request to be fed and concludes just seven lines later with a supplication to the same fish she would have eaten, now asking him to teach her how to swim, acknowledging the natural world has much to tell us about living responsibly, usefully—encapsulating the concept in the economical, deliberate way she presents the poem. Although some of her language is a little shopworn,“gold coat[ing] the many roads to hell” (67), Douglass has other instruments in her arsenal to move her poems along as in “Value Added,” where the line breaks create a playful pace at which to trip through abstractions and images. And she is happy to use ironic humor to lighten the grim picture—in “I Want to Eat” (33), she writes that she wants “one raw carrot.” The reality of how unnatural the process by which she comes to that carrot is raw in itself and we continually encounter wordplay wrapped in a very alert conscience in these poems. But beyond her own sense of responsibility, Douglass displays both an uncertainty and thankfulness in “What’s Here” (69) that doesn’t appear in her other poems, illuminating yet another facet of our complex relationship with food.
The joy of this collection is in its variety—the specificity of salsa, the generality of supermarkets and mass-produced products. It is playful in its movement between subjects, but careful in its contemplation of the choices we must make, shedding a new and glaring light on how to decide what’s for dinner.
— Meghan Cadwallader
Elegy for the Floater, by Teresa Carson,
CavanKerry Press, 2008, 84 pages, paper, $16,
Suicide is never easily handled whether in life or in art. While Teresa Carson titles her collection for the section she demarcates as the “Elegy” portion of the manuscript, much more appears in these pages—it reads as a chronicle of how the experience of her brother’s suicide culminated in an exploration of family history. She doesn’t flinch when turning the sharp edge of her short, blunt lines upon her brother’s psychosis, her mother’s crippling depression, her father’s infidelity. Neither does she spare herself—her own risky choices (drugs, hitchhiking, affairs) are exposed alongside her family’s failings and dysfunction.
Because she is so forthcoming, Carson makes a space with this manuscript where humanity is the prized possession: it is the thing you must admit to before proceeding. “Stop” (11), the last poem in the “Elegy” section—is a confessional where Carson whispers her relief at her brother’s death. This admission launches a reader into a world where her desire for her mother’s praise in “My Mother Said” and her pleasure at her rapist’s painful death can be gazed upon in close proximity and because it is handled so frankly, a reader can watch the story unfold without judgment, instead standing in Carson’s place as she orients you to the darkest moments and questions that have followed her all of her life.
At moments, the collection seems disorganized, but the order is definitely by design—Carson has made the collection into an echo chamber, details and themes from disparate poems bouncing off one another, adding layers of meaning at each point of contact. A string of poems near the middle of the book address sexual experiences that occurred during her adolescence and young adulthood. In “Kathy 1969” (29), Carson writes from the perspective of someone blithely confident enough get entangled with a married man who’s sleeping with her friend—and in the poem immediately following describes the experience of this same man raping her, “Dog Guards Bed” (30). The genius of the poems is that they stand on their own, but write in each other’s margins and between each other’s lines to add entirely new dimensions and remembrances to the reader’s experience.
Through her brother’s suicide, Carson is able to put a point on so many other experiences of her own that this collection ends up blurring the line between poetry and memoir—poemoir, perhaps—in a most essential way. These poems may have been difficult to unearth in the honest and lucid way in which they are presented, but they are readily admitted and no less arresting for the effort, emerging unfaded, even after years and several lives lived, from the connective tissues where pain and memory are stored.
— Meghan Cadwallader
Rain Inside by Ibrahim Nasrallah,
translated by Omnia Amin and Rick London, Willimantic, CT,
Curbstone Press, 2009,120 pages, paper, $14.95,
What little I know of Middle Eastern poetry comes by way of reading translations of Rumi, Hafiz, and Yehuda Amichai, but from the first glance I was drawn into the poems of Ibrahim Nisrallah. “Windows are a first step into the world, / a song on a spacious cloud, / a departure, a rose . . . (3). Suddenly I am in the heart of this poet and those of all the makers with words who reach out and out to understand who they are within.
With a preface by Dr. Omnia Amin that quietly and succinctly gives us a sound base for approaching Nasrallah as a poet and a context for understanding the undercurrent of sorrow that seeps through the poems of a Palestinian man, we step to the window with him. In America it has become common to speak of the poetry of exile as it relates to the distance between our materialistic culture and the country of maker-poets whose voices often go unheard. Through Nisrallah’s poems we understand more clearly what it is to lose home, family, history, and still to yearn for all those things. His poems become a hymn to that desire.
Think for a moment of your first thoughts, stepping into the daylight from your porch. Here is the opening of Ibrahim’s poem, “A Beautiful Morning:”
A beautiful morning
is one that passes and I am not killed.
A city street following the sun at sunset
is obstructed by a roadblock and soldiers.
Another street runs after her
and never returns.
A beautiful morning . . . (44-46).
For all the tension and fear that comes with reading some of these poems, I cannot help but be drawn into the stories of a life that strives to find love and beauty even hanging from the barbed wire. The language is simple, concrete, and purposeful as though taking the step of writing down one more word gives impetus to the hope that he will write another.
This collection was selected by the poet from among a number of his works. Omnia Amin reminds us that his short poems are similar to Japanese Haiku “as they work on awakening philosophical insight by means of an everyday event or insight.” Nisrallah writes a series of poems on chairs:
Our ribs break loose like the chairs
we watch the sea at sunset
Isolation embitters the day
A bold grief lies behind our smile
Being with people implies escape
Our legs sink into the dust like chairs
left in a garden after war (62).
This series of poems and others based in concrete things like chairs, hours, tents, and playgrounds anchor themselves in the everyday while evoking deep sorrow or other more complex emotions. It is as though the poet learns himself through the eyes of things. Part of the joy of finding a poet who is new to one’s experience is the way his or her voice reminds of other poets from around the world. Reading Nisrallah, I thought of Francis Ponge and his oranges, Neruda and his Book of Questions, Bachelard’s attics and cellars. Each of these strives to understand who they are in the world while examining the tiniest details of the everyday and using them as the eyepiece of a telescope to bring the work of their hearts into clearer focus.
The medium length poems in this book often speak to his experience as a Palestinian man trying to find a way to bring that life into the world in a way that honors it while exposing those of us who have never known hunger or exile a clearer picture of the experience. The poet himself says, “Writing is our best opportunity to understand ourselves clearly; therefore, the secret of writing resides in the fact that we become whole in the act of writing, unlike any other moment in life” (xv).
Ibrahim Nisrallah does not confine himself to writing poetry, but also writes on literature and the arts. He has written ten novels as well as being a photographer and painter. It is easy to find the visual references in his work as well as the communion he holds with human beings everywhere, the need for home family, love, and the freedom to do our work, whatever that is.
The Rain Inside is a wonderful introduction to English-speaking poets of the work of a gifted and sensitive poet. His translators have brought us his work in a caring and evocative way. Understand that this is not a book for the faint of heart, but rather a chance for each of us to explore who we are and how we will live together.