Book Review: RIVER HOUSE by Sally Keith

 photo 88ca6d79-48be-4bb8-845e-83bb586abd43_zpssx4nev4g.jpg River House
Poems by Sally Keith
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

reviewed by Alison Taverna

In her fourth poetry collection, River House, Sally Keith straddles this world—oriented, logical, with the world of grief—timeless, aimless, consuming. All sixty-three poems are elegies to the speaker’s mother, even though she confesses “I used to like to teach a course on elegy, / But I don’t anymore. / The form no longer interests me.” Each poem fits on a page, clearly numbered as a title, followed with a period. I read this mathematical, clean ordering, first, as a mask. Create order in the chaos, the disillusionment. Too, though, I see this counting as a process, a heavy-footed, day-by-day movement through suffering. As if living doesn’t have a name anymore. Each moment indistinguishable from what follows, and what will follow, for “There isn’t really an order that would be correct.”

Reading, we find ourselves pulled by the river. At times Keith’s stanzas flow in a linear narrative. Other times we chop through lines, spin around quotes and references from authors and artwork. These jumps are intentional as Keith explains,

Forgive me for all these quotations.
I take notes when I read. There can be instances of real clarity.
I always hope I might remember them.

The mother rents herself a house by the harbor, where the land sits on the same level as the water, the house on stilts. What is usually separate, the land and the shore, now exist together. This landscape, these poems, all grief conflates into survival. The speaker finds comfort in this survival, this movement—

…I reread a favorite poem

In which a speaker in mourning sits by a river thinking.
That the river does nothing but move makes sense to me.
In the margin, “grief” was the word I once had written.

The voice in River House strikes me as overtly controlled. The collection opens with thirteen sentences in sixteen lines. The final stanza in the opening poem hints towards this straightforwardness: “Because our mother is gone, we do not need the house. / We tell ourselves this. Soon we will clean out inside.” Directness avoids sentimentality for the poem, and is a method of coping for the speaker.

Still, this direct voice does not limit any emotions, for I’m mourning with the speaker, each poem somehow more shattering than the one previous. In what I consider the most striking moment of the collection, the speaker discusses promises made to the mother during the aging process,

…We would keep

Her nails trimmed, her hair combed. We would keep
The bright lipstick from bleeding up, away from her lips.

As the collection continues, Keith begins to step out of the poem. This happens in 55. The poem discusses the mother’s wooden drawer that only opens via a special code. At the beginning of the fifth stanza a volta occurs. The speaker breaks the wall and acknowledges the poem and audience, a meta-move. More, the speaker doesn’t just step out of the poem, but gives up on the poem, for “By now, you must already have figured the rest, / How the poem will end with the code…” I find this one of the most honest moves in the collection, suggesting that yes, sometimes writing doesn’t ease the constancy of loss. But Keith writes through these moments, forces forward, towards another poem, towards a life where everything can exist as solely itself—

The message in the waves is the waves.
Don’t work harder. Don’t allow me to weep,
Talking about the river. The river exists. The house exists.


Book Review: THAT OUR EYES BE RIGGED by Kristi Maxwell

 photo 8656465d-fa5d-4c3d-ae4d-661cca00f76f_zpsw33fgzs3.jpg That Our Eyes Be Rigged
Poems by Kristi Maxwell
Saturnalia Books, 2014
$15.00

reviewed by Dakota Garilli

I always want to say falsetto to sing it true in falsetto.
– “My Cost”

Following its desire to play with and harness the strange power of words, Kristi Maxwell’s That Our Eyes Be Rigged seems to be a meditation on the nature of memory and moments shared. From its opening poem, “In Which We Ask, Exist,” small fragments come to light piece by piece and allow the speaker to create small worlds:

Light chews on the patio
or could
a jawbone of light invents a countenance
to settle its valley, to climb scalp-ward
a jawbone of light exposes the whole
pitiable face

Enter our star player in unpunctuated lines, the breaks and creatively-chosen words of which displace typical language into an ever-shifting quicksand of images and moods. This collection is not for syntactical purists – in fact, it’s frustrating. It begs the reader to give painstaking attention to each new turn while simultaneously allowing whole trains of thought to break down in a manner somewhat akin to a Gertrude Stein poem. But for the reader who sticks around, there are some sweet nuggets. The surprises of the opening poem, “My Cost,” “[When I/ said deliver],” “Mined,” and the “Every Time I Want to Write You…” series may not be enough to sustain us, but they offer treasured moments of understanding amidst a stifling maze of words.

The most disconcerting element of Maxwell’s collection is that we know the meaning of each word it includes, or could at least look them up—and yet these same words, stripped to their bare sounds and played out to the thinnest representations of themselves, quickly become incomprehensible to us. Not surprising, as we come to realize that many of these poems are about a breakdown of communication.

“Of Them,” a retelling of moments shared by a couple no longer together, showcases some of Maxwell’s strongest moments in this linguistic experiment. Her lover’s hands are, unexpectedly, “a flesh chapel hid behind the scaffolding of open-fingered gloves,” and a mirror becomes “a park where light picnics.” Trips to the (actual) park are named by what makes them memorable, like “The First Below Zero Night.” While Maxwell’s plunging into the chill of these splintered memories may not suit her purpose —“To write about parks the way he walks through them” —the poem ambles to a wonderfully poignant close:

Snow erases mud our feet rewrite.

Snow and mud and our feet plunged and our feet plugged into our shoes and snow and mud a feat to plough through and we do.

Slipping, we separate and our separating is a colon between us.

We who number who digital clock and set ourselves for the occasion.

By the poem’s end, any trace of these lovers has already disappeared under fresh snow. Their inevitable separation manifests and, like the numbers on a digital clock, they blink slowly out of our sight.

Not all of Maxwell’s poems are so easy to track. It’s clear she sees language as a series of, as one poem is titled, “Tiny Wires Touching the Right Way.” That poem’s epigraph might be Maxwell’s plea for better readers: “Where is the body that is prepared to receive language?” Answer: Only in the space where one is willing to be lost, to be astonished by the flexibility of words and reminded of the utter meaningless of language when attempting to articulate those emotions and questions that sometimes feel incommunicable.

Her speaker seems to realize the growing futility of this attempt at connection. Her irritation becomes apparent in “[My soul’s in your head],” printed here in its entirety:

My soul’s in your head

if anywhere. The song

said so or something

like it. I fold my voice

to fit your ear. I fold it

more compactly

and store it. Stalled

after all. What horse

is this—that carries us

one at a time?

The horse, of course, is language. Maybe better put, meaning. Because Maxwell’s soul is never truly in our head, no matter how carefully her words are chosen for shape and shade or how compactly they’re folded. We are filtering her words as much as she filters her world, and somewhere in between we either find meaning or don’t. In poetry, an art where so much time is spent perfecting and so little at play, that’s perhaps a useful reminder.


 

Dance Review: CANDESCENCE by Gia T. Presents

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Gia Cacalano has come a long way since her traditional Martha Graham training in New York City. Although she respects choreographed modern dance immensely, performing another artist’s rehearsed movement never felt comfortable to her.

After quitting dance for seven years, Cacalano finally found the style that suits her best—improvisation. Over the last decade, she has made a name for herself creatively in Pittsburgh, despite her shyness and discomfort with the public.

Friday, she performed the first piece of her new season, fully funded by the Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative. Her solo, Candescence, took place at the Wood Street Galleries, a studio that has hosted her and her ensembles many times.

Cacalano performed alongside the latest art installation at the gallery. Mirjana Vodopija, originally from Croatia, was one of the artists in residence. Her work, Absence of Self, included three large prints, two of which utilized video animation. Each print pictured desolate, snowy or icy landscapes. In one, a complete white-out, Vodopija stood with her back to the camera. In the others, her image was digitally projected, in intervals, walking away from each scene.

Although Cacalano spent little time with the art, her ideas about the work were strong. The prints inspired her to think of several themes: ridding the ego, being seen or not seen, the loss of self that comes through our age of technology, and the shedding of our various selves.

Cacalano entered the space with an investigative energy common in her improvisations. Her inquisitive nature allows her to relate to the space in which she performs, a quality important in connecting the physical and visual art. Cacalano’s heightened awareness showed from the beginning; she timed a determined walk with Vodopija’s figure on one screen almost immediately.

The choice of costume and props also spoke to the artwork. Cacalano began sheathed in several layers, including a skirt made of bubble wrap and a black hat nearly covering her eyes. The layering of her clothes represented the layers of her self, some of which she shed throughout the piece.

In her hands, she carried several pair of latex gloves, eventually placing them on the floor in a purposeful and careful manner. She later explained the gloves as a representation of the “sterile” and technical way we present our lives online, perhaps the place where we most lack our true selves.

All of this related well to the images on the screens. The movement often mirrored the feeling of seclusion. For example, Cacalano positioned herself behind the screen a few times, leaving only her legs and feet visible to the audience. Still, the dance wasn’t melancholic. Cacalano included a healthy amount of movement simply pleasing to the eye, physically attacking a phrase with lightness on her feet.

The music was recorded by Kagi-Jong Kag Park, an artist out of Amsterdam who will mix live sound for Cacalano’s April ensemble show. Cacalano stayed connected to the electronic beats, seeming to discard a layer of clothing, or “self,” each time a new section began.

She moved from the bigger, released movement at which she excels, to tiny gestures easy to miss, like a foot slowly turning in, or one finger pointing subtly into the distance. Sweeping progressions showed off her technical range, and concluded with deep pliés, lunges, and near splits (with no feeling of flashiness).

The piece ended when she exited with certainty in the direction of one print,   disappearing from our view as did Vodopija’s own shape on the screen. The timing matched up spontaneously but artfully, which is the beauty of improvisation and Cacalano’s skill.


 

Book Review: SHAPE OF THE SKY by Shelagh Connor Shapiro

 photo ca5fbfe0-77c6-4898-bd3c-ee7809d39087_zps9zvyicr3.jpg Shape of the Sky
by Shelagh Connor Shapiro
Wind Ridge Books, 2014
$15.95

reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

There’s music in the air in Shape of the Sky, the novel by Shelagh Connor Shapiro, out now from Wind Ridge Books. Music is central to this story of Resolute, Vermont—a tiny town, population 613. It’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows everybody’s business. Complete with general stores and the Mom & Pop Diner, it’s a charming place, if a little claustrophobic.

The good people of Resolute are looking to bring some much needed business to their town, and the opportunity presents itself with a Woodstock-esque rock concert from fictional band Perilous Between, the biggest musical act to come out of Vermont in years. It’s a win-win for Resolute’s citizens—the town can open their shops and restaurants to the thousands of concert-goers, while farmers can rent out their land for the plethora of tents, RVs, and drug-addled youth.

There’s a few naysayers to this plan, of course, but for the most part, Resolute stands…well, resolutely. Perilous Between’s fans swarm in and all seems like the concert will go off without a hitch. That is, until a young fan’s body is discovered in the river. From there, the characters investigate, speculate, and meditate on this murder—Resolute has been without a homicide for generations now, after all.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Shape of the Sky. It features an ensemble cast, with each chapter written from the perspective of a different character. Oftentimes, these characters’ plot lines interweave and coalesce in surprising ways. The writing style changes from chapter to chapter to give voice to these characters. From the paranoid ramblings of the town gossip Rita Frederick, to the quiet, observant musings of Becca Akyn, paraplegic mother and line cook at the town’s diner.

For instance, here’s how Rita Frederick’s chapter starts: “The dishes have piled up and the mail has piled up and the laundry has piled up and none of it feels like Rita’s fault or job, but somehow she is the only one in this family who’s going to do anything about any of it and sometimes she wonders how it came to be this way, since she’s not a naturally neat person.”

These are the things that fuel and worry Rita. They’re not the academic and musical stresses experienced by Carter, Becca Akyn’s son. They’re not the cultish concerns of Zedekiah, town oddball. They’re the dishes. The state of her home, and in a larger sense, her town itself.

Indeed, many characters have strong voices, which in turn gives Resolute, Vermont a strong sense of place. It’s a tightly knit community, one where a newcomer transplant is regarded with suspicion and eventually begrudging hospitality. I’ve certainly visited this type of town. Shape of the Sky gives life and voice to the interstate towns that are often passed over in literature, in favor of countless novels set in New York, LA, or really any town with a population over 700.

The setting further forms through Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s often gorgeous writing.

Now she tried to see what the shape of the sky might be, resting atop Mount Witness like so much torn blue paper, glued in place with paste. For a second, for just a blink, she could see it that way. Just like, when she’d happened to glance at the cedars lit from behind at sunset the other night, she’d noticed them as it for the first time: dark feathery tops redefining the world that lay beyond.

Small town, Vermont, on a chilly spring evening—it sounds really nice, no? Imagery is one of the consistent strengths of Shape of the Sky, with words and metaphors that surprised and delighted me.

But as I said, the novel is really propelled by Resolute’s citizens, and their differences from each other. There’s a constant sense of change, or movement, with each turn of the page. Shelagh Connor Shapiro uses flashbacks and cutaways generously, which could have gotten confusing in a less skilled author’s hands. Instead, I often found that they clarified my understanding of the characters—oftentimes, the same events will be experienced by multiple characters, shedding new light on certain mysteries. And for a novel about a murder, it’s a rather intriguing way to learn precisely how and why the victim died. Characters both are and aren’t what they seem in Shape of the Sky.

That’s not to say that this is universal—in fact, some characters came off as a bit one-note. Because the novel features such a large cast, both Resolute natives and concert-goers, there are a few that aren’t as fleshed out. Every now and then, I would question a character’s purpose in terms of the overall plot. It’s not something that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel, but it is something I noticed—most likely because there are so many other memorable characters to which I compared them.

Near the end of the novel, most of their plot lines had resolved, but there were a few threads left dangling. And these threads were tied up in an epilogue of sorts—quick throwaway paragraphs that detail what happened to this specific character, or how these two characters are spending more time together now. Carter and Becca Akyn, neatly tied up with a bow. They’re endings that the book probably could’ve done without—it almost seemed an injustice to describe in a sentence what happened to a character with whom I had spent forty pages or so.

But aside from this, Shape of the Sky was a pleasant read that featured a memorable cast of characters. It’s about a tiny burg rocked by big events: a music festival and a murder. It’s about people who find tragedy and joy in each other’s accomplishments and mistakes. In a way, it’s the classic story about what happens when a stranger comes to town. Well, when a couple thousand strangers come to town.


 

Poetry & Risk

by Gerry LaFemina

Poetry is risky business. All the time, I hear poetry teachers urging their students to take risks, and usually, what they mean, is write about “risky” subject matter. But what makes subject matter risky—writing about the body? Sorry folks, people have been doing that for years. Writing about drug use? Sexual assault? Running away from home? For writers who have avoided confronting the ghosts and shames of their pasts, such “taboo” topics may feel uncharted, might make us uncomfortable even, but after decades of poems on such subjects, I’m not sure how inherently “risky” these topics are for readers. Furthermore, such insistence on risky subject matter can make young writers who haven’t had such experiences feel inadequate in the content of their work.

Of course, risky subject matter can provide us with energy—look at me, Mom, I’m writing about stuff you wouldn’t approve of. And fuck, I’m using language you wouldn’t approve of either. And surely we can imagine subject matter that we’ve observed rather than we’ve had happen to us. For many writers, just imagining another life can be a risk. Writing persona poems stretch our imagination and force us to think beyond our initial impressions of our subject matter. But there are other risks a writer can take, other ways to challenge one’s self, than what we write about.

The tightrope, without stating the obvious, is even risky for the circus performer, but much less so after years of training than for the novice. Subject matter only takes us so far—how many times can we revisit the same stories in the same way?

Risk then, for a poet, has to be considered in different ways. One way to be risky with our content is to reconsider the notions of subject matter itself, to allow yourself to be ambivalent about the topic, to second guess what you believe the poem is about. To have a “but” in the poem. To question one’s own beliefs is always potentially troublesome, but also liberating. How many times can we write about our broken hearts? Try writing a poem that begins I’m glad you left me…

Or think of Phyllis Moore’s “Why I Hate Martin Frobisher,” a catalog of anaphora driven lines:

Because he watches sports on TV
Because he works and I just read books
Because when I’m screaming like an oceanliner, he can answer the phone and say
        “Sure, no problem”
Because my mother thinks he’s the spotty pup and I’m Cruella Deville.
Because he plays with his food, cut curliques in my 4-hour creme brulee

but then, when she breaks the pattern, the speaker admits her attempts at trying to convince herself and us of her hatred.

Because he’s got a heart the size of a chipped acorn, the brains of a squirrel, he’s a jerk,
        a little girl’s blouse,
        a felon but straight-seamed
        a cream-faced, two-penny
        scoundrel and a kitten-kicker,
        a real badass
        and I want him back, oh yeah.

It’s a perilous proposition, of tone, of the anaphoric form overpowering the subject, but, in this case, it’s one that pays off.

Consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which inverts the celebration of the beautiful beloved and opens with these lines:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Subverting expectations is a big risk, but it humanizes the beloved, the speaker, and the sonnet form.

Form, obviously, is where the most risks can be taken. Contemporary poetics allows for a variety of formal options—from fractal use of the page to prose poems to fixed forms. I have a student right now who regularly threatens to drop my class if I make her write in fixed forms: so more than ever I want to assign everyone a villanelle or terza rima. She’s afraid of failure in writing in form. Yet failure teaches us more than success.

But nothing prevents us from making up forms, too. Jim Simmerman’s assignment “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” in The Practice of Poetry seems, at first glance, extremely difficult. Students, when presented with it, often complain that it’s “impossible.” Invariably, students write their best poems by rising to the challenge of the form that forces them to put subject matter further down their list of concerns.

For writers, particularly in the early stage of their careers, trained to think about what their poems are about, putting form—putting prosody—before subject matter can feel like dangerous. We want to say something meaningful, and we want our experiences to be validated. But there’s another way of thinking, and that’s like the old woman in E.M Forester’s Aspects of the Novel, who says “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” Byt this logic, then, intelligence is created by the very act of writing.

We’re thinking all the time, most of it unconsciously. We don’t think to get our lungs to breathe; we don’t think to fall in love. Most of us have seen something (a dog running down the street) and made connections to other events, other experiences, other times (an ex who had a similar dog, or a fact about golden retrievers we saw on Animal Planet); suddenly, what had been unconsciously happening is brought to consciousness. Not thinking about subject matter, but thinking about form and prosody, might allow unconscious thoughts to bubble up. It’s a risk of trusting our poetics. And poetics, not subject matter, is truly what writing a poem is about. We must remember: if we’re choosing to write in verse, we have to consider what it is the line gives us. It gives us formal concerns. Taking risks with form can lead to the most rewarding poems.


 

Precarious Music // Book Review: SUGAR RUN ROAD by Ed Ochester

 photo eb351e79-6958-4340-957d-1d413240de94_zpsrfum3aft.jpg Sugar Run Road
Poems by Ed Ochester
Autumn House Press, 2015
$17.95

reviewed by Peter Blair

In his famous essay, “The American Background,” William Carlos Williams writes that America needs to create a “culture of immediate references.” Such a culture relies on direct, unmediated perception and contact with the American continent itself, free of European preconceptions and the “crazy rigidities and imbecilities” of a society ignorant of its own place or ground which then stifles lives and growth.

Reading Ed Ochester’s new book, Sugar Run Road, reminds me of such a poet who in the second poem of the book, “Even As I Write This,” asks readers to keep in mind “the deep grammar and inner mystery of, . . . your native land.” Similarly, in “Sunflowers,” he writes, “you don’t / know where you will be / but you’d better / see where you are,” and in “September Rain”: “So many people don’t know / where they live.” Like the speaker who feels lucky to know where he lives, Ochester’s poems celebrate ordinary, often-forgotten people who respond to their home ground and the natural landscape (mostly rural Western Pennsylvania) of birds, trees, and hills. In a short poem, “At the Farm Store,” the speaker overhears the owner tell a friend: “O the figs / are all gone / from the vine / outside my bedroom. / You have no idea / how wonderful / it was to wake up / and open the window / and eat one.”

This immediacy and connection to the local permeates the book’s three sections which range from biting satires of our current “imbecilities,” short haiku-like pieces, and poems which blend historical figures and immediate personal experiences in to a profound concreteness of emotion. An example of the last kind, the poem “That Time,” is about what the speaker calls his “heart event.” He forges a conversational, self-reflexive voice on the page which riffs on several subjects relating to the speaker’s health, and through turns (“verse” means “to turn”) captures the vagaries of an emergency health experience with wit, grace and associative resonance. It uses word play. He states that calling it an “event” makes “‘attack’ sound[s] / as jubilant as the 4th of July—.” Then, he quotes his doctor who tells him to eat right and stop “acting like an asshole” which the speaker remembers telling himself at 20, and it didn’t do him any good. He moves to a wry ethical truth saying that we build, “preposterous / value systems” early in life and have to deconstruct them later. A final turn counterpoints these abstract thoughts when the poem ends on a true immediate reference, spoken by the speaker’s wife when she looks out the window:

hey, the raccoons
didn’t knock over the birdbath
for once

The poetic structure of the poems, the constant turns, is itself a kind of immediate culture where we experience amazing intuitive connections; these insights based on the locality can change one’s actions because they’re based on those observations. Ignoring them, we will get caught in mental traps and craziness. To illustrate these rigidities, the poems pillory “endless McMansion miles,” Gideon Bibles in motels, the Iraq War, America’s desire for newness and “quickiness” in everything, a poetry scene of inflated resumes, and literary critics who seem to value “challenging” poetry which the speaker says, “often means I think, ‘obscure.’” Against this, the speaker favors “complexity, not confusion” and “plain surface texture.” Another poem celebrates Yogi Berra not “‘theory’ phds” who “poisoned all the books they landed on.” Varied forms such as epistles, letters, tweets, and an email poem between the speaker and another poet, lend a sense of day-to-day focus on the present moment, things, and current ideas.

Another example of immediacy is how the speaker needs to get down on paper a fleeting emotion suggested by his response to the things around him. In “Meyer Country Motel,” he witnesses a diner which reflects our economic class society from Latino busboys up to “the happy fat owner gabbing.” The speaker picks up the Gideon Bible in his room. Has he converted? No. He uses the blank pages at the back so, as he says: “I can write this [poem] down / before I go.” Another poems begins “As I write this it’s raining,” and other titles include personal immediate insights stolen from routine, such as “Even As I Write This,” “Messages,” and “Google It.”

Time and space to catch and record a fleeting truth is important, and in this regard, time emerges as a constant theme. In “The Death of Hemingway,” he writes, “Wherever and whomever you are / time will change it,” and reduce it to nothing. Yet, in a moving poem about baseball and many other things, “Emails from and to Afaa Weaver,” the memories evoked by a Donald Hall poem about the past and the power of memory move him to say: “Time turns pain to silver, garbage to gold,” These poems, wide-ranging, associative, intuitive, do what the speaker quotes Galway Kinnell as saying in another poem (simply called “Poetry”) a homage to various poetic voices from Stern and Gilbert to Cattulus. The Kinnell quote ends the poem: “‘go so deep / into yourself you speak for everyone.’”

Ochester knows intimately the complex, multiform, compartmentalized Chinese box of emotions, memories, and the secrets that we keep to ourselves, and the need to go “deep into” them in a poem. The outer surface of the box, the poem, is merely what houses these emotions (and secrets), (and us) inside, the record of what we have taken to heart, our meager successes and failures. Yet, that same poem grounded in the immediate references of the world, nature, and the heart, rescues us through the sheer joy of being in contact with that world.

“Joy” runs all through these amazing poems, but nowhere more strongly than the final poem, “For Britt.” As the speaker parks the car at home, he observes,

your sparrows in the snow-covered forsythia
greet the weak sun with a matrix of cheeping,
dozens of them, not from gratitude but
perhaps from overflowing joy

These lines stun us with the beauty of their delicate music. To say them is to hear the sparrows’ song (the e sounds repeated at surprising intervals in the second line of the quote) in between the ominous o sounds of the surrounding lines. We see, feel, and hear the birds’ precarious existence and “perhaps” their joy.

Reading these poems, at once hilarious, engaging, and compassionate, heightens not only our joy, but also our ability to create immediate references to our precarious world and culture.

________
Works Cited
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions Books, 1954. Print


When I have Fears

by Nola Garrett

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
               —John Keats

Once in a while, we all come upon a poem that is so tight and so right that there’s not much left to say, other than agree with it and explain why. Of course, as an English professor teaching Introduction to Poetry, I sometimes pried out of my students why it was an English sonnet rather than an Italian sonnet, but I’m sure that did more harm than good. Luckily, my prying had no effect upon sonnethood, though years later I still hope my students have forgiven me.

Eventually, I learned to approach this poem by first reading it aloud, then asking “What do you notice about this poem?” and then a half hour of poetry conversation ensued. Some students focused on the “fair creature of an hour,” to discuss it as a tragic love poem. Others talked about the first line, and recounted auto accidents, grandparents’ deaths, near drowning. If they knew anything about Keats’ life, they disclosed his early death from TB, and because Keats died at age 26, an age close to theirs, at that point in our discussion we moved deeper into the poem itself. Though they could imagine why Keats would miss his writing, reading, the night sky, and his girlfriend, what was nearly impossible to understand was Keats’ sonnet’s solution. Mostly, all they had to go on was trust in Keats’ words:

then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

That was always acceptable to me, because I knew each one of us who reads this poem would most likely someday come to understand those words within the context of our own lives.

I, too, have had to contemplate those last lines of Keats sonnet for more than two years since I was diagnosed with primary billiary cirrhosis.

Primary billiary cirrhosis is a rare, genetic disease of the liver diagnosed most often in women during their mid-forties or mid-fifties in which the cells that make up the linings of the liver’s bile ducts destroy each other and eventually close off all the bile ducts, leading to liver failure and death unless a liver transplant is available. Given my present age, 74, I would be so far down on the transplant list that I would die before a liver were ever available. And, in some cases even if a transplant takes place, the genetic nature of the disease destroys the transplanted liver. However, a few years ago research liver specialists discovered that thrice daily 300 mg doses of ursolic acid, Ursodiol, can in some cases slow the destruction of the bile ducts, especially if it is administered early enough in the progression of the disease.

These are the questions I’ve been living with for the last two years:

Why has PBC, such a rare disease, pounced upon me so late in my life?

How long have I had PBC?

Is the Ursodiol working well enough to slow down the progression of PBC so I can die of something else?

Meanwhile, I have bought a space for my ashes in First Lutheran Church’s columbarium, and I keep revising (much the same way I revise my poems) my funeral service.

I have published my second book of poetry, and I’m working on my third manuscript of poetry and writing essays.

My husband has divorced me, and now a mortgage company & I own my condo where I still gratefully live.

In many ways Keats’ concluding lines stayed with me as I stood alone thinking through my questions at the high windows of my condo these last two years. Gradually, I came to accept not only my death, but also the end of my husband’s love. Because I never did drink much alcohol, giving up cooking with wine and drinking wine came easy. I found that lemon juice and/or chicken broth were good substitutes for cooking with wine. I learned to allow myself the slightest sip of communion wine, somewhat like Christ’s sipping vinegar while he hung from his cross. Because part of taking Ursodiol is drinking far more water than I have ever drunk on a daily basis, I came to find drinking water at various temperatures seemed to be a pleasant diversion. Besides, another medical recommendation was to drink coffee and to eat lots of citrus. And, because my husband had hated coffee and was indifferent to any citrus other than pulpless orange juice, somehow my drinking coffee and eating lots of oranges and tangerines seemed to congeal the finality of his leaving. Further, I came to accept that the stress of living with a husband who no longer loved me though I loved him may have been what pushed me and my genes past their limits. Like death, divorce has always existed.

During the first year after my husband left, my second book of poems, The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball, was published, received national reviews, and went into a second print run. Mike Simms asked me to write these essays. One of my sestinas from my first book was included in OBSESSION: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century published by the University of New England Press. And, along with several invitations to read, a critical essay was written about my poems for the Mezzo Camin Women Poets Time Line which will be posted within the next few months. This is far more fame than I have ever expected in my wildest dreams, but I’m still just me waiting for my next poem. None of this makes a whit of difference on my Federal Income Tax forms.

What has made a difference to me is the results of several medical tests I’ve had within the last few weeks. Apparently, even though I was so old, my PBC was diagnosed early in its development, and during the two years while I have been taking medication and living alone my liver has not further deteriorated. I may well live to die of something else. Theologically, I suspect this may be wrong: I’ve come think of the cells in my liver bile linings as a game of Pac-Man eating themselves. I’ve just been awarded a single bonus life at 10,000 points, but I believe Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde are still out there. However, now I’m not afraid to sink to nothingness whenever they arrive.


Book Review: GOOD NOISE! Poetry, Music & Pittsburgh

 photo 86ad9bd2-eed1-47d2-83de-f43ad1997b0a_zpsbzo8j3ps.jpg Good Noise!
Poems by Renee Alberts, Jason Baldinger, Stephanie Brea, Kristofer Collins, Jerome Crooks, Angele Ellis, Kevin Finn, John Grochalski, Jason Irwin, Lori Jakiela, Chuck Kinder, John Thomas Menesini, Dave Newman, Bob Pajich, Daniel M. Shapiro, Scott Silsbe, Ed Steck, Don Wentworth
Thrasher Press, 2014
$10.00

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

Some of the music I’ve come to appreciate most as a long-time audiophile is themed albums that grew on me over the course of several replays. For example, Acadie, by Daniel Lanois; Good Old Boys, by Randy Newman; Mountain Soul, by Patty Loveless, come immediately to mind. It’s an experience to listen to each song in order, the accompanying lyrics on my lap, and note the common thread: a raw, palpable sense of place evident in the words, further conjured by instruments connected to the musician’s heritage, or the territory they’ve inhabited.

Good Noise!: Poetry, Music & Pittsburgh, a collection published by Thrasher Press, imparts this same admiration. As the book title states, this inspired compilation of verse penned by local writers frequently lingers on music within the heart of the steel city and in addition to its adjacent neighborhoods. The book’s largely free-verse, rhythmic narrative poems are meditations on the Southwestern PA locale’s musical influences (such as the Karl Hendrix Trio) and the impact of internationally known performers, as well as everyday rust belt characters—the folks who serve as commentary on the region’s traditions, the Yinzer populace mindset. In Lori Jakiela’s “Big Fish,” Pittsburgh is contemplated at a Lenten Friday fish fry as a place you can escape, yet your return is inevitable:

The good people of Trafford don’t eat meat on Lenten Fridays.
They give up all hopeful things – chocolate, beer, the lottery…

Everyone I know is tired of waiting and dreaming.

I used to dream of leaving. I did that.
Now I’m back for good…

The kid with the pink hair whacks the fish over and back,
then drops it into the fryer.

He sings “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Dee Snider, Twisted Sister,
and punches the air with his one free hand.

More shared themes in Good Noise! include the Pittsburgh landscape (“looks / like a messy bed” – Bob Pajich)—its bridges and thoroughfares—as well as nights of drink; music at dive bars & pubs; missed opportunities / regrets; and finding one’s self lost then found, literally and figuratively, by music in the more obscure surrounding towns. Take Daniel M. Shapiro’s “How Billy Eckstine Helped Me Find the West Mifflin Wal-Mart,” a poem that also addresses the sacrifice of important culture in the name of urban renewal:

One 21st-century night, his baritone
boomed from my car stereo as I meandered
a few steps south of his hometown.
Scat syllables twisted like ill-formed roads…

On the map, it had looked easy enough.
Perhaps the man who turned Crawford Grill
and Hurricane legendary resented the development,
corporate bottom lines that sliced at hillsides.
So he took his time, imprinting his rhythms
while the gauge tipped toward empty.

Eventually, he got me there, knowing
those former boondocks as metropolises…

Vital to Good Noise! is acknowledgement of Pittsburgh’s historical heritage—the significance and sacrifice of immigrants in the mammoth steel industry that dominated the Monongahela River front through to the 1980s. In “Black Cemetery Wall,” John Thomas Menesini writes:

further down the black cemetery wall
blackened from yesterday soot
a different kind of e pit ap h
to a Pittsburgh
long since
past

a reminder
of bloody black hands
black lungs
broken skin
furnace tans
blistered lips sucked
boilermakers
by the quartful

While the book doesn’t hit a wrong note in its content, its pacing, or poem order, some of the many standout poems include “I Date a Guy Because of the View from His Bedroom Window,” by Stephanie Brea; “Katie Birthday Poem,” by Scott Silsbe; “Allen Ginsberg Comes to Pittsburgh,” by David Newman; “untitled,” by Jerome Crooks; “Here’s to Your Ex-Wife,” by Jason Baldinger; and “Spending Sunday Afternoon Listening to Jim Daniels’ Copy of Hall & Oates’ Abandoned Luncheonette,” by Kristofer Collins.

To call Good Noise! raw, gritty, unapologetic, full of heart—is fitting. It describes “the ‘Burgh”: what you see is what you get. It describes the collected verse—the music—included within it, the pop & crack of a well-worn LP that sings the perpetual song of Pittsburgh.