The phony cry for poetry that speaks to our time

by Djelloul Marbrook 

Give us poems that speak to today’s issues.

How often have you heard editors and critics dine out on that rhetoric? That false rhetoric exposes a fundamental flaw in their understanding of poetry. Poetry, like all art, is the news of the day. It is the cutting edge of our sensibility, whether it talks about Ted Cruz’s latest loony tune or the horrors of moneyed suburbs.

The problem is not with poets who fail to rise to the grandiloquent challenge. The problem is with the intellectual lassitude of the bogus challenge, a challenge suspiciously similar to complaints about inaccessibility and opacity in poems. What a son-of-a-bitch you are for trying to make me think harder, probe deeper—that’s what these highfalutin complaints are about. They are admissions of torpor.

The poetry volumes discussed here are examined in light of this premise.

download(Zen and the Art of Poetry Maintenance, Non-Sutras, Seb Doubinsky, Leaky Boot Press, UK, 120pp, 2015, $14.95)

In confronting the grand and ferocious limitations of poetry Doubinsky defines its grandeur. “Poetry is positive catastrophe,” he writes on page 27. That’s all, one line, one poem. Could you say it of a newspaper, a broadcast, an industry, a state? No, and therein is poetry’s grandeur, in its tragic confines.

These terse, unpunctuated, uncapitalized poems have a Stoic’s austerity—the unflinching mind of Marcus Aurelius comes to mind—but not the asperity. They’re elegant, instantly classic, and more than any news story or analysis, they stare our lies in the face:

banks do their laundry
democracy shrinks
kids laugh in the garden

Even on the rare occasion when the pronoun appears it exhibits the dervish’s yearning to disappear.

I erase the words about to be
I erase the images about to be
I erase the rhymes and lines
I am Shiva the Destroyer

Doubinsky doesn’t rise to editorial demands for contemporary relevance, he exceeds them, and in so doing he diminishes them to their rightful place among the bogus and pretentious pronouncements of our time.

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The problem with demanding poems that address contemporary issues is that it presumes editors know what those issues are, but it is the function of poetry and art to define our issues, not to allow the press, with its canned and authorized versions of everything, to define them for us. Such editors are acting out of an omniscience that is not theirs to claim. It’s an adolescent trait that later wisdom should dispel. They’re laying down a spread of assumptions that belong more properly to the newsprint world with its addiction to punditry and didacticism than to art. For example, the press persists in talking about conflict in geopolitical terms, somehow managing the stupendous feat of doing so without context, but refusing to address the issue of who profits, which tells us everything about conflict. A poet is far more likely to do the latter, which is one of the several reasons the press is always writing poetry’s obituary, because it so often embarrasses the press.

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(Paradise Drive, Rebecca Foust, Press 53, 94pp, 2015, $12.92)

John Wayne is forever associated with the word “pilgrim,” which he used in the films McLintock and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Will Geer used it speaking to Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson. The word derives from peregrine and means someone from outside your country. Wayne, a right-wing icon, was predictably concerned with belonging and unbelonging. But when Rebecca Foust uses it in Paradise Drive, her prize-winning book of sonnets, Pilgrim might be herself, her outsider self looking in on her own life with the stark succinctness that only the sonnet could achieve.

At first glance it’s another book about savage privilege in the suburbs, a book that would satisfy an editor’s demand for with-it relevance, but once you stop glancing and start reading you’re enmeshed in a pitiless, ruthless and at the same time profoundly compassionate autopsy of a life not willing to end with the mistakes it has made, not willing to blink. Foust goes back into the burning house and brings out the frightened child.

In her hands the sonnet is a scalpel. Everything that is familiar, our preconceptions and her names for them, is turned inside out and upside down, weighed, measured. It is as if she woke up one morning, found nothing familiar, not even her own face, and wrote this all down in a tsunami of finely cadenced prosody, and we are reading it aloud as the flotsam and jetsam of her new vision ebbs out to the horizon. It is a stunning feat, executed with a mathematician’s focus.

Well, what the hell is there to do
besides sling words like arrows back
into Fortune’s outrageous face?

It’s page 47 when she asks this. It’s what she has been doing, and she wants to know if you have a better idea. It’s the poet’s classic question, and all criticism falls short of answering it. Notice that this is not the iambic pentameter of the Elizabethan sonnet. The line is spondaic, the words are sprung, but in the midst of this modernist tack she capitalizes Fortune, because she wants us to remember we have a boatload of hack ideas to deep-six, all of us.

Foust reminds us there are no used-up subjects, just hack approaches to them. “I miss your tongue /on my spine,” she writes in “Bourbon Elegy,” “the crack of your fist / on my jaw.” 

The press that claims to tell us how we live doesn’t. The press tells us, like standardized tests, what to think. Poetry helps us think. Poetry is witness; the press recounts, redacts and omits. Poetry is happening; what we read in the press happened, or perhaps not, and rarely the way it’s described. Here’s what I mean:

The Swede to her left leaned in
to discuss Pilgrim’s “Asparagus” son,
worried, it seemed, that his own son
might be part green vegetable too.

These four lines in “Elocution” convey the sense of still going on. The Swede is still leaning in, and although he is technically the foreigner, Pilgrim is more so, because she’s describing in. She’s here and she’s there, and we’re with her. This is the shape-shifting quality of poetry that the press cannot faintly resemble. Poetry is always about what is happening. The press is about what somebody has decided happened. Foust is with it in a way the editors demanding with-it-ness fail to understand.

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One reason editors and critics go unchallenged when they demand political poems, poems about the injustices and inequalities of society, is that they have settled for definitions imposed by the so-called news media. American society, stem to stern, defines news according to the principles of 19th-century press lords and their minions, men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The latter was an exception, but most of these press lords were arch conservatives. They defined news not in terms of how we relate to each other, not in terms of how ordinary people think and feel, but in terms of geopolitics. And they defined politics in terms of hierarchies. In the 21st century we should challenge these narrow and misdirecting definitions of news. News is not what trained journalists and their corporate bosses say it is, it is what we feel, what we experience, and what we do. The press as we know it is reporting a chosen microcosm and claiming it to be “the news” of the hour. We should be fit to be tied by the claim of The New York Times that it prints all the news that’s fit to print. The news ought to be about the limits of human perceptivity, the frontiers of the mind and imagination, not what one damned fool after another says to a microphone.

Without intending to, not consciously anyway, Michael T. Young’s handsomely produced volume of poetry, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, addresses just this predicament.

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23593548(The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, Michael T. Young, Poets Wear Prada, 76pp, 2015, $1.40)

Titles of volumes of poetry in their striving to connect often mislead or turn out to be irrelevant, but this title is key to understanding what the poet is doing. By being lost in the moment we adore it, we respect it, and, above all, we do not forfeit our lives to remorse and anxiety about what comes next. By becoming lost in these poems one finds one’s life.

With some poets, even the most acknowledged, you sometimes get the sense of a striving for elegance, but Michael Young conveys that incomparable sense of having an elegant mind—

I like to think of Lot’s wife not looking back,
but going on to another city with her husband,
Hebron maybe, or Gaza, even a small unknown town,
where she gives birth to two daughters and a son,
lives in a house with vineyard and a view of the sea.

—not just an elegant mind, but a gracious one.

The poet, while seeming to speak casually, is metrically painstaking, aware always of the pervading melody of his impulse.

His work is the apotheosis of the disquieting contention that poetry is the news of our time, not the strings of events, the blather, the dissonance of what we call news. Here, live in this moment, join its molecular structure, and you will be the news, not merely its partaker, its observer, but its interactive maker, the poet seems to say. Otherwise you are mute and passive, a couch potato. But in poetry you live the moment and therefore are a more active builder of tomorrow than if you had just voted.

Crossing the Hudson River on a ferryboat
I’m distracted by the sensation that the river
appears as if it should be draining, spilling
over some remote and unseen rim.

The news media, as we know them, can’t impart this sense of presence, this immediacy, this conviction that something is happening. They are always about what has happened and what may happen. They leap over the moment while pretending to be up-to-the-minute. But their irrelevance to the very thing to which they claim to be all-important is even greater, because, unlike the poet, they omit, they disdain context and history, whereas the poem is all about connecting the dots.

In some ways a collection of poems is like jackstraws. Too many editors look for overt and obvious themes, but the poems drawn from a certain period or experience in a poet’s life have their own themes. They fall in their own pattern, like jackstraws. And trying to impose an overlay is like pulling out a straw and subverting the natural whole. Perhaps the situation is not unlike comparing classical to natural geometry. The theme that emerges in The Beautiful Moment of Being is that only by exploring the moment can we fathom the momentous.

This poetry deserves the production values Poets Wear Prada have bestowed on it. We can’t hear enough of this poet.

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(The Cave, Tom Holmes, The Bitter Oleander Press, 73pp, 2014, $11.40 )download (2)

Tom Holmes in The Cave undertakes the ambitious project of searching the present with Paleolithic light. Just as starlight takes millennia to arrive, so understanding of the past arrives with its own light slowly through the labors of time travelers like the poet.

The poem “Fireside” gives a hint. It begins:

A time revives,
I gather those embers

and give them away—
presents of what may arrive,
an horizon suggesting light.

The Cave provides just what the 21st century, operating in the vast chambers of cyberspace, ought to and so spectacularly fails to provide: historicity, context. Take the poem, “Paleolithic Person Explains Her Footprints”:

I needed something to burn,
something to light this hollow of the cave,
something to warm me against the wind,
I was sucking marrow from a bone.

This one amazing stanza could be employed as a metaphor for our times, for any time. And it could be read in many different ways. We need something to burn, don’t we?

And that tells us something we need to know about Tom Holmes. There is all too often about contemporary poems a there!—take that! quality, a can-you-top-this? exulting that comes through in spite of the poet’s attempts at modesty. But doing what this poet is doing, using the poetic sensibility to search the cave—it doesn’t matter if it’s Plato’s or a cavewoman’s—requires a great soul. It’s something like a mother’s compulsion to nurture, a scholar’s quest to instill. It requires a generosity rooted not in a quest for recognition but an obsession with shedding light.

“Hearing from other worlds is rhapsodic,” the poet says in “Paleolithic Person Explains Hand Art.”  Hart Crane would applaud.

Rarely has any poet explained so well and succinctly what he is up to as Holmes does in the poem “The Invention of Inspiration”:

Down here, the sun is a deep pond,
and I’m a diaphanous shadow—
the air tastes good to my palate
and the slow colors rise in me.

Beasts leap from my hand.
I may never return.

We don’t know if Tom Holmes has returned. We’ll know by his next poems. But we know he is a light bringer, while a pretentious commentariat today brings us gewgaws and gimcracks. We know that he has journeyed, not like a conquistador in quest of riches, not like Columbus, but like Thucydides and Abd al Rahman Ibn Khaldun, to tell us where we ourselves have been when we wore other faces in other times.

The Cave is a book of beasts leaping from the hand. They have been set free and will not readily return to the book. Of how many books of poetry today can we say such a thing?

Bitter Oleander Press has honored this memorable adventure with high and handsome production values.

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To borrow from Giordano Bruno, the heretic priest and magus burned at the stake in 1600, the poem is a star beast whose favor is sought by the reader in order for collaboration to begin. Celestial figures are drawn by connecting the dots, exactly what the press fails to do, which may explain the obscene eagerness of the press to write poetry’s obituary. Poetry is a collection of the dots, and it is up to the reader and the instrument, the beast, to operate in the heavens to generate light and influence events. Orion is a clutch of stars until it is discerned by connecting the stars, the dots.

Another way of putting this idea of the poem as living instrument is via Aristotle’s idea of the common sense being the aggregate of the five senses. News as a mess of incidents is not a fit idea for the 21st century and the accommodations of cyberspace. Poets make common sense of the incidents and thereby push the limits of human sensibility. Contrarily, news as we now define it fragments, polarizes, divides, and conspires against the idea of oneness, against ideas like the Chaos Theory.

These four poets—Doubinsky, Foust, Young, and Holmes—affirm this distinction between what we regressively call news and the real news in which we are all swept up and are invited to influence.


 

Book Review: CROW-WORK by Eric Pankey

 photo 7d9e1dcb-0b9f-4286-a71d-5ae73962eaf4_zpsjlvu7wbs.jpg Crow-Work
Poems by Eric Pankey
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

Pankey’s collection begins with the ominously titled, “Ash.” Ashes are inscrutable remains, something that shows that there was a previous form, but reveals little about that form. “At the threshold of the dive, how to know/but indirectly,” the poem begins, establishing this theme of inscrutability. Pankey hedges, debates which image to use to express his idea, and finally settles on “a Buddha, handmade, / four meters high of compacted ash, the ash / remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.” Of course, this icon would be delicate, as, “With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates. / With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles.” The very act of approaching it destroys it. Finally, Pankey gets at the meaning of his non-meaning, “An infant will often turn away as if / Not to see is the same as not being seen. / There was fire, but God was not the fire.”

Opening with such a powerfully, purposefully non-narrative poem sets a clear tone for the collection. Many of Pankey’s poems mirror the themes and images of “Ash.” Buddhist imagery and ideals permeate the collection. Many of the poems settle onto fleeting hints of scenes and images before skittering off, tantalizing the reader with meaning and significance. Pankey has removed the poet’s ego from the poems; he crafts evocative images but rarely assigns his personal emotional stamp to them. Rather, the joie de vivre of observation is his sustaining celebration. In “Spirit Figures,” he writes, “To hew a living flame, I let the pear / dissolve into its own muddy sugars; // I mix powdered bone with seed, / toss it high, / and let each handful fall as a crow upon the snow.” He describes a scene: “A lanky fox noses at a dead hawk: / startles, backs away, circles uncertain.” And, later, returns to the image, “Alive with hunger, wired with fear, the fox, / your envoy, said nothing. / I understood.” To put it simply, Pankey is trying to suss meaning from meaninglessness. In, “When We Meet On that Beautiful Shore,” he begins, “I keep speaking so as not to disappear.” He examines many sources of supposed comfort, in life, “There is no cause, / only correspondence.” and describes, “Pleasure no greater for its deferral.” Finally, the image which hints at what it is to be alive, “The stone rests/as water moves around it.”

The title poem is a meditation on meaningfulness, or meaninglessness. In the first stanza, he describes crows settling onto a field. Then:

There must be an equation for defining
The long odds that Vesuvius would erupt
On Vulcan’s feast day, or that a baby’s birth

Beneath the fall of a comet might result
In the slaughter of a thousand innocents.

Pankey then brings us back to the crows, “The crows scavenge what they can, are efficient. // The crows, in their crow-like way, do their crow-work, / Tidy up the wreckage, the aftermath.”

Though Pankey definitely has a Buddhist bent in his poems, he also has a heavy Christian focus. He references Christian paintings in a series of ekphrastic poems—personal favorites of mine in the collection. There’s also a heart of deeply personal poems, cementing the collection. “My Brother’s Insomnia,” is one of these, immediately followed by “My Brother’s Ghost.” In Insomnia, Pankey describes the interests and fears of a young boy:

He cares little for snakes, but fears spiders more.
The recluse spider is his least favorite.

Some nights in bed, he holds his breath and is dead.
Some nights in bed he holds his breath and listens

To wind rattle the unlocked front door,
To time rustle and scratch in the attic like mice.

He cannot remember if it is summer
Or winter, if sleet or a wren pecks the window.

There’s a timeless element to Pankey’s descriptions; his brother is forever captured in this moment. In “Rehearsal for an Elegy,” Pankey gets at hard-learned truths with lines like, “After years of use the millstone is a mirror,” and, “If the past were honey / One could scrape it away / With the flat of a knife and be done with sweetness.” When Pankey considers religion, his isn’t a blind faith. As he states in “Fragment,” “What comfort to think that the great beast / Will be thrown into a lake of fire.”

Pankey’s poems remind of meditations. Many of them are titled some variation on the idea of a fragment, and work more as groupings of similar themes than coherent narratives. This isn’t, in any way, a criticism; Pankey links these themes coherently, giving his poems complexity and verve. I’ve read several of Pankey’s collections, and he continues to impress me with his exact language and his ability to get at the stuff of living an intellectual, spiritual life without coming off as didactic or overly vague.


 

Dance Review: WRITTEN ON WATER and SNOW by Pontus Lidberg Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino 

With only one remaining performance next month, the Pittsburgh Dance Council season is officially winding down. On Saturday night at the Byham Theater, Pontus Lidberg Dance brought uniqueness to an eclectic lineup.

Lidberg is a Swedish choreographer and filmmaker whose dance work has garnered attention since the company’s debut in 2011. Lidberg’s experience in film translates to the stage, with highly visual and rich movement palettes. His Pittsburgh debut was no exception. In Written on Water and Snow, the choreography evoked lush imagery.

Written on Water opened the show, as a prelude to Snow. Originally, the piece was conceived as a pas de deux for the American Ballet Theater. Since then, it has been expanded and now includes three dancers.

The piece highlighted the partnering skills of the dancers, which Lidberg thinks of as a conversation with the body. Dramatic string music by Stefan Levin set the scene, while bright light came up on Lidberg and Barton Cowperthwaite. The third dancer, Kaitlyn Gilliland, entered sporadically while the men conversed in light leaps and lifts, then deep, grounded pliés.

The pace quickened when Gilliland joined the men in a more definitive manner. Upright, balletic shapes were easily interspersed with undulation through the spine and off-center release that took the dancers to the floor. The movement itself was the high point, intricate and imaginative.

Near the end, a waltzing lilt had the dancers moving through quick, technical phrases with moments of stillness and gestures of touch that showed the vulnerability and uncertainty of human relationships. A dusting of “snow” fell from the rafters, enhancing the feeling of fragility. To finish, the three stood face to face, as if in realization, then turned away from one another as the lights faded.

Snow followed intermission and, in a way, picked up where the trio left off. The piece featured four dancers, adding Christopher Adams to the cast. As a fifth character, a Japanese-style Bunraku puppet also played a large role.

The quartet was originally choreographed to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but has since been reworked to an electronic score by Ryan Francis. During the creation of the piece, Lidberg was interested in the thoughts and desires that animate us, and in contrast, the detached way in which nature occurs without thought.

To begin, three of the dancers, masked and in shadow, manipulated the child-like puppet. The fourth dancer brought a balloon to the stage, which momentarily carried the child/puppet away. Mary Poppins came to mind, swinging from her umbrella with glee.

The performers remained masked throughout, a lighter covering over their faces while they danced, and a darker tone with a heavy hood while they engaged the puppet. Snow fell continuously; as winter can be both wistful and somber, so was the piece.

At times, the dancers skipped playfully into rollicking phrases reminiscent of youth. But an eeriness took over when their unison or partnering broke away, and when the puppet shivered with cold, rubbing his hands together for warmth.

That haunted sense continued when snow pushed forcibly from the wings, pressing the dancers back with indifference. Later, the balloon popped, bursting the astonishment of young life.

Neither the puppet or snowfall detracted from the beauty of the movement. Like the first piece, the choreography stood on its own. Eventually, all four dancers swept through individual motifs that melded into a circular unison mimicking the spiral of seasons.

In closing, the force of movement halted swiftly. Before the dancers shed their masks entirely, the lights went to black. While the unveiling could have been cliché, the result felt genuine. Lidberg succeeded in presenting the universal grace of both art and nature, the unrelenting storm of life experience.


 

Oak Groves

by Nola Garret 

Last week mid-March, at my condominium committee meeting, I became aware that more than half the committee members had no way to discuss landscape planting decisions because they had no nouns to identify even the common names of any trees, bushes, or plants.  What they readily admitted was that as they walk though Gateway Park and on our condo’s property what they see is concrete and green stuff.  In the summer some of the green stuff they see that’s not green may be flowers that cost more money.   At the other extreme were two condo committee members who are Master Gardeners (certified by the US Agricultural Extension Service), and they know the common and the botanical names, the hardiness numbers, the light/water needs, and the difference between annuals and perennials of all that green stuff.  And, there I was a vicarious gardener (book shelves filled with gardening books, including Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1976 edition of Herbal) and a poet analyzing the committee’s language crisis while attempting to explain the time line of planting to the seers of green stuff for the Master Gardeners.

During that committee meeting I did what I could by way of translation and interpretation, but what really was needed was Joseph Wood Krutch’s approach as he explains in his Introduction:

Closely regarded, everyone of the individual plants will be found useful, beautiful, or wonderful—and not infrequently all three.  Perhaps the chief charm of the Herbalists (and certainly the one this book would like especially to suggest) is just that they are more likely than the modern scientist to impart a sense of beauty and wonder—both of which the scientist may feel, but considers it no part of his function to communicate.

What I really love about Krutch’s Herbal is that in that wondrous spirit he includes drawings of both weeds and flowers along with tales of trees that are either food sources or poisonous.  It seems as if he thinks of plants as unheard melodies for which there may be many lyrics for each song.

What I think as I walk under the dappled shadows of Gateway Park’s pin oaks is how good it is that pin oaks have no tap roots, otherwise they wouldn’t have been planted here in soil that’s barely three or four feet deep, hauled in to cover the underground parking garages and the four office buildings’ connecting service tunnels that are the pragmatic reason Gateway Park exists.  Otherwise, fifty years later most trees’ deep tap roots would have long ago broken through a host of BMWs and crawled down into Pittsburgh’s rumored fourth river.  Instead what we in downtown Pittsburgh have is an oak grove that’s pruned twice a year so the pin oaks won’t exceed the garage roofs’ weight-bearing limits.  We also have a squirrel habitat, a pigeon hang-out, a sculpture garden, a pedestrian short cut from Penn Avenue to Fort Duquesne Boulevard a backdrop for selfies and wedding party photographs.

And, an oak grove for a local poet to amble through to remember the Welsh folk tune, “The Ash Grove” that she used to sing during Music Assemblies when she attended the Mill Village Grade School, and the same long-lined tune that’s repurposed for several hymns.  Yes, I know that tune is for ash trees rather than oak trees, but in England and Wales ash groves and oak groves are equally magical and/or scared, therefore, suffice for me.  My knowing the names of the trees and of the under story plants and bushes—azaleas, mountain laurel, roses—enlarges and charges the universe of my condo home.

One of my favorite poems, “Names of Horses,” by Donald Hall recounts life as it was lived on his grandparents’ farm when horses were not only the most common mode of transportation, but also the live machines that made the hard work of New England farming possible.  His poem ends

For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground—old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

Hall’s list of those proper nouns—the horses’ names—empowers each reader’s imagination, enlarges each reader’s mind, each reader’s soul.


 

Book Review: THE SPIRIT BIRD by Kent Nelson

 photo e4be8c9f-af43-4ffc-9432-3c181c61e91e_zpsqi1bd6o7.jpg The Spirit Bird
by Kent Nelson
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$24.95

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

The line between reality and imagination is very thin in The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson. This collection of short stories, told from both first and third person point of view, looks at the inner demons within all of us, the beautiful landscapes that reflect the confusion of our minds, and the differences between who we are and who we want to become.

Nelson has a magical way of twisting ordinary descriptions of people and places and making them come alive for the reader. For example in the self titled story, “The Spirit Bird,” a college professor and a student, Eric, venture into the woods to discover more than just a bird. Powerful sentences showcase a tightly wound tension:

I hear splintering, breaking, and I find Eric behind a boulder tearing pieces of wood apart, separating boards nailed poorly together. He’s stacking them in the small clearing. For a moment I think he’s going to build a fire, but the wood is wet and rotten and wouldn’t burn. He’s not piling but throwing it down randomly, throwing it away.

Nelson creates and then quickly destroys the tension between the two central characters in order to reach the dramatic climax. Here the professor understands why she wanted to look for a mysteriously rare bird, and Eric gains a friend despite his past. Also in this story the reader gets a sense of what The Spirit Bird book is all about—an out-of-the-box way of thinking and a desire to transcend the normal.

“Seeing Desirable Things” and “The Path on the Left Hand” are some of the most striking pieces in the book. They set up the main characters, Allen and Myron respectively, to make big life-changing decisions that will reveal more about themselves than what they hope to achieve. Allen will have to decide if another woman, who is not his wife, is able to sexually pleasure him, while Myron will have to choose whether or not to sleep with another man for the first time. As the stories come to a head, the characters’ inner thoughts are often reflected in powerful descriptions of flashbacks and scenery. In certain instances, these descriptions help heighten the tension that pushes the reader further along in the story and creates an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and resolution when completed.

These stories do not just explore a familiar coming out saga or racially charged tale, but instead reach beyond those typical narratives to come up with something even more engaging for the reader to connect with. In “The Beautiful Light,” Glenna works as a car mechanic in a male dominated field. As the pressure from the male workers at her job grows Glenna tries to escape work and the more she ventures farther and farther away from her usual neighborhood. Nelson does a wonderful job of creating the longing and desire for understanding that Glenna so painstakingly needs. Nelson does this through powerful sentences, such as, “Down the street was a boarded-up Blockbuster, the Uptown Florist, Disc-Go-Round, a movie theater. Dozens of wires crossed overhead. Glenna liked being anonymous, but at the same time, she wasn’t invisible. She occupied a place in the world.” Once Glenna meets Helen and starts to break away from her job does she let herself begin to explore her passion for writing and exploration of herself. The story ends with a beautiful description followed by, “Helen stood up, and Glenna did, too, and Helen took her arm.” Here, the reader can interpret the ending in a variety of ways that allows for a closer look at the descriptions, the characters, and the way Nelson paced his narrative that forces the reader to go back through for a second look.

One of the best stories in the collection is “Who is Danny Pendergast?” Here, humor is used as a way to visually represent the desire to be seen as a whole person. In other words, the story starts out with the protagonist, Danny Pendergast, explaining that he sometimes becomes a donkey. He goes from a normal everyday life as the CEO of Darwin Enterprises to being paranoid of becoming a donkey at any moment. Seen by others as a little weird and an outsider, his transformation allows for humorous moments between the woman he’s seeing, Luisa, and his desire to be liked by her. With witty dialogue, scenes of trying to channel his dead parents’ ghosts, and the feelings he begins to associate with his transformation, Danny realizes a pattern has developed. The thrilling climax comes when he sees Luisa again and finally understands why he started to become a donkey. Nelson does a great job of continuing the storyline without being overly sentimental or detracting from the humor of the piece. The raw emotions only help to further a deep connection with the reader and a better understanding of why such an affliction happened to Danny in the first place.

Ultimately, The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson highlights the desire to be whole and a reason to reach for more acceptance from other people and one’s self. Wrapped within many layers of race, religion, and sexual orientation, the book looks at complicated narratives of real life issues and pushes the reader to react to these sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious stories by forming deeper bonds and connections to the characters. Still, at the end of each story the reader will feel a sense of accomplishment while simultaneously trying to puzzle out exactly what happened to each character in the end.


 

Book Review: ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS by Nayomi Munaweera

 photo edab3839-5d51-4b54-91f5-8592586ee0c6_zpscemeg08y.jpg Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera
St. Martin’s Press, 2014
$24.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, has received rave reviews since its initial release in Sri Lanka back in 2012. It’s been published in the United States less than a year, and already its prestige is noted by award-winning authors internationally, as well as stateside critics from Publisher’s Weekly. It won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and short-listed for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. NoViolet Bulawayo, the award-winning author of We Need New Names, said the novel was “…tender, beautiful, and devastating,” a statement I can defend effortlessly.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a fictional work depicting the very real Sri Lankan civil war, which only ended back in 2009. Munaweera’s novel was timely, and provided an intimate look at life in Sri Lanka during this conflict. It focuses on the lives of two young women and their families—Yasodhara, from a Sinhala family, and Saraswathi, from a Tamil family. Two people on the opposite sides of the war, their lives separate and yet connected. Munaweera’s narrative ties them together through tragedy, and shows with fatal accuracy how far-reaching and devastating the consequences of war can be.

Long before the war, Yasodhara tells us of a beautiful island. She describes “beaches [her father] does not know are pristine,” and “an ocean unpolluted by the gasoline-powered tourist boats of the future.” She talks of mango trees, avocados and condensed milk, and the back room where the children gathered and grew up. Munaweera’s prose is poetic, “tender [and] beautiful,” as Bulawayo said; it mimics the intimacy of a memoir beautifully:

                                I am ten and Shiva is at my window, holding an unlit kerosene lamp. “You won’t believe what I’ve found!” he whispers. When I climb out, he pulls me along the side of the house, pushes aside jasmine vines to reveal a dark crevice… I am suddenly blinded, claustrophobia clawing at my throat when he fires up the lamp, and blue walls spring up around us. Such color! Cerulean, turquoise, flashes of emerald, like being swept underwater.

Saraswathi’s tale is not much different. In fact, the lives of the two girls—their families, their dreams, their innocent perspectives on the brewing chaos around them—are almost indistinguishable from one another. Yasodhara, like Saraswathi, is drawn to books and learning. Both are expected to marry well and reproduce, and both have dreams apart from that expectation. And both watch as their home falls apart.

Yasodhara, on the Sinhala side of the conflict, is afforded with the opportunity to flee to America with her sister, Lanka. Saraswathi, on the Tamil side, is not as fortunate. Munaweera tears these women apart, but in completely different ways. Neither is left unscarred by the war, despite the differing paths they take. While Yasodhara is literally torn from her family and place of her birth, Saraswathi’s body is torn apart by soldiers, an event which divides her from her family. Yasodhara enters a loveless, arranged marriage, and Saraswathi enters boot camp to become a Tamil Tiger, a mercenary. Up until this point in the novel, Munaweera does an excellent job keeping the two voices in equal proportion. As Saraswathi slowly slips into madness behind the lines of war; however, readers lose her voice. Her sections become shorter and shorter, like clipped thoughts. This reader wonders why Munaweera would choose to silence Saraswathi in this way, just as she is approaching the end of her life. I wanted to see the terror she had previously experienced as a victim and how that informed her new role as the oppressor. Instead, these sections are mere blips; we see what happens to her, but do not fully experience Saraswathi’s shift from fear, to anger, to total brainwashing and devotion. This change happens very quickly, despite the resilience Saraswathi exhibited earlier in the novel. She says, “I am fearless. I am free. Now, I am the predator,” and suddenly she is murdering people without thought, wishing to take her sister away to become a soldier, and all the while expressing nothing of the woman we grew to know throughout the novel prior. By chapter 11, Saraswathi’s voice is cut to mere sentences beside pages of narrative from Yasodhara; the two are no longer equal, and I am perplexed by Munaweera’s decision to do this.

Indeed, the novel is devastating. As it comes to a close and we see Saraswathi blown apart and Yasodhara’s sister lost in the blast, it is clear that not one soul is left untouched by the war that ravaged the island. The novel’s poetry wears chaos well, and departs to us a haunting experience from a time not soon to be forgotten.


 

Book Review: DAY UNTO DAY by Martha Collins

 photo eabefdb6-8172-4baa-bb09-88a81bda3f9c_zpska7prier.jpg Day Unto Day
Poems by Martha Collins
Milkweed Editions, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate

This April, the Internet will be flooded with legions of poets writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month. Whether or not you decide to answer the NaPoWriMo call, you might do well to pick up Martha Collins’s sixth full-length collection, Day Unto Day. Collins invokes an older source than NaPoWriMo—Philip Pain’s Daily Meditations and Quotidian Preparations for Death, said to be the earliest original verse published in America (1666). Pain wrote four six-line verses each day for sixteen days; Collins wrote one poem every day of one month each year (and she is still writing them—Night Unto Night is in the works). The book takes its title from Psalm 19, “Day unto Day uttereth speech, / and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” In this Psalm, David is full of praise for the world God has created, and deems God’s law “perfect.” But don’t let the title fool you: this is not your ordinary poetry of meditation or praise. The law of this book is attention; it is the “eye always open.”

Day Unto Day consists of six sequences of poems, written over the course of six years. Jean Valentine calls these poems “little lights which sometimes sound like prayer.” Each spare, musical poem is indeed a “little light,” which Collins shines on the mundane, the philosophical, the political, and the cosmic. Collins has said that she set up rules for herself as she wrote—some governing the number of lines in each poem, some governing the repeating patterns. One of the most compelling formal choices is the repeating pattern in the first and fourth sequences, “Over Time” and “Moving Still.” The last word of each poem becomes the first word of the following poem. Thus each poem spins into the next one, carrying forward an image, a sound, a word; the repeated word is a hinge that opens onto the landscape of the next poem. Collins plays freely within this structure, crafting a cyclical, layered meaning that echoes throughout the book.

With its focus on loss, mortality, and the natural world, the first sequence, “Over Time,” seems to shift away from the political engagement of her recent books, Blue Front and White Papers. But near the end of the sequence, the “newsy world” enters in poem #22 in the form of the World Series and partisan politics:

God is not a Republican
Democrat Yankee Red
Sox fan of him or her—

But him is whom our bed

is holding, him my one is home
again, oh bless him keep him safe

this little time that is our life.

God becomes entangled with sports, politics, and the recovery of the speaker’s beloved. Collins offers us life as it is lived, the boundaries around experiences inevitably porous.

The final poem of the first section considers mortality as it loops back to the first line of the first poem in the sequence: “not.” The speaker is keenly aware of her own waning time. However, while Collins gives us the language and image of negation, the speaker’s voice remains crisp and strong: “I’m here, much / less less. Not yet not.” “Not,” a staccato metonym for death, signals the way Collins approaches death at intervals:

Over and over again
and again, time

after time, stone
upon hallowed stone.

More than bones, ghost-
thin skin, I’m here, much

less less. Not yet not.

Reading this book demands that you quiet your mind to hear the “hum of words / under words.” These poems model a way to pay attention to the world through a close examination of a particular image, object, or phrase. Within the structure she has set forth, Collins plays with white space, dropped lines, and a variety of voices and tones. Her unexpected syntax continually engages the reader in making meaning. She is never stingy with her sonic pleasures. For instance, take the lines from the third section, “Under Green,” “creeping phlox on an old grave,” or from the third section, “Coming Through,” “Because we are snow, snow / on bones, snow hearts with snow / veins branching out into stick / fingers.” Because of Collins’s linguistic play, we need the moments in which she touches down to give us a more grounded image: “My love checks / his blood now, wet rubies / on his fingers.”

Emerson wrote, “The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.” We are made aware of this thread connecting all of us, with its potential for good and for terror, perhaps most intensely in this poem:

Centered, surrounded by pines, one
could forget the uncentered world

except for the parallel cables and wires
scratching the landscape, the cloudless sky,

stretching all the way to a vest strapped
to a six-year-old boy who is told that flowers
will spray out if he touches, here, this button.

Collins lets us see her mind at work, attentive to the ebbs and flows of our complicated world, to try to figure out “how to save / what’s been lost oh little world.”

It’s as if each poem in the book is a frame within a series of stop-motion pictures; the overall form stays the same, with slight variations of length, spacing, and structure. Within each poem and sequence, images change and recur, colors weave in and out, speakers lament and praise and question. These poems evoke momentum as much as stillness. They show us how we often are stuck in the same places, while the stuff of our lives recurs, whether it’s ongoing war, the fear of losing one’s parents, or a religious holiday. Isn’t this what we often need, and what drives us to keep a journal, to meditate, or go to therapy—to pay attention enough to see the contours of our quotidian lives so that we might be able to change something? As Collins puts it—“seeing things is changing things.”


 

 

 

Book Review: HABITATION: COLLECTED POEMS by Sam Hamill

 photo 7a97ec38-b442-4e6a-acc8-c2230f2c680d_zps92dlv4bt.jpg Habitation
Collected Poems by Sam Hamill
Lost Horse Press, 2014
$25.00

reviewed by Mike Walker

Sam Hamill has had a long and diverse career as a poet, publisher, editor, and translator—his work as a translator of poetry from ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Greek alone would place him in a rare arena of those who have contributed greatly to expanding our literary sphere over recent decades. As a poet, he has explored the physical and culture landscape of the American Northwest in a way few others have, bringing to his efforts an uncanny eye for not only detail but for what the Japanese in their complex program of traditional aesthetics call “mono no aware,” a concept with no direct analog in English or most European languages, but one centered on the idea that nothing lasts forever. This is a key and intriguing concept for those from any Western tradition: while much of Western religion and culture trumpets the benefit of the eternal, mono no aware is based in the sense of mujo, or the lack of lasting in most things, whether natural or man-made. It is undoubtedly a concept Hamill would be well aware of via his work in Japanese literature, but it is one he seems to locate in the most organic of senses within his explorations of the Pacific Northwest as well. Topical poetry that in the hands of someone else, no matter how gifted, would come across as tragic (in all meanings of the term) becomes something more in Hamill’s approach; he can concern himself with a fire that consumed a skid-row hotel and the effect is completely different from what one would expect, not centered in pathos nor condemnation but in the mujo understanding of how easily things can dissolve—how easily lives, how easily structures, how easily cultures, all may find themselves in ruins, in ashes.

This collection offers something of Hamill’s work that is essential, which is the ability to approach it in a vast anthology. Many of his poems work very well alone or in a multi-author collection, to be sure, but here one is able to get a real feel for the poet, despite Hamill not being an easy man to read in any regard. His poetry is approachable, inviting even, but it can be difficult, it can demand that you read one long poem and then five more to really place that first one where it belongs and garner its full worth. This task is possible with a collection such as Habitation. Poems such as “In the Company of Men” can be approached fully on the beauty of their language or on the separate if connected beauty of their descriptions of natural habitats, but they deserve further inclusion in the scope of work that Hamill seamlessly makes at once autobiographical yet isolated from the poet. Hamill has taught in prisons, an experience that expectedly carries over into his poems, but he doesn’t treat this experience as do many other writers who have taught in prisons, inner-city schools, or other institutions thought to be challenging. In poems such as “The Egg” he is able to write about his father in similar terms, able to talk about memories and experiences in a subdued manner that doesn’t demand attention but instead invites the reader to consider everything on their own terms. However personal his poetry becomes, Hamill retains a deft ability to take a step back at almost all instances, a skill I feel he probably learned as a translator of poetry and perhaps one of the greatest skills we who translate from other languages pick up in our work.

In “Requiem,” one of the longer poems collected here and one dedicated to Kenneth Rexroth (an ambitious and daunting dedication if ever there has been one), Hamill is able to unite much of what we see now and then in his shorter poems, these references to landscape and the muted colors of the Northwest, these inclusions of man’s hand on that landscape in references to things like new houses with their indoor plumbing, this overall stretch to be inclusive yet retain a light hand, as if the words he’s using are only replicas for the meanings of those words—and how acute that truth is when using those words in critical situations. Anyone who knows of the ways in which both Chinese and Japanese replicate meaning in a character, how meaning is built into language like blocks more than in any extant Indo-European language, will see at once where Hamill is coming from, why he knows of the merit in treading lightly.

Nobody knows what love is. Nobody understands the past.

This is from “The Cartographer’s Wedding,” a shorter yet very powerful poem. It’s a line that could just as well be in a torch song or heavy metal rocker from the later 1980s—it’s not exceptional and is in fact expected, trite even, when it stands alone. But in the context of the title, the idea the map-maker is getting married and there is no map for the territory ahead, the idea that folly is basic to love yet the world is vacant without love, that the past is unable to inform despite being the entire reason for a wedding—that tradition cannot serve well the best service it should provide us. All of this puts far more power and depth into this two-page poem than we could even hope, and it carries off its feat with flying colors. Mystics and oracles turn up commonly in Hamill’s poems and they take on the roles they’ve had since their early days in Greek theatre, the roles of soothsayers, of explaining the future, yet no one understands the past, how ironic, considering if there is anything that an oracle actually is good for, it is the legacy it brings forth from its tradition, especially its Greek tradition. The oracle, the mystics who see the planets align, the Three Weird Sisters—all of them really are adept at telling of the past, not the future. The languages Hamill has built his translator’s career around are languages steeped in tradition, ancient and of great value not only for their literary merits but their historical ones. When we come back to the fact that Hamill made so much of his career in the Northwest, we have to contend with another truth: this region of the United States for decades was at once considered under-known, new, removed, remote, but also holding some of the oldest of Native American culture traditions and some of the most-ancient of geological ones. Therefore, the return to mystics, the return to the question of the past, the return to a timeline uncertain, lacking in accurate waypoints, devoid of constant stewardship and predicated on the mythical seems apt.

His joys were neither large nor many.

But they were precise.

In this, in speaking of an old Chinese poet “in the October of his life,” Hamill hones in on something often missing from like-minded poems: that sense of mono no aware, that sense of neither pity nor sorrow but of understanding and gain. A joy precise in a world lacking in certainty and exact joys is a prized thing, even if not great in size, worth, or number.

I have recently started watching an animé called Noragami; I wrote a thesis on architecture in Japanese animé and have long been concerned with the genre as a fan and critic alike, yet Noragami is different.Noragami’s plot tells of a “stray god”—a young god without worshipers or temples—and his regalia, or sword, he uses to slay demons and perform other feats. This sword is not forged of steel, but is the afterlife manifestation of a young teenage boy’s soul—of a soul that departed before its time. So, the animé which for all of its fantasy and cartoon humor actually follows many Shinto and Taoist traditions quite well, is built around the characters of a teenager who is a god without godship and his weapon, which is the soul of an even younger teen. I bring this up in the midst of reviewing Hamill’s poems to make a very clear point: the spiritual conception of Japanese religion and of the place of that religion even today in society is complex and of an outlook very different from Western faiths. While watching this animé and reading Hamill’s poems I kept seeing similar themes appear, often in subtle ways, but certainly present. What is regalia in America or the United Kingdom? It is the formal trappings of a king or university president or bishop. 式服 (Shikifuku) is not regalia, though it translates as such into English. Shikifuku could be a formal scepter of pomp and circumstance but it also, per Shinto beliefs, could be the manifestation of a soul as it is in Noragami with Yukine, the boy transmogrified into a sword. The Chinese in the Taoist tradition speak of the 神器, the fetishes, or holy weapons of the gods, which are of the very same idea. In Hamill’s work, we find though never fully explicated as such, a similar theme: the transient soul becomes etched in the service of others, its flaws their strengths, its immortality the tangible touch of physical world.

But I am dumb. Winter draws in its nets of silver.

The above is as random a line as I could pull out of one of Hamill’s poems, but I wanted it to be this random. I want an appreciation of his language even when separate from its context. This idea—the harmony the Japanese call wabi-sabi—of cohesion found in nature across the board from blade of grass to human life to forged sword (which, again, Noragami reminds us could even be made from an innocent soul) is central to how Hamill writes. It is for him a calling card, an invitation that allows entry into places most of us cannot go, into the response we need to allow at the ready in order to ask if there is evil in the world (this, a question in a poem asked and answered sublimely by Hamill). It is both blessing and curse of Hamill’s writing and his age that he has so many answers ready to his own questions, but overall it is a welcome aspect of his poetry. Also, as I’ve found expectedly with other older poets, there are ample tributes to peers, wishes for the departed, all those issues older people dwell upon that those of us in our youth do not, though as I write this I learned that an airline pilot in his late twenties probably crashed an airliner into a mountainside, taking his life and those of 149 others aboard. Perhaps we all need the somber face Hamill provides at times here, regardless of age.

“life after life after life goes by,” the poet said

When Hamill quotes others, it is oft like this: it is the warrant for his vocation, the reminder that he’s in the right line of business and is one of a long line of distinguished gentlemen plying this trade. He reminds us often, but never in a self-serving nor arrogant manner, of the role of poet in society. He again often turns to Chinese traditions, to places and points in the scope of time where poetry mattered more to society. Hamill is not aloof, but he realizes his own worth. He remarks in a poem of the value in getting poets to translate poetry—not a non-poet translator. He reminds us often, maybe even constantly, of his study of the Orient but he reminds us of such in the best way possible, by showing not saying, by providing a depth of understanding of what he writes. It was when I was watching Noragami and reading his poems and found the Zen aspects most not in those poems that speak of such on surface level, but in the poems that do not when I realized Hamill was, for lack of better term, for real. He was able and adept of bringing the core values we find in writing based in Taoism to life in cases where he was writing of Greece, or of Jesus. As life goes by, Hamill is fixed upon its trajectory. And also, we have to remember, Hamill has translated poetry from Greek—he is very aware of Greece as Greece when he writes of it, but he writes of it nearly as if it isn’t Greece but maybe Honshu as the specter of Asia has followed him to this topic, yet with beautiful, awesome, results.

Overall, Habitation is a greatly impressive collection, though at times due to its sheer volume it can at once overwhelm and depress. Part of my reaction in this manner is probably due to a difference in age and outlook I have from Hamill: I’ve noticed often that collected works by older poets have this effect on me. There’s too much emphasis on departed friends, on other poets they knew, on the wistful in general. It is hard for me, with my interests and approach to life, to connect with some of this though I understand how at their age and station it would be apt. Hamill can pull off tributes better than most though, due to the mono no aware sense you get from his poetry. He can write about loss or passing in a way that retains fully all necessary dignity. That said, many of these poems focus on the past, not the present nor the future, just as I complained of the soothsayers I mentioned when they appear in his work. Everything tells us about the past, and for the past, is not that an unfair share of the attention? When nature is the topic, Hamill is at his best. In “Malbolge: Prince William Sound” he offers us that view of nature we’d hope for in the best of poetry and still a very personal view. In “Blue Monody” he uses the same techniques but due to the personal-historical nature of the foci I find them less compelling, though no less astute and well-crafted.

There is no doubt as to the worth and the scope of the work collected in Habitation. Hamill’s career, despite his many and diverse accomplishments, is still under-known and perhaps this will be the volume to remedy that situation. There is repetition despite the diversity of poems and at times, if you’re reading much of the book at once, that can become tiresome. However, it’s a powerful and very intriguing collection and shines a light on Hamill’s many general talents as a writer, allowing not only an exploration of his poetry but via that poetry also insight into his work as a translator and what a rich background has allowed for these poems in the first place.