Book Review: DRONE STRING by Sherry Cook Stanforth

 photo 12c71526-9610-486f-9d95-d61af4fe36aa_zpscwpduakb.jpg Drone Strings
by Sherry Cook Stanforth
Bottom Dog Press, 2015

Reviewed by Anthony Otten

Anyone who has seen Diane Sawyer’s documentary A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains will understand that Appalachian culture presents some excruciating paradoxes. Sherry Cook Stanforth’s new poetry collection Drone String actually rejoices in the themes of this region’s people, their fatalism and determination, their despair and humor. These poems vary their tunes as skillfully as a dulcimer in a trained hand, focusing on the lives of rural women who are at once proud and cornered by circumstance. Through the collection runs the biography of a woman with a fierce but tender self-consciousness of her heritage.

In an early poem, Stanforth launches a biting defense against prejudice: “My twang too educated for you? And my education / just doesn’t jive at all with your portrait of Rocky Top / You’ll Always Be a barefoot pregnant hilljack daughter…” The book provides a contradictory delight in the way it assails convention and humanizes its subjects even as it revels in confirming some of our cornpone assumptions about Appalachians—celebrating, for instance, the “chicken-chopping mama” whose daughter earns a doctorate.

Stanforth demonstrates an unwillingness to let the reader settle for a monochromatic picture of the futility or comedy of Appalachian life. With a bitter wink of defiance, she relays the story of a mother who kills a crow in her kitchen for fear of its deadly omen, and later tells a young girl to “set your mind to lose whatever you got/in this world.” Yet we find laughter in the same family. A gossipy aunt recounts “that wicked recurring dream / about her gynecologist” while a young daughter, frustrated with ironing, swears she “will buy / permanent press or nothing.”

The later poems display a refreshing boldness to force language past its usual contours, to speak of a storm that “sprayed us blind” or time “pooling into minutes.” These verses have a welcomed sobriety to them, which a few of the exuberant, breathless pieces earlier in the book are lacking; they also descend into the darker pockets of Appalachian life. The misery of an abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend resolves shockingly with the slash of a “lucky slice / of glass.” The “keenings” of coal miners echo in the hills where they perished, “reminding folks that / losing repeats itself stone by stone / acre by acre.”

A common thread among Stanforth’s works is their comfort with earthier realities—in particular, death—and their eagerness to challenge readers who shun them. The collection’s opening poem, about a woman discovering the shards of a skull “rippled gray / by water’s slick tongue” in a creek, foreshadows this concern. A little girl encounters the life cycle by watching a cicada struggle in a spider’s web. “Worms and wildflowers,” we hear, would make a better fate for a corpse than being “sealed up / neatly” in a coffin, “no hint / of decay.” The collection’s finest piece traces the history of a knife from its discovery near a murder scene to the moment it was first given as a gift, a play on chronology that achieves a deep pathos.

Stanforth writes at her best in spare narrative poems like the latter. The occasional nostalgic ode to tough grandmothers, whether they are decapitating poultry or beating raccoons with a hoe, could have benefitted from a lighter dose of sentiment. Altogether, though, the collection steers away from romanticizing these hardscrabble lives.

In Drone String the reader will find a seasoned and sassy personality, assertive of her roots yet unencumbered by illusion. “Go ahead and roll your eyes,” she dares, “at the way I wrap my / mountain identity around me like a crazy quilt forged / stitch by stich by some withered up sooth-saying holler / witch.” At the same time we meet a writer willing to uncover “everything you refuse to see” about a culture plagued with social problems and endowed with a generous heart.


Book Review: DOUBLE JINX by Nancy Reddy

 photo 0782e9b0-e225-4554-8b33-1938167d404e_zpsxjxovbbu.jpg Double Jinx
by Nancy Reddy
Milkweed Editions, 2015

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

What if Eve told the story? That’s a question raised by Nancy Reddy’s poem, “Inventing the Body.” Exploring the discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus, the earliest known hominid, Reddy asks, “Did she feel / the tender humming jumplily, catfish, / the rapid flare as she lit / on the precise right name?” Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer; this daughter of Eve is never allowed Adam’s powers of signification.

That glory is left to the team of male paleontologists who stumble upon her remains. “Her bones become a body / in their hands. Touched, / she breathes again.” In Reddy’s debut poetry collection, selected by Alex Lemon for Milkweed Editions’ National Poetry Series, even the ancestral mother of women is subjected to the Double Jinx all women face while living in a man’s world. Or, as Lemon writes, “her poems… unravel and embody the seething mystery, the metamorphosis, the inherent violence in womanhood,” “the brutality of being the girl not chosen by the boy, as well as the cruelty of being the girl who is chosen.”

Boys are not quite the center of Reddy’s collection—that honor is reserved for her fellow women—but they keep coming up. The girls are defined by them, seen by them, pursued and spurned by them, and ultimately contorted into paper doll versions of themselves. The sources Reddy returns to—American history, popular literature, science, fairy tales and folklore—allow her to turn the traditional narratives of womanhood on their heads. Here, women are wholly women again, trying their best to escape the restrictions of marriage, their family’s expectations, the space cut out for them in society.

Reddy’s reinventions of famous female characters always force her readers to see these stories in a new way. What if Little Red were abandoned by her mother? What if the prince never again came looking for Cinderella? But for all their strength of craft, these poems seem to exist uncomfortably within their predecessors’ old parameters. The poems that don’t rely on familiar stories and outright moralizing, those that seem to come from Reddy’s personal history, are the strongest of the collection. In these, she is able to take to task the damaging aspects of femininity, and, for that matter, masculinity, with greater specificity.

“Why the McKean County Lifeguards Left Town” revisits the mire of adolescence at an inland swimming hole. “When a girl went out into the water there, you / couldn’t say for certain / what would seize her.” Taught by their mothers all the joys of swimming, the young women quickly tire of Heimlich practice and recreated beaches. “We gassed up our cars and hightailed it for the coast. / Before our mothers / could call us to our dinner tables, we sped off / down the forest highway— / its logging trucks, its bait and beer shops, already / going out of season.”

This fear of expiration carries throughout the collection. The beauty queen deposed by middle age, the spinster, the other woman who overstays her welcome—Reddy writes an elegy for each of them and the ways they are not allowed to overcome their stories. As she shows, everyone loses in this culture… even the men. Fathers prone to violence, husbands ignoring their wives to gaze dumbly at unattainable women—the confines of femininity, masculinity, monogamy, heterosexuality.

In the end, the freedom Reddy’s speaker finds is to be complicated and unapologetic. She masturbates to depictions of Christ, “hung there / an object lesson in desire.” To a gone-away husband, she laments, “I was good for you. I was on / my best behavior.” She waits in the window for a strange man outside and “when he lifts her nightdress— / she won’t say no, won’t be sorry.” This voice rings dissonant to everything its parents ever taught. Woman, finally reinvested with creative power, begins her own imperfect story and waits to see the ending.

“My Love, / my Frankenstein, I made you up. I built a model lover,” she declares.

When you loved me
you called me on the telephone. Now I stitch a voice box
from cable and string. When I can figure out this radio,
its glitchy dials and rusted-out switches, I’ll make you sing.

Book Review: LANDSCAPE WITH FEMALE FIGURE by Andrea Hollander

 photo 3ef2523a-7c76-452b-8fa3-8bdb90d1e7df_zpsjnqhjbpz.jpg Landscape with Female Figure: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2012
Poems by Andrea Hollander
Autumn House Press, 2013

Reviewed by Bill R. Scalia

Andrea Hollander’s book Landscape with Female Figure is comprised of 27 new poems and selections from three previous books (Women in the Painting, 2006; The Other Life, 2001; and House Without a Dreamer, 1993).  Given the breadth and scope of Hollander’s work, the selections are notable; the consonant themes are duplicity, betrayal, and the reconstitution of belief: in love, self, and language.  Hollander works these themes not as cause and effect, but as aspects of one another: duplicity (of desire, of language) leads to betrayal; as well, betrayal is worked by duplicity (a violation of trust).

In Hollander’s anthropology, humans are essentially constituted of language and desire.  She suggests that thought (desire) precedes language, and that language names desire.  However, language, due to its nature, is always in the process of unsaying itself as it says what it qualifies; for example, language unsays desire (qualifies the subject as subject), as opposed to unqualified desire existing for itself, in absolute relation to its subject.  Because a word is not the thing it names (the relationship is associative, not indicative), language shifts perception, identity, subject, and object.

Desire necessitates relationship, which in turn necessitates language.  Meaningful relationships are qualified by trust; in a marital relationship, for example, the benefit of giving yourself wholly to another person, making yourself wholly available, is also a surrender of your self-protection.  The trust is that a partner who has the means to hurt you will choose not to do so, and vice versa.  Nothing less than human society is built on this kind of trust.  Hollander writes, in “Woman and Husband,”

When I first conceived him in my life
I craved the softness of his voice, his eyes
that penetrated mine.  Disease
is made of less.

The break in the third line is crucial; with that choice Hollander associates sex with disease by isolating the terms in a single line.  This is typical of Hollander’s craft; she is attentive to the shifting semantic fields of her terms and allows them to flow into each other (as in the example of penetrated and disease, above).

Similarly, in the poem “Black”:

What little she has known of passion.  It takes in
everything, seduces the most innocent.
Only road kill seemed to own that road: skunk, skunk,
armadillo, possum, possum, possum. Passion

travels in the dark — the animal
we do not truly know, the one
we never pet . . .

Hollander’s tally of victims in the fourth line includes, both alliteratively and symbolically, passion as a death on that road.  But if passion is a kind of death (in terms of seduction of the innocent), it is also fundamental to life, as she indicates in “When She Named Fire”:

It was a sound
she uttered, not a considered thing, nothing
her mind did.  It was a sound
that burned her throat to come out
and announce itself for the thing
burning outside her
where the trees had been down for years . . .

When she named the sun, she didn’t think
of fire at all.  Sun, she claimed,
because it was big and unexplainable,
a oneness that she loved
for its ability to command
the whole sky and the earth too — . . .

She didn’t name the moon at all.
That was the name it gave itself.
At night she heard it call.

She thought she gave love’s name
to love, that beating thing she could not
still. She might have called it bird.  Or fire again
for fire inside that gives no light
but burns and burns and does not
stop until she touches
what she loves, and then it only burns
again and makes her want
to name it something more.

Hollander’s strategy is to reimagine a common creation myth to highlight on the eternal presence of desire.  In Genesis 2:20 Adam gives names to the animals, but Hollander grants Eve a more difficult task.  When an animal is named, it remains in itself unchanged; naming an animal doesn’t change its essence.  But Eve names fire, and Eve’s fire (as we know from the correlations in Hollander’s other poems) is desire.  Eve knows, fundamentally, that when desire is named it becomes a subjective totality that affects everything it touches; when desire is embodied, it becomes seductive (which in Hollander’s equivocation is always duplicitous).  Desire is contagious, and according to Hollander’s mythos is not sated until fixed on an object — but only to burn again.  Her pitch-perfect closing lines — makes her want / to name it something more — is also a condition of Hollander’s semantically overdetermined terms that fail to qualify (or better, fail in the fact of qualification).  As well, the lines set up a repeating condition, the motivating consumption that is desire; or at least, a desire that is named and therefore fixed on an object.  This naming, an ongoing concern in Hollander’s work, is perhaps best expressed in her important poem “Longing”:

I say this: if words could be laid down,
If they could be held,

my longing would end.
But words are not what they say.

They echo the sound
of a voice, a remnant, itself

an echo.

Such is the poet’s despair:  that which is fundamental to human life and society, that which names what we most want, and need is, at best, only nearby, an echo of an echo.

In the poem “Anniversary,” from the new group of poems, Hollander writes:

Last night I set the dining room table
he’s never seen.  He’s never seen
this apartment or the street where I live.

The duplication contained in the second line accentuates the absent mate.  Likewise, the end stopped stanza asserts a matter of fact statement of loneliness.  However,

The river light brightened as the moon rose.
I watched that.  Breathed in the fruity redolence
of the chardonnay.  Sipped.  I ate a chicken breast

marinated in champagne and limes.  I ate white rice
and fresh green beans from my neighbor’s garden.
I ate alone and wanted nothing.

The brightening moon (the feminine image of the moon recurs frequently in this collection), the reportorial list of the dinner menu, the introduction of neighbors, and even the frothy lightness of the expression fruity redolence suggests a woman far from despair.  But, as is typical of Hollander’s craft, even the assertive images may be read two (or more) ways.  The speaker may want nothing because she is restored to herself.  Or, she may in fact want nothing, that is, no / thing.  Or, she may want nothing because the desire to want has deserted her.  This last idea is perhaps reinforced by the poem’s last line, another of Hollander’s fatalistic declarations:

Whatever comes next will happen anyway.

Again, while this sounds like Hollander’s fatalism at work, it might also be a mature resignation not to the inevitable (loss, betrayal) but to the flow of human life that, finally, has not assured her despair but sharpened her sense of self.  In any case, the only assurance of her resignation in the line is that language, and her orientation to the world made of language, is always uncertain.

Hollander approaches this concern from the perspective of the writer in “Writing Studio,” one of the strongest poems of the new work. She begins by comparing writing poetry to planting a newly plowed field, watching crows feeding on seeds.  Then:

Do not fool yourself.
Do not think yourself
some all-powerful god
free to invent the world
according to your whims.
You are a watcher
at the edge, a gleaner.
After the harvest is over,
you may take what you can,
but only after the crows
are done.

This is the most clearly wrought statement of her methodology.  The poet doesn’t create the world, but observes it and feeds on its leavings.  Hollander articulates a sort of poetic deism here.  As well, in terms of the dominant themes of the book, and particularly the restructuring of the self after the loss of innocence, this is the poet’s most mature vision: it is a fatalism that does not necessarily invoke despair.

Art is, fundamentally, the expression of the essential nature (and, in the case of poetry, ontology) of its materials, wrought by the artist.  Hollander’s poems are crafted such that at times her mechanisms are clearly on display; with the poems she has selected for this book, her material is the duplicitous essence of language — the ability to say more than one thing at once (for example, in “Wood Thrush,” It doesn’t surprise me that the male can sing / two notes at once; or, in “Delta Flight 1152,” It’s so easy, all you must do / is answer this man’s questions with truths / you’ve just invented), or the ability of language to not say anything at all.  Consider her poem “Wander”:

What we don’t know we don’t know,
so accept it.  If your mother wandered

when your father was stationed in France
during the war before you were born,
before you were even conceived, so be it.

The tautology of the opening lines betrays a casual fatalism, too generally stated to be of much use to the speaker other than mere pacification.  The next stanza localizes the information behind the tautology, but note that Hollander does not use this information to change the endless cycle of the tautological structure.  That is, specific information is contrary to the un-provability of the tautology; but for Hollander, the tautological condition is necessary, keeping with the ongoing theme in her work that what is necessary is not always what is true (and vice versa).  Later in the poem she writes:

Your job is to be the daughter,
to stay open to where you are,

your ear toward the glistening insects
that draw your eye to the wild azaleas

The pronoun indicates the speaker and her role in her relationship with her mother, as well as her understanding of herself.  She conflates the “I” with “eye,” centralizing her perception of her role; she exists insider a relationship and outside of it as well (a situation that is echoed in the opening tautology).

These insects must be honeybees heavying
with nectar — so many lifting in and out

of the wild azaleas you can almost smell their
desire.  Wild like your mother’s may have been.

Like your husband’s was.  But you don’t know

In clarifying the sexual imagery as well as her perception of it, Hollander comments on both aspects of her condition.  And later:

You sit on the porch

of this emptying house and think
whatever you think. . . .

Your job was to be the wife and mother,

the daughter.  To be whatever you are now.
The moon has its own job.  The house

will fill again.  Perhaps you are tired
of watching the bees.  Of noticing how

the petals of the azaleas strain upward
to right themselves after the bees

have finished with them.  Tired
of the questions that repeat themselves

like the fat predictable moon, and the doubt
that manages, no matter what the truth is,

to never run out.

Hollander determines — better, she allows full determination to occur — of the companion terms heavying and emptying (sexual imagery; family / children / domesticity; relational fulfillment and expectation) and creates dualities that again echo the tautology in the opening stanza.  The doubt of the last line is a counterbalance to truth, to knowing; this poem, like many in her section of new poems, does not resolve because it cannot resolve.  Hollander explores the ephemeral nature of language to inscribe the ephemeral nature of desire / sexual complication / social instability / the ineffability of language.  The tautological condition, then, is best suited to describe the ineluctable fact in Hollander’s poetry:  that language cannot qualify the truth of our roles and desires, a fact we either endlessly combat or reluctantly accept.  But the final resolution is that language is all we have — which is, of course, no resolution at all.

Hollander resigns herself, in “The Other Life,” to the acceptance of unfilled desire: in this case the desire for a more exotic, more fulfilling life than the speaker has lead: The Other of the title is Levinas’ “Other,” the recognition of the personhood (we might say the soul) in another human, but Hollander takes the idea a step further: in a woman separated from her sense of trust (indeed, her sense of self), she sees the “other” in herself.  Even as the poet qualifies life with the image of a scarf, and then further removes the scarf image by qualifying that as perfume, the poet is herself two removes from who she once was, or perhaps once wished to be:

The life you wish you had lived
inhabits the lavender scarf
you lift now and then

from the dresser drawer.
Like perfume, it invades

every room in your house

with possibilities
until your body is filled —

that body
anyone can touch.

The availability of the body is as well the poet’s desire for the availability of herself to herself.  The “Other Life” is thus necessary, and is, as she writes,

. . . the life you covet and protect,
the one you invent and invent

because it invents you back.

The manifold life in this poem is part of Hollander’s anthropology, at least as it describes a person separated traumatically from herself.

“The Other Life” appears roughly at the midpoint of the book, and given the repetitions in the last stanza, we might despair of the poet ever finding grounds for a reintegration of her sense of trust with her experience of the world.  But by the end of the book that process seems to have, in a sense, begun.  At the end of the book Hollander’s work becomes more focused on a summation of what she’s learned in poems with the revealing titles “What I Want,” “Advice,” and “Dawn.”  In “What I Want,” she writes,

. . . I want

to change this longing if I can.
I want to stop discounting
what I am.  I want whatever’s out there —
perhaps a word, perhaps a man — to part
that silence,

to clear the road ahead,
to signal dogs and rabbits,
to want oncoming traffic
that someone mean and tired of longing
is speeding down this forlorn
road . . .

The closing poem, “Dawn,” is a poem of liminality, a poem of transition states, the poet’s reawakened desire to be between absolutes, between (we might say) the present and future tense of existence:

I want to know the precise moment
today becomes yesterday —
tomorrow, today. . . .

I need to know so urgently exactly how
the woman who lies awake at night
becomes the sleeper, then the dreamer,

then the dream.  I want to know why
the words I am saying seem to be spoken
by somebody else. . . .

I have to know what it’s like
the moment that ice is not ice anymore
but isn’t yet water.

In seeking the answers to these questions the poet seeks, as she writes, not scientifically / but with my whole body.  The speaker has reentered the world of transitional states, of spaces between words, feelings that cannot be scribed without being unfairly qualified.  Hollander alludes to distinctions between kinds of loss and species (though not degrees) of pain, specifically pain which betrays all of our illusions, even that of the signification of truth in language.  But I would contend that, particularly in the poems centered on betrayal, the distinction doesn’t matter.  When trust is violated, the pain reaches to the core of what and who we are.  When this violation is evoked in language the assumptions we carry about language — that it says what it means — reveals itself as the eggshell veneer upon which human society rests.  (None of us live our daily lives at the semiotic level.)  At the level of pain (which is also the failure of identity) the poet describes, the niceties of qualification and analytic assessment is simply irrelevant.  A drowning woman doesn’t need a lecture on hydrodynamic theory (or semiotics); she needs a life preserver. Only then can she begin to learn to swim.



by Nola Garrett

 Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Matthew Arnold, 1851

Since the attacks in Paris, I’ve been watching too much television and enduring too many condo repairs and heat failures. None of which are conducive to writing. I’m attempting with this essay to forgive myself for the long silence.

Except for a change of planes, I’ve been to Paris only once for one day during a 2007 14-day summer cruise around the British Isles for me and my last husband’s 25thanniversary. Our side trip to Paris was the last stop before our ship’s final docking. Because of my husband’s left temporal lobe dementia, he had recently taken early retirement, and we had carefully chosen each side trip so that he would not become overwhelmed with its length and complexity. We both knew the full day Paris excursion would stretch his stamina, but thought that because so much of the trip would be bus ride time from the ship to Paris and back that he could rest on the bus. We were wrong.

The bus ride began early that morning with his discovering that he had forgot to bring his camera. I offered to let him use mine, which was the same brand as his though not nearly as hi-tech. Though he had given me that camera as a gift, he refused to use such a lowly piece of machinery. He wouldn’t even look out the bus window as we made the two hour drive from the French coast to the city of light. Thinking he would recover, I let him be. Let him rest. I was amazed how different from England everything in France was from the electric transmission lines to the farm lay outs that were less than 30 miles away.

Our first stop in Paris was a downtown department store, about the size of Pittsburgh’s currently empty Macy’s store, only larger because Paris blocks were at least three times larger than Pittsburgh’s. We had an hour and a half to shop, and I shopped while my husband glumly followed me. When it was time to go back to the bus, I couldn’t remember which door we had come in which is almost always a problem for me because I have no sense of direction. My husband had an excellent directional sense that I trusted, so I was not alarmed. But this time he was even more lost than I. Of course, the French clerks refused to speak English to us or give us directions, which didn’t surprise me, but enraged my husband. I decided to just go outside and circle the huge store until we found the waiting bus; we were the last people to board. And, when we came to our next tour stop at the Eifel Tower, my husband refused to leave the bus for fear of getting lost again and missing the bus. I could see that he was so upset, that to reassure him I stayed with him on the bus. I was able to see a few iron girders and a souvenir stand, not the storied Paris view.

Our next and last stop was a 90 minute, dinner barge trip down the Seine. This time my husband left the bus. We made our way to our assigned seats at one of the tables for 12, arranged along both side of the barge. My husband’s seat was on the aisle at the head of the table facing the river, mine to his right on the side.  Even before the barge left the dock, our tour guide’s loud speaker spiel began, and we were served wine. Because of his medications, my husband refused wine, but somehow wordlessly conveyed how insulted he was to be offered wine. I chose a glass of white wine. Meanwhile, the noise level of multiple table conversations rose to drown out the tour guide’s information. At some point the barge’s photographer snapped our individual portraits. We were served a three course meal, including the best chicken breast that I have ever tasted, but because my husband does not like chicken, he took this as a further French insult. Then, came one of those moments when while dining, an entire room quiets.

My husband arose from his chair to shout, “I hate Paris!”

Quickly, the woman sitting next to me smiled while whispering to me, “Sometimes, I find it more enjoyable to travel alone.”

I looked around. Everyone kept eating and resumed their conversations. I assessed that my husband was safe, that there was nothing further at that moment I could do to help him; so I emotionally stepped aside, and on this last and only day I would ever be in Paris, I chose to enjoy Paris—the colorful houseboats, the huge cathedrals, lovers walking along the river, picnickers, women simply dressed, yet beautiful, and bridges leading over the Seine to a future none of us could ever guess.

A half hour later, the photographer returned to sell us our photos, and with my own money I bought both photographs. My husband’s was that of a horribly frightened and angry man, and mine was of the happiest picture of me that I had ever seen, the author photo I eventually used for my second book of poems—The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball.

When we came back to our Florida home, my husband, who had always been forthright about discussing his left temporal dementia, refused to speak of our Paris incident. For the first time he began attempting to hide his dementia, and he refused to go for his yearly dementia assessment with his psycho-neurologist. Gradually, he quit talking with me. Out of fear and frustration, I enrolled in care-giver therapy in the hope that I could learn how to better care for him and for myself which further enraged him. One of the first things I learned in care-giver therapy was the name for what had happened to my husband and ultimately to our marriage that day in Paris—catastrophic reaction—perhaps, also an accurate term to describe what happened in Paris in November of 2015.


Book Review: BEAUTIFUL ZERO by Jennifer Willoughby

 photo 4042b9ef-b604-49c9-9f58-b60394dff9ae_zpsbacgrk0u.jpg Beautiful Zero
by Jennifer Willoughby
Milkweed Editions, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Today, late January, the sky opened up and let the sun break onto the snow. On top of a mountain in Claysburg, Pennsylvania, I watched as skiers peeled their clothes off; their bare skin blushed against the slopes. This moment matters, and maybe only because I let it, which is something the poet Jennifer Willoughby understands and explores. She writes: “If January is two trains / traveling in opposite directions, I am not / on either train. Maybe if I go away, I’ll / embrace what it means to be here.”

Willoughby’s collection, Beautiful Zero, won the 2015 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions and the award is well deserved. Her poems are compact, independent little worlds, all equally weird and bright. It’s almost impossible to pick the lines apart, for each letter is carefully chosen. These poems are cosmos, bursting inward: “Life is / my new enemy but life / vibrates. Sometimes you / can’t take your hands off it.”

I struggle with language poetry. Frequently I feel that these poems sacrifice meaning for the sake of sound. When I’m lost in Beautiful Zero I’m never truly lost, for Willoughby interrupts her claustrophobic stanzas with lines that echo throughout the collection, like “Just because you know me doesn’t mean I am real” or “In the lemony heat, love brings love to whomever / refuses to fall to her knees,” and then, “There’s / nothing we can’t replace with something else.” Too, Willoughby plays with words in fresh ways, creating verbs as “we pass out cigarettes and horray our / way home” and “boys jellyfish our alley on their way to oblivion.” Because of these linguistic choices, I remain in whatever twisty, self-interrupting moment Willoughby brings me to.

Dark isn’t the correct adjective, but heavy seems appropriate to describe Beautiful Zero’s overall tone. The narrator is simultaneously direct and convoluted, her sentences abrupt yet her thoughts never completely over. I don’t feel comfortable in any of these poems, but sometimes we have to stop being comfortable. This collection reflects the wackiness, the hollowness and dimensions of our world, and perhaps more, of those who exist in it. Often the narrator turns to the trees, who “treat me like fire,” and “The trees don’t know if / this will ever get better.” Even nature gets caught by the strange, which is somehow both isolating and comforting.

The title, Beautiful Zero, reflects this—the idea that nothingness can be beautiful, that the lowest point of our lives or the lowest part of this world can still be worthwhile. The sun can appear in January and we can reveal our summer skins. And we can dream and “Because I dreamed, I was allowed my wounds. / Maybe we found a way to survive.”



 photo 9780472036325 1_zpsnurrz3m0.jpg From Sorrow’s Well:
The Poetry of Hayden Carruth

edited by Shaun T. Griffin
University of Michigan Press, 2015

Reviewed by Derek Anderson

From Sorrow’s Well: The Poetry of Hayden Carruth edited by Shaun T. Griffin offers an interesting and fresh approach to literary criticism. Griffin defines four main personas of Hayden Carruth’s collected work—that is, Carruth as the Realist, the Jazzman, the Survivor, and the Innovator. The book is divided into four sections that are each devoted to one of these characteristics and which all work to expand upon them through a number of different mediums, including interviews with Carruth, critical analyses of his work, reviews of his poetry, and even poems written about and for him. In the introductory interview (conducted by David Weiss), Carruth remarks that “the Great American Novel is never going to be written, or it’s going to be a compendium of a hundred novels written by a hundred different people.” This compendium is precisely what Griffin tries to capture within the collection, offering the reader a number of different voices which all attempt to define the qualities that have made Carruth such a canonical yet overlooked figure in poetry.

In the first section of the book Griffin includes Douglas Unger’s essay “On Hayden Carruth: The Poetics of Social Utility.” In his essay, Unger discusses Carruth’s ideas of “poetry of use” and the reception of this idea among his contemporaries. He writes:

[Carruth] insisted poetry should be of use [sic], that, above all, poetry should make sense [sic], both common and uncommon sense . . . writers should make use of each other and be available to other writers . . . together, we can find strength against a world that in the main is hostile to poets and writers and seeks our destruction.

He then elaborates on this poetic idea, saying that “Carruth struggled to balance this sense of social utility against the distressing cultural vacuity of American culture and its marketplace disenfranchisement of poets and literary writers from playing impactful roles in society.” While Unger’s essay at times borders on being polemical, he nonetheless effectively commemorates Carruth’s sense of political utility and community, going so far as to include personal anecdotes of his time spent with Carruth.

Later, in the section devoted to Carruth as the Jazzman, Griffin expands on Unger’s ideas of Carruth as a poet of utility by including Matt Miller’s essay “A Love Supreme: Jazz and the Poetry of Hayden Carruth.” Miller focuses on Carruth’s understanding of jazz and improvisation, calling his work a “jazz-inspired poetic vision.” His focus in this essay moves past Carruth’s ideology, bringing into account the specific variations of form found throughout his work. For example, Miller analyzes specific sections of collections such as Asphalt Georgics, pointing out how fluidly Carruth’s poems move between strict, formal syllabics and informal colloquialisms that he overheard in the rural settings he spent so much time in. He argues that “Carruth is able to marshal all of the powers he has developed—his mastery of multiple forms, his spontaneity, his precise lyricism—and set them free in service of a poetic vision.” This same formal approach to understanding Carruth’s musical influences is developed in a later interview between Carruth and Sascha Feinstein in which Feinstein asks Carruth about who his jazz idols have been and how they have specifically impacted his writing.  And so we see how Griffin structures this collection, showing us a number of different aspects of what went into Carruth’s work and a number of different voices expanding on how those aspects operate within, and interact with, his poetry.

Early in the collection, in a review of Brothers, I Loved You All, Geoffrey Gardner comments that when reading Carruth’s poetry he “sometimes become[s] furious that for years and years and years, longer than [he] can remember, our poetry has been read by virtually no one but poets and college students and their teachers.” Griffin’s assembly of prose and poetics works to push against this idea of Carruth’s placement. Not only do these essays point to Carruth’s many intellectual triumphs as a writer, but also to the way in which his work can be read and interpreted through a number of different lenses, begging us to appreciate and access his style in a wholly new and stimulating way. This collection is not just an examination of Carruth’s poetry, but an examination of how poetry has changed, how critics have responded to rapidly evolving collections, and, above all, how Carruth situated himself within these changing aesthetics and responded to them.