by Dawn Potter
Today, most of us automatically equate narrative with prose: stories, novels, memoirs, plays, and biographies that depend on skillful narrative control. This is understandable because many successful poems ride on the strength of their word choice, imagery, or cadence rather than their superior character development or plot construction. Nonetheless, as a narrative form, poetry predates prose by thousands of years. Poetry and storytelling are synonymous in the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, and many, many others. Even by the nineteenth century, when the novel began to dominate European and American literature, narrative poets such as Coleridge, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Browning remained enormously popular with a reading public hungry for stories.
A few contemporary narrative poets, such as Anne Carson and Rick Mullin, carry on this ancient storytelling tradition. But more often poets seem to turn to anecdotes, or brief narrative vignettes, rather than long, complex, plot-driven tales. Character development—particularly the first-person I character—is the linchpin of many of these anecdotal poems, which, in the guise of memoir scraps, informal conversations, or journal entries, lure a reader’s attention toward the I.Sometimes everything in an anecdotal poem seems to circle that central focus. In “The Quest,” for instance, Sharon Olds recounts the horror of briefly losing track of a child in the city. Yet even though the poem is filled with references to the daughter, the I character is its emotional core. The poem is constructed around how I feels, not how the daughter feels.This is my quest, to know where it is,the evil in the human heart. As I walk home Ilook in face after face for it, Isee the dark beauty, the rage, thegrown-up children of the city she walks as achild, a raw target.
“The Quest” blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Is the I really Olds herself? Or has Olds invented an I who is disguised as herself? In “Self-Portrait as Van Gogh,” Peter Cooley plays more explicitly with these questions of character identity:Before a mirror at midnight I compose myself,donning the gold straw hat I tilt at just his angleto assure the vision will stay caged.I squint, ruffle my beard, henna the tips.
Cooley’s poem serves as a good reminder: although poems have the unique ability to make us believe in them as truth, we should never assume that the I in a poem is anything other than the poet’s invention. Even the intimate, eloquent, heartbreaking I in Keats’s “Bright Star” is a character framed within a work of art. He’s not the poet but the poet’s creation.In other words, characters, like so many other elements of poetry, can seem solid and simple even as they lead a poet to explore strange territory and make unanticipated disclosures. Like her relationships with real people, a poet’s relationship with her characters can be confusing, resentful, admiring, even dangerous. Yet she is also their creator and manipulator and thus remains separate and, to a certain degree, ambivalent about their behaviors and motivations.In an essay about Shakespeare, Auden wrote about this necessary detachment: “A dramatist’s characters are, normally, men-of-action, but he himself is a maker, not a doer, concerned not with disclosing himself to others in the moment, but with making a work which, unlike himself, will endure, if possible forever. . . . What a man does is irrevocable for good or ill; what he makes, he can always modify or destroy.” In other words, as my sons used to say with exasperation when they discovered that once again I’d borrowed bits and pieces from our shared lives to create characters and a situation, “Mom! You exaggerate everything!” For when she’s creating characters, a poet ruthlessly borrows from all the material she has at hand: her own internal motivations, her family’s actions, her neighbor’s peccadilloes. Sometimes the characters that emerge closely resemble the borrowed material. Sometimes the borrowed material becomes imaginative fodder for an invented persona.Yet in poetry, it’s not the character per se who charms, amuses, or repels the reader. It’s the way in which the poet uses words to construct that character. As D. H. Lawrence noted, without his “language so lovely,” even Shakespeare’s most famous creations would be intolerable company:
And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folk’s whoring!
[From another chapter-under-construction for my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
by Jim Danger Coppoc
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it
“In this class, and in the literary life in general, there are two rules, and two rules only—one, have something to say; two, don’t screw it up. These are the roots of both content and craft.”
-me, every semester on the first day of English 306/406, Intro to Creative Writing: Poetry
I have a good life. I married my dream girl, my friends and family are amazing, I have a good and growing audience for my writing and my music, I get to travel to places I used to only dream about, and I’m able to make a decent living teaching and doing only the things I love. This is not to say that there are no hard times, but in perspective, the ups in my world are bigger, better and more numerous than the downs by a long shot.
This, of course, makes it very hard to write good poems
See, when others teach poetry, they often teach that the center of a good poem is the image, or the metaphor, or the diction, or some other element of craft. I have never believed that for a second—not even during the grad school years, when I was required to accept at face value all the craft-based wisdom that dripped from my assigned teachers and mentors. This might sound like heresy, but I don’t believe the center of a good poem has anything to do with craft—I believe it has to do with conflict. Tension. The agon at the center of the Greek protagonist and antagonist. Paint me a picture as beautiful as you like—it’s not going to grab me until I see a little darkness behind the Mona Lisa smile.
Of course, there are moments. The poet (and my friend) Jack McCarthy died recently, and his passing touched me in such a way that I could not sleep until I’d written him a poem. My wife had feelings for another man, and I’m two poems and four songs into that experience already. Sometimes I remember the times my life was more of a struggle, and if I can dig my way deeply enough into those memories, works like my long poem Manhattan Beatitude are born. But these moments don’t erase the fact that on a day-to-day basis I am struggling to come to a place where I have something to say. Where I can write without violating my own first rule.
So now we’ve come to this blog, and to the direction I’m taking it. To accountability.
Each month, I plan to try a new experience or exercise to kickstart my poetic self. A way to dig back into the agon without having to destroy my life in the process. Live like Ward Cleaver—write like Sylvia Plath. I don’t have these exercises laid out yet, and I’d love any suggestions you (should I be forward enough to call you “Dear Reader”?) could offer, but I assume the best moves will come to me when the time is right.
This month, I chose to dive deeply into my domestic life, instead of rebelling against it. I’ve begun a writing project with my 3-year-old son, Fionn, one of the lights of my life. He supplies the content, and I supply the line breaks. We’re up to 5 poems now—my favorite so far is our first, where Fionn takes on the complex dynamics of a blended family. It begins with a few words about our cat.
Lilypad likes sunbeams
Lilypad likes cold beans
Lilypad likes to snuggle
and Lilypad likes my mom
What kind is your mom?
My mommy is Mommy
but my brother calls her “Jen”
My brother’s first mom is at work
I’m going to draw pictures for them both
I don’t remember
“What kind is your mom?” Agon. Tension. Beauty. And 3-year-old Fionn never had to set foot inside an MFA program to get it.
Blowout, poems by Denise Duhamel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series, 2012. $15.95.
Reviewed by CL Bledsoe
Duhamel charts the rise and fall and aftermath of a relationship in these poems, from the first real sparks to the warning signs to the realization it’s over, the divorce, and the settling of ashes. Her language is sedate, avoiding the easy trap of sentimentality and melodrama, though at times in danger of going too far the other way and reading like line-broken essays which rely on the subject matter to carry the reader, especially with some of the long-lined, multiple-page poems. This is, of course, the popular style, and Duhamel is a popular poet. One of the main reasons for this is her humor, which shines in many of these poems, even though she’s sharing often quite personal and obviously painful material. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die. Duhamel bears her soul, sharing the darker stuff, and laughing along with us at her own, and our own, humanity.
“How It Will End” is a clear standout and the opener for the collection. It describes the couple witnessing a lifeguard fighting with his girlfriend. The onlookers immediately project themselves onto the couple, though they can’t actually hear what’s being said, “My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think/she’s sick of him only working part time/or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.” (11-13). I actually chuckled a few times at this poem. How often does that happen? The onlookers’ own frustrations come out – the true success of Duhamel in this poem is her timing. She surprises the reader with her honesty and humor. “’You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,/so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?’/ and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh reall?/Maybe he should start recording her tirades…” (25-28). The pacing and rising action of the poem is perfect (which is interesting as Duhamel later shares that she never really learned to write fiction because she missed a fiction writing class).
In addition to her marriage woes, Duhamel charts much of her love-life, but again, in a non-melodramatic and often quite touching way. “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” and others like this break up the tone of the book, adding more humor and warmth. “Shortcut” describes an ominous encounter with a group of older boys that could’ve gone very badly for the young Denise. She also moves to deftly-rendered character studies which also follow the theme of love and relationships.
The portrait of Duhamel’s ex-husband is very unflattering. An artist who was often unemployed, or underemployed, one isn’t quite sure what it was that attracted her in the first place, other than the allure of his art, itself. Duhamel pokes fun at herself; she realizes that her choices in life could reflect poorly on her. But who hasn’t made dumb choices? And who hasn’t thrown good money after bad and stayed in a negative situation rather than changing it? Duhamel has emerged from these experiences wizened and confident. She also realizes that she doesn’t have anything particularly new to add to this idea of lost love. It’s the same old story, but her humor, her honesty, and her attitude “make it new” and make her work truly exceptional.
A Mountain City of Toad Splendor, poems and prose by Megan McShea. Baltimore: Publishing Genius Press, 2012.
Reviewed by C.L. Bedsoe
When I read collections like this, I’m frequently reminded of the excellent poem (and song) “It’s Saturday” by John S. Hall which contains one of my favorite lines: “Sense cannot be made. It must be sensed.” Hall is getting at the core of art. There’s something in it that doesn’t have to be explained, perhaps shouldn’t be explained. McShea’s collection, similarly, doesn’t jump out and fish-slap the reader with obvious meaning. Rather, it gambols around meaning like an impromptu interpretive dance. Poems range from the building blocks of “Table Saw,” each line of which begins with “Table” and adds another word which changes the meaning of each successive line: “Table/Table saw/Table saw bird” etc. to surreal stories like “The Appointment,” whose imagery shifts like a stream-of-conscious fill-in-the-blank. Here’s an excerpt from near the middle of the flash piece, in which McShea describes a mother and son’s outing. They go to a building which immediately doesn’t impress. It is “flatter than we had imagined it” and has a confusing intercom: “It sounded like the ocean, but in a very high resolution, with cries of bird and shouts tossed by waves and even sand under our feet.” They undress and wait in a room:
“This is nothing like I expected,” said my mother, who had persuaded me to join her in coming here. “Well, what did you expect?” I asked. “I thought it would be rosy, like a womb,” she said. She sounded sad.
“Change your rabbits!” came a shout from up the stairs, and then again, descending closer, “change your rabbits immediately!” A man in coveralls appeared with wide black eyes. “Oh, pardom me,” he said when he saw us there. “You’re not the people I thought you were.”
But it was too late, for mother and I had already changed our rabbits.
McShea is quite playful. She’s included poems with titles such as “Four Unrelated Sentences with Unrelated Elements,” “Conditional Clauses,” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” which is a deconstruction of the titular pledge, but also an homage to the idea of the thing. “Three Large Swollen Things” is a triptych in which each line section is an acrostic spelling out “Large Swollen Things.” From section 1:
Lingering amidst our
rigged up with fancy
glows a bride
entirely made of cotton
sticks to sin talk
when it wants fed
options evaporate quickly then
like it never lost anything
not without a certain inky grace
to be hewn from
in their suckling linens
nesting there like a
gull out of
“11 Irritations that Morning” is a more straightforward poem. It begins, “I want things and beautiful/light, a perfectly soft don’t.” It’s a beautiful ode to being. “On the street, that recently-cleaned texture/of things. To be alone daily makes/everyone seem interesting.” And isn’t that what poetry’s all about?
McShea is a mistress of sound and mood. “Baltimore Prayer” is a wonderful example:
Precisely this fogged window, which prevails in the cold, wet night, blinks out onto an uninhabited land of Other People’s houses and in sight of all that forgotten real estate, along with all the amiable conversations on phones across America and evenings shared in movie houses, around the corner from a recent homicide, down the block from wild lots and weeds, great unknowns, colossal, all evolving along with Darwin and his species. One’s life, assumed to be finite, ticking away. Night covers things up but you can still hear the rain.
Pressure comes from a thousand enemies buried in your heart. You practice fighting them, and then one day, it seems like they’re gone. One day, allowing for silences, it breaks. You can prepare. It’s like preaching. Ready yourself.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
by Sean Patrick Hill
Buffalo, NY: BlazeVox Books, 2011.
BlazeVox poetry collections tend to have three things in common: physically, they tend to be oversized (not necessarily thick, but wide or tall) and very attractive; stylistically, they tend to be experimental (whatever that means – so basically, they don’t usually publish poems that slap the reader in the face with obvious meaning, but rather poems that require a little bit of work; you might need to strap on your snorkel, fins, and air tank to plumb the depths of a BlazeVox collection) which doesn’t mean that they’re simply gibberish; and quality-wise, they tend to be pretty strong. I can think of several recent BlazeVox collections I’ve really enjoyed: Sarah Sarai’s The Future Is Happy, Kristinia Marie Darling’s The Moon and Other Inventions, and Rob McLennan’s Grief Notes, to name a few. Hill’s collection has all of these qualities in common. It’s laid out length-wise with a beautiful cover, and it’s certainly a powerful collection of poetry by one of the most talented poets working today.
“The Emperor’s Nightingale” references the story of the mechanical nightingale we’ve all heard:
The song goes something like this: A kind of pining binds us in muslin and butcher’s strong. Only now have we begun to see to what extent we are unwritten. Leaves, integers, moths—of course we are machines in the ghost. I never said I wanted everything I touch to resemble gold.
Hill weaves a surreal tapestry reflecting a rural, poor upbringing in fresh, powerful images. “How is it we forget that some of us are not allowed to remain/poor,” he says, in “Poem” (7-8). There is comfort, of course, in the familiar, even if that familiar environment is a negative or limiting one. And there’s beauty in even the bleakest stories. “Moon reflected in a moving window” tells the story of a train wreck. It begins, “Cassidy laid his head like a zinc penny on the track./At five, the freight arrived from Omaha.” (1-2). He continues, “We’ve heard the story at every crossing, walking to the factory:/Kid wearing earphones full of noise, deaf to the afternoon.” (7-8). Hill is subtle, but isn’t that kid wearing the earphones BECAUSE he’s walking to the factory, which is probably his only real option for making even decent money? He’s hiding from the hopelessness of his world—that same world that might kill him. But in addition to the narrative aspects, Hill’s language describes the setting vividly: “A dog barks at the moon reflected in a moving window./Skin thickens around the ankles of utility poles.” The thickening skin, literally, could mean tar, but it implies so much so subtly. (4-5). In “Crossing Idaho,” he describes the weather: “Like a coffin carried on stage, snow falls and falls.” (1). One is reminded of Chekov’s line about the pistol in the first act. It’s not just the vividness of Hill’s imagery that’s outstanding; it’s the way he weights those descriptions with such powerful implications. In “The Taste of Bone,” he reminds us, “All we need do to experience disaster is be born.” (8).
Hill’s first collection, The Imagined Field, was an excellent debut, and he’s refined his talent here.
by John Samuel Tieman
Years ago, when I was young, I taught school on the island of Dominica. One day, I read to the students Alan Dugan’s “Love Song: I And Thou”. Immediately after class, a student asked me to recite the ending of the poem for him –
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.
I recited it several times until he had it memorized.
A few moments later, as I walked to my next class, I passed that young man. He was speaking to his girlfriend. I overheard him say, “I can nail my left palm …”.
I swore I would write Dugan about that. I even found his post office box. And, like so many young people, I thought there was plenty of time.
And then I read that Dugan died. So today I’m writing to you — although we’ve never met — because a poetry reading — one you organized — is happening once again in my classroom.
Patrick Kramer, a gifted student teacher, is doing a lesson on spoken word poetry. I normally supervise him from a distance, so to say. But today, the room to which I often retreat is in use.
So I’m in the back of my classroom. I figure I’ll work on grades. Then Mr. Kramer begins a tape of a poetry reading, a reading you organized in 2009 in the Bowery. He plays three poems, compelling stuff. I stop my grading.
The assignment is for the kids to write, and present, their own poems. A couple of kids present very interesting poems. Then a young woman burns my inner ear with her words about her suicide attempt.
Did you ever think you’d inspire black kids and immigrant kids in St. Louis?
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
The Switching/Yard, poems by Jan Beatty. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.
Anyone who’s ever ridden on a train has found themselves staring out the window and wondering at what we saw. The landscape, the towns we pass, the people; all evoke stories. IN her most recent collection, Beatty has written some of these stories. Beatty’s focus is on urban images, especially train yards and manufacturing. “California Corridor” gives us a view of Beatty’s world:
On the San Joaquin Line
between Modesto & Merced,
past the arroyos, past the fruit trees
in rows, rows—hands of the farm workers/
beauty always with blood behind it,
nothing free. (lines 1-6).
Her language is clean and straight-forward. She describes a beautiful and alien world full of hard-working, underpaid immigrants struggling to survive while waiting for “the angels of bread” (9). She describes California as “a wide,/wide lover” (12-13). A handful of Beatty’s poems describe her fascination with the natural world. “We Cover Our Heads Like Deer” is about a bunch of writers and artists bird watching. The situation is absurd; Beatty is instructed to cover her head with a blanket and walk like a deer, though she doesn’t know what that means. Beatty is often an outsider in these situations, just as she rides on a train observing the difficult lives of others but not entering them. “White Girl in a record Store” describes her attempt to broaden her horizons as she attempts to buy “Rapper’s Delight.” Beatty becomes embarrassed as the record store employees try to sell her a bunch of merchandise. She’s simply curious about a part of the culture she’s missed, but can’t make the leap from her comfort zone to actually connect.
The title poem describes Beatty’s trip to meet her birth father, passing through a manufacturing wasteland, “2 giant sleeping cranes, nothing as lonely as/a crane not working,” she begins. (1-2). As the train moves north away from the switching yard, Beatty describes a beautiful landscape, “…the sky’s/blue-dark with the trees going back to their night souls” (17-18). “We are all so/separate with the same lives,” she reminds (pg. 30, lines 16-17).
Though Beatty deals with some pretty weighty themes, she’s also got quite a sense of humor. “Dear American Poetry,” takes to task the lack of diversity in those poems selected for the major anthologies – diversity in terms of the race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the poets, but also for the lack of real emotive power in the poems. “Stein: Letter to a Young Rilke” has a similar tongue-in-cheek approach. She also touches on certain aspects of pop culture, mainly music, by addressing Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the like.
But sense of place is the real focus of the collection. Beatty describes meeting her birth parents which adds to her desire for a connection with place. Beatty uses language and descriptions often reserved for the Rust Belt, but her focus is California and the west. It’s a changing landscape, at times barren and luscious. Beatty is as much an outsider as we are, trying to make sense of it, and we get to peek at her discoveries.
The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The Susquehanna is an old river. Kerouac called it “the mighty ghost of the East.” At 440 miles, it’s the longest river to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. That’s a lot of haunt, but author Gary Fincke doesn’t scare easy. The director of the Writing Institute at Susquehanna University has published over twenty volumes of poetry, short stories, nonfiction and memoir. Although the Pittsburgh native jay-walks between genres, he’s primarily known as a poet. Fincke’s most recent offering, The History of Permanence, won the 2011 Stephen Austin Poetry Prize. All but two of its twenty-eight poems and sequences were previously published, making this book feel like a greatest hits collection. The adverbacious liner notes say Fincke “has built a reputation for his skill at combining the realism of personal narrative with the realism of the fantastic precisely imagined.”
Fincke’s subjects are everyday, ordinary people to whom very bizarre things might happen on a Tuesday. The collection begins with “The Possibility for Wings,” a meditation on what aerodynamic form our souls return—the suicides getting crows, the lonely hearts getting butterflies. Two friends speculate the winged possibilities for their own passe composse, their souls becoming “moths or whatever” and the speaker chooses the “poorwill,/ the only bird that hibernates.” As if listening to this conversation, the Gods send an airplane overhead, “shaping our fear against the summoned sky.” The speaker never says it was divine intervention, or something random, but in many places where Fincke knits the ludicrous with the day to day—such as neighbors chatting in the backyard—there’s a spiritual energy at play. The reader feels the spirit by its sudden arrival or sudden departure from the poem, and sometimes by characters who are seeking that energy, and not finding it.
“The Serious Surprise of Sorrow” begins “She’s twelve, the girl who discovers a foot/ Washed ashore in British Columbia./ Interviewed, she chatters, puzzled, amazed.” This poem is written in blank verse tercets, creating a kind of order when realities collide. Also, by focusing on the girl instead of the foot, the reader is invested before the absurd takes hold which becomes apparent when two more feet wash ashore, both left ones like the first, each wearing a size twelve running shoe, a size as big as the girl is old. The concluding image finds old men with metal detectors, moving as if wearing prosthetic feet, “Walking with stuttering steps like robins,/ Their heads cocked a moment, then cocked again,/ Their beaks passing over the unmown grass,/ Listening for the soil’s faintest sound.” A poem, then, about everyone looking for a certain random and holy energy, “becoming the urban legend,” or perhaps, leg end, of the mysterious left feet.
Fincke seems to love teaching poetry as much as he does writing it. At Susquehanna University, twenty-eight percent of the graduates have taken courses in his small department, making his the biggest rival of the Science and Business programs. So it’s not a surprise to find a few poems about poetry in this volume, notably “Meat-Eaters” which contrasts two different writing approaches:
In B-films, the carnivorous plants
Are always huge. They swallow anyone
Who wanders near, a single knot of vines
Tugging a victim into the dark maw
Of horror, not discriminating
At all, as if eating were accident.
Fincke observes a killing field of sundews in England which consume millions of butterflies—the souls of lonely hearts—but his final rhapsody is for the Venus flytrap because for the poet “working alone, selectivity/ Is what matters.” The plant “Measures its meals so it doesn’t/ Squander the down time of digestion/ on the undersized. The jaw seals/ Slowly, the spaces between its teeth/ Allowing the escape of small insects…Not through mercy, but efficiency.”
One of the most efficient techniques Fincke uses for his hyper real and hyper absurd marriages is to be very tidy in how he enters and leaves a poem. His care with getting into a poem spares the reader the over-written set-up most poets rely on for unexpected juxtaposition. His poem “Selflessness” is a marvel in how he gets from the animal kingdom to a single trans-gendered womb in less than forty syllables so that in the space of fix or six breaths the reader finds himself in very new territory but without any whiplash:
In the animal kingdom among fish,
one father carries all of the laid eggs
in his mouth sixty-five day starvation,
to make the flexible, deep mouth a womb.
This poem evokes the simplicity of parenting and fatherhood in general: the fish spitting out the babies and taking them back in his mouth at night, the daily chores of being a selfless dad. One of the hardest things to do when writing blank verse is to use language which still gives the feeling of a poem rather than a story, and this must have been additionally hard for a poet who’s an accomplished short story writer. When he uses blank verse Fincke puts a stop—a comma, a period, an em dash—somewhere in the middle of each line. He uses verbs for description—puzzled, amazed—and keeps analysis to a minimum. You’d have to be a real asshole to find something wrong with these touches, but unfortunately, I’m an asshole. In “Selflessness” Fincke’s language gets a little too religious, with his clunky “Such sacrifice” and “his mouth like God” and “He’s a living prayer.” This makes it seem like he’s taking a shortcut to suggest something sacred or mystical. Fincke is much better merely implying some spirit energy rather than being so out loud about it. He’s even forgiving of the father at the end: “…every father has his limits, and so/ does this one, turning his back, one morning,/ as they feed, swimming away while he still/ knows them, before his children grow so large/ he can’t tell them from what he hungers for./ If he forgets to flee, he will eat them.” Fincke’s excellent departure line returns the terrifying moment to the ordinary behavior. The father is essential, but deadly.
Fincke is so aware of the demonic tendencies in his world he would never have to spend a weekend in Iraq in order to write a book of poems about torture. The exotic is not the thing; rather, the interplay, that millisecond vibration one feels before a light flicks on. In Pennsylvania, we need only to do a little fishing, or some casual gardening. If the season’s not right for cultivation, try the florist. In his poem “The Doctrine of Signatures” a man seeks a certain something: :The woman who followed me from flower/ To flower said Birthday? Anniversary?/ And I shook my head among the arrangements/ Until she shifted to Accident? Sickness?” Paracelsus’ Doctrine of Signatures assigned healing purposes to flowers and seeds based on shape, size and shade. The speaker wanders aisles finding remedies for pancreas and liver and soul, “the flowers that form like tumor…scattered/ Like great seasonings for the earth, blended/ So perfectly they lie invisible/ Until they rise from our astonished tongues.”
Some people feel ashamed about the ordinary. Every next generation is screaming to be different from the former, yet all of its revolutionary members are wearing the same Earth shoes, or “Crocks” or Nike running shoes. Fincke’s riddle is that the more we’re dependent on communities, the more our individuality wants to spark and reclaim its own freedoms, and to do this while still making connections and feeling empathy. Kerouac’s restless bone was geographic. Fincke’s bone is temporal. He carves and shapes vast stretches of Time and this sometimes makes it tricky to not come off as a Delphic Oracle. The quotidian elements of his narrative threads are the perfect fuzzy handcuffs to rein his big reach. “Specificity” is an elegy, in a modern sense, for the poet’s friend Len Roberts: “Until I was twelve, worn out/ and God’s will were the reasons/ my relatives died.” Fincke calls it King James medicine, and he pushes back to his mother, his grandmother, and his great greats in creating the evolution of mystery. When the poem ends, that mighty old ghost of mystery is still at it:
And now, after memorial,
after an hour of tributes
by poets who traveled hours
to eulogize, I sit with my wife
who orders a glass of Chambord
for a small, expensive pleasure
in a well-decorated room,
the possibility of happiness
surprising us in the way
hummingbirds do, stuck in the air,
just now outside this window,
attracted to the joy of sweetness
despite the clear foreshadowing
of their tiny, sprinting hearts.
Salt Pier (Pitt Poetry Series)
by Dore Kiesselbach
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
Dore Kiesselbach brings forth in this slim volume a true, robust, and fully novel burst of poetry—an outpouring that appears like a new crop, with a lot of little things to find in the market-sized assortment that it tallies as a whole. Poems such as “Infection” and “Bullet Ant” speak with a sudden and powerful economy of illness, danger, and other conditions of bodily harm. Dore Kiesselbach writes in a narrow sense on the page, taking up little room and having few poems wander longer than the slight piece of paper allows, but he is able to both fill up a massive space with the ideas he brings forth even when on seemingly simple topics. In this sense, his work reminds me a lot of the songs of the British pop group Saint Etienne insofar as how this band can place an entire wide concept—urban planning, for example, or British coastal towns—in the space of a three-minute song. Using easy, topical, titles such as “Commute” or “Balance”, Kiesselbach proceeds to interrogate every possible aspect of the extended meanings of these terms, in all their varied applications, but with a real sense of thrift and gravity, never toying with his concepts nor his reader but instead also furnishing only the most-useful of truths plainly told. If that does not sound, at first mention, like what we expect from poetry, we’re missing out on the greatest of powers that poems can hold, which is to offer truncated communication of the most-universal and expansive of ideas and subjects.
One of the most outstanding poems in the collection for me was “Protect and Serve” which tells the tale of the author stepping off a BART train—probably in Berkeley, certainly somewhere in the East Bay as he’s above-ground and Oakland is later mentioned. It is night and the author is lacking cab fare for the rest of the journey home so instead, he walks across a high bridge—a bridge a person shouldn’t be walking across at night nor in this odd manner. Passersby see him and fear the worst, summon the cops, and soon the author is under arrest for his own protection as an apparent suicide. What makes this poem stand out in part is that I also lived in the Bay Area and know the BART well—I can see this in action, I can see the policemen’s faces and their ease in guessing they have yet another depressed kid (as the cops in the poem do call our hero) on their hands. I can see the humor and I can see the very San Francisco nature of the whole absurd scene. Beyond that though, the aspects I marvel at in this wonderful—and also, like most of those collected here, short—poem are the wealth of small details included and the ability of the author to make this into . . . well, truly authorship. There is story-telling here, this has the tenor and command of a good short story. While a poem, there is a clear voice of the author—not only because he is speaking apparently from life experience but also because he demands from his poem the purpose of relating a story, a narrative, just as one would over a beer at the bar or a professor might at the start of class or a man on the radio would have in decades past. This is story-telling in the smart guise of a poem.
Most of Kiesselbach’s writing has a narrative tone to it, an event he has in mind to speak of, and the very best examples in this book are often those concerning nature:
Startled from snow-day slumber
by a neighbor’s mutt, it
banged its buzzard’s head
then couldn’t solve
the problem of the white
pine’s limbs with wings
nearly too broad
for a planned descent.
Somewhere a lumbering
angel knows whether
it was dead before
it hit the ground.
This is the poem “Turkey Fallen Dead from Tree”, at once funny and morose, absurd yet perfectly true-to-life in its telling of a very unfortunate incident for a rather awkward bird. These things do happen: as an avid hiker and woodsman I can tell you they really do, and the way such incidents unfold is caught here in a manner both adroit and unique.
Kiesselbach constantly walks the line between personal and universal, between science and the realm of myth-prone emotion. “Beach Thanksgiving”, one of my favorite of poems ever about the beach—and that I say as someone who adores and gobbles up all literature I can find of quality on beach-oriented topics—makes plain the magic of fellowship on the beach but also is true and sincere with its ample details. How, exactly, Kiesselbach fits so many details such as these into his poems I’m not quite certain even after reading them over and over again. In a poem like “Green Zone” we see bright flashes of Dylan Thomas but we also see the articulate voice of an architectural historian or social scientist looking down the busy rush-hour street and taking copious notes.
At points Dore Kiesselbach’s forthright plain language spills too many raw emotions out into the open and seems to lay naked to the eye things better wrapped in layers of dressing. His poem “Volley” concerns his father and family and is one such example, but when his poetry seems to suffer even in the slightest way from his honesty, we have to remind ourselves of all the poets—indeed, all the writers—who suffer from not giving enough instead of providing far too much. Another poem—which like “Volley” also speaks of his family—entitled “Apology” is more engrossing simply because it provides a shorter moment, a very direct and specific moment, for the reader to consider in relation to the expanded topic at hand.
Salt Pier is just full of energy—were the poems longer, they would feel like a full soccer match played with no half-time, such is the energy they carry. Some poems, such as “Ward”, feel long despite their economy. Some invite outside references while others are properly self-contained in their own little frames. Always, what he is doing is something both humble and bold. The poem “Windmill” reads like a thesis on contemporary life but it wasn’t meant as such out of the box, I feel pretty certain. Kiesselbach knows there is such a thing as trying too hard and overall avoids that in these poems, providing very nuanced readings of life that are powerful but never try for a higher goal than their immediate specifics foremost, and whatever other asides they contain are simply a bonus round for the reader. Rock and roll is alive and it lives in Minneapolis, Prince once sang, and poetry it appears also is alive and well and it lives with Dore in Minneapolis.
by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
I recently read two books, published twenty years apart, and both are works of genius. My first question to myself: How did I miss the one published in 1992, by an author whose work I have loved since the beginning? Somehow I did miss it— and then, after buying it, even lost track of it on my own shelf, among the stacks.
Dime-Store Alchemy by former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic is a collection of prose poems (some call them short essays but I disagree) about the life and work of the surrealist collage artist Joseph Cornell (who also influenced Elizabeth Bishop.) Beginning with a preface that details Simic’s own fascination with Cornell and a short “chronology” of Cornell and his evolution as an artist, the
poems that follow, while exploring Cornell’s life and work, also serve as a memoir of Simic’s own travels through time and space. “I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970.” (p. ix)
As we read we understand that Cornell’s obsessive and inspired use of collage, his reliance on “chance operations” (p. 30) also grounds Simic’s poetic approach.
…A pebble becomes a human being. Two sticks
leaning against each other make a house. In that world
one plays the game of being someone else.
This is what Cornell was after too. How to construct a
vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination
of the viewer and keep him company forever.
(“The Truth of Poetry”)
This book is so wise, so rich, so surprising that I often find myself thinking I could spend an entire year on one sentence alone. And there are so many sentences like that! —far more than the number of years left to contemplate them. “All art is a magic operation, or, if you prefer, a prayer for a new image,” Simic tells us in the poem, “A Force Illegible. “
Below is a poem in its entirety that speaks to the quote above:
Our Angelic Ancestor
Rimbaud should have gone to America instead of Lake Chad. He’d be a hundred years old and rummaging through a discount store. Didn’t he say he liked stupid paintings, signs, popular engravings, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers?
Arthur, poor boy, you would have walked the length of Fourteenth Street and written many more “Illuminations.”
Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a
“Since the beginning” almost describes my following of Frank Gaspar’s poetry. His first book, The Holyoke, won the Morse Poetry Prize (selected and introduced by Mary Oliver) in 1988. I came across the book a few years later and began using it for my poetry workshops (Gaspar has published four more books of poetry and two novels since then); I have used his poetry collections in my classes ever since, and always the students are blown away by his work.
But: Back to the twenty years apart: His most recent poetry collection Late Rapturous (published by Autumn House Press) came out in 2012. It is a widely and wildly visionary collection. Like Simic, Gaspar has become a master of the prose poem form, though the poems in Gaspar’s book are generally much longer and more densely packed. Cornell would have loved them, for, like Simic’s poems, they are masterful and ingenious constructions—poetic collages “in which objects are renamed and invested with imaginary lives” (Simic, “The Truth of Poetry,” p.46).
In fact, the poems here seem like a culmination of all Gaspar’s previous work. And if you look at Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, his second collection, you will find a poem a little past midway into the book, called “Love is the Power Which Impels One to Seek the Beautiful”—a poem which seems to foreshadow, to predict where his poetry will go in the future (beginning as he did in The Holyoke, with poems using stanza breaks, free verse lineation, a more open narrative, before he developed/discovered an ever richer, ever denser, prose poem form.)
Here are the prophetic last lines of “Love is the Power…”:
…Now, after all these years of reading
poems, I may finally understand certain questions
of form. There is the line with its heartbeat, and
there is language with its catalog of figures, and
there is symmetry and breath. Every beginning
demands an end, every curve a consummation, and
the world and our lives must locate themselves in
image or cease to exist. This could be a kind of
Longing or a kind of Will. In seeking beauty it is
sometimes necessary to reject a familiar or even
an attractive form. If a symmetry is broken, we
begin again. In some things failure is impossible.
Yes, Gaspar’s new poems radiate wildly. They encompass. They refer. Like Simic’s book, they’re not afraid to exist in several dimensions or in several layers of existence at once—each poem a kind of “Cornell box”— “finite infinity,” as Dickinson said.
Now, to set something down in
the midst of folly, one true word, one simple cry out of the black arroyos
and dangerous washes, the canyons, the granite redoubts, but the lone sob
of the desert hen is not enough, the television’s mangled voices creeping
through the drywall and stucco are not enough…
(“June/July—Eleven Black Notebooks at the Desert Queen Motel”)
If the roof of the world is a wheel, if the heart of the world is a heart.
then you have another poem about truth, and if that’s the case
you had better not trust it, not trust its voice or its knowing vowels
or its perfumed arrogance. We’ve all been down that road, and it
leads to the edge of a town with one broken-down gasoline station
and its pile of yellowed ledgers, and one sad ghost wondering where
the glory days have slipped off to.
Now I am reading a book that tells me every raindrop falls to earth
exactly as it’s supposed to. That there are no errors. Therefore,
there is no therefore. Nothing to do then except go out to
the porch and listen to birdsong, listen to the prevailing
wind up in the leafless branches. Do no harm, I told myself.
Look for the small miracles. Already the moon was crisp in the east.
Already the moon was faultless behind the naked limbs, following
the black notes of the huddled birds, shining, and it wasn’t even dark yet.(“Do No Harm”)
The moment one begins to read Late Rapturous, one feels Dickinson’s “top of one’s head flying off,” the test, for her, of a true poem, a work of true genius.
by John Samuel Tieman
I sometimes think I wasted a lot of years looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.
mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light
I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.
we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again
That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young.
I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday:
in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …
In the Company of Spirits
poems by Carmen Calatayud
Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53. 2012
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Calatayud is a DC poet, and like many in the DC scene, she understandably focuses on social issues, questions of involvement and public policy. This is the poetry of witness. She slips between potent scenes of tragedy to mythic portraits of landscape and people. The collection opens with “Tale from Chiapas,” a surreal portrait of evocative images:
In this country we count the trees, then count again.
We lift the streets by mixing paint.
Nine guardians live upstairs and we sing with them.
There’s a slit in the sky and we reach through to pull down the sun.
The imagery is dreamlike. There’s an unreal feel to this place. The poem portrays haunting memories, ghosts, “At times, tricky spirits swallow our eyes./They bring bad news like the black moths./We open the coffin, smell al alma during the wind.” (lines 7-9). She concludes, “We point to the northern sky before sleep smokes our limbs./Fig trees spin into ash, and we wash our soil with milk.” (lines 13-14). There’s optimism as well as a certain sense of foreboding.
“To My Father Juan, Who Thought There Was a War To End All Wars,” is one of the more powerful poems in the collection. She opens with a scene of brutality:
The soldiers took your Tio Rafa:
dragged out of bed and shot in the street
the Franco way
the Generalissimo in my dreams
sucked away your soul
when they killed Rafael.
You and your friends played soccer
around the bodies,
death was a daily smell
and the sound of mothers who screamed
hung in the air.
Calatayud tries to make sense of this situation, the same way her father tried to, “All of this, this wasn’t ordained by the Holy Ghost,” (line 19). His belief system is shattered. The effects of this are far reaching, even as an adult, Calatayud describes her father “hoarding canned food in the basement” (pg. 5, lines 23). But there’s no real solace to be had, no way to protect oneself and one’s family against something like this.
So when faced with these sorts of calamities, where does one turn? In “Flames and Angels,” Calatayud turns her attentions to DC: “There is misery by the busload. Mothers scrounge/for bits of bread.” (lines 1-2). She continues, “We can’t make sense of paper, rock or scissors/or velvet political games. We lose a day each night,/tending to the problems of the world in our dreams.” (lines 3-5). This is Calatayud’s survivor’s guilt, as the child of immigrants (at one point, a relative praises Calatayud’s luck at being “white.”). Throughout this collection, she deals with questions of her liminality. She is trapped between the world of her parents and the past and her current life, where she is outside these experiences and looking back, free of them but still tethered to them. In the same way, America is in a liminal stage as the more diverse populations gain more political presence. But, even though many of the more privileged holdouts fear this change, and this fear produces dangers for some others, Calatayud is hopeful. In her title poem, she reminds: “This is the land you came from. There is no worry in this dirt./You are the harvest of our desert dance.” (lines 25-27).
The Imagined Field, poems by Sean Patrick Hill. Paper Kite Press, 2010.
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Hill’s collection begins with “When You Hardly Knew Your Fingers,” a surreal portrait of a struggling spiritual life. “It’s an old story, need.” he begins (line 1). He continues with images of alienation and loneliness: “Wind in trees, gaunt horses,/A bank of bleeding hearts–//Like granite they make hunger look easy. A matter of grim resistance.” (lines 1-5). Even the dying seem to have mastered their reactions to life (and death) better than the narrator. But solace can come from observing the beauty in the fragility of life: “Take the trillium, for example, its three-lidded eye:/Six seasons seed to flower./Such mild ambition. Did you know as little/As one touch could wreck it?” (lines 7-11). Later, he explains the source of his alienation, relating to the flower, and “…your own fatal contact//When you hardly knew your fingers/Could do such damage.” (lines 20-23). He continues, “Passion is something you beg for…but I wouldn’t say it’s something/You deserve.” (lines 13-15). There’s a kind of humility, there, which could serve to increase the narrator’s alienation, or which could actually shift the focus from himself and outward.
Hill’s poems are powerful, imagistic works that swoop into stunning scenes with solid language. “The Hours” reminisces about the narrator’s past. “I had slept alone for weeks,” he begins (line 1). Hill paints a vivid scene, “Days when rain made idle threats/I climbed the California hills,/And not even poison oak/Could offend me.” (lines 3-6). “This was after the floods./This was during my breakdown./Mud stained the roads/Like a bad memory,” (lines 8-11) he tells us. There are evocative images of eating Sunbeam white bread, old seaside farms. He concludes:
What matters are the hours, like frightened birds.
The way the land ends at the sea and says,
What’s done is done.
The way the sky just keeps walking
Where you can’t follow. (lines 40-44).
“The Last Frontier is Not in Alaska,” paints a vivid scene, both physically and psychically: “In this desert our lives are, at best,/A draw,” he begins (lines 1-2). Hill expresses trepidation towards his surroundings. The “desert” could be real or figurative. “It’s not that sunlight struggles./It’s that clouds never give up.” he continues (lines 4-5). And “Wells are a constant source of worry.” (line 10). It’s a dangerous world with little possibility of control. “Don’t bother to ask forgiveness./The river accepts no excuses./Learn to swim.” (lines 12-14). Even things that might be considered positive are sources of concern:
Unless we do something, blackberries will win.
Then again, they have a way of fixing
The soil for themselves: they poison the ground.
That is, they cheat.
That’s what we mean by the sins of the father. (lines 19-24).
He concludes with an image of scorn: “Lilies our mothers planted are like teenagers/Who say they didn’t ask to be born./They secretly hate us.” (lines 29-31).
Hill is working towards something in these poems. He rarely spells it out or tries to hit the reader over the head with meaning; instead, he lets us work through the process, as well, and come to our own conclusions. “Cairns” delves into his journey:
…My wife taught me her best slipknot,
That love is not that kind
But a mild steel:
No China doll, nor wandering Jew
But something more
Like a dove
Covered in tar. (lines 3-13).
He isn’t romanticizing this idea of love: he’s trying to be brutally honest. He’s trying to get at truth. he goes on to describe a very violent personal experience which served to try to rip him away from this “slipknot.”
A reference that pops up more than once is to Don Quixote. In “The Genius of Birds,” Hill points out: “Cervantes had it right:/you could live your life in a dream and get away with it.” (lines 31-32). And this seems to be at the center of Hill’s struggle: the world seems to be so often an ugly, greedy place, but the ‘dream’ is difficult to live in. But what is “the dream?” Perhaps it’s that tar-covered dove mentioned above. Perhaps it’s an appreciation of beauty or tranquility. But this seems to be fleeting, which makes it all the more precious.
Between Gods, poems by Donna Lewis Cowan. Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2012
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Cowan’s debut collection begins with “Thaw,” a beautiful meditation on the changing of the seasons, played out through ice skaters:
At the pond’s edge, the skaters steer
from the etched-out hollows, speed
toward the marrow mapped tight.
We are trying to outrace it, thaw
channeling into the grids – where you could
step through, surrender the balance (lines 1-8)
Cowan is hinting at more than a change in seasons; she’s alluding to growing up. She continues, “So you are an accomplice, shearing/the surface into further conquered// territories, into what will happen” (lines 16-19). These skaters are trying to wring the last bit of experience from the winter before the ice melts, though it is futile: “something our heat/cannot alter.” (lines 25-26).
Many of Cowan’s poems explore characters from religious stories. “Daphne & Apollo: Meditations” is a triptych which retells the myth of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne. What stands out about Cowan’s work is her masterful use of language. In the first section, she describes Apollo’s efforts: “his fingers/like flies against a windowpane” (pg. 14, lines 10-11). In the second section, Daphne has turned into a flower: “She wondered, if she had arms to move/could they round about a child” (pg. 15, lines 9-10). She regrets her decision to transform herself, but she finds no solace: “…the blooms about her//tightened, offered nothing;/their stems were stolid as crucifixes” (lines 15-18). It’s a lovely line, resonating with the web of religious imagery throughout the collection. In the third section, Daphne is trapped in her decision while Apollo sings, his voice, “passion raise like the chronic sweat of flowers” (pg. 16, line 12). “The Siren” is an exploration of the myth of the mythical beings who lured sailors into rocks. “Penelope” is a monologue from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife who delays the advances of suitors while waiting for her husband’s return. Cowan’s true talent with these poems is her ability to humanize mythical characters. She begins with Penelope’s concerns with her own mortality:
Now four years of fraying wool
on the loom – my hands grey,
splintered as never before –
and once the tapestry is finished,
anything may happen. We are so
vulnerable to magic; one may be raped
by swans; none of it is hearsay. (pg. 30, lines 1-7).
It’s a touching portrait focusing on the fragility of Penelope, as opposed to the stolid, somewhat heroic version who waits patiently for Odysseus, as is often portrayed. Cowan develops Penelope’s somewhat sardonic voice: “I have heard you are lover to a woman/who could keep you with her forever –/and what a trick!” (pg. 30, lines 9-11). Cowan creates a sensual scene to portray Penelope’s loneliness:
Here the soldiers’ wives use each other
for company; the handmaids touch
my skin as they touch my gowns,
with windy light fingers, out of habit –
pressing harder only to coax
the wrinkles out. One stray touch
and my skin is alive for hours –
that is loneliness, a pair of hands
winding through that medusa
of strands, soothing the loose ends
into patience… (pg. 30, lines 13-24).
There’s humor, as well. One of the suitors, drunk, tells Penelope, “…his semen is wine/drawn from the rarest of sea-violets” (pg. 31, lines 3-4). Finally, Penelope is faced with the futility of her situation, as the suitors gossip about Odysseus’ trysts with goddesses, and she pictures him, “driv(ing) glory slowly,/absently into the sand” (pg. 31, lines 11-12).
Cowan also deals with the mythology of everyday life. “Cleaning Lincoln Logs” is a meditation on the expected arrival of a child: “The impossible task:/making our leftovers/clean enough for a daughter,” she begins (lines 103). Cowan’s language is simple but resonating:
You empty the scratches
where you etched
before you knew
how the world
could whittle away
each masterpiece. (lines 14-21).
But this isn’t a maudlin poem: she is emphatic about passing on these toys and all they represent. “They are still alive,” she says about the toys, about what she once built and imagined with them (line 17). She hopes to pass on only the toys, not all of the damage and baggage that has occurred since she, herself, played with these toys.
Cowan is a talented poet with an ear for language and vivid construction. She tackles themes and ideas that easily fall flat, but pulls them off with aplomb and verve. Throughout the collection she deals with issues of spirituality, not just as an abstraction, but as a vital question presented in beautiful language. Part history, part magic, this collection is well worth a read.
Injecting Dreams Into Cows, poems by Jessy Randall. Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2012. $17.95. ISBN: 1597092304. 104 pgs.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
Randall’s collection begins with “Metaphors,” a clever, playful piece that bucks preconceptions, “A duck is like the moon/because a kid can point at both. A house/is like the sky: both hold things…” (lines 1-3). The central image, here, isn’t a comparison of things (as I’m sure you’ve noticed, these lines of Randall’s are actually similes); rather, it’s the linking idea: the kid and the things being held by the house and the sky. One can’t help but think of the house as holding a family (including a child) and the sky as, perhaps, holding God, an idea which links with family in a traditional sense. Randall continues, later with a playful conclusion, “This poem is like a pillow: I hit you with it.” (line 10).
Randall’s poems tend towards the brief, often minimalist. Throughout, her sense of humor reigns. “One Day, the Ass-Talker Stopped Talking Out of His Ass,” describes the fateful day we all wish would come for some people, “I was wrong, he said. I was only guessing. I never really knew the answer.” She concludes. If only. “Trouble in Pac-Land” is about exactly what you’d think:
The truth is I don’t know
what it was that set me,
well, packing. Maybe it was
the lack of scrutiny.
All those teenagers
for so long, caressing
that perfect round
controller. And then
they were gone,
moved on, grown up. (pg. 46, lines 10-20).
A disenfranchised Ms. Pac-Man sets herself up in a new life out of boredom. “I’ve got my own game/that no one plays.” she says. (pg. 47, lines 8-9). It’s a study in existential despair; the waning housewife recreated as pop culture icon who isn’t really any happier.
“In the Mind of Elizabeth Blackwell,” deals with various rumors and aspects of the life of Blackwell, the first American woman to receive a medical degree. Known as a difficult figure because of her unflinching opinions, Blackwell, though well connected, socially, managed to alienate many, though, more importantly, she championed many social and moral reforms.
“The Consultant” gives us our title in the opening line: “The scientists told me they were injecting dreams into cows. “ She describes the experiment and the results the scientists are getting. The scientists inject human dreams in some cows and cow dreams in others. “The cows with the human dreams, they told me, were keeping/ journals of their dreams in their dreams. But the cows with the/cow dreams were not keeping journals.” (lines 5-7). She goes on to point out that “the cows with the cow dreams don’t have hands in their dreams…so they can’t hold pens or pencils…” (lines 11-13).
Randall shifts from the humorous or sardonic tones of certain poems to more sincere poems, though she manages to maintain her sense of humor. “My Son, When He Is Sick,” presents a sweet portrait of Randall’s concern for her sick son:
My son, when he is sick, is a little wet
hot ball candy, sweaty forehead,
damp hair on the back of his neck,
his eyes screwed shut as if that will help.
His toddling voice repeats “oh dear, oh dear”
when we ask what hurts. He says a quiet
“yes” to everything: Is it your tummy?
Your throat? Your foot? Your toy hippo?
He slurps his water and then throws up
everywhere, his father and I leaping to catch it,
begging “throw up on ME, here is my sweater,
my lap, my cupped hands.” (lines 1-14).
“Why I Had Children” is another humorous yet sweet poem in which Randall examines herself honestly:
Because I was reading too many books and getting too much
sleep and my self-esteem was too high. Because I needed to be
taken down a peg. Because I thought love was one thing and
really it’s another. Because I thought I knew everything about
everything and I didn’t know anything, not anything in the world. (lines 1-5).
“Celie At Four,” continues this theme of parenthood:
The way you say
“I know THAT,”
wanting to get on
to the next thing. (lines 1-5).
Randall avoids sentimentality by approaching her love and admiration for her child from a different direction: she’s actually a little annoyed at the child’s impatience. “You mean/you now know it/because I just told you.” she continues (lines 6-8). Her child is gaining confidence while Randall’s shrinks: “at four, you’re/seventeen and I’m/the little sister/wanting to be liked.” she concludes (lines 10-13).
Randall’s poems waste no words: they are often short but pack a powerful punch. Her language is clean and precise, which allows her to sneak-attack the reader with profound images. I’ve been a big fan of Randall’s work, which I’ve read in various literary journals, for some time, and I’m thrilled to have this collection to solidify her reputation as a talent to watch.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals as well as five forthcoming books. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at http://tenpagespress.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/the-man-who-killed-himself-in-my-bathroom-by-cl-bledsoe/. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South’s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His poem “The Bank” was nominated for 2010 Best of the Nest and his nonfiction piece “Thesis” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings, http://clbledsoe.blogspot.com Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.
Drucilla Wall, The Geese at the Gates
Salmon Poetry, December, 2011
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The search for truth and beauty is a panic for dreamers. Try heading north from native Creek country, turn left at Philadelphia. Keep more or less straight to Wyoming, then dog-leg back to Nebraska. Pick up the big river and let it run you south to St. Louis. Avoid the floating McDonald’s.
Drucilla Wall’s journey likewise takes a very promising turn on the trussed banks of the muddy river’s western shore. Her debut collection, The Geese at the Gates, is a book of great arrival and strong presence. Big forces have put a vast geography into Wall’s middle, but irony has quieted this terrain. The Beats’ hurry for constant motion and their ecstatic, restless subtexts are generously absent from this book. Even the geese in her title poem do not migrate: “The fat geese should be slicing/ the heavy clouds, heading south./ In the last heat of these afternoons/ I should hear them exclaiming/ on their way. But the geese remain/ all winter. Having forgotten themselves/ and changed their story.”
When Wall writes about a car, it’s almost always parked: “we can see our cars wiggle their/ steely asses under the laurel oaks./ All that shiny potential.” In a poem about her son Matthew, he is running, but his eyes are closed. He’s asleep: “You’re safe,/ safe in your bed./ It’s only a dream, a dream./ Sinking back, you answer,/ blinking, disappointed,/ Only a dream?”
Wall stands well apart from the usual crowd of word slingers. Poets today seem obsessed with wanting a poem to have something happen, but dramatic tension doesn’t require cause and effect, action and reaction. Wall’s poetry liberates us from that facile snare. Her poems don’t require verbs to manifest meaning. Occasionally a speaker will roll over or recline. Sometimes there is a memory of an action from twenty years before. Wall nicely doesn’t need to establish motivation to justify action which doesn’t occur. The result is that her poetry—her essence—isn’t cluttered by personality and the tricks of story-telling. There isn’t any Vaudeville in her meter. While there’s movement, it’s usually just the narrator’s eye, panning about, or else making a feast of unexpected associations. Her title poem “moves” from parked geese to parked cars, a shopping mall, Egyptian cotton made in China and washed in Mississippi waters, all the way to the memory foam of God’s bosom where we wonder “how to rid ourselves/ of these fat, honking angels here among us.” We’ve navigated the globe without leaving the windows, looking down on geese which don’t fly, perhaps like us, fat, honking poets whom we are, needing and dreading a higher purpose.
Wall’s traditions spring from older grounds in Ireland where Irish poetry from Yeats to Muldoon hasn’t stopped being Irish no matter with what the rest of the world is pathetically busy. To that island’s fetish for boundary and place, Wall adds a mystical, feathery, almost Japanese way of observing. She wants us to know Jack Gilbert’s waterfall without hearing the sound of its water, wanting us only to hear its beautiful silence as it rages.
Wall’s “Disappearance Song” takes place on St. Patrick’s Day. The first stanza is the rapture of an awakened spring. It’s second stanza is a classic haiku, scanning five-seven-five, so that two distinct traditions, the Romantic Era’s nature praise poem, and the haiku—an imagistic surrender—are wed: “Now behind it all/ the silence of honeybees,/ the absence of wings.” When we remember that St. Patrick chased the snakes of Ireland and sent them all to England, we can look at this poem as an elegy for the environment we’re losing, and perhaps disappearing ourselves along the way.
Wall releases information very slowly, unlacing her brief narratives with agonizing—for us—deep-breathed modulations. Most writers have shown us their tits by page three. Eighty delightful pages of Wall and I’m still anticipating, absolutely aquiver on my chopper. Oh for a glimpse. It almost happens in “Deer Woman at Fifty”
One misty night on the road
to Wentzville, a doe cut across
the headlights and vanished
kicking gravel chips
from the edge of the woods,
her provoking rump
giving the last flash.
What begins like fable…’twas a dark and stormy night…immediately gets specific, so that the abstract qualities of the poem are not lost in abstract language. Her specific, rational observations enhance the unknown. “On the road to Wentzville” immediately engages our right brain hemisphere. It makes us think of maps, signs, trailheads. The fact that Wentzville is a town named for the past tense of a being verb, literally, “wents ville” also intrigues. The images of the doe “kicking gravel chips” steers us to Wall’s belief that movement is only one half the thing in motion. The other half of movement is the way such motion affects the larger world.
By contrast, Wall also celebrates some movement which has no impact. “Invisibility Lesson #1” teaches us “the way Indians walk in the woods” and concludes: “You’ll know when you get it right/ by the deer ignoring you,/ and the arrowhead hunters,/ with their shovels and sieves,/ shouting your obituary/ right across your path.”
Wall probably does not write poems in the nude, but she does seem to take off her watch before composing. There is hardly a clock face to be had. Not only is her poetry nearly devoid of temporal markers, but in several poems she conveys several centuries in one stanza so that images mixed in time–“colonial” and “highway”–are almost matter of fact. In another, “Hannibal, Missouri” characters go in and out of the 1840s. Tom Sawyer jogs past the diner and “Becky Thatcher strolls down Main Street/ with a smile and a pistol in her hand,” while the “kids out/ by the Dairy Queen prefer their cherry vodka.” Wall’s poem, “Regarding Last Chances,” about relationship miscues, ends on a hopeful note: “I have one page left/ in my appointment book,/ where another man’s name/ is penciled in.”
Where time is so indefinite, space means everything. This is Wall at her strongest, giving us just enough light to adjust our irises and just enough detail to rightly furnish each stanza. “Under the lights,/ the elongated hurt,/ stubborn clay,/ turns within the force/ that is your will,/ beyond any choosing,/ to each smallest/ rounding of the elbow,/ slightest declination/ of the fingers,/ builds gesture to gesture,/ circling more and greater/ space into fire.”
Wall’s mastery is that in spite of her dialed-down revelatory pace she writes very personal poems. Her intimacies are thrilling. There’s the evocative sexual imagery in “Blue Marker Landscape” in which the speaker is doodling a Kansas farm scene on her lover’s back, when—because it’s Kansas—the winds pick up and a tornado whirls their embrace. In “Snake Shadows” Wall writes: “my arms coiling your chest,/ my hands diamond heads,/ my tongue water over rock,/ your sounds the prayers of stones.”
Any one of Wall’s gorgeous blossoms could stop a train, but one of my favorites was “For Matthew at Twenty-five.” Although one never stops being a parent, the poetry about being a parent seems to come to a crashing halt after our children start driving cars. For Wall, nurturing means everything and it will go on forever. Archetypes aside, she’s plain good at it, whether scrubbing a sick cat or comforting a restive child or a worried husband.
Do you remember collecting
the bright leaves of autumn,
how we ruined the iron,
pressing them in waxed paper,
and taped them to the windows
to glow like stained glass,
now that another holds your hand
and takes you walking in the woods?
The nicest part of walking the woods with Wall is that she doesn’t stop to sniff every butterfly, just the ones which matter. The unfenced world there, its trees and denizens, is meant to be lived and experienced first, then dreamed and remembered, and only after the longest and most pleasant of whiles, to write a timeless poem about.
Sense by Arslan Khasavov
translated from the Russian by Arch Tait
Moscow: GLAS Publishers, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
The reputation of Russian literature in the West has long centered around the greats of the distant past—Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy—with little thought given, it seems, to the writers of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Certainly, the dissident poets of Stalin’s time have gained the attention they well deserve, but post-Soviet—what might be perhaps considered “new Russian” literature—is hardly known in the West. Beyond that, the fall of the Soviet Union has allowed minority groups and their identities in Russia and the other former Soviet states to become better-known worldwide, though their own specific literatures still suffer from a level of neglect that emerging literatures in other regions simply have not witnessed. While African, Latin American, Arab, and Asian literatures have only grown in their international readerships and number of works translated, it seems that post-Soviet literatures have not benefited from the same zest for widespread interest in foreign writing. Another area of post-Soviet writing not well-represented in translation is that of younger writers—the first generation of citizens to grow up without having ever been part of the Soviet Union.
GLAS Publishers is trying to remedy this situation with its “New Russian Writing” series of emerging Russian literature in English translation. One of the most acclaimed and interesting volumes to come out of this project is the translation of Arslan Khasavov’s debut novel Sense. Khasavov is a Kumyk who grew up in Turkmenistan and came to Moscow for university at the Asia and African Studies Institute of Lomonosov Moscow State University. Following his degree and further studies in Russian literature, Khasavov became a freelance journalist in Moscow and was able to garner a number of impressive assignments including work with the BBC. The Kumyks, it should be understood, are an ethnic group that historically have lived mainly in Dagestan and are thus an Islamic, non-Russian, minority with their own language and very removed from the traditions of the Kievan Rus’ that formulate the basis even today of mainstream Russian society. The Dagestanis are related to their neighbors the Chechens and long-standing tensions exist between Russians and both groups due to the treatment of these Caucasian minorities following the Second World War by Stalin and also the recent conflict and struggle for Chechen independence. Caucasians, whether Chechen, Kumyk, Dagestani, or otherwise in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia are often the targets of hate speech and sometimes acts of violence. Young male Caucasians are especially prone to being targets of discrimination and suspicion. Much of Khasavov’s journalism centers around both the continuing strife in the Caucasus and the treatment of ethnic Caucasians in Moscow, as he has experienced this situation of discrimination first-hand. Far from being simply a mouth-piece for his side of the story when it comes to the plight of Caucasians, however, Khasavov has provided in his journalism a nuanced view of how young people from the Caucasus who have settled in Moscow for their education or other reasons are developing an ex-pat’s savvy sense of identity and community. In Sense, he applies this same approach but beyond a journalist’s discernment or a native’s inside experience, he is able to provide a deft, often very funny, take on how ethnicity and youthfulness both conspire to present an absurd sense of reality in post-Soviet Russia.
The central character in Sense is Artur, an idealistic, if rather delusional, young man of twenty who forms a political front known as SENSE that has the stated goal of creating a new, utopian, society in Turkmenistan. Why Turkmenistan? Because it is, according to our hero, the supposed center of the world. This gives the reader some foresight into the rather unbalanced views of Artur and the absurd nature of the novel; however, Sense is not simply a post-modern work in the comic style of Nikolai Gogol out to sell a sociopolitical point alone but instead the novel is overall a fairly insightful examination of Russian youth today, albeit one where much artistic license has been taken to allow for the most entertaining story possible. Khasavov has social and even political issues to bring to our attention, to be sure, but he seems more keenly interested in the general state of his generation in Russia after Communism. To that end, he has Artur meet a variety of other young people who represent the various subcultures and social groups found in contemporary Moscow. Those who long for a return of Communism, those who support greater social freedom than what United Russia (President Putin’s party) promotes, those who believe Islam is the key to peace—all these very different approaches and philosophies are represented.
Any writer who embarks on such a journey will run the risk of creating characters that are stand-ins for greater issues or simply stereotypes, but overall Khasavov rises above this and provides characters who are truly interesting if often in a way that begs the reader to suspend any disbelief and just enjoy the crazy motion of the story. Still, in all, Sense provides a tale that is not just a post-modern fable and in fact invites the reader into a very powerful internal view of today’s Russia. The youth of the Russia of right now—those in their teens, those attending university—have the agency for experiences that was mostly out of the range of possibility for their parents or anyone who grew up under the Soviet system. Not only because of changes in Russian society, but due to the ability via the Internet and other technologies to communicate with people all over the world. The newfound emphasis on ethnic and localized culture following the fall of the Soviet Union also has allowed greater agency in young people from non-majority origins to be themselves instead of conforming to a majority view of social norms. That said, with new freedoms have also come new oppressions: fueled by the Orthodox church and United Russia, new laws have challenged gay rights—especially in St Petersburg—and the aforementioned discrimination and violence directed towards Caucasians has remained a serious and disturbing problem. The position of youth in this dynamic mix is essential as they are the ones who will guide society out of this transitional period. Will they elect a more liberal sense of equality or dwell in the fear of Russia becoming a less-homogenous and more diverse nation? These are the core questions addressed in Sense.
Russia’s youth have also in this new era discovered a voice of their own, informed by their past and by Euro-American youth culture but also a voice unique, distinct, and original. The fashion designer and photographer Gosha Rubchinskiy is representative of this trend and in his menswear and photos of Russian skaters and punk kids who at once look forlorn and quite couture, he expresses a lot of the latent themes found running through Sense. Rubchinskiy himself in an interview to the American press has stated he finds St Petersburg more interesting now—more vital, more happening—than Moscow, and Russian youth I know have spoken of Kazan and Sochi as places to visit just as much as the two eternal leading cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. The world-view is changing: there are young business students fluent in English in Novosibirsk who work off of Macintosh laptops and watch Japanese animé; there are teens online via ВКонтакте (or, as it is now better known, VK) which is more or less the Russian Facebook. BMX is becoming huge in Russia’s urban centers and teens ride American-built bikes, posting photos of those they have or those they pine for on their VK accounts. Football (soccer) though remains king, and everyone has his own team to follow with a sense of loyal devotion unmatched even by Western Europe or American college football rivalries.
ВКонтакте is a joy: in some ways I must say I like it better than Facebook and besides, it enabled me to “meet” a number of young Russians from all over their vast expanse of a nation—people I might never have known to even exist otherwise. The Russians in their twenty-somethings who have the free time to establish extensive ВКонтакте profiles are, in general, not surprisingly of the wealthier and more educated set. If anything, they often outshine their American counterparts in their apparent wealth and wanderlust: photos abound of beach holidays in Sochi or Turkey or weekends in Paris; nights watching a football match between FC Zenit and one of the rival Moscow clubs in Saint-Petersburg; winter vacations spent snowboarding near Murmansk. Not all Russians live like this, of course, but then again neither do all Americans. What their profiles and conversations with these young Russians portend, however, is an exacting, powerful, and dynamic desire to live life and really enjoy it. My friend Anton, from Krasnoyarsk, perhaps put the situation best, in an almost Joycean sentence he typed to me one night as an instant message: “We want to see what we can, ours is a huge country but we’re in Europe too so we can hop a plane or a train and you’re there with your friends and just drink, just go where there’s something to do, snowboard, beach, whatever. We’d be all over America if it wasn’t so far away. You know, we just drink on the train—it doesn’t seem so long then—just drink and play cards, chess, stare out the window as trees go zip zip zip by.”
This same basic view on life appears in spades in Sense, though tempered by the divergent political leanings of the various characters. Part of the author’s message, it seems, is to say that we are aware of so many outwardly political young Russians in this novel because the hero of the tale has gone out of his way to move in such circles, to court the lunatic political fringe. If, we may well say to ourselves, if only Artur had not gone off the deep end—poor, poor, Artur! A tragic hero, however one who is moving by his own private logic, and some of the most sudden and powerful moments in the novel occur when his logic is in fact proved to be correct and utterly valid. At a mere twenty years of age, couldn’t Artur just attend university and get on with life, we wonder nearly aloud, but then we encounter some event where his actions—or at least the philosophical and political catalysts to them—seem somewhat appropriate. Artur, for all his complaints with Russian polity and society, becomes a hero in a way that is especial to Russian literature and tradition. Emotional, manly, finding a desire to prove his courage and acumen, at once intellectual and base, grand yet impoverished, he takes us centuries back into the tropes of the grand old Russian novels.
Artur is, for better or worse, a character who invites sympathy—not only because of his youth and lack of clear understanding of the world, but due to the showmanship in his voice as he implores the reader to believe in and side with his narrative. Khasavov does a sterling job of selling us on Artur and making Artur’s voice true even given Artur’s obviously uneven bearings. As a reader, it’s easy to bounce back and forth between seeing the absurd nature of Artur’s desires and plans and at the same time viewing them as simply youthful political devices writ very large, very rough. Given the current political situation in Russia, it’s easy to see most of the groups vying for a voice also in the actions that take place in this novel. That may be the greatest benefit of all in what Khasavov has given us.
by John Samuel Tieman
again I surrender to
the whisper of snow
My wife is reading Freud this evening. I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were. Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.
I stare out our picture window. I inventory our yard. Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root. In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing
A portion of my memoir appears in this month’s Vietnam magazine, and I’m surprised by letters from strangers. Several veterans had the same job I had. Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle. One message from a wife — her husband never talks about our war.
in this Nam photo
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed
Publishing Genius Press, 2012
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
There are only eighty-eight keys on a piano and the best of us only have three simple chords to our lives—work, love, and play—but music is not made of math. Neither is poetry. Still we take some risk in making art from our confessions. The narrative that comes from living in the world is too often one-dimensional, or else it’s too wink-wink, and that’s the peril. Melissa Broder’s second poetry volume Meat Heart shows us why that risk is so important. In these intensely personal poems her experience—her personal witness—is a stepping stone to revelation. Broder’s is the perfect bascule between apocalypse and rapture. She snuggles up to the edge, she rocks back, she rounds and folds inside the arc, she reaches and grabs the other side.
Broder plays a jive, a rag, a stride, a blues, a hymn. She finds her center by getting outside of her middle. Give her eight beats and she’ll discern the plaguing icons, love them, discard them. Prufrock wondered if he dared to eat a peach. Broder isn’t so polite: “Listen wormhead/ There is no celery emergency/ …/ No evil peach in your vein of air.” In her title poem the love, glow, and magic all of us are seeking are only Slim Jims, tacos, and all-night burgers. In another poem, “Lack,” Broder is ravenous for icons: “I found the Summer of Love in a trashcan at Hardees & I ate it.” We are gluttons for it because we’re never satisfied. In “The Mail,” Broder is “disgusted by the U.S. Mail/ its endless soul-crush pulp of catalogs/ utility bills, act now offers and sales/ stinking with aggravation.” Broder wants something different, free from obvious rituals that displace her soul’s true purpose. “The Mail” continues: “Just once I would like to reach in the slot/ and come upon a stony hollow/ or perhaps, a tiny garden…This will be the depth of my story,/ the stunning extent of my smile:/ a scattered few pinprick dung drops,/ some night weather, no envelopes.”
Most of us are what we eat. Broder is what she vomits. She’s a self-mutilating anorexic alcoholic: “There are scratch marks all over/ my life…Let’s/ write a sermon on control. Let’s/ write a love song for heavyweights.” Broder’s poem “Supper” puts all her key images—boys, food, smells, and church—into a rousing intimate couplet:”Boy comes to me at church potluck/ perfumed with frankincense and lasagna.” Their courtship begins with tater tot casserole, a gateway food that can only lead to angel cake and ice cream glossolalia as Broder becomes the “burping circus lady” who’s “busting from her garments.” Just at the brink of a Willy Wonka-styled destruction, Broder finds “There is room at the organ bench” and plays.
Hungry for seconds? “Binge Eating in 2067” which turns out not to be all that futuristic. Consider these lines: “I have a jaw that seeks chunks/ and he has the heart of a fat man,” and later, “When he cooks a real live cassoulet/ flesh and fat, no hoax/ I turn my face from the bowl/ and put my fingers in his mouth.”
It’s the moods of these poems—their great suffering arcs—rather than nifty openings and closings, that catch you and whip you forward into Broder’s doom. You’re relieved as each one ends, and immediately nostalgic for the inscrutable what-was-that? you felt as you strummed into its seductive opening. I know why I liked the poem “Waterfall,” but I don’t know why it made me cry so hard:
The most romantic thing a human being can say
to another human being is Let me help you vomit.
your vomiting; it is like a psalm to me
a place where wilderness might be new.
Other people’s dirt makes a lovely frock.
Grant I be forgiven in the gush.
Broder’s poems are works of art and works of life. She isn’t the first writer to believe one should live a poem before one writes it, but she’s one of the more effective partisans since she understands its limitations. She confesses just enough to make it clear she has a great grasp of her subject—herself— showing us how genuine is her poetry bone. This is something real to her—her poetry, her life—and it becomes real to us. By turns we learn how to make poetry of our own pathetic misfit lives.
But this is only one half of a breath-taking story. Most volumes of poetry are like little kissing matches. Our nerves are touched. We smile. We smirk. We nod. At times we get excited. Meat Heart is more of a boxing match. Broder confuses our reflexes, softening us with the believability of her otherworldly destruction—her personal apocalypse—and then knocks us down with her speculative poems dealing with the abstract. We trust her as readers to take us there because we’re already swept up in her upside-down life that oddly makes perfect sense. The narrative rings true enough that when her lyric and metaphoric threads take leaps we stick around. This is what makes “Ciao Manhattan” a different sort of poem:
All day long my skull
That horsey gulper
Goes braying after sherbets
Busts up ventricles
But pauses somehow
The day falls off its reins
My brassiere goes unhooked
God walks in
And says I’m back baby
We smile at each other
Go horseless and headless
It is so God
When the voice is like wheat
In whole milk
Come closer it says
You cute little fucker
The French have one word, sacre, to mean both sacred and profane, depending on the stress, and there is something decidedly Last Year at Marienbad about Broder’s pulse. What Robbe-Grillet does with a circle, Broder conveys by harmony between the actual and the speculative. In “Gate 27” she demures “It’s very important to me/ that there be a sense of unity.” And in “Flurry,” “Something/ about the sum of us/ works best.” Sparks fly when the unity between destruction and glory happens; the feeling is electric. In “Mercy” it happens literally through the poem: “Yesterday the worship rattled like an engine/ I said Let this voltage last forever.” And it almost does, it wants to: “I want to buzz all night…Maybe your hum could just fall from my lips.”
In “Superdoom,” before the electric happens, there is panic, “200 flavors of panic,/ the worst is seeing with no eyes./ Cowboys call it riding your feelings.” Let go, Broder is telling us, ride into the violet. This is the whole world in her sad eyes. “Obituary” captures this theme much better than I could: “But if you put nothing to your eye/ Take the questions out of your mouth/ I’ll let you kiss me on the lips/ and suck my ancient oxygen.”
My favorite poem in this collection is “Bones,” which can be dissected vertically, or horizontally since the first and fourth the second and fifth, and third and sixth stanzas have seamless connections:
I held a nightlight
to my bones.
Run said the moon
or build yourself
a rowboat with a roof.
I am like a sailor
who is terrified of fish
if I see a skeleton
I might begin
to vomit up
and then what?
I am nothing
like a sailor.
This is a poem about identity, mortality, and myth, conveyed about as simply and clearly as the big awful of life could be shown, and rendered with a sophisticated lyric parallelism that reveals a curious mind in spite of life’s battering wounds. All of Broder’s most intimate moments involve imperfections. Some of us tolerate flaws; others blink and try not to talk about them. Broder adores imperfections, physical and emotional, a life as crooked and sad as her teeth are straight and happy. As a bad man living a messy life I find these poems thrilling. The search for truth and beauty is also the search for imperfection, and not being so ashamed when we find it.
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010
Edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser
Introduction by Toni Morrison
BOA Editions, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
More often than not, when BOA Editions sends me a book for review it comes in a modest package as it is commonly a small book—a single monograph of new poetry by either one of the established or younger poets BOA publishes. Recently though, a monster of a package came via post from BOA. At first I thought it was my new toaster from amazon.com but in fact it was a single book—a very, very, large book. And well it should have been so large because even nearly eight hundred pages seem too few to confine the entire span of the career of one of the most-American, most-essential of our contemporary poets, Lucille Clifton.
Looking at this book as I removed it from its packaging, it was clear that BOA pulled out all the stops on this one, producing a beautiful volume that even has the now-rare bookmark ribbon one used to encounter more often in high-quality books, especially those on some sort of mission. The mission here, of course, is to introduce the reader to Clifton’s poetry or, for one who already knows her well, provide a single-volume overview of her work. This book in an instant made me want to sit down and start reading from it, but it also made me quite happy for BOA: as a book reviewer, you become fond of publishers to an extent, knowing that they make their every dollar off our industry whereas most of us as reviewers also teach, write other journalism, or have another vocation. The publishers are, even more than most authors they represent, right in the thick of the very difficult book business. BOA’s offerings are always exacting, pithy, and urgent books of poetry and short fiction but to see them publish the life’s work of a major poet I felt moved them into another sphere where they fully deserve to be: you’d expect to see this title come off of Farrar, Straus and Giroux or one of the other very-old, very-established, very-literary publishing houses in New York City. Yet BOA deserves to be in such company and this book perhaps more than any other should put the press on the lips of the literati.
Even more importantly, Lucille Clifton is an American writer who deserves to be in the highest circle of our poets and she has, alas, often been neglected from those reaches. This book should change that, providing a hefty anthology complete with an introduction but one of our greatest living writers, Toni Morrison. Friends who are graduate students in our local university’s English department who saw the Clifton book on my desk remarked at once “oh wow, yeah I read something by her but I didn’t know she wrote THAT much!”. The book’s size and the Morrison contribution make it immediately portend itself as serious business, and let’s not fool ourselves, this is how authors ascend in the modern canon. A recently-departed poet needs a book like this if she didn’t quite get as much scholarly attention as she should have during her life, because now the matter of such is made easier for the scholar, the critic, and the everyday reader alike. It’s a book that needed to be published, to be out there; my first thought in fact was that it would make a fine Christmas present for many of my friends . . . until I realized my friends are all over the States and Europe and the shipping alone on this tome could put me in the poor house. I hope though they’ll read this and other reviews and buy it themselves. Sometimes, amazon has free shipping—even on toasters. Perhaps that will help.
Lucille Clifton’s career spanned decades and saw a great deal of transformations happen in American society—transformations especially in civil rights and women’s rights that were essential to an African-American woman writer like Clifton. However, it also saw alongside positive, much-needed, changes a way of life slip away. As she was from the North, from New York state, Clifton was of a first generation of African-American women for whom college was a viable option and for whom the post-war years offered opportunities that would have seemed impossible mere decades prior to their mothers or certainly their grandmothers. Yet Clifton also saw the strife of the civil rights era and how little in some regards many vestiges of racism had changed over the years. One of her most-known quotes speaks to that, and to the position an educated Black woman aware of the world was in during the dynamic years she came into her own as a writer:
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and I keep on remembering mine
These lines appear all over the Internet and even on a plaque on the outside of the New York Public Library. These lines, I would not say sum up Clifton—that would be a grave mistake—but they do provide a great place to start in learning who Lucille Clifton was and how she wrote. What motivated her to write. How a clerk and philosophy professor’s wife wrote of the world she came from and the world she saw growing around her. Clifton was always very smart—keenly smart and intellectually curious—but also was a poor student while at Howard University, which she attended on an earned scholarship yet dropped out of due to a lack of continued interest. She was not a rebel, either, though but instead a young woman who was on the cusp of change and was in the full process of learning about the world around her.
The “memories” she was requested to “remember”—I must presume at Howard, too—were not the same as her own nor were the stories she knew she must tell the world. Clifton was born in a time when Black women—most women, period—were not college-educated yet she also was born in the same year that Dawn Powell’s masterful novel Turn, Magic Wheel was first published. The New York literary world Powell wrote of in that book was a world that was becoming more and more the world of Lucille Clifton, too, and the sheer excitement of the evolving, spinning, globe Clifton knew she was a vested part of is clear in her poems from this period.
Clear as well, though, is Clifton’s sense of history. The position of family, faith, food and traditions that we might today call “Black American culture” but at Clifton’s time were just simply her own experience come across plainly and powerfully in her poems. It’s no wonder that Toni Morrison so admired Clifton: much of the core material we find as mature and complete themes in Morrison’s own novels can be found well-defined in Clifton’s often short but always-engaging poems.
hey music and
hair a flutter of
circling my perfect
line of a nose,
no behind, hey
and i’m wearing
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and
This poem, “My Dream About Being White”, is a perfect example of both Clifton’s approach as a poet—her understandable concerns with race and gender—but also her sense of voice and structure, her debt to the Harlem Renaissance, and her interest in writing about the female body—a theme that becomes crucial to her work.
Hélène Cixous, who is to me one of the most-important literary critics (as well as writers of fiction and drama) of the past century and our contemporary era, has made it an especial focus of her career to discern the ways women write of being outsiders and also how they write of being women, period—how they tell of female time, female bodies. Lucille Clifton was walking the very same path, yet while Cixous was an outsider in Paris—an Algerian Jew of all things beyond being a woman in man’s Paris, in man’s world of letters—I suspect Clifton had a less glam and more gritty experience of it, really. She was hearing jazz fly out the windows of rent parties, pianos played lovingly but drunkenly, giddily, by rough but talented hands. For Clifton—and her poetry tells us this much—Paris and what Cixous experienced there may well have been the grand dream but for Cixous, who was by only a year Clifton’s junior, I highly suspect that Clifton’s torrid New York and the Harlem of Hughes were just as much a dream. What Clifton touches upon with a deft and brave pen time and again in her poems is the sense of a woman’s body, and at that, a black body that doesn’t conform to the strictures and expectations of white beauty. A body that turns her verily into someone other than just a woman, though being a woman alone was enough of a disadvantage and yet did not alone make one a lady. While being a writer was not one of the obvious nor approved vocations for a woman—lady or otherwise, it was one that women like Dawn Powell were starting to make not only in fashion but powerful.
The juxtaposition of themes in Clifton’s work is at times astounding even when the constant motifs of gender, race, and a society slowly coming into a more clear and bright period are easy enough to identify. Where Clifton often shines though is when she approaches other topics including things as simple as a meal shared with family. The backbone of her writing, the nails and teeth of her concern for progress, make it possible for her to write so lovingly of things traditional without seeming coy or as if she is sticking too close to a very old song-book. Clifton is also at points at her best when writing about sickness, disease, and allopathy—when she writes about her experience as a patient or simply in visiting a hospital. Her writing here is not at all limited to her emphasis on racial or engendered experience but is about more general social experience. I feel this is one of the most crucial points to take away from Clifton’s poetry and a point well made by having an anthology as comprehensive as this one, where it is possible to examine the depth and scope of such a long career in poetry. Too often, female African-American poets are expected to speak of their experiences as Black women alone, as if one enters the arena of poetry simply to build a whole career around one’s origins. Certainly, the agency afforded to any minority via writing to express their voices which have for so long been mitigated is essential, but it’s a huge mistake to presume anyone of minority status or origins does not have more universal concerns in writing; obviously, a Black woman could write about the same very basal, central, issues as any poet from Frost to Eliot to Jorie Graham. Clifton escapes the trap of being considered “a Black poet” or a “woman poet” via the scope and merit of her work, but she also provides us with some of the deepest, most nuanced, writing regarding race we’ve obtained yet in America.
At her best, Clifton flawlessly addresses multiple topics at once in a poem and also can hit the difficult mark between natural, pastoral, concerns and empire of mankind as industry has affected the landscape with its devices and designs. A fine example is her poem “Blessing the Boats”:
(at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
When Clifton was writing—between 1965 and the last decade prior to our current one—the world and especially America saw vast changes in society but also leveling out of an industrial culture that came into its own fully after the second world war. The advent of the computer alone changed the face of work, how women especially were employed as secretaries and clerks and how office work was done. Other technological changes had serious weight in industries like shipping and agriculture. We think of the period from the 1960s until our present time as one of mainly sociopolitical change and perhaps, at least in literature, overlook the other changes involved in our fabric of life. Clifton is keen on getting the everyday effects of such advances down, even when she places these between the lines. She is able to see where the novel wrinkles and veins of society mimic those of the human body and is able to truncate the extra, the non-essential, and break down the very complex mess of social construction into a few lines of poetry. When we think of the human body, the female body, it too is there, but so are all the waterways, the Interstates, the airports, the wing and wheel, the circuital, the impulse of business—the thrust of industry. Much of the tenor of all that shaped America in the post-war years can be located in Clifton’s writing, yet it’s often not what the reader first seeks. It’s worth looking for, however.
Clifton’s writing on nature, such as in her poem “Light”, takes on a nearly gospel-style approach of wonder and reflection—in the aforementioned poem using mainly a simple list of works for the topic to explore that topic. Her work in this way is masterful though often very subtle. She uses not only an economy of words, but of actual page-space, too. Dreams, also, are constant subjects of Clifton’s poetry:
a woman unlike myself is running
down the long hall of a lifeless house
with too many windows which open on
a world she has no language for,
running and running until she reaches
at last the one and only door
which she pulls open to find each wall
is faced with clocks and as she watches
all of the clocks strike
This is Clifton’s “My Dream About Time” and sums up a lot of the motifs we encounter time and again in her work, but the shortness of the poem, its ability to express so very much with so little is what makes it remarkable. Also, where other—mostly male—poets might use pastoral images Clifton applies household ones and not only in this poem but in many. While she still can master both the pastoral and the man-intervened environment as in the poem above about the blessing of ships at St. Mary’s, she often places female protagonists in households, reflecting on the scope of domestic duties most women of her time and class encountered.
As the poems above should make clear, Lucille Clifton is an important—one of the most important—poets of her period and one who very much deserves a readership today and one in the future. Her output over the years has been vast but prior to the present collection, it has not been easy to obtain a good selection of her work from around 1965 onward in one place. Due to this situation, and due to the fact many younger readers may not have encountered her early works aside from where these have been reprinted in anthologies of American or African-American poetry, the new BOA Editions collected works is essential. Indeed, beyond providing a mechanism for interested readers to come to Clifton’s work, this wonderful new book should be the very catalyst for many to take her up in the first place. BOA is to be congratulated for its publication of this much-needed and beautiful work.
Poems by Chana Bloch
Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2009,
85 pages, $14.95 paper
by Lindy Hough
Blood Honey is a book filled with moving poems by a poet who has been a translator of important poets since she was a young woman. Her own poems are lush and vivid. One never finishes a poem wishing for more—they end beautifully as finished wholes.
Bloch trails the blood of her Eastern European forefathers into accessible set pieces, eschewing experimentalism and the hip-pocket currency her progenitor Yehuda Amichai achieved, commonly regarded as Israel’s greatest contemporary poet. Her work is a weave of tribal knowledge: family secrets kept, told, suspected, weighing down her bones, refracting in her writing.
She is our inter-generational poet, weaving the generations together, showing where psychological and emotional ladders make a rip-rap between child and grandparent, or young woman and mother, or child and uncle, in case any Gen-Xers begin convincing themselves they’re the whole story, that what happened in their family before them doesn’t count. Some young people want to strike out alone, so they don’t see themselves as within the context of family. Bloch’s generational swing, like Faulkner’s deep veins of Sutpen lineages, reminds the reader that the generations are supposed to be generous to one another — though they are not always.
Bloch’s poems reverberate with nuances of those who came before, in many different countries. A lightning rod grounding energy from her past, she endows us with the feeling it is our past. Narration as history, not just personal revelation.
Bloch takes her palette on the road, writing in any country or state; if she is a poet of place, it would be anywhere. Amichai wrote mainly of Israel, much to the delight of his countrymen. We hear about nature in Blood Honey, but Chana Bloch’s mind is so active with images and memories the actual location is subtle, glimpsed, or not mentioned. Writing of the colors of the Grand Canyon, she thinks of Rothko’s colors, and describes them.
Amichai had published a dozen books in English translated by many others by the time Bloch and Chana Kronfield’s translation of Open Closed Open was issued in 2000. Bloch then bit off the translation into English of three volumes of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s work. The last, published in 2009, was Hovering At A Low Altitude, Ravikovitch’s collected poems.
Her early translation with her first husband Ariel Bloch of the biblical Song of Songs faced the task of rendering poetically deep sexual love with language compatible with the King James version. She and Bloch brought alive a beloved Victorian-weary cliché, probably one of the most excerpted parts of Old Testament. They made it starkly sensual, neither ribald or tacky.
The earthiness of “Trespass” echoes the quick sensuality of The Song of Songs, mixed with dreamscape time- travel. The narrator takes a fantasy lover into her train compartment fashioned from the man at the ticket counter, who reminds of an early lover. “He’s not the one, but he’ll do.”
without knowing, that man
handed me a key.
I open him easily, helping myself
to whatever I please.
There’s no stopping me now—nervy, elated,
I’ve sneaked past a sleepy guard
to plunder a time zone.
The “time zone” of the poem is a leap to years back, the present brought to contemporary life by dream.
Perhaps translation gave Bloch a surety and ear for freshness in language. Ear, voice, vocabulary, rhythm, and economy—she mixes the elements deftly and acutely into a pleasing whole.
Who came before? Bloch is not afraid to ponder and critique her own mothering, understanding that it came at the same time as she was living through the horrors of the Holocaust for her family and others. The book most concerned with children, her own and others, is The Past Keeps Changing, poems written in the 80s and published in 1992. In Blood Honey, the horrors of the Holocaust seep in, almost as if now that children are gone, one can explore more these dark shadows held at bay during the raising of “the boys.”
The narrator remembers the callousness she experienced as a young girl from rough-talking parents, and reflects on her own actions as a mother. In a rueful and memorable passage she tells of reading her sons Baba Yaga folktales and acting them out in later moments of play when they were small, and loved being chased:
I chased them screeching down the hall,
I catch you, I eat you!
My witch-blade hungry for the spurt
What stopped me
even as I lifted my hand?
The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!
Eat my brother!
The narrator is jolted by an awareness of ancient and modern cultures where brother betrays brother, in the Old Testament, in the Holocaust. Bloch pinpoints the moment in the past with her children, reflects on her action of the raised hand, and allows the darker shadow to surface the ending of the poem.
As Director of the Creative Writing Program at Mills College for many years, Bloch was a griot responsible for giving her students tools to maintain an oral record of their tribal history in music, poetry, and storytelling. No trivial matter. A failure of modernism is that many of us aren’t born into tribal clans who pass down initiation and social bonding rituals, stories and a mythopoetics for life—or we are and don’t value this material. MFA Programs can teach some things, but they can’t create a gift for writing. She trained generations of students’ ears and eyes to recognize eschew sentimentality, and tack towards honesty and subtlety in writing. She listened to her students’ cadences, and attempted to instill a useful lineage: poetry is a map with earlier mapmakers. She empowered her students, by deconstructing her own poems and others; and drew attention to visual artists and musicians—important influences from a colorist, so her students could see their task as carrying on lineages and adding to the world’s knowledge.
Blood Honey, at this moment the pinnacle of Chana Bloch’s poetic output, is outspoken, true to history and the tribal lineages it represents. Searching for some reason for the horrors humans create, she maps history as individuals enter her life—decades ago when she was a child, or at breakfast yesterday. Older people seem particularly strong in the first section of Blood Honey—an uncle, an old Jewish woman in Prague, a calm rabbi.
This year at Pesach, a Jewish student proclaimed
Armageddon. “Burn the books! Burn the textbooks!”
he shouted to a cheerful crowd…
The rabbi was a skeptic.
Years ago he’d been taught, If you’re planting a tree
and someone cries out, The Messiah has come!
finish planting the tree. Then
go see if it’s true.
“Flour and Ash” startles— a vision washes over reality. The narrator is in the studio of a painter using flour and ash, “working in seven shades of gray” on large sheets of paper tacked to the wall:
“Make flour into dough,” she answers,
and fire will turn it into food.
Ash is the final abstraction of matter.
You can just brush it away.”
The artist applies “the fine soft powders with a fingertip, highlighting in chalk and graphite,/blending, blurring with her thumb.” The narrator looks outside, is alarmed at the red and yellow daylilies in the dry summer, and the notion of fire begins to fill her mind, as it does for many in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills when the weather is dry and still, perfect for conflagration: “Her garden burns/red and yellow in the dry August air/and is not consumed.”
But then the chilling vision:
Inside, on the studio wall, a heavy
thickens and rises. Footsteps grime the snow.
The about-to-be-dead line up on the ramp
with their boxy suitcases,
When I get too close she yanks me back.
She hovers over her creation
though she too has a mind
to brush against that world
and wipe it out.
A revelatory poem, full of confusions about time and space—A real occurrence? A dream? An imagined sequence suggested by looking at an artist’s work? This ash cannot be “brushed away.” The Biblical resonance of the second line “and fire will turn it into food” foreshadows the mournful dirge of the Holocaust. We feel the sorrow of the dead, relive the victims’ agony. The poem leaves us with “boxy suitcases,” and “ashen shoes.” Recent horror only a generation old, never to be forgotten.
The Past Keeps Changing (1992), Bloch’s second book, is filled with children. The first poem suggests the tight unit of the nuclear family as “The Family” is compared to a Russian nesting doll, all the members sealed up again at night: “We sleep/staring at the inside.”
These poems are as strong as those in Blood Honey, without its sweep. The focus on family leads to lovely detail: movement from remembering her own piano lessons in one poem, to working with her son at the piano in another; a son asking her to sock her fist into his stomach to test his strength is a wonderful depiction of pre-adolescence. “In the Land of A Body” lays it out about a cancer operation. Bloch is a reliable narrator; we are sure that revelation will include transformation. My favorite poem in this collection edges into the moral ambiguities which claim more attention in Blood Honey. In “Listening,” an unknown man brings everyone, including all his women and myriad children, to a carousel to say something tawdry:
It’s your dream, not mine. That’s why
we’re all in one place:
you, me, your dead wife,
your mistress, your girlfriend, everyone’s
We climb on the carousel without speaking.
This is your dream. You wrote it. That’s why
the women lean forward in their stirrups as if
to kiss each other, and the children
close their eyes. They’re so young,
Why are you
telling me this, suddenly happy,
tapping the spoon against the spongy
palm of your hand? Why
am I leaning forward, listening,
like one of them?
The poem chills us, with its Cocteau-like carousel, its depiction of children inappropriately present. Bloch’s disgust at the profligacy of the dreamer is clear. Less easily resolved than many of her poems, it’s equal to the best of Blood Honey.
Back in Blood Honey, there is an almost lazy comfortableness to “Natural History.” Bloch watches a meadow and traces the evolution of the trees over eons, past when we’ve forgotten we were there, past our own lives:
It takes a long time to make a meadow.
First you need glaciers
to gouge out a lake.
Then reeds grow, the lake fills with silt
and eventually grass.
So many trees with their litter
of fallen leaves to beget
a single live joy.
Look at the dead ends
up and down that trunk: each one
could have been a branch.
How a meadow is made, by a colorist who sees with the vision of a painter. The “single live joy” makes art of science—deft strokes on the progression of a lake.
The title poem describes long days with a man dying of a brain tumor. He recalls the summer he packed blood oranges, drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice straight from the tap, “scooping sweetness from the belly of death/—honey from a lion’s carcass.” /We sit with our friend /and brood on the riddle he sets before us:/What is it, this blood honey?” The weeks turn into months, as Bloch realizes this is how this man is going to die: his flame will leap and surge before going out is extinguished. The poem captures the sadness of this, the amazement that day after day the man tastes the goodness in the world “through a keyhole/that keeps getting smaller/and smaller.” A metaphor not just for death, but our lives.
The comings and goings of the generations; a commitment to emotional honesty. Bloch tastes the joy of life in “The Daily News,” written at Lake Como: “We rush out into the blur of snowflakes/flustered and suddenly happy./We’re all set to hope/but the sky turns to water in our hands.” Like a good songwriter, she stays with the poem just long enough.
Blood Honey contains poems you may want to keep with you always, savor while travelling, or a train or anytime you want delight in a small space, as in these memorable lines from “Blue:”
from one hope to the next, irremediably
deep in blue.
Lindy Hough is a poet and fiction writer. She is Founding Publisher of North Atlantic Books. Her most recent book is Wild Horses, Wild Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1971-2010. She lives in Berkeley, California and Mt. Desert Island, Maine with her husband, the writer Richard Grossinger. They have a son, Robin Grossinger, in Berkeley, and a daughter, Miranda July, in Los Angeles.
We no longer love you, boss,
but the reason – it’s just hard to tell;
though there’s one thing we know,
and we can tell this full well –
we’d all love to smash your ass, boss.
Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye has been described as “pastoral” by a literary critic in the press release that came along with my review copy of the book, and while that’s a very good place to start with this volume it’s not an all-encompassing description, either. Rekdal uses pastoral motifs to engage discourse on life and love—as many poets from Wordsworth onward have before her—but she also constructs full models of life in this book. It is as if a scientist is at work in the basement of the museum of natural history, building a diorama of an entire ecosystem via words. She seems not only interested in using the natural world as a metaphoric lens in her poems but is set on building them item by item into natural worlds themselves. Her poetry—though in most cases short, tight, poems—can overwhelm the reader, though in a very good way.
For example, take a look at the opening of her poem “Nightingale”:
There is a bird that comes at night, he says,
that makes the most beautiful music.
The “he” described is a boy, seated at the kitchen table—we’re given that much—and then he launches into the reason for the title of the poem. “Nightingale” is flowing, bittersweet, and adroit in every capacity—possibly my favorite poem in the entire book. It also prepares us for the longer poem “Wax” that earns its own section in the book: when “Wax” comes on the scene, all else grinds to a halt. The parade of powerful yet compact poems is over for a spell, and instead we have a massive missive about wax museums and thus about the celebrities re-created in wax form therein. Here, in literal terms, Rekdal is working as that museum tech down in the basement and building displays to entertain and inform the public. And when that public reads of her tales, to this museum of melodrama, you know they’ll come in droves.
But before all that, I want to return to the boy and his nightingale:
The field is wet and full of stars.
The boy cocks his head toward the dark.
I won’t give away the full tenor or meaning of this poem, but it’s sublime and filled with language as lush and leading as these fine examples. This kid is describing an event; this boy is telling a tale; this kid is constructing a reality; this boy is cut like a stencil from the Boy Scout ideals of an America that hardly was; this kid could be Ohio, North Carolina, or Detroit. He is rural, he is suburban. He is in from soccer on a November night or bored to tears in the heart of the hot summer. Rekdal provides us with a whole person—she put him together from straw and lumber in the basement I suppose —not just the image or narrative of a person. She offers a character able to tell his own tale as if being interviewed on the nightly news. There is her magic: Rekdal’s boy at the kitchen table is now real, set loose to offer his own commentary, seemingly no longer a voice of the poet but one fully of his own.
In other instances, Rekdal’s work is of the same level of raw craft but somehow the end result is not of the same caliber, such as in “Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce”. Though well-written, even the title is somewhat an example of trying too hard. There is an air of the set-piece to it, a sense of knowing exactly what to expect and just waiting to see the poet draw it all out. These poems though number few in her book and they are even above the level of many contemporary poets, offering sound construction and pithy, ready, emotions. Indeed, were it not for poems such as “Nightingale” or “Ballard Locks” in this volume, even the weakest of Rekdal’s efforts would appear exceptional, but these poems push the standard even higher.
What Rekdal does over and over in this book and does always very well is to interrogate the lives of a variety of people via her pastoral references as seen perhaps by some small mammal or bird—something with that “animal eye”—from a short distance away. She asks us to come to know otherness by firstly becoming the other. If inside the same society as the subject of the poem, we are too insular to these often-cloistered subjects, so she allows us the benefit of being someone else, perhaps even someone/something not human. She allows us removal even beyond being a party foreign to the subject, in a sense doing the opposite of what every author of fiction who tries to make his reader feel like the reader is in fact one of the characters in the narrative; instead of putting us in the same social circle as her characters, Rekdal puts us one step more removed than normal and thus allows us a specific formulation of understanding which is unique to the most different, most foreign, most exotic.
The question of “character” development in contemporary poetry is one too seldom asked or approached in criticism: the way many of us write today involves the creation or replication of personages different from the poet and thus, really, characters in any sense of narrative. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have names, if they don’t extend for five pages of activity or have concrete backstories. They can, like the boy at the kitchen window and his nightingale, be momentary but they’re no less powerful when crafted by skilled hands. Rekdal certainly has this sense of craft down pat: she draws us into these poems via characters who are full, lush, evocative, and compelling—so much so, in fact, you don’t realize at times they are nameless or you are unsure whether they are the poet herself or someone else. Many readers—even those dedicated to contemporary poetry—seem still to presume that any figure introduced in a poem is a real person and thus, ever poem is a chronicle of the poet’s actual life in verse. Not so, of course, as poets can as adeptly create fictional or fictionalized portrayals as readily as any other writer. This is not to say the genesis of Rekdal’s poems is one of only her powers of imagination, but her work is able to expertly weave in so many colors of description aside very compelling and ready characters that I have to wonder of their full origins. Whether fully true to life or truer to a masterful sense of fictional creation, these poems are filled with people we want to know. The boy in “Nightingale” alone could go on to star in an entire novel, just as some scholars claim that Bloom was first seen in a story in Joyce’s Dubliners long before starring in his masterpiece.
Rekdal’s approach to developing atmosphere is no less comprehensive than her ability to flesh out characters of substance: her descriptions of place are stark when need be to allow the focus to fall elsewhere but can be lush and affirming—glossy even—when desired. That “pastoral” quality another reviewer noted is very apparent in places and the development of place can be nonspecific yet realistic, broad, and wide-ranging in scope. Rekdal’s summer-filled or autumnal-flavored spots on the page resonate like vintage landscape postcards and it’s much to her credit that when required, she can draw in these lush string and brass sounds of the pastoral and have her orchestra play a smaller tune devoted to specific human emotions. It’s a treat though when Rekdal fully unleashes her orchestral overtones and depicts a place in such painterly terms, reminding us of one of the most-valued of traditions in Western canonical poetry—that of breathtaking landscape.
More than simply pastoral I would praise Rekdal’s writing in Animal Eye as verdant, as lush, as filled with dreams but not normal dreams—ones that creep out of the skull and remain deep in the carpet until their seeds bloom into actuality. Her praxis here is at such a high level that even her shortest poems are full and never suffer for their economy on the page. When she turns to something nearing long-form, she provides us with “Wax” and after reading this poem, you’ll never look at a wax museum the same again, I promise you. This book is necessary: it is a step in a more consummate direction of contemporary poetry that openly acknowledges the debt poetry has to fiction yet also the multiple debts it has to its naturalistic past. More than a book-length pastoral, this is an eclogue and a fine one at that.
Poet in Andalucía by Nathalie Handal
University of Pittsburgh Press
reviewed by Mike Walker
The concept of a volume of poetry transporting its reader to a far-off locale is not a new one. Given the constant tropes of how poetry is supposedly an emotional, romantic, art, the idea of remote vistas and escape almost too-easily fits into the realm of the poet’s craft. Expectedly, there are many poor—perhaps even horrible—examples of this approach, however, this is not to say it cannot be done very well, and be fully effective in its transportation of reader to a place miles away. In the case of Nathalie Handal, the place in question is Andalusia, the southern-most geographic region of Spain and what was once the heart of the Islamic Caliphate of Córdoba.
Andalusia really contains a wealth of history and at that, history of many flags, many languages, many colors. Handal could have filled a whole book simply with images and visions of Moorish Spain and left it at that, but instead, she attempts to cover the entire range of Andalusia’s long-running game of politics and personages. Overall, she is very successful, too. She can compose a poem about Toledo’s glory and then one about Jorge Guillén, jumping from century and realm of polity in one graceful swoop. In this, and due to how pithy and informative her poems are—and how constant her voice is regardless of its specific topic—Handal is able to offer a book that nearly reads as much as a travel journal or even historical record as it does a work of poetry. In the instance where I come to her poem “The Thing about Feathers”, not even half-way into the book, I feel like I am in the middle of a truly majestic, swelling, work of fiction. Much of my own scholarship is on Chrétien de Troyes ‘s Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette and somehow, in the middle of Handal’s discourse of Moors and Spanish poets I got the feeling of that great work—the feeling of something designed to be entertaining yet rooted in deep history, of something that has grown larger than life since its creation and sounds nearly oral even when read in silence on the page. Of course, the book I am holding was only published in 2012, but never mind that: what Handal has done is no less than a spectacular triumph as she has knitted up and enveloped centuries worth of history into a slim volume and nonetheless it all reads—consistently—like grand literature.
We are strange when we’re lost,
his father told him.
With these lines, we start into a poem. This is how Handal often begins—straight out the chute, but certainly mid-stream, half-way through the film, far into the maze. That is travel. As seems fitting for a poet “in Andalucía”, we catch up with our poet and not the other way around, and this is as it should be, since Handal’s approach helps convey the very sense of her journey itself.
I have inherited your shadows,
and a thousand crossroads.
This theme of travel is constant, and often comes with a motif of awe, of narrative reaching beyond whatever immediate import it contains as where it rests as lines of a specific poem. Everything in this book feels interconnected. There is an element of García Lorca in Handal’s writing—not surprising, as she mentions him and other Spanish poets throughout the book—still, his spirit floats over the pages just like Handal’s words float over the entire Iberian landscape.
He longs for
the secret forms of god
along the back of his neck
Those quick lines are probably my favorite in this entire book, and picking favorites is a chore not easily undertaken given the bounty of options the poet provides. Aware that she is as much a teacher as a poet in these pages, Handal also includes a helpful set of notes about her travels in Spain and the topics and places she concerns herself with in the poems. Most readers may find they need it: having taken several courses in college in European and Moorish history that covered Andalusia in depth, I thought I would be fine yet here and there Handal would introduce something I’d not really encountered—or at least understood—before. Moreover, she made me desire to open up García Lorca once again and read him anew.
Handal quotes everyone—like a reporter on assignment overseas, she is quick to get a word or two from all those of importance she can interview. Only with Handal, she has the benefit of not limiting her interviews to the living but includes everyone from (literally) dead poets to an Umayyad prince from Moorish times long, long ago. This quoted material bookends the sections of her book and interfaces with her poems, making the effect of the whole somewhere between epic poem and an anthology of travel writing. Quoting others at times indicates an author is either running thin on original work or else trying to locate herself as someone of equal greatness to those she quotes, but Handal applies her quotes to the best of use, building with them a historical and atmospheric timeline of sorts into which she can insert her poems. The whole feeling the reader takes from this experience is one of a real journey, a tangible venture through Spain and the crisp waves of the water, the fine sand, the rocky shores, the savory kitchens, the faded tiles in churches centuries old all come forth with power and poise.
Two rather unrelated but vital elements allow Handal’s poetry to be as strong and robust as it is: for one, she has a well-developed understanding of observation, which is something not all poets today retain in their array of skills. As writers encouraged to look inward and expected to produce works that do not even require in most cases plots or the development of characters as in fiction and drama, poets can become more insular than anyone else working in literature. Not Handal: she takes her tasks of description as seriously as any first-rate journalist would, focusing on all that comes into her path. Secondly, Handal is able to produce clear prose, writing that is contemporary, familiar and direct yet that also is warm and and lyrical, creating the type of romantic, nearly courtly sense of succession— of prolongation of the narrative at hand as something unified. What might have been only travel sketches transcribed into verse are instead very singular, consummate, organic, creations. They stand on their own but also, even better, as a whole in the scope of the book.
This book, and its author, are a treasure. In the course of reviewing books of poetry for four different literary periodicals, I encounter “good” poetry all the time—little of what established publishers send out to reviewers is without merit—however, it’s exceptional to find something as cohesive and engrossing as Poet in Andalucía. I highly recommend it and await Handal’s next journey.
By Marcella Prokop
To read Peter Blair’s Farang is to find oneself in a lucid dream. Set in Thailand and wavering between Bangkok, the “Up-country” and Pittsburgh, Blair’s language moves readers through scenes with the elegance of a foreign dancer: the rhythms are mesmerizing, the experience transcendent. Having spent three years in Thailand in the Peace Corps, Blair knows what it is to be a farang, the Thai word for “foreigner” that means so much more than just that. He writes as an English teacher in a foreign land, his main speaker working through the joys and sorrows of instruction, of class bonds, of trying and sometimes managing to fit in. The nature of duality that defines those who are bound to contradictory memories, places and interests comes to life in the existence of Thai culture. Thailand is duality—it is the land of pleasure but also the land of restraint, of the Buddha—and this conflict is woven into this collection. Whether illuminating saffron robes or Pittsburgh’s “cold November drizzle,” Blair details the beautiful nature of memory, loss and uncertainty in these luminous poems.
“Thai and American cultures, two dreams / of one world, the Dharma,” he writes in the opening poem, “Discussing the Dream of Culture with Professor Kwaam.” Blair’s speaker questions the Dharma—the word of the Buddha and the way of life in his new home—and finds himself grasping for answers. To accept Buddhism is to accept the loss of ego, and throughout these poems Blair’s many speakers question tradition, reality and the life that unfolds around them. What is it to dream, to exist in this reality? Buddhists love confusing those unversed in their word, not to be cruel, but to crack open the uninitiated mind to a new perspective. As the speaker in this first poem works through a streetside meal of noodles in Bangkok, he is confronted by the “emptiness deepening” in his companion’s bowl. This is a powerful poem, for its lack of resolution sets the tone for the collection. As the seasons and locations change, the principal speaker becomes more firmly entrenched in his dual nature, forgetting who he is and questioning what he knows. Yet strong voice is not the only element that unifies these poems. The ever-present reminder that at some point we are all foreigners in our own lives binds each scene to the reader. And so, like any good dream, another strong element of craft swirled into the sounds of Blair’s poetry is his way with delicate images: the flash of ocean as a student drowns, the scent of an indescribable soup steaming from a bowl, the brilliance of a silent Buddha flaking chips of soft gold. Despite the confusion of this dual world, each image provides clarity in description, adding texture to these poems.
In “From the Window,” the first poem in the second section of the collection, the speaker abandons all he has come to know. He leaves Siripan, his Thai lover; his former students; his now-familiar Bangkok, the City of Angels. Yet there is continued uncertainty, and continued growth. Blair’s inquiries and insights in this section become as vaguely precise as a monk’s questions: What comes first, the mountain, or the valley? Is life as an outsider choice or consequence? In this section readers find a different country, and with it, another set of lyrical poems that lead deeper into the Thai dream as remembered by a foreigner gone native.
The train pulls away from Bangkok station,
away from Siripan, from the closed
school and into a myth of rice fields.
What’s older, the farmer plowing
a glass sea, or the idea
of motion, of wheels and wind?
A small blue comma, the man’s body,
hunches over the plow in the distance.
The speaker questions movement here, his motion as well as the wheel that turns for all who live. Later, in “Barubador Temple,” he examines a new conflict:
If I wasn’t in love
with stones I could be the one
monk statue sitting free, nothing but air
and light around me.
This is intriguing scene and language because on the one hand this speaker is free, not just of traditional American constraints, but also in his ability to move from place to place. Yet his struggle to let go of his Western notions of life and attitude bind him to his body. Is it possible, he wonders, to sit, to know one space, and yet be grounded? Is it right to be happy in that place, yet wistful for another? As Blair moves through his two lives the question continues to haunt him.
One of the joys of reading these poems is that they work like a traditional Koan—a Zen form of poetry that confuses, yet (hopefully) enlightens the reader or listener. Each piece in this collection presents questions and lessons that prompt the reader to consider his or her nature. Getting into the meat of these poems, then, is like meditation, like getting to the moment or near-moment of Nirvana. The careful reader will suddenly, abruptly, feel the click, the ah-ha! of understanding. It takes loss and confusion, these stories say, to find the truth of being.
In “Night House,” contemplating a student’s paper about a Thai fairy tale, Blair’s speaker unites the abstract and concrete by exploring emotion and necessity:
How can I grade its agreement
or tense? I want to hear the mother’s
voice, her spirit calling like the frogs
in the paddies. Is that her, that magic
mother who speaks the language of rain,
husks and the night house?
English teacher or not, the reader can understand the speaker’s problem: Is it better to maintain the order of structure and expectation and ignore the beauty of the content, or is it best to let oneself go to the whirlwind of feeling created as structure is broken? This is a question answered in the literal form of Blair’s poems. The rules of storytelling apply to each poem, allowing each character to have his or her voice. It’s a paradox that Blair as the principal author/speaker could accomplish this only through losing and questioning Blair as person. This cleavage is strongest in “Two Farangs” as the speaker transcends location and color, forgetting his own body, his own identity, while watching another farang from across the street:
Look, at that farang strutting
down the sidewalk, I think,
sweaty, hairy chest and shock
of frizzed, blond hair bright
in sunlight. Ragged pants,
no shirt, that beard.
I’m about to cross the street
to warn him we Thais
find big white bodies unsettling
as ghosts, until I glimpse
my pale reflection in a store
window, my round farang eyes
staring back at me in wonder.
Life as metaphor in this inquiry into self and reflection on who he is and who he’s become challenges the speaker throughout these poems, and Blair’s gentle way of setting up this tension pushes toward some kind of long-sought release. But as he brings his collection full circle in his return to Pittsburgh, that desire, like all desires, must fade in order for the speaker—and thus, the reader—to feel at peace with what is.
In “Back in Pittsburgh” the speaker feels out of place during the ceremonies surrounding his father’s funeral. The memories of the times mentioned and people conjured are no longer his to cling to. Lost among once-familiar faces and streets and bars, the speaker attempts to return to the familiarity of his Thailand.
what I expect
to see throws me: not Singh quart bottles
but Iron City ponies on the table,
not sunshine on the wide Bangkok Boulevards
and palm trees waving in glare, but overcast sky,
narrow streets hugging hillsides, my tires
drumming cobblestones between old steel rails.
Those who have left home for distant lands and returned to once-familiar shores will connect with Blair’s words here. The expectations, the memories of what once was—after life in another country these things too, are simply dreams, fading from grasp as times flows.
Driving the old streets I spot a blue bicycle
like the one I ride everyday in Ubol.
I want to follow it, as the rain thickens
into curtains between us, want to believe
its wavering silhouette will guide me home.
Home? Where is home, for this ghost of a man, this drifting voice here, that stone statue elsewhere? The speaker’s dream has faded at the end, and caught between the reality of what is, now, and what was—both in Thailand and at home—he cannot find a place to plant himself. In the end, he dreams of two worlds again, his Thailand, his Pittsburgh, and both are gone, leaving him forever changed.
by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
I belong to a Poet’s Club (as we have chosen to call ourselves, and which I have written about here before.) Each time we meet, the host-poet hands out a writing assignment for the next time; our most recent assignment was a haibun.
Haibun is traditionally a prose/haiku set having to do with travel. American haibuns have stretched that tradition. As Kimiko Hahn explains in a column for poems out LOUD: “Present tense, brevity in prose, objective detachment and implication are common characteristics of modern haibun in English but no characteristic is an inviolable rule.” (http://poemsoutloud.net/columns/archive/haibun_hybrid/
My reentry blog after several months of silence is an attempt to combine several different layers into the form.
Night Travels and the Desert Poet
Yes, I’m sleepwalking while awake so I’ll remember what I see. I undo the lock, lift up the clear pane, and hoist myself in through the open window. I’m not a prowler or a thief, so I simply stand there in the dark while my eyes adjust. I can already make out a book by the desert poet, open on a bedside table. A man is asleep in the bed beside it; his left arm is extended, the hand relaxed and open so his index finger just grazes the page (the poem) where a truck hauling used generators pulls into a motel parking lot, causing the windowpanes in that stanza to vibrate. The sleeper doesn’t hear this of course, and it’s hard to know if his finger can translate words on the page into messages his dreaming brain will understand. A tall brass lamp beside his bed has a blue-green shade that must, when it’s switched on, cast a light that shimmers like the water in an unpolluted mountain lake. I imagine it now, lapping the sleeper as he sits in bed reading: It’s midnight. He props himself up with an extra pillow and opens the desert poet’s book; the rumpled green quilt on the bed is drawn around him as he stops to savor words like “dharma” and “hamstrung” and “multitudinous”; he lingers over many passages in the surrounding poetic code. As I said, I’m not a thief, so I won’t pry open the sleeper’s thoughts—won’t ask how it feels to travel through a desert washed in light like blue-green water—if the desert poet’s heat has set fire to some ideas—if they’re boiling inside!—if his cup runneth over and his heartbeat measures out equal parts of sorrow and jubilation. Instead I gaze slowly around again, trying to take it all in—I’m aiming here for a generosity of looking. This time I see a pair of glasses, a lace cloth on the dresser—reticella—a tear in one corner, as if something sharp had caught in a loop and ripped it there. I notice the tiny bottle of perfume, and a hand mirror beside a black and white photo in a silver frame—the not-so surprising fact that the woman pictured there looks strangely like the daytime me. I touch nothing, except with memory’s thumb. I climb silently back through the still-open window to the other side. I leave the sleeper inside to lock things up, to pull the pane shut again, if he must.
travel weary night
sleeps—cloud bed, open window
someone’s eye climbs in
(Have I written a haibun? Only the Poet’s Club–and maybe the Night Traveler– knows….)
Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
Ruth Schwartz’s new book of poems starts off with a quote on poetry as an art by Pablo Neruda and this seems like a most-apt and fitting introit to the poetry that follows. Schwartz, as well as being an established and accomplished poet, is a psychologist and the dynamics of interpersonal relations and the life of the mind one would expect from a clinical psychologist is apparent in her writing. While her topics are diverse, her focus on personal interpretation and also on the mind-body relationship are clear in many of them. When she writes about other people, her introspective skills shine through and I cannot help but think she also, in turn, probably employs many of the benefits of her skills as a poet in her work with patients.
“How we shuffle along in our various bodies” she begins the title poem “Miraculum”, going on along on this trajectory with teenage girls, the postman, and an older woman all called in as examples of the variety of humanity and human movement. The poem is at once heart-warming and nearly scientific: it bespeaks a clear sincerity in its tone that is amplified by these examples of people who feel like honest observations from actual life.
The face of the pavement is wrinkled by light.
The dusty parking lot has turned to snow.
And this other dust, the dust of our hearts?
These words conclude Schwartz’s poem “Beginning, Over and Over Again” and offer a prime example of how her word-craft is tight, evocative, and yet almost truncated, edited down to its basal strengths. The biographical paragraph on the back-cover of the books identifies that Schwartz lives in Oakland, California, but there’s something very snow-bound about many of her poems, something of dark skies and cold days. Coupled with this is how she writes about love and interpersonal dynamics of romance—which is from an expectedly older, wiser, viewpoint.
Maybe the lilies pray for us,
for all the ways we keep ourselves
The lines above come from the poem “Lilies at Midnight” which forms something of a spiritual and artistic core of this book and brings forth some of its richest writing and most pure images. Schwartz is able to craft the lily into something far beyond metaphor and enable to the flower to take on many roles in society and literature. The poem reads like a sweeping tour of how people, romance, and flowers interact in the guise of this specific flower, but more than that, it demonstrates why we have florists, why flowers matter and are crucial to so many functions and core events in our society.
“Winter Solstice” is another poem that invokes the roles of nature in human affairs of the heart. Such efforts are not atypical of our contemporary poets and in the hands of some, so many poems in one book focused on romance would seem a bit much unless it was early into the month of February, however, in Schwartz’s skilled craft, her high number of poems on romantic themes are simply delights. In other poems, most notably “Driving Home”, Schwartz is adept at placing the daily human processes of modern life (post-modern life perhaps?) into the eternal and magisterial realm of nature that continues along, always the same, season by season. Our commutes to and from work pale in contrast but they also fit into the patterns of nature Schwartz identifies in this and many of her other poems in this volume. “The Immutable” is another poem of this tenor and this same high caliber: In its expression of a child’s curiosity and the tireless cycles of the ocean’s steadfast waves, it tells us so much about ourselves.
One of the seemingly most straight-forward yet one of the most-powerful poems in this book is titled “Some Answers to the Question ‘Who Are You’” and the poem in fact offers these answers. Perhaps telling of the poet’s training and experiences as a psychologist, this poem interrogates crucial, basal, issues of identity as they come forth in our everyday speech. The “answers” are quite varied and appear to come from different people, with some being very honest and logical such as one where the speaker states she is a cardiologist while others are flights of fancy, such as a pilot who is throwing people one by one off his plane, high over the open ocean. He tells us he too will soon jump into the sea—just not quite yet. It is in writing such as this that Schwartz shows us one of the foremost jobs of the contemporary poet: to ask questions, to postulate realities, to investigate—and to lead her reader moreover to also investigate—the interplay between mind and external world.
Another poem that really stood out to me was “Many Things Are True”, which like many poems presented here concern human relations—mainly those romantic—in the larger metaphoric arena of the wealth of nature. Winter is again conjured up, but instead of presenting any feelings of coldness or barren expanses, it offers a framework of the stoic, strong, environment that our mere human lives move through. Woodpeckers, one example of many where Schwartz brings us animals to help animate her material, natural, sphere for us, peck away and the world—a “new planet” in the poet’s own words—exists in radiance in the background, like the fabled “blazing world” Margaret Cavendish described in her own romantic flights of fancy so many years ago. The crowning power of this book is exactly this quality: it is the rare ability to join the outright fantasy and the very tangible reality—the veracity of the cardiologist and the horror of the suicidal pilot, plus all the lovers found here and there within the forests of Schwartz’s words.
Miraculum is an especially rare book in that it concerns often everyday issues and ideas yet in a way that brings back lyricism to what we call “poetics”. Very much worth reading, I would dare call it even one of the best books of new American poetry thus far of this year.
The Book of Ten
by Susan Wood
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
reviewed by Mike Walker
Susan Wood brings us this new collection of her poems and a steadfast intent to write with courage of history and contemporary American life. She is able—adept, even—to make things mundane seem complex and worthy of her pen while in due contrast illuminating things that could be considered justly grand as very human, tactile, and near. Like Jorie Graham or Geoffery Hill, she is swift and unapologetic about plunking her reader down in the middle of some landscape—as if the dear reader had been on holiday there with her all along—and provides details of her views of this place, making it familiar at once even if it screams unknown, remote, or exotic. Wood, however, also is skilled in providing intimate junctures involving her own presence without fanfare, without any involved surroundings grand, exotic, or otherwise:
A parrot of irritation sits
on my shoulder, pecks
at my head, ruffling his feathers
in my ear. He repeats
everything I say, like a child
trying to irritate the parent.
These lines come from Wood’s poem “Daily Life”, a title that sums up about half or better of her poems in this collection. The marvel is really her ability to write plain-spoken verse about her day and then write a poem such as “Decalogue: Thin Ice” where, while also intimate, her tone and focus jumps into a more universal and complicated formulation. Wood is concerned with family, with the nexus of generations most appreciated at middle age, and, as a professor (she teaches in the English department at Rice University) she probably has a very keen sense about younger people also, and the dynamics of their relationships with lovers, parents, and siblings. Hence her recollections of her childhood and teen years in these poems seem as fresh as they are nostalgic and as global as they are personal.
Wood’s poem “In America” is a perfect example of how she skillfully extends the personal into the realm of the global, illustrating the essence of the common flow of current affairs of this nation. She is able, in a poem of sleek and measured size, to provide a good glimpse into American lives. Not afraid to name proper names, she mentions a man’s girlfriend who works the nightshift at the “Smoothie King” in the mall, providing a clear and very real portrait of this person she—and we—have not even met. We know this girl without meeting her; we know what we need to know. Her narrative is a small thread in the wide quilt Woods presents, but it’s a thread perfectly taken into Wood’s needle. The man—the girl’s lover who plans to marry her—is himself a minor character in a sense, a stand-in for so many people in America, yet Wood is able to make the girlfriend “real” via a few choice words. Likewise, Wood writes of problems germane to race relations and economic/class differences in a way that is subtle yet direct, understated yet firm. It is in this ability we can locate her tremendous skill: she can spend two pages writing of how America “is”—both unjust and romantic, rich and bone-poor—then she can spend two pages writing about her own father and herself, narrow in focus, knitting out as tight a narrative as you can get.
Grief is a common motif in Wood’s poems here, and there is often a very autumnal, final, feeling about some of them. She realizes we live in tough times and of course when writing about people suffering in one sense or another, she offers sympathy combined with a near-journalistic ethos of getting the facts, the details, typed out clear and plain.
Perhaps Wood’s best poem in this collection is one where President Lyndon B. Johnson—now out of office and Nixon in—comes to a congressman’s fundraiser in western Texas. Wood travels back in time, considering a visit to her Texan high school by LBJ when he was running against Kennedy for the Democratic nomination and then the years he was in office both as vice president and then president, then the Nixon years when the fundraiser takes place. In the visitation of a former president to a political dinner, Wood is able to paint a tight landscape of the most known moments of his career, and it is a resoundingly delightful yet somber journey into memory. Like another captivating contemporary poet, Judith Vollmer, Wood is adept at describing geography in a way that puts us right there—in this case, at a small motel in a region of America where Wood tells us you can drive for hours without encountering a single human soul. More in the legacy of the confessional poets than a nature poet contemporary or otherwise, Wood has an agenda for her descriptions of place, but they can well stand on their own footing, too. Wood has a psychologist’s or teacher’s (after all, she is the latter) understanding of how to describe people in an environment—how they look at the world from their own two eyes and how that world becomes either a mirror or an alien landscape to them. In one poem she describes a woman who is out of touch, lonely, and alone in our world yet acute in her own awareness of her plight as she sees the apparent harmony of a comfortable family raising a Christmas toast. Whether or not this lady actually stands lurking outside a window peeping in and seeing this vista or not is moot: Wood provides us the most pungent form of deep empathy for this soul because we can envision the world as she sees it: I would love to have from Wood a description of a pilot walking through an airport or a surgeon walking out of the operating theatre. I enjoyed her ability to put the reader into the shoes of her characters very much and it’s no stretch or ill call to name the people of her poems “characters” for despite how short many of these poems are in length, these people jump from their pages as fully formed as many characters in a novel or short fiction.
The people in her poems, be they grand as LBJ or the famed hijacker D.B. Cooper who vanished without a trace mid-air from a plane in flight, or be they an unknown average American who only wants to impress the woman he desires to marry or be they the father of the poet herself, they are strong, cunning, and stand up as if we’d known them as our neighbors all along. The academic’s varied and informed concern with world affairs is well-coupled with the down-home Texan appreciation of the familiar and dedication to the details of the same in Wood’s poetry. She seems nearly determined to write it all down, as if the entire world she knows could any moment burn to the ground. Perhaps it’s the fact her own father is, if one of her poems speaks of him as it seems it does, aged ninety-three and in a nursing home—there is a sorrowful reality of what could be lost overnight in her poems and thus a rocket-driven push to get all these varied thoughts down to page as they carry the weight of world, family, and legacy within their typography.
It is this understanding of real people, real language, real geography that allows Wood to get away with using a bird as a metaphor for grief in a poem. The concept seems too typical at first, but when she develops the bird’s call into something that rings through the home of the person plagued by grief and then takes it a step further and notes that when this odd birdsong is heard we mistake it for the doorbell and rush to see who has come to call, only to discover once again that no one is there—no one, she tells us calmly, ever is there. It is madness, it could be war, but it’s the internal world of someone overcome by grief. The poet who knows her people, her land, also knows her animals and her animal-knowledge. She’s in a business of writing poems that won’t let go and like Secretary Clinton said during her bid for that office old LBJ once held, Wood is another lady in this, and she’s “in it to win”.
Win she does: this book is one of the most thought-provoking (and feeling-provoking) books of poetry in the English language I’ve read in several years now. She deals in the deepest parts, but never for the sake of seeming serious: she deals there because circumstances of life demand her involvement. She wins—she wins over the reader, she wins against the injustices she finds in our supposedly modern and just society—because she is so skilled in her craft and willing to pick topics that are meaningful but never feel selected as show of force or even an overt show of skill. Wood never seems intent on impressing us but instead simply set on telling her story. You have to wonder at places in this book, why is she not in the fiction business?
The Book of Ten is worth buying, it is more than worth reading. Read, if nothing else, Wood’s poem “The Magic Hour”. Spend some time with her, as this one is a winner.
True Faith: Poems
BOA Editions. 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
In Ira Sadoff’s new book of poetry, the title poem starts “true faith belongs to the truly unstable”, and from there, it’s a rolling ride through the American landscape, language, the questions of faith and what that word “faith” even means. Sadoff, a veteran American poet of Russian Jewish ancestry, has long been hailed by critics for his astute and complex use of language, and he embarks on a quest in this volume to explore language further yet also to use it as an instrument to navigate questions of culture and religion in often uncomfortable, cunning, and in the end, remarkable, ways. “They love ideas in Virginia”, Sadoff tells us, despite less-flattering things he also has to say about that same state, and people in other locales garner both his praise and criticism, too. Madrid earns a poem and America has not one, but two, plus a few others that could be entitled “America” as well. Sadoff’s not fully cynical but always, in the very best of ways, fully questioning and his desire to learn overshadows any view one may form that he pokes fun at his topics here and there: he’s out with not only the best of intentions, but the sheer ability to make good on them, and comes home like Lewis and Clark with treasures to show and tell from the greatest of journeys across land and stream. In the end, even his poems set overseas are flawlessly American.
It takes the multi-blood American mind to produce these words, and in converse, it takes the blood of other shores to make one so American. The Jewish aspects, the Russian aspects, the noble storyteller tradition in both those loci, the great sense of poetics of place and nuances of culture in these conventions come forth fully formed from Sadoff’s pen. He writes as an American, but he writes just as much looking in from outside, seeing things anew, and jumping from car to notepad to jot it all down. Thus, even when he approaches what might in a less-skilled poet’s hands seem trite, he makes it both sincere and novel—unique even—in his view of it. Anna Akhmatova was much the same: when she took that train from Saint Petersburg to Tashkent under the worst of conditions, she still came out afresh in a city designed to delight—even under less than the best of circumstances. When the Russians (or Russian-Americans, or Russian-Jews, or looking back far enough even the Slavs of the Kievan Rus) write of home, they write in a chatty, forward, nostalgic manner but when they get out of town, over the mountain, to the places they’ve only seen in postcards, something else comes to life and it’s an ability to score down the heartbeat of the new place, the visited place, the moment as a tourist is at once turned into the words just spoken from lips to ear and yet also words carved into stone. Their words are immediate, real, and honest, but also strong, robust, and lasting.
Sadoff is no less demanding nor any less forthcoming when it comes his own life:
My first roses brought me to my senses.
All my furies, I launched them like paper boats
in the algaed pond behind my house.
This is the onset of his poem “My First Roses” and sums up a lot of the type of introspective writing he provides in this book. The topical matter in such poems is not surprising—it’s the same old loves found and lost, the medical queries, reflections on the arts, all the stuff we get from poets who have been in the game a few decades already—yet the results with Sadoff can be astounding, as if Monet was sent out to paint your cousin’s cattle in the field. Furies, we do not often expect in poems with “roses” in their titles. Nor do we picture them oft-launched like so many paper boats, but oh, perhaps we should all the more often.
To get even more to the core of it, Sadoff himself outlines a short thesis of what he attempts to do in his poetry in his poem “Self-Portrait”:
I think I want everyone and everything to be loved so much
I get dour, chastising, dark, and sometimes hate
so much I can’t go for a stroll without recycling the moment
Wow. While Sadoff speaks certainly for himself, does he not also speak at least in part for many other poets and writers in general? Or even, artists in general? The frustration he has is far from unique, but his ability to narrow it down into something so understandable is a rare talent. Sadoff has picked up the role of the chronicle-writer—that role taken up by Isaac Bashevis Singer and many before him even, the role that requires a near-scientific ability to record the topography of both place and emotion, but also the discerning nature to make something more of it than a narrow historiography. This is a man keenly aware of his surroundings, who “for beauty keeps a ceramic swan” given to him as a child by a favorite auntie. He is keeping other things for beauty in his verse, too.
The scope of Sadoff’s work is as impressive as its depth: the same man who writes in his poem “In a Southern Climate” about the sociogeography of both Bush politics and of Texas itself also crafted the sparse but engaging poem “Orphans”, which is about its obvious subject but much else, as well. The tenor of the poems and their form could be the work of two different yet contemporary poets, however, they are both the efforts of Sadoff and recent efforts at that.
Decipher me, we say to the wilderness.
Thus opens the poem “My Country” and provides another possible thesis for Sadoff’s goals in this book. He looks at the landscape and even though he often finds—and is rather distracted by—the interventions of human scars, he still is able to locate enough “wilderness” to produce a distinct, tactile, and robust landscape. It is this tactition in his words, a sense that seems directly carried from eye to pen, that defines Sadoff’s capable, dazzling, wordplay. Sadoff writes of the post-9/11 world as have many poets—especially American poets—in the past decade; however he writes of this time and its circumstances anew, unraveled and unencumbered of all the tropes of our contemporary days somehow.
On the cover of the book in hand, there is a beautiful photograph of a volcano in Iceland erupting in 2010, sending a huge ungainly plume of black ash and smoke skyward above the prim, bright farmhouses of an innocent hamlet. Running between the typography of the book’s title and the author’s name is the line—what’s known as the lead—of an EKG readout, a pulse running amok right between a work and its author. It’s a great little touch of graphic design that unites the composition of the cover, but it also stands as an icon for what this book is all about: the pulse of time through the body of society and land alike. Sadoff’s added another fine corpus to the standing library of views and vantages he’s provided over his lengthy career.
Poems by Eleuterio Santiago-Díaz with prints by Yoshiko Shimano
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press
reviewed by Mike Walker
A difficult yet rewarding book, this.
Breaths, I will simply state at the onset, was a difficult book to read and review. Not “difficult” in the sense that the poetry was obtuse, long, or overtly complex—as is, in example, the work of Geoffery Hill or even a recent book I read by Richard Hilles. In fact, Santiago-Díaz’s poetry is in most instances simple in form, direct in content, and inviting to the reader. It is what I think most people who do not commonly read poetry would probably expect from a contemporary poet. The poems are short, they focus on aspects of life that you’d expect from a poet, and they could without exception stand alone in a literary journal without the additional support of their peers on the pages. Why then in fact this book made for difficult reading was its ease: often at first, I would read two or three of his poems and feel I had gained little, I’d learned nothing beyond what I would have expected to learn. A perfect example would be the opening lines of the poem “On Different Pages”:
At the dawn of sorrow,
I drop a tear
Forgive me for saying this, but is this not the type of poetry we would expect from a decent student in a ninth-grade creative writing class in high school? If it opened a poem that was more ornate, more involved than the short “On Different Pages” is—if it became something more involved—then it might hold great import, but as-is, I was unimpressed. Yet, in other poems there were suggestions of greatness, obvious examples of well-crafted explorations. To understand, then, what is going on in this book it probably would help to understand the poet and his apparent reasons for undertaking these poems. Eleuterio Santiago-Díaz teaches literature and writing at the University of New Mexico, and is also an avid martial artist and student of Asian cultures and Eastern philosophy. He is also Puerto Rican and both his ethnic background and avocation of the martial arts come forth as crucial wellsprings for these poems and the trajectories they establish. To an extent, he is also a confessional poet though you would not mistake one of his poems for something by Sexton or Plath. Like fellow Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré, he is writing about himself but also about someone else—he is with a very gentle hand establishing a mythos for us but seems concerned as to make its magic all but invisible to the untrained eye. This book contains reproductions of fine art prints by fellow University of New Mexico faculty member Yoshiko Shimano who draws on the lengthy tradition of Japanese print-making to produce sublime, sparse, yet beautiful black and white prints to book-end these poems and serve as waypoints through the various positions of thought encountered in Breaths.
When taken as a whole, this approach more than works and in fact produces a comprehensive, robust, feeling of a masterful work of writing. Some of the poems, alone, also accomplish this lofty goal, often bringing us to consider world affairs in a very personal and astute manner, as in the case of a poem about a Palestinian woman. That same tone I at first took as somewhat immature or incomplete comes forth with wisdom and an economy of language that serves its focus well when Santiago-Díaz applies it to interrogate difficult topics and ones that are latent with sorrow. At his very best, he establishes a bridge between a story-teller tradition and one that comes close to high journalism—capturing history alongside true emotion. Never do these poems become long or overly involved, and yes at times they do feel truncated, but in general their length is much to their advantage in that they allow us introspection without bogging us down in anything that removes our focus from the core of the writing. I can well imagine Santiago-Díaz in his role of professor, writing in the margins of student work “this is good, but could be shorter—edit, edit, edit” as such seems to be the approach he has himself taken in making these poems finished works that feel sturdy constructions despite their size.
In example of this economy, consider these lines:
Celestial blue mirrors the eyes
of crabs in red procession.
A dirty face at the edge of Earth
doubles the wild flower
on the side of the trail.
There is something majestic, something very natural but with a hint of mystery and nearly New Age-inspired awe-crafting in these lines. They also recall some of the finest lines of Borges, where literal meaning seems apparent yet is cloaked in poetry nonetheless. This is how Santiago-Díaz writes of nature—as if it is always a matter of origins.
When Santiago-Díaz considers his relationship with the Eastern influences that obviously have considerble meaning and weight in his life, he in general produces fine writing that is capable of placing us in the context he himself appreciates about Asian culture. There are exceptions, however: no less than three poems concern Santiago-Díaz’s marked feelings of grave offense at various people who either do not fully appreciate or simply don’t agree with his own outlook on practicing martial arts. A prospective student who asks to train with him but seems insincere, a rival instructor who provides unsolicited advice—these people apparently irked Santiago-Díaz enough that he doesn’t just tell a buddy about such encounters over a beer but writes poems about them and then finds merit in publishing those poems in this book. The problem is, these poems—especially the one entitled simply “Unsolicited Advice” about the crass rival sensei who has the gall to remark on Santiago-Díaz’s technique—are some of the weakest in the book. They read not as poems or even good prose pieces but instead as might a letter or email to a friend about the incidents. There’s a tone of “man, can you believe this dude? here’s what this joker said . . .” that I don’t think helps the reader better understand Santiago-Díaz’s involvement in the arts he practices or the depth and scope of the training he’s undertaken. I practice three martial arts myself and I very much have empathy for the feelings Santiago-Díaz expresses here—all of us who are serious about our training decry the strip-mall dojos and their fast belt promotions, their “little dragon” classes for kids that don’t stress enough discipline—but the poems come off too strongly as rants and do not interplay the desired emotions of frustration, offense, and dedication to hard work as they would need to in order to properly place the poems alongside the better work in this volume. To reach Santiago-Díaz’s level of praxis in the martial arts, yes, a great deal of dedication is required, however as he remarks of “the meaning of a belt”—the gravity of a rank and how all that work gets worn as a muted black sash to indicate the status of the student—I would like to remind him that in some arts, including two I practice, iaidō and kendō—belts are not even worn. The outer effect of “rank” is invisible and the merits of the student are seen via his performance of kata and nothing else. If his goal was to convey to the reader who isn’t a martial artist what we endure in our training, he only comes off as sounding of sour grapes whereas those who are his peers will know without these rants typed to page whereof he speaks.
In other examples however, Santiago-Díaz is able to weave his experiences as a martial artist into the narrative of his personal growth and world-view in a more masterful and cohesive manner, and many of the best poems in the book are obviously informed by his dedication in studying Aikido and his most lucent writing clearly shows a deep connection with the concept of Ki as expressed in Aikdo. I believe Morihei Ueshiba—Aikido’s founder—would be pleased with these poems. Even in the poems above that I did not care for, his honesty and pragmatism are apparent and informed by a life lived out the martial way. If there is a core thesis to the entire book, it seems to be one of subtle responses to the question of “how do we live—and chronicle—a life? what does the poet do with the intersections between outside realms and his own?”.
It is in this tenor that Santiago-Díaz is at his best, making the remote and political as personal as his own irritations at rude folks who visit the dojo where he trains. Making his reader feel that he’d hopped a plane and spent a year elsewhere to pick up on the nuances of someone’s life, of how sorrow affects someone, and to produce in a third of a page something very telling of that emotion. Once in college, a photography professor told me that if you have a photo that is unremarkable, print it large, because everything looks better big, grand, and impressive. The devotion of of a huge arena to a voice that is lacking in thoughts is much the same, as it can amplify that voice, however in converse, taking a difficult topic and illustrating it via a few choice lines when it deserves an entire book is a work only masters should attempt and it’s an approach that overall Santiago-Díaz carries off with flying colors. Where Santiago-Díaz’s lines seem simple—too simple, too easy, nearly immature—it is truly an aspect of studied economy he has employed with the greatest of widsom.
With no small irony I should note that while I expected my own interest in Japan and involvement in the Japanese martial arts to bring me a deeper understanding of Santiago-Díaz’s poems, it worked more against me perhaps than in my favor. Every reader is different, and given the nature of poetry, the bias of readers is probably a more complex issue than with fiction where we can with greater ease simply admit that genre plays into the game at a high degree and even the most experienced critic will probably be less than impressed with a high-quality fantasy or sci-fi work if he in general avoids these genre. I tend to seek out poetry that is composed of deep layers and multiple foci—after all, Jorie Graham is my favorite living poet. In Santiago-Díaz’s poems, with their focus on his Eastern influences, I was expecting more complete consideration of things like iki and sui, or the autumnal pathos unique to the idea of mono no aware, or the quiet drama of suwari-waza techniques in Aikido. Yet, if the poet had taken this route, his poems could have lacked for immediate grace and their appeal beyond the reader who already had an acute interest in the martial arts. As things stand, Breaths does contain very powerful references to what being a student of the martial arts is all about—the very title “Breaths” can be applied to kokyūnage in Aikido as much as the more obvious influences of yoga. While personal and while of serious gravitas and well-crafted form, this book seems set on being one that will attract many readers: unlike a book by Jorie Graham or Geoffery Hill, it is one you could give to a person who doesn’t read too much poetry and he or she would probably nonetheless very much enjoy it. Again, most of the poems are quite short and all are composed of topics and themes sure to generate ample interest on the part of the reader. For its part, the University of New Mexico Press did a stellar job of the graphic design and production values of this volume and it feels like a work of art to hold in the hands. Yoshiko Shimano’s prints add an additional aspect to the book that is not only most welcome but powerful in establishing the overall feel of the work at hand. My review copy I find myself treating as I would an original watercolor or limited-edition print instead of a typical book of poetry, moving it with both hands and careful to not leave it on the porch where the night brings in damp, cool, air. I felt it was special, unique, and meant just for me. Our poet—and his visual artist friend—must be thanked for providing a book able to work such magic, and the University of New Mexico Press also must be thanked for this enchantment.
Breaths is not without its faults, or at least, not without poems that I must question how the poet felt they lived up to the same standards as those of his best work provided here, yet that’s a complaint many a reviewer could voice about many a book. This volume with its lux paper and somber black and white prints sectioning it like a microtome into different mental geographies, is nonetheless something very special. It grows on you, and a book capable of such growth is worth a great deal to me because it invites the reader to consider it anew each time a page is lifted.