A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind:
The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton
Alfred Starr Hamilton,
Edited by Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal.
Song Cave, 2013
reviewed by Mike Walker
A poet, perhaps more than any other type of artist, can toil in total obscurity. He doesn’t need a band or a pianist to back his singing; he doesn’t need a dance company or theatre; he doesn’t want for a gallery to show his work or even a local art supply store clerk to one day ask with a friendly smile what he’s painting with all those brushes he’s purchased. He can write, safe at home, for hours on end day after day, night by proverbial night, and no one may know. Thus, there are poets who are unknown their entire lives, by either personal design or despite their efforts to bring their work to publication. Either way, it is fully possible that decades could flow by before a poet’s work becomes known and yet he or she has been working devotedly as a poet. Such is next to impossible with someone in the performing arts, with the exception of perhaps a composer and is unlikely for most visual artists. It could happen in other genres of literature, true, but poetry seems most suited to this lonesome life.
Alfred Starr Hamilton is one such poet, a poet who worked in more or less isolation and produced a body of poetry that is only now becoming widely known. Granted, he did publish duing his lifetime (he died in 2005) and an anthology of his work at the time both published and unpublished came out as early as 1970, yet it wasn’t until this year with Song Cave’s publication of A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind that his work has found the benefit of the logistics of major publication to reach a wide readership in the United States and beyond. Hamilton is unique—certainly that can be claimed of any poet, but he really is: his poetry defies both today’s MFA hot-house environment and the rise of contemporary poetry of the 1960s when he began to publish. No one else was nor now is quite doing anything akin to his efforts—at least no one known. His poems are fits and starts, they have the type of juttering feel that the poems of teenagers—especially boys—often have where the writer becomes carried away with thought and at once is lost from his attention to the form and where it’s going. Hamilton asks many questions, offers few answers, visits multiple metaphors and yet never settles on any running motif for long. Yet, somehow, it all really works. His “January Gallery” is a good example:
Did you say today?
Did you say tomorrow
Or the next day, or the day afterwards?
Did you say a picture at a January Gallery?
Did you say a glass eye for your mirror
For a club foot for a clump of wintery woods?
For a little lavender that stares back at you
Today and tomorrow, and days afterwards.
The focus on time recalls something similar I found in the first poet who really captured my attention: my high school friend Terik Trout and his poems at age fourteen, where he’d write things like “four years from then two years ago” in a way that was half between a faux Olde English, kings-n-castles attempt at sounding serious and imposing and half towards some obscure suggestion of time-travel or bending the very being of time as we know it so that what is future and the past became the same geography. The attention to physical features and ailments is also a common thread in Hamilton’s poems: the club foot, the glass eye—these sundry asylum items of severe deformative or recompense from misfortune or injury fit well the rugged woe of the “outsider” poet, the man who writes both from within and without.
There is no doubt that Hamilton desired his work to be read: he had sent poem after poem to literary journals, especially to Epoch of Cornell University which eventually did publish his work. In later years following his death, The Boston Review and New York Times would even get into the act with articles offering high praise for Hamilton’s offbeat work. Even before that, within his lifetime, poets who were established enough to make their livings and careers off poetry were becoming fans of Hamilton and word of his work spread, if slowly and in the shadows, through American literary circles. I mention this because whenever Hamilton garners a review or critical article such as the present effort, his “outsider” status is played up to the grandest levels of despair: he may have not had much—in his later years he lived on a paltry sum of inherited money—and he did in his letters let on to being lonely, but his legacy was far from neglected and he knew that, too. I don’t think it mattered very much to him either way though: he wanted his work in print but over time just writing appears to have become more central to his efforts.
Once we thus free Hamilton to a degree from the chains of forlorn hope and look at his writing without setting it aside as the work of a man seperate from society, I do feel we can actually appreciate his efforts even more: It’s a coy turn to make a writer’s work about himself, but it’s also one that runs the danger of subtracting from Hamilton’s best poetry its own unique powers. If there is merit in Hamilton’s isolationism, it’s located in his deft ability to craft poetry that doesn’t care at all about outside impressions. Yes, he wanted it read—Emily Dickinson also wanted her own poems read, despite the mythos to the contrary about her own isolation—but Hamilton valued his external status for the lack of demand it allowed. The lack of demand for given output in certain terms, certain timing, certain sizing, certain anything. There were no given guidelines to follow, no ready exclusion criteria.
To sting a centipede around
A pineapple bend, on a peach –
truth is Studied on the breast – abysmally
This is from Hamilton’s poem “Tampa, Florida” and is representative of his way with language, his wonderful lack of respect for conventions of syntax, for one, and his lust for what language can accomplish when free of its obligation towards narrative. Isn’t that part of the purpose of poetry? To be free of narrative, at least of traditional narrative? Yet how much contemporary poetry tells the tale of the poet’s move into a new apartment, how his bike was stolen from outside the economics building at his college, or how his sister came to leave her husband? Hamilton’s poem really is about Tampa—I can say that with some authority having been raised in central Florida myself—but it tells no story, explains no premise, leads us down into no beach, via no path, devoid of any human move from here to there. No street, no mayor, no “this is here”. It’s static, yet fully dynamic as few poems are: when a person is mentioned it is “A picture of a tramp is being excruciated/Betwixt a splintered parked bent bench” thus not really letting on in full whether there is a tramp, a park bench, an actual “parked bent bench” or a picture thereof of any or none of the above. I think it’s great that we get these blurs of images, of icons, really, as if he had been forced to paint Tampa from afar for us—which perhaps he was. We mostly expect a writer to provide a dispatch from a location to inform us—he can tell us with authority of this place because not only was he there, but he wrote from there: the words in hand were fostered by a pen in the very locale described. But is a second-rate writer or busy journalist more adept to describe a place just by the virtue of being there than a first-rate dreamer is to craft a portrait of it in a few scant lines from a distance?
What’s charmingly interesting about Hamilton is how at once his poetry can, on one page, read like a laundry list of glances and notes that make little immediate sense yet comes together in a delightful if odd construct and on the very next page, his work can read like a pop song’s lyrics. Hamilton seems keenly interested in describing the smallest of details yet in a manner that repeats, truncates, then somehow repeats again these details and the necessary verbs and adverbs to rescue them from the black hole of suck they’d otherwise trip into without his help. He retains the base connection between between actual life and pop/folk memory. Take as an apt example:
were you ever a little reindeer
out in the rain
not a big rain
but a little rain
and the way was clear
and you had your umbrella with you
not too big an umbrella
but a little umbrella
and your name was Cinderella
On some level this is simply pleasing nonsense, isn’t it? The verse here represents faux observations that are not really (we can only assume) factual observations able to actually tell us about anything going on—almost like nursery nonsense verse of old. These are words that feel good to read together, to say aloud as they sit on the page together, they seem to beg to make sense together yet they don’t: their syntax is correct, of course, but their meaning is truncated, limited, by no obvious trajectory or larger scope of narrative.
“And your name was Cinderella”: That’s about the level of narrative Hamilton commonly seems to provide, yet it works more often than not. There is no doubt in my mind that Hamilton intends this, that nothing he offers is by way of accident, mental mischance, psychological disease or overly honest toil sadly misplaced in intent: too often in reviews and articles he’s made out to be someone to pity, someone who was so far from the mainstream, such a loner perhaps, that he must have gone a bit mad. I don’t buy it. I think he was laughing all the way to the bank, even if his pockets were empty when he got there. His poetry reveals a complex sense of wonder, a delight in how people work even though this is a delight he would rather cloak away from direct details of a human nature much of the time. Did people scare Hamilton off in social constructs—in typical social aspects? Maybe. Did they fascinate him? Most certainly. Animals, too, but mostly people it seems. Places, also, but still people foremost. People could be addressed, they could be actors, they could play someone else, they could be stand-ins, replicas, evolutions of themselves. All of this comes across here and there in Hamilton’s poems when we look for it.
Hamilton also found language itself to be a landscape able to deftly entice and wrap us up in its darker ways no matter our first intentions when borrowing it for our own devices and desires. That is very clear in how he approaches words, often skirting their more-positive or most-common meanings and digging up the less-decent aspects. He is not often openly morbid, but as in his line quoted above where he asked “did you say a glass eye for your mirror” he is adept at dragging out obscure items, odd nouns, things that are a bit Victorian, a little gothic, or simply unseemly for polite discourse. A glass eye . . . what an interesting article, that. A device that cannot do what an eye does, but only replaces how others see an eye—a cosmetic item unable to do what its original does but required to take care of “looks”, the very thing it should be able to do but cannot even attempt. And a mirror? Is it a mirror? It produces a gaze, it’s needed for vain reasons alone, right? We don’t speak of glass eyes—well, in part today because thankfully we have improved medical solutions to many problems glass eyes once were called upon to—if not remedy—cover up. Like the ear-trumpet long before it, the glass eye is an older device by virtue of high technology now on its way out, though sometimes still necessary. Moreover, we tend not to speak of something that is unfortunate, something of an injury or its repair. Outside of sailors in bars near their ports or doctors in the hospital’s hallways late at night, such things are not supposed to reach the level of conversation. Even now, even when horror movies can show every awful act and then some, even when the television news can speak frankly of rape and murder, the glass eye is a bit awkward, a little not-for-the-faint-of-heart. It’s a replica, it’s meant to replace, it can be removed and set below the bathroom mirror apart from its human, ready to scare the child who wanders past it as uncle sleeps at night.
The main core of Hamilton’s world appears to be quintessence: he is focused on what is most-apt, most-common, most-repeated, most-associated with certain words, places, or concepts. He can do this and divorce it from things or people that are specific because his concerns are often so general, yet he still locates the unique within the broad, the global. Most of his geography is American, but he is not chained to the regional or national on a topical level at all. He is not a Robert Frost or Lorine Niedecker. His poetry is not, overall, useful in providing nuanced introspection into a cohesive landscape or cultural geography. However, here and there just as in the poem regarding Tampa, Hamilton is able to tell us a lot about a place while really saying very little. His poems stand alone, as they do not pretend to any vast designs of narrative, yet they speak nearly as letters would, the same voice coming back once again to pick up where he left off—even if on a totally new topic. You still know who it is, you don’t need to read the envelope. Again, quintessence. On his own terms, Alfred Starr Hamilton has a view of the world and all its worldly designs long in mind and he’s keen to say a thing or two about it.
For a retrospective anthology of a poet’s work, I don’t think I could ask for much better than this. Hamilton’s poetry is unique, forthright, and engaging and the organization of it here is produced in a manner that makes you want to read the entire book in one fell swoop, not overlooking anything, in desire of more and more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Windows & Stones: Poems by Tomas Tranströmer
translations from the Swedish by May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972; reprint, 2011
reviewed by Mike Walker
Tomas Tranströmer, with his reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, has gained something close to celebrity status in Europe and even the United States in the sense that only the Nobel can afford such status: long well-known in the literary world but not a household name to the general population, the Nobel has put him in the greatest spotlight any poet could desire. Now, people are wondering “who is this Swede who won the Nobel this year—and what has he written?”. No time could be better to release a volume of his selected poems translated into English and that is exactly what the University of Pittsburgh Press has done, returning an updated version of its 1972 book of Tranströmer in English translation to the shelves. Windows & Stones is, and has always been, a perfect introduction to Tranströmer in English and as beautiful as the Swedish language is, it is not a majority language and Tranströmer has himself known for years that to reach the greatest readership he needs translations. To this end, he has taken his poetry to India, to the Middle East, to everywhere he could in person and in translation yet it is fair to say a good, short, yet comprehensive introductory volume in English translation probably will reach the most people worldwide. Thus, the stakes for this slim book are high, especially in the light of the Nobel.
First though, perhaps we should reflect for a moment on the Nobel Prize in Literature itself: though commonly considered the most important prize in the literary arts—the one even people outside of literary circles know of and admire—what do we know of the majority of men and women who have won it? These laureates, who are they? Of course, they include T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison but how many remember or have even heard of Roger Martin du Gard? Like any prize given to a comtemporary, living, person, the Nobel to some extent is faulted by the very fact it doesn’t have the longest span of time to take into consideration the lasting merits of those its honors, even though it does in general look at a writer’s works over an entire career. Still, it cannot project what writers will be read in two or three decades let alone a full century and in contrast, those who will appeal mainly only to scholars and graduate students hunting fodder for their dissertations. In the sciences it is no different: the biochemist Kary Mullis saw the Nobel ceremony as a grand opportunity to practice his pranks and practical jokes that he had as a slightly awkward, sci-fi loving grad student play around the lab. (He teased security forces with a laser pointer when he went to to pick up his Nobel, for one thing.) The botanist and geneticist Barbara McClintock on the other hand did not even have a telephone in her Long Island home and was thereby fully unaware she had even been selected for the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for her work on genetic elements of control until she walked into her lab Monday morning and heard the welcome news on the radio: “Oh dear” was supposedly the response of the matronly scientist. Aside from writers of fiction being awarded the Nobel for their efforts—that is, when a poet doesn’t get it instead—the Nobel itself often appears in fiction, television, and the movies as a shorthand for the vast acumen of a character—normally a scientist—who has won it, for few things make for a marker of true genius like the Nobel.
So to see that Tranströmer’s greatness, thus recognized by the most legendary of prizes, is broadcast far and wide and to as diverse and vast a readership as possible, we find publishers now doing the good work that Tranströmer the man has done his entire career of trying to get his poetry out there to the reader, the listener. Tranströmer is often praised as a writer adept at capturing the simple beauty and truths of nature in a nearly-religious tenor on the page, but he is no simple man. Trained as a psychologist, he practiced his profession as a clinician in adolescent psychology for a number of years while writing his poetry at night. He is also an accomplished pianist and his love of music has always worked in tandem with his efforts as a poet. Yet as much as someone like the farmer, laborer, and poet John Clare, Tranströmer infused his poetry with the material of his day job and while he may not have been out in the pastoral fields with ox and horse as Clare was, his experience with troubled young patients also come forth in his poems, often as an undercurrent of counterpoint to the grandness and godliness he finds in nature. To take up each day as one’s work the problems of young patients who are bothered by demons and depressed, injured, damaged to the point of needing intensive professional help has to be a taxing venture; certainly, mental health professionals often seem to have one of the more thankless jobs in all of health care. Tranströmer was a man unknowingly ahead of his time, using an arts and medicine approach of therapy of the literary word before such was a trend—before entire journals were devoted to the application of literature as a healing modality.
So Tranströmer had his nature which he dearly loved—the natural landscapes and lakes of rural Sweden—but he also had his clinical practice and his piano. He never set out as a poet to become all things to all people, I think, yet he came very nearly close to that mark via the depth, scope, and long trajectory of his writing. Here was a man who wrote right through the entire time period of some of Western poetry’s most crucial developments over the latter half of the twentieth century and he was aware of those trends and developments, to be sure, but he stood mostly apart from them and found his foundation in the pastoral views he shared in his own work. Tranströmer has been called a Christian poet, a religious poet, and he is in a sense but what most critics who offer him these titles really seem to mean is that he is a poet adept at touching on both the grandness of the natural world as observed by humankind and also the very complex inner world of emotion private to us mere humans who inhabit this grand sphere. Poets as diverse as John Clare and the Central Asian poet and mystic Ali-Shir Nava’i were men whom Tranströmer found to share a synergy between observed landscape (or cultural landscape) and the mental analysis of the same whether expressed via sound or words. He was not interested in the type of “modern” experimentation or confessionalism of many poets of the twentieth century yet explored the same ends via very different means: always a poet who showed more than he told, who spoke more of the general than the personal yet all the while maintaining the most personal, most humanistic and intimate realities within his commonality.
In a tradition approriate to that of a Christian poet, Tranströmer creates poems that regardless of their exact topic at hand always provide either insight, succor, or a furthering of our own sense of wonder. The everyday intersections of nature into our lives Tranströmer rebuilds as true wonders seldom seen, though these moments are endlessly availible to each of us just as they are to him, as he notes in his poem “Winter’s Formulae”:
I fell asleep in my bed
and woke up under the keel.
Thus the stage is set for adventure though with very few words: the keel of course conjures a boat, an older ship perhaps—and that Nordic love, lore, and need for seafaring, too. This verse is also a prime example of how Tranströmer sets up a sense of mystery in his writing; a sense of an unexacting yet alluring atmosphere where great promise of adventure is yet to come. There is, even in his advanced years and advanced verse, a boyish nature in Tranströmer’s poetry: there is an element of desire—no, I would daresay even thirst—for new places and grand vistas, the exotic even if we must for now content ourselves to find such in the familar ground of home. Tranströmer’s Sweden is the bridge and airport to an extended world and no matter where he writes—or writes about—he brings to his subject an especial sense of concern and delight. He is, verily, a man capable of falling asleep in his normal bed yet waking as if by some magic instead in a boat set to sea.
What I couldn’t say
filled and grew like a hot-air balloon
and finally floated away through the night sky.
With these lines in the poem “To Friends Behind a Border” Tranströmer sums up the plight of anyone trying to reach someone who lives in a place where we cannot go, we cannot write to, we cannot get a letter or telephone call inside as that place is all locked up. Likewise, for anyone living within a nation where speech is censored and people are kept from open expression of their ideas, the same can be said: there is much that one cannot say due to borders such as these. During the horrible times of the Yezhovshchina under Stalin’s rule when people—especially writers and other intellectuals—lived in great fear, such could well have been said, that all those words that couldn’t be spoken, couldn’t be written, couldn’t be shared, seemed to drift off into the atmosphere somehow, free yet unknown.
However, as noble as Tranströmer’s concern for those “behind borders” is, the really powerful aspect is how he deals with this topic while all the while adroitly applying the language of nature, the language of supple wonder he has employed time and again elsewhere. For him, it seems, there is no border between the personal and the political nor the natural and the poli-social. Such qualities without a doubt are a high part of what earned Tranströmer the Nobel. Another reason for the admiration of Tranströmer that brought him a Nobel plus scores of other awards and honors is his fluid longevity: over the years, the decades in fact, his poetry has both adapted to the times and concerns of the day but also retained his simple, humble, and very personal voice. Some of his poems—such as “The Name” where the speaker falls asleep in his car by the side of a road only to awake and not know his own name—seem like they could be the work of an older man dealing with dementia, yet this poem was written between 1970 and 1971 according to the book. The speaker considers his emergency a bit but “eventually my life comes back to me. My name reappears like an angel.” It is classic Tranströmer: a man diverges from the expected course of daily life to take a nap in the middle of nowhere, in the backseat of his car in fact as a child might, only to awake and find he cannot recall who he is yet when he is restored to such knowledge, it is not only the escape from a psychological or medical crisis but an event of nearly holy, supernatural, powers and meaning. In poems such as “The Name”, Tranströmer reminds me of much of the theorist and novelist Hélène Cixous’ writing in her anthology Stigmata: Escaping Texts where she also concerns herself with an absence of names and their return and, as her title would suggest, how entire texts “escape” unseen, unheard. Like, Cixous, Tranströmer is very concerned with personhood, with what it means to have a name in the first place, a concern probably evolved to some degree out of his work as a clinical psychologist.
Somewhat separate but still very connected to Tranströmer’s way with nature in his poetry is his manner in dealing with geography: for Tranströmer, like many northern Europeans, the world is very interconnected. When your own nation is as small as Sweden, travel to other neighboring nations is natural and to be expected. Most Swedes at least visit Denmark, if not further afield and holidays in France or the Balkans or elsewhere are not uncommon. Of course, the war years also greatly changed the European view of geography and Tranströmer’s own generation saw an acute transformation of geographical ontology between the effects of war and the effects of new technologies such as telecommunications and air travel. Tranströmer, for his part, became adept at writing about nature—and people—whether in Sweden, Iceland, the Balkans or even Oklahoma. His constant, steady hand in description displays a control and mastership of his faculties as a writer that many other authors could learn from and a calm, sure, even, touch that a ship’s captain or fighter pilot would envy. Critic Hephzibah Anderson felt that in awarding Tranströmer the Nobel, a writer who was little-known outside his native country won the most-respected of literary honors, however, if Tranströmer has been little-known, it has not been his own fault in the least. He has not only encouraged ample translations and promoted his own work, but has never cloistered his poetry away to the concern of Swedish or even Nordic places or topics alone. Branching out, as he is always it seems doing, he has taken in every place visited and even every letter exchanged with a far-off friend as possible material for the basis of a poem.
In February life stood still.
There, in one line, one opening to one short poem, we have a perfect example of the universal nature of Tranströmer’s poetry yet of his firm grounding in Nordic climes and environs all the same. Life might well stand a bit more still in Lund than in Miami in February, but poems such as the one this line comes from, “Face to Face” speak in plain, sincere, secure, speech to the condition at hand as a universal one. To read Tranströmer in the Swedish is even more direct at most junctures, with his language being forward yet descriptive without leaning towards the overly verbose. May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg did a masterful job in finding English analogs for the type of plain-spoken language Tranströmer employed in his native Swedish and Windows & Stones demonstrates a very strong faithfulness to the tenor of how Tranströmer writes.
The tugboat is freckled with rust.
What is it doing so far inland?
It’s a heavy, quenched lamp in the cold.
Thus opens “Sketch in October”, one of the poems included in this collection that is perhaps most representative of how the world sees Tranströmer—the world that knows him, at least that is, if what Anderson claims carries any merit. We have the cold, the water, the physical items as metaphor of other tangible things, other objects that they in some hapless way come to resemble. This last point is not an aside, as in much of Tranströmer’s writing we locate cases—such as the tugboat—where one object appears more like another and most often it is some object that in its own inaction it comes to resemble more something else, often something smaller, something less mobile or less powerful than it should in its own powers convey. On a good day, a tugboat is after all the one part of the puzzle that allows a massive cargo ship or tanker to enter a port without a mishap; it is the literal guide in unknown, dangerous, waters. A tugboat found inland, away from its normal port and duties, would in fact be as listless and worthless a creature as a table lamp turned off and even rolled over on its side. (The original Swedish can be translated in fact to suggest the lamp is upended as well as “heavy”, but in this case our translators ignored this aspect—one of the few cases in these translations where I found them somewhat wanting.)
Another powerful aspect of Tranströmer’s word-smithing is that he is keen to see man-made objects within natural surroundings in a pragmatic, direct, manner without losing the heart of the poet about it, either. Something as mundane yet essential as a tugboat is not made ugly for ugly’s sake nor is it exalted but instead is cast into its role and duties with a no-nonsense approach that would make a logistics officer or accountant proud. Each bird, each airplane, each train, each road, each hill, each stream or creek to yet be forded or crossed with a sure bridge—they’re all fair game for our poet. Tranströmer approaches the world as a whole, just as it actually is, as a place to explore, record, and tell about later. This is why his poems, though often quite short and lean on details, seem robust and full. He will start off a poem with words such as “lying on his back under tall trees”, as he does in “Breathing Room: July” that are personal, inviting, and uncomplex. In a sense, he conjures all those inviting vistas every landscape painter and every New Age musician has desired to create in our minds—places beautiful but ones we could with ease position ourselves right into in a most inviting way. Tranströmer’s high success rate in this regard is made manifest by his uncanny ability to discern exactly what such pastoral, personal, experiences entail. After the stroke he suffered years ago, one might fear he would have lost some of his faculty towards such empathy but instead his poetry did not appear to suffer at all from his physiological losses and in fact may have become all the more nuanced.
In all, though covering only a portion of his career, Windows & Stones presents Tranströmer’s writing in a select yet comprehensive, short yet fit, manner that should invite the reader to explore this poet further. The Nobel Prize will without doubt serve as a fine catalyst for more translations, criticism, and exploration of the Swede but I can think of no finer a point to open his pages than here, with this book. Tranströmer the sublte, Tranströmer the lover of nature, Tranströmer the humble yet steadfast diplomat on behalf of a poetic nation of his own creation—all these men step forward in this volume. While this book will not fill the complete need for translations of Tranströmer in English, we would truly be impoverished without it.
The Water Books: Poems
Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press
reviewed by Mike Walker
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to introduce a poet, or even a review of her book. Where do you start? The first poem in the volume, the biography of the poet who wrote it? Most of the time, I would consider the book as a collection or the primary themes therein, but for once it seems the vocation of the author—as a writer and teacher—is somewhat central, so it is here where we will enter the Water Books.
Judith Vollmer, a professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburg and Drew University, takes on a vast study of life in all its manifestations in her fourth collection of poems. While many poets have faculty appointments in departments of English and/or creative writing, Vollmer’s devotion to pedagogy is somewhat special, as it is very evident in her writing; so much so, in fact, to make mention of her professorship seems essential to any review. Vollmer’s work is in places very personal—such as her poem “Camping on the Hudson”—but also highly studied works of precise composition that showcase a devotion to poetic form, as in “Birds of Rome” and “Fields Near Rzeszow”. So it seems only appropriate—only fair even—to point out Vollmer’s role as a teacher, as her new collection could be used as a great point of departure into the study of contemporary poetic forms. Vollmer springs from one style to another with little effort and, more importantly, always with an eye to maintaining a steady and strong voice as a poet. This ability, when actually found (which is itself quite uncommon) I’ve discerned is almost always located in poets who are also teachers. The teacher, it seems—via teaching forms, teaching approaches to writing—also teaches herself the same skill over and again.
At a short seventy-five pages, Vollmer also performs an impressive feat of including not only a powerful depth and scope of her writing, but a pithy, comprehensive, development of the topical matter of her poems despite the length of the book. You read through the book feeling it is a lot longer than it really is, in part due to the weight of some of the topics she approaches—fallen troops’ corpses returning stateside via Dover Air Force Base, in example—but also because her poems, like Ezra Pound’s, Cynthia Zarin’s, or Geoffrey Hill’s, are difficult, demanding, and astute works. Even at a mere page or two, they command the reader’s complete attention in the way of a complex novel. In places her writing seems nearly to dare the eye to not follow it, dashing around the page, leaving thoughts hanging on the sides of margins, yet this is of course a pedagogical method itself to in fact ensure the reader stays engaged and fully aware of the trajectory at hand. Vollmer seems to include in places an anathema against not reading with care, the fact her words detail crucial events, serious moments, and do such well. We are implored, begged and even nearly scolded into reading her in places by the summation of her own adroit language. She is—again I will state it—a teacher, and like Emily Dickinson we get the impression her wars are laid away in books. Probably many of them. Maybe an entire library.
What has the teacher learned? She’s seen a lot, though she’s not positioning herself foremost as a dedicated world traveller or travel writer. Instead, what is most powerful about Vollmer’s writing is when her poetry finds its catalyst at home: when she writes of the nearby, she cuts through the ice, she brings out the intimacy of place in a way few poets bother to do today. In “Field Near Rzeszow”, she is of course in Poland, at the scene, at the site, but she’s manifested herself as something more—not just the poet who happens upon an apt topic when far from home, but one who brings it back in her pocket with the knowing and familiar feeling she applies in other poems that are in fact crafted close to the lamp-stead of home instead of many kilometers away. Vollmer quickly admits when she feels uncertainty or that her presence is alien to a landscape, but never does it stop her from writing. She is confident though delicate in places; sure though obviously at times secretly half-doubting. There is a most kind and open honesty steeled in such writing.
Like most reviewers of poetry, I often take advantage of how poems can be quoted in reviews—a trick much more difficult to pull off in a meaningful way with fiction—but with Vollmer, this trick is on most of her poems a lost effort: in her poem “When, On a Late March Evening”, Vollmer builds a consummate though quick narrative in a simple paragraph. She tells us a story, at first we’re not even sure a story about what, per se, but a homeless man who slept on her garage’s roof, a student who expressed some sympathy for this man, words of a former professor . . . a lot of ideas run together quickly, in the way that poetry is the ideal form to convey such ideas, but also the beauty is that in a fleeting moment here, Vollmer approaches the depth of fiction—for she is working in effect in prose and benefits from its mechanisms. Again, her abilities lay in her experience as a teacher and scholar, for it takes someone who really knows the language to pull this stuff off. A few writers come to mind who were not teachers—Dawn Powell in her novels, in example—who mastered the language in a pedagogical manner, in a way that was craft-born but also dedicated to expressing, if not lessons, actually, at least things that want to be learned. In Vollmer’s poetry, there is no lack of ideas and opinions that are crying out to be heard.
In Vollmer’s poem “A Pittsburgh Novel”, she traces out so many small aspects of life in her city, using the metaphor but also the reality of the novel as her map. Our aforementioned friend Dawn Powell, once stated that “a novel must be a rich forest known at the start only by instinct”, and that seems a fair and noble claim to place on Vollmer’s poems in The Water Books, too.
Until the storm arrives from Chicago, they will rock or sway
their uppermost stick-bundles & leaf-crowns
Thus opens Vollmer’s poem “Trees at Night” and gives you a sense of her language, the word-craft of a poet but one who via either her own fiat and industry or the adept study of that of others has come to learn much from the trade of fiction writers. Vollmer has a way of getting into the heart of nature without ever making it cloying or seem too much a ready stand-in for her other explorations. Her nature, her wilds she camps in, her trees even swaying in the gentle wind before the coming storm—this nature is deep, damp, and dense: it is the heavy nature of the mid-Atlantic and New England states. She does her region a great service in how she describes it, and moreover, she does it fully and honestly.
Kindling, a bonfire in honor of Pasolini,
who prayed to his own mother, cursing & thanking her for too much love.
Here again, we have within a slight few words a grand scope of vision, despite scant details. The camping/hiking/outdoorsy/woodlands feeling is here once more, as it is cast like sunlight far and wide all over Vollmer’s poetry, and her musings on Pasolini are made not only stronger but more personal via her inclusion of something outside of the man himself. All at once, her words become about Pasolini and act as a mechanism for knowing him while also something very removed from him. Vollmer is a real master of the elements, of the poet’s ability to truncate meaning and then, as if adding water to a powder, action out some bliss of chemistry and rebuild the short and sweet into a long-form meaning.
A funny thing happened while I was reading The Water Books: I knew I’d encountered Vollmer before but simply thought it was in literary journals—she’s published a lot—and really didn’t give it a second thought; after all, she’s established, it wouldn’t be odd in the least I had read her work before. However, then it struck me: this is the same woman who wrote a book of poems entitled Reactor in 2004. How could I forget? Reactor concerns, at least in a general sense, the nuclear power industry and its plans to ship nuclear waste to a remote site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada for long-term storage—a plan that has been hotly contested and protested by a variety of groups and communities. Much of my own research concerns nuclear power and nuclear physics, and I recall Vollmer’s book at the time angering me somewhat, for in that book she not only seemed highly opposed to the Yucca Mountain project but also nuclear power in general and expressed such by mustering out stereotypes of nuclear danger we’ve had at least since the Silkwood movie came out in the early 1980s. At points Reactor thus felt trite and hardly rooted in actual science, as are many fictional and artistic explorations of nuclear power or nuclear . . . well, really nuclear anything. All you need is some flashing lights, men in white space suits, and a doctor who has never seen such a horrible mess before (it helps to make the doctor pretty, like Dr. Crusher or Dana Scully)—then you have a nuclear disaster certain to scare and enthrall! Yet even where I didn’t agree with Vollmer’s views nor always how she chose to express those views, I did even then highly admire her writing. The Water Books provide her with a slate to consider a much more varied array of topics with the same powerful ability at discernment and the same strong will to produce a reaction in her reader.
I don’t make mention of Reactor to say I think any less of Vollmer—I don’t, and again, if anything she impressed me greatly by at once saying things I didn’t fully agree with yet saying these things in a way that won me over at least to her aesthetics, if not her politics. She may have the same effect on a few readers in The Water Books when she takes jabs at former vice president Dick Cheney and others, but once again she does so with the most adroit constructions of language. If anything, the tropes she employed in Reactor are gone or at the least more refined in The Water Books and nothing comes off as trite or insincere or trying too hard. Vollmer’s greatest triumph in this volume is that she is, mainly via her expressions nature and its effect on the human psyche, able to convey a sense of peace and clarity while she is also able to demonstrate what she views as problems or injustices in the world as things that violate or disturb this natural realm of peace. Of course, that is also a role of the teacher: to identify what is right and wrong and speak of it, to let her students know about it, and encourage their own ability and willingness to do the same.
Judith Vollmer should be better-known to the general public than she is, but then again, how much of the general American public reads contemporary poetry? If they did—if the majority of us did—I hope we would know her, for we should know her: she expresses complex thoughts directed by heartfelt emotion on current issues that face our society. In The Water Books she is able to do very well something I felt she didn’t quite accomplish in Reactor, which is to ground her views in fact and, where fact alone is found immaterial, she set up her stance on the firm ground of powerful backdrops including the natural world so lovingly sketched out in many of her poems. Vollmer is never ostentatious and it is even rare that she is verbose, yet she can with a real economy of language produce something beautiful and often powerfully discursive. Vollmer proves she can write what she sees, and what is more, use those places, aspects, and items as stages for larger ideas, and via this approach she provides us with a real wealth of material in a small volume writ large as life in The Water Books.
The Beds by Martha Rhodes
Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2012
Reviewed by Mike Walker
This slim volume by poet Martha Rhodes gained my interest for several reasons but none as immediate as the titles of the poems it contains, titles like “Who’s Ill Now?” and “The Pleasures and Inconveniences of Being Detested”. Sure, many a contemporary poet can entitle a poem “Sex” or make reference to a physiological condition (“Thrombosis” in Rhodes’ case here), but Rhodes is the first to tell me of the pleasures, never mind the inconveniences, of being detested. I liked this woman before I read hardly more than a title, and what is more, her photo on the back cover has to be the most sullen author photo I’ve ever seen but I tend to think that was her goal, too. Here is a writer who is not, for the most part, a happy camper throughout her book, but she makes the very best of her condition under the sign of Saturn. Her photo even bespeaks that: she’s sincere. She’s in this for the long haul.
If you listen to music, if you read the popular press, at some point you must wonder what bounty we’d have if all those emo kids who formed their glum bands and wrote lyrics of doom, bygone love affairs, and angst were actually good writers: after reading Rhodes, I feel I’ve seen a hint of what people who are morose yet not bitter, gloomy yet purposeful in it, and had actually confronted real aspects of despair in life could contribute via sincere poetry. There is an element close to theatre also in Rhodes, plus an aspect close to quality legal writing—you feel in places she is jotting down the sins of many and the evidence to back up her claims for some holy judge. Her work, in the words of a reviewer quoted on the back cover, is constantly “unsettling”; I would call it “dark” but those emo kids and aspiring poets below Rhodes’ own high caliber have co-opted that term to the point it lacks the weight it would require to be an adjective fit for Rhodes’ own writing.
In Rhodes’ poem “After a Long Time of Not”, she makes explicit that she’s not attempting darkness anyways, but simply demonstrating life as we often overlook it:
The pink of his earlobes as he sleeps,
is what she’d reach to touch.
Does he wish for something of her?
You have no business writing a poem that short unless you really, really, fully know your craft and thankfully, Rhodes knows it inside and out. She’s told us little, but from it I conjure a woman divorced or perhaps just left somewhere or maybe a younger woman such as the girl in Saint Etienne’s great song “Like A Motorway” who was tricked into a short love affair then her lover vanished, leaving her with the memories, the loss. In Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban, there is an old woman who sits on the balcony and writes love letters to a man from decades in her past—letters never once answered, yet she keeps on writing. Rhodes called up all these thoughts in my mind via a few short lines. That’s not luck, that’s skill all the way.
Of course, not all her poems are such short little things, with most actually taking up a whole page. They are however all filled with sadness and beauty at equal turns, as is witnessed in the opening of the final poem of this book, “The Jade Plant”:
I want to go to the room
where the jade plant thrives
on the white pine floor. I want
to sit next to the plant all day.
This is the perfect entry to a closing of souls, a closing and cleaning out of rooms, an approach to renewal that’s filled with fits and starts, delays and encumberments like a train making its way through a New England snowstorm. We have read throughout The Beds of people in trouble but often trouble none of them can really complain of—or at least trouble no one will listen about—and they need healing, but where? Perhaps here, this zen spot too perfect except made real and original via Rhodes’ skill with words. This woman is actually good press for bad events, a winner beside the rest of the soft-sculpted horror stories of pity that poets try to tell. Some of her peers should just give over to writing penny dreadfuls already, but Rhodes discerns ample merit in what poetry can offer those interested in misery, and she knows the antidote is to also—with due realism—offer hope.
Rhodes’ poem “Come to Me, His Blood” is one of the best poems I’ve read all year but would be impossible to do justice to via a short quote in a review yet is too long to include here in full. It is within itself reason enough to purchase this book: if ever a collector spent millions on a Rothko, then it’s worth spending less than twenty bucks or so for The Beds. There is in a poem like the above a reasoning of art, a mandate for what art should be at its best. When does a poem reach that level? How about when it is something, like the color-field painting, to which you return again and again and again, just to view it and believe in its quality.
“I don’t want an ice chip to ever travel from my finger to my heart”. With that line, found unexpected and almost hiding in the middle of one of her poems, Rhodes explicates in a sense what this book is all about: the way we interact with others, the love lines and hate lines that we travel in various romantic and familial relationships. She is an old hand at verse but at times a young heart, crafting out truths that we do not always desire to acknowledge but we cannot fully escape. Poetry like this can be difficult for Rhodes never is one to shy away from tough topics: the death, illness, and long-lasting longing. However, these are the topics that in one way or another our canon of literature is built upon, are they not? They are topics that are universal, emotional, and compelling because we all can identify with them at length. It takes a very expert poet to take on these foci and do it in a manner both original and resoundingly honest, but Rhodes has accomplished that feat in The Beds.
by Mike Walker
Geoffrey Hill is one of those names in contemporary English-language poetry that passes our lips without thinking when we consider our current poetry that has ample roots in historical forms and scholarship. He is one of those rare poets today who, whether we like him or not, read him or not, is carrying forth not only the modern tradition of Eliot but the traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their literatures. His own poetry is informed and bolstered by fact that he is an academic, and not of the MFA creative writing program sort but one who teaches old-school English literature the old fashioned way at an old-enough institution—Boston University—and who recently was elected to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, one of that hallowed institution’s most-respected of honors. His most recent book of original poetry, Clavics, was released in 2011 and a sweeping anthology of his work, Collected Poems 1952-2012, is due for publication in 2013. He is, no doubt, a made man in poetry—some would even probably apply the term “elder statesman” either in honest respect or as a sign of his place in history and the passing of time away from the type of poetics Hill favors, but without doubt he’s made a deep mark in the poetry of our time.
Come 2012—a year that is only a shy month away—Hill’s 2002 book of poems, The Orchards of Syon, will be a full decade old. The Orchards of Syon was one of those landmark volumes, one that came forth in the same year and even the same season as Jorie Graham’s book Never. It was published in a time when America was still trying to define its position post 9/11 and a time also when the arts were at once seen as less than crucial to society and more vital than ever. Thus, Hill’s book would be one of those to carry values of the recent past into a new decade marked by fear, by war, by a new sense of urgency that some would contend we—Americans, Brits, Westerners—had not felt since the heyday of the Cold War. Hill, for his part, draws on everything from his childhood in rural England to Dante to World War I’s horrors: he pulls together an adroit, powerful, and consummate fabric of literary and historical references but threads it all into a cohesive whole via the yarn of personal experience:
And here—and there too—I
wish greatly to believe: that Bromsgrove
was, and is, Goldengrove; that the Orchards
of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.
But there we are: the heartland remains
heartless – that’s the strange beauty of it.
There is something quite warming and even tonic about such words; Hill probably was unaware when he began these poems that they would be not only desired for their qualities of solace in time of grief and fear but necessary in the world in 2002. To the roll and green of the English countryside—written about time and again and by the giants like Clare and Wordsworth—he brings a contemporary view but one that is based in the tautologies of the classical world, the Miltonian grandeur and Romantic complexity of description, the lustre of the Victorians and the bittersweet tale of modern European history. Hill understands how poetry in the English language evolved since the influence of the chansons du geste through Spencer’s metonymy and metaphor up via Eliot to where we are today, and every word of it at times it seems is somehow repeated in his own work. He’s not, as some critics would claim, a deep-dyed Tory but yes, it’s clear he’s read Thucydides. He sees and hears history resoundingly and if he is conservative, well, what other choice has he? Steeped in the traditions of high culture, the British victory of the second World War, the highs and lows of the old-world nation-state through two centuries, those words from every dusty volume of Cicero—what choice has he?
Though there are ample voices of old dead white guys here and there in Hill’s poetics, it is a woman—albeit a dead white one—who at times steps forth from the shadows to make her influence most known: Emily Dickinson, that most elusive and sublime of American poets, is clearly an influence on Hill. The following is pure Dickinsonian speech though adapted for contemporary context and devoid of the coy, cunning, shy nature Dickinson offered up—Hill needs not those trappings in these frank days, not when he’s a man expected to write poems for a living:
Now you also,
sine nomine, if that is what you are,
earthy-etherial, I desire you
to fathom what I mean. What do I mean?
So sine nomine and sans tache, Hill has already implored our attention while confusing the dickens out of us—and this is still very early into the book, folks. His poetry is known to be “difficult” but once again like Graham, this is both the effort of critics and I think by now the effort of Hill himself to live up to certain expectations. The same way you wait for high notes on a Mariah Carey song simply because she’s known for such, you wait for the latin, the odd historical references, and the careful way with obtuse language that are by now hallmarks of Hill. If he left these out, if he aimed for clear prose, we’d all feel rather let down. Still, Hill’s choice of words is at times overwrought while in others places simply too trite or expected: a lot of things are described as “ash grey” or like-minded words that remind us only of what we already know: he’s still talking about England and wants to underscore the effect of the wars post-industrial growth, and urban sprawl upon the pastoral countryside he recalls from his youth.
There are two things I find highly worthy in Hill’s work here, though, and it’s not that he has written the type of poetry that probably helps the editors of the New Criterion sleep better at night, knowing that all postmodern poetry isn’t confessional or too-earnestly experimental. Firstly, yes, Hill writes a rare form of poetry for these days—a poetry that is concerned with place, with history, with the personal but at a rather impersonal level. Hill restores to the canon via these orchards the valid need for poetry to be “about” things instead of being about people or one’s self. Sure, other poets—many other poets—still write about a morning’s chill or an old woman they always see at the post office, but Hill approaches each and every topic with a real attention to word-craft: his works bespeak his efforts, and stand out as what laymen expect of poetry—to be poetic, stately, even verbose. His poems look even in simple serif font like calligraphy due to his skill and choice of words. The second task Hill accomplishes in this collection—and one he makes most clear here over all his other volumes of poetry—is that he provides an experience that seems perfectly literary and not given over to any other media. In an age that is, even moreso now than in 2002, all about adaptation and multimedia, Hill proves poetry to be better at taking on a landscape than a camera’s lens or page of watercolor paper at times. Pound knew this, Milton knew this, but even in Pound’s day the lines between media were pretty clear—today, should we write a poem or do a video, or something else? Hill proved, in 2002, that poetry would never become outdated or secondary to other mechanisms of expression by, wonderfully enough, writing poetry that one could at first glance declare old—even outdated.
Don’t think for a second that Hill isn’t aware of what he’s doing—though again, he could not have been as aware in 2002 as he should be now in retrospect. He provides us with his own view on the utility of poetry:
I ask you:
what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.
Well yes, “perfect pitch”: that is pretty much the feeling you get from these poems. We needed poems to console us in 2002, and many were written for that specific post-9/11 purpose, but poems that were innocent of the most recent disaster they’d desire to console us of might in fact be the best poems to apply for that grim job. The Orchards of Syon skirt all over history and often trudge alongside pain and suffering in no small part because so much of what we record as worthwhile in history is the wars, the natural disasters, the rulers overthrown, the kings who died only to have their brothers fight it out as to who got what in their kingdoms. I read this book in 2002 and I at once found it highly useful in realizing something every politician should have seen with clarity: 9/11 wasn’t some horrible entry into a new chapter of history, but simply the type of event that sadly is commonplace throughout history and only made worse by the ability of technology to scrip terror in large print. Hill, though he certainly did not plan on it, becomes a master of providing us with empathy for when and where we need it yet also a stern teacher who can undercut our sorrow in this book.
It is easy enough to mine history and literature—especially the classics—for literary metaphors and iconography, and it’s a trend we see in plenty of contemporary poets. However, Hill’s approach goes far beyond this, it returns us to a type of poetry that takes us back to everything from Thomas Chatterton’s youthful attempts to create the persona of Thomas Rowley to John Clare writing about his own nature-filled childhood as Hill would centuries later under very different circumstances but under the same oblative auspices. Hill’s Orchards of Syon have without doubt stood the test of a decade and I suspect will easily stand the test of many more. Reading it now, I had the same feeling of unique greatness I felt years ago when in a dusty and quiet university library on a misty morning I first encountered John Matthias’ Bucyrus: two very different books of poetry, but much alike in their abilities to isolate the reader from his world for an hour or two and make him reconsider it anew.
The Hands of Strangers:
Poems from the Nursing Home
Janice N. Harrington
Rochester: BOA Editions, 2011
reviewed by Mike Walker
Janice Harrington, an accomplished poet and author of children’s books, takes on a difficult, deep, yet rewarding topic in this collection of poems regarding life in a nursing home. It would be all too easy to approach this topic with an overly-heavy application of pity and pathos, but Harrington, an adept wordsmith and even more adept student of human character, avoid such trite pitfalls. To write of the elderly and their frail condition, to write of the loss of abilities—and sometimes even loss of memory—that these people who have seen so much, done so much, now grapple with, is no easy undertaking but one Harrington masters in poems such as “Pietà”:
His blue-milk skin, blue-veined
and blue-bruised, eases against her chest.
His brow leans into her shoulder. His lips
press her uniform’s rough pleats and leave
damp wings traced in spittle above her breast,
though she does not notice and, straining,
bears the weight as the years have taught
The focus and intention of her words are clear here, but the impressive aspect isn’t in the empathy for both the elderly patient and the patient nurse that Harrington conveys but the nuanced, careful, way with words she applies in her approach to description. Harrinton’s biographical information included with the book itself mentions that her upbringing in rural Alabama greatly influenced her manner in story-telling, but there is also an astute aspect of formalism in this poem fitting of its namesake. Harrington is not always original in her foci in these poems—there’s a lot of expected scenes and issues that you’d not be surprised to find in any collection around the theme at hand—but she is always sagacious in her descriptions. If you are going to entitle a poem “Old Photos” in a book dedicated to life in the nursing home, you’d better be a true master with words and also able to conjure a tale alive in very fast time. Harrington rises to this challenge time and again in these poems, performing a task difficult for any poet dealing with any topical matter, which is to provide the reader not only with a pithy description of the subject at hand but to allow his mind to wander outside of the immediate and into the related. As I had recently been reading about the history of mental illness and its treatment in South Carolina, many of Harrinton’s poems transported me back to that topic as well as the specifcs she concerns herself with in her poems. To me, this is most necessary because good poetry can open up the full gamut of the issues it regards in a way that even the most deft of prose often cannot.
One of the most outstanding poems in this collection is one entitled “May Engles” after a character—more than a character, a person, for we are not dealing in the remote world of fiction here—who passes away, neglected, unknown, without fanfare. In turn, Harrington takes it upon herself via measures both normal and supernatural to memorialize May Engles, to project her name and image far out into the world as we do for movie stars who die young or political leaders we actually profess to love. Again, it’s not the concept but the word-craft here that makes the poem stellar: we can imagine a woman dying in the nursing home, alone, without the attention to her basic humanity we all would hope for—that part is easy enough. Reba McEntire even had a song on an album in the early 1990s about a nursing home resident who did not die but never was visited by her family. It’s not a very original problem, the plight of the unfortunate elderly and how much of that plight is predicated on memory and lack of community with those who should matter most. However, in Harrington’s hands it becomes a poem of magical realism, of history, of tall tale. Harrington’s charm, and also her greatest strength, is that she never preaches, never tries to shame us, but instead brings us to feel awe-struck wonder where instead we only expect at best to feel sympathy. Another reviewer of this book claimed Harrington illustrates the “terrible” of her topic—the horror, I think he meant, of nursing home life—but I think she demonstrates the acute abjection and also the scant places of sublime beauty in such life.
Most of the time when we are invited to visit a nursing home or volunteer at one, to become involved in the lives of our elders who are to some extent confined, restricted, in their abilities, we are implored via a joint calling of duty (to our elders) and emotional profit (the stories we’ll hear! the things of history we’ll learn!). The public relations ploy of the nursing home as an institution nearly always brushes the disturbing or difficult aspects of nursing home realities under the rug or else simply claims such is best ignored in favor of the goodness—the vitality of humanity—encountered there if we dare. All this is noble, and all is fair, but what Harrinton accomplishes via her poems is something else, a discernment of worthy detail in even the most difficult, most harrowing, most distressing parts of life in an institution of chronic care.
In another poem, “Walking Roba”, Harrinton addresses the everyday, quick yet long-felt issue of lingering racism: a resident, an elderly Black man, needs to use the restroom and is not close enough to his own bedroom so an aide walking with him steers him into another patient’s room only to have that resident scream at them to “get that nigger out of here!”. Both men come from an era where racism was not as hidden as it is today and both came, we would hope, to witness change for the better, but perhaps not. Or perhaps the white man who yelled at Roba and the aide thought he was back in the 1950s—it’s hard to tell. What matters is that Roba probably was unsurprised, even if he’d not encountered his co-resident’s wrath before, he had without doubt encountered someone like him. He was beyond being insulted: the insults happened long ago and to a younger man. This old one was not so fragile even if he needed the help of an aide to make his way down the hall. Harrington, who is Black herself, addresses race in numerous places but she never makes of it a sermon or lesson; she never makes the book about racial injustice or even a single poem seem to be about such. She gains my greatest respect as a writer in her ability to accomplish this delicate task. Harrington is able to do such because she is able to write a poem such as “Ward of Sleep”, a poem about death that is both obvious in its sublimity but also has the structural feel of prose, almost of instruction. It reminds me of reading a naval medicine text once and encountering the instructions for preparing the dead for burial at sea: the washing, the care for the body. She is an astute eulogist here, and her ministry is both to the dead and those who remain of the living. Death, of course, is the most intractable malady anyone will face, and this is a place were many traumas and pathogens are greeted daily.
My favorite poem in this book though has to be “Reality Orientation Therapy”, a poem that owes a high debt to Ezra Pound—a poet who is, oddly enough, not mined nearly as often as you would hope by contemporary poets who need means of addressing the psyche in full. Harrington tells us that, “No, starlings have no songs. They cough like old men”. The birds, the choice of bird, the application of metaphor and most of all the boxy yet still not too long structure of the entire poem is consummate. It takes no time to read, and it’s done with so fast, but it contains enough information to last an hour. An hour of terror. The five minutes the nurse dreads of waking a patient who will not know even where they are when they awake, or perhaps even who they are. And yet there is never a sense of pity: we feel for the nurse as much as for the patient; we feel her understandable frustration.
The final section (of four) of this book is devoted to poems focusing not on patients or care-givers as have the other poems, but the mundane devices of technology that enable nursing home care—the complex medical history in the chart, even the lowly bedpan. The details of day to day life in the nursing home are made explicit by such poems—often hauntingly, awkwardly, haltingly explicit. The poems in this section are perhaps as a group the most powerful of all simply because they follow that favorite old rule of fiction writing—to show instead of to tell—a rule apt for poetry, it also turns out. Here, we are reminded also what “technology” really is: not just fancy electronics but anything tangible that enables technique. The willing, glad, and oftentimes greatly-hampered goal of both the nurses and the technology they use is to keep patients alive and functional despite the rigors of age and disease. Harrington’s book is painful and difficult because it makes the challenges faced in the more extreme aspects of elder-care very apparent and the reader may feel he cannot escape the imperfect, the frustrating, the tough chores of washing, feeding, trying to make someone remember her own name. However, you cannot help but walk away from this book impressed, not only with Harrington’s fine craft as a poet but with the tasks that nurses, aides, and others take on every day. You will not look at someone in scrubs who you know is not a doctor the same again when you see them in the grocery store at some odd hour, tired as all, buying something for dinner at midnight.
Harrington has done us all a great service in rendering views of the lives of patients and care-givers alike in this slim book; I would wish to suggest for her future efforts that she might do the same for police officers, for surgical teams, for a variety of fields that those outside of them see only in media stereotypes and plain language. The ability of poetry to bring difficult lives into view with empathy is something Harrinton handles with the utmost of skill, and I do hope she will continue to apply for all of our profit.
Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
C. Waldrep and John Gallaher
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd.
reviewed by Mike Walker
G.C. Waldrep is one of my favorite contemporary poets and his 2008 book Disclamor is to me a masterwork in short form of geographical and political observation alike. Taking grand inspiration from his personal experiences in walking around the abandoned Cold War defensive batteries and bunkers of Marin County, California, Waldrep considered the complex meanings of these former measures to ensure American security in an age where security concerns once again is at an apex. Cold War history is of keen interest to me anyways, but Waldrep in this book drew together bits of history that might only lure in a military history nerd like myself under normal circumstances yet somehow, via careful craft and expansive knowledge, spins from them tales as much about the internal workings of society and personality as about coastal fortifications. Thus, when BOA Editions sent me Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, for review the first thing I noticed about this fairly thick volume was that Waldrep was one of its authors, and that was plenty to raise my interest. Next though, I learned exactly what I had in my hands: the unique fruit of the labor of two poets—Waldrep and John Gallaher, an equally esteemed American poet—working in tandem to produce poems via email. That is, these two men are not just co-authors of a book, a collection, but of each poem it contains and they wrote these works via sending words and phrases back and forth electronically.
This writing concept is apt for our internet age and may even seem innovative but also perhaps a bit more appropriate for an undergraduate course than the efforts of two leading contemporary poets, yet like any literature the proof of the pudding must be in the eating, not in the size of the kitchen, the name of the chef, or anything else. What may at first seem like an exercise quickly reveals itself to be a serious working modality in the able hands of Gallaher and Waldrep. A line such as “After the fire, November was a surgeon’s voice” in the poem “Night Autopsy” carries all the allure you’d expect when you encounter it halfway through the poem but also stills you in the reality of poetry that writes of our modern day lives, our contemporary situation so mediated by technology including the very internet magic and email speediness that helped facilitate this poem. Though “Night Autopsy” is held together by the twine of the current, the real, I cannot help but feel though there’s something very film noir, very much historical, very romantic and yet no-nonsense about it, too.
In the titular poem, the images are exacting and pointed, moving the father himself onto the “train of ghosts” and into a world of ample metaphor and images fitting for an aged man who can recall much of a varied and violent century:
Maybe he’s watching the hot-air balloons
that have just appeared
all over the sky, ribbed like airborne hearts
of the giants Jack killed.
In the stories, Jack has no father.
This would explain a lot, you are thinking
as the train begins to pull away.
This is a twentieth-century man: there are wars, and there are trains, airplanes, all manner of vehicles fit for fast travel. Hot-air ballons, those festive fanfares of romance with little real function in contemporary aviation aside from providing newlyweds a lovely view of the countryside or serving as the backgrounds of health insurance ads: They seem fit for just the watching of or the watching from, little more. We are, however, no longer in the twentieth-century and this train itself seems to leave with little fanfare.
Knowing where Waldrep comes from—both in terms of his acute geography and his literary eye—is helpful in approaching this collection. I know much less of Gallaher, but knowing Waldrep I am able in many places to discern his voice in the poems and by subtraction, isolate Gallaher as the other voice remaining. Gallaher seems to share Waldrep’s way of seeing, he seems adept at finding the nuanced motifs of varied trips to other nations, flights afar, and most of all the violence of war. There is here a sense of exoticism but never for its own sake or for the plain sake of artifice. In some places war is even mentioned without being described in enough detail to pinpoint it, but there’s something about the typology of vague Cold War references and general tenor of voice that makes me think of the Vietnam War above all else. Part of this is seeing that what matters—in the dialog between the two poets—arises the necessary facets of dialog between men in general, and comrades in arms certainly come to mind. We also source the voices of men—these two men, other men, the unspoken “father”—at various stations of life: we can hear the voice of the college-aged kid or the young enlisted man beside the words of men well into middle-age.
The age of the authors, or better posited, their collective awareness of age and history, furthers their output markedly. A young man doesn’t write a poem such as “Elegy for the Manhattan Project” or “Trade Deficit”. If a young man were to, he’d be a young fellow with a very old heart. The aforementioned “Night Autopsy” in title and content, part and parcel, is exceptionally masterful. We—most of us who are not pathologists, anyhow—know post-mortems via television crime dramas which have in recent years made much more use of the medical examiner it seems. The reality though of the job is not as alluring as television makes it and the autopsy as a thing, as an odd chore but routine matter for a select few doctors, is oft outweighed by its power as a metaphor. Here, the metaphoric reach of this task is put to best of purposes though. What of the most literally interrogation of the dead in the heart of the night? What if the medical examiner is running behind and must work into the wee hours of the morning? What if we’re in plague times and the corpses are becoming commonplace?
“Candling the Bodies” is another poem on the theme of stewardship of the dead. The language of it, whether by intention of the authors or happenstance, suggests to me the mortuary affairs complex at Dover Air Force Base where war dead arrive to be prepared for their military funerals:
So our job at the hangar
was to hold each of the bodies
up to a bright light, to see
if there were any other
Day in, day out
we sifted the bodies
from their crates of sawdust.
This is not how, I would think, the work is done at Dover, nor are “other bodies” sought out within the corpses. Dr. William St. Clair Symmers, the great pathologist and writer of medical miscellany, might well appreciate this poem but again the role of metaphor is forged right on top of close reality. As soon as we connect a “hangar” and “bodies” in reading this, how can we not think of corpses—and the war dead at that? However, for all we know—and really, all the poem ever tells—the “bodies” may not even be human. Perhaps there is a corpus at work here, not a corpse; perhaps the bodies are animal and the work veterinary; perhaps they are the spent shells of a warplane, a bird of prey? In any case, as with “Night Autopsy” we get more terse, glaring, yet fully unresolved intersections of life and death.
When I first sat down with this book, I will admit I wondered how well the innovative concept of shared writing of poetry via email would work out and I even feared the Waldrep I’d come to so greatly respect would be washed of his distinct voice in a tandem effort. I had no reason to worry, as it turns out, because Gallaher and Waldrep develop on these pages an uncanny, consummate, ability to write cohesive poems that while united in tenor retain each man’s own voice and come together like a fabric made by an ultra-lux fashion house. Not simply an experiment, this book is ample in length and very serious in tone—encompassing in quality and scope. I highly recommend it as one of the most diverse, unique, and engrossing poetry books of the past couple years and I hope for more work of this approach by Waldrep and Gallaher.
by Mike Walker
Every year around Halloween—near the first of October, really, as I like to have a whole month for this—I tend to re-read old ghost stories by the like of M.R. James, folk tales of British corpse ways, and historical non-fiction about vampires from the Balkans. Halloween makes for a grand excuse for becoming immersed in things gothic, the dark and gloomy for a whole month or better. This year, I decided to focus on a less common but equally apt work in the canon of horror: the linguist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s classic work on abjection, Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Powers of Horror). Kristeva’s objective in this book-length essay is to address the role of abjection as a psychosocial property and a literary device. Coming from her background as a practicing psychoanalyst and also a pioneering linguist who wrote her Dr. d’État dissertation on the semiotic development of the early European novel, no one appears better poised than Kristeva to address this topic and she does a magesterial job. To me, the concept of a nuanced essay that explains via both theory and example the mechanisms of abjection in literature is something not only quite useful to the scholar but something that has been missing from how general scholarship of gothic literature, film noir, and a variety of other genre have been commonly approached.
Kristeva defines the abject as “To each ego its object, to each superego its abject. It is not the white expanse or slack boredom of repression, not the translations and transformations of desire that wrench bodies, nights, and discourse; rather it is a brutish suffering . . .”. She continues on this motif further explicating in poetic terms her vision, but the core point has been made: within the Lacanian framework, the abject is a central waypoint on the definition of the relation of the personal ego with the greater world; it is not just the presence of disgust or horror, but that entire gamut of suffering we encounter.
Kristeva later notes that “The abject is, for Dostoyevsky, the ‘object’ of The Possessed: it is the aim, and motive of an existence whose meaning is lost in absolute degradation because it absolutely rejected the moral limit (a social, religious, familial, and individual one) as absolute—God.” Therefore the abject is the fulcrum, it is that which we use as our compass of moral regulation by default. It is knowing when you’ve had too much to drink, or when someone is not a person you wish to invite to your party. However, it does not end there: the abject is also the horrors that via their totality and catastrophic nature cause a sense of awful wonder. A rocket hitting a multi-floor apartment tower, a bridge that fails and falls—cars, people, and all—into a cold river below, these are all things that are abject. When human design and the intent of malice come into play, the situation is even more dire and often more horribly enchanting. There is a photo from a school video camera of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stalking through the school with weapons in hand that I have seen republished in multiple articles about their murderous rampage: why should we tolerate seeing this, much less wish to see it? What is the draw of the obscene? It represents the horror: it shows us the murderers beyond any question of their acts or their evil nature. When we hear a ship has sunk, we wish to see the abject act—a ship, verily sinking—not an empty ocean of its aftermath.
Kristeva opens Powers of Horror with a general overview of what she means by the term “abjection” and how the “abject” and the process of “abjection” differ, plus a slight introspection into the history of the abject as a sociocultural phenomenon—covering with strong insight such aspects as how early Christian mystics delighted in the abject and how the concept of self-abuse and piety evolved in part from their views of abjection. Kristeva is careful to clarify the differences between the grotesque and the abject and how the abject can share in the material corpus of things that cause disgust but also transcends such a base emotional reaction. Working from there, she approaches a variety of oftentimes surprising literary examples, such as the works of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and through these works places the apex of the literary interest in the abject to run alongside the same timeline as the romantic era focus on the sublime and further into the modern era focus on psychological realism. As in her dissertation years before, Kristeva is highly adept at capturing all the verve of the carnival and grotesque in a write such as Céline plus the depth and scope of the variform abject she locates in literature.
Kristeva further delineates her view of the abject as “that experience, which is nevertheless managed by the Other, “subject” and “object” push each other away, confront each other, collapse, and start again—inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject. Great modern literature unfolds over that terrain: Dostoyevsky, Lautreamont, Proust, Artaud, Kafka, Celine.”
What Kristeva demonstrates in her overall approach to the modern period is that these writers belong to a trajectory of acceptance of vileness alongside virile aggression and accelerated lack of confidence in a faith-based, morality-regulated society. We perhaps easily forget now how even Spinoza and Kierkegaard, who are considered essential to secular philosophy today, wrote within the guise of religion. They lived, after all, in a world of feast days, fast days, civil accord revolving around things holy while all that was not holy remained in civil discord unseen. Kristeva points to the abject as not however the absence of something—not, in example, famine due to a lack of harvest—but the precise presence of a matter of disgust or a means of arriving at disgust.
According to Kristeva, Jorge Luis Borges before her has already defined the abject and abjection—though not in those express words—as key to the crucial drive of all literature. Kristeva describes Borge’s declared objective of literature as “vertiginous and hallucinatory”, all tales told are after all “narratives of the infamous” and with Borges leitmotif of noir and reliance on the detective story’s tropes, abjection is rife in his works. Yet abjection does not negate hope: abjection, Kristeva explains, is the realization of disgust and the ability to process something from the point of being disgusting, repulsive, to the complexity of horror. While animals can be repulsed by something—a decaying corpse, in example—their response to such an incident is predicated on disgust more than horror. For the human, horror quickly pushes simple disgust out of the picture: a corpse unexpectedly encountered may be disgusting, but soon the primary raw emotion is one of horror and fear: why is there a dead body here, where it is unexpected? Is this a murder? Is the killer still on the loose? Could I be the next victim?
Kristeva further remarks that abjection “becomes a substitute for the role formerly played by the sacred, at the limits of social and subjective identity. But we are dealing here with a sublimation without consecration. Forfeited.”
In this, we find possibly the most direct aspect of the abject as a literary device rather than a trajectory or catalyst for literary furtherance: where in pre-modern times literature would seek the supplication of tragedy via God, via prayer, via faith, we find that the modern writer is divorced from religion. As Kristeva says, that option is forfeited—even if faith is central in the story, even if the author actually speaks with conviction of the power of God, there is still the modern angle of society and social ills being more real, more present, than the relationship of the protagonist with God. It is not a question of God being present, being extant, or not: it is a question of death and how society deals with death. When even the most pitiful death occurs in a pre-modern text, unless it is of someone evil and unredeemed, the death is predicated on the repair of supplication, of consecration, of burial even in holy ground. I mentioned in the introduction to this essay how I like to read vampire stories—supposedly true ones—from the Balkans: often, in historical, native, vampire lore from this region the curse of the vampire is itself broken and the undead goes back to being normal, nice, docile, dead once the corpse is buried in a proper manner in a consecrated churchyard. In much of modern literature, there is no curse but neither is there consecration. Both are removed. In any case, the abject is localized in the horror of what has happened: a murder, an unexplained death, a body thrown out without proper burial. These are all things that understandably repulse us and likewise horrify us in their ability to occur in the first place.
Kristeva also considers, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the role of “a pharmakos, a scapegoat who, having been ejected, allows the city to be freed from defilement”. This is akin to the situation of the vampire of folklore, another case where actual removal of the offending party and placing him either in exile or else somewhere where he “should” be will remedy the status of abjection. Since abjection is a process, the removal of its catalyst will bring the process, understandably, to a close. While the classical pharmakos is a chosen representative designed to be expelled from the community and free it from some manner of crisis, the Slavic vampire is an unexpected cause of evil and is more directly tied to such in a cause and effect manner: if the vampire is haunting your community and causing problems—disease, murders, poor harvests or whatever you wish to blame it for—it makes sense to rid yourself of the offending creature. The pharmakos is most often a criminal or slave, a person who serves little purpose to the community and is looked down upon, but may not be directly at fault for whatever disaster is being responded to via casting him out in exile. In both cases though, the person blamed, the person decided upon as the scapegoat is abject: a rotten corpse suspected of reanimating itself and terrorizing the community, or a person who has somehow proven himself unworthy of the typical courtesies of a society.
Though the abject is the matter of disgust while abjection is the process of repulsion, Kristeva finds the sublime inspired by the abject—forged from it in fact—even when she discerns little jouissance in the abject realm. She is far from the first to make this discovery, though she articulates it better than anyone else I’ve read on the topic. The sublime arises from the abject just as the sublime was found in the early ruins so beloved by the British Victorians: they loved such ruins so much, tempered by the centuries and eroded by rain and snow, as to go forth and build follies that imitated ruins where no ruins existed. They built useless, expensive, monuments to decay and that—the creation of a thing of decay and loss in the wake of no such real loss, or false loss to replace real loss,—is truly abject. The horror of something grand fallen into nothingness, dissolved beyond usefulness, decayed to its primeval corpse-self, is the territory of literature where Kristeva finds the greatness of abjection. Through her Biblical examples, her classical examples, her in-depth study of Céline’s writing, Kristeva takes her reader away from the simple point of the abject being simply that which is disgusting or foul, and into the complex arena of the abject being that which pushes margins. The contemporary term “trainwreck” well comes to mind, as the abject is that which can inspire both our collective sense of horror and acknowledgement that something awful has transpired but also that very special fulcrum that balances between mystical surprise and very organic repulsion. In such, in the truly abject despite its multiple and varied forms, we locate the powers of horror.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions
reviewed by: Mike Walker
The argument is often made that poetry holds great social value beyond its aesthetic merits, that it can teach useful lessons and communicate in difficult emotional regions where plain prose would be lost or even give over to a physical fight. Some of these defenses of poetry certainly are launched in fear that beside more popular forms of literature like the novel, poetry suffers for shelf space and sales in the bookstore. Perhaps it also suffers a similar lack of attention in the classroom and elsewhere, but is the argument valid? Can poetry in a unique sense communicate where other forms of fiction or nonfiction cannot so readily? Naomi Shihab Nye would make a strong argument that in fact it can and, in some instances, poetry may be the best mechanism of breaking down walls of distrust and fear.
Nye is an Arab-American and her poetry in this volume, as its title even suggests, is mainly concerned with the Arab diaspora’s experience and the current views of the Middle East in the United States in a time when Americans fear terrorism at the hands of Muslim extremists and have been engaged in two long wars in Islamic, Arab, nations. Other Arab-American, Arab, and Islamic poets are of course presenting work concerned with the crucial intersections of faith, politics, culture and war, but what makes Nye very special and worthwhile in this book is her constant focus on her own experience and the personal journey she’s undertaken. Beyond the emphasis on the Middle East, she has a more personal focus on her own father and his journey to America. She doesn’t insist, pretend, nor even suggest that her experiences are appropriate stand-ins for a short course in Arab-American relations but instead presents them as the experiences of just one woman who happens also to be a great writer. She never comes forward and says “I am here to tell you all about my world, which you may be unfamiliar with or confused about, so listen” but instead portends that “I am here, a woman from this other place, well-travelled in this other place, and I would like to tell you about my gathered views of there—and of here, also”. Born of a Palestinian father and American mother, she doesn’t claim ever to represent every Arab, every Arab-American, or anyone else, yet she has to know that she brings the voice and weight of tremendous, unique, experience to us all the same.
where is the name no one answered to
gone off to live by itself
beneath the pine trees separating the houses
without a friend or a bed
without a father to tell it stories
how hard was the path it walked on
all those years belonging to none
of our struggles drifting under
the calendar page elusive as
residue when someone said
how have you been it was
strangely that name that tried
This is Nye’s poem “Dusk” and it intones as well as any the experience she desires to share, to convey. There is a constant feeling in Nye’s poems of names not answered, of clues and fleeting traits or ideas made manifest but not stable elements enough to remain with us very long: ghosts, always ghosts. There is that feeling you get if you’ve ever travelled in less-developed parts of the world—Africa, southeast Asia—where air travel only brings you in so far, then it is boats and unsure bridges and cars from the 1970s the rest of the way. The feeling of travel being an ordeal but also an honor. The feeling of the horizon being endless and all your kinfolk being spread over a vast globe. Some you have the fondest memories of yet know you won’t see again. As for myself, I am no expert on the Middle East or Islam or Arab historiography, but I’ve studied the Islamic art and architecture in some depth and from that can attest that by tradition, most Islamic—especially Arab—cultures are ornate in their arts. This opulence, this ornate fashion of art comes across in Nye’s poems: some are decently long, complex, and grand in their images while others are crafted of only a few slight words yet perfect in their ability to convey a consummate point. Her poem “Mall Aquarium, Dubai” is a good example:
In how many worlds are we invisible?
Blue glitter, flickering fins,
fish barely notice us,
as we blur and jostle the edges of their vision.
She did not need more on a page to bring to us what she experienced; she said it all perfectly in a scant few words. That’s it, that’s all. I have not see this aquarium—I think I may have read about it, and apparently it’s very large, very grand—but I don’t need exact details, honestly, as I have a good impression of Nye walking past it, perhaps a shopping bag and her purse in hand, looking over her shoulder and seeing a fish not quite looking back. It is in such a moment when she decides this is worthy of a poem. Like many established poets, Nye has taught poetry and creative writing and sometimes I feel teaching is itself the best instructor of economy in poetry: via editing the work of others, teachers understandably learn how to edit themselves. If this is in fact the case with Nye, it certainly shows. Her work is always on-point, just as long as it needs to be but no more extensive, and yet, the shorter works in this book never feels truncated, either.
Nye’s mastery of length is matched by a studied mastery of form, plus an expected yet refreshing expertise in description. This book is, at least in name, about her father and about the transfers between nation to nation, culture to culture, and father to daughter, yet via extension is about everyone who left one land for another. This is a key aspect to the book, as her style of writing, while personal, doesn’t seem overly focused on her family or herself in a way that excludes its universal applications. That is to say, when Nye writes about the Middle East, about experience, it is lush and poetic but the personal aspects of it do not detract from its overall address to a larger arena. There is no doubt in my mind that Nye’s father is present in these pages, but the idea of this book as a tribute to him has not prevented the book from also reaching into topics that are very apt and very complex. Nye’s writing is mordant, precise, yet like the very best of non-fiction, it makes itself personal in tenor without being explicit in persona. It is not hard to envision the places and problems Nye details as being ones any Muslim-American encounters or that anyone from Middle East may ponder in relating one culture to another. When Nye declares in her poem “Member of the Tribe” that she cannot speak of Afghanistan, she cannot explain it though she tries her best to explain the intense tribal connections present in Iraq which often have confounded our fighting forces there, you sense that Nye is the real thing. You know she’s been asked before, countless times, as a writer and public intellectual to offer her thoughts on the Middle East and she knows just whereof she should speak and where she would rather leave questions unanswered.
There is a great book entitled Exotics at Home by the anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo which concerns how anthropology—and especially Margaret Mead’s work—helped shaped the American view of “the other” and how we look at ethnicity in terms of society, culture and even corporate marketing. I was re-reading this book when I started reading Nye’s Transfer and the non-fiction work was a great help in approaching her poetry because Nye is really about the same topic: her work seeks to explain how we view the Arab other, the Islamic other. She explores this territory, as I stated above, in a way that is both personal and also universal, but always in a manner of humble humanity. Her core interest is not only in explaining herself, her family, what it means to be mixed of American and Arab origins alike, but how the real material of a place differs from its abbreviated explanations furnished on the nightly news. Her poetry asks a question she never quite makes plain, but always is latently unspoken though apparent: how do we know, as in really know, a place and a culture? To write about issues that are very painful, or at least very frustrating, a poet can either immerse herself in the ordeal or remove herself as an anthropologist or historian would do, although from reading di Leonardo’s book I know that the anthropologist or other social scientist is not always so successful in this regard, either.
Another poet whom I much admire, Victoria Chang, had written about the Holocaust and done so via the process of removal: however strong her empathy and moving her poetry, we know she, as a young Asian-American no more than about thirty years old, was not there. Her parents or grandparents, also, not there. Yet she has analogs for empathy with the Holocaust experience. Nye on the other hand, was there when she speaks of the Middle East. She trots around the shopping mall in Dubai, obviously a wealthy, posh, and beautiful man-made place but one not so very far from places where the very most basic of needs go unmet. We have seen writers, including poets adept and talented like Matthew Shenoda, reduce the Middle East to the trite and expected tents, camels, pyramids, et cetera. We have read the novels and seen the movies scripted from the nearly ten years of two American wars in the region. The artists and journalists have not for a moment lost any time on bringing us the Middle East, the Arab plight, the complicated questions at hand, but too often we get the same images over and over again, and they fail to be inclusive of the great diversity of the region. Not here, though, not with Nye.
I would recommend Nye’s book to anyone who enjoys contemporary poetry—not only are her topics timely and pithy, her poetics are overall top-notch and there’s a lot to love about her style of writing. She not only finds the perfect balance between personal narrative and universal experience, but she also conveys a sense of chaotic vastness, a feeling of looking out across tarmac, across sand, airplanes leaving for other cities, people you may never meet again. She brings that feeling of walking through a crowded bazaar or airport terminal in a hurry yet with the yearning to stay a bit longer, even if to only look at something in a shop window for a minute more. She sees so much—how many Americans are as well-traveled as her and with her benefit of a nuanced cultural understanding of place?—yet she also seems in so many instances in this book to run off the page before all can be said. I would especially recommend this book to any graduate student or young policy planner or area specialist trying to learn more about Middle Eastern culture and polity, to read it before bed like a tonic just after reading more dry and static non-fiction works on the same topic. Nye brings the solace of human understanding to these complex considerations. Listen to an album by the great Algerian songstress Warda or one by the contemporary Turkish pop star Gülben Ergen while reading this, surround yourself with the intricacy of the Middle East. “I don’t know if my father can hear me. But it is important to pretend he can.” Thus opens this book, and Nye’s personal journey recorded here. I believe he hears her, and I understand the importance in any case of pretending he can. In another poem, the aforementioned “Member of the Tribe” she tells us that “tribes are like tape recorders” and probably they are, but so is this book: lovely, introspective, personal yet universal—through it all, you feel as you have shared in a valid and honest record of a family and an extended culture.
An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women
edited by Andrea Hollander Budy
Autumn House Press
reviewed by Mike Walker
Most of us who enjoy poetry—who enjoy reading—know about collections and thematic anthologies mainly from our seminars and other literature courses: most classes that are topical will include an anthology as a text, be it one of Irish poetry, contemporary short fiction, early American poets, or whatever the focus of the course. Most such anthologies are, if seen as such by the student, actually a delight as far as textbooks go: few cost over thirty to fifty dollars making them some of the least expensive of college texts and unlike your biology or organic chem book, these anthologies are often very interesting to read. Moreover, they do what they say on the tin when they’re well-edited: you can read one of these tomes and come away with a fair impression of the diversity of depth and scope of whatever period and genre of literature it covers. Certainly, that beats seeking out the best of Irish poetry (or whatever is the topic at hand) on your own. I will let you in on a nerdy secret: when in college, I often would scan the textbook shelves of the college bookstore for anthologies and readers for courses that interested me but which I didn’t have any real rationale to take, and many times I’d buy one—at fifty dollars or sometimes much less, it sure beat the cost of course tuition.
I cannot know if Autumn House Press planned for When She Named Fire to serve mainly as an anthology for classroom use, but given that many colleges will have both undergrad and graduate courses on female poets—possibly even specific to contemporary American women who write poetry—planning such a volume would seem apt. At just over four hundred pages, the size and heft of a good Bible, and with a light yet sturdy enough paperback cover, the book is perfect for a backpack or reading on the train on your way to class. It is, of course, perfectly at home on a shelf, nightstand, or desk, too, but my first thought when I opened the package holding my review copy was that it would make a fine classroom anthology. Scanning the back cover’s list of included poets only reaffirmed this: while a few of my favorite contemporary American women poets are missing—Jorie Graham and Brenda Shaughnessy come to mind—other favorites such as Linda Pastan and Sharon Olds are thankfully included. There were some names I’d not heard of before, but not as many as I’d hoped but I suppose it is only a good thing that I recognized most of them. I would have loved to have seen some of the younger underdogs whom I feel never get their due yet who are writing mercurial, jaw-dropping, and very humanistic poetry like Autumn McClintock included, but as the list stands it’s a wise and varied selection. Paisley Rekdal probably is my new favorite from all those included whom I’d not read much of before: her poems are sweeping expanses that use up most of the page’s space and throw at you a barrage of ideas all at once. She, like Lorine Niedecker long before her, just takes over and draws you in, to hell with the rest of the world around you. She’s also a black belt according to the short author’s biography provided. You cannot help but to like this woman; I will confess there were a couple poets included who didn’t capture my heart as Rekdal did and I even wished they could have been discarded to allow another five pages or so for more Rekdal poems. That said, in poetry no matter how educated you are in it or what you’ve written yourself, personal taste still accounts for a great deal, so I won’t dare demerit or even name the poets I didn’t fancy as someone else obviously has and obviously will. Overall, the selected poets are strong, worthwhile, and diverse.
The question of inclusion is always a difficult one with any literary anthology and beyond the poets included, there comes the question of whether their work included is the best selection to offer of each poet. In this regard, the editor, Andrea Hollander Budy also seemed overall to do a fine job. I would have liked a few more poems per poet but then you’d easily move the book past the four hundred page mark and wind up with a beast of an anthology which no one would want to cart around nor pay for, either. With a poet like Linda Pastan, narrowing down the included work has to be tough but the task has been done justice as it has with Claudia Emerson, a poet who is both very easy to access in the topical matter of her work—daily affairs rendered with care, calmness, and insight—but at the same time one who deserves a close look and the chance to be understood in all the nuances she provides. Terry Blackhawk is another poet who is very hard to capture in only a few poems, yet the ones selected are fair enough examples, certainly. There are simply some poets who are easier to place in an anthology than others: Victoria Chang, who sadly was not included in this book, would be easy to select from given her overwhelming leitmotif of gloom and sorrow—always knit with the most haunting care, but always a slightly gloomy edge to her. Had I been given the task of putting some of Sharon Olds or Deborah Nystorm’s work in an anthology, I would probably still be debating over the best poems to include a week later. The editor accomplished this task with grace and still with economy, which is often the highest praise one can furnish any editor of an anthology.
Beyond the consideration of who was included and who was not of contemporary American poets—female or not—we have to consider who deserves to be considered such a poet: is it always someone who is plying the MFA and teaching track, publishing in the right journals? Or do we reach out to less-known writers if we can locate them? Do we dare include songwriters, who beyond whatever else, do reach more people with their lyrics than the majority of actual poets? The strongest theme going here seems to be one of what women write about: they write about relationships, about men, about divorce, about having kids, about illness, about injustice, about nature, about careers. If considerations such as topical writing on faith, religion, and womanhood are considered worthwhile in producing such an anthology, I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of the hymnist Twila Paris: yes, she’s best known as a Christian singer-songwriter, but she’s also published books and has the unique position of being one of very few living, accepted, hymnists writing hymns for church use. There were places where her work would have sat very well beside the work included in this anthology. Of course, had that been done, we would have to open the floodgates to a swarm of other female songwriters. It’s a tough call, but the poems—and poets—included do strike me as keenly interesting when taken as a whole because of the spectrum of topical foci of their work. Most are middle-aged or older and most are poets who have established careers as writers and teachers of creative writing and/or English, yet this is where they find the greatest degree of unity and otherwise, there’s ample racial, ethnic, geographic, and other measures of diversity.
How do women write differently than men, if at all? Now, in a time when women lead nations and even command combat forces—Major General Margaret Woodward of the US Air Force commanded the air war in support of Libya’s revolution recently, a domain even ten years ago that was fully the realm of men—do women still, even now, write differently than men? Is there a natural, basic, drive of what topics and approach women take that is something distinct from what approaches and what topics male writers would select? Had this been an anthology of contemporary American poets, could we read the poems without looking at the writers’ names and know in most cases who was of what gender? I mean no disrespect in asking this, and feel it’s a valid question: after all, it’s a core question such feminist theorists as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray have been asking for years. I have always felt that Pastan, for instance, spoke as a poet, period, and her gender neither mattered nor certainly mitigated her voice as a writer—or even defined her voice as a writer. I can understand how being a woman, being Black, being Native American or of any minority provides a writer with a viewpoint, an experience, and a focus that no matter their greatest empathy a writer outside that specific experience may never conjure. That point allowed, and not detracting at all from the importance of such voices, I did note that the women included here in many examples have focused on topics we could fairly call “women’s issues”. Is this the presentation of a voice that is necessary and desired in women poets and thus providing agency to women as readers? Or, is there a feeling of obligation when you represent any minority group’s writing to focus to an extent on the traditional issues of that minority?
Allow me to explain my concern here in another way: A few years ago I wrote a feature for a regional newspaper on the naval stores industry (that’s turpentine-making and all that goes along with it, for those who live outside the Deep South) and encountered in my research a sociologist named Cassandra Johnson. Dr. Johnson had co-authored a chapter in the anthology entitled To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History. After reading the chapter which was germane to my research for the article, I read through the rest of the book and was amazed at its variety because when you read most any writing by African-American writers in a college or grad school class, much of the focus is on racial issues or specific cultural experiences. Here, due to the somewhat narrow focus of the anthology, was a beautiful array of work by Black Americans on the environment, on nature, on wilderness. So while I understand the imperative to write about—and seek publication of—the core experiences that define a cultural vantage point, I also felt I’d been cheated as a reader, cheated out of the great work by African-Americans on topics I care about deeply. Work that would not make the cut much of the time in an anthology of African-American writing and had to await such a special volume to appear. With anthologies of women writers, you have to wonder about the same issue.
Part of my personal situation here may be that, as a young white male, I struggle to identify with an older, female, poet when she writes about divorce or weight problems (although, Nancy Pagh’s included poem “A Fat Lady Reads a Book” is really awesome and pithy). Perhaps that’s why I would desire to see Autumn McClintock—who is probably just a year or two either under or over thirty years old now— included. One of my poems was published in the same journal as one of hers once, and I could see—or at least dream—of walking into a bar in Boston and seeing her chatting with some friends and asking if we might have known a couple of the same kids at Brown or RISD. Perhaps this is also why I was drawn so to Rekdal, with her relative youth, black belt, and fresh tones. I do not doubt the worth of a woman writing about divorce or childbirth, but I am all the more thankful for those who write about skydiving, about running a bank, about karate or whatever else. The goal of equality I have always understood as to be one of being able, on fully equal terms, to do anything. There are, thankfully ample poems included that reach into topics and issues women of Celia Thaxter or Alice Cary’s time would not have written about and women even fifty years ago probably would never have seen published in the mainstream. There are poems that attest to the triumph of civil rights which allows General Woodward today to command her combat forces and allows women to run seriously for the office of president in these United States. As important as I know a book of poetry by contemporary women is, I also very much like the idea that gender is no longer a fulcrum in determining whether or not something is accomplished. A few years back, a friend who was an architecture student professed that his favorite architect was Zaha Hadid and how much he loved this man’s work: this woman, I had to explain to him, this woman’s work.
The question therefore perhaps is one of, in this day and age, how do women writers represent their unique experience? Some poets here I feel do this better than others: Susan Ludvigson an Rachel Hadas provide poems that are powerfully focused on the entire scope of world around them, delving into the daily affairs of raising a child (Hadas) and furnishing him with both protection and independence but also looking at world expansive that once was mainly, to write about for publication at least, the domain of men. There is the recent scandal of V.S. Naipaul unkindly, unintelligently, suggesting that no female writer—not even the great Jane Austen—could understand or write of the entire spectrum of worldly experience for, as he claims, a woman doesn’t command a household, much less anything grander, as does a man—this incident shines light on the plight women writers still apparently face. Of course, Naipaul was wrong: just as certainly as General Woodward can give orders to her fighters and bombers, a woman today can write about anything. A woman in Austen’s time even could have, and Austen and certainly Emily Brontë very much did, but it is true that publishing constraints were much more limiting. The joke in the end is on Naipaul in any case: most of my friends, even those who are not especially literary, know exactly who Jane Austen is whereas they guess, if pressed to, that Naipaul was a dictator in some far-off land or a celebrity chef. In contrast to his claim that no woman commands even a household as a man does, his own name commands only so much fame while a woman has owned fame beyond his ten times over. Meanwhile, the Rekdals of the world are pushing boundaries and these are not the boundaries of gender but of writing—the boundaries either a Naipaul or an Austen of today must face as a writer.
Overall, this anthology is powerful and provides a great selection of work from essential American female poets. Having seen a number of anthologies of contemporary women writers, I daresay that they are constantly improving insofar as my main concern, which as stated in so many words above, is seeing that a real diversity of topics is represented. I would love to have the poetry about a lady neurosurgeon or helicopter pilot page by page next to poems detailing the experience of the mother or wife. For there are women today who operate on brains, ones who fly aircraft with spinning blades. The present anthology is one of the best to showcase the wealth of diversity women poets in America today present.
Brain Farm Digital Cinema/Red Bull Media House
Directed by Curt Morgan; produced by Curt Morgan and Travis Rice
Released in 2011
reviewed by Mike Walker
The Art of Flight, within its home-world of snowboarding, has built up more hype than any other snowboarding film ever and probably also cost more to produce and promote than any other snowboarding film. When its trailer was released, a friend who isn’t even a snowboarder was the first to inform me of the trailer, full of excitement, immediately captivated by the sport and wishing to engage in it himself. Trailers and ads for The Art of Flight have been featured on YouTube’s front-page and during the commercials for this year’s MTV Video Awards. Films of this nature—films that showcase the exploits of the best pro athletes outside the arena of contests—are essential to the sports of snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing; they are part of how everyday athletes in our sports learn new tricks and seek inspiration and they are the prime connection between the superstars of our sports and the young kids who dream big. No other film in any of the so-called action sports can I recall having the hype and promotional push visited upon The Art of Flight. Clearly, as big as it already is in its own world, it is setting out to make introductions in other worlds.
There was a time when skateboarding was a fringe sport and we didn’t except our skate videos to be sold outside skate shops or attract attention from anyone but fellow skaters. There was a time when snowboarding was the same way and a new film wouldn’t produce much buzz beyond your own cadre of friends unless you happened to live in a place like Truckee or Jackson Hole where snowboarding is a way of life and, increasingly, a leading industry. Surf films fared a little better, but still would not become blockbusters or even attempt to seek out the type of hype reserved for mainstream movies. Nowadays however, the global market for “action sports” films is obviously growing: you have PacSun and Zumeiz in every mall, you have snowboarders, surfers, and skateboarders on contract as sponsored athletes for energy drink companies like Red Bull when less than a decade ago, the only sponsors interested in most of these athletes were internal industry sponsors that made skate shoes, snowboards, and other gear associated with the sports themselves. For that matter, Red Bull’s media division was one of the co-production companies for The Art of Flight and Red Bull’s helicopters were instrumental in getting the cast into remote snowboarding locations and providing the platform for much of the filming. Snowboarding isn’t just for kids who grew up in the mountains anymore. Between the point when photographer Ari Marcopoulos published his ground-breaking book Transitions and Exits in 2000 and Shaun White becoming not only the Tony Hawk—or Micheal Jordan—of snowboarding but also having his own clothing line at Target, we’ve seen snowboarding expand in ways that no one in the 1990s would have probably predicted.
Ari Marcopoulos’ work is also vastly important to snowboarding because this man, with his unique foresight and nuanced skills as an artist, set the standard for how snowboarding is photographed and filmed. While snowboarding, like its sister boarding sports, has always encouraged creativity, Marcopoulos brought to it the imperative for expertly-crafted, fine art-worthy, images and also an introspection into the lives of snowboarders that owes as much to Corrine Day or even Nan Goldin than to typical sports photography. He shot them not only on the slopes in action but in their hotel rooms, on airplanes—all the everyday aspects of getting to and waiting for the crucial action of an action sport. Industry marketing executives for a long time believed that unlike skateboarding and surfing, snowboarding was far too insular, too cloistered, to be marketed outside its core demographic. It lacked the universal presence of skateboarding in urban environments from New York to Paris to Tokyo to those smallest of backwaters in China, Columbia, or Peru that have enough pavement for a little skating. It lacked the allure of warm beaches and everything the Beach Boys and countless movies have made surfing stand for in the American mind. However, Marcopoulos, Jake Burton Carpenter, J.P. Walker and others who have made snowboarding what it is today didn’t fight that insular nature but instead showed it as a tight-knit, essential, and mysterious—but welcoming—world. Marcopoulos especially learned the tricks of representing the cloistered existence of snowboarding as a place where we’d all like to be and an atmosphere literally colder than that of surfing but also deeper. He laid bare and made real a world and its people and he did it early enough to set the tone for visual representations of the sport for years yet to come.
All of this history is important in understanding The Art of Flight and what it means to snowboarding, plus what it will mean to the rest of the world given the tremendous marketing thrust behind this film. Going for grandness, for something larger and always more jaw-dropping than whatever came before is certainly a goal of The Art of Flight but it seems, refreshingly, that just as crucial to the film-makers is the presentation of the poetry of snowboarding and the sheer, unending, awe snowboarders feel for our natural environment. Moreover, director Curt Morgan and the film’s star, snowboarder, and all-around main man of the movie, Travis Rice, chose to use the very finest and newest of camera technology to film this project, including the majestic ArriFlex 235 camera. The same types of technology and skill was employed on The Art of Flight as would have been for the most high-budget of nature documentaries.
If the results had not been of the highest order, if this had turned out to be a showcase of just the latest and greatest in snowboarding, the money spent and hype behind The Art of Flight might have been seen as overblown and ornate, but the results match up to the hype, especially—perhaps surprisingly—in those scenes where no one is even on a snowboard. Some of the nature and scenic vistas on this film, especially those in Alaska and Chile’s unspoiled, unreachable, Patagonia are breath-taking, eye-opening scenes that challenge the best of nature and wildlife documentaries in quality. When Travis Rice and company make the decision to venture into the Cordillera Darwin in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego, their expedition produces not just stunning snowboarding but a powerful introduction to a very remote, rare, geography of the Earth. The snowboarding in this rustic, remote, place is not only challenging but, alas, not as exceptional in quality as the snowboarders had hoped, yet nothing can detract from the sun-glowing, rock-rough, ice-covered, water-crossed beauty of the land itself. When at the onset of the film Travis Rice laments that we live in a digital age and intones that our connection with nature may be less sincere than it was once, he makes good on his promise to push for a more actual, more intense, understanding of nature during his journeys throughout The Art of Flight. There is a danger though in doing such things as going to the Darwin Range—things that even an affluent tourist cannot easily do—in that these adventures will look like issues of either grasping at the tangible side of heaven with the vise of cash or else simply throwing money at a problem: at certain moments in the film I thought to myself, please, you don’t need a Red Bull helicopter and huge bank account to have fun snowboarding. However, the quality of the videography and obvious impact these exotic locales made on the snowboarders justified the extravagance of some of their exploits.
The Art of Flight begins with silence and humility—at least as much humility as can be expected when given a window to an early morning moment with one of the world’s best pro snowboarders. Pro or not, every snowboarder will relate to Travis Rice selecting which board he desires to take with him on safari and then enduring the routine of post-9/11 airport security and waiting for his airline flight to afar. Snowboarder or not, I suspect every viewer will relate to an extent to Travis’ flying off: who doesn’t like an adventure, who doesn’t dream of their next vacation?
Other scenes brought home the gravitas of not only the pristine nature in which snowboarders practice their sport but also the level of injury possible—the very sincere and ever-present danger of serious bodily harm that is inseparable from the sport. Snowboarder Scotty Lago is badly injured in a jump gone wrong at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and while it composes only a few seconds of the film, the scenes of him in the hospital underscore his comment that trauma is a given in the sport; in fact, even as Lago brushes off the decently severe nature of his injuries, the scenes of his lip being stitched up, his doctors taking diagnostic images of his bones, quickly illustrates in no uncertain terms the risks involved. That said, there is a demonic beauty in even snowboarding accidents—I feel wrong in saying such, but it is true. A skateboarding or BMX accident will produce a hard fall and a sudden splatter of red blood on concrete. Surfing accidents are (sometimes very thankfully) obscured by the waves and water. Snowboarding, on the other hand, provides an often all-too-visible crash transitioning into an explosion of white powder. There is something close to animation in the effect of a snowboard trick gone wrong and the resulting implosion of a snowbank, the scattering of soft snow and hard ice breaking like poorly-crafted glass. I won’t downplay or malign the severity of the falls my friends and I have taken by calling them “lovely”, but for as much as they hurt and as tragic and serious as they are at times, they also underscore the fragile, temporal, world of snow we inhabit in the cold terrain we snowboard.
After snowboarding in Alaska, Chile, and Jackson Hole, Rice and company set off for British Columbia and the cinematic introduction to this geography is long on near-barren land save for conifers, black water cold as ice, overcast skies, stalwart architecture of confident bridges and simple, unadorned, buildings. While these images are not perhaps those a tourism commission would choose, they perfectly represent the reality of British Columbia and how, sans snow, we as snowboarders lodge it in our memories. Morgan and Rice do two very different yet connected things via the cinematography of this film: they provide us with dreamscapes of remote snow-covered mountains and vales the vast majority of us will never even witness in person and, they also provide us with quite commonplace scenes—places and instances most snowboarders of any experience will have also encountered. For the remote absurdity of something like snowboarding the Darwin Range—which really, especially in light of its poor snow conditions in the film, is like eating caviar in Greenland on a ship that’s going down—there are also the more everyday spectacles of Jackson Hole or BC.
From Nelson, BC, the crew takes a helicopter up to nearby mountain terrain—near, yet remote, forbidding, and in the deep fog and snow dangerous. The helicopter pilot has barely enough room to set his bird down and then, with a swift and occluding icy fog setting in, he finds the aircraft both blind of sight and covered with ice—unable to fly. The snowboarders have to literally hang on to the aircraft, in reverse of what one sees in action/adventure movies—not for their own safety but to keep the helicopter from tumbling off its uneasy mountaintop roost into the rocky vale below. Using a backcountry snow shovel designed to build kicker ramps and to dig snowboarders out from avalanches, the team breaks the ice off the helicopter’s blades and finally the pilot can lift off, then circle back from the rest of the group. This scene, though brief, is as harrowing as any climax out of a James Bond movie and yet is matter-of-fact in its reality. (It would also probably be enough to give a heart attack to anyone who sells insurance on helicopters.) Everyone involved seems somberly aware of how badly this could have turned out, yet it also an occupational risk. There is no sense of overstated courage or even out-stated excitement in such situations, just resignation at the weather conditions not being as good as hoped.
Soon, the skyline changes on-screen from wilderness to swiftly-groomed park. The chair-lifts, the sweet, perfect curves of human-directed snowscape. The rough-hewn yet civil curves of the rock-crafted ski lodge. We get to see our intrepid crew of pros hit the type of park terrain we know as more everyday snowboarders ourselves and we’ve seen in contests. Despite this, no sense of spectacle is lost in the atmospheric time-lapse sequence of day turing to night, snow turning to stars, that is provided when we transition from wilderness to park. The sense of cold air at your throat, clear skies at night, every star pristine in the chilly sky—this is what every snowboarder gets during good weather in places like British Columbia and it is profoundly captured here. Some snowboarding journalists when reviewing The Art of Flight have dwelled on the “art film” aspect of the production, claiming that Morgan and Rice set out to make an art film about snowboarding. Instead, I see the results—and also probably the latent concept behind the film—as indicative of a sincere effort to portray how snowboarding as an experience feels to the snowboarder fortunate enough to travel so far and wide.
The only part of The Art of Flight that feels uneasy or out of place at points is the soundtrack: instead of the hard-charging hip-hop or rock of most snowboarding films, The Art of Flight opted for an atmospheric blend of vocal trance and other electronica with some rock-inspired touches here and there. In theory, this would promote the artistic, contemplative, feel about their sport that Morgan and Rice seem to desire to convey, however in most instances the music simply seems subdued and slow compared to the action at hand. In places it works, but in others it feels overwrought and, somewhat touchingly, recalls the high days of the west coast rave scene in the later 1990s. There are some slow-motion sequences filmed at Jackson Hole which really capture this feeling between the music selection and slow-motion replay. That said, the scenes at Revelstoke Resort in Canada feature some fast-pace rock that seems more appropriate for the more rapid action sequences.
While The Art of Flight may have the greatest budget, the greatest expanse of locales, the greatest sheer sense of variety and excitement of any snowboarding film to date, will it appeal to viewers beyond snowboarders and curious fans in other action sports? Yes. I feel it will. In fact, it may be the final jump between snowboarding seeming somewhat ancillary to surfing and skateboarding and instead fully composing a robust trifecta with them. Nike, which had placed its snowboarding athletes under the wing of its general 6.0 action sports division up to this year now has established a specific Nike Snowboarding line. The product boxes are shiny black and sea-foam green. The website is loud and slick. There is no sense of cloistered, down-low, quietness here: it’s all writ very large. Nike, say whatever you wish about the company, when it comes to sports trends, most often knows when it’s on to something. Snowboarding is growing and The Art of Flight will be the key visual experience to push that growth forward, and it deserves this honor: the film is steadfast in its love of the sport and the quality of action here is the very highest. Beyond that though, the incidental nature and scenic cinematography is what really conquers in this film: There is a feeling of being overwhelmed here and it’s a most pleasing sensation, too. This is the film that writes out, draws out, spells out, frame by precious frame, a future very large. Yet it’s also the first snowboarding film to really get at the tranquillity of time on the mountain or even time at the lodge, the way snow and cold air come together to begat one of the most special, most silent, most peaceful feelings you can have; in the bustle of all this expensive film-making and the best pro riders on Earth, we get that feeling now and then.
The Book of What Stays
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press
reviewed by Mike Walker
The Book of What Stays, the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, is a slim yet intellectually weighty volume that at once makes apparent how it would claim so serious a prize as it has: from the opening poem, “Palomino”, James Crews makes his case for pithy elegance. Crews embraces and works with the architecture of poetry, the physical word by word structure, with a sense of craft and duty that is as refreshing as it is rare. Crews also understands the speed of words and, that for whatever depth of detail poetry lacks in contrast to fiction, it can make up for in its showcasing of raw speed—even in titles themselves. Take, for instance, the two poems entitled “The Farmer’s Wife Has Not Yet Left Him” and “The Arsonist’s Wife Has Not Yet Left Him”: there’s a grandness yet simplicity here, a sense of resignation even. And there’s speed, the speed Jorie Graham’s realized and applied as the secret weapon of her greatest poems, the speed that G.C. Waldrep used in his book Disclamor. It’s a quickening you don’t at first realize is even speed—or even about time—but it’s acceleration in how the words move you back and forth to other places at light-speed. Without some time machine, some sci-fi starship, only words can conjure us between memories and actual place with such mystery and haste.
In Crews’ poem “Foreshadowing” he gives us both the speed and the quiet stillness that foils it, plus the might of weather, the might of geography—those subtle but essential and sometimes sublime things which formulate our entire world:
Snow clouds fill the sky like a power
you never knew you had. The man next to you
on this rush hour bus has stuffed plastic bags
into the holes of his coat and huddles close
to look out your window as if the sunset
might burst for once with the red of alpenglow,
as if these piles of snow were only beginnings
of mountains trying to rise up.
The living, timeless, forceful environment that churns along with or without us is described perfectly here, but Crews also catches how that environment works as metaphor, how it inspires, how it demands our attention. His poems, even when personal in topic and tenor are removed from his person—and that’s not in any way a bad thing: consider T.S. Eliot, who was the very same way. He writes about nature, and broadly, but he’s not a nature poet per se, and doesn’t cast his lot with the corpus of nature writing and all that entails. Instead, he treats nature and the wild as something that’s always there and cannot be escaped, something that in mighty power invades our lives and directs them and thus writes many of our own, seemingly personal, scripts out in bold. Crew’s poem “A Beginner’s Guide to Ice Fishing” demonstrates the joy we can discover in nature and the human activities that attend it while reminding us also that our own impressions of the natural world are just that: our own. In this he also reminds me of the Swedish songstress, Sally Shapiro, a woman who records under that stage-name and stresses that her stage persona is removed from her own being, her private life—or is it, really? How much can a writer or any artist invent and how much is autobiographical? Crews, like Ms. Shapiro, seems intent on providing nuanced, complex, alluring tales of experience but ones that don’t really allow us an intimate look at the artist’s life. In each of Crews’ poems I feel I’ve been provided something very personal—almost as if it was something crafted custom for me alone—however, I also feel that however telling his words are, they leave so much a mystery. Like a pop lovesong, they must be intimate but there is nothing to make manifest an autobiographical trajectory.
None of this is to suggest Crews is less than honest or he’s sold out for the sake of prize-winning, stunning works that will produce reviews so glowing they could be seen from outer space. He’s an honest man, an adept poet who makes each word count—structure, once again. Like Jorie Graham, not a period or comma out of place, not a single word would be better served by an alternate. Yet like Michel Houellebecq, Crews is in the business of myth-making. Interestingly, on that note, I recently read an essay on the topic of myth in contemporary poetry by Crews in the journal Basalt—clearly, myth is on his mind. Perhaps not for Crews the brand of myth of Houellebecq or his idol Lovecraft—not the type of myth that looks like dime-store penny-dreadfuls dressed up in glitter by a lead graphic designer at Phaidon—but myth nonetheless. He mentions Orpheus, Bacchus, and a lute on these same pages as the ice fishing, the winter snow, and commonplace birds. Yes, Crews is in the myth business as well as the autobiography business of poetry and yet within the arena of neither. The truths he writes are written above his own head, afar from his own experience no matter how much they feed off such experience.
What hubris to believe you could save
this moment or that and tuck it away
for the day the warbler’s morning call
outside the honeymoon cabin that summer
grows finally too garbled to recall, or when
the familiar sound of her bathwater running
now flows backward into the faucet
as if neither she nor it ever even existed.
With these words Crews starts off on his poem “Revision”, and perfectly introduces our sad, incomplete, and scattered ability to capture memories. Things like bathwater, are actual only for the short period when they are there, but unlike your old Ford or a vase your aunt left you in her will, they are things that simply dissolve away. You don’t have to worry about getting rid of them really and yet when the water is in the bathtub it’s what defines the purpose of the tub and the very room around it. When someone leaves, a lover perhaps, and they take away their things it’s such memories which must endure and carry a greater weight than they really can stand. We allow memories of this nature to do so much heavy-lifting so they are the most difficult to forget, the most difficult if not impossible to revise. That same aunt’s perfume or a song your girlfriend in tenth grade loved but you couldn’t stand. You may not recall who wrote The New Organon, but that song by Green Day will forever remain and you’ll remember the maroon Abercrombie sweater she wore the first date nearly down to the thread count, too.
Crews ends “Revision” thus:
come inside and look at her as she
closes her eyes in the bath and does not
notice you, leave her alone. Let her hum
the private song whose words you’ll never know.
Say nothing to disturb this scene—never yours
to begin with—and leave the past in your mind.
Leave her heart for this moment intact
if only to prove, looking back now, you can.
“Never yours to begin with”—that’s it right there. The part of memories we are quick sometimes to overlook, especially in love, especially when the memory is bittersweet. Like the photo of the family farm the farmer moments later came out and said he didn’t want you to take—you’d not asked if you might, just stopped the car by the fence and snapped the shutter—these memories are contested property. “Revision” also makes clear, in an awkward way which would be all the more uncomfortable were it not for Crews’ delicate and exacting use of language, how little we know of even our lovers. If Crews lacked his sense of hand-crafted formal structure in his poems, his emotional knowledge would still allow for very fine poems that touch at universal experience via specific instances, however, he also has that very rare ability to build his thoughts into the most consummate of words. Again, it’s worth repeating: not a word misplaced, not a single comma seems awkward or not doing its best duty in Crews’ poetry. The entire book is of this caliber of attention to detail and it’s Crews’ sense of word-craft that really sets his work apart from other contemporary poets. In Crews’ own essay in Basalt on the concept of myth in contemporary poetry he laments the swarms of young poets with MFAs—himself included—plying their trade in a rather routine fashion yet though he would not make the claim himself, he breaks from that pack: no matter his education, he doesn’t write like your typical MFA graduate. Like Lorine Niedecker or Rebecca McClanahan, he is not afraid taking the verbal words of life and then designing his own architecture of poems, not bound to a certain trajectory or trendy sense of poetic mannerisms. This independence of mode allows for a clearly unique sense of form and word choice.
The second section of this book is devoted to a suite of poems based around installation and other visual artworks by the Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. As most of Gonzalez-Torres’ work concerns his former lover’s death from AIDS, it’s weighty stuff and the poems properly address this in a manner that never seeks to replace or simply report on Gonzalez-Torres’ own artwork but to consider the relationship between art and artist, art and viewer. The result is exacting: you feel as if you are with Crews as he visits a gallery and examines Gonzalez-Torres’ installations. The subject matter could inspire pity but Crews keeps his tone clearly above this, and the impression is mostly one of sharing Crews’ respect and awe for Gonzalez-Torres’ work instead of the tragic subject matter behind that work. Does Crews make the reader interested in seeing Gonzalez-Torres’ work? Sure, but beyond that, Crews displays how through poetry one can write about art just as one writes about life. There is no disconnect between how Crews addresses this body of artwork in contrast to how he approaches any other subject and this seamless approach is a near-perfect proof of Crews’ abilities as a poet.
The University of Nebraska Press has done a superb job of designing the layout and presentation of Crews’ book: as with their recent volume of poetry by Shane Book, Nebraska has used an economy of space in their layout and gray divider pages between major sections to create a sense of this slim book actually being larger than it is when held in hand. The choice of typography is conservative and reads well, allowing the reader to concentrate on Crews’ words. A short section of notes is provided about poems that warrant such for a quote or dedication. Is it odd I notice the graphic design in such an acute manner and comment on it? Perhaps, but I studied graphic design for a year in college and I guess it stuck with me. Moreover, as a reviewer one spends a good amount of time with a book and it is very refreshing to find one that is compact and pragmatic yet feels as expansive as its words demand, to say nothing of one that’s easy to read in dim light by a laptop on the back porch while writing a review. Plus, I would have been upset had the designers not treated Crews’ sublime words with due care.
Overall, The Book of What Stays is one of the very best original books of poetry I’ve read in the past couple of years—and I read a lot. Could there be criticisms? Well, sure, with any book there always are when we search for them: I’d have liked it to have been a little longer as Crews gets into enough topics that it felt at places compressed and not allowed to show as much depth and scope as perhaps additional poems would have provided. The poems based around the visual art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres are lush in detail, haunted with emotion and could have formulated an even more extensive suite than what Crews presents. I feel that while this book may be the one that stays, there’s a “part two” quickly on the way.
MIKE WALKER is a writer, skateboarder, surfer, and snowboarder who lives in Gainesville, Florida. His original research and other academic work has been published in: AirMed, Goldenseal, EcoFlorida, BrightLights Quarterly, the ATA Chronicle, Translation Journal, Multilingual Computing and Technology and other journals. His journalism in: The Florida Times-Union, The North Florida News Daily, Satellite Magazine, Twisted Ear, and other publications. His poetry in: Meanie, the Church Wellesley Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and other publications.