Gospel of Dust
Poems by Joseph Ross
|Main Street Rag, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
There are a lot of people out there writing poetry, and most of it will be forgotten tomorrow, or maybe even later today. But just a handful of poets might be remembered. Joseph Ross should be one of those poets. Ross writes the poetry of witness. His debut, Meeting Bone Man, is a powerful meditation on mortality and humanity. Ross’ follow up, Gospel of Dust, continues Ross’ investigations while shifting to a humanistic examination of Christian values and beliefs.
“In a Summer of Snipers,” is one of several poems dealing with the Civil Rights movement, and not only the accomplishments of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, but the fact that many of them knew that they were probably going to be murdered for their actions. Ross shifts to Brazil for “Mothers of the Disappeared” in which he describes the aftermath of political dissidence. Later, Ross considers the murder of David Kato, a Ugandan Gay Rights Activist, and Matthew Shephard:
Though you died
in crisp hospital sheets,
no one believes you
felt them touch your skin.
The last touch your
skin knew was wooden:
a prairie fence, whose wood
was nearly as splintered
These poems appear in a section called “The Human Gospel,” and it’s difficult not to see the connection Ross draws between martyrdom and holiness. These people often carry certain qualities of sainthood, sacrifice being the most obvious, but also the effect they, or their deaths, have had on the zeitgeist. But not enough effect, obviously; something Ross is trying to remedy.
The second section in the book is called “The Pieta Gospel,” though many of the poems in the book could be described as pietas of a sort. Ross begins with Fritz Eichenberg’s “Pieta” and shifts to “American Pieta,” a poem about the photograph of Mary Vecchio kneeling beside Jeffrey Miller who’d been killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. One of the more well-known poems in this section is Ross’s excellent “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God:”
If Mamie Till was the mother
one of the ten commandments
would forbid whistling.
No one would wear cotton
clothing, every cotton field
would be burned in praise
and their teeth.
If Mamie Till was the mother
every river would be still
so nothing thrown in
could travel downstream;
barbed wire could only be
worn as a necklace
If Mamie Till was the mother
every coffin lid would be
glass, so even God could see
how baptisms are done
Ross’ closing image is especially keen; he’s captured a violent, uncaring world where even God seems oblivious, unaware of just how brutal His world has become.
“The Written Gospel” is Ross’ third section, in which he examines specific biblical instances such as the washing of feet. “The Ritual Gospel” closes out the book with some of Ross’ most powerful poems. Ross established a style of series poems in his first book, and he continues it in this section with poems about Tupac Shakur, for example, in which Shakur is considered as a martyr and even prophet. Cool Disco Dan, the graffiti artist, returns as the subject of a series of poems, as does J. Alfred Prufrock.
What makes Ross stand out is his voice as much as his subject matter. His voice is wise and caring; it’s humanistic and loving, even towards those who’ve done terrible wrongs. Not to seem condescending, but Ross writes about things that matter. So much of modern arts—from visual arts to writing to music—is nihilistic in its approach, and nihilism simply cannot maintain an audience’s interest because it’s incapable of progress and change. If nothing matters, why should I even pay attention? It’s a masturbatory trap, at best, and something quite sinister (though unintentionally so) at worst. Ross is an antidote to this nihilism, which may seem ironic since his work so often deals with death and suffering.
Joseph Ross is the author of two collections of poetry, Meeting Bone Man (2012) and Gospel of Dust (2013). His poetry has earned multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and the 2012 Pratt Library – Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. His poems appear in many anthologies and journals including Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality, Tidal Basin Review, Drumvoices Revue, Poet Lore, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. In 2007, he co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib. He teaches in the Department of English at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes at JosephRoss.net
The Philosopher’s Daughter
Poems by Lori Desrosiers
|Salmon Poetry, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Lori Desrosiers first came to my attention as the editor of the Naugatuck River Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry, a journal, similar to Rattle or Flint Hills, and many of the better, though lesser-known journals, that carry the torch of well-crafted poetry publishers. Naugatuck stands out not only for its focus on narrative poetry but for Desrosiers’ fearlessness when it comes to publishing sometimes risqué, bawdy, gritty, but always powerful work. So I was quite excited to sit down with her debut full-length collection, especially considering that it was published by Salmon Poetry, one of the best small presses around.
The Philosopher’s Daughter is a portrait of Desrosiers’ family. She, herself, appears as an ancillary character, an observer; the true focus is on others. The first section, “Starting Places,” opens with “Conducting in Thin Air,” a poem ostensibly about the odd event of an airplane crash survivor (or fortunate dodger, since she missed the flight) who, a week later, died in a car accident. Desrosiers uses this springboard to examine larger issues of mortality and fate, setting up a major theme for later in the collection of the fragility of life. The final poem in the collection, “Night Writing,” bookends this nicely as a sensual exploration of the body, of feeling, so that we see that the answer to the curse of mortality is to fully inhabit the cage, so to speak.
Several of the poems in this section are simple-seeming scenic reminiscences. “Thinking Rock” describes a playing girl “safe/from pernicious imaginary monsters” as she climbs onto the thinking rock and “thinks until she is tired of thinking.” There is a marked lack of danger or stress. Back home, the girl watches her grandfather “smoke his cheroot,/have a whisky with her father./ Smoke rings rise like grey ropes.” There’s a hint of the future danger, here, with these ropes, but only a hint.
“Last Seat, Second Violin” is a humorous poem about the ability of children to overcome difficult or annoying situations in creative ways: “In 7th grade, Mr. Hayden would throw his baton/at anyone who played a wrong note,” she begins. The children are terrified, of course, and learn how to “fake bow” and not actually play any music, leaving it to the first chairs to actually play. A handful of the poems in this section deal with this theme of the attempted stealing of childhood. “Mile Swim” is about the Red Cross certification swimming requirement. The 12-year old swimmer stands “alongside fellow campers’ goose-bumped bodies/to start the swim across lake Coniston.” They “plunge into icy water, crawl away from the screaming/children on shore, relieved it is not their turn today.” Desrosiers’ language is vivid: “Our toes brush lake muck, seaweed, fishes,/shadowy spirits of unhappy campers forced to swim on rainy days.” But the 12-year old Desrosiers breaks free of the others:
To my surprise, I am alone.
Blue ripples, cloudless sky,
silence smells of dragonflies.
At the center of the emerald lake
all is green-gold and shimmery.
For a moment I am free—
free from swimming lessons,
the endless teasing,
the pain of my budding breasts,
my parents’ divorce.
It’s a moment of grace amidst the hardships of growing up.
“Paris 1950” captures a moment in Desrosiers’ parents’ lives in which “I am only a thought.” She begins:
Footsteps on cobblestone
Blanche eats crepes on Ile de la Cite
learns to sing Schubert.
Leonard studies philosophy
at the Sorbonne
The poem is spare and mysterious, mirroring Desrosiers’ knowledge of her parents’ lives at this time. Similarly, Desrosiers meditates upon reading her father’s philosophy books and connecting them to her memories of him (she’ll explore him more in-depth later).
The second section, “Mother’s Places,” focuses on Desrosiers’ mother, Blanche. “Last First Kiss” is a poem about love, specifically about a man who proposed to Blanche:
He was a violinist,
he would pay
for voice lessons.
She described him as
older (27) and going bald.
She was seventeen
Unfortunately (for the violinist) Blanche declined. Desrosiers explains:
she had already been kissed
by my father,
who had no money,
but at eighteen
had long lashes,
and silky blond hair.
“Daughter’s Places,” the third section, focuses on Desrosiers’ relationship with her daughter, and “Internal Spaces,” the final section, focuses more on Desrosiers’ herself as an artist. Throughout all of these sections, though, the mystery of Desrosiers’ father pervades, so that we see that she has become, in many ways, a philosopher herself by examining her life and the lives of those around her in order to find meaning.
What stands out when reading these poems is Desrosiers’ vivid, clear imagery, her attention to detail, and the emotional resonance she manages without tiptoeing into the realm of preciousness. Writing about ones parents, especially her father who died of cancer, would be a difficult task to accomplish without overt sentimentality, but Desrosiers manages to not only do this but to reveal her parents (and her children) as interesting characters.
Lori Desrosiers has a full-length poetry collection The Philosopher’s Daughter from Salmon Poetry (2013). She has a chapbook, Three Vanities, a chronicle of three generations of women in her family, from Pudding House Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications. She earned her MFA in 2008 from New England College. Desrosiers also edits the Naugatuck Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry.
Proving Nothing to Anyone
Poems by Matt Cook
|Publishing Genius Press, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Funny is hard. For some reason I’ve never understood, there’s a popular attitude that funny is somehow easier than serious, that comedy takes less skill to write than tragedy. I would say that they are equally difficult in many ways—both (when done well) require careful pacing to achieve emotional impact, and both require all the hallmarks of strong writing—but I would argue that comedy, at its extreme, is more difficult in one way than tragedy, at its polar extreme: written comedy requires just as much tragedy as written tragedy does, but comedy also requires hope. Tragedy is allowed to revel in its nihilism, whereas comedy must resolve that nihilism by drawing forth hope from it. Tragedy brings us to the brink of desperation; comedy must bridge that gap.
Matt Cook’s collection is that rarest of thing: funny poetry. “Commitment to Excellence” is a self-deprecating piece which describes a dinner party:
A woman leaned back into a candle
And caught her long hair on fire.
She did not notice this right away, but I noticed it—
but at that very same moment,
I was in the middle of telling a really good story
But Cook isn’t simply reveling in the misfortune of others; he knows “the punch line of the story was only seconds away” so he continues, though he does wait until “after the appreciative reaction of the room” before informing the woman of her burning hair. He makes sure to tell us, “The woman was not seriously harmed,/And then ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.” So there’s a happy ending. Here, Cook is getting at something about the nature of storytelling and art. Aren’t all good stories about the misfortunes of others in some way? “Duane Duane” deals with this issue. Cook describes a man who “was in and out of institutions during the nineteen seventies.” Duane “wrote a song once about feeding saltine crackers to a duck.” Cook goes on to describe Duane’s belief that the actors in Gilligan’s Island were trapped on the island and forced to act out the episodes, “that they were enslaved by television executives and forced at gunpoint, or through emotional blackmail, or whatever, to act out Gilligan’s Island every week.” The depth of Duane’s delusion is intense. He believed the actors attempted to communicate their plight through codes. Cook concludes, “This story isn’t funny, but it’s also funny. It’s not my fault that this story is funny.”
“The Drunk Man’s Hat,” similarly gets at the nature of comedy in a surreal way. “The poetry comes easily in the morning,/Not because the head is clear, but because the head is confused,” he begins. He describes a dream he had about a drawing of a drunk looking for help from a security guard:
The drunk man is saying something like:
Give me the awful chemical I need to clean this hat.
If you can do that for me, I would certainly appreciate it.
If not, I can find something else to appreciate.
Cook’s turn at the end gets to the heart of humor, almost as a study in form rather than a comprehendible narrative. “Unchanged from Ancient Times” accomplishes this in a more straight-forward manner:
He wanted to see trees that were thousands of years old.
He wanted to lie on the forest floor and
Look up and see a view that was unchanged from ancient times.
So he went deep into a national forest and
Then he returned and I asked him how it went.
He said he took mushrooms and freaked out and
Smeared peanut butter all over his Volvo wagon.
Here, Cook explodes the expectation of the reader, but at the same time, he hits something profoundly human with this character. Frankly, if his friend had had some sort of magical experience, the reader might’ve said, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it wouldn’t have meant much, and at the back of our minds, there’d be a hint of doubt. I’ve been in a lot of forests and mostly felt itchy, though they were very pretty. Cook’s description, though, is absolutely believable.
“My Wife’s Car” is a narrative poem that stands out because of its powerful descriptions. The narrator goes for a walk and sees his wife’s car:
You feel a kind of existential panic when you see your wife’s car somewhere.
My grandfather said death is like looking at your house from across the street.
It’s probably something like that.
You walk past a row of meaningless automobiles,
And suddenly there’s your wife’s car—what do you do?
You can’t just walk past your wife’s car.
Cook’s language is straight-forward and lacking in pretention, even when relating profound ideas. The narrator decides to use his spare key to get in and wait for his wife. There are all sorts of preconceptions the reader might have about what will happen next, but the narrator assures us, “I knew she’d be happy to see me because we have an excellent marriage.” The question is, do we believe him?
Then I saw her in the distance approaching the car.
I was enjoying the situation, the childish suspense.
But then she came closer, and I could see she was crying.
She opened the door and she put her arms around me.
She said, “I’m so glad you saw my car.”
Even though Cook may have dispelled our expected outcome (that his wife might be returning from a tryst, perhaps) he still manages to surprise us.
Another thing that sets comedy apart from tragedy is the brutal honesty required of comedy. One has to be able to mock oneself ruthlessly. He states, in “They Probably Laughed”
Just because it takes courage to admit you’re wrong doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.
I used to be young and drunk and stupid.
And then I became less young and less drunk and less stupid.
But I’m still pretty young and pretty drunk and pretty stupid.
Cook makes observations on all sorts of things one might not realize, for example pointing out that fish never taste clean water and then wondering if he’s the first to consider this. At his best, Cook is shocking in the way all good comedy is shocking. He explodes the simplicity of ones preconceptions and gets to the heart of what it is to be human. And he’s funny. So there’s that.
Matt Cook is the author of three books of poetry (In the Small of My Backyard, Eavesdrop Soup, and The Unreasonable Slug). His work has been anthologized in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, The United States of Poetry, and in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places. He lives in Memphis, TN.
What Things Are Made Of
Poems by Charles Harper Webb
|University of Pittsburgh Press: Pitt Poetry Series, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Webb’s title implies a certain amount of realism, an engineer’s approach, and his poems certainly follow through with this idea, though frequently with a philosophical bent. His weapon of choice is humor. The collection opens with “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used To Be,” an elegy for the ice cream trucks of his youth. Webb begins by admitting the fallacy often ignored in nostalgia for the past, the idea of “privileged bourgeois affability and valorized/ consumption.” The songs played by the trucks “legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,/ and the Mariana Trench of slavery.” He goes on to question the relationships he remembers, the people he remembers as “friends who may/have cared nothing for me.” He admits the “Capitalist hegemony” and even the stereotypes reinforced by some products. But under the weight of all this middle-class guilt, he does manage to dig out some slight memory of untainted human interaction.
Webb tackles interesting occurrences as easily as many poets tackle life-and-death situations. “Mummies to Burn” deals with just that: the practice of burning mummies for locomotive fuel in the nineteenth century. “Duck Tape” plays with the common mispronunciation while also poking fun at the governmental placebo of the Bush era.
“Where Does Joy Come In?” Reads like a riff on one of those questionnaires one find’s in a Woman’s Day magazine:
It sneaks through the cat-flap when you’re busy microwaving a beef-and-cheese burrito.
It slides down a beanstalk from another galaxy.
It overflows your clogged commode.
It breaks into your triple-locked, burglar-barred life, just before you can bolt out the door.
Webb’s humor and verve morph what could easily be trite material into something profound and enjoyable. “Never Too Late” is a nature poem, ostensibly, but also a respite from the memento mori of life as Webb recalls his childhood. Webb’s true power, as evidenced by his humor but also demonstrated beautifully in this poem, is his ability to sneak up on the reader. He begins with a natural description:
Doves flute in peeling eucalyptus trees.
Rain pit-pit-pits off lance-point leaves,
and pings into expanding bull’s-eyes
on Descanso Pond. Redwings ride
bucking tules at the water’s edge.
Beside them, still as a decoy, a mallard
rests—emerald pate, brass chest,
His language evokes elegant imagery which would be enough to make this a fine poem. But as he continues, the scene grows into something truly beautiful as flowers, wildlife, and fish all become evident, and then the turn:
…The baking soda
submarine I lost in 1963
surfaces: full-sized, blowing
like a whale. The crew flash V for Victory.
Suddenly, the poem isn’t simply a nature poem but recalls something profound from the narrator’s youth. Though in poems like “The Last Bobcat” Webb displays his ability to write a powerful, serious nature poem. He begins with the wonderful line: “The hill behind our house still wears its cape/of African daisies.”
The title poem deals with a history of physical philosophy, from Thales, who thought things were made of water, to Aristotle who added earth, wind, and fire. Though he waxes philosophic, Webb is really getting at the fragility of life. And at its heart, this collection reveals Webb as a humanistic, down-to-Earth soul trying to survive and prosper but also trying to live well and morally. The fragility of life is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh. In poems like “Manpanzee” and “Sad for the Hunchback,” Webb reveals his own moral failings while also recognizing that they are common failings; he doesn’t stand on an altar of shame or moral righteousness. There, he deals with the fragility of goodness and morality, which can shift so easily given the proper circumstance. There’s a preconception about humor: that it’s easy and that it lacks substance, but Webb shows that his humor isn’t light. There’s darkness beneath it.
Charles Harper Webb is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, Amplified Dog, and Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, and Poets of the New Century. Webb has received the Morse Prize, Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Pollak Prize, and Saltman Prize, as well as a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, and teaches in the MFA in creative writing program there.
Poems by Eric Pankey
|Milkweed Editions, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Pankey explores the idea of traces in several ways throughout this collection. One version is as traces of religious faith or traces of evidence supporting that faith. Another is traces of memory, specifically memories of Pankey’s deceased father. And finally, there are traces of meaning in the poems, which could be inspired by any of the other traces.
The collection opens with a section of poems focused on Pankey’s religious beliefs. “The Sacrifice” questions the validity of blind sacrifice. “A Bird Loose in the House” nicely conjures an analogy of the soul, “A shadow-play alive on a curtain alive with wind.” As evidenced in this poem, Pankey finds inspiration in nature, not only for poetry but for his faith.
Pankey tends to avoid the easy, well-trod imagery of religious poetry. He doesn’t speak from a place of fear of retribution, or scold. He doesn’t belittle human endeavor for the sake of appeasing divine ego. Instead, he paints a chaotic world in which so little is understandable, not that science has failed us, but rather a world so complex, simple cause-and-effect relationships often don’t make sense. “The Creation of Adam” describes a humanistic landscape:
On a cross of branches tied with baling wire,
An old man hung a ragged wool overcoat.
As he weeded, he instructed the scarecrow
On the doctrine and conundrum of free will.
When a crow landed on the scarecrow’s shoulder,
The scarecrow, who had listened well, knew
If he chose, he could shrug and shoo the crow.
If he chose. And could shrug. And could move his lips.
Another version of traces are traces of memory. “Faith” describes a lost love, which retreated like a glacier. “The Burning House” describes “The house afire, the house of my childhood,/All tinder and kindling married to spark.” The burning house is never consumed, of course recalling the biblical burning bush; it exists in a liminal state in Pankey’s memory. “Southern Elegy” is a subtle commentary on place. Pankey describes a garter snake hunting “along cracked masonry/Marked by rust, along slate//Slabs in the unkempt graveyard.” It’s a desolate world in which “Autumn passes like empty freight cars –//Some doors open, some doors closed.”
Finally, Pankey focuses on traces of meaning in his poems, which he struggles to reach. But clarity isn’t something that can necessarily be reached. “Sometimes I exist,” he says in “Models of Paradise” “only as anxiety.” And later, he struggles with finding that clarity not only in his poetry but in his faith as he describes “Just stars above me,/ a broken abacus of stars:/The beads scattered, the beads unthumbed.” Finally, he begins to reach meaning, “What we lack, mostly, is context.” This leads to wisdom: “One measures the void a gram at a time.”
Pankey doesn’t so much try to make sense of the world as he tries to make sense from the world. He shares observances, reserving comment many times, in favor of letting the images resonate by themselves. Pankey’s language is beautiful and spare and he constantly surprises with profound lines. Pankey’s built a name for himself, and considering the quality of the poems in this collection, it’s no surprise.
Eric Pankey is currently Professor of English and Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University. Trace is his ninth collection of poetry.
Blowout, poems by Denise Duhamel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series, 2012. $15.95.
Reviewed by CL Bledsoe
Duhamel charts the rise and fall and aftermath of a relationship in these poems, from the first real sparks to the warning signs to the realization it’s over, the divorce, and the settling of ashes. Her language is sedate, avoiding the easy trap of sentimentality and melodrama, though at times in danger of going too far the other way and reading like line-broken essays which rely on the subject matter to carry the reader, especially with some of the long-lined, multiple-page poems. This is, of course, the popular style, and Duhamel is a popular poet. One of the main reasons for this is her humor, which shines in many of these poems, even though she’s sharing often quite personal and obviously painful material. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die. Duhamel bears her soul, sharing the darker stuff, and laughing along with us at her own, and our own, humanity.
“How It Will End” is a clear standout and the opener for the collection. It describes the couple witnessing a lifeguard fighting with his girlfriend. The onlookers immediately project themselves onto the couple, though they can’t actually hear what’s being said, “My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think/she’s sick of him only working part time/or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.” (11-13). I actually chuckled a few times at this poem. How often does that happen? The onlookers’ own frustrations come out – the true success of Duhamel in this poem is her timing. She surprises the reader with her honesty and humor. “’You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,/so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?’/ and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh reall?/Maybe he should start recording her tirades…” (25-28). The pacing and rising action of the poem is perfect (which is interesting as Duhamel later shares that she never really learned to write fiction because she missed a fiction writing class).
In addition to her marriage woes, Duhamel charts much of her love-life, but again, in a non-melodramatic and often quite touching way. “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” and others like this break up the tone of the book, adding more humor and warmth. “Shortcut” describes an ominous encounter with a group of older boys that could’ve gone very badly for the young Denise. She also moves to deftly-rendered character studies which also follow the theme of love and relationships.
The portrait of Duhamel’s ex-husband is very unflattering. An artist who was often unemployed, or underemployed, one isn’t quite sure what it was that attracted her in the first place, other than the allure of his art, itself. Duhamel pokes fun at herself; she realizes that her choices in life could reflect poorly on her. But who hasn’t made dumb choices? And who hasn’t thrown good money after bad and stayed in a negative situation rather than changing it? Duhamel has emerged from these experiences wizened and confident. She also realizes that she doesn’t have anything particularly new to add to this idea of lost love. It’s the same old story, but her humor, her honesty, and her attitude “make it new” and make her work truly exceptional.
A Mountain City of Toad Splendor, poems and prose by Megan McShea. Baltimore: Publishing Genius Press, 2012.
Reviewed by C.L. Bedsoe
When I read collections like this, I’m frequently reminded of the excellent poem (and song) “It’s Saturday” by John S. Hall which contains one of my favorite lines: “Sense cannot be made. It must be sensed.” Hall is getting at the core of art. There’s something in it that doesn’t have to be explained, perhaps shouldn’t be explained. McShea’s collection, similarly, doesn’t jump out and fish-slap the reader with obvious meaning. Rather, it gambols around meaning like an impromptu interpretive dance. Poems range from the building blocks of “Table Saw,” each line of which begins with “Table” and adds another word which changes the meaning of each successive line: “Table/Table saw/Table saw bird” etc. to surreal stories like “The Appointment,” whose imagery shifts like a stream-of-conscious fill-in-the-blank. Here’s an excerpt from near the middle of the flash piece, in which McShea describes a mother and son’s outing. They go to a building which immediately doesn’t impress. It is “flatter than we had imagined it” and has a confusing intercom: “It sounded like the ocean, but in a very high resolution, with cries of bird and shouts tossed by waves and even sand under our feet.” They undress and wait in a room:
“This is nothing like I expected,” said my mother, who had persuaded me to join her in coming here. “Well, what did you expect?” I asked. “I thought it would be rosy, like a womb,” she said. She sounded sad.
“Change your rabbits!” came a shout from up the stairs, and then again, descending closer, “change your rabbits immediately!” A man in coveralls appeared with wide black eyes. “Oh, pardom me,” he said when he saw us there. “You’re not the people I thought you were.”
But it was too late, for mother and I had already changed our rabbits.
McShea is quite playful. She’s included poems with titles such as “Four Unrelated Sentences with Unrelated Elements,” “Conditional Clauses,” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” which is a deconstruction of the titular pledge, but also an homage to the idea of the thing. “Three Large Swollen Things” is a triptych in which each line section is an acrostic spelling out “Large Swollen Things.” From section 1:
Lingering amidst our
rigged up with fancy
glows a bride
entirely made of cotton
sticks to sin talk
when it wants fed
options evaporate quickly then
like it never lost anything
not without a certain inky grace
to be hewn from
in their suckling linens
nesting there like a
gull out of
“11 Irritations that Morning” is a more straightforward poem. It begins, “I want things and beautiful/light, a perfectly soft don’t.” It’s a beautiful ode to being. “On the street, that recently-cleaned texture/of things. To be alone daily makes/everyone seem interesting.” And isn’t that what poetry’s all about?
McShea is a mistress of sound and mood. “Baltimore Prayer” is a wonderful example:
Precisely this fogged window, which prevails in the cold, wet night, blinks out onto an uninhabited land of Other People’s houses and in sight of all that forgotten real estate, along with all the amiable conversations on phones across America and evenings shared in movie houses, around the corner from a recent homicide, down the block from wild lots and weeds, great unknowns, colossal, all evolving along with Darwin and his species. One’s life, assumed to be finite, ticking away. Night covers things up but you can still hear the rain.
Pressure comes from a thousand enemies buried in your heart. You practice fighting them, and then one day, it seems like they’re gone. One day, allowing for silences, it breaks. You can prepare. It’s like preaching. Ready yourself.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
by Sean Patrick Hill
Buffalo, NY: BlazeVox Books, 2011.
BlazeVox poetry collections tend to have three things in common: physically, they tend to be oversized (not necessarily thick, but wide or tall) and very attractive; stylistically, they tend to be experimental (whatever that means – so basically, they don’t usually publish poems that slap the reader in the face with obvious meaning, but rather poems that require a little bit of work; you might need to strap on your snorkel, fins, and air tank to plumb the depths of a BlazeVox collection) which doesn’t mean that they’re simply gibberish; and quality-wise, they tend to be pretty strong. I can think of several recent BlazeVox collections I’ve really enjoyed: Sarah Sarai’s The Future Is Happy, Kristinia Marie Darling’s The Moon and Other Inventions, and Rob McLennan’s Grief Notes, to name a few. Hill’s collection has all of these qualities in common. It’s laid out length-wise with a beautiful cover, and it’s certainly a powerful collection of poetry by one of the most talented poets working today.
“The Emperor’s Nightingale” references the story of the mechanical nightingale we’ve all heard:
The song goes something like this: A kind of pining binds us in muslin and butcher’s strong. Only now have we begun to see to what extent we are unwritten. Leaves, integers, moths—of course we are machines in the ghost. I never said I wanted everything I touch to resemble gold.
Hill weaves a surreal tapestry reflecting a rural, poor upbringing in fresh, powerful images. “How is it we forget that some of us are not allowed to remain/poor,” he says, in “Poem” (7-8). There is comfort, of course, in the familiar, even if that familiar environment is a negative or limiting one. And there’s beauty in even the bleakest stories. “Moon reflected in a moving window” tells the story of a train wreck. It begins, “Cassidy laid his head like a zinc penny on the track./At five, the freight arrived from Omaha.” (1-2). He continues, “We’ve heard the story at every crossing, walking to the factory:/Kid wearing earphones full of noise, deaf to the afternoon.” (7-8). Hill is subtle, but isn’t that kid wearing the earphones BECAUSE he’s walking to the factory, which is probably his only real option for making even decent money? He’s hiding from the hopelessness of his world—that same world that might kill him. But in addition to the narrative aspects, Hill’s language describes the setting vividly: “A dog barks at the moon reflected in a moving window./Skin thickens around the ankles of utility poles.” The thickening skin, literally, could mean tar, but it implies so much so subtly. (4-5). In “Crossing Idaho,” he describes the weather: “Like a coffin carried on stage, snow falls and falls.” (1). One is reminded of Chekov’s line about the pistol in the first act. It’s not just the vividness of Hill’s imagery that’s outstanding; it’s the way he weights those descriptions with such powerful implications. In “The Taste of Bone,” he reminds us, “All we need do to experience disaster is be born.” (8).
Hill’s first collection, The Imagined Field, was an excellent debut, and he’s refined his talent here.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
The Switching/Yard, poems by Jan Beatty. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.
Anyone who’s ever ridden on a train has found himself staring out the window and wondering at what he saw. The landscape, the towns we pass, the people; all evoke stories. In her most recent collection, Beatty has written some of these stories. Beatty’s focus is on urban images, especially train yards and manufacturing. “California Corridor” gives us a view of Beatty’s world:
On the San Joaquin Line
between Modesto & Merced,
past the arroyos, past the fruit trees
in rows, rows—hands of the farm workers/
beauty always with blood behind it,
nothing free. (lines 1-6).
Her language is clean and straight-forward. She describes a beautiful and alien world full of hard-working, underpaid immigrants struggling to survive while waiting for “the angels of bread” (9). She describes California as “a wide,/wide lover” (12-13). A handful of Beatty’s poems describe her fascination with the natural world. “We Cover Our Heads Like Deer” is about a bunch of writers and artists bird watching. The situation is absurd; Beatty is instructed to cover her head with a blanket and walk like a deer, though she doesn’t know what that means. Beatty is often an outsider in these situations, just as she rides on a train observing the difficult lives of others but not entering them. “White Girl in a record Store” describes her attempt to broaden her horizons as she attempts to buy “Rapper’s Delight.” Beatty becomes embarrassed as the record store employees try to sell her a bunch of merchandise. She’s simply curious about a part of the culture she’s missed, but can’t make the leap from her comfort zone to actually connect.
The title poem describes Beatty’s trip to meet her birth father, passing through a manufacturing wasteland, “2 giant sleeping cranes, nothing as lonely as/a crane not working,” she begins. (1-2). As the train moves north away from the switching yard, Beatty describes a beautiful landscape, “…the sky’s/blue-dark with the trees going back to their night souls” (17-18). “We are all so/separate with the same lives,” she reminds (pg. 30, lines 16-17).
Though Beatty deals with some pretty weighty themes, she’s also got quite a sense of humor. “Dear American Poetry,” takes to task the lack of diversity in those poems selected for the major anthologies – diversity in terms of the race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the poets, but also for the lack of real emotive power in the poems. “Stein: Letter to a Young Rilke” has a similar tongue-in-cheek approach. She also touches on certain aspects of pop culture, mainly music, by addressing Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the like.
But sense of place is the real focus of the collection. Beatty describes meeting her birth parents, an experience which adds to her desire for a connection with place. Beatty uses language and descriptions often reserved for the Rust Belt, but her focus is California and the west. It’s a changing landscape, at times barren and luscious. Beatty is as much an outsider as we are, trying to make sense of it, and we get to peek at her discoveries.
In the Company of Spirits
poems by Carmen Calatayud
Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53. 2012
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Calatayud is a DC poet, and like many in the DC scene, she understandably focuses on social issues, questions of involvement and public policy. This is the poetry of witness. She slips between potent scenes of tragedy to mythic portraits of landscape and people. The collection opens with “Tale from Chiapas,” a surreal portrait of evocative images:
In this country we count the trees, then count again.
We lift the streets by mixing paint.
Nine guardians live upstairs and we sing with them.
There’s a slit in the sky and we reach through to pull down the sun.
The imagery is dreamlike. There’s an unreal feel to this place. The poem portrays haunting memories, ghosts, “At times, tricky spirits swallow our eyes./They bring bad news like the black moths./We open the coffin, smell al alma during the wind.” (lines 7-9). She concludes, “We point to the northern sky before sleep smokes our limbs./Fig trees spin into ash, and we wash our soil with milk.” (lines 13-14). There’s optimism as well as a certain sense of foreboding.
“To My Father Juan, Who Thought There Was a War To End All Wars,” is one of the more powerful poems in the collection. She opens with a scene of brutality:
The soldiers took your Tio Rafa:
dragged out of bed and shot in the street
the Franco way
the Generalissimo in my dreams
sucked away your soul
when they killed Rafael.
You and your friends played soccer
around the bodies,
death was a daily smell
and the sound of mothers who screamed
hung in the air.
Calatayud tries to make sense of this situation, the same way her father tried to, “All of this, this wasn’t ordained by the Holy Ghost,” (line 19). His belief system is shattered. The effects of this are far reaching, even as an adult, Calatayud describes her father “hoarding canned food in the basement” (pg. 5, lines 23). But there’s no real solace to be had, no way to protect oneself and one’s family against something like this.
So when faced with these sorts of calamities, where does one turn? In “Flames and Angels,” Calatayud turns her attentions to DC: “There is misery by the busload. Mothers scrounge/for bits of bread.” (lines 1-2). She continues, “We can’t make sense of paper, rock or scissors/or velvet political games. We lose a day each night,/tending to the problems of the world in our dreams.” (lines 3-5). This is Calatayud’s survivor’s guilt, as the child of immigrants (at one point, a relative praises Calatayud’s luck at being “white.”). Throughout this collection, she deals with questions of her liminality. She is trapped between the world of her parents and the past and her current life, where she is outside these experiences and looking back, free of them but still tethered to them. In the same way, America is in a liminal stage as the more diverse populations gain more political presence. But, even though many of the more privileged holdouts fear this change, and this fear produces dangers for some others, Calatayud is hopeful. In her title poem, she reminds: “This is the land you came from. There is no worry in this dirt./You are the harvest of our desert dance.” (lines 25-27).
The Imagined Field, poems by Sean Patrick Hill. Paper Kite Press, 2010.
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Hill’s collection begins with “When You Hardly Knew Your Fingers,” a surreal portrait of a struggling spiritual life. “It’s an old story, need.” he begins (line 1). He continues with images of alienation and loneliness: “Wind in trees, gaunt horses,/A bank of bleeding hearts–//Like granite they make hunger look easy. A matter of grim resistance.” (lines 1-5). Even the dying seem to have mastered their reactions to life (and death) better than the narrator. But solace can come from observing the beauty in the fragility of life: “Take the trillium, for example, its three-lidded eye:/Six seasons seed to flower./Such mild ambition. Did you know as little/As one touch could wreck it?” (lines 7-11). Later, he explains the source of his alienation, relating to the flower, and “…your own fatal contact//When you hardly knew your fingers/Could do such damage.” (lines 20-23). He continues, “Passion is something you beg for…but I wouldn’t say it’s something/You deserve.” (lines 13-15). There’s a kind of humility, there, which could serve to increase the narrator’s alienation, or which could actually shift the focus from himself and outward.
Hill’s poems are powerful, imagistic works that swoop into stunning scenes with solid language. “The Hours” reminisces about the narrator’s past. “I had slept alone for weeks,” he begins (line 1). Hill paints a vivid scene, “Days when rain made idle threats/I climbed the California hills,/And not even poison oak/Could offend me.” (lines 3-6). “This was after the floods./This was during my breakdown./Mud stained the roads/Like a bad memory,” (lines 8-11) he tells us. There are evocative images of eating Sunbeam white bread, old seaside farms. He concludes:
What matters are the hours, like frightened birds.
The way the land ends at the sea and says,
What’s done is done.
The way the sky just keeps walking
Where you can’t follow. (lines 40-44).
“The Last Frontier is Not in Alaska,” paints a vivid scene, both physically and psychically: “In this desert our lives are, at best,/A draw,” he begins (lines 1-2). Hill expresses trepidation towards his surroundings. The “desert” could be real or figurative. “It’s not that sunlight struggles./It’s that clouds never give up.” he continues (lines 4-5). And “Wells are a constant source of worry.” (line 10). It’s a dangerous world with little possibility of control. “Don’t bother to ask forgiveness./The river accepts no excuses./Learn to swim.” (lines 12-14). Even things that might be considered positive are sources of concern:
Unless we do something, blackberries will win.
Then again, they have a way of fixing
The soil for themselves: they poison the ground.
That is, they cheat.
That’s what we mean by the sins of the father. (lines 19-24).
He concludes with an image of scorn: “Lilies our mothers planted are like teenagers/Who say they didn’t ask to be born./They secretly hate us.” (lines 29-31).
Hill is working towards something in these poems. He rarely spells it out or tries to hit the reader over the head with meaning; instead, he lets us work through the process, as well, and come to our own conclusions. “Cairns” delves into his journey:
…My wife taught me her best slipknot,
That love is not that kind
But a mild steel:
No China doll, nor wandering Jew
But something more
Like a dove
Covered in tar. (lines 3-13).
He isn’t romanticizing this idea of love: he’s trying to be brutally honest. He’s trying to get at truth. he goes on to describe a very violent personal experience which served to try to rip him away from this “slipknot.”
A reference that pops up more than once is to Don Quixote. In “The Genius of Birds,” Hill points out: “Cervantes had it right:/you could live your life in a dream and get away with it.” (lines 31-32). And this seems to be at the center of Hill’s struggle: the world seems to be so often an ugly, greedy place, but the ‘dream’ is difficult to live in. But what is “the dream?” Perhaps it’s that tar-covered dove mentioned above. Perhaps it’s an appreciation of beauty or tranquility. But this seems to be fleeting, which makes it all the more precious.
Between Gods, poems by Donna Lewis Cowan. Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2012
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Cowan’s debut collection begins with “Thaw,” a beautiful meditation on the changing of the seasons, played out through ice skaters:
At the pond’s edge, the skaters steer
from the etched-out hollows, speed
toward the marrow mapped tight.
We are trying to outrace it, thaw
channeling into the grids – where you could
step through, surrender the balance (lines 1-8)
Cowan is hinting at more than a change in seasons; she’s alluding to growing up. She continues, “So you are an accomplice, shearing/the surface into further conquered// territories, into what will happen” (lines 16-19). These skaters are trying to wring the last bit of experience from the winter before the ice melts, though it is futile: “something our heat/cannot alter.” (lines 25-26).
Many of Cowan’s poems explore characters from religious stories. “Daphne & Apollo: Meditations” is a triptych which retells the myth of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne. What stands out about Cowan’s work is her masterful use of language. In the first section, she describes Apollo’s efforts: “his fingers/like flies against a windowpane” (pg. 14, lines 10-11). In the second section, Daphne has turned into a flower: “She wondered, if she had arms to move/could they round about a child” (pg. 15, lines 9-10). She regrets her decision to transform herself, but she finds no solace: “…the blooms about her//tightened, offered nothing;/their stems were stolid as crucifixes” (lines 15-18). It’s a lovely line, resonating with the web of religious imagery throughout the collection. In the third section, Daphne is trapped in her decision while Apollo sings, his voice, “passion raise like the chronic sweat of flowers” (pg. 16, line 12). “The Siren” is an exploration of the myth of the mythical beings who lured sailors into rocks. “Penelope” is a monologue from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife who delays the advances of suitors while waiting for her husband’s return. Cowan’s true talent with these poems is her ability to humanize mythical characters. She begins with Penelope’s concerns with her own mortality:
Now four years of fraying wool
on the loom – my hands grey,
splintered as never before –
and once the tapestry is finished,
anything may happen. We are so
vulnerable to magic; one may be raped
by swans; none of it is hearsay. (pg. 30, lines 1-7).
It’s a touching portrait focusing on the fragility of Penelope, as opposed to the stolid, somewhat heroic version who waits patiently for Odysseus, as is often portrayed. Cowan develops Penelope’s somewhat sardonic voice: “I have heard you are lover to a woman/who could keep you with her forever –/and what a trick!” (pg. 30, lines 9-11). Cowan creates a sensual scene to portray Penelope’s loneliness:
Here the soldiers’ wives use each other
for company; the handmaids touch
my skin as they touch my gowns,
with windy light fingers, out of habit –
pressing harder only to coax
the wrinkles out. One stray touch
and my skin is alive for hours –
that is loneliness, a pair of hands
winding through that medusa
of strands, soothing the loose ends
into patience… (pg. 30, lines 13-24).
There’s humor, as well. One of the suitors, drunk, tells Penelope, “…his semen is wine/drawn from the rarest of sea-violets” (pg. 31, lines 3-4). Finally, Penelope is faced with the futility of her situation, as the suitors gossip about Odysseus’ trysts with goddesses, and she pictures him, “driv(ing) glory slowly,/absently into the sand” (pg. 31, lines 11-12).
Cowan also deals with the mythology of everyday life. “Cleaning Lincoln Logs” is a meditation on the expected arrival of a child: “The impossible task:/making our leftovers/clean enough for a daughter,” she begins (lines 103). Cowan’s language is simple but resonating:
You empty the scratches
where you etched
before you knew
how the world
could whittle away
each masterpiece. (lines 14-21).
But this isn’t a maudlin poem: she is emphatic about passing on these toys and all they represent. “They are still alive,” she says about the toys, about what she once built and imagined with them (line 17). She hopes to pass on only the toys, not all of the damage and baggage that has occurred since she, herself, played with these toys.
Cowan is a talented poet with an ear for language and vivid construction. She tackles themes and ideas that easily fall flat, but pulls them off with aplomb and verve. Throughout the collection she deals with issues of spirituality, not just as an abstraction, but as a vital question presented in beautiful language. Part history, part magic, this collection is well worth a read.
Injecting Dreams Into Cows, poems by Jessy Randall. Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2012. $17.95. ISBN: 1597092304. 104 pgs.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
Randall’s collection begins with “Metaphors,” a clever, playful piece that bucks preconceptions, “A duck is like the moon/because a kid can point at both. A house/is like the sky: both hold things…” (lines 1-3). The central image, here, isn’t a comparison of things (as I’m sure you’ve noticed, these lines of Randall’s are actually similes); rather, it’s the linking idea: the kid and the things being held by the house and the sky. One can’t help but think of the house as holding a family (including a child) and the sky as, perhaps, holding God, an idea which links with family in a traditional sense. Randall continues, later with a playful conclusion, “This poem is like a pillow: I hit you with it.” (line 10).
Randall’s poems tend towards the brief, often minimalist. Throughout, her sense of humor reigns. “One Day, the Ass-Talker Stopped Talking Out of His Ass,” describes the fateful day we all wish would come for some people, “I was wrong, he said. I was only guessing. I never really knew the answer.” She concludes. If only. “Trouble in Pac-Land” is about exactly what you’d think:
The truth is I don’t know
what it was that set me,
well, packing. Maybe it was
the lack of scrutiny.
All those teenagers
for so long, caressing
that perfect round
controller. And then
they were gone,
moved on, grown up. (pg. 46, lines 10-20).
A disenfranchised Ms. Pac-Man sets herself up in a new life out of boredom. “I’ve got my own game/that no one plays.” she says. (pg. 47, lines 8-9). It’s a study in existential despair; the waning housewife recreated as pop culture icon who isn’t really any happier.
“In the Mind of Elizabeth Blackwell,” deals with various rumors and aspects of the life of Blackwell, the first American woman to receive a medical degree. Known as a difficult figure because of her unflinching opinions, Blackwell, though well connected, socially, managed to alienate many, though, more importantly, she championed many social and moral reforms.
“The Consultant” gives us our title in the opening line: “The scientists told me they were injecting dreams into cows. “ She describes the experiment and the results the scientists are getting. The scientists inject human dreams in some cows and cow dreams in others. “The cows with the human dreams, they told me, were keeping/ journals of their dreams in their dreams. But the cows with the/cow dreams were not keeping journals.” (lines 5-7). She goes on to point out that “the cows with the cow dreams don’t have hands in their dreams…so they can’t hold pens or pencils…” (lines 11-13).
Randall shifts from the humorous or sardonic tones of certain poems to more sincere poems, though she manages to maintain her sense of humor. “My Son, When He Is Sick,” presents a sweet portrait of Randall’s concern for her sick son:
My son, when he is sick, is a little wet
hot ball candy, sweaty forehead,
damp hair on the back of his neck,
his eyes screwed shut as if that will help.
His toddling voice repeats “oh dear, oh dear”
when we ask what hurts. He says a quiet
“yes” to everything: Is it your tummy?
Your throat? Your foot? Your toy hippo?
He slurps his water and then throws up
everywhere, his father and I leaping to catch it,
begging “throw up on ME, here is my sweater,
my lap, my cupped hands.” (lines 1-14).
“Why I Had Children” is another humorous yet sweet poem in which Randall examines herself honestly:
Because I was reading too many books and getting too much
sleep and my self-esteem was too high. Because I needed to be
taken down a peg. Because I thought love was one thing and
really it’s another. Because I thought I knew everything about
everything and I didn’t know anything, not anything in the world. (lines 1-5).
“Celie At Four,” continues this theme of parenthood:
The way you say
“I know THAT,”
wanting to get on
to the next thing. (lines 1-5).
Randall avoids sentimentality by approaching her love and admiration for her child from a different direction: she’s actually a little annoyed at the child’s impatience. “You mean/you now know it/because I just told you.” she continues (lines 6-8). Her child is gaining confidence while Randall’s shrinks: “at four, you’re/seventeen and I’m/the little sister/wanting to be liked.” she concludes (lines 10-13).
Randall’s poems waste no words: they are often short but pack a powerful punch. Her language is clean and precise, which allows her to sneak-attack the reader with profound images. I’ve been a big fan of Randall’s work, which I’ve read in various literary journals, for some time, and I’m thrilled to have this collection to solidify her reputation as a talent to watch.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals as well as five forthcoming books. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at http://tenpagespress.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/the-man-who-killed-himself-in-my-bathroom-by-cl-bledsoe/. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South’s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His poem “The Bank” was nominated for 2010 Best of the Nest and his nonfiction piece “Thesis” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings, http://clbledsoe.blogspot.com Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.