The Eternal Return of the Same

by Gerry LaFemina

Sometime in the late nineties a writer friend of mine said that if you ever wanted to write a Charles Simic poem all you needed was the moon, an alley, a young child, a woman in a babushka, and perhaps a chicken. I thought of this recently after finishing up a first draft of a new poem. Some first drafts make me feel like there are miles to go before the poem gets to sleep, some make me want to throw it away, and a few, like this one, make me feel excited about poetry. Then I reread it, and it felt like it hit a few of the check boxes of some of my poems: a bit of physics? Check. A train? Check. Nostalgia–often in the form of adolescent love? Check. Catholicism? Check. The moon (ala Simic above)? Check.

Fortunately, somehow, I managed to stay away from snow or rain. And birds of any sort. And New York, punk rock, and fire (this last is an image that permeates my forthcoming collection The Story of Ash).

My friend Joseph Fasano writes about horses. His books could run all the races in an afternoon at Belmont. The first section of Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid is filled with poems working similar themes, using similar phrasing, form, and imagery in new and different ways. Poems work not by rejecting previous convention but by taking conventions—even those of our own design—and turning them in new ways. By establishing patterns, we can establish reader expectations and then subvert them.

Make it new, the Modernists implored. And we try to. We really do. Our obsessions may evolve, but perhaps not so much our metaphoric objects. And let’s face it, no one ever said to Monet, Claude, perhaps we should talk about your haystack obsession. Or to O’Keefe, Georgia, another flower? No one ever says to a math professor, X again? Can’t we mix up the variable? The fact is that I can write rules for myself (and I do), telling me to avoid certain imagery, but that doesn’t mean my variables for understanding the questions of the universe differ. The go-to catalogue of images are ways of defining and understanding the world of the poem, and through that, understanding the world around us. They are hallmarks of a style just as much as form, voice, or perspective might be.

And the fact is, after recognizing that the poem in question shared some imagistic and thematic hallmarks with my other poems, I thought to make some changes. Could the trains be trucks? Could the middle school students in the poem be senior citizens in an assisted living facility? Variations of the poem answered that perhaps these changes could be made, and the poem’s outcomes would ditto be radically different: If you alter the numbers, the equation at the end will be different, and where this poem wound up surprised me and seemed right. So I made the choice to keep the majority of these “familiar” images. If the poem’s conclusions felt like I’d seen them before, the poem would have required the major re-workings above. Instead, to use the math analogy again, one can do different equations with the same numbers, just by changing the functions (addition and subtraction, multiplication and division…). Ditto, we can draw new conclusions by how we choose to work with those returning tropes.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra talks about the eternal return of the same. Things repeat. Time is a circle (is it any wonder the face of a clock is round). Or to stick with physics, I might mention the oscillating universe theory: the universe ends in a big crunch which is then followed by a big bang, and so on.

Or let’s think of it this way: our obsessions are our obsessions and our sensual stimuli— surely a potential basis for many of our go-to images—are often things we see every day. The world of things is where the ideas lie, and it’s where we live. Is it any wonder writers love to travel? New places provide an opportunity to restock the image warehouse, to provide us with new rhythms, to break us from the familiar. Remember familiar shares an etymology with family. Eventually, we do have to return home. For the poet, that means a return to our home images, our home subjects. Our alleyways and chickens. Our subways and pigeons.

In this way, I am no different than many contemporary artists in general and poets in particular. The goal isn’t to always come up with fresh images so much as we have to come up with ways to make those images seem new. Chefs, in the end, only have a limited number of entree options. The goal for them is to re-imagine what one does with a filet, more so than it is to get a different protein to work with each night. Ditto, my “physics” wasn’t the Big Bang or String Theory (both of which have appeared often) but Dark Matter. Just as a writer of a villanelle has to make the repeating lines not seem the same (and now, it’s become common practice for those repeating lines to only sort of repeat), so, too, do we have to write our familiar images and themes in new ways. They’re familiarity ought to provide comfort for experimentation and function as a leaping off point for us to explore new potentialities. The goal is for them to repeat but not be redundant.


 

Specs of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

One might think the title is a typo, that I meant “Specks of Dust.”  Speck, from the Middle English “specke” and deeper still to Old English, “specca,” meaning “a small spot, mark, or discolorization” (American Heritage Dictionary).  But it’s no typo. In this case I’m referencing the Latinate “specere”—to look at, to see. As poets, our job is to see but also to present in such a way so that others can see.

I’ve put my spectacles on for this. I’m near sighted with an astigmatism, so they help me see. Seeing (along with the other four senses) is one of the most powerful tools for a writer; furthermore, the poem itself functions as a presentation of those images—literally they help readers imagine. In this way the poem itself functions as a kind of pair of spectacles to help the reader see what the writer saw—literally or in the imagination. What we see then, what we ask others to see with us, must be vibrant and vital, must be endowed with life.  We are asked then to pay attention.  As writers watching, it’s not what’s familiar that catches our eye, but what’s unfamiliar. As the City of New York used to say in its ads after 9/11: “if you see something, say something.”

In that regard then, the poet is spectator, a kind of witness. The spectators at a baseball game spend a lot of time watching nothing happen waiting for a homerun or a dramatic diving catch or a play at the plate. Ditto, the spectator of the world watches the mundane waiting for the world to deliver something worth reporting on. If we’re distracted, we might not notice something, might find ourselves not bringing it to life in a way that captures the imagination.  More importantly, what we see needs to be something that captures our imagination, it needs to find its language within us so that we can bring it to life for the reader.

In this regard, then, we become speculators in both senses of the word.  First off, in our writing, we are making new thoughts. We are considering the importance of our images, and thus we are speculating, and by that I mean “to engage in a course of reasoning often based on inconclusive evidence; conjecture or theorize.” The best poems think through images, engage the material in creative ways. The best poems provide the reader with this new thinking. In that way, the poem is an act of commerce, an exchange of time and energy for the linguistic experience found in the poem. In this regards, the poet is a speculator in another way, too, “engag[ing] in the buying or selling of a commodity with an element of risk on the chance of profit.” Each image chosen, each word chosen to bring this image to life, is a commodity brought into the poem, and with it comes the possibility of a successful poem. Ditto, the possibility of failure.

All writing in some way is about what’s on our spectrum, in this case meaning the “band of colors produced when the wavelengths making up white light are separated, as when light passes through a prism or strikes drops of water”—in other words, what’s visible to the eye. We train our writer’s eye to see things, but often what we see says more about what our filters, our unconscious thinking, our obsessions, than the world as it actually is. Consider the infrared and ultraviolet frequencies of the seeing self. Ask a group of spectators what they saw in a particular moment, and they’ll give you an equal number of narratives because what they see says as much about their interior world as it does about our shared exterior world.

We are asked, then, to speculate, to wonder. To ask questions not only about what we see, but to also ask why we see it.

For those of who find in our present world the nostalgia for the lost world, the past that is gone and yet remains, for those of us who, as Stanley Kunitz put it “Anyone who has lived to the age of five has enough for a life time of poetry” we are dealing constantly with specters, those “ghostly apparition[s]” of a life we can’t shed. Memories are a kind of thinking. Ditto the imagination. By working with both, we create specters for our readers, the best poems become part of their memories if we get the language right, the music right.

Because the poem reflects its writer’s obsessions for the reader, because if reflects the world seen by the poet and not the world as such, the poem functions, then, as a kind of speculum.

Our language exists on a spectrum; the more we read and write, the more we experiment with the elasticity of the language, the more we go searching for Coleridge’s “best word” the broader our spectrum of possible words get. Ditto our craft skills exist in a spectrum. We grow as poets engaging in what’s possible and needing to expand that field of possibility we broaden the spectrum of our prosody.

Spectacle is the name of the quarterly journal of the circus arts, from the second American Heritage definition: “A public performance or display, especially one on a large or lavish scale.” I like to think of the poem as spectacle, too, though more akin to the first definition: “Something that can be seen or viewed, especially something of a remarkable or impressive nature.” At least, a poem should. Each line crafted from the best words, the images, the musicality of the language.

The poem should be spectacular.


 

The Delicacy of the Image

by Gerry LaFemina 

Much has been said about the importance of the image to the poem. Images function as touchstones in poetry, they help create the landscape of the poem, provide a means by which the reader imagines the world and context of the poem’s thinking. They are the things that embody ideas, as it were, but they are also the things that shape the ideas for the reader. It’s no wonder that two of the twentieth century’s most important schools of poetry included the word image (Imagism and the Deep Image movement) or that Aristotle thought of metaphor as the most important skill a poet could have: metaphor allows image to stand in for an idea. As Stephen Dobyns puts it “the image half of the metaphor has the greatest possibility of touching the reader” (and thus work symbolically). A poem, in the end, is a formal assemblage of words—of sounds and meanings and images—and as such, the image cannot be isolated but has to be considered, too, as part of a whole. The overall effect of a poem, then, is the power of the images to bring about some understanding via the pleasures of language; one of our jobs as poets is to maximize both the pleasures and the effect for the reader.

Although many of the decisions we make in composing a poem may be unconscious, they are never arbitrary; and later in our process, as we edit poems, we are deliberately making choices to improve not only how we say what we’re saying but also clarifying for ourselves what we’re saying. We are strengthening the metaphorical relationship between images and ideas. Jane Bennett in Vibrant Manner talks about “the vitality of the material that constitute” an assemblage and mentions the Chinese notion of shi, which helps to

…illuminate something that is usually difficult to capture in discourse: namely, the kind of potential that … results from the very disposition of things. Shi is the style, energy, propensity, trajectory, or élan inherent to the specific arrangement of things.

There we have it again: Best words. Best order. As Mary Kinzie puts it in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry: “When metaphor is used well, the vehicle is seldom flat or single-valued; the images belonging to it have physical qualities that suggest a tenor of feeling or idea with more than one component.”

What does it mean to assemble our images? What does it mean to use a metaphor well?

It helps to remember the delicacy of our material. Because we work in words and not gauzy materials, we may think any word might do, and that if a noun alone doesn’t do the work, a modifier can add clarity. The computer allows us to move words easily, to see them in different places and different combinations so rapidly that we may forget the material power of language as we first experienced it when we fell in love with poetry, with the possibilities of words. Yes, our material is flexible and malleable and can perform many different functions, but we also have array of words that mean similar things for a reason. Language has the potential for amazing precision. As Carver notes, “It’s possible…to write about commonplace things and objects and using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—chair, a window-curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling, power.” He goes on to quote an Isaac Babel story in which we’re reminded that “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place.”

Such use of precision is an example of delicacy as established by the fifth definition of the word on Dictionary.com: “extreme sensitivity; precision of action or operation; minute accuracy.” The image, and how we present it, requires delicacy. In talking about Whitman, James Wright (that wily, deep imagist!) praised the poet’s “delicacy of music, of diction, and of form” and then offered this caveat: “The word ‘delicacy’ can do without formally rhetorical definitions; but I mean it to suggest powers of restraint, clarity, and wholeness.” The imagistic powers of words are limited or enhanced, Wright reminds us, by how we use them; that’s why it helps to be wary of adjectives and adverbs.

That said, I do think we need to consider the “formally rhetorical definitions” of delicacy here, because I think there’s much to be considered by the poet when thinking of the poetic image as a delicacy. For instance, Dictionary.com’s first definition of the word I’ve already touched upon, and that is a “fineness of texture, quality, etc.; softness; daintiness.” Language, when used well, is delicate.  It may be simultaneously harsh, loud, and durable, but we should always consider the fineness of each word, too.

The second definition of the word is also important to keep in mind. This definition is more akin to what many of us think when we think of delicacies (particularly from delicatessens): “something delightful or pleasing, especially a choice food considered with regard to its rarity, costliness, or the like.” Remember, images spark the imagination, and because we associate this word with taste, delicacy reminds us that images are embodied in language that engages any of the five senses. By “delightful” I mean something different than pretty, but rather they must engage the senses in ways that are surprising, that literally are full of light in that they illuminate the thinking of the poem. When we encounter a poem such as “Piñata” by Christine Garren, we understand how images delight in this way:

Brief yet amaranthine,
what’s left is this
wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches where we went, those programs
left. And now, next door, the neighbor’s daughter
has a party every August
as her mother did. This year the strung-up animal is a donkey
being beaten
in the elms.

The opening line is abstracted and yet relates to a piñata. Then the metaphor surfaces: this is about a divorce/break up even though those words are never mentioned. Instead, the images tell us this:

… torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches we went, those programs…

What we see though, too, is not just the second definition of delicacy in play, but also the fifth in the way line breaks shape individual lines to make meaning so that implicitly “the churches” have been shoved “into a landfill,” representing the failure of a sacred trust.

This is all followed by the actual piñata, this one of a donkey, which is a deliberate choice (Does the speaker feel like an ass for believing in her marriage? Does she feel like a beast of burden?). And of course the speaker feels “strung-up” and “beaten.” Through their delicacy, the images do the work of illuminating the feelings of the speaker and allowing the reader to experience that illumination.

The crafting of this poem, though, also represents another definition of the images’ delicacy; Dictionary.com’s third definition calls this “the quality of being easily broken or damaged; fragility.” In its only unique definition of the word, the American Heritage Dictionary notes “Fineness of appearance, construction, or execution; elegance” as a definition for delicacy (AHD’s fourth definition correlates with Dictionary.com’s third). Both of these definitions are related, particularly when discussing poetry. It’s been said that a poem can’t be paraphrased. The way the images are structured in the lines as they are suggest any other reworking of the poem would damage its capacity of maximum effectiveness for the reader. Line three is powerful because we are set up for an actual piñata and thus “wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries” shocks us. What “torn valves and surgeries”? These images announce the metaphor, their delicate placement adds surprise and intrigue to the poem.

Definition four of delicacy is also an important aspect to how we think of the image’s function in a poem. “[T]he quality of requiring or involving great care or tact” is an important role. Metaphors must be precise; they must be apt. To go back to Dobyns “When someone accuses a poem of being vague, this often means that the object of a metaphor is unclear or that the relationship between object and image is imprecise. Vagueness is withheld information and usually no amount of thought will supply what is missing….” A poem’s images must—without being heavy-handed or too vague—carefully bring to light the relationship between object and idea.

In order to do this, then, the image and how it’s employed must be keen to the last definitions of delicacy, which are variants on the same theme: “fineness of perception or feeling; sensitiveness” and “fineness of feeling with regard to what is fitting, proper, etc.” The specific image allows us to perceive through its “fineness” a feeling, and this feeling is proper and fitting to what the poet is trying to express.

Poems themselves, in the end, are metaphors for experience, and as such they become experiences for both writer and reader. The images employed in the poem are delicate gears in the “machine made of words,” as Williams put it—the wrong gear, and the cogs don’t turn, or they do but at the wrong speed, or they wear out easily. It’s keeping in mind the sheer potential strength and weakness of the image in the assembled whole of the poem that makes us understand their delicacies, their strengths and weaknesses, their deliciousness.


 

On a Poetic Voice

by Gerry LaFemina

Many years ago PBS ran a series of television shows about American poetry called Voices & Visions. Each episode focused on one great American poet, and I think that name, Voices & Visions sums up nicely what poetry becomes about for each of us who write it. Voice and vision share a symbiotic relationship within the work of each writer. Vision shapes the types of poems we write. Our voice as embodied in the poems hone and develop our vision.

As we write we think through our subject matter, embody that thinking in language, and shape it with line. Graham Wallas in The Art of Thought mentions a little girl who “had the making of a poet in her” because on “being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, [she] said, ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say.’” Wallas seems to agree that poets think as they say. By giving our thoughts voice, our visions are refined and defined as our own. Poetry is an art where a solitary voice and our solitary vision fuse in the making of each poem.

The history of the lyric is filled with distinctive poems of the I; poet Gregory Orr suggests that every culture has a lyric poem because the human need to express the unknown and overcome chaos. To be able to put it into language and thus “order” feelings that overwhelm us is an inherent need. Consider how many people write when they are sad or depressed; or why when they’re ecstatic with love they write about it. There’s a reason why there are so many love poems, so many elegies, so many cliches about writers who are crazy: writing allows us to express and to edit (or, better yet) clarify exactly what we feel. Although long over, the Romantic era’s sensibility of the poetic I remains rooted, perhaps, in William Wordsworth’s notion that inspiration is found “in the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which the poet works on when he can “recollect in tranquility.”

It’s easy to think we must recollect accurately, after all novice writers are told to write what they know, but not how to leap beyond the self into the imagination. What we know only takes us to the edge of mystery. The next step is to envision what we don’t know based on the empiricism of what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, what is possible. Novice writers are taught various forms but not how to use the poem to help them find their vision, how to use it to shape their voice. It takes time, truly, to discover the intricacies of poetry, to learn the various ways it might be used, and the various ways it helps us to formulate what it is we mean to say. That’s rocky terrain. It means we have to acknowledge that we don’t know what we want to say just yet, we have to begin in uncertainty, in a world that often seems filled with talking heads who seem so certain as to what’s right and wrong. That’s why it’s good to remember that we tend to learn more from our poetic failures than our successes.

We must also remember to trust the poetic process and our ability to actually find something to say. Writing in this way allows that voice and vision are interwoven. In one of the first books of literary criticism, The Literary Mind & The Carving of Dragons, the Chinese scholar Liu Hsieh notes that poetry is a combination of fruits and flowers. By fruit he means that what is said that is sustaining, in other words: content. Flowers refers to how content is said. A good poem has lots of fruit and lots of flowers, vision and voice. [1]

Louis Simpson in his essay “Honoring Whitman” notes that “[p]oets don’t have to be philosophers on the scale of Kant—they need only have ideas that enable them to make sense of their experience and make it seem worthwhile to go on writing.” More though, we have to express our vision in a way that makes it seem worthwhile for the reader to go on reading. Just as our experiences must be transmuted to be more than just the facts, so, too, must our voices be transmuted.  It is important for poets to love language and its possibilities—the way certain syllables make our mouths move; the way certain sounds clash together while others blur into each other. The poet’s voice is a transmutation of our own, but heightened: not in diction, or in rhetoric, or in intelligence (a good poem does not drop SAT words will nilly) but in concern for the musicality and imagistic capacities of each word and in concern for the possibility of multiple meanings and ambivalences through an understanding of homonyms, connotations, and denotations.

This understanding, then, allows for some help with the “best words” part of Samuel Coleridge’s dictum that poetry is “the best words in the best order.”  Our vocabularies surely reflect our poetic voices; ditto, our syntax and diction (our word order and how our words are used) shape our voice and tone (the attitude of the speaker toward subject matter). “High” language about base things can add sarcasm done well, or it can seem pretentious done poorly. Word order helps this. But order does not only include the ordering of words in our sentences, but the ordering of words in our lines. Our sense of line—of rhythm, of pacing, of its potential to make meaning, to create emphasis or surprise—is also part of our voice. As our sense of the possibilities of poetic craft develop, so too does our poetic voice.

To put it more simply: our voice is made up of our poetic vision, our sense of poetic craft, our love for language, our subject matter and our attitude toward it. With that said, whether we use the I or not, our poetic voice is an extraordinarily intimate part of our poetic selves. What develops as we develop a voice, is the lyric I who uses a private language for public discourse.  By a private language I don’t suggest our words mean “differently” than the dictionary definitions, but rather our language is representative of our thinking, our private selves. It’s this intimacy that defines poetry as different from many pop songs, that seem to be very “public” in their sensibilities. And, when done well,  the intimacy of a poem is its strength. Bly suggests “[p]oetry is best imagined as a conversation between two beings, even if it’s a conversation between body and soul. If two beings talk inside a poem, the reader usually has a chance to get a word in edgewise.” 

What I like about this way of thinking about a poem is that such conversations require both a level of trust and a need to withhold. We trust that the poem is a safe place to discover what’s beneath our wanting to talk about a particular subject matter, and we can withhold everything that seems unnecessary or uncertain. Our poetic voices are means of exploring and defining (or constantly redefining) our visions and such explorations should also help our voices to evolve. For our readers, they become confidants in the dialogue, sharing in the experience of thinking, so that it becomes part of their thinking, too. But they have to be invited into that experience through the poem’s voice.

________

[1]These first five paragraphs are a slightly variant version of comments on voice from LaFemina’s textbook Composing Poetry: A Guide to Writing Poems and Thinking Lyrically (Kendall Hunt, 2016)


 

“Prayer For Marilyn Monroe”: brief discussion and translation

by John Samuel Tieman

A friend and student of Thomas Merton, Ernesto Cardenal is a Catholic priest in Nicaragua.  A proponent of Liberation Theology, Cardenal served as Minister Of Culture in the Sandinista government. The story goes that Rev. Cardenal wrote this poem right after reading, in an article in Time, of Marilyn Monroe’s death.

For my part, I lived in Mexico City during the 1980s. When I moved home, to St. Louis, I did this translation as a tribute to Cardenal and to Liberation Theology.

Among other considerations, in the broadest sense there is always the attempt, in all translations, to attend to the poetics of the craft, as well as the replication of the original vocabulary. In this case, there is one other consideration, one I feel is perhaps the most important. I hope my translation honors the holiness of this prayer. In our secular world, it is very easy to simply forget, frankly, that Father Cardenal offers a prayer. A prayer. A prayer in which he sees a woman exploited by capitalism in this life, and liberated by God’s love in the next. A prayer in which the poet acts as both priest to this woman and prophet to the rest of us, who closes his poem with our “Amen.”

(In 1993, this translation appeared in River Styx. In 1995, it was published in The Best Of River Styx.)

Prayer For Marilyn Monroe

by Ernesto Cardenal
trans. John Samuel Tieman

Lord
accept this girl known over the world by the name of
          Marilyn Monroe
though that was not her true name
(but You know her true name, the name of the orphan
          raped at age nine
and the name of the shopgirl who first tried
          suicide at sixteen)
and who now presents herself before You without her makeup
without her press agent
without photographs and without signing autographs
alone as an astronaut facing the dark night of deep space

While still a girl, she dreamed she was nude in a church
          (according to copy filed by Time)
before a prostrate multitude with their heads on the ground
and she had to tiptoe in order to avoid stepping on the heads.
You know our dreams better than psychiatrists.
Church, house, den, all are the security of the maternal womb
but also something more…
The heads are the admirers, clearly
(the mass of heads in the darkness beneath the beam of light).
But the temple is not the studio of 20th Century Fox.
The temple – of marble and gold – is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands with His whip in His hand
driving out the money changers of 20th Century Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.

Lord
in this world contaminated by sin and radioactivity
You do not only blame a shopgirl alone
who like any shopgirl dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was reality (Technicolor reality).
She could not but act according to the script we gave her
–the story of our life–the script was absurd.
Forgive her Lord and forgive all of us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production in which we all had a hand.
She hungered for love and we offer her tranquilizers.
For the sin of not being a saint
                                                       we recommended psychoanalysis.
Remember her growing hatred of the camera
and the hatred of make-up – she insisted on make-up for each scene –
and how her terror grew
and how her tardiness grew.

Like any shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was unreal as a dream a psychiatrist interprets and files.

Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
that when the eyes were opened
were uncovered by the spotlight
                                                       then the spotlight was turned off!
and the crew struck the two room walls (it was a set)
while the Director walked off with the script
          this scene now a take.
Or like a voyage of a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception in the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
          viewed from some slum tenement.
The movie ended without the final kiss.
They found her dead in bed, hand on the phone.
And the detectives never discovered who she was going to call.
It was
like someone who dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and hears a tape saying:  WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who is wounded by gangsters
who stretches out her hand for a disconnected phone.

Lord
whoever it is she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one at all
or Someone whose number is not in the Los Angeles Directory)
          You answer that call.

The phony cry for poetry that speaks to our time

by Djelloul Marbrook 

Give us poems that speak to today’s issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

banks do their laundry
democracy shrinks
kids laugh in the garden

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A time revives,
I gather those embers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beasts leap from my hand.
I may never return.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE GLAD HAND OF GOD POINTS BACKWARDS by Rachel Mennies Goodmanson

 photo e2331f31-5ee1-4b9c-892c-521f018b5b24_zps181382cc.jpg The Glad Hand of God
Points Backwards

Poems by
Rachel Mennies Goodmanson
Texas Tech University Press, 2014
$17.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Faith is a lineage: cultural, familial, political, a heritage in some ways inescapable. This is by no means a new idea, but that doesn’t stop Rachel Mennies Goodmanson from exploring it in active, surprising ways in her debut collection The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. These poems arrest with their images, leading readers through unexpected turns that take us from 1930s Europe to contemporary America. Along the way, Goodmanson paints and repaints the history of Judaism from her place as woman in the world. This is not self-indulgence, but a calling from Torahic mothers like Sara, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, who, Goodmanson writes, “had the hearts of the bodies we stand on tall as arks / had the shawl to wrap around my bare and sloping shoulders / had the soil to force into my fists and turn my body west.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this early admission that faith is an imperative thrust upon her by the matriarchs, many of Goodmanson’s poems explore the difficulties of faith. The morning after Kristallnacht, her great-grandfather’s Jewishness becomes an impossible garment: “A glass overcoat waits, open / on the sidewalk: sleeves of debris / for his cold arms to slide inside.” This poem, like many in the collection, thrives on the unsaid. “Today, he learns how clothes betray,” the speaker tells us, and then later, “old customers pass / kicking aside findings with a steely toe.” The tiniest details are employed to depict the vulnerability of being Jewish in Germany during the second World War; we know who these old customers are. “The Glass Overcoat” shifts from its central metaphor to the speaker, who tells us, “From him, I learned to mend.” But even she, mending in contemporary America, cannot always find comfort in her coat—her hands kept from warmth by a pocket mistakenly sewn shut.

Goodmanson follows this poem with one about her grandmother, “How Grandmother Paid Her Passage to New York.” The poem opens with a list of all the belongings Goodmanson’s matriarchs had to give up to pay the price: “One by one her mother sold her silver spoons / and heirloom bracelets; goodbye, porcelain bear, / silk blouses, patent-leather Mary Janes, the scarves…” At first it seems that Goodmanson is simply reinvesting immigrants like her grandmother with power, reminding us of lives led before they came to America with nothing to their name. But then there’s a stanza break and objects take a sinister turn as Goodmanson bids goodbye to

the neighbors, the schoolmates, the mothers dressed so well
at services, the men with businesses who stayed behind
one week, two weeks more. What stylish
objects they became: the coins from fillings
and wedding rings, the soap, the wigs, lamp
after lamp to light a thousand decorated homes.

Stated in its simplest terms, this list leaves readers to realize the meaning behind Goodmanson’s words—the grisly origins of this latter set of objects. Again, faith is made to bear an impossible price.

But faith isn’t all horror for Goodmanson. “The Jewish Woman in America, 1941,” a member of the diaspora, reminds us that the love for one’s culture and home can be retained in spite of past pain. Goodmanson allows the woman in the poem to make a fantastic nightly escape:

… alive with immigrant sweat. The scrubwoman
dreams at night in German, she flies over oceans,
first a bomb, then a boat. Das Glas covers her body,
shards glint like small stars.

The glass of Schönwetter’s overcoat becomes this woman’s dazzling dress, supernatural bauble to decorate the complexity of her homecoming. In “Grandfather Onion,” Goodmanson hints that Jewish faith is like Jewish food, “its complicated / briny odors.” Indeed, food metaphors seem to be one of the ways she can best articulate this concurrent grief and love. As she asks the reader in “Huevos for Seder,”

Who’s to say dirt never
made a meal better, some sour
blackness against the yellow sun, grit
in the gift of sustenance?

If the first four sections of Goodmanson’s book set out to depict the complicated nature of Jewish heritage, then the final section, “The Jewish Woman in America,” articulates her celebration of those complexities. We get a hint of what’s to come here in the fourth poem of the collection, “The Jewish Woman in America, 2010,” when Goodmanson writes, “My God accepts // the muddle of our lives.” This last section is all muddle—mixing of history with the present, heritage with new perspectives, and especially body with body. For the first time in the collection, female sexuality becomes a major theme. Like the speaker in “To Those Still Godless,” the Jewish woman in America is called upon to revise mythology: “you shutter your parents’ house of lessons, you write your myths / on the backs of your lusts…”

Love and sex, in this world, aren’t always beautiful, but they are a reclamation of the body. They are ways to control the unappeasable appetite from “Eating Animals Without Faces,” where “what we seek / alone at night stays hungry, always hungry” and “My Sister the Diviner,” where love is eaten along with food, “that closed mouth, / fit always, despite ourselves, to bursting.”

And so, 65 pages after her list poem “Matriarch,” Goodmanson gives us two final lists that turn all the old rules on their heads. “Rapture” meditates on peaches to give us a new idea of perfection:

                  …Peach God, rapt for carrion,
turning above us in the heavens, waiting for
us, ripening, to satisfy ourselves;
come to him pitted, come to him
finished, made rotten by
your sweet time in his sun.

Here, as with fruit, our wasting away can be a sweet thing; “the very taste / of sin” rewritten as rapture. The final poem continues to muddle the sacred and profane, telling the reader, “Our bodies // naked before men are God” and “The lungs expand with our God, God / in the scream, also the moan.” Then we zoom out, back again to the original pains and gains of faith and heritage: “The broken limb // and its setting right. God in / the remembering and the forgetting.” In the way we write and rewrite our worlds.


Grains of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk.” – Keats to Shelley

*

For me writing is the closest thing I have to religious experience. Whether it’s because, through the act, I open a trapdoor into some Jungian subconscious, or it speaks to the transcendental nature of words themselves, or it’s something else completely, I don’t know. But every writer, I think, is an ascetic in some way.

*

There are a lot of little hurts in West Branch, Michigan (and Staten Island, New York and Friendsville, Maryland, etc). Write about them.

*

We’re creatures of rhythm—from our mother’s heartbeat heard in the womb to the pulse that maintains us. Each of these rhythms is unique. This is the beat of our poems.

*

The satoric moment—the moment when clarity reveals itself—is the lyric moment we try to capture: something releases the pigeons within us so those birds ascend in a fury of wings and feathers. That moment when the birch bark is ripped asunder and the knots in the tree’s muscles are freed, that’s the moment we try—often futilely—to capture.

*

Perhaps memory is composed of an archipelago of vivid images. To write from memory means to raise them above the sea level of the mundane with as much vividness and energy that made you need to recall it.

*

Matthews: “Memory is a constant good to writing. But memory is not a system of information storage and retrieval. Memory itself is a kind of writing.”

*

Abstractions are balloons that float above our heads. Images are the strings that allow us to grasp them. Some poems are one balloon. Some are a bouquet of such balloons: colorful, delicate, and striving to rise above us.

*

At Bay deNoc College, a student asked me about the number of sirens in my work—especially, she noted, in love poems. I hadn’t noticed this before, and although sirens were often background noise to a New York childhood, I think it has to do with the fundamental need for tension in a poem. It’s important to keep in mind the proximity of despair in even our happiest moments; after all, faith is strongest only in relationship to doubt.

*

Miró: “Each grain of dust contains the soul of something marvelous. But in order to understand it, we have to recover the religious and magical sense of things that belong to primitive peoples.”

This makes me think of the ancient Talmudic scholars who believed in the spark of god which is found in all things, that remnant of creation. Sounds like the big bang, to me. Sounds like each word in a poem should be aware of what it contains.

*

Poetry is flying a kite in a hurricane.

*

In a New Yorker interview, director Mike Nichols said: “When a joke comes to you, it feels like it’s been sent by God. What it is, really, is discovering your unconscious.”

Same can be said for poetry.

*

Two touchstones of poetry: Subtlety and specificity.

*

Again Miró: “For me form is never something abstract; it is always a sign of something. It is always a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form’s sake.”

*

Sometimes formal poems remind me of the well-gridded, well-groomed streets of gated communities: ordered, clean, soul-less. Sometimes free verse poems remind me of cluttered, winding, narrow streets in some European city—the soul is there, but we’re too busy navigating the streets to experience it. Both ways of founding a poem can be poorly done. It’s not in design, but in execution, that a poem’s power is found.

*

The formal and intellectual gamesmanship of the so-called avant-garde (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, fractal poetics, etc) doesn’t interest me beyond the first glance. They are curiosities, but usually not filled with the heart I long for in poems.

*

The writer is a magician. Like a magician the result of craft is more for the audience than the poet. Metaphor is one way to make a silk scarf turn into flowers. The lyric moment gets the applause.

*

Felix Adler (Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown): “The simpler the trick, the better, so long as it contains an element of surprise.”

*

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.

*

A poem is rhyme, meter, form in service to the details/images/“narrative” of the poem, in service to the tools of lyricism and meaning, not the other way around.

*

Greg Orr: “Memory is a form of imagination.”

*

Randall Jarell: “A poet is not so much one who has had the experience so much as someone who needs to have it.”

*

Re: Plato’s two worlds: the world of being and the world of becoming—the world of things and the world of ideals. We live in the world of things, therefore poetry based purely in abstraction, in the world of ideals, takes poetry away from its inherent readership. Imagery that engages the senses that reflects the things of the world enables the reader to engage abstraction in a tangible way, much as the way the experience of sitting in a chair enables us to engage the ideal chair. Every poem, therefore, exists in both worlds simultaneously. It is, and it is becoming.

*

The poem’s page is a door between the abstract world and the quotidian world. The right words unlock the door.

*

Like the space within the atom—between electrons and the nucleus—the space between the lines of a poem needs to have gravity, pull, necessity.

*

Poems are a way of thinking, which is why Plato was frightened of the poets. It’s a way of thinking and a rhetoric that is antithetical to deductive reasoning. This is also why Hegel saw poetry as the second highest art form after philosophy.

*

Images in poems can work like buoys in a harbor: they gauge the depth of the poem’s waters through their use, how the language around them works, how connected they are to abstraction, and how they engage other images, narrative strands, language within the poem.

*

Poems are not feelings put down on paper, but may be feelings mediated by craft and the act of translating them into language.

*

Memory has no fixed points. Memories don’t take up disk space. By using memory in poetry one attempts to give memory its own particular place.

Therefore returning to a memory in another poem, a poet does not alter the memory as the writer remembering is the changed thing.

*

Pierre Bonnard “painted from memory because he wanted images that had made a connection between reality and emotion” (NPR)

*

Visual art is eternally present tense even when dealing with history. The present tense lyric attempts a similar simultaneosity. It wants to capture an event that has already happened by giving it resonance through voice which the reader then experiences in the now.

*

The importance of the image in a poem is that it helps us not only re-envision an abstraction, but also, by way of its symbolic/metaphoric weight, re-envision the object itself.

*

Consider the use of imagery in a poem as the use of talismans. The poet imbues in the image emotional/spiritual/psychic weight so that the reader can feel it. In other words the best/strongest/most memorable images in a poem are like charms, like relics, like something someone we loved left behind—a shirt, perhaps, that we keep among our thing so that the beloved remains with us even though the person has gone.

*

Poetry like magic is about making what is impossible seem possible. Or the other way around.

*

It helps to consider the poem as a lever, gestures on one side of the fulcrum have to move something on the other side of it. If not, nothing happens.

*

I read the Bible, stories, and magic books as a child. Which means I learned the sublime—and myth, story, and the power to transform the things of the world—to make things do the improbable. I also played Eye-Spy which taught me to pay attention, and sang along with the radio in the back seat of my mother’s car. Those five things are all any poet needs.

________

from Palpable Magic: Essays and Readings on Poets and Poetry
(forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin U Press, 2015)


 

Book Review: Interrobang by Jessica Piazza

 photo 0ae29e21-7c9c-4fd5-a883-936dfe2d93cc_zps60e566b9.jpg Interrobang
Poems by Jessica Piazza
Red Hen Press
$17.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Jessica Piazza’s debut collection, Interrobang, begins with fear—specifically melophobia, the fear of music. But from the poem’s first few lines, it’s clear that this fear isn’t of just any music:

They’ll tell you there are only two ways: flawed
windpipes that knock like water mains behind

thin walls or else a lovely sound like wood-
winds sanded smooth—no middle ground…

The speaker is afraid of her own voice, of “Them” telling her she’s singing badly. Their critiques are endless and contradictory: “begin // again, again, again, now overwrought, / now under-sung; not done.” How apt a conflict to incite this particular collection, a series of poems exploring personal longing through the common lenses of love and fear. (What if readers think she explored these subjects “wrongly?”) But by the end of the poem the speaker seems to shrug off these ethereal naysayers, telling us: “Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself. / Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.” She keeps singing and her voice, once she trusts it, transcends her body and becomes a natural element. We breathe a sigh of relief; we’re being led by a strong, sure voice.

More than just someone of firm conviction, Piazza proves herself in this collection to be a master of form. From sonnets to pantoums to poems that create their own rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, the powder kegs Piazza offers us here have clearly been painstakingly arranged. In “Clithrophilia: love of being enclosed,” she longs for “wonders, harbored,” writing:

And I’ve ached for it all: a closet; a stall;
the crevice between your flesh and the wall.
A way to forsake this freedom I’ve heeded
too often…

Under pressure, forced to be economical with her words, Piazza employs bold images and makes riveting connections and conclusions. Each poem contains harbored wonders. The speaker in “Xenoglossophobia: fear of foreign languages,” like so many of Piazza’s speakers, directs the reader in how to process something she’s seeing. From her first description—“The background’s Brighton Beach”—to her last—“gray sea, white house, red slash that is her heart”—Piazza fleshes out a painting from sketches into full detail, shocking us by landing on the only vivid color mentioned.

We enter Piazza’s collection with the assumption that love and fear are separate entities, possible endpoints on a spectrum of human emotion. But by the book’s midpoint we reach “Phobophilia: love of fear,” a dystopia of grisly images. Piazza handles these atrocities with a surprisingly gentle touch:

The censors will reveal the body, but
black out the eyes…
                        Tomorrow, paradise.
Tomorrow, trucks idling at yellow lights
will dash, will crush the thousand hands that wave
unvoiced applause. And then: mass graves…
            Tomorrow, circuses
will drop the safety mesh, disaster checked
for falling flyers with brute prayer alone.
Though some will slip, we know the system will
be wholly good…

Here, fear and love converge like the interrobang, simultaneous interrogation and exclamation. For Piazza, they’re sometimes one and the same. And in case we miss the memo, she gives us “Eisoptrophilia” and “Eisoptrophobia”—the love and fear of mirrors—a few pages later. Fear mirrors love, and often we love the things we fear.

There’s no real equivalent “fear of love” poem (though we do get an entry on “fear of sexual love.”) Arguably, that’s because the whole book addresses a fear of love. Every poem stands as a testament to this anxiety surrounding intimacy, especially those that flesh out the romantic through-line of the collection. “People Like Us,” the first of three series of sonnets, tells the story of a failed love affair from the moment of attraction to the aftermath of separation. The speaker appeals in these poems to herself and her lover, but also to society at large:

People like us, we’re dust, we’re everywhere. We lie
in spaces between places praying madly for
each other, staying mad at one another…
                        Chasing careless fathers or
neglectful mothers…

For Piazza’s speaker, love is a series of failures repeated time and time again with new subjects for our affection. It’s a futile search to fill an emptiness that has always existed, tied up in a fear of our inheritance—we get “Patroiophobia” later. To explore the depths of love and loss, she depicts tragic characters like the mother in “Pediophilia: love of dolls.” Loss is marked immediately: “The week her daughter died, the room her girl / had occupied became a home for dolls. / The first an angel… It looked like her.” There’s unspeakable pain here, a frightening illustration of the lengths we’ll go to memorialize love in our lives.

But life isn’t always lived in these extreme moments, and Piazza chooses to end her collection with a return to unadorned reality. “What I Hold” begins with its own answer: “a glint—an intimation of what gleams.” The speaker resorts again to a description of her surroundings, but this time her words are almost clinical:

The birds I hear don’t sound like opera, not
like flutes or piccolos at play. They sound
like birds. Sometimes the birds are all I’ve got.

We wind through these sonnets past attempts at forging meaning from moments that “amount / to nothing but a blink over the lifetime of the eye.” “I’m not a girl who has epiphanies,” the speaker tells us before launching into a story of her meeting of a tired woman who begs for a ride home. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say that Piazza comes again to that eternal conflict—choose love, or choose fear? An impossible question, perhaps, but one that winds up central to her self-perception. Beneath its possibilities exists a clue toward the things we hold inside us:

And maybe to this day that choice still seems
like a hint, a minute’s inkling of what gleams.


Book Review: Riceland by C.L. Bledsoe

 photo 3d22af97-93e8-4d69-a85e-1a7ac9ef0a72_zps4b795650.jpg Riceland
Poems by C.L. Bledsoe
Unbound Content, 2013
$15.00

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Immersive travel writer Joseph Hone wrote a million words, but I only remember a handful: ninety percent of love is tact, and ninety percent of writing is tactless. Put another way: reviewing a book I love is one thing; reviewing a book I love written by a man I love is a trickier affair. Not to sound doubly negative, but love isn’t possible without lines that mustn’t be crossed. And yet, how can I write a review without crossing every line?

C. L. Bledsoe’s fourth collection of poems is one of the most difficult acts of love any writer has attempted. In Riceland the author journeys to his youth in the Arkansas delta. These are poems of early first impressions of life, written as conversations clustering around images. Bledsoe wants to bear hug his sorrows—truly, his grief today—but first he must find the bear. His search is a marvel as he returns to a time long before he possessed the rich ironic sensibility Bledsoe is known for in his previous work and in such novels as Last Stand at Zombietown.

Although Bledsoe is quite comfortable using an elastic voice, stepping—or shuffling—into and out of his narrative threads in his previous poems, his voice in Riceland is not so preoccupied with witty touches to hold our attention. Rather, it is a curious voice. It belongs to a speaker almost ready to begin asking smaller questions in order to escape much larger ones that dominate his life such as why his mother is dying of a genetic mutation which is destroying her nervous system. That the child poet could still have wonder at the world is surely what saves him:

When I was a boy       I heard roaches sing.
It only happened at night        after Mom got sick
and went back to St. Louis. Dad worked long hours
and stayed drunk. Every day,
I came in from the rice fields
     too sweaty to sleep but too tired not to
     pressed my cheek to the wall beside the bed
     because it was cool
and they were in there                        singing.

(from “Roaches)

Even a despondent origin has its beautiful stars and Bledsoe delights in rustic shenanigans, dangerously “surfing” the silo’s grain feeder, hosing out the blood from the catfish butcher shop, identifying with his father over a pelican eating their livelihood, escaping the tub and running naked circles around his brother’s friend Crow as an eight-tracked Jimmy Page whined and wailed, and his sensing of shame when the silent pig farmer came to collect tubs of fish guts to feed his hogs. Everyone and everything around him is searching for words in an obliteration of noise. In “Cry of the Catfish” Bledsoe mutely watches—and learns—as the catfish try to speak while being skinned alive: “Even sober, / my father could skin a catfish faster than it could die. / Their little mouths worked, / but they couldn’t make a sound, / as he snatched one out of the dirty white basin, / hung it like a thief on a cross, / and cut it.” Wouldn’t anyone else have said Jesus? It’s as if Bledsoe’s beginnings aren’t even worthy of a savior, rather, he gets the savior’s crucifixion neighbor.

Hunting squirrels was next.
(…)
They barked at us sometimes;
He’d let one live long enough for that,
and I’d get a shot at it.

The author bonds with his father over many physical and bloody labors. Life here is cheap, and merciless, as we see in another poem where the young artist helps his father chain a dead calf which is stuck inside its desperate mother, then drives the tractor pulling those chains into a tree. The live mother and its dead son correspond with the live son—Bledsoe—and his dead mother. The father wrestling the both of them, the “levees in curves that made no sense to me. / Straight, young spears of rice, green and thick as hair / covered the field’s bone-white dust.” In “Bachelor Club,” Bledsoe offers a rare interpretation of what he describes: “Theirs was not a world in which scrapes / were kissed, forks were placed properly or even / used; theirs was a world in which the soft veal / of youth is eaten, the playful is stewed.”

Transcendence is one of those words that has fallen on hard times. In order to lift out of your own reality you must first have a sense of your own ground zero. The trick to flying is the launch from a sturdy place. After, it’s mostly managing air gusts and a little bit of steering before landing in a soft tumble. Most of us don’t have such a sturdy place to begin, or if we do, we refuse to acknowledge it. This is Bledsoe’s lesson in bravery, that love requires more bravery than war, even an almost tactless bravery which enables you to love the very wounds you spend your whole life cursing.

In a neighboring state which shared the same delta Bledsoe knew, the drunk galloper Faulkner wrote, “We cling to that which robs us.” Most of the time this is what we do. The larceny doesn’t have to be grand. We also cling to what steals only a little of us day by day. Rarely is someone capable of letting go of it. Rarer still to let go through an act of writing. Bledsoe has done this. Riceland is the miracle of his release.


 

The Modernists of Al Andalus

By Djelloul Marbrook

One of the consequences of adult caretakers trespassing you in boarding school is that you’re unlikely to trust the way anyone wants to teach you. So, when I discovered R.P. Blackmur all by myself in a bookstore, it felt like an act of rebellion. Fortunately I had happened on The Double Agent, his 1935 book of essays that introduced what came to be called the New Criticism. I understood none of this. I just liked what Blackmur had to say, which was that we should pay closer attention to the way things are said.

Just as haphazardly I later discovered I. A. Richards and then, much later, Blackmur’s disciple, A. Alvarez, whom I regard as sainted for the stringency with which he publishes his own poems. Years later I discovered Max Picard’s The World of Silence. With Blackmur, Richards, Alvarez and Picard, who needs the noisy Old Testament?

I was well on my way to being the kind of autodidact who can’t remember where he read anything but can’t forget having read it. Clearly not Ph.D. material. It’s hellish having a synergistic, alchemical streak imprisoned in an unannotatable mind, but everyone must endure a curse or two.

Blackmur comes to mind as I read Poems of Arab Andalusia, translated by Cola Franzen, and The Banners of the Champions. Blackmurian analysis draws me to conclude that just as the Arabs and Jews of Al Andalus gave voice and prosodic means to the troubadours, personified by William IX of Aquitaine they gave voice to such modernists as William Butler Yeats and William Carlos Williams.

Look at this:

Although you present perfect
musical soirees to entertain us
let’s get this straight:
the singers are flies,
the flute players mosquitoes
and the dancers fleas.

That’s the poem “Satire,” by Ibn Sharaf (d. 1068).

Now consider this, more than eight hundred years later:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

It’s the famous “The Red Wheelbarrow,” 1962, by William Carlos Williams.

But his poetic demeanor in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is still redolent of Edwardian speech. Robert Lax is closer to modern speech:

the angel came to him & said
I’m sorry, mac, but
we talked it over
in heaven
& you’re going
to have to live
a thousand years

Very little punctuation, as in the Williams poem, lots of attention to placement, but also some street savvy. And get the use of those ampersands, which we’ve seen pervasively on shop signs and lawyers’ doors.

Some poetry translates into certain languages better than others. C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), for example, has had a profound influence on English language poets even though he wrote in demotic Greek. Introducing Rae Dalven’s celebrated translation of Cavafy’s work in 1976, W. H. Auden remarked that Cavafy’s eschewal of metaphor and simile made his poems relatively easy to bring into modern English. For all his scholarly interests, this Greco-Alexandrian poet, with family ties to the Greek community in Istanbul, showed us how a poet who knew his history could write in an unadorned and conversational style. Cavafy showed us much more. His prosody has a classical purity that continually reminds us he was a Greek. And this purity of language and structure arrives in English in ways that have been exciting poets like Auden since they first encountered it. He was a humble civil servant who never published a book of poems in his lifetime. Instead, he circulated poems among a small circle of friends, preferring to reserve his energies for his poems.

Modernism isn’t just language, it’s sensibility, and the distance between the medieval poets of Al Andalus and Robert Lax is closed in an instant once you savor the directitude of those Andalusian poets. You see that, much as they loved the Quadalquiver Valley and the caliph’s garden at Al Zahra, they would have made themselves at home in Marin County or the Hudson Valley.

A great deal of fancy language was spoken and written in the centuries between medieval Al Andalus and William Butler Yeats, but modernism always depends on what needs to be modernized. Modernist poetry doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Andalusians were opening new periods in medicine, mathematics, horticulture, translation, finance and many other disciplines. Like their lancers before them in Provence, they were moving fast. And the modernists of the 20th Century were leaping forward in science, psychology, medicine, weaponology and other fields.

In both periods the poetry expresses a mercurial terseness, an economy of line and intellect, demotic speech and a sure handedness. But parallels will mislead if drawn too persuasively. The Andalusians were accustomed to bloodshed within and along their frontiers, but it was nothing like the carnage of the 20th Century. Yeats, with whom English language modernism may be said to have begun, witnessed the breathtaking nihilism of World War I and lived long enough to be certain worse was yet to come. (I think it needs to be said that modernist poetry was stirring in France even earlier, and the British, if not the North Americans, were certainly aware of it.)

We know that the Arabs who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, named for one of their generals, Tariq, spoke much the same language as the Arabs who had burst out of Arabia less than a century earlier under the spell of the heavenly language of the Qur’an.

We know our language is studded with Arabic words—perhaps half the stars in the heavens have Arabic names. And we know that poetry was so meaningful to them that it’s impossible to imagine any of their achievements in militarism, in medicine, chemistry, science or mathematics without poetry. Their approach to poetry was identical to their approach to chemistry. They made no distinction between poetry and everyday life. They saw no conflict between hermeticism and scientific progress, the way we in the West do today. Their constructs were more fluid and elegant than ours, and we have no basis for believing their synergistic approach impeded them.

In spite of C.P. Cavafy’s strophic inclinations, I see clear Andalusian traces in his work. The simplicity of speech, the use of vernacular, the quickness of sensibility—all Andalusian traits. And in Yeats, in spite of the Gaelic overtones, there is the voice of the troubadour, the impulse to speak of simple things, ordinary things, which is so much the modernist signature.

The Arabs—also called Moors and Saracens—who invaded Iberia and fashioned first a magical caliphate at Cordoba and later memorable taifas (kingdoms) throughout Al Andalus—were known for their advanced steel weapons, light mail, light cavalry, long lances and speed, and all these aspects of their presence show up in their poetry.

But there is something else—flashing briefly here in Ibn Sharaf and William Carlos Williams—a sense of wonderment. These Arabs profoundly appreciated their Al Andalus, their garden, as Williams humbly appreciated his red wheelbarrow.

Perhaps even more interesting, while Al Andalus nurtured this modernist respect for small and ordinary things—a sunlit stream compared to a white hand loosening a green robe, for example—this civilization also savored and developed the most cosmic of ideas: higher mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, physics, for example.

It was the Normans among all the Europeans who most appreciated the great heritage that the Arabs would leave Europe. Roger of Palermo wrote to his cousin, Henri Plantagenet, that Arab mathematicians from Iberia could probably help him design a banking system: thus the British exchequer. The Normans, who had been demonized themselves, knew better than to demonize the Saracens. Instead they used them and their advances for their own purposes.

The Franks, to whom the troubadour tradition passed intact and who vastly enhanced it, did not learn from the Saracens as readily. At Tours they celebrated a great victory over the Saracens, a tidal victory, if we are to believe the Christian historians, failing to note that the Saracens did not have the logical wherewithal or even the human resources to occupy and rule the Frankish lands. They were doing what they did best with such limited resources: they raided and looted. But the Franks regarded them as a demonic tsunami, and this demonization prevented them from deriving benefits from their contacts with the Saracens. This failure of vision was soon to be redressed by Charlemagne, renowned for his correspondence with Haroun al Rashid, the caliph in Baghdad.

An intriguing historic aside to this is that at the time there was an Umayyad caliph in Cordoba presiding over a civilization that was just as grand and memorable as Haroun’s—and much closer to Charlemagne. But the Abbasid Haroun and the Umayyads of Iberia were on very bad terms, and the Umayyads were a much greater threat to the Franks than Haroun.

Cola Franzen in 1989 translated into English the Spanish versions of the Arab poems by Emilio Garcia Gomez, a Spanish Arabist who had acquired a large body of Arab Andalusian poetry while in Egypt in 1927. There are undoubtedly African, Jewish and Berber poets in her City Lights book, Poems of Arab Andalusia, but they were all writing in Arabic, just as today many African and Berber writers work in French and English. Her book was published fourteen years after Juan Carlos I succeeded General Francisco Franco in Spain. This is significant, because one of Juan Carlos’ first official acts was to apologize to world Jewry for—and rescind—the brutal 1492 order of Isabella and Ferdinand that expelled Muslims and Jews from Spain. But he has assiduously avoided opportunities to make similar amends to Muslims in whose hospitable realm a Jewish renaissance flowered. This half-baked ecumenism is redolent of Christian triumphalism and has not gone unnoticed by Muslims or by Spaniards who respect their Moorish past.

The Internet search engines yield many references to Juan Carlos’s gesture, but there are few mentions of his breathtaking failure to redress wrongs done to the Muslims. The rationale for the king’s intellectually insupportable position is, predictably, that the Muslims were invaders. So were the Visigoths and the Romans and Carthaginians before them. Moreover, the Jews probably welcomed the Muslims. It is dishonorable to ask the Muslim world to ignore this tortured intolerance, particularly as it dismisses a famously tolerant Muslim era.

Franco had worked hard to separate the Spanish from their Moorish heritage, much to the detriment of Spanish culture and hence to Western culture. Franco’s thought police bedeviled the poets of the Generation of 27, who were trying to recover the suppressed glories of the Convivencia in Arab Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in harmony and prosperity, instituted by Abdar Rahman ibn Mu’awiya I during his thirty-year reign beginning in 756. But under Juan Carlos the outlines of the Convivencia under Arab rule began to reappear, and Spain recognized that Al Andalus belonged to it and it would forever belong to Al Andalus.

Today in the New World, even in the American Southwest and California, Arab Andalusian architecture and landscaping is manifest if unrecognized. It was appropriate that a California publisher, City Lights, should remind the New World how indebted it is to Arab Andalusia.

In 1989, the same year of Franzen’s little volume, also appeared The Banners of the Champions: An Anthology of Medieval Arabic Poetry From Andalusia and Beyond. This hard-to-find and important book by Ibn Said al Maghribi, translated by James A. Bellamy and Patricia Owen Steiner, connects the Arab east and west. There was a tradition among Arab tribes of painting poems on tribal banners and conducting festive competitions of banners. Poetry competitions—not bone-crushing football or mendacious parliaments, tricky diplomatic missions, slippery language—what a magnificent model. Here is probably the true origin of the troubadour tradition.

The Arab poetry of Al Andalus reflects the elegance and confidence of overlords, for that is what the Arabs were. It will always remain difficult to sort out from Arab poetry that written by Berbers and Africans. Not so the Jews. Under Arab rule they achieved a renaissance that allowed them to equal the language of what Christians call the Old Testament. Moses de Leon wrote the Zohar, the crown jewel of the Qaballah, and the Qaballah itself emerged under the aegis of Arab Sufism.

Today pundits who speak all too knowingly of the ancient enmity between Arab and Jew conveniently or ignorantly overlook the Convivencia, during which Muslim, Jew and Christian lived in peace and startling creativity. Nothing is as it seems. Certainly both Sufis and the Qaballists would say so. Nothing is as it seems, especially history: another reason to celebrate the genius of King Juan Carlos.

Jewish poetry in the medieval Arab world—remember, if you will, there was nothing medieval about it to the Arabs, who live by a different clock—exhibits the plain speech and grittiness of a tolerated people who are nevertheless not overlords. Like Arab poetry it assumes that language doesn’t need to be dressed up. This poetry shares a common ground with today’s rap in America, with the rai of North Africa and immigrant Europe and with Arab ideas of horticulture and architecture, but it has less in common with Arab decorative art.

The Jewish poetry of Arab Spain, especially when it is not Qaballistic, is bold, in your face, sometimes raunchy, and determined to speak plainly, testifying not only testament to the tolerance of the times but also to the confidence of medieval Spanish Jewry in their ability to create a society to rival King David’s. They understood their times in a way the Christians did not. They understood they were living in the artistic and intellectual powerhouse of the era, but as a colonized people, they saw the clouds of the Reconquista gathering. They felt a darkness descending. They were to be expelled from a garden once more, a second Eden, this time along with their tolerant masters.

It’s no accident that we are rediscovering Al Andalus and the Convivencia of the Umayyad caliphate. When the respected medievalist Maria Rosa Menocal published The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown and Company, 2002) the United States—and the world—was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. People were searching for reasons why the world seemed to have been thrown back to the medieval confrontation between Islam and Christendom. We are still seeking reasons. Menocal’s description of the glories of the Convivencia were as disconcerting as they were enlightening because we realized—once more—that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we know. By “we” I mean all of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews and all the other inhabitants of the earth.

Menocal’s book challenged us at many levels. It invited us to reflect that if fundamentalism in the Muslim world, in Israel and among Jews and Christians in the United States is replicating the attitudes that drove the world into the Crusades, fundamentalism is also what brought down the Convivencia.

A worthy successor to The Banners of the Champions and Poems of Arab Andalusia is The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492. It isn’t my intention to review any of these books, but merely to point out not only a heartening revival of interest in Arab Spain but its startling connection across the disciplines to our own age. Poetry is only one of these disciplines, worth singling out, I think, because it would be useful for modern poets to savor their indebtedness to the Arabs of Iberia.


 

Book Review: Discontinued Township Road
by Abby Chew

 photo 19302376-8280-41f1-879a-b20741beaab5_zps3f460283.jpg Discontinued Township Roads
Poems by Abby Chew
Word Poetry, 2013
$18.00

 

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

“The Earth doesn’t bleed the way we do. / It’s a different skin. I like knowing — blood flows all ways,” writes Abby Chew in Discontinued Township Roads. Chew’s speaker walks down awestruck, brutal, and unforgiving roads, a country human in its sufferings, but severe in its inexplicability.The community that surrounds such an environment shifts, similarly, between human compassion and rigidness, as if to suggest, eventually, we become what surrounds us.

In “Rooftop,” Sister absorbs the natural world. She learns harmonica for the bats, envious of their movements, their bodies. The speaker watches Sister’s ritual, reveals,

Late in March, late at night,
she crawls out on the porch roof
to sigh and breathe them in.
They fly like flapping black gloves
when she reaches out her left hand
hoping she might become
part of the way the movement
moves.

Here, Chew attributes animalistic qualities to Sister and human qualities to the bats. Sister “crawls” to the porch, while the bats flap like “black gloves.” The image of the gloves sits above “hand” on the following line. This almost physical covering of Sister’s hand by the glove mimics her internal shift.

Sister’s bat experience seems a result of isolation a need for connection, but Chew balances these metaphysical desires with the practical. In “Chicken Coop” the speaker comments on the stupidity of hens and their willingness for Sister to take their eggs. Even though the speaker is addressing the audience, the lines are equally a self reminder, an acknowledgement that in spite of these facts, it’s important to be human.

Of course their brains
are peanuts. Of course. But you
need to know how to frame their house.

Make it warm. Make it tight. Maybe
paint it yellow. Heat the water
in January, when you think your own fingers
may shatter from wind. Don’t tell
them where you’re going when you leave.

Chew’s repetition of “of course,” paired with the compassionate instructions shows the conflict that comes from living in this environment. On one hand, practicality is part of living on the land. On the other hand, there exists a desire for comfort, for giving, one that even a January wind can’t shatter.

The poems in the collection stand direct as corn, bold and seemingly obvious. Chew’s sentences are short, definitive in their breaks and her word choice. Unlike most nature or placed-based poetry, Chew avoids an indulgence in sentimentality, an ode-like explanation of how the natural world invades the psyche. That doesn’t mean there isn’t emotion in the collection. It means that Chew doesn’t overwrite; she lets the Earth have the power.

Arguably the most power comes from “Back Two.” It begins with an address to the audience, “Jog down this road and you won’t see the culvert / once spattered with blood where our dog / killed a ground hog.” The separation between the speaker and the audience, however, makes all the difference in this poem. The following lines read:

You might, if you jog in late fall or winter…
…see the skeletons of three deer—
big bucks, not much antlered—poached and left to rot…

I stepped knee-deep into the belly of one when I jumped…
…The stink and the slap of flesh,
the sudden buzz of flies tapping my half-closed eyes.
That kind of landing can ruin you, I know for sure.

The audience jogs and sees water. The speaker remembers a violent scene. How quick we are to appreciate what is beautiful, to adore a one-sided nature.

As Chew’s collection progresses, the environment’s grittiness yields maturity within the characters. The poems grow into a quiet resolve, a bow to what cannot be controlled. In “Storm” Chew uses weather as a metaphor for a relationship. The Earth becomes a language to the speaker, as she says,

 We salvage what we can.

The sky doesn’t ask if we want our arms
slick with sweat…

July doesn’t ask what we desire.
It only creeps up over the hill each morning,
brings us what we deserve.

Although Chew often creates a distance between the poem and the audience through her use of the second person, there remains a sense of community. Perhaps a “discontinued,” extreme environment renders connection, for “We’re put together inside our bones, and we’re put together with each other, in this place.”


Book Review: Little Heretic by Gerry LaFemina

 photo a39964f9-26c8-4266-a137-be56844b36bf_zpsb59de7a0.jpg Little Heretic
Poems by Gerry LaFemina
Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2014
$18.00

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

 

Oh how desire can make us feel/ like gods and beasts both…

—“Papyrus”

I think it’s generally true that good poetry is born of obsession: an unavoidable exploration of those subjects, people, and memories that we writers can’t turn away from. If poetry is, at least sometimes, an exploration of the self, then obsession is that concentrated site where the self most exists to be interpreted. In Little Heretic, Gerry LaFemina’s speaker has more than enough obsessions to go around: latent Catholicism, time and history, past lovers, punk rock, New York City. LaFemina plumbs the depths of these essential ingredients to find what’s really lurking underneath—morality, mortality and (just maybe) forgiveness.

What I love most about this collection is that it doesn’t let up. No matter where the reader turns, Catholicism, or religion in general, is waiting. It’s found in all the obvious places: the churchyard, the confessional, a bar called St. Dymphna’s. But LaFemina’s New York City is also one where “the honking taxis cry Ho- / sana! Hosana!” and a booth at the adult video arcade is a “little cubicle… the size of a confessional.” LaFemina’s organic comparisons, his inability to turn from worship as a broader point of reference, highlight this speaker’s obsessive tendencies—in fact, all of our obsessive tendencies. Punk rock gets worshipped, too, (think of the pigeons “like rock kids/ before the stage, [bustling]/ with avian wisdom”) along with youth and old lovers. As a former Catholic, this deifying of the everyday makes total sense to me. Spend your formative years with all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Mass and everything from then on seems instilled with that same gravity.

But Little Heretic isn’t just for lapsed Catholics and those who remember CBGB (I don’t, and I still “got” these poems). LaFemina’s ruminations bridge gaps in content knowledge by employing familiar patterns of thought. “So much of Manhattan/ remains the same despite what’s changed,” the speaker tells us in “Another Blues in E Minor.” Who among us doesn’t live in this dual world of memory and The Now, constantly orienting and re-orienting ourselves against our surroundings both immediate and remembered?

So many mornings I re-entered the world
as sunlight filled the filthy windows, & watched
dust motes swirl
                              like poltergeists of longing.
Nothing will drive them away.

—“On Hearing David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’”

Hearing a Bowie song immediately plunges the speaker into memory, eventually bringing him to this thought of a common past experience. But note the verbs. For four lines we’re situated firmly, or so we think, in the past. Then, suddenly, those dust motes are still in the room before us, choking the air. And are the dust motes the “them,” really, or does “them” refer to the poltergeists of longing? Or memories? Obsessions? For LaFemina, as for most of us, time is one big simultaneous experience—memory is evoked in the present and every moment is already the past. This reality of the nature of time is what allows LaFemina to bring in icons of our collective and his personal history, whether rain dancers from the Reconstruction or high school friends, without jarring his reader.

Alongside memory enters another human constant: guilt. Or, the way LaFemina spins it (which I prefer), the desire for penance. Even LaFemina’s skeptical speaker who often speaks against the idea of penance is aware of some social cost, even one that’s self-inflicted, assigned to bad behavior:

I place a ten dollar bill in the mission box
a homeless friar holds out. Brother, can you ….
Like a pigeon, he rocks his head & bestows
a blessing on me

so I give him another ten bucks, unworthy.
This is the cost to walk with one’s sins
even among the city’s blessed anonymity.

—“Dim Sum”

LaFemina’s speaker isn’t afraid to have complicated feelings about his own self-worth throughout these poems. Some days he wants to be a superhero, others he’s sure he is utterly depraved. But all in all, he’s working toward acceptance. Sound familiar?

One thing that seems to make that acceptance easier is the speaker’s (arguably impossible) striving for objectivity. He almost apologizes in “The Poet at 37,” admitting, “such melodrama was never a strength of mine.” Despite the constant overlay of God and punk, there are moments when this voice tries to articulate its experiences in only the realest way possible.

I wasn’t a new man, not even close,
wasn’t in love, wasn’t anything special—all us pedestrians
trying in vain to shelter ourselves from the gossip wind,
from the tendrils of precipitation, from the inevitable
walk back to apartments that waited like the dull expressions of parents
we’d escaped. She didn’t change my life & I didn’t change hers.
It took only 17 years to figure this out, but it’s one thing I’m certain of.

—“The Inherent Shortcomings of Metaphor”

Such simple declarations, but so much weight. I’d be remiss in not adding that the oomph here is in part due to the fact that LaFemina has planted his flag, in this poem especially, as King of Enjambment. Regardless, in this moment the speaker finally sloughs off that coat of drama his obsessions wear so comfortably for the feeling of skin on skin. The ability to truly appreciate past experience, to really move toward forgiving ourselves, seems to come with the stripping away of nostalgia. The lessons emerge only when we see things as they truly were.

Despite that, LaFemina chooses to end the collection with a quiet poem admitting that even the simplest of our experiences can be interpreted in countless ways. His list poem, “Daybreak,” characterizes light with a shifting series of labels and qualities, all of which seem wholly accurate. Light is sacred, we think, but yes, also, light is quotidian. We are all simultaneously zealots and heretics, concurrently gods and beasts. And maybe we’ll never understand it all. Or maybe we will. But probably all that’s guaranteed is that we’ll keep trying. Maybe all life of life is just “light [we’d] walk into if [we] could.” If that’s the case, I’d hope to have Gerry LaFemina as a companion on that bustling sidewalk.


Book Review: Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014 by David Mason

 photo 5fa0bad3-dc00-4304-8a22-1ba89fb3e676_zpsa53b96a0.jpg Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014
Poems by David Mason
Red Hen Press, 2014
$18.95


Reviewed by Jason Barry

On a breezy evening in early April, Colorado’s Poet Laureate David Mason gave a reading from his latest collection, Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, at Boulder’s Innisfree Bookstore and Café. During a question and answer session after the reading, a member of the audience asked Mason what inspires his writing the most, he responded “So much stands between us and our experience of nature, and one of the reasons I write poems is to discover the texture of the world again.”

Sea Salt is a collection of work devoted to that rediscovery of nature. It’s a lyrical celebration of the earth’s dynamic textures: the crash of an ocean wave on the shore, the calming trickle of an alpine creek at night, that peculiar scent of fescue in the valleys or those gleaming, seductive eyes of a fox beneath the pines. Mason’s poems are earthy, and the best in this collection take the sea or river as their subject matter and setting. Several of the pieces in the volume are written in formal meter—iambic as the preferred metric—and the trapeze repetition is well-suited for Mason’s water motifs and rhythmic investigations. The poems we have in this collection are measured and mature (in both the formal and emotional sense); they are reflective and wise, and they give us a glimpse of a poet who is concerned with the earth and the lessons it has to teach us about living and dying.

In his expansive and beautifully composed sonnet, “Another Thing,” Mason invites us to join him on a trip beneath the sea, to explore the ocean’s dangerous tides and (if we’re lucky) to wash-up, changed but unbroken, upon the sweeping shore.

Like fossil shells embedded in a stone,
you are an absence, rimmed calligraphy,
a mouthing out of silence, a way to see
beyond the bedroom where you lie alone.
So why not be the vast, antipodal cloud
you soloed under, riven by cold gales?
And why not be the song of diving whales,
why not the plosive surf below the road?

The others are one thing. They know they are.
One compass needle. They have found their way
and navigate by perfect cynosure.
Go wreck yourself once more against the day
and wash up like a bottle on the shore,
lucidity and salt in all you say.

What I love about this piece is its call for renewal, and the way it invites us to transform our lives for the better, even if we must act in solitary (‘solo’), unconventional (‘antipodal’) and perhaps even radical ways. In these lines, the author’s voice is both firm and encouraging; it points to—or perhaps reinforces—a course of action that is known to us but might have been forgotten. It’s a call to adventure and bold decision-making, and it invokes the notion that the way toward a flourishing and creative life might require us to wade neck-deep into swift currents, to risk what we are now for what we might become. This poem serves as a reminder (an antipodal compass) to stick to the difficult path if it’s authentic, to not become complacent in living a muted or dull life shaped by the influence of others who cannot see the changing clouds above them.

In his longer poem “Let it Go,” Mason’s lyrical subject is the Earth, and he address it as though he were speaking to a friend or a close (though sometimes difficult) acquaintance. Here is an excerpt toward the end of the piece:

I’m shedding what I own, or trying to,
walking down the path of blooming dryad
and the pitch of pines, until I hear the stream
below me in the canyon, below the road,
below the traffic of ambition and denial,
the unclear water running to the sea,
the stream, dear Earth, between my love and me.

Like “Another Thing,” this poem calls to mind the ideas of navigation, paths, and water both upon and beneath the earth’s surface. Note the lines about the stream below the canyon and the road, its “unclear” and murky qualities. You’ll notice here the imagery that parallels two lines from the preceding poem: “And why not be the song of diving whales, / why not the plosive surf below the road?” Both poems are concerned not only with moving surface water, but also with the depths: the streams and plosive surf suggest the change and transformation that is inherent to all things liquid, while the diving whales lead us to think about psychological, subterranean currents that move the author’s life—along with his lover’s—and keep them grounded to and connected with the earth. There is also a sense here that water shapes and carves, that it leaves canyons and markings on everything it touches.

And in the poem, “River Days,” we are reminded again of the water’s powerful impression:

You stared into the canyoned years,
millions of them, where the water-saw
lowered the river bed so far
that we could only gape, our minds leaping.
We must mean what we say,

the way the gorge reveals its earliest foldings,
the way it waits for us to learn the ground
we walk upon, cousin to the cold and
distant planets, the way it watches us
by being seen and partly understood.

The gorge reveals its many layers to us, shows itself in a lucid and exposed way, unveils the earth’s composite nature even though we don’t fully understand it and, indeed, have not been there to witness its many transformations. In the same way that the lines on the face of an elderly person reveal a history of experience, of difficulty and overcoming, of living, so too does the canyon reveal the struggles of the earth with water, with changes of the seasons and the impact of floods and drought. If we allow the fluidity of water into our lives, Mason has us thinking, then we should be prepared to have its history engrained into our nature as well.

David Mason is a writer who’s preoccupied with water and the lessons it provides to a thoughtful, reflective person. Although there are poems in Sea Salt that take on a different subject matter at the surface, such as the changing relationship between the author and his father, or the lives of the author’s friends, we sense that these poems too are concerned with transformation and aging, with loving and loss, and thus they are fluid and also about water. Sea Salt is a heartfelt and touching collection of exquisitely crafted poems, and Mason succeeds admirably in putting the reader in touch with the textures of the earth and its animals, its elements and raw power, and for this he should be applauded.
______

David Mason is the Poet Laureate of Colorado. His books of poems include The Buried Houses (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), The Country I Remember (winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award), and Arrivals. His verse-novel, Ludlow, won the Colorado Book Award in 2007, and was named Best Poetry Book of the year by the Contemporary Poetry Review and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. It was also featured on the PBS NewsHour. Mason is the author of an essay collection, The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, and a memoir, News from the Village, which appeared in 2010. A new collection of essays, Two Minds of a Western Poet, followed in 2011. He recently won the Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize for the development of a new libretto. A former Fulbright fellow to Greece, he lives near the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and teaches at Colorado College.


 

Book Review: The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

 photo 31a43176-0499-4db7-9147-29ab68b8308e_zpsce473e38.jpg The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog
Poems by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

“A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing,” said Gertrude Stein. Alicia Suskin Ostriker borrows those words for the epigraph of her newest poetry collection The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. They are, in fact, the perfect words to frame a collection that creates for readers an unlikely chorus of three voices searching for identity and examining the world around them. Taken together, these three characters weave a multicolored tapestry of memory, philosophy, and desire to remind us that our perceptions of life are what define our experience.

While reading Ostriker’s poems, the multiplicity of voices and the use of flower as persona struck me as vaguely familiar. About halfway through the book, I realized it is somewhat in conversation with Louise Glück’s collection from 1991, The Wild Iris. In that book, Glück inhabits voices that are natural (in the form of wildflowers), human, and divine to explore the concepts of faith and mortality. While the two collections share some structural similarities, it’s clear that Ostriker’s project is embarking on a new journey. For one, her diction isn’t as formal or somber as Glück’s. As Tony Hoagland writes of the voice in her poems, “Ostriker has devised a style that is offhand-seeming, a voice that is effortlessly concise.” It’s this voice that allows readers to easily engage with Ostriker’s poems and inhabit the minds of her three distinct characters.

Another good word for this voice might be “unassuming.” Ostriker’s characters, even in their starkest pronouncements, never take on the arrogance of certainty. They simply present readers with their perspective on life. All the while, though, their voices retain great power. The best example of this comes in “The Outsiders,” a poem in which each character reflects on her marginalized status:

Actually I am at the epicenter
of your subconscious
I am the witch
the mother
the excreted
the marginal one said the old woman
I’m the damned dark of the moon

Have you noticed
poets don’t write poetry
about flowers
these days
so what said the tulip
lightly tossing her blossom
the bees dig us

The characters own their history here—even the Dog stands among a pack, all of the canines “remembering when we were wolves… every single one of us/ unleashed.” Ostriker uses the Old Woman to recall, like Sexton and Plath before her, various mythologies of women throughout history—the witch, the Madonna, the whore. The Tulip takes a stab at the poetic canon, and the Dog at human civilization. It is out of this tension between one’s unstoppable power and the limits imposed by society that these voices are born.

“The Outsiders” might very well speak directly to the ideas that Ostriker only nods at throughout the rest of the collection. Structurally, we’re always aware that no one voice is more important than the others. Each poem is broken into three stanzas—one for each character—and each stanza is comprised of the same number of lines. The lack of punctuation allows each voice to flow smoothly into the next, exposing to readers a constant stream of thought as well as multi-layered language. Sometimes a poem passes by in a moment, sometimes the stanzas stretch across pages, but in each case the trio is given an equal opportunity to explore various subjects and impart their wisdom. These poems don’t shy away from heavy subject matter—God, family, death, and politics are all considered, among other topics. By each poem’s end, the reader finds herself unconsciously absorbing the words each speaker orates. This, Ostriker seems to say, is how identity and ideas are created. We all are an accumulation of the stories we hear and the lessons we’re taught.

That accumulation is what allows for the many-ness in Stein’s epigraph. Or, as Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Throughout the book, the Old Woman is described as impure, proletarian, literary, a mother, a drunk, and naked. The Tulip is red, purple, dark, throaty, Biblical, and naturally selected. The Dog is philosophical, frightened, nostalgic, a mongrel, vain, and imbued with divinity. As each poem begins, the reader is unaware what new facets of identity will be held, sparkling, against the light. But by the end, each new layer makes perfect sense. “Yes,” we think as we read, “I, too, contain multitudes.”

So it’s true that this is not a book of poetry suited to a reader asking for answers. But, then again, what good book of poetry is? Ostriker is content to dive into a messy excavation of life, comfortable to question even her own conclusions. Take, for example, these lines from “Many Lives:”

Many lives said the old woman
the grains of sand add up
I have been a housefly and a queen

Do you even know what love is
said the dog and are you sure
the grains of sand add up

We open with a claim and end with a question that surely exists in the reader’s mind—Do those grains of sand add up? These voices aren’t here to grant us a final answer. Due to the book’s unpunctuated style, we get that line “the grains of sand add up” twice without embellishment. No period, no question mark. How will we choose to read it? The question at the end is nearly unavoidable, but the reader might elect to make it a declarative statement. Or she might side with the Dog, deciding to leave the whole discussion open-ended. Inevitably, the reader’s interaction with the poem is as necessary an ingredient to meaning as the words on the page. She is as much a free agent as each of the three characters.

This existential freedom, I’d argue, is what Ostriker celebrates. Our ability to simultaneously inhabit our many selves, to pursue the immediate desire. It’s on that note that the collection ends, though without a strong sense of finality. The quest for understanding will extend, for characters and reader alike, beyond these pages. Even so, Ostriker gives the Dog a final say in “Summertime,” an exultation of revelry:

Finally they have taken me
to the shore it is the happiest
day of my life says the wet dog
oh those seagulls

______

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is one of America’s premier poets and critics. She is the author of fifteen poetry collections, including The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979–2011; The Book of Seventy; The Mother/Child Papers; No Heaven; the volcano sequence; and The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968–1998, as well as several books on the Bible. She has received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. Ostriker is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.


 

 

Book Review: Bloom in Reverse by Teresa Leo

 photo 7766eaff-4e13-4cef-9af6-27e93f71bc2e_zps099c2122.jpg Bloom in Reverse
Poems by Teresa Leo
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

One of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical musings stands as such: it is not how we bring ourselves to understand the world, but how the world comes to be understood by us. In the aftermath of a friend’s suicide, Teresa Leo’s speaker mourns, while attempting, out of forced necessity, to find life within death. The poems move like children led by an unknown hand through a dark hallway—trusting, yet questioning. In Bloom in Reverse, Leo reveals that healing comes from the world pulling forward, matched with our ability to follow, to receive a hand, regardless of our understanding.

Broken into four sections, Bloom in Reverse begins at an end. While Leo chronicles the death of a friend’s suicide, she simultaneously chronicles the life of her speaker, recovering from this suicide. In the first section, titled “No,” the speaker grapples with the full-body consumption of loss. Each poem tunnels a hole, the small ring of light fading, in order to get closer to what’s gone. Through this cave-in, we learn of both the friend and speaker’s “troubled room,” synonymous, it seems, for ‘troubled lives.’ The friend’s room is described as

collapsed,
taking with them the floor, the staircase,
and finally the house; every last thing
that she wanted to say was gone

Yet, the speaker, too, collapses. She internalizes her friend’s death, for “The troubled room is now my head…” The final poem in the section, “After Twelve Months, Someone Tells Me It’s Time To Join The Living,” moves towards recovery. The pace of the poem quickens, Leo’s doesn’t use a period until the fourteenth stanza. It’s as if the sheer thought of moving on causes anxiety. After the period comes a shift in pace, the rush leveling. The poem ends on a realization, one that speaks towards the entire section:

because maybe it’s exactly the thing

we can’t release that keeps us
on this side, among the living.

Leo treats nature as a separate entity, a character within the collection. The speaker calls upon the natural world in an attempt to understand death. In “I Have Drinks With My Dead Friend’s Ex-Boyfriend,” both search for their lost friend in natural images:

a bird that veers off, breaks formation

from the flock, a branch heavy with ice
that can no longer hold

and snaps from the tree…

When these signs fail to ebb their missing, they find comfort in “what can be conjured between us.” Healing comes from intimate interactions, instead of searching for symbols. This concept is echoed in one of the strongest poems:“Your Rose Bush,” which comes from the second section, “Wolves in Shells.” The speaker kills her friend’s roses, for “these particular roses always bloomed/and died the same day…”. Instead of finding her friend re-incarnated within nature, the speaker finds her own grief:

and so your rose bush is not—
not here to invoke or provoke,

not here to dismember the mind,
no false hope, a bloom in reverse,

just another way to say
I disremember you.

Here is the Kantian moment; the speaker finally rejects nature as a symbol. The realization: “I disremember you.” The heavy reliance on nature limits the speaker’s ability to heal, for she is filled with “false hope.” The end of the rose bushes symbolizes the end of denial. Now, the speaker is able to face the terrible concreteness of death. Leo’s title, Bloom in Reverse, references this acceptance. From here on out, the speaker chronicles her own “bloom in reverse.” Through the thorns, a second life begins.

The final two sections, “Hidden Wings” and “Passenger” depict the speaker’s metaphorical journey back from the dead. The speaker reaches her most content, healed moment by the final piece, “Advice For A Dying Fern.” The poem describes the treatment of a dying fern plant,
“ripped from pots,/ stuffed in garbage bags,/left to decompose/in corners of the house…” An “advice poem,” Leo urges,

…but check—

under the dying leaves,
among dirt and bound-up roots,

there still may be fiddleheads…

Here, the couplets represent the two lives: the speaker and her lost friend. Further, Leo reaches out, asks her readers to be made aware of those struggling with depression and self-harm, to remember, even still, “the living ready to burst/through the dead.”
______

Teresa Leo is the author of the poetry collection The Halo Rule, which won the Elixir Press Editors’ Prize. She is the recipient of a Pew fellowship, a Leeway Foundation grant, two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowships, and the Richard Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She serves on the board of Musehouse, a center for the literary arts in Philadelphia, and works at the University of Pennsylvania.


 

Book Review: Starlight Taxi by Roy Bentley

 photo 01454a03-d9f2-4180-a748-542dd1e34316_zps2440d756.jpg Starlight Taxi
Poems by Roy Bentley
Lynx House Press, 2013
$15.95

Reviewed by Jason Barry

“The hardest part is when someone tells you
about America and defines promise as hope,
and a love for the truth pushes you to give
the raised middle finger to what you hear.
The hardest part is living without hope.”

– Roy Bentley, from the poem “Converters”

It’s easy to see why Bentley’s work has gained such traction in contemporary poetry outlets: his poems are technically proficient but never pedantic; they are hard-hitting and serious, subtle and philosophical. As William Heyen has written in the jacket blurb, “I know of no other poet this percussive, this relentless, this unswerving . . . His [Bentley’s] dedication to even debilitating truth will not allow him to flinch.”

Like the recent work of Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip Levine, Roy Bentley’s Starlight Taxi moves the reader—by way of skilled metaphor and storytelling—to the grittier, more difficult aspects of American living: a career that didn’t work out as planned, the charcoal-filled lungs of coal miners, the seared fingertips of steel workers, various dropping offs and burning outs, alcoholism, and child abuse. Each of these themes and subjects in Bentley’s latest book could warrant pages of critical discussion, but I’d like to focus here on only three of them—the ones I take to be most pivotal to the core of his book, and indeed most central to getting at the heart of the author’s poetic story: memory, violence, and acceptance.

Memory is perhaps the most important recurrent theme in Starlight Taxi, and several of the poems are grounded explicitly in it. These are reflections of an earlier time: Dayton Ohio in 1960, for example, or Christmas in the late fifties. They tell of the author’s life in the Midwest (and in Florida and Appalachia) and they are concerned primarily with history, both personal and public, and how narrative shapes the course of what’s remembered and what’s forgotten.

In “Zombie Apocalypse,” Bentley describes a scene in a nursing home. His mother and her friend, Dorothy, are residents of the home. When Bentley gives his mother a box of chocolates during a visit, the following exchange occurs:

I hand her a box she opens with help. Chocolates.

When she finishes, she closes the box, hands it back.
asks, Why are you here, Billy? I’m not Billy. A nurse
says she’s been striking attendants. Kicking, hitting
other residents. Around every exhausted official word
a wheel of better times spins, though it’s slowing down.
I say, I’m sorry to hear that and take my mother’s arm.
And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—

but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.
Dorothy is beside us, telling my mother the world
is ending. For them, it is. And the three of us walk.
Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother
changes the subject. There is always that to do.

This poem is illuminating in its treatment of not only memory, but also violence and acceptance, the subjects we’ll turn to shortly. Let’s start with a focus on memory. Memory in “Zombie Apocalypse” is mostly a private matter—i.e. the inner workings of the author’s subjective mind (as opposed to group memory or public historical narrative), and yet the last lines of the poem hint at a question that extends above and beyond that of the individual.

When Bentley writes, “Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother / changes the subject. There is always that to do” he invites the reader to consider the connection between the questions we ask, the conversations we have, and the states of affairs in the world. How many events––wars, famines, the loss of family and loved ones—seem to disappear because we change the subject? How many arguments and heated discussions are ended with a plea to “drop it,” as if doing so would itself alleviate or solve the problem(s) at hand?

Bentley is not a poet who changes the subject from the pressing and difficult questions, and he tends to follow the thread of his poetic inquiry wherever it may go—even if it’s heading into dangerous or difficult terrain. Note the lines about the prospect of killing his mother:

And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—

but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.

Bentley does not offer us an inflated image of his mother, nor does he tell us why life is still beautiful when one is old, etc. He decides against the killing (presumably by way of stabbing) of his mother not for the sake of her life, but for his own wellbeing; it’s the thought of her fear in his memory that persuades him to reconsider. It would be awful to clean up all that blood and to think of Mother’s Day and roses for the rest of one’s life, wouldn’t it?

There is also a sense of acceptance here, an understanding that life isn’t always beautiful. Dementia and death are all around us. When faced with difficult questions and circumstances, we have four options: we can look away from or change the subject, we can argue or complain about things, we can accept reality as it is (or at least how we perceive it to be), or we can slip into the oblivion of apathy and stop acting/asking altogether.

For me, this poem not only accepts the horror of aging and forgetting, but it also dares to bring the subject up in a violent way— in a knife and blood sort of way. It’s a bold poem, and one that doesn’t shy away from the awful qualities of life or the motivations to end it should things get dirty.

But Bentley does not always reveal his hand so quickly or expresses violence with such explicit, “movie-butchery” type imagery. In perhaps my favorite of the batch in Starlight Taxi, the poem “My Father Dressing Me as Zorro,” Bentley addresses our themes of memory, violence, and acceptance:

Outside the store with the circling Lionel train,
he ties cape strings, loops twin black ends,
making a bow at the front of my throat.
Now he relaxes back, into the bucket seat
of his ‘63 T-Bird. Says he’s gotten remarried.
He tells me it was sudden, no guests. Says
he’s sorry, too, he wasn’t around on my birthday.
He fingers a shirt pocket for a pack of L & Ms.

Now I’ve lowered a mask over my face.
The eye-slits don’t fit, and I can’t see.
I scent the smoke of his cigarette. I tell him
they turned off the electricity, the gas and phone,
that neighbors fed us after he left. I’m feeling
in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave
between us. He tells me to stop horsing around:
this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.

This sophisticated poem about pain and protection has more nuance to it than we might think on first glance. First, the imagery of protection. Note the store with the “circling Lionel train,” the bucket seat that surrounds the father’s body (we feel relaxed when we’re safe, when we’re protected) inside of the car—itself a type of shelter from the world outside. Notice the mask and the hiding behind it, and the presumed notion of feeling safe and indestructible when wearing it. Observe, too, the cigarette smoke and the shield that it provides for the boy (he doesn’t address his father until the mask is on and the smoke is rising).

Violence is also at hand; the bow being tied at the front of the child’s throat calls to mind the image of a noose and the procedure of being hanged. There is the violence of living in a home where the basic necessities have not been met or provided for. And in the last few lines, the poem suggests an implicit or past violence: “I’m feeling / in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave / between us. He tells me to stop horsing around: / this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.”

Surely there has been a previous instance of someone getting hurt, and we wonder how many times the father has told his son to stop horsing around. We have a sense in these lines that violence is just around the corner, is just outside of the old T-Bird. The hard discussions between father and son need protection to get off the ground, and this protection (as mentioned above) is found in the Zorro mask, the car, the smoke, and the seats. The mask, of course, is the key physical and psychological barrier between the father and son. Note that the young Bentley cannot see from behind it, and presumably his father cannot see him either, or at least not see his eyes.

This fleeting exchange is the closest to vulnerability that these two get, and when the son reaches toward the rapier (a toy, no less!) we sense the barrier between the two— and their precarious emotional balance—is threatened. Although one might accuse the author of hiding behind his Zorro mask and thus avoiding danger, it’s clear that the poem does what it needs to do: it reveals a seesawed history of violence and abuse (of power and protection) though we must read carefully to discover it.

Yet some readers might feel that Bentley leaves them hanging; that things still need resolving, unpacking. But we are not offered an exit into the rosy or sentimental in this poem, nor are we given a quick resolution to a lifetime’s worth of problems. True, we will never be able to take the mask off the boy or glimpse his saber in its shiny, deadly glow, nor will we know the full conversation between father and son. But we know the score well enough, and the skilled withholding and covering-up in this piece is just what makes it successful.

Starlight Taxi is for those who want to journey with an unsettling companion on sketchy roads; for those who don’t mind a pinch of salt in their wounds, or the possibility of shaking their modus operandi with violence. Read Bentley if you can handle the songs of an experienced bluesman—a traveler of dark alleyways, a frequenter of factories and barrooms—and read him if you have guts enough to accept the facts on the ground, even if they’re ugly.
______

Starlight Taxi is Roy Bentley’s fourth book of poems, released in 2013 by Lynx House Press (a non-profit and independent publisher based in Spokane, Washington) and is the winner of the 2012 Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. Bentley, an Ohio based writer and poet, has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Council. His poems have appeared in prestigious literary magazines and journals, including the Southern Review, North America Review, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Shenandoah, and many others.
______

Book Review: Talisman by Lisa C. Krueger

 photo talisman_zps46906e70.jpg
Talisman
Poems by Lisa C. Krueger
Red Hen Press, 2014
$17.95



Reviewed by Barrett Warner

A few summers ago, the Saratoga Racing Tip Sheet on Lisa Krueger noted: “Goes a few places. Moves away from the obvious. Sometimes needs to look back over her shoulder to make sure the reader is following.” Big bettors may wish to read Krueger’s newest volume, Talisman, and put this Golden State poet into their combinations. The new Krueger is sleeker, has a convertible soul and gets plenty of air into lungs. In Talisman, she writes to heal all of us, especially her grieving, implicated, rapturous self. Here, the flower child reminds us that landscape, and ocean, and sky—all of these elements occur in some wonderful dream when experience is sleeping.

Krueger’s poems are what happens when experience is suddenly woken by life. Although her Beat cousins liked to start with a car and a highway, Krueger begins with a crash in “What She Felt:”

In L.A. my sister’s car wrapped like foil
around a pole as the sun sank,

offering illusions of a softened world,
the other car careening, reversing,

screeching off into the almost dark.

That’s plenty of clarity, except for one huge detail—Krueger doesn’t have a sister. I mean, of course she does, but try to forget that right now. Krueger is writing about herself as her sister, having a secret self through her, a wilder one, a nearly dead one, a patched up self: “They lay her on pavement, / forced rods into her skull. / They called what they did a halo.”

Don’t many of us have a secret sharing soul like this one? A sister, or a brother—one who leaps from windows dressed like Superman? These secret selves become our heroic angels. Krueger’s poem nicely ends without ending: “What she felt, they said, / wasn’t what we felt. // My sister surfed every sunset. / Her hair was wet.”

Krueger keeps the reader close to her by making good use of internal logic and related images. The sun sank, wrapped like foil, surfing, metal clasping flesh, Jaws of Life, breathing machine…the logic keeps us focused without giving us tunnel vision while the poem’s energy goes upward, outward. It’s a call for each of us to wax our boards, jog into the tumult, make our hair wet, go where she’s going, risk our lives, risk our secrets.

In “Girl, I’ll House You” Krueger writes: “says my sister, / my only sister, my / best kept secret, // disabled sect of self.” The sisters—psychic twins—one a poet and one a muse, do all sorts of things: visit each other in asylums, bicker, go to Labyrinth parties where “we walk woodchip paths / that spiral in nautilus design…the universe listens to people / who wander in circles / then offers a response.”

Krueger’s “Pre-measured” differs from the other sister poems where the tension is between active and passive sides. Here, the two are just being together in the kitchen. The effects of an accident linger in one, but this visit is more about baking a pie. The crash survivor has lost her sense of nuance and the only world for her is a literal one. The speaker, however, seems to exist in a realm that is nuanced to the point of abstraction. Conflict produces an inevitable Lady Macbeth moment. The nurturing sister tells the victim sister that creation requires cleanliness, and the soap “turns around and / round in her hands:”

How pure is this? she says,
holding her hands above her head.

Sometimes the secret sister is an herbivore. In “Prodigal,” a deer who eats flowers and who mangles fences suggests the image of metal mangling limbs in “What She Felt.” The deer, like the wounded surfer, is also a swimmer, and begins to swim in the backyard pool:

I no longer feared she would drown.
I began to talk, not knowing if she heard.
Once I called her Mother.

She swam to me, animal face dispassionate,
fierce, a glint of silvery down
echoing the flash of my heart.

You are old I said to her.
I listened to the patterns of her breath,
the animal vowels, the voice.

Thank goodness Krueger loves a stanza break. The patterns of her breath, her vowels, and her voice make me think of Pilates, all that exhaling, and all that taking in of everything…it’s nice to have genuine pauses that a break offers just to wipe our foreheads. I could have used a couple in “Guest Farm Pardon,” a poem about caressing that urgently trucks eighteen lines. The caressing—tender, almost sexual—is between the speaker and a sleeping wild boar. The boar “assumes the possibilities of night” and has a “vigilant carnal scent.” Again, Krueger connects personal peril to evolving her spirit, but the connection isn’t rattlesnake Pentecostal, it’s more a process of connecting our frailty to the sweetly impossible. The poet also puts the ending of this poem in its middle as if to say, there’s no such thing as an ending when you’re rubbing a beast with tusks. Her lines “Most nights she yearns for sleep / but feels afraid, as though / she must fix her life” would ordinarily conclude a poem like this but Krueger goes on until she achieves an unguarded, feral complexity.

In section II of Talisman Krueger migrates from the duality themes of the first section to poems where we trust in the one-ness. Because of that trust, Krueger is now able to offer non sequitor images which might have given us trouble if she hadn’t already used the order of her poems to coach us how to read her. Unexpected pairings emerge, such as the lines “She notices the odor of ripeness from bananas / wondering why some people need to be kind” and “My daughter got ill the year / they tore out eucalyptus // along the 101.” There is a seamless ecological synthesis at work in poems such as “The Old Story Follows Us” (“I want to run my hand / across the ridge”) and “Opening to Light” where a husband’s birthday becomes claustrophobic; he feels trapped by time in the space of his marriage:

He wanted to open everything,
he wanted to rip off the roof.
Wildness would offer shelter.
That would be Heaven.

In order to deal with emotional trauma we must strengthen our spirit. In order to strengthen our spirit we must put ourselves in some sort of physical peril or risk. It helps to have a few magic powers to aid us. The marvel of Krueger’s poetry is how she shows us how to be one of Rilke’s mysterious heroic angels as if it were the only way to cope with human emotional catastrophes such as grief, abuse, or even love. It’s a wise and sustaining message, but Krueger’s elastic gift to us is her abstract confessional lyric. Personal experience is a metaphor first and foremost. Krueger lives her images just enough to help draw us to the essence. It’s the first step towards transcendence from lives of generally slight impressions to lives of vision.
______

Memorable Porridges

by Nola Garrett

I have a low pleasure threshold.  I suppose another way to say this would be that I’m easily amused, as if I were living my life as a playful cat.  This winter I’ve especially enjoyed watching falling snow here from the condo’s windows when the air currents surrounding this building caused the flakes to fall up.  I find it intriguing to see how snow transforms Mt. Washington’s cliff side into stacked deckle edge book pages, depicting Pittsburgh’s geological stories.  I’m still savoring my morning walk a week ago from Grant Street down Forbes Avenue when with my every step the snow softly squeaked.  I know that I’m blessed to be retired, so I don’t have to drive every day no matter how snowy the roads become.  Not commuting, too, is a pleasure: another reminder that I’m living a cat’s life, though my years as a tenured English professor gave me great pleasure with only occasional grief.

Beyond the stages of healing, grief, I’ve found, does have its simple pleasures such as learning to live alone.  I’ve slowly transformed my living space into a place cleared of painful reminders and kept what soothes me.  I’ve added an additional desk, a pair of floor lamps, a red velvet back pillow, a down comforter, plants, a plant stand, and lace curtains.  I eat when and what I want to eat—lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and oatmeal.  The oatmeal has been something of a surprise that’s taken me a long time to understand.

Some of my earliest memories with my brother Joel are watching Mom cook oatmeal for our breakfast.  Joel and I came up with a phrase to describe the emerging tiny steam explosions dotting the boiling oatmeal’s surface, “bubble stankers.”  Though our phrase was faintly naughty, Mom never objected the same way she always would if we said “belly button” which made saying “bubble stankers” all the more delicious.  Further, Mom always cooked oatmeal with raisins just for her and us kids, because Dad refused to eat any breakfast that didn’t consist of at least fried eggs and meat.  Dad weighed 300 pounds; Mom 117.  Gradually, I came to understand that serving oatmeal for breakfast was Mom’s quiet declaration of independence—her version of a low pleasure threshold.  I’ve taken oatmeal a few steps further by adding white raisins, currants, or a selection of Jumbo Mixed raisins and eating it for lunch or even dinner.

Nearly forty years later, I encountered Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Oatmeal” even before he published it in his 1990 book, WHEN ONE HAS LIVED A LONG TIME ALONE.  I immediately elevated “Oatmeal” to my poetry’s Top 10.  It seems to me that though that poem is not his book’s title poem, it is the real heart of that collection.  Kinnell’s “Oatmeal” speaker and John Keats who joins him for a breakfast porridge initially take a less enthusiastic approach to their breakfast cereal:

Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: due to its glutinous
  texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness
  to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.

Keats then goes on to explain his composition of “Ode to a Nightingale” and to relate his poem’s lack of unity to eating oatmeal alone.  (Only halfway through reading “Oatmeal” at this point I was laughing so hard I cried.)  Kinnell recounts

[Keats] still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a
  Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay
  itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move

  forward with God’s reckless wobble.

After breakfast Keats recited “To Autumn” and then off-handedly gave credit for two of that ode’s most memorable images to a view of an oat field and to eating oatmeal alone.  Lots of poets at that point would rest on their laurels, but not Galway Kinnell.  He takes the poem further, gives a critical jab to Patrick Kavanagh by inviting him to eat oatmeal and presents the poem’s readers another line, a line that has somehow helped me to accept “God’s reckless wobble” and its relationship with my own grief:

Maybe there is no sublime, only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.

Like Galway Kinnell, I’ve come to enjoy eating oatmeal alone, and I’m willing to give him and his poems some of the credit for my easy pleasure.
______

Book Review: Imperial by George Bilgere

 photo bilgereimperial_zpsde794649.jpg
Imperial
Poems by George Bilgere
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95



Reviewed by Alison Taverna

The world George Bilgere represents in his sixth collection, Imperial, tight-ropes the simple with the complex. Bilgere’s voice—casual, matter-of-fact, and vaguely amused—edges at the last second with anxiety and denial. His poems, an empire of “Yard Sale,” “Fly Balls,” “Prostate Exam,” simultaneously mix with the metaphysics and mythology of what Bilgere attributes to the “beautiful ordinariness.” Among these pages occurs a combustion of universes. The stars collide on the heels of our feet, galaxy light-years rush us slowly through the decades, away from the youth of yo-yo’s and the Cold War, into the final battle with old age. This proves fitting, for even among the grandiose “It would be normal life, / which threatens at all times to overwhelm us.”

The convergence of universes is found most prominently in “Scorcher.” The setting: an after-dinner walk during summer twilight. The heat of day folds into the damp cloth of night, the birds asleep, the lightning bugs aglow. The poem’s action is close to motionless, the neighbors “mystical and obscure,” and the walkers awed by the brilliant strangeness of humanity amidst the vastness. Bilgere narrates the scene with a slow affection, ends the poem on a bird’s-eye view:

“for this shared mystery
of being human
on this dark little planet,
on one of the slender,
gracefully swirling arms
of one of the smaller galaxies.”

Here, Bilgere shows that the world of our planet is only an arm on a child galaxy. Throughout the collection, Bilgere constantly reminds us of our place, and while his tone never veers towards anger, there appears an air of pointedness, as if Bilgere himself has uttered with his pencil tip, we need perspective.

This happens in “Mexican Town.” The poem is quick in comparison, especially against the pace of “Scorcher.” No time to appreciate, to dive into the culture, and here craft matches intent: to reveal America’s under- appreciation of an extrinsic, natural world, free from the technology that consumes our current age. The final stanza sums it up, the brevity obvious,

“The boys go down to the beach
and play futbol in the sand.
At sunset they race each other
into the surf. It’s sad.”

Perhaps due to the sadness that comes with the loss of connectedness in our modern world, Bilgere’s speaker is reluctant to move forward. In “Jane,” the speaker witnesses the old woman across the street pack in preparation for “a home of some sort. A facility.” While the speaker talks with Jane, the only real information provided in regards to her is the fact that she is old and must move to accommodate such aging. The word facility repeats five times within six stanzas. A white-knuckle denial lives inside the speaker,

“…I have no intention of doing so.
What Jane is doing—growing old,
taking out her ominous black trash bags
to vanish terribly in the snow, getting ready
for someone to drive her to a facility…”

Instead, Bilgere circles the past around his tongue, writes about youth in the 1950’s with Stan Musial and Duncan Imperial Yo-Yo’s, the horrors of war and the atom bomb through the lens of new toy technology. This way the past, barely, looks better than the future.

In “Traverse City,” the speaker reflects on the days spent with family by the lake, “The tiny cottages on the shore are still there.” The appearance of the lake and beach, and even the children playing on the shore is cyclical. This physical preservation of the past fogs the speaker’s ability to solidify the procession of time. In one of the more moving stanzas in Bilgere’s collection he demonstrates the bewilderment of time passing, of growing old:

“My sisters are middle-aged women,
children and divorces behind them.
I am older than my father ever was.
Yet there are the cottages and the beach
where we played with our buckets and shovels,
as the children on the sand are playing now.

No one can explain this.”

In addition to the individual loss Bilgere’s speaker experiences, a cultural loss brims to the surface. The art of language fails in this new America. “Yard Sale” finds volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica soaking on a card table in the rain. Bilgere writes, “It looks brand new, even though it must be sixty years old./ That’s because it was only used a couple of times.” The days of needing physical books to discover information are long gone.

“Attic Shapes,” also hints towards the loss of language when the speaker stores his dissertation, for the second time, in the attic. The hours spent studying Keats, and the years living a lifestyle that would make the Romantics proud, become boxes collecting with dust. The language that fueled the past has given way to the “beautiful ordinariness,” a world in perspective. Maybe, though, reason backs the evolution of days, the future not entirely lost, because on second look we’ll find

“a time too painful with hopeless yearning,
and too beautiful with poetic self-pity,
and generally too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,
either to hear again or ever throw away.”

______

The Guest Lecture

by John Samuel Tieman

Settling on the screen
Of the crowded movie house,
A white butterfly
.

— Richard Wright

Thank you for that kind and generous introduction. I am really looking forward to meeting whomever it was you were talking about.

I may well be the least likely poet in the world to give a lecture on composition. I sometimes think I have these mutually exclusive frames, in which people know me as one thing but not the other. Some know me as a certified middle school and high school teacher. Others as a university lecturer. Some as an obscure historian. Others as a minor poet. To the extent that anyone knows me at all, I’m probably best recognized for my political commentaries. A few folks know my scholarly essays about educational psychology. My beloved wife is a highly regarded psychoanalyst, so in some crowds I’m Phoebe’s husband. To some I’m Mr. Tieman, and to others I’m Dr. Tieman. Some know me as a Vietnam veteran; some know me as a peace activist. I don’t know – maybe I’m simply a highly accomplished dilettante.

My point being that my writing, frankly, is just one aspect of my life. An important one, don’t get me wrong. I identify myself as a writer, as a poet and an essayist. And as an educator. And as an historian. As a war veteran. As a scholar. As a loving husband. As a Roman Catholic, for that matter. All that. And more.

In any case, you asked. Let me begin by saying that I am not going to be didactic. Too many good writers have written eloquently on this subject. (What does one say after Phillip Sidney’s An Apology For Poetry, Richard Hugo’ s The Triggering Town, John Ciardi’s How Does A Poem Mean?) But you asked. Therefore, I will tend toward the impressionistic, and the vaguely autobiographical.

Let me begin with a poem about poetry.

the art

i

I’ve never written a poem
that said what I meant

one means as much as shrapnel
one means as little as ink

ii

I wish I had wisdom
instead I have lines

silent as a blackboard in summer
loud as a glacier breaking away

iii

I’ve never known a poem
to stay where I left it

a prisoner climbing a fence
a landing light in the sky
—–

I sometimes think I wasted decades looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.

mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light

I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.
we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again

That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young. I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday —

in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …

—–

Sometimes a poem takes decades.

Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”

And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Howard’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.

This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched as “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s much more like wwwwhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.

I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.

I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself. Perhaps my memories of Howard put me in mind of W. B. Yeats’ “After Long Silence”, the echo of which can be found in this poem —

Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.

—–

I’ve been influenced by many other poets.

St. Patrick’s Basilica, Montreal

the leaflet says Emile Nelligan once prayed here
horrified and solar and pale
dementia like an ice violin
a vein where no one finds gold

what did you see when you saw Jesus
a rag doll a neon eclipse Baudelaire
fantastic nostrils sudden birds
psalms sung by orphans

nearly fifty years in a hospital and
I envy you, Emile Nelligan, envy you composing
the same poem every morning and every morning

When my wife Phoebe and I vacationed in Montreal a few years ago, I was amazed at how little I knew about Canadian poetry. We went to Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I read in a brochure that Emile Nelligan was baptized there. Without explanation, it read “Nelligan” like I should just know him. He is considered the Arthur Rimbaud of Canada. Schools and libraries are named after him. Like Rimbaud, he stopped writing in his late teens, in Nelligan’s case at the onset of schizophrenia. Emile Nelligan spent the rest of his life, the next forty-two years, in a hospital. And became a legend.

Here’s a poem Nelligan wrote. His poem is from a notebook found on him just after he had the schizophrenic episode that landed him in the hospital. For a little over two months in the summer of 1899, he wandered the streets of Montreal, sleepless, reciting scraps of poetry, haunted by the dementia he recorded in that notebook. I’ve often thought that this poem speaks to us directly from the dementia, and, perhaps, comes as close as one can to expressing what Jacques Lacan calls “the real”. I follow his poem with my humble effort.

He wrote —
Vision

And now I dream of shadows stained with blood,
Proud prancing steeds; the sounds I hear
Are like children’s coughs, cries of tramps’ despair,
Death-rattles of the slowly dead.

Where are they from, those horns that blare and blow,
Snare-drum or fife in noisy wars?
It could be said that through the town, hussars
Gallop with sea-green helms aglow.

I wrote —

Vision, 3 AM

And now I dream of a certain shadow stained
glass creates, of a procession and its priest,
of children softly coughing, of pews.

Where are they from, the psalms and antiphons,
the incense and The Seven Sorrows,
the nun who prays, “Let us pray”?

It could be said, of a certain Catholic
orphanage, that deacons in purple stoles
lead the Stations Of The Cross.

—–

What I love about writing is the process. Good poem or no, good essay or not, I love to sit at my desk, stare out the window at, today, the snow, knowing that I have a warm cup of coffee, a brilliant and sexy wife, and, if I’m lucky, a good idea.

I am in perfect agreement with Sigmund Freud’s theory that the artistic process comes out of the same place as play. I have never been one to suffer over writing. My wife is an insightful writer. I love my wife, but there is a certain way in which I don’t understand her, or anyone, who suffers as she does with writing. If I found it unpleasant, I wouldn’t do it.

Revision

One of the mysteries of my marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft

and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly

clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.

For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision begins with bloodshed.
—–

I have no great lessons to impart, nothing large that I’ve learned in life. If angst is a lesson, I’ve learned a lot about that. I am glad I was a professional musician before I was a writer. Music taught me patience and practice. My wife was surprised when I told her that, as a classically trained musician, I often spent the first hour of each day simply playing long tones – one note held for, say, half a minute – scales and chords. All this before I ever opened a sheet of music.

I’m also glad I was a bachelor for forty years. That also taught me about practice, patience and rejection.

—–

Tieman’s Rule Number One: Being an artist is no excuse for being a wanker.

I’ve known poets who were really nice. I know poets who are doting parents, and poets who have sexually abused children. I’ve known poets who are lawyers, and I’ve known poets who are felons. I can’t count the alcoholic poets I’ve known. What seems to unite these poets is a love, indeed a need, for the word. That’s about it, at least as near as I can tell.

But about that dissipation.

More than for his athletic prowess, considerable though it was, Stan Musial is remembered for his simple decency. Bob Costas tells of a night with Stan, Stan’s wife Lil, and Mickey Mantel. “The Mick” vowed to stay sober for the evening, so as not to embarrass himself before Stan and Lil. Later, after the Musials left, Mantel said to Costas, “I had as much ability as Stan. Maybe more. Nobody had any more power than me. Nobody could run faster than me. But Stan was a better player than me, because he was a better man than me. Because he got everything out of his life that he could, and he’ll never have to live with all the regret I live with.”

In my youth, I drank too much, did drugs, womanized. In a war of questionable morality, I killed a boy. I traveled the world in order to run from my troubles. I spurned the love and kindness of people who truly cared for me. There is much I regretted, and much more I simply learned to live with. Throughout all that I was an artist. I just wish I had been a better person. I thank God I got better with age. I became a better person, and, because of that, I became a better writer.

—–

Sometimes it helps me to remember my favorite Bible passage, the 38th Chapter of Job, the one where God finally responds to Job by saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. … Can you lift your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?”

—–

A few folks have asked how, with my busy work schedule, do I manage to find time to write? A lot of the time, frankly, I don’t find the time. It’s the price I pay for a pension, the price I pay that my wife and I might have a dental plan. Someone once said to me, “If you a good teacher, then you often go home tired.” I must be the best freaking teacher in the world. There have been days when I’ve pulled into the garage, turned-off the car, and have fallen asleep right there.

I love Japan, its people and its culture. I spent four years as a Buddhist, and spent about a month in a Buddhist temple at the foot of Mount Fuji. I fell in love with Akiko Yosano, a feminist known for her tanka. I love the way she combines sexuality and spirituality.

Tanka and haiku provided a solution to a nagging problem. Often I would begin a poem and, because of my schedule, I’d write a line here, a line there, all this over the course of maybe a month. But if, after that month, I thought the poem sucked, if it seemed, as it often was, choppy, then – WHAM – there went January.

Thus began my romance with haiku and tanka. They’re short enough that I can scratch a line here, there, and have a poem done in a day. This form also fits in nicely with an aesthetic that influenced me when I was young, the epigram, especially the epigrams of Martial, Catullus and Ernesto Cardenal. In any case, Akiko Yosano and my wife inspired this one —

when you stepped out
of the shower this morning
I kissed you long
enough for you to leave
wet impressions on my shirt
T

Here’s a line by Ernesto Cardenal that haunted me for decades. It’s not in his Epigramas; it’s from “Managua 6 PM”, but it is epigrammatic —

Y si he dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
pero poética.

Which I’ll translate as —

And if asked to give testimony over my era
it’s this: It was barbaric and primitive
yet poetic
.

Cardenal’s emphasis on the poetic and the political inspired this tanka of mine –
if asked to judge
my age I’d say we wasted
our best years on war
from Nam to Iraq we saw
the whole world through sniper scopes

—–

Occasionally I can still find time to write a full-length poem.

I asked Andre how he felt after yesterday’s professional development. “It wasn’t especially soul crushing.” This was his idea of something good to say.

That said, we spent the entire morning pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andre keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.

I usually write poetry at these meetings. It looks like I’m taking notes. Like this one, for example, which I published not long ago.

7:45 Roosevelt High

it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student
reflections

she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
age home

her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness

to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear

and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
shaped curve

and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love

I always liked that poem. I remember needing a name, and, looking up, I saw a name-tag on this woman across from me. I spent some time imagining what her day was like, not that it would be that different from any of the rest of us. Then I noticed a smudge of lipstick on her cuff, and I knew I had my poem. All the stuff about the mother is my own mother, who, at that time, was 101. Also, I do the laundry for my wife and I, so the Tide is mine. I chose the name Roosevelt High because every school district in the U. S. has a Roosevelt High.

But I never got a copy of the poem to Arianna. By the time I published the poem, she had quit.

—–

Thus do I have little wisdom to pass along. Listen to the greats. Have fun with the process. Practice. Find a form that works for you. All that and the simple fact that accomplishment means little without kindness and decency. I got better with age. I became a better writer, because I became a better person. “I, too, went to bed amid the howling of the autumn wind, and awoke early the next morning amid the chanting of the priests … .” So says Matsuo Basho in his Narrow Road To The Deep North.

—–

I don’t want to get away without talking about prose.

I write my prose like I write my poetry. When I’m writing for a newspaper or a magazine, I look for good verbs, alliteration, rhythm, all that. In a word, prosody.

I even break my prose paragraphs like I break my poetry lines.

I don’t want to take my audience’s time by reading a whole essay. I think, however, this prose technique comes together, at least for illustrative purposes, in a form I call the modern haibun. In essence, I update and Westernize a Japanese form. I begin with a haiku, go to a prose poem, and finish with a tanka. And while I borrow the form from the Japanese, it really is thoroughly Western in its sensibility. The prose is much more influenced by, say, Michael Benedikt than Matsuo Basho.

a modern haibun

another Monday
again I surrender to
the whisper of snow

My wife is reading Freud this evening. I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were. Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.

I stare out our picture window. I inventory our yard. Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root. In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing

“My War”, my memoir in this month’s Vietnam magazine, I’m surprised by the letters from strangers. Several veterans had the same job I had. Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle. One message from a wife — the husband never talks about our war.

in this Nam photo
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed

—–

If there is one last thing, and only one last thing, I would wish a young poet, I would wish that poet a great passion. Everything else will follow, the right words, the necessary silence.

That’s it. That’s all I got. That’s what worked for me. Is it is generalizable? I don’t know. I think I’m safe in saying that life is better if you’re not a poetic prick. At least that was my experience. As for the rest, maybe there’s a small something in there somewhere.

———-
———-

Parts of this lecture originally appeared in the following magazines, books, journals and newspapers: The Autumn House Anthology Of Contemporary American Poetry, Coal Hill Review, Mainichi Shimbun, Modern English Tanka, Schools: Studies In Education, and my chapbook of poetry, A Concise Biography Of Original Sin. Ernesto Cardenal’s epigram is taken from his Nueva Antología Poética, published by Siglo V

Book Review: The River Underneath the City by Scott Silsbe

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The River Underneath the City
Poems by Scott Silsbe
Low Ghost Press, 2013
$10.00



Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

In August of 2012, my mother drove me across the state of Pennsylvania from Bergen County, New Jersey. We were headed for my new apartment in Pittsburgh. Mom had no clue what to expect. What would this timeworn city have to offer her son, who’d grown up within 40 minutes of Manhattan? Dad still called Pittsburgh “The Steel City,” and I’m pretty sure a few of my aunts were worried about air pollution. “What’s even out there?” one cousin asked.

Nearly two years later, here’s one thing I’ve learned about Pittsburgh: there’s a lot. The city boasts a thriving cultural and literary scene—small presses like Autumn House and Low Ghost, local bookstores like Caliban and East End Book Exchange, workshops like Jan Beatty’s “Madwomen in the Attic,” and reading series like Marissa Landrigan’s “Acquired Taste” are all proof of that. Art galleries line Penn Avenue, operas play downtown, and for a month this past summer we covered one of our 446 bridges with knitted and crocheted blankets. In other words, it seems my family was worried I’d be walking into the sooty, overpopulated Pittsburgh of the 30s and 40s.

Enter Scott Silsbe’s The River Underneath the City. This is, among other things, a book about Pittsburgh, and Silsbe wants to remind us that the real Pittsburgh exists somewhere between the two versions above. Pittsburgh as city of industrial heritage, Pittsburgh as reinvented Mecca. I think one of Silsbe’s great successes in this book is his perfect rendition of a place in flux.

But before the flux, the place. From the book’s first poem, it becomes clear that Silsbe aims to be something of a documentarian of Pittsburgh culture. “Breakfast at Rocky’s,” set at a popular local eatery, introduces readers to a waitress who speaks in Pittsburghese.

Someone asks for a newspaper and my waitress says,
“Why would you want to read ‘at? It’s all bad news.”
She is right and the conversation turns to the Pirates
who are dropping a series against the Orioles.
“Who hit the homeruns?” a customer says
and she says, “Wah-ker and Tah-bah-tah.”

Cultural tags like these appear constantly throughout the book. In “Motörhead and Milkshakes,” the speaker drives through the neighborhood of Oakland watching “the Catholic school girls on Craig” and “detouring from Forbes into Schenley.” Other poems take us to Shadyside, where “old men are jogging by/ on the sidewalk wearing earphones,” then “over and under/ and around the Westinghouse Bridge.” In one of my favorite poems from the book, the speaker and his friend Moody leave 80s Night at Belvedere’s, a popular dive in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, and drive across town to “the corner of Mifflin and Biddle” in search of a cassette tape of Larry Levis on the poet Tony Hoagland’s porch.

Yet Silsbe’s poems are not simply a catalogue of details about Pittsburgh. It’s clear that these depictions of locations and events are being drawn with a purpose—to say something about the moment and about memory. In “Let’s Get Lost,” the speaker says “Light is

such an amazing thing in Pittsburgh.
On the bright red bricks of the house
across the street and hitting the water tower
on the far-away hillside, barely visible between
the rooftops of the houses, but there—a presence.

We can feel the speaker’s voice straining in these lines, trying to reach out and articulate the small, unspeakable moment. Silsbe makes similar moves in poems like “Castle Shannon,” where he spends three stanzas describing the experience of seeing a librarian carry books, and “I’m Still a Jagov But I Love It,” which depicts a couple playing pool at the Take a Break Bar. The speaker in these poems is keen on keeping Pittsburgh alive, ensuring that these Everymen and –women remain a permanent part of our cultural consciousness. Silsbe becomes Pittsburgh’s Whitman, in a way, when he writes in “The End is Never Near:” “What I said, I said for everyone.”

In addition to these rather concrete poems, Silsbe includes a number of lyric explorations of emotion and existence in this collection. We get some of Silsbe’s most beautiful images here—“a world/ of photographs and cyanotypes,” “the dying column, with its broken oxygen,” “a halo… sewn out of… weeds”—but his voice doesn’t come across as strongly without a story or a setting to ground it. At times it seems that these poems might be a bit too insular, that perhaps they speak to memories that Silsbe alone can access. Still, they certainly lend to the urgently wistful tone of the collection. “Of Remembering and Forgetting,” which I like to imagine came in second place as a title option for the book, gives us the lines that are central to these poems: “I can dismiss everything for the sake of memory./ But don’t ever forget that there was a beginning,/ and middle, and an end.”

Despite the declarative nature of this statement, Silsbe takes an interesting approach to time throughout the collection. And this is the flux. By never directly addressing time, Silsbe allows his reader to live somewhere in between all the Pittsburghs that have ever existed. Music comes up often in this collection; the speaker mentions Dizzy Gillespie, Motörhead, Chet Baker, the Dead Kennedys, and a Billy Bragg song. These references alone span a spectrum of time from the 1920s to the 1980s. Are these speakers listening to the music in its own time or today? If the poem about Tony Hoagland’s porch is set when Hoagland was still living in Pittsburgh, then it happens sometime around 2002. If not, it could be any time since. One speaker remembers Duke’s Bar, then tells us at the end of the poem that it’s long gone, “replaced by two chain burrito shops and a sub place.” In Silsbe’s deft hand, time keeps collapsing in on itself, nowhere more than in the poem “The Floating Theater”:

Sonny Clark still plays piano up in the Hill District.
Johnny Unitas is still quarterbacking in Bloomfield
on fields made out of dirt and factory soot, I’m sure.
True, third base of Forbes Field has been relegated
to a bathroom stall in a men’s room in Posvar Hall.
But Gertrude Stein frequents a bench by the Aviary
on occasion. Just down from Gus the Ice Ball Man.

The 1940s. The 1950s. The 1870s. The 1970s. Today. Silbse reminds us here that time is not linear—that memory is a constant layer informing the present moment. That heritage always lives on, no matter how much a place may change. As he says, “Through all of the rain-streaked windows of buses/ you can see the Pittsburgh that used to be and also/ the Pittsburgh that is—somehow they’re coexisting.”

This Pittsburgh is constantly changing. Recently the web has been buzzing with articles about a new migration of young professionals to the city, and countless organizations are working to revitalize neighborhoods like Garfield and Braddock. Streets and bridges are getting face-lifts, and new restaurants are cropping up every day. It’s no wonder that Silsbe has written us a definitive text of Pittsburgh as he’s known it. Without books like these, entire histories—those of people who knew and loved their places dearly—would be lost to us forever.

And so Silsbe’s voice is all of ours, really. Beyond its intimate connection to Pittsburgh, it’s really a voice crying out for memory, reminding us that it lived. We all live in Silsbe’s world, one where people “disappear a little, as if remembering.” Where time is less a demarcation so much as a distance that can always be traversed. Where nostalgia is the lay of the land. It’s a world where all of this looking back is sad, but optimistic—all of these memories and all of this change imply new lives to live in the future. “Tonight it’s beautiful out,” Silsbe writes in the final collection of the poem, “tomorrow it’ll be even better./ I am in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” I’d like to thank him for reminding me, a year and a half after I arrived, that I feel the exact same way.
______

Book Review: Pennsylvania Welcomes You by Kristofer Collins

Pennsylvania Welcomes You
Poems by Kristofer Collins
CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013
$12.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

As a Boston native living in Pittsburgh for the past five years, I’m sympathetic to the belief that a city produces hypnotic powers on the psyche, charms us, provides a geographical ‘tribe’ that continues, no matter where we’ve been, to call us to our home streets. Kristofer Collins’ most recent collection, Pennsylvania Welcomes You, is a tribute to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and to those city dwellers who stand like bookmarks against its populated streets. The poems address particular local hotspots, poems titled “BBT” for Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, like publicized love letters. Yet, Collins is steadfast in welcoming his readers into the intimate as he writes, “We can read it together/Exhausted under the sheets, the city spread wide & waiting for our feet.”

Before we reach the poems, the table of contents stands: a column, single-spaced, without page numbers. The titles stack down the page like a skyscraper, tight and together. At times the lack of page numbers causes confusion when searching for a particular poem, but Collins’ artistic choice here seems intentional. Within the collection, each poem is a new street corner, a side-alley window into a different district, a neighboring bar, and so while a lack of direction appears disorienting, it’s not, for we are never truly lost. For the duration of the collection, at least, this is our city too.

Collins’ speaker appears equally content and discontent, which makes it difficult to peg down a tone for the collection, but feels truer to real human emotions. For example, in “Poem Addressed to Jaquelyn Seigle” Collins writes,
“…I’ve spent many
Good days writing poems outside bars
Watching the old neighborhood & the girls
Who live there now.”

There is a wistfulness to these lines, yet not quite a full-faced-nostalgia, for the speaker never claims to regret the way the neighborhood has changed. It’s more a head nod, an acknowledgment that times are changing, and the speaker, regardless, will continue to sit in the same spot and write poems.

There is direct nostalgia in a later poem, titled “The Book of Names”:

“And admittedly I don’t think of you as often as I should
But when I do there is such an ache so much good talk I miss
In our booth at Nico’s splitting pitchers precisely as atoms…”

Here, the speaker is nostalgic for the times of the past, but only when he consciously reflects. This balance teeters throughout the collection, each poem nostalgic, while simultaneously content with the present.

Similar to the balance between contentment and discontentment, there is a balance between localized and common knowledge that rears its head more frequently when intimately discussing a home location. Personally, I assume everyone knows the Boss, Whitey Bulger, and the battle between the Italian North End and the Irish South. After one graduate workshop class, I’ve concluded, this is Bostonian knowledge, with the exception of a few history buffs. Overall, Collins walks this line carefully, successfully, because the emotion of his work is never sacrificed based on location. Still, there are moments where cue words would benefit the outside reader to eliminate possible alienation, especially when it occurs in the first poem of the collection as Collins ends,

“Behind K & L Gates, stroking the Roberto Clemente, fingers
Facile as Anton Karas’ upon this golden zither, I brush the hair
From your eyes at PPG Place and check my teeth for cervelat”

In one breath we are overloaded with Pittsburgh, which five years earlier, would have felt exclusive.

Collins loses me in places, true, like in “Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX,” when after the second stanza there is a sudden spark of violence, “How nervy taking a razor to a stranger’s wrist, drawing/ My heart into that mix. A thief of names is that what I am?” The poems, in places, seem more for those they are dedicated to, for ‘Anna’ and ‘Jonathan Moody’ and ‘Don Wentworth’ and ‘Robert Frank’ to name a few, instead of a wider audience. With these poems there is the distinct sense that I’ve walked into the middle of a conversation on Forbes between old college roommates. On some level, though, there remains a charm to this degree of intimacy, and it’s Collins unflinching dedication to these streets and individuals that keeps me invested.

One of the main elements in Pennsylvania Welcomes You that I found fitting was Collins decision to leave each poem open, lacking end punctuation. It’s a D.A. Powell move, and the way it works in Chronic it works here: the individual flows into a collective. Each moment blends into the next as if the speaker has one foot on each page, balances between times that never truly feel distinct enough to name.

My one hesitation is the amount of exclamation points found throughout the collection. It’s a form of punctuation that, within poetry, always tastes forced.

Even among the exclamation points, it’s hard to overlook Collins’ moments of brilliance, his control of language, with lines such as “Nostalgia creeps up on us like a housecat/Let loose in the yard” “I am tattooing the tatters of your memory into this soggy napkin we call ‘poem’” and “the black sky has got its hat On.” These are the lines that stand like road signs, welcome us into Collins’ world, and make us trust we are among a skilled tour guide.
______

Dyeing

by Nola Garrett

1.
I never saw my grandmother twice
with the same colored hair.
Instead of the world, she traveled the spectrum— 
Tahitian Brown, Romanian Gold, Irish Red—
without even the pretense of reclaiming
tints once hers.
                          I was so embarrassed,
my teenaged self was mortified.

My grandmother after years of misdagnosis
died.  Rather than her liver,
it was her heart after all,
                                        but who could tell?
As for myself, one October afternoon
when earl snow on my unraked leaves
looked like me peering out of my mirror
at an old self, I wasn’t quite ready.  Yet,
my staid self departed on Light Brown # 7.

2.
During my afternoon walk, I may have found
a geode.  Gray, hunched, a little off-center,
it could be opened, perhaps to a scatter of sand
or to an amethyst vault,
                                       or left alone
like both my grandmothers.  Oh, they married,
raised their share of children, but as widows
their lives began.
                             Neither was a Mrs.— 
just Belle and Marie.
                                   Belle for a living
sewed and mended, reused her basting thread,
played church piano, read, bathed at her kitchen sink
with multi-colored soap slivers.
                                                     Marie watched
TV evangelists, favored her richest son, dyed her hair
a different color every month, window shopped daily,
preferred rhinestones and orange.

Disliking dogs, sticky children, and old men
Belle and Marie each slept away
in their small lavender rooms.

I smile.  I whisper back to them
my middle name—Maribel. 

______

Poetry Out Loud

by Jim Danger Coppoc

Next month, I will be judging the State Finals for Poetry Out Loud in Iowa. Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest where high schoolers choose a selection of canonical poems to perform from the stage to a live audience.

I’ve done judging and coaching for POL in several states, and I’ve given most of my adult life to the study of spoken word. I intend to keep doing this as long as the various state arts councils allow me. I think it’s time I declared my biases and offered some coaching, so competitors know what they’re getting into.

First, a bit of rhetoric. Poets are people. Audiences are people. Poems are tools for disseminating ideas—logical, emotional and ethical—among people.

Who are your people? Who’s in your audience? Regardless of what the author intended (I’m very firmly in the “the author is dead” school), what do YOU intend to get across with this poem? What’s the central conflict/tension of the poem? What’s the core message? If you could assign your audience one “takeaway,” what would it be?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, all the technical performance work in the world can’t help you. Voice, breathing, dynamics, whatever—they are tools, not goals in themselves. They only work when you’re using them do the work of poetry—to get your ideas into somebody else’s head.

Of course, research can make this easier. If you read all the poems POL has to offer, and read them deeply and out loud, eventually you’ll know which poems speak to you best, and can best be translated by you to a live audience. Do not choose based on what you think people will like or what you think sounds like an important poem. Choose with your heart. Which one of these feels like it could/should be yours?

Next, lose the ridiculous distinction between poetry and song. There is none. A spoken poem is a song with particular choices in pitch and timbre. Your choir teacher/vocal coach has just as much to offer in this process as your English teacher, and might be willing to help. Use your resources, and SING!

With these two ideas in mind—1) that poetry comes alive only when it is treated as living communication among real live humans, and 2) that the mechanics of spoken word are breath for breath the same as the mechanics of song—you are ready to begin.

Print out the poem, double or triple spaced. Get a pencil, and mark it up. What are the natural dynamics (louder and softer parts) of this poem? Where does the tone change, and what should your voice/body do to reflect this? Where do you stumble, and need to put in extra work? What’s the core message, and how does each part of this poem contribute?

Remember, the poem should take your audience on a journey. If you read it the same way from beginning to end, the journey won’t be very interesting. Pay attention to what you’re doing in any given moment, how it’s related to all the other moments, and what you’re doing to bring the audience through these moments with you.

Also remember that I asked you to use a pencil. It’s likely your performance will grow and evolve as you practice. Don’t be afraid of this process. Embrace it, and keep pushing for something better. One end writes; the other end erases.

THIS IS THE ONLY ALL CAPS SENTENCE IN THIS ESSAY, BECAUSE I WANT YOU KNOW IT’S IMPORTANT! People don’t like to be yelled at all the time. People don’t even like to be talked to all the time. Have you ever seen a score of sheet music without any pauses?

Take your pencil, and mark all the natural silence in the poem. Remember that the words you’re using are drawn on a canvas of silence. Some poems are busier, some poems are quieter, but all poems have silence in them, and that has to be respected.

Now you’re ready to begin.

Stand up. Make sure there is room around you. Put your arms straight out to your sides, making a “T” with your body.

It is likely you did this with your palms down. Everybody does. In fact, this exercise wouldn’t work if you hadn’t.

Leave your arms where they are, and rotate your thumbs 180°, so that your palms face straight up, and your thumbs point behind you. Push your arms back, following your thumbs, until your hands are just behind the plane of your body.

If you did it correctly, this action should have pushed your sternum up and out, and your shoulders down and back. Whatever happens for the rest of the poem, keep you sternum out and your shoulders back. This is the only way your lungs and diaphragm have enough space to do their job.

Keep your sternum where it is. Lower your arms.

Your body is now prepared to breathe, so breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Take deep, slow breaths. Feel the energy flow in and out of your body, in balance with the air around you.

It’s not actually energy—it’s oxygen—but it has the same effect when you’re delivering a poem.

Now, on an out breath, begin your poem. Pay attention to all the dynamic and tonal markings you made on the page. Keep mind, body and spirit open. You should imagine yourself as an instrument. Don’t mute that instrument. Open.

This will be hard to maintain. I know this, and so does ever other working spoken-word artist on the planet. This is why we rehearse.

Now that you understand the poem, and you’ve begun using your body to correctly sing it, make space in your life to rehearse. Begin rehearsals early, and hold rehearsals often. Get as many live audiences as you can, and find microphones and stages as frequently as possible. The closer your rehearsal is to the actual conditions you’ll perform under, the better.

If there is an all-ages open mic near you, go there. If you happen to write your own poetry, and can find an all-ages poetry slam in your area, go there too. Even if you don’t write, find your local poetry slam, and sit in the audience. You can learn a lot just by watching.

As you rehearse, continuously google “Poetry Out Loud,” “poetry slam,” “spoken word poetry,” etc. Look up the great contemporary artists, like Shane Koyczan, Patricia Smith, Suheir Hammad, Anis Mojgani, and others. Locally, get all the audience you can find, and ask them to reflect back to you what they see, and where you can improve.

If you’re brave enough, record yourself, and watch the tapes.

As with any other sport or art, the more preparation you put into this, the better the results.

And now, at the end, come back to the beginning. When you step out on that stage and see me in the judges chair, when you see all your friends and teachers and their friends and family in the audience, when you see a sea of faces out there all looking back at you, waiting to hear what’s going to come out of your mouth in the next few minutes—remember that we are all human, and that there’s nothing humans want more than a good story.

Use your poem to give us that story.
______

Book Review: Gospel of Dust by Joseph Ross

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Gospel of Dust
Poems by Joseph Ross
Main Street Rag, 2013
$15



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

as you.

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
of God

one of the ten commandments
would forbid whistling.

No one would wear cotton
clothing, every cotton field

would be burned in praise
of fourteen

year-old boys
and their teeth.

If Mamie Till was the mother
of God

every river would be still
so nothing thrown in

could travel downstream;
barbed wire could only be

worn as a necklace
by senators.

If Mamie Till was the mother
of God

every coffin lid would be
glass, so even God could see

how baptisms are done
in Mississippi.

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
______

Book Review: Now, Now by Jennifer Maier

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Now, Now
Poems by Jennifer Maier
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by Alison Taverna

If Jennifer Maier’s second full-length collection, Now, Now, was likened to a type of candy it would be a Hershey’s Special Dark. I say this based on accurate metaphor, not hunger. On first chew, Maier’s poems are delicate, quiet, deliberately fond with a spark of bitter, subtle destruction, as if what is sweet is temporary. It’s a world of the everyday—of Dave the Electrician, paper men cut-outs, and Edith Wharton’s classic Ethan Frome. Yet, in Maier’s collection the tender hand of memory is tainted by the fleeting nature of time, the past relative to the past of this exact moment, suddenly gone, as she writes, “the past,/ once yours, you wouldn’t trade for any other,/ ringed by the past you’re living now—here…” Everything, it appears, ends while it begins.

I once read in my high school journalism textbook each bar of chocolate contains eight insect legs. I imagine the grasshoppers in their sugar comas, ripped apart in sleep by the dessert miners, their tiny spindle bodies not surprised because it happened to their brothers and sisters. A result of their environment, our lives are a balance as Maier explains, “In the midst of life we are in death.” Now, Now is a woman’s middle-aged awakening, the romantics of youth manifest only in nostalgia and time “a collapsible cup.”

The first poem in the three-section collection, “Hangman” brims with tension, foreshadows the fallible future, which carries into each poem of Maier’s. On the surface, a daughter rides shotgun to her father as they drive into town, play hangman on a pad of paper. It seems innocent enough—the word Volcano—the daughter excited to stump, unaware of the real danger as Maier writes, “he can still get it you know he can if he just concentrates,/ so you hand him the bottle, taking the wheel as he leans back, eyes closed, thinking.” The speaker of the poem seems to be positioned outside their car, this moment, as if it has already been lived and in remembering, years later, the speaker sees the warning signs to come. This is achieved, and appears subtle and effortless, through Maier’s balance between the interior and exterior of the vehicle. She weaves, “Then seven spaces underneath,/ like the broken centerline the father will cross when he feels/ under the seat for the bottle…” The speaker is omniscient here, unveils the inevitability of death hanging, in wait, like the penciled circle of the hangman’s head. Her language is suggestive of violence in, “the headlights that slice through the cab like a quick and painless incision” and “the road a running scar through the dense woods…” Maier likens the hangman to the father, a childhood game to the reality of death. This is the poem that begins her collection, and so, we understand within the following pages that memories will be re-visited and re-examined in an attempt to locate what always existed: imperfection.

While the first section seems the most concentrated to a particular past, the second and third section appear current, moments fresh from happening with titles “The Wind Blows My Dictionary Open To ‘Man’” and “Sharing A Bath.” Yet, what carries throughout all sections is Maier’s wrestle with love—what should it look like, how should it resonate, does it alter with the passing of time and the loss of youth? Should it?

Two of my favorite poems, “Jane” and “Heat and Light” examine the wild, uninhibited love. While the speaker in “Jane” believes with few doubts the relationship between Jane and Tarzan existed, she questions the reality of a woman giving herself entirely to a man:

“Jane was pure make believe: the good,
A-student girl who gives up everything for sex…

And if you were like her, dipped in the waters
of her nature, how could you find your way
home to that lost continent? How could
you ever return?”

To the speaker, the question is not why Jane loves Tarzan, but how. The sacrifice too large to conceive and hidden among the social constructs, for “a woman shapes/ a man, haft and point, into the thing she needs…”

“Heat and Light” echoes the desire to discourage the Jane and Tarzan love, through the novel Ethan Frome. The speaker reminisces on Sister Bertrand’s sophomore English class, thinks,

“She must have thought the subject
of doomed, illicit love
would slow the downward slide
she’d marked in faces streaked
with rouge, in pleated skirts,
rolled at the waist.”

Here, she pushes against Sister’s Bertrand’s opinion of Ethan and Mattie’s love, claims a tight hold, for “Love,/ our true religion, would save them/ in the end.” Wharton though, does not save Ethan and Mattie, and so the ideal, sacrificial love is broken and the students, broken, are left copying “More heat than light” down for their test. Maier is conscious of the past and its ability to curb the future, the speaker’s ideas of womanhood shifted by the literature of her childhood. The past is never the past, but fluid in its influence on the present and future.

Now, Now does not seem to reach a climax or spiral towards a particular finish. For Maier, there is no end, but only the interconnectedness of time and our memory’s desire to look backwards. Maier’s title to her collection represents this idea. On one level, Now, Now sounds like words cooed with a gentle pat after receiving bad news. On a deeper level, the title speaks to Maier’s main focus: time is never stagnant. The now that exists before the first comma is over in an instant, followed by another now. Memory aids in our remembering, but it fails to slow down this process. It’s bittersweet, this life, but Maier accepts this, as should we, as she reminds,

“And if it all passed in an instant,
a comfort now to know you had your life of ordinary good,
of love’s tart fruits, its showery blossoms.”
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Jennifer Maier is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University and associate editor of the arts quarterly IMAGE. Her other poetry collection Dark Alphabet won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry First Book Award and was named one of the Ten Remarkable Books of 2006 by the Academy of American Poets. Maier’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, New Letters, Smartish Pace, American Poetry Review, and has been featured on Public Radio International’s The Writer’s Almanac.
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The Night Before Christmas…

by Jim Coppoc

‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse

When Clement Clarke Moore wrote this poem in 1823—a poem once called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American1”—he published it anonymously. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the versified story of Christmas that gave America a good portion of its holiday folklore, was intended to be a gift. A contribution. A retelling and reshaping of many old tales into one unified narrative for the ages.

Or, in another history, Professor Moore was an erudite and serious academic, and was worried that such a light-hearted piece would reflect poorly on him in the academic culture of the time. Apparently, 190 years hasn’t changed all that much.

In either history, Moore only acknowledged authorship when his children, who loved the poem, requested he include it in his 1844 anthology.

However the poem came to be, I grew up with it, and likely so did you. My father. A third grade play. Disney. All the silly parodies we’ve heard over the years. Again and again—at home, at school, on TV, everywhere—we heard and saw version after version after version of this poem until it became part of us.

And this is the power of poetry.

To paraphrase Karl Kroeber, one of my favorite experts in the oral tradition, stories like this—the ones that really sink in—are at the root of how we learn culture, and they operate by what I’ve come to call Kroeber’s “3 Rs”: Repeat, Revise, Retain.

The repetition part is obvious. Most Americans have heard this story so many times that they can (and do) recite it out loud at some point in the holiday season at least once—especially those of us with children to raise.

The revision part might be a little more subtle, but one of the key features of this story is that it is not new. According to legend, Moore borrowed the image of St. Nicholas and the names of the reindeer, blended them with various cultural traditions, and threw in his own musings from a sleigh ride on a snowy day. Even the jolly figure of St. Nicholas was taken from a Dutch handyman of Moore’s acquaintance.

Even after Moore put all this together and codified it in verse, though, the poem continued to grow and change. It has been published under several titles and in many variations. It has been told and retold both orally and in-person, and in all our culture’s many evolving media. The surface details change, but the underlying themes that have to do with the spirit of the holiday remain intact. What anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss call the “deep structure” of the narrative has continued unbroken through generation after generation of Americans for almost two centuries.

And so we retain this little piece of culture—this story of the holidays. We shape our experience and that of our children around it. We keep the chain of culture unbroken, and forge our own links every year.

If, as many cultures believe, the world is made of stories, it’s fitting at this time of year to stop and reflect on the many stories that bind us together and keep us in community. That teach us how to see the world and how to be in the world. That make us human, and give us family, community, country and culture.

And while you’re reflecting, don’t forget to take a moment to open yourselves to the wonder of Christmas and share these beautiful, light-hearted verses with your children—the next link to be forged.

And next year—to embrace the pluralism of the Great American Story—remind me to tell you another story I know about a few brave Maccabees, or the Nguzu Saba of Kwanzaa, or the child of a carpenter and a faithful Jewish maiden, born in a manger in Bethlehem…
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1Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, from their 1999 book, Gotham: A History of New York City.
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Book Review: Chapel of Inadvertent Joy by Jeffrey McDaniel

 photo c79dd09c-cc04-4a14-8b5f-9d5683115269_zpsebdff143.jpg
The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy
Poems by Jeffery McDaniel
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The first Jeffrey McDaniel poem I ever read was “The Quiet World,” originally published in his 1998 collection The Forgiveness Parade. I found it in the Poetry Foundation’s archive and only read it in isolation—appropriate, perhaps, since silence and isolation are so central to that poem’s meaning. Until I read Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, I was unsure how a collection of such emotionally rich, surreal-yet-real poems might function side by side.

My initial reading of McDaniel’s fifth full-length collection was thirty minutes spent gorging on the excess of dark, beautiful words. I read for candor and, to put it bluntly, a type of emotional orgasm that can only be stoked by the poetic moves McDaniel makes throughout this collection. But, over the next few weeks, I went back through the book more slowly, mining each poem for flashes of technique, motifs, and the tiny, bold truths that McDaniel drops among these pages like glittering jewels. I found much more than can be summed up in a singular review, but here’s a taste to pique your interest.

The first poem clues us in to the type of speakers we’ll meet throughout the collection’s 88 pages. “Hello” is a direct address to the reader that opens: “The person gazing at this page before you had really amazing eyes—/ blue the way the Caribbean is blue that first minute off the plane/ to someone who grew up in Jersey.” In these lines, we see the immediacy with which beauty fades, the nature of perception that causes most joys we find in life to manifest as inadvertent, unexpected flashes. Arguably one of the most autobiographical poems in the collection, “Hello” is written in the voice of a speaker who is newly forty and lamenting the arrival of middle age. “I know I’m complaining, and that it’s unattractive,” our speaker states, “but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.” This apologetic undertone, the confessional admission and request for forgiveness, is universal to many of the poems in Chapel of Inadvertent Joy. After making a number of lyric turns built on a meditation about Eden, penises, and the physical signs of aging, the speaker makes a final direct address to the reader, pleading: “Now, if you would just lean forward a little, friend,/ and drag your fragrant strands over my voluptuous grief.”

Many of McDaniel’s speakers throughout the collection will make similar requests for pity and touch. In “Pity Party,” the speaker asks his reader to invite a crowd of mourners to join him—a widow and the father of a suicide victim among them—“but make sure/ each ends by testifying/ that my woes put/ their woes in perspective.” Another speaker envies “The Cougar Tree” because it doesn’t shy away from the touch of woodchucks, south-flying birds, termites, and teenage lovers. The emotions that McDaniel calls up are those we feel in times when we’re sick to establish human connection but too disgusted by ourselves to reach out. They are universal and visceral, but sometimes damn depressing.

Yet McDaniel never lets us sit too long in the darkness; it’s clear he aims to make us understand that these types of suffering are a part of our shared human experience, but he’d also like to remind us of the light. As many have said of his work before, some of the most beautiful imagery we get in these poems comes from the metaphors McDaniel employs. In “The Track of Now,” young women wear “dresses made from the skin of green apples” and Joan Wasser’s singing voice is “fierce and luminous,/ like watching glass being blown.” Later, a lover’s eyebrows become “church benches/ I want to be carved into like initials.” Neon is described as “an elongated firefly, a match/ in a constant state of strike.” Even one speaker’s description of his first relationship—“two malnourished, rootless things/ clinging to each other and calling it love”—connotes a sense of naïve hope and the freshness of feeling that comes with youth.

In fact, one might say that the dichotomy of dark and light is the engine of this collection. In “Happy Marriage,” the symbolic dark sedan, which will be a motif throughout the book, shows the reader that things are not always what they seem at surface-level:

“A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind. You know
you should turn and run the other way.
But you don’t. You stand there.
The blackened rear window rolls down.
It’s a boy you knew in high school, holding a rose.”

The poem’s subject, the unhappy wife, allows herself to give in to a fantasy that for a moment enlivens her mundane marriage. We can assume from the poem’s title that people around the wife are unaware of how restricted she feels. McDaniel plays with this relationship between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. In a later poem, “Yard Work,” the speaker prunes a hedge “so the bush can live, so its leaves can flourish/ and protect us from the eyes of neighbors.” Many of the speakers in the book’s first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” keep their darkest traits a secret despite feeling desperate to bare them to the world.

“Satan Exulting Over Eve,” based on a William Blake drawing of the same name, builds on the dark/light dichotomy. Wisdom becomes venom, “scaly logic coils around” Eve, and Satan accuses God of “dressing up/ your little mousetrap like paradise…” In Satan, we see a speaker who moves toward greater honesty, or at least provides a new perspective for an old story, when he remarks, “I, your slithering assassin,/ your eternal patsy, merely carried out/ your grimiest deed with reptilian loyalty.” Anyone who’s ever felt a flash of empathy for the serpent in Eden, this reviewer included, will find comfort in the gray areas this poem presents.

But perhaps one of the most self-aware personas that McDaniel employs in his first section is that of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. We can feel McDaniel’s awareness of pop culture here as he provides commentary on a recent political scandal, the epicenter of which, New York City, lies just twenty miles from where McDaniel teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. The poem ends with Spitzer holding a coin. One side says, “you will do great things in your lifetime./ The other side reads: you will rain shame/ upon your family.” Spitzer flips the coin to determine his fate, he quips, “as if only one of them can be true.” Here is Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, ends, and transitions, the presider over possibilities. Both of his faces, this collection reminds us, reside in all of us.

Once McDaniel has established his particular brand of the good/evil dichotomy, he introduces us to the speaker of his second section, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies”. The blasphemy, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, addressing the perceived sin that any real man in today’s society would be committing if he willingly allowed his wife to engage in adultery time and time again. Because of constructed gender roles, the fourteen poems we get from the cuckold’s perspective are, at times, uncomfortable to read. The voice McDaniel creates for our cuckold, though, feels so very real. At age thirteen, the speaker is sat down by his father for a talk about “The Birds and the Bees” which takes a page from Marcus Aurelius: “reject your sense of injury/ and the injury itself disappears.” Just when we’re ready to discount the impotent, emasculated cuckold entirely, he lets us in on the fact that he fulfills a necessary role: “I’m the one who sees the tree/ fall down in the forest./ I’m the one who makes it real.” The universality of this comment hits us in the gut. We are all, at our basest and most vulnerable, the cuckold. The answer to how we’d react in a similar situation becomes much less clear.

And that’s what McDaniel does—reminds us all that we’re painfully imperfect. That’s okay, though, as we learn in his final section. “Return to El Mundo Perdido” is an anthem for transience, the utter humanity of sinfulness, and the act of self-forgiveness. In the title poem of the section, the speaker returns to a Mayan city he’d visited thirteen years earlier looking for “some residue of the old me.” This poem is McDaniel in-process, “searching for a metaphor to connect the new and old” selves. After trying unsuccessfully to equate monkeys to teenage boys and an ocelot to his id, McDaniel’s speaker is ready to give up the attempt. At the last minute, he sees “a strangler fig, Ficus aurea” which (no spoilers) allows for the perfect comparison.

In “Mapache,” a speaker motivated by fury to run over a raccoon recalls that “In a dream, when an enemy appears,/ they say it’s a dark version of your self,/ a chance for your two halves to meet.” Here, McDaniel hits on the central theme of the collection. In life, we are always meeting our worse selves—the real question is what we’ll do when we come face-to-face.

It is this recognition that we are all made of dark and light that allows a speaker of indeterminate gender in “Kicking the Lust Bucket”—a genderlessness that seems necessary to the poem—upon being leered at by a man in a café, to empathize and “not recoil/ from the hunger/ in the man’s eyes.” Lust, the speaker says, is universal,

“a bucket
that never stays filled.
A drop always spills,
and all the bucket feels
is the absence of that drop…”

As the collection culminates, McDaniel’s speakers truly come to terms with their darker deeds, wishing only for reconciliation—or at least penance. In “Reckoning,” the speaker admits, “I don’t want to get away with it/ anymore. Getting away with it/ is the worst punishment of all.” But from where does this forgiveness come? The final and titular poem of the collection leaves us with the idea that we must find the small beauties that enter our lives and learn to forgive ourselves first. “When they said smell the roses,/ they didn’t tell you that every day the rose changes,/ that first you must identify the rose.” No matter the darkness, there will always be an inadvertent joy for us to relish in. And when we do, the speaker pleads with us to:
Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out
of that feeling… It’s true—you don’t deserve this,
but it’s yours anyway: the gold-tipped spurs of this moment…

______

Jeffrey McDaniel has published four books of poetry: The Endarkenment, The Splinter Factory, The Forgiveness Parade, and Alibi School. His poems have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry 1994 and 2010. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
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So You Want to be a Writer…

by Jim Danger Coppoc

At least once a month—and just about every time I do a reading—someone asks me for advice on publishing, getting a job, getting into an MFA program, etc. Most of the time this person is already a writer, and when I see their work it’s usually pretty good, but they also always seem to be looking to take that next step and become professionals.

The problem is that I’m not sure I actually know what professional means. If there is a clear path to a writing career, I never found it. I stumbled through my first few years on some combination of luck, pluck, guesswork and industry. I wrote all the time—most of it junk—and I failed again and again and again until I didn’t. Most days, that’s still the cycle I’m in. Writing is hard, making a career of it even harder.

So here’s my first piece of advice for those wanting to become a “professional” writer. Don’t.

Seriously—don’t. You’re probably very talented, but so is everybody else. MFA programs all over America are overflowing with young, ambitious, talented writers who will never make it and who will spend the rest of their lives working crappy jobs teaching freshman comp just to pay off student loans. Give up the idea of writing as a profession, because except for a lucky few that path just doesn’t exist.

If you can do that—if you can strip yourself of any capital-R Romantic notions of winning a National Book Award, getting your work in the Norton Anthology, and watching your mailbox flood with royalty checks—you just might come to a much more important and telling truth:

Writing is not a profession; it is a calling.

Right now, the rest of your life is spread out before you. If you can imagine yourself grading the essays of football players and Ag majors every evening for the rest of your life, replacing the steak-and-caviar award dinners of your dreams with Chinese takeout in your crappy apartment; if you can imagine yourself driving the same car fifteen years at a time, forgetting about royalty checks and watching your mailbox fill with rejection slips and past due bills instead—if you can imagine all that, and the writer’s life still seems worth it, then we might have something to talk about.

If it turns out instead that the lifestyle you imagine is more important to you than the actual act of writing—well, your skills would be equally useful in law school, and that path can buy you all the steak dinners and first-class living you need.

_______

So here, for those of you still with me, is what I know about becoming a professional. It’s not much, but it’s what worked for me…

First, write. Then read. Then write. Then read. Then write then read then read then write then write then write then read then write.

Most of what you write won’t be very good. You won’t know that on the same day you write it. Sometimes you’ll instantly fall in love with garbage. Sometimes you’ll hate what’s creeping out of your pen, but later it’ll turn into the best and most important art you’ve ever made.

If I’ve learned one thing studying the writers who have made it, it’s that they write. Whatever processes or rituals or routines they need—at the end of the day, they sit down with pen and paper (or keys and screen), and they do their job.

Anne Lamott—whose Bird by Bird is a book every aspiring writer should own—writes in her essay/chapter “Shitty First Drafts” that what is important is getting your thoughts on paper, no matter what shape they’re in. Self-censorship is the enemy. Quality comes with revision, not with drafting. You can’t really begin to apply real craft until you have something on paper to apply that craft to.

And of course, learning the craft you need to apply in revision is not something you can do by yourself. You can’t reinvent the wheel with every story/poem/essay. You would never get anything worthwhile done.

A more realistic approach is to carefully read all the writers you can who are better than you (and there will always be writers better at something than you), and learn how they work. My imagery comes from Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Pinero, the King James Bible, and a whole host of slammers from around the turn of the century. My prosody comes from Jack Kerouac, Saul Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Bryonn Bain, Shane Koyczan, and the Baptist hymns I grew up with. My themes come from grunge music, urban spaces, the Gospel of Matthew, and all the hip-hop crossover poets—like Saul Williams and Miguel Pinero—I can find…

These lists go on, but the point is that writers write in community. If you want to grow, you will need both a living community of writers, editors and honest friends, AND a large library of truly great influences you can draw from. There’s no Ginsberg without Whitman or Blake. There’s no Shakespeare without Petrarch. There’s no tree without roots. It just doesn’t work any other way.

As for the MFA—well, that choice is yours. I chose the best possible MFA for me. Hamline University is interdisciplinary by nature, and so am I. Jim Moore—one of their flagship poets—brings big metaphor to everyday living in a way I needed to learn. Deborah Keenan—their other flagship poet—is good at all the things I’m not. I learned more from her than I could have from a thousand professors whose writing is more similar to mine.

Maybe even more important than all that, the MFA program at Hamline prides itself on faculty who can teach instead of just faculty who bring big name recognition and high visibility. This is what I needed at that point in my life.

I made my choice. You make yours. Find writers you admire, and look them up on sites like Rate My Professor to see if they can teach. When you find the faculty you need, apply to the schools they work for, regardless of reputation or location or price or any other factor. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…

And give up on trying to game the application. Just send them your best writing sample and your most honest essay. Don’t overthink. Let the pieces fall where they may. If the program doesn’t like what you do, you would probably not be happy there anyway.

As for the job market and the publishing game—nobody really knows how they work. Apply to places you want to work, where you’ll be surrounded by people you want to work with. Send out to journals and book publishers you admire. Find out whether or not you admire them by doing your research, reading past issues, and learning what they’ve published before.

Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of what’s important. Careerism has its place. That place is not on top of your list of priorities. Read what you read. Write what you write. Remember your calling, and trust that somehow the Universe will keep you afloat long enough to put something worthwhile out into the world.

If it can happen to me…
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