Abbott, Anthony. New and Selected Poems. Lorimer, 2009
Amen, John. At the Threshold of Alchemy. Presa, 2009
Bathanti, Joseph. Land of Amnesia. Press 53, 2009
Beall, Glenda. Now Might as Well Be Then. Finishing Line, 2009
Campbell, Pris. Hesitant Commitments. Lummox, 2009
Campbell, Pris. Sea Trails. Lummox, 2009
Carty, Jessie. The Wait of Atom. Folded Word, 2009
Claytor, Sara. Howling on Red Dirt Roads. Main Street Rag, 2009
Erickson, Terri Kirby. Telling Tales of Dusk. Press 53, 2009
Faith, Melanie. Bright Burning Fuse. Etched, 2008
Ferguson, Linda Annas. Bird Missing from One Shoulder. WordTech, 2007
Ferguson, Linda Annas. Dirt Sandwich. Press 53, 2009
Frischkorn, Suzanne. Lit Windowpane. Main Street Rag, 2008
Fuller, Janice Moore. Séance. Iris, 2007
Geiger, Timothy. The Curse of Pheromones. Main Street Rag, 2008
Griffin, Bill. Snake Den Ridge. March Street, 2009
Honeycutt, Irene Blair. Before the Light Changes. Main Street Rag, 2008
Hostovsky, Paul. Bending the Notes. Main Street Rag, 2009
Jackson, Beverly. Every Burning Thing. Pudding House, 2008
Krawiec, Richard. Breakdown. Main Street Rag, 2008
Lader, Bruce. Landscapes of Longing. Main Street Rag, 2009
Mitchell, Felicia. The Cleft of the Rock. Finishing Line, 2009
Nelson, Paul. Sea Level. Main Street Rag, 2008
Peeler, Tim. Checking Out. Hub City, 2010
Redmond, Glenis. Under the Sun. Main Street Rag, 2008
Rigsbee, David. Two Estates. Cherry Grove, 2009
Riviere-Seel, Pat. The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Main Street Rag, 2009
Romine-Powell, Dannye. A Necklace of Bees. Univ of Arkansas, 2008
Scott, Joanna Catherine. Night Huntress. Main Street Rag, 2008
Smith, Mike. Multiverse. BlazeVox, 2010
New & Selected Poems (ISBN: 9780978934279)
by Anthony Abbott
Lorimer Press, 2009, 117 pages
I was crossing the causeway to Wrightsville Beach early in the morning on my way to the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference when suddenly and inexplicably, I began to cry. I’m a sensitive guy. I’ll admit that I cry pretty easily, but usually not without present and apparent cause. I pulled off to the side of road, looked into the sunrise and began to realize that the source of this uncontrolled outburst of emotion was the intimate resonance of the poems I had been reading over the past couple of days from Anthony Abbott’s New and Selected Poems.
This will not be the usual scholarly review of a new book of poems. I started it that way, but Abbott’s work needs little scholarly commentary. His are poems intended to be understood not just by critics and other poets, but by every reader. They are written in such a way, in fact, that long before the reader achieves a clear cognitive grasp of their meaning, he or she will already be under their emotional influence, will already understand and have been transported by the poems’ emotional center. And so, this will be my first (and perhaps only) poetic review of poetry and an expression of gratitude to Tony Abbott for helping me feel more fully the urgency of now.
Crossing the Causeway to Wrightsville Beach, November 2009
The cormorants line up above the causeway,
their morning posture of feeding as ancient as trees,
older than even the first iambic lines.
We drive beneath them and rarely take notice,
not even of the stickle-backed sky full of clouds
that has lingered beyond them longer than reckoning.
I pull off the road to write down
the line I pull off the road as if
it mattered even more than destinations,
than the timelessness of cormorants perched
above the road that I get these lines down
because – what? They have something vital to say?
They’re all I have in the face of eternity? They,
like young girls running, help fend off the darkness.
After Reading Tony Abbott
I can’t think of the date today,
not just what day it is, but even
what month. I write down October,
cross it out, December,
cross it out, finally come
to November’s season of lost leaves.
I’ve read my friend’s poems in which
he still mourns the loss of his daughter
some forty years in the past, the grief
as fresh in his mind as what he had
for breakfast mere moments ago.
The sun is bright before me, the road
blurred with runners, each one
carefully prepared for what they’ll face.
I think of my own daughter and how
she’ll grow up one day if she survives
the shattered windshield, aggression of microbes,
cruel hand of fate, and I’ll
no longer have to write on roadsides,
plenty of time and peace at home,
and nothing left to write about.
At the Threshold of Alchemy
by John Amen
Presa Press (2009) 84 pages, $13.95
ISBN 9870980008159, Poetry
Had John Amen sought my advice before publishing At the Threshold of Alchemy, his third collection of poetry, I would have suggested some reorganizing. In my opinion, the book begins slowly, and that is a big risk to take in a time of short attention spans and instant gratification. Poems like “Purpose” with its flat statement, “I am in love with what pulses / beneath blush and bone” and its rather unsavory conclusion, “every day, without fail, I must lick the divine,” seem too plain, predictable, and off-setting to earn the self-aggrandizement they contain (sorry, John, just being a critic). Fortunately, however, I didn’t stop reading when the first half dozen poems failed to engage my attention, and hopefully, others will also read beyond the first few poems. Those who do not will miss some damn good poetry.
The heart of this book is the middle, where Amen seems to become less self-conscious, somehow less aware of his own presence, letting the “characters” speak for themselves, and creating a tour de force of poetic imagination and archetypal imagery clothed in personal symbolism. The voices in this strongest section of the book range from a disconsolate angel to an ingenuous generic speaker who is less poet than person.
My favorite short poem from the book, and one of my favorite poems so far from 2009, is “Birth of Evil,” a poem of religious questioning which suggests that the Fall might be the fault of God (“Who can fault Lucifer for what’s ensued? Rejection / is hatred’s fodder. Banishment breeds pathology”) and in which the relationship between god and this speaker-angel sounds disturbingly like that between many grown-up sons and their fathers today: “I hardly see Him / anymore. I can’t remember the last time we spoke.” Other noteworthy short poems consist of intimate examinations, perhaps even personalizations, of archetypal figures, such as the untouchable temptress in “the woman in the shower” and the support group in “the women at the breakfast table.”
In many ways, however, the best poem in the book is the longest. “Portraits of Mary” is a series of twenty 13-line cantos that show the speaker’s perception of his lover at various times, from various perspectives, and in the process shows their relationship in this same multi-dimensional manner. The cantos are as quirky and individualistic as any honest portrait would have to be, and it is in these “snapshots” that Amen’s archetypal imagery and surrealistic perceptions blend into a creation that is more accurate, more true, more meaningful, and more memorable than any photo album could ever hope to be. Perhaps canto xvii explains why Amen most successfully finds his poetic stride in the subject matter of this poem as the speaker says, “You’re teaching me, Mary, to fall in love with particulars,” from which point he concludes:
God’s gallery may well be all about us,
but his studio remains hidden: master laboring in bottomless
subspace, drafting, detailing the infinitesimal–life itself
his life’s work, magnum opus he can’t bring himself to finish.
Building on Ruin: Song of the South
Land of Amnesia, by Joseph Bathanti
Press 53, 2009 (ISBN: 9780981628073)
83 pages, $12
Those of us who were born and raised in the South and who have paused on occasion to reflect on the trajectory of the South have never doubted the existence of either resurrection or reincarnation. We’ve been quite comfortable with the apparent contradictions of the Phoenix myth and the questionable logic of generations who, if Schliemann got it right at Troy, build again and again atop and from ruin. Joseph Bathanti is not, in fact, a native son, but he has lived here long enough and worked long enough amid those masters of renaissance and redefinition, prisoners, orphans, and community college students, to recognize the persistence of the pattern on personal, political and social levels.
The truth is, nothing ever dies completely here. Historically, the South in its apparent resistance to change has been resistant primarily to governance, but one law the South has perfectly abided is the law of conservation. This is the truth Bathanti explores, exploits, and lays bare in his wonderful new collection of poems Land of Amnesia. Bathanti’s appreciation for the stubborn resilience of Southern ways in the broadest understanding of that concept is apparent in the title poem where the speaker states: “at the end / I’d beg to cross one last time / the Rocky River into Anson County.” It is here that he imagines “The old bay, Star, dead two decades, / canters in the pasture” and that he declares “It is here, my best beloved, / we’ll build on ruin.” It is again apparent in “How to Bury a Dog” where we’re given multiple images of the duplicity of persistence and transformation that has marked the history of the South:
You won’t cuss through three feet
until you spark off a shelf
of sediment rock that’s been making
since the Yadkin lived here.
Resist the temptation
to wrap him in cerements.
Face him east.
Let the earth do its work.
Bathanti is engaged in these poems in the craft of preservation, of saving moments, ideas, impressions, and he is particularly good at it because he clearly loves not only the world he preserves but also the tools of his craft: words. These poems are so carefully and precisely written, each word the exact right word, that the reader feels they could not have been written any other way and gladly returns to them again and again to enjoy yet another connotation and the resultant implication, perhaps the same reasons we dwell so long on the particulars of history. This precision of image and word choice is illustrated in the poem “Running a Group Home,” where the reader is struck by the chilling poignancy of the proximity of a group home with certain other elements of the Southern economy:
We’d stagger naked out of bed
and go to our only window,
look out over Roosevelt Boulevard.
On the other side was a dyeing
and finishing plant; then beyond it–
. . . . . . . . . .
the Union County Prison Camp.
I have seen this same love of words, this same careful, precise phrasing recently in several books from Press 53, specifically those by Linda Annas Ferguson, Joseph Mills, and Terri Kirby Erickson. It is an admirable talent on the part of editors Kevin Watson and Tom Lombardo to recognize and encourage such sublimity among the poets they publish.
The not-so-secret message in this book, and perhaps in all of the recent Press 53 releases, is that in the quest for “the improbability . . . / that legs with hearts to prompt them / may keep lurching, decade upon decade, / chaplet upon chaplet, toward salvation” (“Running”), memory is vital, for as long there is memory, there is the chance to build on the past, and clearly as long as Bathanti is writing, we can defy “the great sorrow of forgetting” (“The Sorrow of Forgetting”) and circumvent the land of amnesia. Bathanti clearly shows in these poems that you don’t have to be from the South to know what to make of a ruined thing, but it helps to spend some time there.
Now Might As Well Be Then (ISBN: 1599245094)
By Glenda Beall
Finishing Line Press, 2009, 28 pages, $12
There are no surprises in Glenda Beall’s new book of poems Now Might As Well Be Then. The title gives it all away. These are poems about timelessness, specifically about the timelessness of human experience. There are no surprises, but there is great joy. Not that every poem tells a joyful story. Quite the contrary, some of the best poems here are the most tragic. But even in these poem, there is great poignancy, and in that poignancy the joy of recollecting, of being reminded of how it feels to be human, of having, in fact, those feelings cathartically intensified through the poems.
Beall begins the collection with a love poem that celebrates the timelessness of a relationship. The speaker in the title poems says, “You brought me spring in winter // youth when I was old, / you found my childhood self.” If not for the dedication of the poem which announces who is intended by the indefinite second person pronoun, one could easily read this as a celebration of many things–god, nature, the mountains of North Carolina—and interestingly, any of these meanings would fit for the poems that follow as these poems celebrate the presence and influence of all of these elements.
One suspects, in fact, that the relationship between speaker and mate in “Now Might As Well Be Then” is inseparable from that between speaker and place. That suspicion is supported by the next poem, “Mountain Seagull,” in which “Lake Chatuge wraps the mountains, / lapping love,” and the speaker says “My spirit soars above the scene / a seagull far from home, / But yearning to embrace / and build a nest.” Four poems later in “In the Dark,” the theme of timelessness in this relationship appears again, as does the title of the collection and the first poem: “Here I am years later, listening to your soft breath / and feeling your warm smooth skin. / In the dark, now might as well be then.”
The timelessness Beall reveals to the reader is not the magical, mysterious, miraculous sort of timelessness that remains inexplicable and unearned. Beall, instead, makes clear in poems like “Woman in the Mirror” that the timelessness she speaks of is fostered through the vital effort of memory: “What happened to those days / I ask the woman in the mirror. / Gone, she says, all gone, unless / you can remember.” The final line break of that poem becomes an impressively empowering device, creating both an imperative and a confirmation for the reader to carry into his or her own life.
To show us how this creation of timelessness is to be done, Beall practices her own imperative throughout the poems in this book. She remembers the sound of rain in “Listening for the Rain” and is reminded of her father:
Too late for the corn, my father says,
across the bridge of time.
Maybe it will save the pasture,
give us one more haying
before summer ends.
She goes on, then, to recall other events from her childhood, the tragic story of “Roosevelt” (perhaps my favorite poem in the book), the story of her “Father’s Horse,” another story of tragic loss in “Clearing New Ground,” and finally, the beautiful and touching concluding poem “Blue Moon Every Twenty Years,” which successfully reminds the reader of all of Beall’s themes by tracing the singing of a particular song every twenty years, the last time when the singer was somewhere around 70 years old and still proclaiming, “I’ll sing your song for you again / in twenty years.” Just so, these poems will sing to the reader again and again, reminding us to embrace life through our relationships with people and places and to make those relationships timeless through the vital habit of memory.
Review of Pris Campbell’s Hesitant Commitments ($5, 36 pages, Lummox Press, http://www.lummoxpress.com)
Good poems come in all shapes and sizes these days, but one trait most good poems share is that they have an impact on the reader. That impact may be emotional, cognitive, or, in rarer but often more enjoyable cases, visceral in nature. The poems in Pris Campbell’s new chapbook, Hesitant Commitments, from The Lummox Press, run the gamut of types of impacts, but many of the best poems in the manuscript feature that rarer visceral impact. In fact, poems like “Silk Blouse,” “Voyeur,” and “The Reading” might be described as, frankly, arousing.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that this is a collection of simple, erotic poetry. Many of the poems are also emotionally or philosophically stirring. The single best poem in the manuscript is the one that delivers the most resounding emotional blow, “about my sadness,” where the speaker asks herself:
how many times can
I lie on my back with a stranger,
legs spread, in hopes
this will be the orgasm that draws
my sadness out of the shadows,
evacuates that old man’s touch
from my childhood thighs?
Good collections of poetry also come in all shapes and sizes these days, and while I can’t say that there is a single trait they all share, many of them do share the characteristic of an over-arching narrative, an element found in Hesitant Commitments as well. This is the story of an emotional journey that begins in inexplicable sadness, leading to desperate, aimless sexual promiscuity, and on to, at first, hopeful and then frustrated love, before concluding with the realization that it is not love alone which can heal the past, but a surrendering of the past to love — a surrendering that gives up control and creates vulnerability and trust. That’s a mouthful for one sentence; fortunately, the poems take their time in drawing out this narrative. In short, it is a story of self-discovery and the reclamation of fully human emotion lost through childhood sexual abuse. This is, obviously, a timely and important story, and like so many important stories, it is one better understood through the subtle workings of poetry, which make the experience seem our own, than it is through news reports of any form.
Campbell does a masterful job in dealing with a difficult theme, avoiding at all turns being preachy or sentimental, and creating at all turns imagery that resoundingly earns the emotional response it requests. She helps the reader understand what one would think could not be understood. Just as the speaker of these poems reclaims her humanity, she helps the reader expand his.
Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes, by Pris Campbell
Lummox Press (2009)
If you like poetry, you’ll love Pris Campbell’s new book Sea Trails (Lummox, 2009). If you don’t like poetry, even if you don’t understand poetry, even if you resent poetry and poets, you’ll love this book. If you like a story, if you like the sea, if you like memoirs, confessions, and reality shows, you’ll love this book.
It’s easy to be impressed with the creativity on display in Pris Campbell’s decision to juxtapose log notes from a sailing journey down the East Coast with highly personal and evocative poetry written about that journey. The complementation of prose and poetry, art and memoir creates a unique example of mimesis in action, a wonderful opportunity to speculate on the relationship between art and life, and the most enjoyable means of facilitating the comprehension of a poem that I’ve ever encountered. All that’s missing is the movie.
What might be overlooked in all of this is that even were there no log notes, no interesting details about sailing, no overarching narrative, and no innovative design, these would still be fantastic poems, and as much as I enjoy all the things that make this book unique and that make it more readable to a wider audience than every other collection of poetry from the past 10 years, it is still the poetry that makes it a great book. Campbell speaks in these poems with a clarity and vibrancy that create an unmistakably familiar emotional impact on the reader. Each poem contains its own catharsis as they build towards the summative climax of the narrative. “Why I Call Him My Lover,” for example, establishes the central conflict of the book while manifesting the oxymoronic desperate resignation of a lover falling out of love.
He’s not my mate.
Not my husband, either.
I don’t think of him
as my partner.
He’s not sweetie, hon,
darlin’, or luv.
I no longer use his given
name except when calling him.
We create what seems like love
in the V-berth each evening
and, sometimes, for a sail
flutter, it is again.
That and the boat
are our only tether.
Similarly, these lines from “Reversals” embody that same speaker’s stubborn hope that something worthwhile can yet be crafted from what has gone stale: “Unknown harbors wait to embrace us, / to cast roses upon hope that what / has been lost can still find fresh breath.” And, one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Original Sin,” re-envisions the myth of Adam and Eve to carry the conflict forward while beautifully expressing the inevitable disappointment one feels in loss:
When Adam bedded Eve in these dark pines
I wonder if they laughed in their nakedness,
threw kisses at lopsided stars.
I doubt Adam searched for other Eves to ogle,
found fault or ignored her. . . .
Our boat swings with the tide, waking us.
He slides inside. My very own Adam,
already tainted by original sin.
The flow of emotions engulfing this waning relationship is not, however, the only current that runs through these poems. There is also a movement towards independence, self-actualization, and, as first made clear in “Rebirth,” a joie de vivre expressed in the thrill of sailing:
I’ve birthed her hundreds of times
just as she’s birthed me,
but each time is a new time.
Umbilical cut, we move towards the open sea.
Even as the relationship between the speaker and her lover fester, this growth towards self-discovery and happiness continues in poems like “Newport Mayhem,” which concludes
I’m glad to sit on Little Adventure
under the darkening plum colored sky, feeling
every fresh second merge with my heartbeat
until my chest splits wide open to the glory of now.
Eventually the contrary currents of waxing self-discovery and waning co-dependence diverge as the speaker achieves her epiphany in “Daytona Redux:”
Suddenly I know I have what I need without him.
My little boat.
Sea air caressing my face.
This day, so beautiful it could break your heart.
The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly satisfying work of art. From the innovative combination of log notes, maps, charts, photographs, and of course, poetry, to the beautiful cover, the enticing narrative, and the sharp, clear, and engaging poetry, it is one of the best works I’ve read in several years.
The Wait of Atom, by Jessie Carty
Folded Word Press, 2009 (ISBN: 9780977816705)
Jessie knows men. She gets that it’s the detail they revel in, whether it’s sports, or cars, or the contours of good wood, or in this case, chemistry. It’s what keeps the brain from focusing on disquietude, displeasure, disappointment, dissatisfaction, disenfranchisement, or any number of other “disses,” all of which are various manifestations of the human inability to know whether we’ve gotten anything right at all. In other words, the details we fill our lives with are distraction from what might otherwise produce the dangers of depression, desperation, dysfunction, and a sense of impotence against the oppression of time, nature, society, and inescapable ignorance.
But don’t think Jessie is just male-bashing. She doesn’t characterize just men as Eliot’s man-brute Sweeney because Jessie knows women too. She gets that they are the same as men . . . only different. She gets that the struggles are the same but the distractions different. Just as her Atom has “learned / to keep his eyes focused on a point / just over her shoulder while he let his brain / scan the periodic table of elements,” her Zoe has learned that “her purse had to match her shoes” (“The Wait of Atom”) and to want “a full church and months of / preparation. Preachers and parties. / Invitations and tradition” (“Bright Beacon”).
And Jessie knows psychology and sociology, and of course chemistry. She knows that the source of these differences is not, ironically given the structure of the book, chemical at all, but rather environmental, as is made clear in “Pink Was the Color of His Weakness,” a poem in which the two main characters fulfill the expectations of various “visitors” all the while harboring contrary truths about their personalities: “They always asked him about his comic books. // . . . as she / would try to discuss the rows of romance novels / that no one knew he wrote.”
And don’t think that her new book of poems The Wait of Atom is even remotely as heavy-handed, dry, or nihilistic as this review might suggest because another thing that Jessie knows is poetry readers. She knows that the darkness of these poems is best kept just under the surface to be experienced by most almost subliminally or to be ferreted out by only the most careful of readers. She knows that the surface will fare much better with humor and the opportunity for light self-reflection, allowing any reader the momentary chuckle when they recognize their own habits, as they will, among those of Atom and Zoe.
Besides, “The Amateur Geologist,” the best of these poems, and meaningfully the last of them, can only be seen as dark and nihilistic if one considers existentialism as inherently nihilistic. We see the subject of this poem “searching” on what he “calls” “a path,” and having found a temporary satisfaction, he returns, “cradling his prize,” “to his abandoned bike, / wheels still spinning / as if they had achieved / perpetual motion.” This wonderful metaphor for human endeavor to find value in life is Sisyphean, and thus existential, suggesting that the endeavor itself, the perpetual spinning, the ceaseless search, remains sufficient and justifies the constant doubt and the necessary diversions we undertake to keep the wheels in motion.
Howling on Red Dirt Roads, Poems by Sara Claytor
Main Street Rag, 2009, 89 pages
Sara Claytor and I have a great deal in common. We both grew up in the rural South, amid everything that implies, including a less than ideal childhood. We’re both poets and teachers. And, perhaps most surprisingly and arguably, we both used the same complex structure for our latest collections of poetry. Claytor’s book, Howling on Red Dirt Roads, is divided into three sections. Part I provides a broad perspective on the South preceding and coinciding with the poems’ speaker’s birth and growth. In a sense Part I portrays the larger world with all of its tensions, conventions, and expectations that gave birth to the family dynamics more tightly portrayed in Part II. And Part III presents the world after the speaker’s family, the world the speaker inhabits as she attempts to redeem the worlds of Parts I and II.
In large part, the book consists of a series of portraits. First, there are portraits of Southern women, defined in the poem “Fading Southern Belles” and expanded upon in many of the subsequent poems in the first section. Then, there are the family portraits in Part II, grandmother, mother, father, and most significantly, nanny. And finally, there are the portraits of the speaker at various stages in her adult life in Part III. These portraits are sometimes funny as in the description of “Miz Southern Belle” as “contradictory, confusing / marshmallow on the outside / a Mack truck on the inside,” a description that goes contrary to the usual “tough on the outside, tender on the inside” characterization of people. Other times they are quite dark as in the story of “Miz Lottie Jenkins” who “told Bible stories to the junior girls / about Jezebel torn apart / by the wild street dogs.” At a recent reading, Claytor claimed that most of her poems “end on up,” but I would disagree. While there are certainly “up” moments, poems confronting head-on such issues as racism, poverty, class distinctions, alcoholism, abuse, mental illness, snobbery, and fear are not easily spun to “happy.”
Interestingly, with only two exceptions, my favorite poems from Howling on Red Dirt Roads are the ones that are not portraits. I enjoy the humorous “Second-Hand Redemption” in which the speaker imagines a catalog of people who might have previously worn the shoes she mends in a thrift store, concluding
the broken heels
nail the sides tight
shines the toes
mend the soles whole
blue suede shoes
boots made for walkin’
dancing in the dark
all God’s chil’en got soles.
Similarly, I enjoy the disturbing poem “The Last Taboo,” which explores both literal and figurative conventions of cannibalism beginning
Buried deep in the human mind,
an urge quivers to eat each other.
Lovers nibble lovers’ flesh; babies
so cute we could eat with a spoon;
we eat our hearts out with envy.
Facing starvation, we ingest corpse flesh
weep,wail, accept the ultimate
revulsion for its moment; then
somewhere between clouds and shadows
turn again to our daily affairs.
And, finally, I’m moved by “What the Children Know,” which examines the psychic trauma of childhood terror including such things as physical and sexual abuse, concluding with this horrifyingly evocative image:
We can’t tell what the children know
until they smother in the fumes,
shrivel in the flames of acts so heinous,
even Mother Mary wraps a shroud
around her face, turns away,
unable to bear the silent cries.
And the two exceptions? The two “portraits” that I find among the best poems in the book both come from Part II and deal with the relationship of the speaker, a white Southern girl, and her African-American nanny, Julia. In “Julia’s Invisible Fences,” after several glimpses of this special relationship, the speaker tells us
Part of my heart moved down that road to your house
with its blue porch rocking chair and yellow birdhouse nailed
above the tin roof. I was your ‘baby gal,’ even after I graduated
from college, visited you last in a nursing home where you kept
a photo of blonde three-year-old me tacked on the wall above
your bed–right beside the picture of a white Jesus.
The importance of this relationship is made even clearer in “We Played Spin the Bottles,” where the speaker reveals how Julia became protector and comforter against her “white mother’s” alcoholism and physical abuse.
The bottom line? These are compelling poems individually which are strengthened through a context provided by weaving them together in a complex and unified narrative. The only thing better than reading them on the page is hearing them spoken in Claytor’s own transporting Southern drawl, which, is best achieved by attending one of her live readings and experiencing her Southern charm and flair for the dramatic firsthand, but which, thanks to a CD included with the book, is also possible without even leaving the comforts of your favorite chair.
Telling Tales of Dusk
by Terri Kirby Erickson
Press 53 (2009) 107 pages, $12.00
ISBN: 9780982441633, Poetry
What do a Ferris wheel, a motel sign, a roadside diner, and a bay window have in common? In the poetry of Terri Kirby Erickson, they are all sources of light, literal means and transformative symbols of salvation in the poems “County Fair,” “Star Lite Motel,” “Betty’s Roadside Diner,” and “Saving Grace,” respectively.
And perhaps salvation is what poetry is all about, redeeming the finer details of life by imbuing them with the value of memory, finding meaning in what we might otherwise all too easily deem meaningless. As Williams helped us realize just how much did depend upon a red wheelbarrow, Erickson finds meaning in how “Queen Anne’s lace dandies up a ditch” (“Queen Anne’s Lace”), in how an old woman’s moaning is like the wind “when it whips / around a house, rattling windows, / searching for cracks,” (“Assisted Living”) searching, in other words, for ways in, much the same way this woman searches for her way into another world, one of peace, reunion, and clarity.
The speaker of that poem in her unforgettable search for what is inexplicably missing from her world is only the first of a number of remarkable portraits gathered in this collection. There is also the lonely man in “The Speckled Trout Café,” the illiterate preacher who builds his sermons on the scripture read to him by his less faithful wife “the words warmed / by her breath and scattered into his / brain like dandelion seeds” in “Papa Never Learned to Read,” and the blues guitarist in “Delta Blues” who, the speaker comments, “should roll a stone / over hurt that deep, but” instead lifts “it up like Lazarus for anybody / lucky enough to listen.”
These portraits and simple symbols of salvation add up to a memorable second collection of work on their own, but the reader should be careful not to be fooled by the apparent simplicity of these poems, for just as still waters run deepest, the greatest revelations are often expressed in the fewest words. I, for one, am a fan of understatement, something often achieved in poetry through the metaphysical, poems which, as Dickinson encouraged, “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In “Smoke and Mirrors,” for example, Erickson doesn’t spell out her warning of how a teleological obsession with the prize indiscriminately dissolves all else from our focus, good and bad, superfluous and necessary. Instead she shows only how the call of a longed-for boy affects the perception of a young girl: “The boy / I was talking to dissolved, tablet-like, / in the watered down scenery of the things / that were not you.” Similarly, in “Daisy Chain,” she presents the image of four little girls “daisy chained” to their mother to illustrate “belonging so / palpable, it beat like heart / on the pavement.”
Just as these poems are satisfying in their surface-level imagery but tricky in their larger or deeper implications, so too is the book as a whole. There are plenty of poems that seem trivial, merely descriptive, but taken together, they are subtly effective, quietly teaching the reader to reach deeper into the everyday image to recognize and value significance. In other words, they lull you into such comfort that when you finally begin to cry while reading “Blue Hydrangeas,” you realize the poems have taught you the empathy needed to feel this deeply for someone you’ve never known and that you’re not crying just for the speaker of this poem, who reminds us that as long as we are able to love anything our capacity to love ourselves remains, but for all the speakers of all the poems and the wonderfully vital world in which they live, the same world you realize in which you live.
Review of Bright Burning Fuse by Melanie Faith (Etched Press, 18 pages, $5)
What I like best about the poems in Melanie Faith’s Bright Burning Fuse is their “downhomeyness.” These are poems from the heartland, the poetic version of John Mellencamp songs or Billie Letts’ novel Where the Heart Is. In the recent debate about Wall Street versus Main Street, these poems clearly side with Main Street, or perhaps somewhat off-Main Street. For me, it’s a familiar world, albeit one that seems to be vanishing.
In each poem, Faith captures the ambience of late 20th century rural America using the only two tools available to the poet, language and imagery. In the opening poem, “Time Was,” we are reminded that
Once it was the kind of world
where a girl could travel around alone
along any road with a backpack,
a change of clothes, and a banjo.
In the rest of the poem we follow this girl we remember from the days of our childhood, or, if you’re younger, from your parents’ stories through an innocent pick-up, dinner with a stranger, sharing photographs, and arriving at a commune where growing plants leads to internal growth as well, and all with no sense of the danger we would feel in similar circumstances today. The colloquial title of the poem sets the right tone such that the reader is not at all surprised to find the only three-syllable words in the roughly 200-word poem are “grandfather,” “seasonal,” and ironically, “provincial.”
“Time Was” is not the only colloquialism used as a title in the collection. My favorite, because I can remember my grandmother saying all the time, is “It Makes a Body Wonder,” although my grandmother’s statement was usually the dismayed “now don’t that make a body wonder,” usually followed by exactly 5 clucks of her headshaking, self-pitying, resolved tongue. Similarly, in this poem, the speaker remarks how the whistle of a distant train at 1 a.m. can make “a body itch to rise up and follow,” but then quickly acknowledges “my people are not a runaway people. / We are nine to five at the dinner and thrift store, / we are PTA and tilling rows without complaint.” Ultimately, the speaker tells us
Even when we go, we always find our way
back to these woods and creeks,
back to moonlight clinging to the clearing,
back to a silently wondering, listening.
Which probably doesn’t really sound so to most of us after all.
And so it goes in this collection, each poem presenting us compelling images of a world that is far from perfect, but still, in its predictability, its closeness among human beings and to the earth, and even its self-deprecating humor, remains appealing. In the same way, these poems are deceptive, seemingly simple at times but subtly conveying the truest and therefore most important internal human conflicts: ambition versus acceptance; familiarity versus possibility; comfort versus curiosity.
Bird Missing from One Shoulder, by Linda Annas Ferguson, WordTech Editions 2007
A photo of the author’s mother adorns the front cover of Linda Annas Ferguson’s wonderful collection of poetry Bird Missing from One Shoulder. In a sort of poetic full circle, that image is clearly repeated on the back cover in the photo of Ferguson herself. Given the continuity of these two images, it should come as little surprise that the poems are, in part, dedicated to Virgie Nelson Annas, and that it is the spirit of an often underappreciated but strong woman, a self-sacrificing and persisting force of family that runs throughout the body of the work.
Through these poems the reader comes to appreciate the personal sacrifices made by the speaker’s mother as she “rises at five” (“Making Biscuits”), “hides money for a child’s needs” (Mama’s Closet”), hangs “wash outside on the line” (“Choices”) and “kneads with such ease it barely touches the heart of the palm” (“Making Biscuits”), all the while staying “at home / waiting for her own life” (“Lying in State”), listening “with her eyes shut,” (“Mama’s Apron”) and believing “she wasn’t anyone” (“Anonymous”). Even in the poems that focus on the speaker’s father it is the mother who leaves burning “a seashell lamp from a beach / we’ve never seen” (“Living Room”).
Do not think, however, that the poems can be reduced to a mere elegy for the speaker’s mother, for they are also the story of a girl growing up in a place that will be familiar to most readers from the small town South of the 20th century (and deserves to be familiar to those from elsewhere), a place of “fragments . . . parasites . . . bones thrown about” (“Cotton Mill Hill”), a place where “all streets lead to the cotton mill” (“Living Room”), “funerals cost too much to die” (“Graveyard Shift”) and “life comes in pieces” (“Almost Fourteen”). The greatest part of that growing up in this volume is the process of learning to accept grief maturely and of coming to understand the “austere and lonely offices,” as Robert Hayden calls them, of parenting and forgive the shortcomings accepting those offices often result in.
Ultimately, Bird Missing from One Shoulder does what most poetry aspires to do, to save what might otherwise be lost, the world not simply as it happens but as it is felt. The poems literally enact the final lines of “Mama’s Closet” where the speaker’s mother is seen “saving the girl she wants/ to remember, every small portion of paper / a folded page of herself.”
by Linda Annas Ferguson
Press 53 (2009) 81 pages, $12.00
ISBN: 978-0-9824416-6-4, Poetry
For poets, every word is a first word, still full of the power and freshness of creation as they struggle without the tools of logic or reason to “put it right.” In her poem “Breech Birth,” Linda Annas Ferguson captures that sense of urgent discovery in the lines, “I had a hard time getting the beginning right, / . . . no measure / for what is true . . . / an abrupt breath rushing / into me . . . filling / my body with a sudden urge to cry.” She repeats the sentiment in “The First Word,” a poem about Adam’s love of words:
He strained to fill his tongue with every thought,
unable to identify the pleasure, raw
with newness and power, mouth parting–
their genesis and tone feeling true.
Such is the reverie of Ferguson’s fifth collection of poetry, Dirt Sandwich, newly out from Press 53. In one poem after another in this collection, Ferguson embraces (a frequently repeated word in these poems) the power of words as a means of embracing life. In “Genesis,” we hear again of the vitality of language for Adam:
Words lived in his bones,
touched his tongue, still wild,
a slow burning freedom
inside every sound.
How he longed for more words
to love, thought they could save
him from the wet falling sky,
from red flaming sunsets,
from all that hadn’t come yet.
Whether it is Adam speaking or a woman reflecting on her own audacity in the act of embracing language and all its potential as a child, the theme of language as a tool of exploration and knowledge is the same, as in these lines from “Innocence:”
When I was three, I could write
my name, scrawled it on doors,
walls, furniture, floors.
When Mama took my crayons,
I fingered it in the cold sweat
of windowpanes, paused to dot
the “I,” an eyehole to the moon.
I can hear my mother’s “Don’t–
touch,” as I poked
at splintering fissures of frost
on the other side of the window–
and all that enchanted me
about the broken.
As these last lines suggest, the poet’s love of the world is not limited to all that we normally think of as good. Rather, she has a more even-handed curiosity about and appreciation of all experience, all that life has to offer, all that living uncovers. Seamlessly, the next poem, “Topless Dancer,” begins her stubborn exploration of the forbidden and the tragic:
She embraces her own body,
cups a glitter-laden breast,
a golden moon. Dance
is the way she speaks,
embodies what she can’t say.
Such juxtaposition of the mythic, the individual and the personal from one poem to the next, or even within the same poem, is characteristic of the collection and illustrates the correctness of Jung’s concept of archetypes and the reason Confessionalism still works in poetry. This practice of relating the individual to the mythic, the personal to the universal as a means of deepening one’s experience of life, granting greater meaning to the seemingly insignificant details of our days, and revealing the still-relevant humanity behind the sometimes all-too-distant stories that represent us as a species is again made clear in “Rainbows Are Real:”
Once I saw a rainbow while flying,
looking down from the sky, not an arc,
but a complete circle, the plane’s silhouette
in the center. Pilots call it a “glory.”
I wonder if this was the way one first appeared
to God, His magnified shadow hovering
over muddy land and multitudes of dead bodies.
And so it continues throughout the book, each poem teaching us to reach deeper into the joys, the sorrows, and the mere details of life to find meaning, to understand that pressed between birth and death is the stuff of life “alive with dying” (“The Origin of Entropy”), the stuff of our very own dirt sandwich and to remember, in the words of poet Galway Kinnell ,that there is “still time, / for one who can groan / to sing, / for one who can sing to be healed.” It is a story everyone knows but few pause to contemplate. Thank you, Linda Annas Ferguson, for helping us be aware that we live.
Review of Suzanne Frischkorn’s Lit Windowpane (Main Street Rag, 47 pages, $14)
Spare, quiet, minimal in its approach, Suzanne Frischkorn’s new collection of poetry, Lit Windowpane, beautifully illustrates the power poetry has to say a great deal in only a few words. Most of the poems here are brief. “November’s Window,” the shortest, is not even as long as a haiku, 13 syllables in this case, and yet, those 13 syllables remind us of the power of the image to create deep, resonant meaning:
Street light’s orange glow–
a branding iron on the iris.
In these lines, the necessary glow of the street light metaphorically suggests the declining season of growth that now claims ownership of the iris. The title of the poem, as numerous titles in the collection, also reminds us of the importance of perspective, of the fact that, in the words of Paul Davies, “Nothing can be seen in isolation, for the very act of observation must involve a coupling of some sort.” It is this vital coupling, ultimately, that the speaker of these poems would have us meditate upon, a coupling that forbids us from taking things for granted and from letting the importance, the vitality, and the spirituality of the natural world vanish too easily.
One of the best poems of the collection, “Mermaid,” in fact, is very reminiscent of a now canonical poem with a similar message, namely William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.” In Frischkorn’s mermaid who remembers times “Before those creatures with spliced tails freed me / to teach me to kneel,” we hear a complaint against what modern religion has done to our ability to recognize the sacred in nature that is similar to that heard in Wordsworth’s lines “Great God! I’d rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”
Similarly, we hear another thematic echo from a canonical Romantic poem in “Puccini at Dusk.” In this case, it is the contrast of temporal human creation with the immortal natural from Shelley’s “Ozymandias” that we hear again:
I excavate our yard with a garden trowel
and unearth shards of Delft, dull spoons,
a cup handle; remnants
of a dinner party. Is this all we leave
behind? The chain-link fence smothers
in trumpet vine, siren
song to hummingbirds.
Later in this same poem, the speaker explores a third Romantic theme, the pursuit of beauty, when she says:
. . . I’ll do anything
for beauty. I roam this city and count
its storefront churches,
soaped windows, burned factories–one
opera house, nexus to three pawnshops.
Dusk rubs its thumb
along the horizon. I hear the echo
of an aria; it follows each gold band
and a slide guitar.
This theme is wonderfully altered to include acknowledgment of the subjectivity of perception in the poem, “Storm:”
I rend a hole in the window screen and bid the rain in–
with the tip of my pencil–
a small hole, a few drops of rain
to wet my fingers.
Wait for the weeds in the culvert, wait for them
to finish sprouting between stones,
for the electric blue flowers to spread open.
I have given in to them.
Sometimes, beauty is the broken window, or the peeling
paint of the porch rail;
it’s overcast or it’s partly cloudy,
and sometimes it’s birdsong.
Amid such poems which acknowledge the subjectivity, temporality, and inevitable loss of such things as beauty, innocence, and our deeper connections with the natural world, Frischkorn offers as solution the fostering of vital habits: looking, refusing to take things for granted, remembering, sharing, and keeping what we can. These habits are stressed in poems like “Eve,” “Still Water,” “Afterwards,” and my favorite from the manuscript, “The View:”
A green pine cone, one of hundreds
you’ll pick up in late winter. Yes,
it’s June, but winter is coming, some
things you can bet on. Others
you take for granted–
asphodels push through wet earth,
songbirds sing, and your children
perennials of your own making; for
the rest of your life
the view of their backs
as they push away from you.
Review of Séance by Janice Moore Fuller (Iris Press, 2007, http://www.irisbooks.com)
The speaker of Janice Moore Fuller’s poem “Angled. Mosaic. Companion.” from her collection Séance says,
Youth loves puzzles, séances with missing
voices. But you and I need the steady
fullness of a carpet rolled flat.
And that is what the poems in this collection do, rolling flat the fabric of memory and perception to help the reader see what we almost certainly would have missed otherwise, the secrets of love, mourning, forgiveness, things that live in the catacombs of the human heart, but through close contact take up residence in objects and places which become channels for communication between past and present, living and dead, here and elsewhere. In “Weeding Sylvia’s Grave, Heptonstall,” it is the headstone that contains Plath’s silent wish for room and time to write. Talking of both weeds and the flowers visitors have left, the speaker says
I’ve gathered them to fall
one by one into the rubbish bin
(as she must have done
dropping failed off-rhymes,
thorny lines that wouldn’t sing)
even these roses that don’t bear
pressing–red, her favorite–
my gift snipped from Lumb Bank,
Ted’s temporary home.
The quotidian pulled away
from a clean new page.
Ironically, in other poems it is the quotidian which serves as repository and conveyance. In “Hydrangea,” for example, the speaker, while sitting in an old porch swing, comes to understand her grandmother’s acceptance of a limited experience of the world.
. . . she seesawed there
on the porch swing,
mesmerized by the hydrangeas
circumnavigating the yard–
hyacinth to fuchsia,
all the cosmos
she hoped for.
In poem after poem, the reader is transported to the time and place of the speaker’s experience and through the speaker to the time of the emotion, thought, spirit inscribed in material things. In “Midnight in the Convent, Spoleto,” for example, the speaker conveys the reader to a place of lonely, fearful visitation from the past:
I pretend I am one of them
waking to thin
light through the cell’s
lone slit . . .
. . . The stones
know I’m alone.
When the lights shut,
. . .
. . . The timer stutters,
its breath. My heart
thumps toward a dark
something big. It wants me to pause
before I press
the flashlight, wait
before I break
the terror with my tiny beam.
While these places are sometimes as exotic as the Galapagos or Lake Annaghmakerrig, they are just as often as common as parts of the body. Such is the case in perhaps the strongest, and certainly one of the tightest and most resonant, poems in the collection. In “The Grand Cartographer Recharts the Belly,” the speaker lays clear the impact of experience on the geography of one’s own body.
All those speed bumps, gutters, detours.
It was never flat terrain.
Chicken pox left pot holes, deeper
than gall bladder swerves the surgeon tore.
Twins left speed bumps, curves, and gutters. “Detour
here,” she tells new lovers, who restrain
but always speed. Bumps. Gutters. Detours.
It was never flat terrain.
The ultimate lesson in the poems of Séance seems to be to look deeper into the things of our lives, to recognize the value of things and to know that (in the book’s most memorable phrase) “nothing / gets killed for good” (No Pasarán). To not do so is to doom ourselves to live as the frigate birds in “Ornithology” who “clack/ against the life they’ll lead . . . / waddling toward the cliff’s runway . . . / wide-winged, / lonely . . . . “ To do so, helps us more readily “lurch forward / for a mother’s chant, a father’s words” (“Séance: On the Road from Stradone”). If restricted to a one line statement about this book it would be this: In memory resides revelation. In these poems too.
Review of Timothy Geiger’s The Curse of Pheromones (63 pages, $14, Main Street Rag)
The Curse of Pheromones by Timothy Geiger is simply a wonderfully enjoyable set of poems. The books consists of a scattering of painful narratives about personal tragedies set against a larger backdrop of poems about the inescapability of time, loss, and death, and the question of how one lives and what one believes given the knowledge of death. The poems offer timely and useful insight into these questions, sometimes with great gravity, sometimes with considerable levity. Most of the poems are short, accessible, and philosophical.
The poem, “Ambient,” printed here in its entirety is typical of the poems in the collection, with its disarming clarity of description leading to a more disturbing and resonant reflection on our lack of knowledge regarding the source of the ambient light surrounding us.
This close to the city
the nearest star to the moon
is a full head-turn to the left–
makes even what’s clear
hard to see.
Like the word to
occurring in four
of the first six lines
of this poem–
to the city, to the moon,
to the left, and to see–
it’s not always how a thing operates
so long as it looks,
or sounds, good in action.
A simple hole
punched in a piece of cardboard
is still the best way
to view a total eclipse,
as I learned
in sixth-grade catechism class
when Sister Ellen said
“Always keep it simple
in order to see God.”
But not even faith
can help the invisible stars
filling the sky
with their utter lack of spectacle,
in the shadow
of so much light.
If “Ambient” can be said to be about keeping a proper humility and inquisitiveness as a human being, then “Gold-Star Coastal Tour Lines” is about how to survive given the danger of humility becoming diminishment and depression. In this poem we are reminded of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” when we hear a speaker who wants “to leave / the humbug behind / and drift / into the light and almost holy sea.” Fortunately, for the speaker, before he is lost to the overwhelming presence of the sea, he hears “the Captain” say “find something close and hold it / like you would a lover. / If you go over / this is how to survive.”
The source of this drive to make meaning out of life is made clear in the occasional more personal poem, such as in “Apparitions,” a poem which may be the best, but is certainly the most emotionally intense in the book.
He told me in whispers
about the hobgoblins
always rumbling under the bed.
We were only seven years old.
No one believed him but me.
Twice a day they came
with a needle and scalpel.
The bandage turned pink
around the tube that drained
his eyes. We shouldn’t have climbed
the abandoned water tower–
my best friend slipping on ice
into a rusty iron handrail,
the new year turning
its pockets inside-out.
I may have misheard
the word “hospital”
and thought he said
“hobgoblins.” Is it just the dead
or does every memory
leave a ghost as well–
clockwork eyes made of glass,
my best friend blind
by Valentine’s Day.
Such revelation of personally-felt tragedy is repeated in “Sleep,” where we read
In a field of Pennsylvania wheat
I watched my best friend
begin to die. Cancer,
he said, was hollowing his spine
and his dreams
had never been more vivid.
Again, in “Sacrament,” it is the personally tragic that leads to attempts at constructing meaning, permanence, or at least understanding: “I had lost the ability to believe. / Tragedy followed me like a burnt match, dead birds and thunder. / But for my do that needed to be fed, I’d given up altogether.”
My only complaint against The Curse of Pheromones is that the first poem, from my overgeneralized perspective that all poets are ultimately optimistic and Romantic (else why would they continue to write), should surely have been the last. Out of this gathering of existentially-grasping work, “Believe” gives the reader this all-important question: “why, after all this time listening, / are you still sitting there / when you’ve so much left to do?”
Review of Bill and Linda French Griffin’s Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary (March Street Press, 59 pages, $15)
Poetry doesn’t sell. Everyone knows that. But Bill and Linda French Griffin have created a beautiful book of poems and sketches that is bound to buck that trend. “Beautiful” is not a word one finds in poetry much anymore. It’s vague, overused, and ultimately so subjective as to be essentially meaningless. It remains, nonetheless, the first word that springs to mind when looking at the Griffins’ Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary. It is a beautiful book of beautiful poems with corresponding beautiful drawings.
Outside the realm of photography, calling a book a “coffee table book” is usually considered something of an insult. In this case, however, it is simply a description of how Snake Den Ridge can be used to add immediate aesthetic beauty, intellectual depth, and meditative calm to any living room or waiting room fortunate enough to have the book placed therein. In other words, because of the poems’ unique combination of intellect and readability and the visual appeal of the sketches, Snake Den Ridge will make any room a more interesting place. How many contemporary books of poetry can make a claim such as that?
According to the book’s preface, “A bestiary is a collection of stories about animals, plants, or other entities of the natural world.” Such books have existed since at least the second century. The poems and sketches in this bestiary combine to present, in the words of the authors, “one week’s experience on an Appalachian mountainside” and “join in celebration of a fabulist natural world, where creatures voice moral messages.”
Glancing at the Table of Contents, the reader is naturally inclined towards the dramatic monologues from his or her favorite animals. In my case, I was sure my preference would be for “Hawk,” “Bobcat,” or “Junco,” and I admit to great pleasure in hearing Hawk proclaim his discriminating tastes:
Oh yes, there’s hunger,
but not for Rabbit —
I’m teaching you
to feed the place
you never knew you had.
Similarly, Bobcat’s confession of discretion conjures a smile from one who has both heard, and much more rarely seen the bobcat but only heard tales of panthers in “these parts”:
do you blame me if I choose
to be invisible?
Was it cousin Panther’s choice
to be exiled from the Ridge
Finally, for a 20-year bird-watching veteran, the confidence with which Junco (also known as a snowbird) speaks of eluding Hawk’s dives while using his special intimacy with winter to survive “four seasons on the Ridge” brings a nod of recognition and appreciation.
In truth, however, none of these favorites created the most lasting impression upon me. That was achieved by the animals the author placed first and last in the collection, the animals who seem to squabble over actual ownership of this ridge: Raven and Bear. Raven opens the collection with a vital reminder of proper perspective, something most people lost before they were even born and never have the opportunity to regain:
I know from twenty circles
of snowdeep and hungry moons
and twenty circles of fresh shoots
that Sky . . . Water . . . Earth . . .
none of them are mine.
And I know none are yours.”
Reading these lines one can’t help but think of Frost’s absent owner of the woods in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but then Bear concludes the animal monologues with a clear and somewhat eerie refutation of Raven’s claim for the absence of ownership:
Raven is mistaken — this Ridge is mine.
And if you hear me, it will be the rising chest
of the mountain and its timeless slow
and if you hear me
it will only be because
I didn’t hear you first.
And, finally, in the epilogue, Raven’s words hint towards a different level of “ownership:
at my passing — each morning
and for every dawn to come
I will spread my soul of wings
where they cast no shadow
and invite you to join me as part
of Snake Den Ridge.
Ultimately, these totemic poems reinvent the message many of us first heard in Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us,” that the natural world is sacred, invested with a divinity which is too often and too easily obscured by our obsession with ourselves as prime mover as well as by the “other-worldly” religions in which we have chosen to believe.
Review of Irene Blair Honeycutt’s Before the Light Changes (Main Street Rag, 2008)
Irene Blair Honeycutt’s new collection of poems, Before the Light Changes, is a book you want to read in one sitting but can’t. Honeycutt’s over-arching narrative of working through an intensely personal loss makes you want to keep reading, but each poem carries its own catharsis, the cumulative effect of which would be overwhelming without the trip to the pantry, the distracting phone call, the night to sleep on it, or the weekend to recover your sense of equilibrium. These are, indeed, poems which knock you off your feet and leave you breathless. My own reactions as I read through them included at various moments a sympathetic sigh, a heart-rent “Oh, my,” and a sudden gasp of admiration at Honeycutt’s courage in telling this story and her frank but deft handling of such delicate matters as suffering loss and the necessary ambivalence of letting go.
The best poems in Before the Light Changes are the ones that deal most closely with the poet’s experience of losing her brother, some of which, according to the author, she cannot yet bear to read publicly. Poems such as “Where I’m Calling From,” “The Transfer,” and “When I Last Saw Him” are deeply personal, deeply moving, and deeply transformative, but what makes them work is that they are also hauntingly familiar. My first thought after reading “The Night Before He Died” was that nothing is strange here. The hospital gown, the rib cage rippling the skin, the memories of “checker games / we played on the floor, / using buttons and bottle caps . . .” are presented with such striking clarity that they seem to be my own memories and observations. This clarity makes the poems that much more harrowing, which keeps the reader from distancing himself, from thinking this is what happened to someone else.
In poem after poem the pattern repeats itself, the frankness and clarity making the experiences recorded here immediate, passing the understandable sense of urgency behind them on to reader. In the prose poem, “Fresh from Reading You, Merton,” the speaker asks frankly:
How can a Rescue Mission, after saving his life, evict him? Not a drug
addict, not an alcoholic Just bankrupt, cancer-ridden. What happens to
the homeless of his ilk? A company repossesses his car. A thief steals the
portable radio he’d bought at a garage sale.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If my brother were of your Order, would my heart find release?
I’m rereading you, Merton. I’d like to know.
While it is raining. While it is dark.
Similarly, in the partially found poem, “Marie Curie Announces Her Discovery,” a poem whose connection to the overall thematic development of the manuscript becomes clearer in the reading of subsequent poems, revealing another characteristic of the work here, the reader is transported through frank imagery to an experience of Curie’s own urgency and its relationship to that of the poem’s speaker.
In a mountain sanatorium,
her hands bearing
the stigmata of her beloved radium,
Marie, who had preferred her lab
to a great social place
in the sun,
from the cumulative effects
of the mysterious rays.
Even poems that at first glance seem unrelated to the narrative that binds the collection feature remarkably sharp and clear imagery. In “Woman at the Salvation Army Store,” for example, we see the speaker as she might be seen by a clerk at the store:
She enters this store for the first time,
glances around, amazed by the light,
the cleanliness–aisles arrayed, beckoning.
She gravitates to Furniture, drawn
to an oak vanity, stares at herself
in the large round mirror before
opening a drawer.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The woman says she’s just browsing,
her first time here.
But it will never be her first time.
She knows that. Surely, the clerk
knows that as well.
She’s always been here, searching,
just as others have.
We also see her from within her own mind, and it is through these revelations that we come to recognize how intimately connected she may be to the “discarded” objects she examines:
My mother sat at this vanity.
Patted her cheeks with rouge,
spread Avon lipstick
onto her parted lips.
Sometimes she gave me
tiny samplers from her sales
ruby reds, deep purples.
I dotted the inside of my wrist,
blended colors into new
shades, thinking I’d sell
them when I grew up.
This juxtaposition of external and internal perception serves to weave this poem as well into the fabric of the text as a whole and to remind the reader of his or her own inescapable implication in the all-too-mortal realities conveyed here:
The woman wishes she could fill a basket
with Good Health. She pictures
someone delivering the basket to her brother
who lies in Baptist Hospital 350 miles away
awaiting colon surgery.
She reminds herself.
He told her so just yesterday.
He cannot lose.
Every poem hopes to have images that stay with the reader. The images in these poems not only resonate, but haunt, making us return to them again and again. Even as they record the author’s journey toward loss, the poems themselves, as soon as we put the book down, become for the reader, in the words of the opening poem, albeit less tragically, an “absence that we tend.” One might wrongly assume from these notes that Honeycutt’s collection is a sequence of morose poems. In fact, however, what this book masterfully does is remind us of the truly important things we have to do “before the light changes.” As the speaker’s dreams tell her in the wonderfully short poem, “Dreams,” while “you carry a corpse around, / . . . you are [also] part of the sun.
Review of Paul Hostovsky’s Bending the Notes (Main Street Rag, 2009, 108 pages)
I’d like to tell you everything about Paul Hostovsky’s new book of poems, Bending the Notes, but I can’t; it’s a large book, as books of poetry go, and covers a lot of ground: childhood, parenting, the world of the deaf, beauty, religion, and so on. I can, however, bend your ear towards some of the high notes.
My favorite part of the book comes early on. In fact, my favorite poem is the first one, “Coconut.” Having seen that “Coconut” was recited by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, I can’t read it without hearing it in Keillor’s distinctive, gently husky, painstakingly careful enunciations. And yet, that sort of reading works for this poem and for many of the poems in Bending the Notes. A number of the early poems in particular seem written from the voice of a speaker who is careful, calm, measured, and astutely observant of everyday miracles, such as “happiness” in “Coconut:”
Bear with me I
want to tell you
it’s hard to get at
but the thing is
I wasn’t looking
I was looking
when my son found it
in the fruit section
and came running
holding it out
in his small hands . . . .
This is the voice of the grown up you always want to be with your own children, the grown up who is patient and gentle and able to remember the sense of awe, appreciation and exuberance with which we experienced things as children. The miracle of this book is that Hostovsky’s mastery of language is able to recreate again and again not only the child’s awe at the world but also the adult’s awe at the child. We experience this in poems like “Little League,” where the speaker talks of his daughter marveling at the miracles of a baseball game:
when someone hits a long foul ball
and everyone’s eyes are on it
as it sails out of play . . .
the ump has dipped his hand
into his bottomless black pocket
and conjured up a shiny new white one
like a brand new coin
from behind the catcher’s ear,
which he then gives to the catcher
who seems to contain his surprise
though behind his mask his eyes are surely
as wide with wonder as hers.
We see it again in “Conversations with My Son,” where the son asks, “Would you rather be buried or / crucified?” and, after his father’s deliberations, announces “I think I’d rather be crucified,” as he has
unbuckled his belt, unlocked the door
and reappeared outside, running up the hill,
his little backpack full of tools
bouncing on his shoulders,
a head on his shoulders full of questions,
questions escaping all over.
Later poems will acknowledge the harsher, more difficult aspects of living in the world, but in these early poems, Hostovsky embraces the child’s view and entertains the possibilities that view engenders. The speaker of “At the Optometrist,” for example, recaptures a moment of childhood innocence as he sits in the examination chair:
. . . It’s all about
which one I prefer here in the dark,
with a place to rest my chin, me and the doc
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and so I just keep on focusing on
which one I like best, while he focuses
on making something out of it for me. I could
do this all day long. It reminds me
of childhood–what childhood ought to be:
questions concerning your favorites,
painless and gentle, someone tying your shoe
while you sit in a chair thinking of other
things. . . .
Similarly, the speaker of “Every American Child” imagines a world where childhood appreciation of beauty is never lost to the necessary business of the adult world:
. . . And every American child will
be expected to learn by heart the history of the blues
because the history of the blues is an American
story, which some American grownups can’t be trusted
to tell, much less sing, to their American children.
Not every poem in the book, however, features such idealism or expresses such patience and calm. As the speakers and subjects of the poems age and the emotional realities become more complex, a different sort of poem emerges, one that is breathless and anxious, such as the prose poem “Deaf House” and “The Pigeons of Lynn,” which is full of complex sentences and relative clauses. This style of poem is repeated throughout the second half of the collection, but the possibilities it offers for expression and the penchant the poems have for humor and understated depth are perhaps most enjoyable in the brilliant poem, “Bicycles:”
It’s like we’re all bycycles
and we all have these handlebars
and some of the handlebars and some
of the seats are incredibly beautiful
not to mention the way the wheels spin
and the bells ring
and the reflectors reflect and we can’t
look at them and we can’t stop looking at them
and all we really want is to get on top of them
and ride off into the sunset but they say
hey I’m not a bicycle okay
I have an eternal soul that you can’t see
because you’re so focused on my handlebars
There is so much more offered by Hostovsky’s poetry. It is, as I’ve said, a large book whose ultimate goal is to help us know what to do with life and love and beauty, to teach us how “to bend the notes.” And ultimately, in learning so much about life himself, Hostovsky reaches the point that every master does, the point where he realizes how little he knows. That knowledge is best expressed in the book’s final metaphor in the poem “My Statement,” ostensibly about a flute:
. . . from the moment I lifted the thing,
I couldn’t put it down–wherever I tried
to stash it or ditch it, it stuck out painfully
like some herniated part of the body
of beauty, the inner beauty of the world, secret and silver
and singing out from the enclosure
of my desire for it. I couldn’t keep it. I couldn’t lose it.
I couldn’t even play it. So I gave it back and now
I only want to be believed.
COMING THROUGH THE FIRE
A REVIEW OF BEVERLY JACKSON’S EVERY BURNING THING
One of the greatest and most vital tricks of life is valuing the past without being imprisoned by it. Beverly Jackson’s new collection of poems, Every Burning Thing, (Pudding House, 2008) presents us with a speaker who achieves that trick.
When a writer uses an indefinite pronoun like “thing” in a title, they invite the reader to speculate on the possible referents of that pronoun. Jackson helps us along in that speculation in every poem, not the least in the title poem where images of grief and despair make clear the speaker’s understanding that there is no time in the subconscious, that what “burned” as loss decades before, captured in images of Pompeii, the Hindenburg, a B17 bomber named The Big Bitch, still smolders as daily grief, fear, resentment, motivation, “the yearning undead” (“Resurrection”) in the present.
While the speaker recognizes that the past is always present, she also discovers that there is acceptance, understanding, and moving on. Thus, the voice of these poems is most often that of Randall Jarrell’s “Woman at the Washington Zoo” after the transformation, a speaker who experiences the return of “terrifying angels” who “dip into the bowl of my brain / to wash their long white fingers” (“Resurrection”). Surviving the crucible of life as a woman, the speaker emerges transformed. Freed of the self- and societally-imposed chains of the past, she becomes water,
not in water–
not swimmer, whale or porpoise plunging
under surface glint, corralled by ocean–
but . . .
the slack-jawed, spooky renegade
of slosh and swell, tidal flood,
blind mammoth rolled in slumber,
sexed up, trailing sperm, seaweed
in ceaseless undulations,
(To Be Water)
Not surprisingly, given the unifying conflict of this volume, these are, in the Blakean sense of the phrase, songs of experience. Having survived the trials of failed relationships, parenting, and loss, the speaker returns to writing, to herself, to self-expression and discovers in the poem “A Cycle”
The piles of rocks
about my feet are high–
some even reach my heart.
For years their forces
pelted me, but red welts
wilt with time and pen.
Within my palm I kiss each stone
before I lift my chin–and throw.
These experiences and this reclamation of self lead the speaker to a new embracing of life and possibilities as in the poem “Seasoned:”
This year May coaxes a shadow
behind the fence, dark-eyed kisses in a tub
of hot rain, dyeing her mouth the color of blooms,
. . .
It won’t be July before company comes.
The clairvoyant nestled between her thighs
is sending out signals, tracking the leashes
tied to the ribs of lumbering men, synapses
popping in time with a tune, words too soft to hear.
Escaping the prison of the past, refusing regret, and opening oneself to the possibility of transformation leads the speaker even to pleasures in unexpected places, as in “Feeding Frenzy,” where the speaker and a compatriot discover the carefree comfort of post-menopausal sensuousness, where they become “like neutered queens, / lording it, eating earth, sky / and wild romaine.” Ultimately, experience and the shedding of the past lead the speaker to an understanding and satisfaction that surpass the fear of mortality, as expressed in “I Am Not Afraid of the Dead:”
I sleep in her nightgown,
wear her socks on cold mornings,
and while I brush my teeth,
she stares back at me. I am
smiling into the face of death.
I have keened in anguish
as mourners do; let guilt
gnaw on my mind–morsels
of remembrance chewed
and swallowed, a dutiful meal.
In the darkness of night
we laugh, she and I, speaking
of flesh flab, bone rot, sour breath.
All that pain in preparation for
carefree repose, the fist falling open.
Beverly Jackson’s Every Burning Thing is a series of poems full of inhabiting spirits, and like any spirit that touches us, the poems leave us momentarily chilled and shaken, and permanently changed, renewed, ever-so-slightly stronger in our beliefs about the world, our ability to stand on our own, ever-so-slightly more in touch with who we are.
Beverly Jackson is a poet, fiction writer, and artist living in Asheville, NC. She is the founder and former editor of Lit Pot Press, the e-zine Literary Potpourri, and the print journal Ink Pot. Her poetry and fiction hav appeared in over sixty venues, including Rattle, The Melic Review, Dead Mule, and Tattoo Highway. Her blog is at http://www.beverlyajackson.com
Main Street Rag, 2008, 45 Pages
Richard Krawiec subtitles his new collection of poems, “A Father’s Journey,” but from the beginning it is clear that this is no ordinary father’s journey, although it may be much more common than we would like to admit. In this father’s family
the girl steps willingly
up the gallows tips
her head back . . .
so her mother may
tighten the noose
Some readers may wonder at the choice of the word “willingly,” how such an event either literally or metaphorically could transpire with the girl’s consent, but the next poem, the title poem “Breakdown,” explains that, revealing a dynamic the survivor of abuse is all too familiar with:
now they enforce silence
with flowers cards claims of love
the repeated emphasis
on the suffering you cause
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
you believe in your fault
you can never be
And when the core of shame created through such a dynamic remains unhealed, the response can become even more frightful, as in the poem “don’t worry:”
she says she’s afraid
she might kill
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
she imagines the headline
mom murders sitter
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
she tells you
the jump rope
would make an excellent weapon
Thus is the painful narrative of Breakdown, the story of dealing with a spouse’s breakdown, revelations of past abuse, denial on the part of the abusers, and the endless psychic trauma caused by the abuse and the denial upon the family of the abused. But even in such desperate straits there are still moments of joy, as in “Judging the Worth,” where an infant’s song awakens the narrator and then as he holds him,
it toooowl he says I agree
it is cold but his breath warms
my shoulder his chest protects my own
he burrows his arms between us
one hand pops free his fingers slide
over his thumb as if testing fabric
the weight and weave judging the worth
of this life he throws his head up laughs
his teeth small and bright as stars
the cherubic firmament of his face
Under these circumstances such moments might indeed rare, but here at least the child’s bright, radiant, cherubic face can only be seen as an affirmation that life is worth it after all. And that sentiment is repeated later in “The Insistence on Living,” where father and sons plant a garden, and the father meditates,
if we are only going through the motions
if all our efforts are destined to fail
we are insisting on living
we are insisting
This is a difficult book to read, but well worth the emotional cost it exacts. These are gut-wrenching, hair-raising, nerve-shattering, keep-you-up-at-night poems. They will change you. You’ll want to believe they’re just poems, but in the end you’ll know they’re much more than that.
Landscapes of Longing
by Bruce Lader
Main Street Rag (2009), 90 pages, $14
One of the epigraphs of Bruce Lader’s new collection of poetry, Landscapes of Longing, suggests that one, “Keep death and exile daily before thine eyes . . . . Then wilt thou never think a mean thought, nor covet anything beyond measure” (Epictetus). While this imperative might help justify the subject matter explored in these poems, Epictetus’s suggestion that such healthy perspective could be attained as easily as this is perhaps a bit Romantic, as is made abundantly clear by the speakers of the poems in Landscapes of Longing. Nevertheless, the epigraph and the title do make it clear what unites this otherwise apparently diverse collection of work, namely that these poems are all about the daily struggle to attain or maintain perspective. One poem after another proposes answers to the question: what can we learn from each other, from our lives as human beings, from the inevitability of disappointment, despair, longing in all its innumerable varieties.
By writing about longing, failure, persistence, and perspective, Lader writes honestly, unflinchingly, about what it is to be human. Not surprisingly if such verisimilitude is one of his goals, the poems are spoken in a variety of voices, as would be any accurate record of any human life. The first and perhaps most memorable of these voices is that of a teacher at a school for troubled boys, “ninth graders no one would bet on / discarded by split parents” (“Attendance Check”). This narrator recognizes the existential persistence of these boys as they long for such elemental human ambitions as justice and opportunity:
And yet their feisty, undefeated spirits
grapple with prison sentences
of poverty . . . .
they dodge and gamble to exist . . . .
stay afloat in the system chiseling them.
The narrator goes on to teach the reader to see beyond the surface, to see the humanity behind the stereotype and statistic, as in “Promises,’ where the tough from the boys home, longing for decency and love, revealingly promises his girl “I won’t leave you / the way my old man left my mother turning tricks.” And he teaches us, through the image of his hemophiliac friend Robert Goldstein in “A Brief History of Prejudice,” who longed to experience as much as he could while he could, to value life more urgently as we come to understand that it could end sooner than we imagine possible.
Other voices in this first section of the book range from that of a teenage boy surprised to be learning from his father’s competitiveness, from his longing to be extraordinary (“Breaks”); to that of the same boy become father and longing now to make sense of violence for his own son (“Quandary”); to a chorus of voices from war, longing for peace, for reason, and for acceptance of responsibility. This last set of voices illustrates how the individual despair and criminal behavior we might sometimes be tempted to decry in the first poems are mere microcosms of what we do and suffer on a larger scale. These voices also set the stage for the middle section of the book where the longing moves from the first section’s apparently personal concerns to a larger social and political arena.
This middle section of the book announces the context out of which these voices of longing arise in its title: “Interviews Following the Sentencing of Sisyphus.” Lader provocatively and amusingly imagines what a variety of figures would say if questioned about the trial of Sisyphus. The speakers are philosophers, goddesses, priests, and prophets among others, each one weighing in like ancient bloggers, their opinions, as is usually true of opinions, revealing more truth about themselves than about that which they speak of. Not surprisingly, what unites them all is the sense of longing they reveal, whether it be longing for justice or retribution, truth or reform, or just the opportunity to have their perspectives considered. Perhaps the underlying question in this section is if we accept the idea of Sisyphus as a metaphor for human endeavor, then don’t we also have to accept the actions of Sisyphus as indicative of what we are capable of? Certainly the speakers in this group of poems, with their apparent myopia, self-interest, and lack of forgiveness do nothing to refute that implication.
Having begun with poems of longing in a semi-individual context (family, profession, community) and proceeded through a larger social and political context, Lader concludes with a series of poems that illustrate longing on the most personal and intimate level: the longing for love, for the maintenance of the individual in love, and for the seemingly impossible persistence of love. In other words, the final section of the book, like each previous section illustrates that such things as fairness, justice, and even love are not as easy as we would like to think. These poems, after all, feature voices that proclaim, “I reserve the right / not to shed my soul” (“Behold”), “You’re not the only one / who can say No” (“Jig”), and “they felt something /missing grow between them, / inwardly resented the cherished / offspring who siphoned their energy” (“Soulmates”), before finally announcing “They will go there, / and to Moscow, when he partners the dances / she wishes he’d learn, the salsa, rumba, / swing, and tango millionaires tried seducing / her with, until he swept her off her feet” (“Trade-offs”).
The Cleft of the Rock, Poems by Felicia Mitchell
Finishing Line Press, 2009, 24 pages
I love the first poem of Felicia Mitchell’s new chapbook of poems The Cleft of the Rock. “Alley” is an existential manifesto that essentially states, “I go; therefore I am.” It is a poem about temptation and embracing experience related from a childlike perspective that cannot help but remind the reader of Eve:
. . . the branch of a fig
grew through a fence,
its fruit gnarled like a gnomish thumb beckoning me:
. . . .
So I went.
. . . . . . . . . .
I went closer to the tree,
close enough to touch its leaves, its fruit,
. . . . . . . . . .
I played until my hands were filthy.
This is not just Eve in the garden, but the Eve inside us all, an Eve needing no serpent but only the fruit, only the tree, whether the tree is knowledge, experience, or life, an Eve who, far from regretting her submission to temptation, relishes it.
This same defiant embrace of life is repeated in other poems and becomes the emotional and intellectual center of the entire collection. We see it again, and once more expressed through a sort of mythic revision, in the title poem, a dramatic monologue in which the Greek goddess Persephone proclaims
When the earth opens her thighs
and guides me like a newborn
through the folds of her great lips,
I almost forget the one who drags me back
three months of every year
to the bowels of the earth.
The sensual imagery of these lines is also characteristic of the entire collection and is part of the experience the poems’ various speakers celebrate, cling to, and find rebirth in, as in the poem “Secret Garden:”
Barefoot, listening to the cat,
worrying about the chipmunk
and the lackluster lack of rain,
I am nothing like a mother or a wife.
I am a girl in a make-believe puddle,
coloring in the shapes of her life
while a cat meows in the background
and the yellow sun grows hotter.
Through these poems, Mitchell reminds us that all life and all experience is valuable and worth saving. Even grief has its place given appropriate time. The poem “How to Dry a Rose” tells us,
Before the life blooms out of it,
hang it upside down. In a dry place,
away from direct sunlight.
. . . .
And forget about it, forget about the rose
among the rafters . . . .
. . . .
When the red has faded
to a more acceptable pallor and the leaves
are brittle to the touch. By then, you will
be ready to remember how your friend looked
when she lay in the casket, the rough on her face
not much paler than the roses at the altar.
And even though one may suffer, as the speaker of “Fall” whose “thin blood” means she is “destined to feel the cold / that is arriving daily” or the speaker of “Dirge” with a tumor in her breast, Mitchell would have us “feel them all,” “the cherry tree in the backyard, / the tulip magnolia that would never bloom, the crabgrass, / the violets in the grass . . . / the impractical, the unnecessary, the excised.”
The more intimate connection with the details of our lives encouraged by The Cleft of the Rock makes us all, like the spirit of “A Hard Rain,” “a virtuous pagan, unwelcome in heaven, not suited for hell,” a line which cannot help but remind us of Wordsworth’s “pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” who through his appreciation of nature is able to “have glimpses” that make him “less forlorn.” These mythic and Romantic reinventions are indeed timely in a world where we too often ignore or are totally unaware of the vital connections that could and should sustain us.
Review of Paul Nelson’s Sea Level (Main Street Rag, 71 pages, $14, http://www.mainstreetrag.com)
I remember Paul Nelson as a very even-handed teacher, treating the good poem and the bad one with the same respect, recognizing and valuing the student’s effort above the quality of the product, quietly and sincerely interested in everything that went into the work and even more in what had been, intentionally or otherwise, left out. That was 25 years ago, and I haven’t seen or spoken to him since. What great joy it is, then, to discover that his new collection of poems, Sea Level, is the perfect testimony to his education legacy.
These are meditative poems, achieving what my best focusing experiences have done for me, at once calming and provoking, familiar and deepening, ultimately helping the reader gain or regain a vital perspective. The last stanza of “Machias River Meditation” serves to illustrate my point:
My father carved a full-sized loon, shavings and dust
piling at his feet as the shape from poplar took
its place in air. It will never be a loon.
But if I carried it down to the marsh,
set it on one of the mounds, sooner or later
an eagle or osprey, perhaps ambitious marsh hawk
would stoop, helplessly, as some decoyed
hunter in the fall would be compelled by the sitting duck,
the fear of missing something,
to stud its painted feathers with steel shot
chilled by passing briefly through the universe.
Such perspective is repeated in the wonderfully balanced poem, “Fishing:”
Below the barber shop, perched on ledge
above a deep, rich pool, men stand on thumb-ish boulders,
or wade the strength of the eddy, casting
filaments as spiders do, toward nothing but hope,
that promontory. This is metaphysics.
Under the bridge, salmon
cleave shadows and rocks, roll up, leap,
thrilling hell out of anyone, as they steer
toward some ignoble backwater
to drop their eggs, squirt milt all over the gravel.
This is truth.
Between the cast and the fish floats the fly.
All winter long a grown man with fat fingers,
under a high-intensity lamp, hangs above a tiny vise,
slowly wrapping silk and hair and fluff around a hook’s shaft
devising an amulet, having failed all summer long
to raise a fish. He knows a man is lucky
if even inspiration hits once or twice a lifetime,
though some, infinitely patient, gifted with presentation,
do better. This is art.
These lines also illustrate the geographical underpinning of the manuscript. Living in North Carolina, where there is a town named Sea Level, I expected these poems to be bound to a particular location, and they do, indeed, have a strong sense of place, albeit not the one I anticipated. In this case, the place is Machias Bay, Maine, where the author grew up and has periodically lived and worked throughout his life. This sense of place is captured in the luscious imagery of each poem, as in “Eucharist:”
. . . I plane full throttle, roar
down the black belly of the lake, cottages,
one lamp each, streaking by, then downriver
through the gullet beneath the green, rib-cage bridge,
its port and starboard lights, then out, out,
into the iodinic air, sheering weed-rafts
and swells of tide, deaf to what I am saying,
my mouth a seven mile windsock.
The sea level of the title, however, is not simply a place, but also a frame of mind (think of the imperative homophone “see level”), a philosophy almost, existential and environmental, stoic and transcendental. This very human and humble frame of mind is hinted at in the title poem, where the speaker wonders “What won’t I remember, inexactly?” and further developed in poems like “Sea Smoke,” which ruminates on the temporality of human striving:
. . . Now I am content with
dragonfly breath on my corneas, thinking
I may have scratched the surface.
I am aware of the long gray body of fog
still well off-shore, beyond Cross Island.
I see in my mind my wife’s beautifully articulate
bare feet on the marsh, the fading
impression she makes on moss,
goose and eel grass.
The final word on this perspective comes in the book’s final poem, “Springfall:”
I’ve heard the various faiths
mock the breaking lakes, inland,
the march of trees at the pasture edge,
swelling, thickening toward the bloom
of dropsy fruit, huge, ancestral
roots of blowdowns, gaping in air.
Not one such word of man
has delivered more than hope.
I have decided not to live at all,
at least, not by my own hand.
I don’t often find it useful to compare poets, but as I read through Sea Level, I find myself thinking of Gary Snyder repeatedly as Nelson creates a remarkably compelling riprap of human existence, a living testimony of a man apparently content with but never fully happy about life on Earth.
Checking Out, Poetry by Tim Peeler
Hub City Press, 96 pages
Aging can have certain surprising benefits: less hair to worry about, getting a drink without ID, and having enough knowledge and experience to forge meaningful relationships with those you admired in youth. Last year, I had the great pleasure of reviewing a book of poems by my undergraduate creative writing instructor, Paul Nelson, whom I hadn’t seen or communicated with in nearly 30 years. This year, I find myself reviewing a new book from another of my early “poetry crushes,” Tim Peeler.
I first encountered Peeler’s work about 20 years ago when I was still confused about what to write and how to write about it. His poetry then was about things that were very familiar to me–trailer parks, farms, small town Southern life–and it was written in a way that was approachable, observant, objective, and understatedly real. Those poems served as models to me, in a sense giving me permission to write in a certain way about certain things I had been wanting to write about and have been writing about ever since.
Today, Peeler remains one of my poetry crushes, and he remains as true to his poetic ideals as he does to his friends, family, and hometown of Hickory, NC. So, his new collection of poems, his fifth, entitled Checking Out, is as familiar and important to me as his poems of years ago. In fact, the details of his “Prelude,” which opens the book and mimics the ambition of Wordsworth’s poem by that title, could almost have been my own: “the barefoot child, / shirtless in overalls;” “the congregation of chickens;” “the sun [elevatoring] through / the maples beyond the meadow / where he’s seen angels;” “the forest floor . . . coated with crunch oak leaves, / broken branches, pine cones and needles;” following “the moonlit railroad tracks / out beyond town, skipping a tie, / toeing a rail, imagining animal eyes / in sinister bushes, thinking a poem / without knowing it yet.” This poem also introduces the setting for the rest of the book: “Four AM, the night audit finished, the motel silent / he wrestles the heavy notion of sleep.” One immediately suspects that, as in Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” this will be no ordinary sleep the speaker wrestles with.
Not surprisingly, the title of the next section of poems is “Place.” Over the years, Peeler has more successfully captured a sense of a particular time, place, and people than any other writer I know with the possible exception of Wendell Berry. And in these poems, he does it again, the more particular place this time being the small Southern town hotels he spent years working in. He begins, of course, at the beginning, with inspiration, the inspiration of the man who built the hotel, and the inspiration the hotel-clerk/speaker sought during long nights on duty: “What did he see when he / came out here past the town / after the dust settled on the war?” (II); “You wait for a face / long enough in a place like this; / it will come” (I). From there he begins to explore the memory of this place and time: “Once there was a three story motel building / with balconies that overlooked a drive-in screen” (III); “In the old days, / they’d leave a fourteen year-old boy / in charge of the motel / when they took an afternoon off / to drink some shine” (IV).
He continues, in the section called “Registry,” with the memory of people. He recalls “Stan” who “said he played at Notre Dame / then for the Sox,” but who it is discovered “had been lying / all along, magnificently, / profoundly, beautifully” (VII); and the “Rabb twins,” one of whom “could throw his voice; / the other . . . a mute” who “could / lip synch anything the other said” (X); and “the old men [who] sat for an hour each morning, / hashing and rehashing the past: a retired clerk, // an organ builder, an automobile dealer, a juke joint / entrepreneur, a retired English professor // till they died one by one, / sadly, all” (XIII).
In “Chaos,” Peeler characterizes the experience: “Chaos / when you are not war, / revolution, or murder / you are a Friday night / at a cheap motel” (XV). Then, he continues in this section to provide detailed illustration of the claim: “one woman had another / in a choke hold / pounding her dyed blonde head / against the gravelly parking lot” (XVI); “The night was busy, locals / rolling in off 64-70 / in a haze of marijuana / and George Dickel” (XXI).
Against this backdrop of place and people, a clearer image of the speaker begins to come into focus. In the section named “Swimming,” the reader begins to see that there is much more to the speaker than just his job. In XXV, perhaps my favorite of these poems, the speaker tells us:
I wrote a masters thesis
in a motel room, weekend
manager on duty, typewriter nights;
I answered complaints about myself.
Between check ins
I scribbled pieces of poems,
made up stories about guests,
. . . . . . . . . .
I can’t remember how many times
I crawled under a motel building
at 3AM to change a fuse,
put the wheels back on a rollaway,
fixed a commode, walked through
pitch black, blessed by the moon.
I became the poet laureate
for the post office whores,
the random darling
of a small legion of fools,
the familiar of charming drunks,
a blundering father
in the no man’s land
of the eighties.
When I dove into the pool
to clean the spot by the drain,
ten feet down, I felt
the dreamy pressure of the
whole world above me,
sensed that the water didn’t
want to be there either.
And we continue to get these glimpses into the speaker’s deeper thoughts throughout the section named “Clerks:” “There is no afterlife” (XXVIII); “we thought we’d never grow old (XXXII). And, finally, we get an even rawer perspective on the business through the memorable serial character of “The Old Clerk,” in the section with that title.
At the end, like any good storyteller, Peeler brings it home with a poem that offers closure, in this case a satisfying perspective on the experience. In “I Say It Like a Prayer” (one of only two titled poems in the 52-poem collection,) Peeler tells us:
Some mornings I drive by the motel
where I worked for seven years, and
scenes come back to me in flashes:
. . . . . . . . . .
A man calls me one night
to complain about people talking
in the room next door. The rooms
next to him are unrented. Don’t
you hear all that? he shouts
when I get to his room. I listen
carefully to nothing, to silence.
You’ve got to do something about it;
you’ve got to stop them; it’s your job.
I walk next door, knock, turn the lock
and stare into the dark empty room.
You people shut the hell up I holler
angrily. I mean it damn it
I add for good measure. Thanks,
thanks the man tells me as I walk back by him.
Thanks, thanks I say to the motel
as I drive by to my boring safe job
which is rarely anything to write about.
Thanks I say to the ghosts that rise
with lead pipes and biker boots;
thanks I say to the vices and voices.
I say it like a prayer.
Review of Glenis Redmond’s Under the Sun (Main Street Rag, 128 pages, $14.95)
I’ve heard Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, and Evie Shockley read their wonderful work, and I’ve read the extraordinary prose of Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, and now there is another name to add to the pantheon of powerful black women writers. That name is Glenis Redmond. I’ve not yet heard Redmond “perform” her poetry, although her credentials as a finalist in the National Poetry Slam and her reputation as a performer speak highly of her stature in that regard. I have, however, just finished reading her new collection of poetry, Under the Sun, and found it brilliant and enjoyable throughout.
When I teach expository writing, I explain to my students that a thesis statement is a contract with the reader, a promise of what the essay will provide. Few books of poetry offer such a contract; far fewer deliver. Redmond’s collection begins with just such a promise, and does indeed deliver upon that promise. The promise comes in the opening poem, reprinted in its entirety here, my favorite from the collection.
Name every nighttime shadow.
Call them out
from every corner,
every crevice of the past.
Fill yourself with the power
Your voice will flower silver
into a circle blooming
of compassionate witnesses,
burning trembling lights.
In the brightness
my voice becomes your voice,
your voice becomes mine.
Together, our voices form
a tight constellation of hope,
a calligraphy written in stars.
This poem of imperative the writer speaks to herself describes writing as a ritual of resurrection, a séance of sorts in which the absent and the dead speak through the living poet, giving her poems the voice, depth, and resonance of historical context as she gives them the same through personal and confessional context. It is a powerful and timely message for poets throughout the world to attend to.
Of course, such an imperative would only seem insincere if the poet were not ready to follow her own directive. In fact, however, the poems of Under the Sun do exactly what “Scripted Hope” scripts. The book consists largely of a series of portraits, some celebratory, some mourning. The portraits range from the historical to the personal, indicating how the two interpenetrate in the formation of an individual, a family, and a people. There are historical portraits of Zora Neale Hurston, Fanie Lou Hamer, and a slave named Patience, literary portraits of Celie from The Color Purple, family portraits of sisters, daughters, grandmothers, uncles, brothers, and fathers, and self-portraits of the speaker in love, the speaker in mourning, the speaker as teacher and student, daughter and mother.
It is a diverse and vital family album that shows the importance of love, resistance, revolution, faith and courage in the progress of African-Americans throughout history and still today. The fundamental vitality of these qualities is made clearest in one of the more epic poems in the collection, “Sacrum,” which forms a sort of “Middle Passage” on the family level as it traces the trials and tribulations of the speaker’s father, beginning with the “Ivory Coast” and a “Virginia Plantation,” proceeding through a “Jim Crow history” and “a malnourished man-child at the Air Force recruitment office,” continuing “down dark alleys into the pool-shark dens . . . . leading to his favorite amber liquids of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, “ and finally concluding with “Our familial bones breaking . . . . Our sergeant in charge leading the way, / a crooked man walking with wings.”
While the poems acknowledge the past lovingly, obligingly, and graciously, it is important to note that the final poem is written not in past tense, however, but in present. As the poem stirringly states:
Though we are raw to our bones
there is nothing an no one else left
to carry this fresh regret
so we hobble down life’s hollow corridor
and whisper with intent
we are not finished yet.
This chore takes more than triage
a simple labeling of things.
We must turn the sacred papers
of every holy book
touch each other like sacrament
give up apathy for Lent.
I and u
‘til they become
u, me and we.
We do not get up from the table of our discontent
‘til all the bread is broken
and fish multiplied
every hungry mouth
fed and every heart, soul
we are all gathered today,
amen has not been said because
we are not finished yet.
Two Estates, Poetry by David Rigsbee
Cherry Grove, 2009
I did a little research before writing this review of David Rigsbee’s new collection of poetry, Two Estates (Cherry Grove, 2009), and what I found is that everyone seems to write about these poems as if they are all one poem, as if what is to be said of one poem is the same as what there is to say of another. Having survived a rough childhood through kneejerk rebelliousness anytime singularity reared its monolithic head, I immediately wanted to leap to the defense of the individual poems and set them free of this perceived intricate web of sameness. As I began to read, however, I discovered not only would that task be more difficult than I imagined but that pursuing it would be entirely contrary to the nature of the book, that I would, in fact, do a lovely book of poems a great disservice not to join the chorus of voices proclaiming that these poems work so seamlessly together as to create what could be considered a single coherent impression, an impression of timelessness, of natural and mortal detail coalescing into what I can only call beauty.
While these poems are, one might say, “of a piece,” they are interestingly often not “of a time.” In fact they seem intentionally, and meaningfully timeless, which only makes sense, because whether we say the theme of Two Estates is beauty or, I think more accurately, the marvelous beauty of the interdependence of contraries, the poems are about concepts that can only be thought of as eternal. The timelessness of Rigsbee’s world is carefully crafted through the spare language and the very deliberate selection of detail and allusion. In these lines from “Basilica,” for example, one would be hard-pressed to ascertain whether this were written of the 20th century or of some time much older:
In the last terrace one can see
a maid holds a water can over
window boxes too dark to make out
clearly. . . .
But invisibility takes care of surmises
and content joins style on the way
to the basilica, where priest
and people raise eyes to the tiny host,
before resuming their places in the realm
and administration of Lord Pluto
And in these lines from “Under Cancer,” my favorite poem in the collection, Rigsbee creates timeless beauty by locating himself simultaneously within the eternal and contemporary and in relation to the not-so-distant past:
I pause, drawing breath,
and walk to the ledge where my father
the evening greets me in the darkening
branches of a pine.
It is, of course, only natural that Rigsbee would choose a setting as rich both in history and contemporary relevance as Italy to embody this theme of timelessness.
Certainly the greatest joy in reading Rigsbee’s new collection is in experiencing the vivid, sensual, even luscious imagery and the meticulously crafted language, but there are other joys as well. While beauty and timelessness and precision are all admirable pursuits in poetry, I wouldn’t want the reader to think that Two Estates is entirely serious-minded. There are quirky, ironic observations throughout and moments of even greater levity, as in the all-too-familiar (for myself, anyway), satirical, almost cartoonish synecdoche of Bar Gianicolo
A skull with a mustache and wig
carries on a conversation with a stopped
motorist. Two coffees gesture
to each other, while the heads beside them
gibber in English
It should come as no surprise that the final poem of this collection is called “Concert” because that it is indeed what one seems to have experienced in reading the text, a concert of perception in which diverse images, details, thoughts, and feelings are brought into unified harmony. Or perhaps it is simply that Rigsbee sees through the distractions of our daily lives to the harmony that lies within perception and experience and somehow manages to locate and perfectly arrange the only words that could communicate that sense to the rest of us. One gets the feeling that Rigsbee has it just right when he writes about the old contraries as if they could only exist as they do . . . together. In “Concert” for example, he portrays both permanence and transience in an image of swallows who
leave sight altogether
where clouds themselves vanish
and reform, correcting the course
and reach of blue’s ferocious empire
Review of Pat Riviere-Seel’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter (Main Street Rag)
What is it that keeps us reading books and watching Discovery Channel specials about Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, and Ted Kaczynski? Is it fear, some desire to protect ourselves from the dark potential of human nature by knowing more about it, or just a sense of fascination with what happens when the human mind goes awry?
We’re all fascinated with the perverse, that turning from normalcy that marks all of our lives to some degree at one time or another. Pat Riviere-Seel, as a self-proclaimed “recovering journalist” might have a bit more of that fascination than most of us, however. So perhaps it is not surprising that the subject of her latest collection of poetry is the daughter of Velma Barfield, a grandmother who was executed at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC, in 1984, after being found guilty of committing multiple murders.
Knowing the background of Riviere-Seel’s collection, The Serial Killer’s Daughter, one might ask, why the daughter? Why not Barfield herself? That is the imaginative genius behind the book. After all, several books have been written about Velma Barfield, including one herself. What Riviere-Seel creates, however, is the imaginative story of a women who discovers what for most of us would be beyond the realm of imagination, that one’s own mother is a murderer, and in fact had played a role in the death of one’s grandmother, and in all likelihood of one’s father as well.
Perhaps to the disappointment of some readers, however, Riviere-Seel’s collection is not a sensationalistic, tabloid-style rendering of gory details and pop psychology, but rather a sensitive treatment of the humanity that exists preceding, during, and following such extraordinary events. The poems begin by establishing the setting, Robeson County, NC, where “Baptist preachers seek salvation / from the shallows, but find little solace” and “Muscles ache from a day’s labor / in the fields, textile mill or both,” and where “Hate is no stranger” (“Robeson County”).
Certainly such a setting of poverty, hard labor, spiritual restriction and frustration forms a fertile ground for internal and external conflicts. Such conflicts are made apparent in the poem “Prophecy,” in which the daughter’s father pronounces after an argument, “Ah, shug . . ./
That woman’s gonna kill me.” These setting poems are followed by poems that reveal the daughter’s early intuitions, as in “A Second Look,” where the daughter realizes, after leaving her father passed out on the bed, “Daddy wanted Winstons. / We stopped for ice cream. / She didn’t buy him cigarettes.” As the narrative continues, the reader discovers moments of greater conviction, as in “A Body Count,” where the daughter reflects, “I know, Mama, / Someone has to stop you.”
As engaging as the narrative of these poems is, it is not the story itself that absorbs the reader but the revelation of emotions the daughter experiences through the events. These range from desperate sympathy as she attempts to believe in the possibility of salvation in “Prey” to the inevitable shame as she encounters the outside world in “After My Mother is Arrested and Charged with Murder,” and to a Frostian sort of existential determination in the closing lines of that poem (perhaps the strongest in the book):
Everyone wants to know
what’s going to happen next.
I’ll tell you: at the end of the day
four small arms will circle my neck,
I’ll fry chicken, bake rolls, and pray
to any god that will listen.
Words like riveting, spellbinding, and seductive are usually reserved for mystery or suspense novels not for poetry. But in this case, they all seem to apply as Pat Riviere-Seel examines the humanity behind the story of one of America’s most notorious murder cases. The result is a collection that deserves to be read not only for its narrative but for its depth of emotion and poetic beauty as well.
Review of Dannye Romine-Powell’s A Necklace of Bees (58 pages, University of Arkansas Press)
Do not go to Dannye Romine-Powell’s new book of poems, A Necklace of Bees, seeking comfort or solace. There is none. Frankly, reading this volume left me feeling jittery and disconsolate, nearly overwhelmed with all-too-familiar feelings of loss, guilt, failed attempts at compensation, stifling expectations of perfection, and the common misunderstanding of the motivations behind those expectations. In other words, the poems masterfully achieve what should be the ultimate goal of poetry, to help us experience our own lives a bit more deeply, a bit more consciously, and a bit more honestly.
Southern women, it seems, may be the greatest stoics of all. They routinely outlive, or perhaps more accurately, outlast their parents, husbands, all-too-often their own sons, as well as other, less familiar tormentors, all with a fortitude made apparent by keeping, despite everything else, “Forks / with forks. Spoons with spoons” (“Daddy Tosses Them Down”) and the dignity of “nails polished red // a row of lemons on the sill (“The Villa”). Both the mother in and the speaker of Powell’s poems remind me of my own mother who has survived an abusive parent, tightly confining expectations, abusive husbands, and masochistic children to finally retire to peace and the possibilities of unencumbered love.
We encounter the mother’s frustrated attempt to maintain dignity in her family in several poems in the book, including “The Avalanche,” where a headstrong and foolish father:
the old green Chevy
on the side
of a mountain
somewhere out West
and bet my mother
he could start an avalanche
a single rock
into another. No,
she said, no, please
don’t, Dan, please.
We see it again in “Daddy Tosses Them Down,” where the father thrilled to have taught the baby to recite the rhyme, “I love little pussy, / her coat is so warm . . . / And if I don’t hurt her, / she’ll do me no harm,” while the mother “wears pearls / and tries to keep things smooth / and in order.” The presence of the daughter, whom one assumes to be the grown-up speaker of the poems, in each of these poems, foreshadows her own later suffering.
The speaker’s torment is not, however, initiated so much by her father as it is by her son and his alcoholism. We read in “The Gaudy Clothes of Tourists” that “My son’s death / is incomplete, only a fear, though/ as his drinking increases, a fear that daily grows.” In “Everyone Is Afraid of Something,” the speaker tells us:
my son will die alone in his apartment.
I’m afraid when I break down the door,
I’ll find him among the empties — bloated,
discolored, his face a stranger’s face . . . .
Another fear of mine: that it will fall to me
to tell this child her father is dead.
The speaker has a somewhat different approach to alcoholism among the men in her life than did her mother. Whereas the mother focused on maintaining a façade of normalcy, as in “My Mother’s Lips,” where she emphasizes, “Don’t dare embarrass me,” the speaker focuses on the painful necessity of preparing the next generation for the inevitability of loss. In “Everyone Is Afraid of Something,” she contemplates how to prepare her granddaughter for the loss of her father:
Perhaps I should begin today stringing
her a necklace of bees. When they sting
and welts quilt her face, when her lips
whiten and swell, I’ll take her
by the shoulders. Child, listen to me.
One day, you’ll see. These stings
are nothing. Nothing at all.
Perhaps the only sense of hope one can gain from these poems is that after prolonged, stoic tolerance and the inevitable tragic conclusion, there is the possibility of renewal. This is apparent in “How Her Words Entered Me When She Called to Say My Father Had Died at Last after Ten Months of Pain,” a poem whose sense of release is reminiscent of that found in Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour:”
entered me the way we entered the coral rock caves
at the edge of Venetian Pool, if we could muster the nerve
to brave the caves at all and, because we were girls,
did so only on a dare from some cowlicked
fifth- or sixth-grade boy because we had to duck
under and make our way blind through the black,
watery depths until we reached a ledge
at the back of the caves where we sat panting
while the fear drained off, and now, chattering,
another breath, one more plunge, and we crashed
to the far opening until, still swimming, we burst
into light, lifting our wet faces to an anthem
of blue and green–released into Eden.
Night Huntress, by Joanna Catherine Scott
Main Street Rag, 2008, 67 pages
There is prose poetry, and then there is poetry that looks like prose. Joanna Catherine Scott’s book Night Huntress is one of the best examples of true poetry in the guise of prose poetry that I’ve ever encountered. A lot of poetry today, prose or otherwise, seems prosy–no sense of rhythm or lyricism, no sense of the line. Despite being arranged on the page more like paragraphs than traditional lined poetry, the poems in Night Huntress are unmistakably poetic. Scott herself questions the classification of these as prose poems. She says most of them were initially delineated but were changed to a denser prose style in a last minute editorial decision, which would explain why, as I read the poems, I kept pausing as if there were line breaks, and why I felt they were the most poetic, most lyrical prose poems I had ever read.
But little of that matters to any but other poets and perhaps the more astute readers of poetry who recognize lyricism when they hear it. What does matter to most readers is the story, in this case, the compelling story of a tragic accident and the lives it affects. Scott possesses the true writer’s gift, the gift of empathy, the ability to see inside another’s pain, loss, hope without being blinded by it. The calm, almost objective clarity with which Scott relates the story in these poems is heart-rending. The final stanza of “At the Grave” illustrates the beautiful and intricate detail that Scott, encompassing, like the skilled painter, background and foreground, uses to make images and events become experiences:
Crows sit in the trees. They are like professional mourners, with their black robes and their harsh cracked voices and simulated grief. One of the boys goes to stand under a tree, looking about him for a stone, but the graveyard is fastidiously cared for, not a stone in sight that does not bear a name. So he takes off his shoe, with the liturgy behind him, and flings it up into the tree, and the crows rise in a great black clatter, big as dogs, barking and rushing back and forth, as though the casting of the shoe has broken up the tree itself, and it has risen in a rage.
And yet, Scott never tells the reader what to feel, but plunges us headlong into a stream-of-consciousness that creates the experience so vividly, so honestly, on all its levels that certain feelings are inescapable. The reader is drawn into the various perspectives surrounding the accident right from the start. In the first poem, “How They Insist,” the narrator of these poems, whose identity will only become clear much later in the narrative, reflects on the difficult period of transition to adulthood where loss seems so common and so tragic:
. . . how they will, how they insist it seems, generation after generation, before they are full grown, when they are right there on the cusp, right there between the pupa and the full-blown moth, right there, poised in metamorphosis, with no thought of what has come before, who has done it, no thought of all the flower-decked crosses up and down the roads, give in to some compulsion from another world, a world that wants them now, this minute, just the way they are, teetered on the brink of opening.
Scott’s view of the accident is comprehensive. She thinks of every perspective and of every moment before, during, and after the event itself and relates them seemingly from the inside, as if they were hers or those of someone so close to her that maintaining the objectivity that permits the clarity the poems convey should be impossible. Yet it is that seemingly impossible objectivity which make the poems work as in this excerpt from “At the Grave:”
They have all come, the friends of the dead girl and the ruined boy. Even the bus boy from the nightclub has come, his face ashen with responsibility. They have brought flowers with them. They hold them in their hands. “Ashes to ashes,” says the priest, and , “dust to dust.” The flowers surge into the sunlight. They eddy at the surface of the dug red grave, as though the air inside is too dense for them to fall.
It is difficult to believe the experiences are not her own, that she is not the dead girl, the ruined boy, the mother or father or friend of the dead girl, the father of the ruined boy, and finally, and most completely and perhaps most factually, the mother of a friend of the dead girl who recognizes in the sheer proximity of tragedy our own intimate involvement in life and loss, whose comfort is shaken to the core by this, sending her on an introspective journey into the value and nature of life. It is this vicarious journey which the reader gets to undertake through Scott’s incredibly detailed and comprehensive narrative. Thanks to Scott’s ability for empathy, her talent for writing poetry whose secret message is not just “me, me, me,” but which enables the reader to say “me, too,” that makes even just reading the book a cathartic, life-changing, life-deepening experience not to be forgotten. I am often impressed with the work of poets. For this work, however, it would be more accurate to say that I am grateful.
Where’s Waldo, Salvador Dali, and Things I Could Never Imagine Doing: A Review of Mike Smith’s Multiverse: A Bestiary
Multiverse: A Bestiary, by Mike Smith
BlazeVOX, 2010, 91 pages
I’ve read enough poetry, and written enough for that matter, to not easily give over to hyperbole, particularly when it comes to matters of craft, but the structural undertaking of Mike Smith’s new collection of poems, Multiverse: A Bestiary, is astoundingly nonpareil. Prior to reading these poems, I firmly believed the assertion that there is nothing new under the sun, and perhaps in some obscure corner of literary history someone else has written 24 poems that use all the same letters and 16 more that rearrange the letters of well-known, seminal works like William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All,” Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and Ezra Pound’s first “Canto,” but until someone shows me such prior achievement, I’m reconsidering my faith in the proverb.
A word or phrase made by transposing the letters of another word or phrase (“Jim Morrison” transformed to “Mr. Mojo Risin’,” for example) is called an anagram. A poem made in similar fashion is called anagrammatic poetry. Such poetry has existed at least since the third century Greek poet Lycophron, and achieved some popularity in Medieval Europe with poets like Guillaume de Machaut and again in early 20th century surrealistic work and in the poetic play of the Oulipo group in the 60’s and 70’s. Perhaps the best known examples of anagrammatic poetry to date have been Oulipian Georges Perec’s “Ulcerations” or David Shulman’s 1936 “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
In Multiverse: A Bestiary, however, Smith has plowed new ground, using the idea of anagram as a vehicle for an entire book of related poems. Given the technical craft of these poems, it’s tempting to stand behind the gallery ropes and simply “ooh” and “ahh,” or, in contemporary tabloid fashion, spend one’s time looking for the error of the author’s way, the extra letter or the one left out, or even the simple typo that would throw the whole thing off, but doing so would deprive the reader the opportunity to engage with poetry that even without such unique craft would be intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Take, for example, the theological musings created in the poem “Snake,” in which the iconic serpent remarks:
I slip, sharp spoon in the sand,
trusting your eyes not to follow,
the forgotten first taste
of a forgotten world
. . . . . . . . . .
bent on a return–like God,
but more patient, more mascot
than mastered slave.
Or if emotional intensity is more to your liking, read the exploration of desperate mourning called “Hellbender,” which ends, “I down it all / for the devil dog that exudes / this new truth, my patron saint / of having nothing to lose. I drink / to having nothing to lose. I rise. I drink.” Or if perception and imagery are what you seek in poetry, consider the acute observations of “Two for the Birds,” in which treeless Poplar Island begins “to blossom with birds” thanks to the “suturing [of] last year’s Christmas trees / onto driftwood.” Or if you demand humor, you’ll enjoy “Robops,” a poem about mechanical birds placed on rooftops to scare away pigeons, each bearing the inscription:
To the eventual
inheritors of the planet: We lament
the possibilities for misunderstanding
inherent in many inventions. You must know
that these birds stood not as art
or idols to worship, but as mass products
of the sort of resourcefulness created
out of too great a need, a stop-gap
to keep what we knew we were losing forever
shiny and clean.
Nonetheless, Smith’s selection of anagram as form also creates inherent opportunities for pleasure, as in “Zebra,” for example, a poem that self-consciously (“the beast / I don’t name”) avoids using the name of the animal, since there is no “z” in the tableau of letters established by prior poems. My own favorite moment of simplistic pleasure in the premise of the book came when I noticed two “x’s” in “The Woman Who Became a Turtle,” the 11th poem in the book, and disbelieving that I could have gotten that far without noticing the presence of two “x’s” in each poem, began going back to find them “Where’s Waldo-style” in every other poem, in words like maximum and next, sexiness and perplexed, waxy and toxins, vex and exit, Maximus, Texas, and plexiglass. I imagine somewhere a wonderful spreadsheet of the 900 or so letters used in each poem. I imagine, also, how much Smith must love language and how frighteningly good he must be at Scrabble.
There is also to be found more serious pleasure, more poignancy, related to this idea of form. “Poe,” for example, retells the story of Poe’s death in the letters of his poem, “Alone,” and “Ahem, Requiem,” uses the letters of Berryman’s “Dream Song #1” to express the tragedy of his life, ending with this painfully understated stanza:
All the wracked and wounded world’s
gone bad, a bully waiting
down a blind alley. When the blows
finally whistled near enough,
you sidestepped, and dared
no longer tarry.
On a more positive note, “Live Ink” celebrates the influence and achievement of Langston Hughes using the letters of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” And perhaps the most technically amazing poem in the collection, “Frost,” weaves lines from a bus station notice about dangerous people with an all-too-accurate complaint about the business of poetry in an ironic anagram of Frost’s “Directive.”
Part of the wonder of these poems from the second section of the book, “Anagrams of America,” is the way in which Smith’s poem comments on the poem or poet from which it was drawn, the very poem which the reader knows is still inherently present in Smith’s rearrangement. They are not unlike Salvador Dali’s hidden image paintings, or perhaps more recently those Magic Eye Pictures that used to be a mainstay of newspaper comic pages. They are equally dynamic, multi-dimensional, and fun. But they are described best, perhaps, as Smith himself suggests in “Anemone, Limpet, Mussell, Crab” (a beautiful poem of doubt and faith, loss and recovery), as palimpsests, one text etched over the shadow of another, the way, as this poem suggests, species, experiences, literature, and individual lives are. And that I think is really the point of the whole thing