Reviews of books by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Let’s face it: we readers are a skeptical bunch. When we open a newly minted book of poems, a novel, or an anthology, we do so with trepidation. We are as hopeful, however, as we are doubtful. Hopeful that which we find between cover and blurb will inspire. Hopeful the books our mothers gift us on birthdays will move us. Hopeful the random books we borrow from the library will become our latest discovery.
When I first learned of Charlotte Austin and Siolo Thompson’s anthology, The Better Bombshell: Writers and artists redefine the female role model., I had my doubts. Austin is a writer and mountain guide and Thompson is a self-taught artist. Not only was The Better Bombshell to include writing and artwork exclusively created for the anthology; these original works were to be produced via collaboration between artist and writer. This, I thought, sounds too good to be true.
Then I actually read The Better Bombshell and, I am happy to say, was proven wrong. Weighing in at 10 x 8 inches and spanning 272 glossy pages—sixty of which are dedicated to full-color and black-and-white paintings, photographs, and illustrations—The Better Bombshell looks and feels like any book recently published by Simon and Schuster or the University of Pittsburgh Press. Austin and Thompson’s stable of writers and artists is as eclectic as it is impressive (Dave Barry and Rick Bass are positioned next to writers yet to publish a book). And the range of fiction, non-fiction, essay, poetry, painting, photograph, and collage is as entertaining, enlightening, and inspired as is the anthology’s design and execution.
While The Better Bombshell asks some tough questions—”Who is the modern, empowered sexual woman?…Who are the role models of today’s young woman? Who should be?”—its strength lies in its cross-genre approach to the questions it poses. The first collaboration of the anthology, “The Amazing, Incredible, Indelible, Human Resource” by Allison Williams, preceded by Hillary Gore’s painting of a nude woman posing in a shallow pool, “The Power of Influence,” tells the fictional story of Janie, an eight-armed superhero strong enough to “bench press a Volvo” and her unexpected expulsion from the “League of Heroes.” The essay that follows, “A History of my Breast Cancer in Bombshells” by Eva Saulitus, depicts the author’s experience with breast cancer in ten, second-person sections—a rather radical shift from genre fiction to personal narrative.
Genre shifts again in Roxane Gay’s “Important Things to Know,” an organic, highly-organized series of third-person meditations on our culture’s penchant for judging and labeling women in sections titled things like “Important things to know About Loose Women” and “Important things to Know about Frigid Women.” Valerie Miner’s “Amazon: 3 Versions,” tells the story of a mother and her twin daughters in sections of alternating first person followed by “Ying: Anima/Animus,” a photo essay by Paul Szynol that “confronts stereotypes of women, particularly the reductive view of women as the sum of their appearance.” Elaina Ellis’s “Five Prayers for the Divine Miss Ann Lee” is a series of prose poems. Hanna Brooks Olsen, Timothy Thomas, and Shyn Midili’s “Queen of In-between” merges interview, email exchange, observation, and photography to explore the notion that “men and women [are] rarely exposed to examples of what gender is beyond the traditional men-are-like-this-women-are-like-that archetypes…”
All the more intriguing is how little editorial intrusion Austin and Thompson have imposed on their contributors. “Some stories were written,” Austin writes in the introduction, “then illustrated; some pairs worked backwards from a visual image. Other collaborators…worked individually to interpret the idea in contemporary ways.” The Better Bombshell pairs writers and artists the editors believe do beautiful and important work, not writers and artists they believe will create hard and fast definitions of the modern woman. As a result, The Better Bombshell makes conversation rather than argument, bringing writers, artists, and audiences together under a simple rubric: let’s talk, let’s work together, let’s see where that takes us.
This interactivity results in an anthology that fails to answer the questions it poses; this failure, however, is its success. The Better Bombshell “fails” to answer these questions because there are no answers. There is no “better” bombshell in this day and age. There are no guidelines women must fulfill to be desired or successful or liked in the 21st Century. There are just women. Women in all their shapes and sizes. Women of various purposes and position. Women we love. Women we hate. Women we wish we were. Women we wish were ours.
Perhaps most importantly, The Better Bombshell reminds us skeptics why art (visual and textual) is important in the age of…anything but. Art is not about product. Art is not about argument. Art is about process. Art is about investigation. While much of the art we process gets tossed into the trash, sometimes the art we make speaks to the human experience. Sometimes this work ends up in museums and in books. Sometimes this work is made in one place and presented to the world.
In this case, The Better Bombshell does just that, and the results are well worth Austin and Thompson’s efforts. “You may not agree with the voices in this book,” Austin concedes in the introduction. “We’ve had hard comments already…one striking voice of criticism asked if creating a better bombshell was akin to creating a better nigger. But that kind of dialogue needs to be had.”
Quan Barry’s second collection of poems, Water Puppets, fixes its gaze on the various ways in which those with power abuse those without in beautifully and fully-controlled verses of constantly evolving syntax, structure, and scope. Refusing to settle into any particular mode, structure, or setting, Barry creates an environment that persistently shifts beneath the reader’s feet, which keeps us on our toes in a way akin to the worlds and characters in the poems themselves.
In the opening poem, “lion,” for example, the dynamic between a male and his harem is the unnamed speaker’s initial focus: “In the Serengeti sun, the male’s harem / like solar system… / …throughout evolution the cat’s barbed penis / nicking his breached mate as he dismounts.” “lion” takes a radical turn, however, when the male’s face is described as “crucified” and we discover that he and his pride are caged by the American forces interrogating our speaker:
…Unhooded and naked
we are pushed into their presence
and for a shining moment the animals study us,
these fabulous aliens.
Even though “lion” utilizes fairly simple, enjambed tercets, this sudden shift is easy to miss. To miss this shift is to miss the deeper meaning of the poem: that our tendency to abuse our power over others is scribed into our DNA, is simply part of who and what we are.
The fourth poem, “reportage,” is more complicated on the surface, opening:
This is the journalist’s mission from the Old French
for to carry back somewhere deep in the Congolese jungle
over the blond bridge sewn from sticks the green hills
with the twisting stalks of their serrated grasses each
fibrous blade pointillistic murderous historical quotidian
These densely-packed quintets cycle through repeated symbols and images sans punctuation in order to tell the story of a journalist who returns to Rwanda ten years after the genocide. Hoping to report on a renewed and enlightened society, the reporter instead finds that
…the rebels and the army
buy cold drinks in the same village though each in turn
is outfitted for the destroying of the other
this isn’t a story of hope but rather of dormancy
Such brutality, it seems, is doomed to repeat itself, Barry argues; such slaughter is always just beneath the surface. Barry doesn’t bang the reader over the head with this message in this five page poem; rather, she implies it with her use of repetition and the lack of punctuation.
Similarly, “meditations,” a sixteen page poem at the center of the collection, takes us from the incarceration of Nelson Mandela to the massacre of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese government to “the existence of WMDs” and beyond in tercets that leap from subject to subject with little to no indication. Once again, form meets function; the reader has to hold on for dear life much like the speaker, travelling this vast landscape of manipulation and cruelty.
Later, a sequence of six prose poems all titled “poem” walk us through everyday life in postwar Vietnam where stillborn babies deformed by napalm are preserved in jars and the faces of the dead are “everywhere…in the polished stone” walls of a museum. “Know,” declares Barry, “that the United States considered using nuclear weapons against these people. Close your eyes. Imagine the guilt-free life you might live someday, then remember why you don’t deserve it.” In the next poem, “history,” Barry meditates on the nature of pornography in which men almost always dominate women in single-line stanzas that extended in ecstatic and unpunctuated near-prose lines across its seven pages:
how did I end up here what was I searching alabaster skin like a dinner plate
a her 24/7 lover come rain or come shine literally some kind of oil derrick
all stainless steel and mechanization cold struts and gleaming www
Luckily, embedded within these difficult verses are poems of less complex design. There’s the second poem of the collection, “learning the tones,” which meditates on the six “diacritical marks used on certain vowels” of Vietnamese in six sections of eight couplets each. “lament,” similarly, describes a city built on a fault that sacrifices a member of its citizenry each time an earthquake strikes in a single, ten-line stanza. “different location, same outcome” uses colons to link each image/idea to the next:
everywhere an army:
twenty thousand father sand sons
equals a rookery: what comes down:
the black wing with its fused bone:.
It also helps that these poems are so beautifully written. No matter their complexity, Barry rewards the reader with her masterful use of metaphor, image, and diction. In “arsenal,” for example, the Antarctic Peninsula becomes “the shattered kneecap / at the bottom of the world.” In “ode” she personifies “the shorn [that] moon picks its blue path / across the night valley.” Any poet would wish they’d written the following lines in “Sunday Essay”: “Someone’s soul is pooling out of their body though the staff / is attempting to ram it back in”, “The body is self-programmed to die.”, “the blond moon wears its hair shirt of light.” And who could forget this description in “If only I had been able to form the idea of a substance that is spiritual”
Once I saw a pod of sperm whales sleeping
in the long night of the sea, their bodies
vertical like a forest, tails to the surface,
the massive trove of their heads
like stopped pendulums trained down straight
No doubt, the poems of Quan Barry’s Water Puppets challenge the reader to adapt to Barry’s almost violent shifts in structure, style, and subject matter from poem to poem, and, often, line to line. Readers must also accept that these poems are serious ones, poems that have something to say about or world and our country that they may or may not agree with. America isn’t exactly portrayed as the land of the beautiful and free. Individuals are not exonerated for their actions. These poems place the reader’s face in front of Barry’s various mirrors and demand they accept what we find there or leave.
At a recent Fourth of July barbeque, a colleague asked me the following: “Most of the Contemporary Poetry I read seems more like prose. There’s no form. It’s just stories with line breaks. What’s poetic about that?”
If you’re a poet writing in the 21st Century (and for much of the 20th), you’ve been asked this question and, no doubt, have devised countless answers. On this particular occasion, I answered with a question of my own: “If you took these poems and gave them some sort of predetermined form, would you actually like them more?”
I, for one, doubt it. Robert Frost’s notion that writing free verse is like playing “tennis with the net down” can be interpreted in two ways: the way he meant it, that writing free verse is like playing a game with no rules, or in the way he did not mean it, that writing free verse requires the poet to create his/her own rules, to blaze his/her own trail through the tangled wood rather than via a predetermined path.
This is exactly what Brian Brodeur does in his second collection of poems, Natural Causes, winner of the Autumn House Press Poetry Prize for 2012. In one wonderfully crafted narrative after another, the poems of Natural Causes address loss: of human memory, of life, of sanity, and of the connection to our world as we grow into old age (and eventually die). While it’s perfectly fair to call these poems prosy, this is the first, most obvious observation one should make, and the underlying negativity of the term prosy when applied to verse exists in these poems purely for the fact that, yes, they are narrative; yes, they tell stories—not that they are flawed in some essential way. The second (and more worthy) observation a reader should make of these poems is how deftly Brodeur utilizes sound, meter, figurative language, and other more traditional poetic devices to spin these yarns in a way more akin to sermons, more akin to music, than to “stories with line breaks.”
Take “The Clearing,” for example, in which the speaker eventually takes shelter from a downpour in a utility shed with two of his co-workers he’s just witnessed making love in the woods. Brodeur lures us in with the music of his line:
I’m thinking of Gidge Tomioli, the Systems Operator
at the Upper Blackstone Treatment Plant
where I worked part-time the summer I turned sixteen
power-washing the tanks and helping technicians
superheat greywater into pellets
we sold to local farmers as fertilizer.
while keeping us reading with narrative:
That was when I saw them, two nude figures:
a woman and a man in the clearing,
lying together, their skin turning bright pink.
True, if you took out these line breaks, you’d have extremely poetic prose, but that’s all you’d have. It takes more than mere prose to write a story, after all, and the poetic pacing of lines like “at the Upper Blackstone Treatment Plant” and “where I worked part-time the summer I turned sixteen” is clearly poetry. There’s also that wonderful, Levis-like opening: “I’m thinking of Gidge Tomioli…”; the poem that follows is structured according to a sequence of memories and the speaker’s meditation on them rather than conflict, rising-action, resolution, and all the other more-or-less required makings of an actual plot. This is something poetry can do and prose (short stories, essays, flash fiction, you name it) simply does not.
It’s not only the line that makes these poems so engaging. The narratives themselves reveal details we tend to keep to ourselves. The title poem, for example, tells the story of our speaker, who kisses a dying woman while doing the rounds his first week at a nursing home. In “Human Services,” the speaker is helping one of his more unpredictable patients bathe when she pisses in her hand and slaps him across the face with it. His response: “‘Fuck you!’ I screamed and threw the soap at her // as she laughed… / ‘Know what’s funny,’ I said, ‘Your own mother / abandoned you here because she never loved you…’” In “An Incident,” the speaker tends to a homeless man who has collapsed on a sidewalk. As he waits for an ambulance to arrive, he thinks “I’ve never touched a black man’s hair before.”
Brodeur keeps these narratives fresh with some playfully long and apt titles, e.g. “Finding the Handwriting of a Woman I loved in a Paperback She Left Behind Years Ago,” “On Hearing Congress Has Declared October Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month,” and “The Grandfather of the Groom Steps Away from the Reception and Talk to His Great-Grandson Asleep in a Pack-and-Play.” He has a great sense of humor that pops in and out of his verse, and he plays quite a bit with different free verse structures: the title poems consists of three, free verse stanzas; many of the poems are in tercets or couplets; some end abruptly while others are more conclusionary; and many are in sections. The result is a collection in which the reader doesn’t know what to expect, even though the reader recognizes its narrative tendencies.
Perhaps the best poem of the collection, “After Rukeyser” (an emulation of her famous “Poem”) opens “I lived in the second century of world wars. / I woke each morning and dry-swallowed my pills / for hypertension and high cholesterol, / and turned on my devices asleep on the desk / to check the night-time progress of the wars.” “After Rukeyser” is a lyric poem that, much like “Poem,” meditates on the psychological effects of war and, in particular, on the dysfunctional effect wars have on people when they have a great desire to change the world but are unable to. There are a number of other more lyrical poems in the collection that center themselves around the transformation of the subjects of everyday observation, such as an old sweater in “The Sweater,” a housefly “caught between the storm window / and screen” in “Housefly,” and “The Boy Without Arms”: “From the Metro Station, he steps into the sun, / his sleeves cut off, his hands dangling // directly from his shoulders, stiff, unfinished.”
While I grow tired of the notion that narrative poems are merely “stories with line breaks,” Natural Causes would probably be a better collection if it had more poems of lyrical intensity. But there are plenty of analogues to Natural Causes by better-known poets that have been very well-received by the Academy as well as the reading public such as C.K. Willaims’s Tar, Lynda Hull’s The Only World, and numerous collections by Phillip Levine, Rodney Jones, and Linda Bierds.
I wish I’d had Brian Brodeur’s Natural Causes on hand at that barbeque a few weeks ago. It’s an essential book of poetry for any reader’s bookshelf and a greatsecond book in this young poet’s career.
Nick Flynn’s first collection of poetry in nearly a decade, the captain asks for a show of hands(Graywolf Press, 2011), is a difficult book to talk about. The poems are fragmentary and in the voices of soldiers in Iraq. Unlike most fragmented poems, these are not elliptical poems (which leap from image to statement to metaphor); rather, they are compressions of the fragmentary thoughts of the fragmented minds of their speakers. Take the opening “lines” of “the baffled king composing hallelujah,” the third poem of the second section:
Jubilee, our war’s almost over (again), we ship out / tomorrow
(again) / back to where it was / we began (again)—photographs
stuck to the fridge, a red plastic / donut underfoot, a bathtub filling
The central device of the captain asks… is collage and pastiche, not unlike some of the poems in his first book Some Ether and virtually all of the poems in his second, Blind Huber. The title, as well as the epigraph (“a spokesperson can only / state his surprise that it doesn’t happen more often”), are borrowed from Some Ether, and many of the poems borrow lines from the works of other poets, stage plays, and the pop music (such as Britney Spears and Metallica) used to torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But the captain asks… isn’t just a book about the “War on Terror”; it’s a book that examines the psychological effects this war has on those fighting it and how those psychological effects have led to many of the heinous and shameful acts committed by American soldiers overseas.
Abu Ghraib figures largely in these poems and many of them are in the voices of soldiers attempting to navigate the Bush Administration’s now famous “Torture Memos”: “capt’n: the memo says we cannot bury / the prisoner, but does that mean we can bury his / son?”, “here comes the tub, here comes the board / here comes the cloth, here comes the bucket…”, “I hate the sounds of their prayers // I swim underwater I empty my lungs / if you think about breathing you can’t” (48, 55, 25).
The notion of redaction— not only in the editing of the words of others for public consumption but also in the fragmentary, nonsensical nature of redaction itself—
is a metaphor (as well as the book’s controlling device) that extends throughout the collection. “The poems,” in [“seven testimonies (redacted)”— the first poem of the third section],” Flynn claims in a lengthy end note, “are redacted versions of the testimonies of seven Abu Ghraib detainees” (88). Following this note, the full texts of these testimonies are included, and the inside flaps of the captain asks… look like a declassified CIA document with virtually all of the text of these testimonies blacked out with an ink pen; the text that remains acts as the text for the poem. Unfortunately, the seven sections of this poem are much less interesting than the full-text versions, nd the poems in the book that operate like redactions but don’t, in fact, redact any known testimony, are much more interesting as well. Take the opening poem, “haiku (failed),” which begins
The thin thread that hold us here, tethered / or maybe tied, together,
what / do you call it—telephone? horizon? song? Listen / to yourself
sing, We are all god’s children / we are all gods, we walk the earth / sometimes, two sails inside / until one day, for no reason, it sails—… (7)
While this may not be the easiest poem to read, it’s clear our speaker is seeking some sort of connection between the internal self and the external world. Language, however, with its various forms (the haiku, the prose poem, the sentence) and its various marks of “clarifying” punctuation (the comma, the slash, the question mark), fails to allow the speaker to make this connection. Simple. Beautiful. And oftentimes arresting.
Now look at the seventh and final section of “seven testimonies (redacted)”:
My eyesight is years
I see up yes did this
Yes you this I saw
A sister you see
In he showers you this
In this with yes I
Was naked you this
Yes to me & wanted (71)
While the statement being made here is clear (that the various facts surrounding the war, our reasons for going to war, and the various horrors that took place during war are turned to pure mush by redaction), the poem is turned to pure mush as well. It’s hard to make a good argument for why Flynn feels the need to make this statement at this point in the book in this particular way. It’s certainly nothing new (in the realm of Contemporary Poetry or in the realm of the captain asks…itself). It makes very little sense. And he’s already made this statement rather clearly and in more interesting and engaging fashion in earlier poems.
This approach to writing this book has been questioned by many reviewers as much as it has been lauded. But it’s not as if Flynn has anything to prove when it comes to crafting effective narratives (he’s done that a few times already), and it’s not as if these poems and the book don’t work. Thus, the question to ask of this collection is not “Why is it written this way?; rather, it’s “Who is actually going to read this?”
I, for one, did and rather enjoyed it. This book is different. This book makes a large and needed statement about our government’s actions that, many argue, Contemporary American Poets need to make more often. Overall, it’s clear what’s going on from page to page even in the absence of the standard tools of narration. I like the fragmented nature of the poems and how the compression of language creates is an inundating effect on the reader that emulates the inundating affect of the war on the poems’ various speakers.
But I’m a poet, and, like most of us who spend inordinate amounts of time writing this stuff, I’m willing to read beyond my comfort zone and give something like this a try. As for the rest of the reading public (no matter how small that may be), I’m not sure this book will have much of an audience. It’s simply asking too much of someone who doesn’t read poetry everyday, and it looks (quite frankly) like much of the fragmented fluff Contemporary Poetry and the Academics has been shoving down the throats of the American public for years. While this book may stand out amongst fragments verse those of us who read a lot of poetry, it looks all too familiar to those who do not.
That said, it’s hard to imagine how else Flynn could have written this book. It probably wouldn’t have been the best idea to take on the personae of a soldier and pretend he’d actually fought in Iraq or tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib. And it’s hard to imagine Flynn venturing to Iraq to drive an ambulance across the Syrian Desert ala W.H. Auden. Flynn’s a poet and a memoirist, not an idealist, historian, or newspaper man. He’s made some good poems here. Hopefully, they will be read.
Brian Barker’s second collection of poetry, The Black Ocean, opens with the 13-page “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods.” Spliced into numerous sections in which Barker’s memory of visiting Cherokee, NC is merged with meditations on America’s abuse of Native Americans, “Dragging Canoe” forecasts much of what’s to come in The Black Ocean: poems that plumb the depths of American history to examine our present in “heart-wrenching poems [that] glow with the vision…of last things” (Edward Hirsh).
The Black Ocean has a Biblical/Chaucerian feel to it with its host of mythical and historical characters such as Abe Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Edgar Allan Poe, and Billie Holiday. In poems like “In the City of Fallen Rebels,” countless figures enter the narrative: “the boy…dragging his death / by a string”; “the angels…,/ …those starved revenants”; “Mrs. Wen./…trying to coax the register open”; the gods who “refuse to blink”; and, finally, the poet who is “scared of the dark” (38, 38, 39, 39, 40). Jockying back and forth between the long poem and the short in the first two sections, these characters have a dual function, serving as devices via which Barker meditates on a subject matter in the long poems and as personas to reinvigorate his vision in the shorter.
After opening with the 13-page “Dragging Canoe,” the second section opens with “Visions for the Last Night on Earth” in which the speaker dreams of
Abe Lincoln pacing our hallway, his arms folded
behind his back like a broken umbrella, the clock ticking,
…America, watching closely, purring greedily,
as they gulped down the last starlight, dreaming of some other dawn. (16)
In the third poem (six pages), “Poe Climbs Down from the Long Tapestry of Death to Command an Army of Street Urchins Huddled in the Dusk,” Poe addresses the “swarming abattoirs of night, / [the] droning calliopes of the dead” as he climbs down through ghettos and “torture chambers // in countries somewhere off the map” (22, 17). The next poem, “Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth,” is a much quieter, single-paged lyric in which the speaker watches his house “go down like a gasping zeppelin of bricks” and turns to “walk the train tracks to the sea” (23). The section ends with the four-paged “The Last Songbird”: “We saw you once, here on earth, / singing from the icy turrets at dawn / as the tarry wind whipped skyward…” (24).
By the third section, Barker transitions almost purely into persona, opening with the seven-paged “Gorbachev’s Ubi Sunt from the Future that Will Soon Pass” in which Mikhail Gorbachev addresses former President Reagan from his future grave. In the next poem, “Silent Montage with Reagan in Black and White,” Barker enters Reagan’s mind who
feels like his head is lit by a pot of boiling milk—
He feels the boy take the lens of a projector
into his mouth,
the cold metal, the heat of the lamp
and the white room sinks
into the black Pacific… (34)
The fourth section acts as a series of brief diary entries from the point-of-view of those witnessing the Last Days in poems like “Field Recording: Billie Holiday from the Far Edge of Heaven” and “Visions for the Last Night on Earth.” The Black Ocean then concludes with the ten-paged “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Out of the Wind,” which utilizes titled sections to conflate the vision and voice of Barker’s characters with the vision and voice of just about anything he settles his gaze upon in sections titled things like “What the Hood Whispers to the Head” and “What the Fly Whispers to the Voices in the Wall.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this collection is how much it challenges the reader while tackling enormously controversial social issues. Many of these poems make use of extraordinarily long sentences broken into lines that compel the reader feverishly forward but under marvelous control. “Visions for the Last Night on Earth” is two sentences broken up into two sixteen-line stanzas. The next poem, “Poe Climbs Down from the Long Tapestry of Death…,” makes use of a mere three periods in five pages.
“Though these poems are frequently dizzying and threatening,” says Kevin Prufer, “they are also distinguished by technical dexterity, sonic complexity, and a truly visionary sensibility.” The Black Ocean is poetry’s version of an instant classic and confirms what many already believed: Brian Barker is a Contemporary master.
Brian Barker’s first book of poems, The Animal Gospels, is a collection that fearlessly seeks to uncover that which made and makes the self. In poem after poem, Barker reaches for insight with the highest lyrical and narrative ambitions, moving within and between time and imagination and at all times examining the strange entanglement of elements that make us who we are. Like the “fizz and flash / of your spent filament” that briefly illuminates the “foggy-eyes stranger” in the mirror of “Self-Portrait With Burnt Out Light Bulb,” like that “smoky globe” which, when shaken, emits a “scarce, peculiar song of broken light,” it is the musical world that draws Barker to the poetic medium.
The book’s first section, composed of the poem “Flood” asks:
Where have all the night tunes fled?”
The thrum of locusts, those tin blossoms I loved
To hear ratchet and uncoil
And swivel down from the cypress trees,
Are long gone, gone with the freight trains
Slogging through humidity,
Their shadowchurn over
The tarred trestles, their castanets of wood and air and steel…
“Flood” is a poem that depicts the aftermath of 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison in Houston, Texas with the musicality (or sudden lack thereof) of the convergence of the animal and human as its driving principle. In this opening section, Barker reveals his acute awareness of the frail connection between these realms and asks not only “Who will remember us?” but also challenges himself with that duty: “What will I remember?”
The poems of the second section show Barker’s wide imaginative range. Like the clabberless bell of “Elegy With A Mute Bell,” which has lost its “perfect // high-toned pitch” leaving only “its absence… marked // on the sill,” “Gospel with Lion And Gazelle” and “Snow Over Shaver’s Fork” discover a liminal “space / before speech where the wind // swallows our cries” and where narration is “Duped again by the silence, speechless / syllables claiming a void.”
Barker’s imagination reveals a horrific awe for the human. In “Dog Gospel” he writes, “When I dare at last to imagine hunger,” and we are led into a storyscape of a boy beating an abandoned dog in order to feed his hankering “for something he cannot name.” In “Guinea Pig Gospel,” Barker takes on the voice of “Exhibit X,” one of a hundred and twenty-eight African America men who died as a result of a study of syphilis disguised as “free medical care.” The poem commemorates the lives of these men who were once “young and poor” and who “slept naked in a field listening to bullfrogs,” lamenting the men’s fate “burnt by the blind god of Indifference and Mistakes.”
The third section, the thirteen-page “Crow Gospel Coming Down from the Mountain,” stealthily navigates the rocky terrain of childhood, imagination, memory, and actual experience. This long poem further explores human iniquity in depicting the racism of Barker’s hometown of Bristol, Virginia. The poem opens with an invasion of crows and a god who “has turned his back on our town,” then quickly moves into a retelling of the day his third grade class mistook a KKK rally for a parade. Later, the speaker’s grandmother ”(a neat woman,/ A kind woman, a staunch Christian”) tells him: “The coloreds ruin everything/the touch.” After she asks, “Do you think if you died tonight you’d go to heaven?”, he imagines God as an almost-tangible presence:
Later when I lay in bed fearing an end
I couldn’t even imagine, I gave God a body
And a name, and tried to pray:
I’m an honest boy, Hoss.
My heart is clay, Hoss.
O please Hoss, hollow me out before they do.
Notice the ambiguity of “they” in these lines. Is “they” the crows who “strutted into town / to roost in the trees”? Is “they” “Brother Defeat [who] leans against the lamp post, tapping his foot / … tossing cashews to the crows // As Sisyphus… feels the mountain / Crumbling on his back” or “…Little Jimmy Jenkins and his ilk, white-robed, / A few of the men playing instruments, / Zig-[zagging] towards City Hall”? Or is “they,” in fact the “… black men… // Dirty and exhausted from working / Construction the whole day, dynamiting / … a hole that would become, by summer, / The Lee Tunnel off Highway 81”? Barker provides no answer; he is more interested in the fallacy of his supposedly Christian upbringing and in the damaging impact that racism has on communities and, particularly, on children.
The poems of the fourth section bore deeper into Barker’s upbringing. In “Muskrat Gospel,” the body of the speaker’s grandfather “begins to return to light.” And the speaker claims that “… if I want to understand, / I must follow him back before dawn… / I must place my hands / on his when he holds his breath / and cracks their velvet necks.”
In “Still Live with “Charlie & Shorty,” we are asked to “let the boy lead you by the hand / close enough to see that this / is not some trick of the light or mirrors.” Later, in “Gospel with Swine & Fire,” the reader is told to return to the beginning, “…your father / undressing in the dark,… / … your mother robed in a cotton gown, / flushed in heat, her chapped hands smoothing / the blanket she’s drawn up under her chin.”
The book’s final section, composed of the eleven-page poem “Monkey Gospel Floating Out to Sea,” declares “Our whole lives are quest and quest,… // A familiar face glimpsed on a busy street, then gone./ A name that can’t find its groove on the tongue.”
Like the books of the Old Testament, which attempt, on one level, to translate the word of God and, on another, to tell a morally instructive tale, The Animal Gospels reveals an equally bifurcated landscape of truth and mythology. These poems make no attempt to reach ultimate truth; rather, they compel us to enter what Charles Wright calls “The country of Narrative” and to embark on a journey that places the flawed nature of the human self in the expeditionary context of narration.
Brian Barker reminds us, like the mockingbird of “Mockingbird Gospel” “Who sings the song it sang / beneath feather and flesh, its tongs / humming, a tuning fork struck /with breath and blood,” that the story is often “told best by hands.” While this “quest” may not bring us to a definition of self, The Animal Gospels certainly brings us closer.
Kristin Bock’s debut collection of poetry, Cloisters, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award for 2008, is a book that keeps its secrets. Eschewing what we typically think of as narrative, Bock’s poems enable a symbolic approach to story-telling, her eye focused more on the interpretive crossroads between the mythical and real realms than on the events that take place within them. In poems like “Phrenology,” in which we find ourselves fingering gravestones to speak to those interred”; “Hibernaculum” (a protective case or covering of an animal or plant bud, if you’re unfamiliar with the term), which opens “Stone remembers / the sea / that hollows it”; and “While You Are Away” in which a mannequin comes alive, Cloisters drops us with immense vocal authority into unknown yet oddly familiar territory. The result is a book that keeps its mysteries while examining them– a revealing collection that reveals very little.
Perhaps the most intriguing piece in Cloisters is the first poem, “On Reflection,” which, much like the reflection of a tree in water, is a mirror image of itself, the first nine lines of the poem reappearing as the last nine lines in inverse order. Here are the middle six lines:
staggering through the pitiful corn.
I can’t always see through it.
The mind is a pond layered with lilies.
The mind is a pond layered with lilies.
I can’t always see through it
staggering through the pitiful corn.
“On Reflection” could most certainly be seen as a gimmick, a poem that pulls off an inventive and no doubt difficult form but without much of a rationale behind it: form for the sake of form but not much else. But “On Reflection” operates first on the most essential elements of good poetry. The poem’s language is beautiful: “Far from the din of the articulated world, / I wanted to be content in an empty room.” Its similes and metaphors are startling: “a barn on the hillside like a bone, / a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes.” And its imagery is masterful: “to be free of your image– / crown of bees, pail of black water / staggering through the pitiful corn.” The result is a poem full of such fresh, unexpected lines that, when the repetition occurs, you don’t at first take notice; there’s a tingling of familiarity but an unassailable need to read on.
Bock truly gets to work in “On Reflection” after you’ve seen the full, visual effect of the inversion, slyly altering punctuation in the second half of the poem to alter syntax and, thus, meaning. Line three and four, for example, “a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes, / to be free of your image–“, utilizes an emdash to refer to the strange images in line five, “crown of bees, pail of black water.” When these lines are inverted in lines thirteen through fifteen, however, Bock ends the previous line, “a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes,” with a period and capitalizes the nouns in what was previously line five’s “crown of bees, pail of black water” like so:
Crown of Bees, Pail of Black Water,
to be free of your image–
a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes.
These variations modify the fifth line from a statement of image to an address; with a simple twist of syntax we find ourselves in a realm where one can speak to what was previously an inanimate object. This, of course, reworks the way we perceive and interpret the reflected images, word choices, and symbols that, at first glance, are exactly the same as their originals.
Bock uses inversion and syntax in a similar way in the first two lines: “Far from the din of the articulated world, / I wanted to be content in an empty room.” These lines tell us, first, that the speaker is a great distance from “the articulated world” and, second, that the speaker desires to be content with its absence. But when they reappear at the end of the poem, “I wanted to be content in an empty room / far from the din of the articulated world,” the final line now denotes the location of the room rather than that of the speaker. Now we have a speaker who not only has been transported by the work of the poem but who seems to exist in two places at once. Either way, she still desires a contentedness she cannot have; the speaker’s physical location may have changed but his internal discontent remains the same.
By creating such deep meaning without a single shred of narrative, “On Reflection” immediately positions Bock somewhere between narrative and lyric. Bock isn’t a story-teller, but she’s not just singing either, gathering one exquisitely composed line after the other and organizing them in a way that mimics narrative but never allows this narrative to reveal itself. The poems that follow follow suit.
Cloisters‘ second poem, “Windscape,” is a series of bold, musical statements: “A great pain strafed the city. // The air was a tapestry weft with cries. // Everywhere, women bandaged / the pietas of soldiers.”
“Because You Refuse to Speak” is startlingly surreal with lines like “Out on the pond, a snake / inside a swan glides past” and “A hammer sounds / between two mountains.”
“Scarecrow” takes on the voice of its title, declaring “Go back to your life beyond the cornfield, / Back to the farmer’s wife and her faraway heart… // You’ll make no friends here.”
Cloisters‘ final piece, “Resurrecting the Thirteen Stations of the Cross,” a prose poem, is visually stunning:
I looked down on a mountain, on a cry rising up from the cracked
earth. I looked down on the swine and the cattle, and they moaned a
little. And I looked down on the tiny beings with their tiny tools, and
a few looked back and shuddered…
It’s important to note that Cloisters is a book of short poems. “The Hymn of the Pearl to the Moon,” for example, is a mere twenty-two words:
Cast in your image
and into darkness
we are luminous nudes
by cave pools
mistaking our reflections
“The Somniloquy of the Sleeping Asp” is twenty-four:
I am the little black
curled inside the lamb.
If the center of the sea forgets me,
the center of the sea forgets you.”
In fact, only seven of thirty-eight poems are over a page long, which would be the norm if Cloisters weren’t so dimensionally small– its cover measuring in at 6 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide versus the standard 9 inches by 6 inches. That said, even the longer poems are broken into smaller sections or utilize some sort of organizational element that further compartmentalizes these lyrics. “Notes from the Boat Docks,” for example, is in couplets. “Among Sorrows and Stones” proceeds like an interview with a stanza of questions followed by an italicized stanza of answers:
Who remembers the letter
trembling over a flame?
I do. I buried Isolde in her black sail.
Who accompanied the bride with a scar
to a parking lot swept with paper roses?
It was I who gestured to the scissors as she mended.
No doubt this book will be puzzled over for its lack of narrative, not because collections of lyrical poetry are unusual (they’re not) but because Cloisters gives you the feeling that there is a larger story at work here. A quick scan of the middle sections’ titles, for example, “Scarecrow,” “Estranger,” “Return,” “Nostrum,” “Under the Ghost Tree,” “Oracle,” “On Not Finding Your Grave,” “Afterworld,” and “Trying to Pray,” creates the sensation of a vast and otherworldly landscape. And there are most certainly a number of motifs that appear in poem after poem: life, death & resurrection, modernity versus antiquity, and the animation of the inanimate. But if there’s a thread that winds its way through these lyrics, it’s about as mysterious as Cloisters‘ section titles: October, December, February, April, and August…notice the odd omission of June.
Rather than criticize Bock for the elusive quality of her poems, it’s important to recognize that a decision is being made here– Cloisters doesn’t lack narrative or story, Cloisters simply avoids it, the poet clearly more motivated by the metaphoric, symbolic, and interpretative world and her speaker’s more motivated by their opportunity to speak to someone willing to listen than by an opportunity to explain themselves.
Like the poems themselves, Cloisters is a book that creates a sense of largeness despite its small borders. The result is language and Bock’s language is exquisite, wooing us into one lyric after another so swiftly that, even though we may not know where we are, we trust that Ms. Bock most certainly does. The effect is a book of almost God-like proportions– poems we can observe and perceive but aren’t exactly certain we can fully understand. Though we’re not sure where we’ve been, we’re relieved to know that we can go back whenever we wish to do so. Cloisters takes us into a world that at times seems secular and, at other times, clearly emanates from the spiritual– something akin to the afterlife, prayer. Cloisters is a book that not only explores but mimics the mysteries of human experience. We are the better for it.
Daniel Nathan Terry’s second collection of verse, Waxwings, opens with “Scarecrow,” an address to the poem’s namesake from its creator: “Scare-crow crafter, burlap-tailor, / black-eye smudger, when I’m done, / crows mistake you for a man.” By the end of this first poem, it becomes clear that the scarecrow, constructed to protect the farmer’s crop, is used and thrown out by the very forces that make him; “How long,” ask the final two lines of the poem, “before the snow and I / take you down?”
Laced with imaginative diction, acrobatic-yet-precise internal music, and figurative language, “Scarecrow” forecasts what is to come: a collection of musical, symbolic, and highly-structured narratives that tell Terry’s story in three, chronological sections: the first of his experiences with rejection as a homosexual boy in the South, the second of his tumultuous and often terrifying adolescence, and the third of the oddly-discomfiting peace he finds as an adult.
The first section’s primary tool is symbolism. In the title poem, for example, Terry observes a waxwing gathering berries from a holly only to pass “it to its neighbor, // who passes it in turn, and so on down the [telephone] wire” until each bird is fed. The boy internalizes such a notion of community when, at the poem’s center, he “fantasizes / that kids in his class break into song // and dance like fools in an old musical.” Two poems later in “They were Call Colored,” Terry’s first gay lover (one of the blacks who works the farm next door to his home) slays a copperhead. When Terry inspects its body a few days later, he finds it writhing with maggots: “The snake was dead, but thousand of little white lives // wouldn’t let it rest.” Similarly, in “Flattened Penny,” “Lincoln’s face [is] erased” by a train, the penny “thin as a holy wafer, transformed by the weight // and might of the Southern Rail.” In “Photograph, 1984” Terry imagines a snake he’s watched eat a blackbird become the blackbird itself. And, finally, in “Since they put you out,” even inanimate objects reject Terry whose family has just rejected him: “no chair receives you, / no bath invites you, / no stove pot simmers / you to supper…” The primary message carried by these symbols are of rejection and for a desire to invert one’s sexual orientation, not to reject the self but to undo (much like the blackbird and snake) whatever action has made Terry who he is.
The poems of the second section merge Terry’s symbolic, boy-hood narratives with highly-organized structural subtext in poems about his adolescence as an exile. In “He Comes to Oak Island,” the speaker observes an “ibis dabbl[ing] in madly / in the wet sand” after he’s learned he is HIV positive and wonders “whose name its inscribing // in the Book of the Dead.” Similarly, “Elegy Written in November,” eulogizes the death of Terry’s friend David via disjointed sections each with their own form and title. And the last (perhaps best) poem of the section, “Snow falls in Hartsville,” is a contemporary sonnet sequence that depicts Terry’s attempt to reject his homosexuality and have a relationship with a girl who turns out to be gay herself. Unlike most sequences of this sort, Terry daisy-chains each sonnet to the last by mirroring the final line of each sonnet in the next. This structure creates a cyclical effect that reminds us of the inversion of the snake and blackbird in “Photograph, 1984.” This poem’s message, however, is entirely different. By the end of “Snow falls in Hartsville,” Terry accepts who he is, the girl he once tried to love is now “the man she was always meant to be,” and he has accepted his fate.
In the third and final section, we encounter less symbolic, less structural, more direct poems about domestic life. They are direct for a reason: Terry now has a partner, a career, and a passion that fulfills him; life since his adolescence has settled in, and the objects in his world (be they living or inanimate) no longer teem with implication. Things simply are what they are, and Terry seems a bit restless with his new rank. He’s not unhappy, but he does seem a bit unsure how to proceed in his life and work. In “Landscaper’s Curse,” for example, Terry can’t help but critique the “well-kept bungaloes / … / painted in colors that intimate / quirky wines in wrought-iron racks…” even though he is surrounded by beauty In “A Rumor of Fire,” though Terry and his a partner have bought a home together (“two bedrooms, one bath, a narrow living / room— all we could afford”) he realizes he’s “never lived / in a house I have loved.” And, in “Lost,” he says
….my lover fell asleep
on the couch again
last night and did not come
to bed. Nothing to do
with fighting, no anger,
just a decade or so since first love,
and now too much work,
and the fact that I’ve begun to snore
like an old man.
The collection ends more hopefully with “Everything is Possible,” a poem that, much like a villanelle, cycles through a series of repeated, internally rhyming lines that declare “in this room of open windows… exists another window / across your knees” and “in this world of open screens, nearly everything / can be remembered.” While Terry may be restless, life is all around him and, perhaps, the poem declares “…Though some memories, / you know, are lost, misfiled, because … / …this librarian, like you, is sometimes distracted / by music and by luminous updates from the future.”
Waxwings is a wonderfully constructed and brave collection of poems. It takes the reader on a journey not only through Terry’s life but into a culture that that has such a difficult time accepting those who are different. While most of these poems tell stories, they deftly employ a lyricism and subtext that make for a beautiful and intriguing read. Given Terry’s subject matter, he could easily have settled for poems of extreme story or of extreme lyricism and experimentation. In a time in which contemporary poetry seems to pick one or the other, Terry chose in Waxwings to bring these approaches together. He has done brilliantly so.
Pinckney Benedict’s third collection of stories, Miracle Boy and other Stories, fearlessly merges Benedict’s well-established literary style with a darker, more “popular” approach to storytelling. Born to a family of West Virginia dairy farmers and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Benedict burst onto the literary fiction scene in 1987 with the release of Town Smokes and, in 1992, with The Wrecking Yard and Dogs of God (his first and only novel) a year later. Now, after an irksome seventeen-year abeyance, Benedict’s return marks a leap in his work, the stories of Miracle Boy dismantling the conventions of personal experience and literary fiction to create one unique, intricately-shaped, and entirely-consuming world after another.
In “Pony Car,” a cross between a ghost story and zombie-apocalypse thriller, a split-tongued crow channels the undead. “The Beginnings of Sorrow” depicts a hunting dog possessed by the salacious soul of his dead master. And, in “Joe Messinger is Dreaming,” we witness the folding over of time in the high-altitude-affected mind of Messigner before he plunges in a space suit from a weather balloon at 120,000 feet.
But it’s not just world-making and imagination that makes this new collection such a page turner; it’s the chance encounters, missed opportunities, and bizarre yet entirely real conflicts that compel the reader forward. When, in “Mudmen,” for example, a pig farmer learns of his wife’s adultery, he slathers mud across a skeleton of scrapwood and commands him to “Kill all vermin.” Once the mudman has killed everything in sight, the farmer becomes the object of his own directive. Similarly, “The Angel’s Trumpet” is told from the point-of-view of the last surviving Goins as he descends into the manure pit that has recently taken the lives of his entire family to limn his family’s heritage across the vat’s interior walls. “The Secret Nature of the Mechanical Rabbit” depicts Buddy Gunn’s decision to poison his boss’s dogfighting dingo after collecting one too many puppies from The Classifieds for him to practice on. And, in “Zog-19: A Scientific Romance,” an iron-clad alien from the distant future falls in love with the wife of Donny McGinty, the farmer whose body the alien possesses in order to procure information about the human species.
The stories of Miracle Boy are denizens of real-time, slyly feeding readers the finer details and necessary background as scenes unfold rather than via sections of exposition. In “The Angel’s Trumpet,” Benedict weaves the thoughts of the main character’s brother and elucidating quotes from reference books in his father’s library into the narrative as the story otherwise unfolds in a linear direction. Likewise, “Joe Messinger is Dreaming” collapses time altogether so that expository prose, scene, and dialogue are one and the same.
Miracle Boy has something to say about our world as well. Horror, sci-fi, and fantasy have always been the media of writers with a bent for examining what would happen if our nightmares, omens, and myths were to materialize. This sort of augury oft manifests itself in ways that are purely fictional in Miracle Boy, but the realities of technology also figure largely in these tales. There’s the derelict radio telescope that acts as a small town’s confessional in “The Butcher Cock,” the weather balloon that allows for Messinger’s peregrinations through time while marking his doom, the exterminator suit of “The Bridge of Sighs” that transforms a loving father into a monster, and “the intricate machine built by men to show him this girl at the other end of space” in “Pig Helmet & the Wall of Life.” There is also a lack of heroes in Miracle Boy, the true nature of the conflicts within Benedict’s characters going largely unresolved. These stories often seem to suggest that humankind’s lust for technology and its lack of providence in favor of dissemblance and demagoguery has doomed us to a whimpering end.
In a recent issue of Appalachian Heritage, editor George Brosi calls Pinckney Benedict “a gleeful writer”; aggressive, gun-slinging, and care-free might be more apt words for this fearless teller of tales. It took Mr. Benedict seventeen years to write Miracle Boy and other Stories. It was worth the wait.
Daniel Khalastchi’s debut collection of poetry, Manoleria (winner of the 2011 Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Award), was written over the winter of 2006-2007 at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Finding its genesis in NPR’s Marketplace, the hour-long financial news report, Manoleria investigates the toll that political, social, and economic unrest in the U.S. and abroad has on its citizenry.
Through a sequence of first-person narratives, our “hero” must find his way out of tortuous (if not absurd) states of incarceration while the world haplessly stays its course. In “Relative Fortune:” the narrator is handcuffed to the steering wheel of a car he is directed to drive off a pier. In “Actual Draw Weight:” he finds himself on a mysterious pilgrimage: “Al- / though it is difficult, I try not / to look at the arrow in my / stomach, or the rope at its / end that is pulled when I / faint.”
As these torture narratives unfold, the protagonist’s body increasingly becomes the focus of abuse, and the unnamed antagonist grows all the more maniacal—his/her/its desire to test our hero’s will seems insatiable. In “Audible Retraction:,” for example, any sense of hope in the speaker is dashed by the accumulation of deformity:
In the hayloft of a neighbor’s
barn, I am just a
torso. Propped up against the
bailing doors, I stare at four
limbs laid out before me: a
child’s arm, the leg of a
rabbit, two twitching fins in
varying stages of
decay. Although I’m unsure,
a letter I find indicates they’ll
work if I can somehow get
The passive reception of torture in these poems presents an obvious and effective symbol for the dire effects of American mob mentality and its political/economic system on everyday people. These impossible situations also unify a collection otherwise driven more by music and lyrical leaps. The collection’s opening poem, “The Maturation of Man:,” forecasts the stuttering yet highly rhythmic foundation that anchors this lyricism:
Because rain. Because hard. Because
pain in my ribs, because buckle and
wait. Because cramping. Because
kneeling low. Because pause. Because . . .
A similar start-and-stop, strained motion is apparent in “Went we. Inside. My colon a tree: (Diagnosis),” the first in a cryptic sequence of prose poems scattered throughout the book. These poems depict the diagnosis, surgery, and supposed recovery of our hero: “Went we. Inside. My colon a tree. Broom heavy with light. With heavy cut leaves left. Standing the spill of. My levee. My leaving. My find young ulcers . . . ”
Most of the poems in Manoleria utilize caesura enjambment, white space, and excessive periods, dashes, and other such punctuation, creating the sense that the speaker is gasping for air or choking on his own words. Our hero is tortured by the language he uses to express himself almost as much as he is by his captors. Reading these poems as they are formatted takes some patience; it’s a lot easier to ignore the graphic manipulation and read them like typical free verse. If one reads Khalastchi in such a way, essentially skimming over the stuttering elements, his verse is clearly one of kaleidoscoping images and associative language, recalling Franz Wright and the high-wire transformations in Donald Barthelme. If one does in fact take the time to read these poems the way they are constructed, one must contend with the constant disruption of Khalastchi’s images and syntax. Much like Nick Flynn’s redaction poems in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Khalastchi’s pervasive use of caesura makes for a disjointed but oddly powerful verse.
Khalastchi experiments with form not only within the poems but also across them. Manoleria consists of four repeating “types” of poems scattered throughout the book: the “torture” poems, which typically organize short lines into couplets, tercets, or quatrains; the “because poems” wherein all the lines begin with “because” as the speaker seeks a logical reason for his current state; the series of brief prose poems that depict the speaker receiving surgery for a mysterious, unnamed illness; and a number of poems (five of which are titled “Manoleria:” and two of which are multi-page sequences) fully justified in the center of the page. This formal variation adds visual variety to the collection. It also emphasizes the speaker’s restless, varied attempts at finding order (though it is never achieved) within a chaotic and abusive world.
When combined with the collection’s disturbing content, this formal disorientation produces a book that’s not exactly a comfort and joy to read—the reader can feel as isolated and, in some poems, as abused as the protagonist. This causes the reader to not only read the poems but to experience them as well. Much like the collection’s hero who “awake[s] in the dirt / of a garden,” the reader can feel lost in this confusing world, even as its repeating elements add unsettling coherence. Though it may seem far from Marketplace, the result feels disquietingly close to contemporary life.
Garrett Hongo once called Hummer ‘s poetry “a hectoring witness compelled to translate the banal urban atrocities of our current civilization into complex testimonies and transcendent prophecies.” Hummer’s tenth collection of verse, Ephemeron (published with LSU Press’s Southern Messenger Poetry Series in 2011) may be his most oracular yet. With its host of defunct genomes, a rupturing cosmos, malevolent gods, a derelict body politic, and endless war, the poems in this collection act as harbingers of the wasteland America may soon become.
Much of Ephemeron merges the mistakes of the past, the present, and (what Hummer imagines) the future will bring into a highly fictionalized but disturbingly realistic future. Take “System,” for example, in which a geneticist is sliced open to reveal “a schematic of precise and interlocking logic / So familiar that the men with bayonets stepped back…” or the similarly eerie “Inventory” which opens:
Hogsheads from the provinces. Bundles from caravans.
Crude crates from the holds of ships. Urns of oil and wine.
Embroidered sacks of opium tied shut with silk twine.
Thirty slaves. Women: eight. Men: nine. Sundry children.
And on the farthest dock, a pile of junk: cracked cudgels, broken
bandoliers, body armor stained, punctured, and stove in…
Hummer takes the notion of personae to a new level in this book. Unlike his previous work, in which his poems are written from the point-of-view of an imagined character or from his own, Ephemeron combines these points-of-view to create a future self navigating the wasteland and recording what he encounters.
Similar to Walt Whitman in Hell and the books that have followed, Ephemeron is sequenced like a book-length poem rather than a collection of random verse gathered in a single place. It relies more on repetition and the compounding and coordination of visuals, locales, characters, and structures to tell its story. Many of the poems are lists of lengthy, acrobatic prose couplets separated by an asterisk. Here are the first few sections of “Biography of Eros”:
The witnessing of things in the mind. But what mind? The lovers lay on the
bed, handcuffed, saying Please, and just for a moment one of them knew.
Sleeping, one of them moaned. It was the dream of the interpenetration of
souls. Death is in everything, crystalline arsenic dissolved in alcohol.
They wore raptor masks. One used a small flexible whip. Its marks were
radiant traces of ichor. Thus the walls of the sanctum were broken.
These lyrics act like monologues or solo riffs, utilizing image and imagination to carve out a space in the book that’s almost pure voice. These poems are rather unique to Hummer’s verse, which rarely uses the prose line or is so violently elliptical. But Hummer doesn’t get seduced by these highly musical lists, bringing more familiar narrative poems into the fold in order to anchor the collection and its reader. The title poem, for example, addresses the infinite smallness of life and the miracle of life— regardless of cynicism— with simple but wildly imaginative lines. A poem about a middle-aged father about to become a father all over again, “Ephemeron” opens:
Those are windflowers glowing in the outer darkness
just beyond the gateposts. If I squint,
I see them clearly: white windflowers, flicker of star gas,
bridal-veil nebula— an infinity bent
By the gravity of dawn and rain, but opening.
It astonishes me again: I am fifty and pregnant,
And beyond the bedroom window September is gathering
Its cosmological light.
“Ephemeron” is also a poem about god, fate, and that which makes up the physical and metaphysical human body: “it is they who assemble, in the amniotic sac, / Bits of star-grit, skeins of DNA, the holy chemistry / Of existence.” Hummer has always been concerned with the building blocks of reality and how they affect our behavior in the world. In some of the best poems in Ephemeron, this fascinations leads to a captivating convergence of the concrete and abstract. Take “Fallacy of Composition,” for example, which begins: “The sky darkens with flying bodies: the extinct birds / live in the mind, therefore the birds live. / The color of the day deepens with memory. All the wreckage / of history is eclipsed.” and goes on to list images of various undoings: “The blacksmith raises his hammer / and the red hot horseshoe straightens into an iron bar. / Consciousness moves like a shadow through the forest / and whole peoples are restored.”
“Fallacy of Composition” represents one of the central themes of the book: our longing to undo the mistakes we’ve made, to reverse what has made the world such a hazardous place to live in. Global warming, terrorism, political unrest, the stagnant economy: these issues have become a popular subject of contemporary American poetry with books like Rodney Jones’ Apocalyptic Narrative, Carolyn Forche’s The Angel of History, Brian Henry’s Quarantine, and Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country.
Ephemeron is a pre-apocalyptic vision that fearlessly examines where we are, where we’ve been, and where (Hummer believes) we are likely to end up. Ephemeron, most of all, is a beautiful entreaty to the 21st Century, to “a god’s favorite trick— / the accrual, like money in the bank, of our undoing.” “Now that all the people have vanished,” he asks in “Ad Hominem,” “who will deal / with the swarm of tiny annoyances that defined / Human existence? … What god will try / to train the cat to shake its head and curse?”
Robert Wrigley’s seventh collection of poetry, Beautiful Country (Penguin Press, 2010), examines the United States through the lenses of war (past and present), politics, and its many natural and social landscapes. It’s a fascinating convergence of the naturalist/humanist Wrigley whom readers have come to know since the appearance of his first collection, The Sinking of Clay City (Copper Canyon Press, 1979), and a Robert Wrigley readers don’t know quite as well: the Contentious Objector, the politico, the personae poet.
Beautiful Country is the first book Wrigley has authored since compiling his Selected Works, Earthly Meditations (Penguin Press, 2006), a milestone in any poets career. But unlike many in his position, Wrigley doesn’t give in to the temptation to “reinvent the wheel” in this new collection; rather, the poems of Beautiful Country delve into Wrigley’s experience as a CO during the Viet Nam war while boldly investigating the current political, social, and economic status of the United States in pieces like “Exxon” and the title poem. These poems employ the same tools Wrigley has always used: narrative, music, and the line. Many of these works continue what’s become tradition; “After a Rainstorm,” “Hail Storm in the Mountains,” and “Letting Go” mine the natural world for its redemptive glory.
Of course, Wrigley’s third collection, What My Father Believed (University of Illinois Press, 1997), often refers to his CO-ship, but these poems primarily focus on the resulting conflict between Wrigley and his ex-military father rather than his experience as a CO itself. Beautiful Country, on the other hand, takes us directly into the army barracks where he received medic training before realizing full CO-ship was the only way to avoid taking part in what he believed even then was a senseless and amoral war. In “Miss June,” for example, we witness a violent (and somehow humorous) encounter between a boyish Wrigley and his superior who takes offense at the peace sign he’s chiseled in his dog tags by “tapping with the heel / of a combat boot on the butt-end of a pocket knife.” Likewise, the title poem tells the story of marijuana and heroin use among soldiers, Wrigley and six of his fellow trainees “lotused around / …several resinous pounds of pot / … / back from a day at ‘Special Training Detachment.'”
If it’s unclear why Wrigley has waited until now to write these poems, one need look no further than poems like “Exxon,” which opens “Behold the amazing artificial arm, a machine / eerily similar to the arm it replaced” and goes on to excoriate the physical and social disconnect between the fuel American citizens pay for at the pump and the war (Wrigley clearly believes) America is fighting for oil in the Middle East. Similarly, “American Fear” catalogues over five pages the various absurd fears (“an actual firm, an employer, a company / selling ‘clothing for the disaffected / youth culture,’ … / a marketing vision for the new world”) manifest in 21st Century America, e.g. barophobia (fear of gravity), Cape Fear, and vistiphobia (the fear of clothing). These aren’t poems younger poets often have the skill, authority, or, perhaps, gumption to compose.
But like the epigraph that boldly opens the book, “‘This is a beautiful country.’ John Brown, seated on his coffin, as he rode to the gallows, December 2, 1859,” Beautiful Country isn’t a condemnation of America but a eulogy to the America Brown died for and that Wrigley has known, knows, and knows it can be.
There are poems like “County”: “County of innumerable nowheres, half its dogs / underfed and of indeterminate breed. County / of the deep fryer and staples in glass against mice, / county of horned gods and billed hats. Sweat county, / shiver county.”; “A Rumor of Bears”: “The day had faded dull-gray sun, gray rain. / Even the slim college girls walking by / wore fat coats the colors of wildebeests”; and “All Souls”: “It’s late in the season, but still I leave the zucchini /to grow inedibly large, thinking / elongated green jack’o’lanterns /or the county fair’s generous blue ribbon…” that express a clear love for its natural landscapes, particularly of his homestate of Idaho. Love poems such as “A Lock of Her Hair” and “Sisyphus Bee” reveal a poet very much pleased to have his freedom, even if much of the book is in protest of the manner via which that freedom is currently (and historically) sustained. And many of the poems of Beautiful Country revel in the strange (oftentimes unsettling, oftentimes magnificent) array of personages in present-day America in poems like “Fraternity,” “Poor Priscilla,” and “Progress” which asks:
…Is there anywhere you can go
and find a hair-netted octogenarian wrangling a walker
and four massive, camp-sized cast iron skillets full
of Sunday dinner fried chicken at 9:00 am
and ask if she’s serving breakfast, then have her say
“Sure thing, hon, but you’ll have to wait on yourselves”
Wrigley still likes to play. Take the opening poem, “Responsibility,” which opens with a fifty-four word sentence broken into nine lines over two stanzas:
At the lower fence line under the stars
he hears what at first he takes
to be the neighbor’s mare,
come to investigate his apple pocket,
but then gets that neck-chill
and knows otherwise and turns
to see by starlight alone a dust devil
spitting along perpendicular to the wire
and straight at him.
and “Which Last,” an English sonnet camouflaged in stanzaic couplets:
In the thicket just west of my shack,
under the heaviest of canopied pines,
every day, all winter long, two does recline
and rest, and sometimes when I look
from the window their eyes are closed,
but still they go on chewing whatever
snowbound vegetation they’ve uncovered-
or just their sad, inadequate cuds, I suppose.
As I suppose my daily apple also
is due to them. I’ve been a little slow to learn
not to throw the core and make them run,
but to toss it gently between us, like so,
then go inside and watch through the glass,
to see which is the lucky first one to it, which last.
As always, Wrigley’s poems are as unusually accessible without sacrificing his aesthetic: story, lyric, and a willingness to go where the poem demands. And while these are poems of immense power held under immense control, Wrigley hasn’t forgotten where he comes from. A descendent of generations of coal miners in East St. Louis, Wrigley challenges many of the beliefs of his ancestry in Beautiful Country without a shred of elitism.
It’s been seven years since Wrigley last published a new collection (Live of the Animals, Penguin Press, 2003). It was well worth the wait.
To Build My Shadow a Fire, released by Truman State University Press in April 2010 and edited by Michael McGriff, chronicles the near half-decade career of poet David Wevill. Born a Canadian in Yokohama, Japan in 1935, Wevill has published fourteen collections of poetry in 43 years, his first in 1963 in Penguin Modern Poets 4 (alongside David Holbrook and Christopher Middleton) and his most recent, Asterisks, with Exile Editions in 2007.
To Build My Shadow a Fire opens with a lengthy introduction by McGriff that sheds light on Wevill’s upbringing in Japan, his education in England, and his eventual move to Texas, all of which clearly informs Wevill’s verse. Without McGriff’s introduction, much of what’s at work in Wevill’s poetry might be lost simply due to the limitations of a selected works. Moving chronologically through Wevill’s verse, the selections reveal a poet obsessed with experimental free verse, unafraid of reinventing himself time and time again. His first three books utilize a traditional, somewhat lengthy line that, as Wevill puts it in the Author’s Preface, displays an early “rhetorical energy” (xiv). After moving from London, England to Austin, Texas (where he still lives and teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas), he shifted to a much shorter, often-unpunctuated and rhythmic line in 1971’s Firebreak. His next collection, Where the Arrow Falls, released three years later, is a book-length sequence made up of three sections. The first two deploy what he learned about the line in Firebreak; the final section (which is entirely omitted) is in prose. Casual Ties, released in 1983, is comprised of thirty-three interlinked prose poems. And Asterisks, another book-length sequence, is an economical sequence of forty-nine numbered poems separated by an asterisk.
While Wevill writes with an almost violent desire to reinvent his own line, almost all of his poems find their subject matter in the wandering, lost soul. “Poem,” the first selection from Firebreak, opens “A year / burning away time. // Where are the words? // The room / was full of people, / but they didn’t speak” (51). Thirty-three years later in “Namelessness,” the same theme arises: “But now after all these years / I don’t know who the ‘you’ is anymore / when the word writes itself instead of a name…” (168). Where the Arrow Falls takes its title from a Persian myth of a king who commands his three sons shoot their arrows into the sky and build their kingdoms where they fall. For two of them, their arrows fall in fertile lands, they construct prosperous kingdoms, and they live happily ever after. For the third son, however, his arrow disappears, and the search that follows makes for a richer life (xxv).
Similar to the works of Lorca or Rilke, Wevill’s poems emerge from an ecstatic impulse but within a more narrative than lyrical structure that allows for Wevill to not only express himself with language but within the structure of his poems and the books they appear in. Where the Arrow Falls is composed in three sections, two in free verse and one in prose. His next book, Casual Ties, explores the nature of existence and time in a sequence of prose poems. Child Eating Snow and Solo with Grazing Deer, which returns to a more traditional line, delve into politics and injustice. And in Asterisks, Wevill makes use of white space and that which is unsaid with the asterisk which “refers you to / another place / fire, her star / an unpronounceable name / whose wherebeing / kept old light” (194).
The best poems in the book come after Wevill’s move to America in the wake of his split with his wife, Assia Gutmann whose affair with Ted Hughes is commonly attributed to Sylvia Plath’s suicide. Assia committed suicide herself in almost identical fashion. This tragedy goes unmentioned in McGriff’s introduction, but its affects are evident in the books he wrote after 1970. “Lament” of Firebreak appears to be about Assia:
the sun for myth
in a land where snowdrops thrive
on cold and water,
showing the skull… (60)
as well as the more allusive “They That Haunt You,” selected from Casual Ties:
Your change of name has not helped. Your change of location has got you
nowhere. You are still what you are and will be taxed as such. Your long list of
unpaid parking fines will spell out your name, retrospectively, and point to
where you are this very moment. The children you leave behind you, if any, will
lead them to the door you think you closed forever, the house whose number you
changed at night when you thought no one was watching. Your lost mail has your
name and knows where to find you. (95)
To Build A Shadow A Fire also includes a section of Wevill’s translations as well as an introduction by Wevill that reveals the influence of European and Spanish poets, particularly Ferenc Juhasz who was born in 1928 in western Hungary and whose works, Wevill writes, are “a dialogue between the poet and the wilderness he filled with…a sense of disconnection, bewilderment, strain” (207). These translations were originally published in 1970 in Penguin Modern European Poets: Sandor Woeres and Ferenc Juhasz. Wevill’s’ Firebreak was published in 1971. Place the opening lines of poems like Juhasz’s “Four Seasons” and Wevill’s “For Woodwinds” side by side, and the influence is obvious:
Autumn is gone. The leaves have turned to mold.
I tramped over the mush of plants on my way to you.
My orphaned eyes skulked in holes the dead had abandoned
like hermit crabs in the dead shells they crawl to.
The dry wind ticks the leaves
The coral snake has left his hole by the water pail
The days climb to a hush
over noon, and at night
the hidden river leaves a lake in the cup of your belly
we dabble like children, lights out
to the small wild noises in the grass
and the dead eye of the gun in the bedside drawer. (234; 53)
Given that Wevill has been so prolific over such a long period of time, it’s surprising he’s not better read. Then again, Wevill has not shied away from changing his style from book to book and, no doubt, has gained and lost his readership with each new manifestation.
His poems at times can get bogged down in statement, be they literal ones or metaphorical. Wevill is a dark, brooding composer of verse. He’s not funny, and he’s not easy to read. Readers sometimes have to stop in the middle of a poem and retrace their steps due to his leaping, somewhat elliptical style.
Wevill’s use of figurative language is sometimes puzzling as well simply because he’s so good at it– his metaphors and similes layering visual upon visual rather than simply trying to redefine his subjects. Take this simile from “Child Eating Snow” for example:
In the winter sun that year
her father was all bone. Slowly
he was turning white
like her shadow on the snow. (161)
Similarly, when Wevill eschews punctuation and deploys the dropped/indented line, it’s easy to get a little lost. Take “26” from Where the Arrow Falls:
happen to the mind
waking in cloud
burned by dreams, no
less self than the wary deft-
handed body gardening stones
this Wednesday, the sun
a fiery negative. (73)
If Wevill’s move away from his traditional, rhetorical style in favor of a stark, more symbolic, stripped down approach didn’t alienate his readership, his move towards prose most certainly would have. And for readers looking for the poet in his poems, Wevill often appears in his work but in a detached way that is less like first person and more like third.
As a result, Wevill seems to have found himself straddling multiple poetic realms simply because he never desired to reside in any one in particular over any particularly lengthy period of time. He’s a poet whose proven one can be prolific and experimental at the same time. It would seem that displaying this aspect of his work is what the publishers and editors of To Build My Shadow A Fire had in mind. They’ve succeeded brilliantly.
Nicky Beer’s debut collection of poems, The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010), is dedicated to her father who died from a brain tumor early in her childhood. For a book in eulogy to one’s father, the opening line of the opening poem, “Avuncularity,” “Every child ought to have a dead uncle” (11), is an unexpected declaration, a violent denial of the speaker’s history. “Avuncularity” goes on to address the daughter who has lost her father and who we learn in later poems is the speaker herself: “he / is the one whose fault it can be: / the slight warps, the spider-cracks in your speech, / the explanation for all the wrongness / that made the other children pause, assess you / a little coldly and pull back as one toward the playground” (11).
Beer continues this direct yet somehow simultaneously indirect approach to the book’s central subject matter in poems like “My Father as a Small Submarine:” “The hospital room at night / is the bottom of the ocean.”; “Lullabies:” “My heart twists backward to my father; / … / Maker of nightmates and nightmares. / Maker of night. Maker of me.”; and “A Short Documentary of my Father Running Backwards: “I want to believe / that during your last / beach road jog / the seizure / drew you taut.” These poems emit from Beer’s experiences with the physical and metaphysical nature of her father’s death and, in turn, from her psychological response to that process. As a result, The Diminishing House is a book that manages to write from various stages of grief without a shred of sentimentality but without being too standoffish either. And even though we encounter the father, his declining health, and the aftermath of his passing throughout the book, very little writing is dedicated to what actually causes it; rather, The Diminishing House is anchored by a unique sequence of poems broken up throughout the book in eulogy to various unusual and more-often-than-not frail parts of the human anatomy. The first of these “anatomical poems,” “Floating Rib,” is the fourth poem in the collection:
One member of the two lowest pairs of ribs,
which are attached neither to the sternum
nor to the cartilage of other ribs.
The permanent elsewhere of fathers–
my hand goes to my side as I read.
A lie thrusts out into viscera, gestures
to untouchable bone. My own
private wish: to snap it free and brandish
-what? A burin? A blunderbuss?
Tool for making, unmaking. Lever
to press against my tongue, to bear me
through terrible convulsions. I will not make
of it a new body. I’ll hammer it to gravel.
The ribcage opens its book, one phrase
“Note on the Xiphoid Process” addresses the “blunt, cartilaginous lower tip / of the sternum”; “Variation on the Philthrum” “the hollow that divides the upper lip”; “Genes” “the red beads encircling / the throat of Rembrandt’s young woman / at the open half-door”; and so on.
These poems address/venerate/rue the body’s strangeness, focusing on anatomical elements that are often embarrassing or not terribly well known. In all cases, these poems define via metaphor such strange anatomical features as the Xiphoid Process, which Beer transforms from a part of the sternum to “a single stalactite drip[ping] / onto the head of a blind fish,” or the Perineum: “the area in front of the anus / extending to the genitals” which becomes, in Beer’s oddly deviant imagination, “the necessary expanse / between desire and duty!” in “Ode to the Perineum.”
The Diminishing House is a virtual tour-de-form. While poems like “LMNO,” “Provenance,” and “My Father is a Small Submarine” hug the left margin in loose iambic, “Still Life with Half-Turned Woman and Questions” is a list of questions followed by their answers:
Q. So, what are you working on these days?
A metaphor machine.
Q. What did you paint first?
A table that glints with the self-assurance of a wrack.
“Variations,” “Erosion,” and “Lullabies” make use of sections, one with numbers, one with asterisks, and the other with Roman numerals. “Ouroboros” employs wider elements of the page with lengthy, dropped, and/or indented lines. “Mako” is in tercets. And, finally, “Cubital Fossa” emulates via form the object of its definition, “the triangular anatomical region / anterior to the elbow joint”:
Pack mule for packages,
cradler of gunbutts,
There are also three prose poems in The Diminishing House: “His Mistress,” the title poem, and “Patellae Apocrpypha,” which is bracketed by quotation marks and borrows the language of the Old Testament.
Beer’s poetry is clearly driven by a desire to play and while books about the death of one’s parental unit are virtually their own genre, Beer has most certainly made her mark. The poems of The Diminishing House face down the death of one’s maker while sharing with us her lifelong struggle with the reality of her father’s death through voice, form, and a rare eccentricity. The Diminishing House is a singular debut. Fearless. Strange. And emotional in the face of so much pressure to be anything but.
The poems of Michael McGriff’s debut collection, Dismantling the Hills, winner of the University of Pittsburgh Press’ 2007 Agnes Lynch Starett Poetry Prize, find their genesis in McGriff’s upbringing in Coos Bay, Oregon, a small, hardnosed, working-class town of the Pacific Northwest. These poems often come as addresses to members of McGriff’s childhood or to the landscape of Coos Bay itself where, in “Ash and Silt,” industry’s imprint is everywhere: “a grid of service roads, a net / stretched over thousands of acres of Douglas Fir.” In the midst of a major decline in its logging industry, bucking timber and the “dust of stars, the grain of timber, the burls in the hearts of men” are replaced by employment at the local Walmart in “When the Spirit Come to Him as the Voice of Morning Light,” and McGriff’s personaes are haunted by “the weight of log rafts at low tide” and by “the boy who lived on this corner / …shimmied raft to raft, / slipped between the logs and never came back” (Ash and Silt).
A poet looking into the past is often a poet trying to change that which has already occurred, and McGriff is no exception— his empathy for those who shared his experiences a much greater force within these poems than the experiences themselves.
The collection’s opening poem, “Iron,” for example, tells the story of myth-playing as a child with a girl along a mountain logging road: “You were the Queen of Iron / and I, the servant Barcelona… / Jake Brakes sounded the death cries / of approaching armies as they screamed over the ridge / where… / we passed the spell of invisibility between us.” Moving at an almost furious narrative pace, the next line leaps five years forward into their young adulthoods when the girl stabs one of their classmates, is impregnated by her father, and McGriff, our speaker, “never [sees] her again.”
McGriff, like so many young men the poem is about, makes grand “plans to drive a claw hammer into his skull” and imagines leaving town, declaring “I could say I left town for both of us, that I drove I-5 South / and for the first time felt illuminated before… / the massive turbines / spinning on the beige and dusty hills…” But, of course, he never does, and the poem takes one of those wonderfully imaginative turns that is the maker of great poetry:
In the book I read before bed, God lowers himself
through the dark and funnels his blueprints into the ear
of a woman who asks for nothing. Tomorrow night
she’ll lead armies, in a few more she’ll burn at the stake
and silver birds will rise from her mouth. This is the book
of the universe…
The closing eight lines to follow are even better, transforming the speaker’s childhood friend upon which so much tragedy has fallen into a romantic heroine– Coos Bay and its own tragic story her domain.
The poems that follow share this ususual fusion of heroics and elegy, McGriff’s subject matter oscillating between his father who, in “Ash and Silt, is “blind without glasses…never read about anything / he couldn’t touch”; his mother in “Mother Expanding from the Piano, the Light, the Whales (2)” whose “left hand is grief / her right, beauty” hangs above the keys of the piano; the land-and-people-scape of “Coos Bay,” “The World’s Largest Lumber Port,/ The yellow hulk of Cats winding bayfront chip yards, / betting on high-school football // at the Elks Lodge, bargemen, / abandoned Army barracks…”; and all of the various in-betweens: young love, first jobs, death, and questions of religion to name a few.
A lyricist at heart, McGriff is a masterful maker of metaphor:
those tiny spiral staircases
he collects by the handful
(“Five for the Roofer”)
Like the blue elephants
we watched and never understood
under instant patchwork tents next to the highway
the river makes a slow gray drop
to its knees.
I was time moving over the water.
I was twelve varieties of beach grass
breaking through cement to form the outlines
of foundations where sawmills once rested.
Where was I the day you got your draft card
in the mail? I was the in the sky
through which it came.
(“When the Spirit Comes to Him as the Voice of Morning Light”)
He’s a lover of language, too, utilizing a rough iambic in lines such as the opening to “76 Tank Farm, Highway 101″: “I still want to know / who watched over those drums, / put an ear to their rusted // sides and waited / for the petroleum hush…” He has an adept ear and knows how to use it in the brief couplets of “Cormorants”: “Watching the breakers // stack against the early light / I remember my old desire // to wear the house / of the hermit crab // and skitter under the riptide / past the town’s // invisible border” and in the longer lines of “Seasons between Night and Day”: “Somewhere between eternity and the filthy skin / of the millpond, the stars. / …Somewhere between…[my mother] and the stars, / my father and hundreds of men / punch out of Georgia Pacific’s sawmill forever, / the forklifts behind them at half-mast, other machines chained to barges / with Japanese names / before the workers file out of the alien yard.”
The result is a swiftly moving volume of poetry that leaves us with a sense of longing, for the Coos Bays of our own childhoods and for those few years before adulthood when it was a curiosity for the natural world and those passing through it that defined us. But there’s something sinister too about this place that occupies such a large space in this young poet’s mind, something lurking and destructive and impossible to define that informs the more lyrical impulse of these poems. Perhaps its poverty. Perhaps its hard work and desperation itself. Or perhaps it’s his innate love for a place that, even as a child, he senses is coming to its end.
What’s probably most impressive about Dismantling the Hills is that McGriff pulls all of this off without a hint of sentimentality or the convoluted desire to do something new. These are, after all, poems we’ve seen before. But who gives a damn when the poems are this well written, this truthfully rendered on the page?
It’s possible that the best poems in Dismantling the Hills come in the first fifteen pages, the long, leaping, narrative lines of “Iron,” “Ash and Silt” and “Coos Bay” overshadowing the more fragmented, declarative poems that follow. But it wouldn’t be fair to denigrate this book for knowing how to knock a reader out in the first round, and there are few books of poetry that open as successfully as this one does.
It would be fair to say that this book could benefit from some section breaks, the poems bleeding together at times with the lack of white space or thematic/tonal shifts that sections would likely allow for. But to say that the only good poems in the book come at the beginning would be folly. There’s “Buying and Selling”: a poem about a father and daughter selling cordwood in an empty lot in homage to Phillip Levine’s poem of the same title. There’s the wonderfully imaginative “The Last Temptation of Christ” in which the speaker reads “the Bible literally… / [that the] waters parted and desperate people / and a few stray animals crawled // through mud and over sea creatures / that by now must be extinct.” And there’s the extraordinary dawn that occurs in “Cormorants,” the collection’s final poem:
This is the moment
when the daybreak’s blown fuse
severs the coiled fog
from the spit;
when bait hunters
scour the crush
of beachbreak for sand crabs;
when a tide pool ticks
and its single eel
feels time getting closer…
I come back and say yes
to the whorled fingerprints
under the whitecaps of Coos Bay.
Let a cormorant…fly
with the remarkable freight
of our lives…
These poems certainly do.
Ciaran Berry’s debut collection of poetry, The Sphere of Birds, opens with the prefatory sonnet “Cold Pastoral.” The poem begins: “a crow shot dead and hung from a steel pole / warns other crows away from a field of grain / hard-won, where ochre ears change tack, go with / the wind” (1). But “things weather fast here,” he tells us in the poem’s concluding sextet, “soon bird will be bone / … / where the sky alters in seconds, shine to shower, / and harsher truths hit home, hour after hour…” (1)
Paying homage to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Cold Pastoral” forecasts much of what’s to come in the following three sections of this young poet’s first collection– poems that confer with memory, myth, and the landscape of Berry’s Irish homeland; an ear for (but not the trappings of) traditional forms; a desire for what’s honest about our lives; and, perhaps most of all, an eye keenly focused on the coordination of the past, present, and future in order to attain enlightenment.
The first poem of the first section, “Orchid,” fuses an “off white bloom” Berry finds “in a field behind my parent’s house,” (5) with the ancient Greek myth of the orchid’s conception, “sprang / from seed a mountain goat or escaped bull had spilled / as he withdrew from the warm loins of his mate,” with the 19th Century orchid hunters William Arnold and Benedict Roezl and Charles Darwin who “glimpsed in its deep, fleshy petal whorls / the direction of his own and our future, / finding a new meaning for the word adaptation” (6).
Similarly, “Over By” merges the “bone-dry bladderwrack and sea lettuce” (31) of the beach near Donegal, Ireland with the “Bilqula ancients [who] believed the soul / would quit the body like this, in a winged shape” and “homesick Nechtan…[who] unaware how he’d cheated death…is turned to sand , / a small urn’s worth of ground down flesh and bone / a splash of bright atoms the squall will catch and disperse over beach, bog…” (32), all of which Berry borrows from the medieval Irish text “The Voyage of Bran” to perform his own meditation on the flight of the soul.
“Blindness” stays more local, exploring loss of sight with metaphor: this “darkness / emphatic as when the clock’s short arm breaks back / an hour to let shadows loose over the lawn, to make / welcome // the fall’s first frost” (11). And with memory: “In double science after lunch /one boy argued it would happen if you touched yourself / too much or spent too long before the goggle box” (11). And with definition: “revenge of the body…an unraveling / within the tissues, humors, rods and cones… / the soul’s supposed door could no longer… / carry word and image upside / down into the flesh” (11).
“Oblique Projection” stays a little closer to home as well, opening with the memory of a schoolteacher drawing a 3-D figure on a chalkboard, the rectangle’s “fragments suspended, until he pulls down verticals / and slots the horizontals in place, / making his fractured shape a solid” (41). The poem goes on to immortalize Berry’s classmates, reaching into their future lives and filling in the blanks between the past and present not unlike the teacher at the blackboard:
At twelve, we pity no one but ourselves.
the boy who sits alone in the front row
[who] will fall between the sandbags we’ve dropped
as stepping stones across the surface of a slurry pit,
and sink down to his waist, his mouth,
his eyes, and finally his hair, which will float
for a moment like a discarded wig before
he disappears. Twelve years from here, one
of those red-haired twins will take the other’s eye…
For the rest of us, though,
nothing much will stir… (42)
The title poem brings together these elements of myth, history, and memory, to draw a parallel between he and his brother and the two best friends in the movie “Birdy.” If you’ve seen “Birdy,” you know it’s about a boy obsessed to the point of madness with becoming a bird and his best friend who, as a child, tries to help him “float on homemade, paper wings” (43) but, as an adult, is the only one who can bring him back from the “shellshock from a lost war… / …locked up in a white room where a chair / and a cast iron bed is all the furniture” (44).
Now, it’s not clear exactly what ails Berry’s brother who “sat almost entirely still / … embracing whatever came to the feeder,” (43) drawing birds on butcher paper, but Berry’s breathtaking revelations at the end of the poem are enough: “All those viewings and I’m still not sure if it means something / about change, its vicious speed, or about wings, their pure fragility” (46-47); “death’s an opportunist, / light on her feet…” (47); “In one of the last pictures [my brother] produced, a boy’s shaved skull / … / in supplication and regret, floats huge // above the charcoal pews and gothic arches of a church” (47).
In perhaps the collection’s best poem “Electrocuting an Elephant” (included in 2008’s Best American Poetry, edited by Charles Wright), the poem opens with a depiction of the Edison Company film bearing the same name in which Topsy, the elephant, is executed for killing three men at Coney Island in 1903. Berry then leaps, comparing Topsy’s execution to the sacrifice of a bull and the execution of Bartholomew, whose assassins take “turns to open him with knives” (21). We are then taken to the boy “led by the ear to the corner / of the classroom because he couldn’t spell vengeance / after three turns” (20), the boy whose name, Berry admits he can’t remember:
this time…reeling off
the names of birds… [banging his fist]
against his skull…
while the rest of us raise our hands with what we think are the right answers
and hold our breaths trying hard not to laugh” (21).
In the concluding stanzas of “Electrocuting an Elephant,” Berry wishes he could express his regret for mistreating the boy to the executioners before they carry out their duty, to warn them that they too will look back on their lives and wish they’d acted differently. But, of course, this “changes nothing” (22), and the poem ends with the “drop of the elephant in silence and a fit of steam… / prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close” (22).
What a brave statement: the poem written, the story told, and yet that accusatory eye still glaring. This is probably what’s most impressive about this collection. Memory, myth, and history are so much more than source material. Landscape has almost nothing to do with ornamentation. And what’s happened and what will happen go way beyond subject matter.
It’s the soul that concerns Berry and it’s a marvel to watch him make use of the resources around him, looking inward while looking outward, and unflinching in his resolve to discover some version of the truth. The Sphere of Birds is a meditation on that which makes us and on all the wonderfully gleaming and terrifying particulars of our individual lives. It is a wonderful first book. Deft and sure. To the point and wildly imaginative. Beautiful and bold. And sad and true.
Simone Muench’s third collection of poetry, Orange Crush (Sarabande Books, 2010), examines the current state of women in the arts, particularly poetry, via a historical, personal, and imaginative lens. Utilizing rotating images, metaphors, and narrative threads within a thematic structure, the first section, “Record” opens “Trouble came and trouble / brought greasy, ungenerous things: / poke root and bladderwrack, / chalklines in bloody bedrooms…” (“Hex” 3) and goes on to chronicle the physical, mental, and sexual abuse women have been victim to throughout history.
In “You Were Long Days and I Was Tiger-Lined,” for example, “a young girl h[angs] herself in summer // with the reins of her horse” and “a dead girl swerve[s] into flight and misses the sky altogether” (5). In “Psalm” “Fever-damaged girls” wear “bone / bonnets” and lie in “blue/ beds for their snapped / necks” (8). In “A Captivating Corset,” connotative language, symbolism, and syntactical switches display the psychological damage that results from this history of violence: “We look for refuge but drift to damage, / toward asphyxiation & cord slippage. / Propose, then dispose. In a vaporous season, half-meanings visit the backdoor with frisson” (6).
The second section, “Rehearsal,” is comprised of “Orange Girl Suite,” a single, eighteen-page poem of fifteen sections about young girls in the 17th Century who peddled oranges to make a living outside the theaters only men were allowed to enter. Each section is titled with quotes from the OED, and it becomes clear right away that the orange girls are selling themselves to theater-goers more often than oranges. The results of this off-hand form of prostitution are much the same as they are today. The girls in the first section are “movie stars / who never entered the frame”; those of the third claim “I’ll be white teeth, an abandoned town, a wrapped parcel. // I’ll be a blonde in a black smock with sex / appeal”; and, in the fourth section,
a man folds the girl up in newspapers
her wet hair a string of taffy, a rope, something
unraveling inside the man’s eye
when he killed her he said listen
when he killed her he said
your soul… (25, 27, 28)
Originally published as a chapbook (Orange Girl, Dancing Girl Press, 2007), “Orange Girl Suite” reveals that our culture’s attitude regarding the murder and rape of women hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe when, in the seventh section, a girl is “dragged along the waterfront, // dropped in a dumpster…” and is blamed for getting “herself strangled … // for wearing short skirts in the dark” (32, 33). Sure the symbols and institution of prostitution may have changed, but, the poem argues, the excuses we make for it and who we hold culpable for its resulting crimes don’t seem to have shifted nearly as much.
The third section, “Recast,” is composed of a long sequence of prose poems entitled “Orange Girl Cast.” Each poem bares its own title and “stars” a contemporary female poet. Here is a small piece of the first section:
1: the fever
(starring kristy b)
Sweet Kristy of the culvert, the ankle turn, the verb imperfect, and sailors’
notebooks. In the metropolis of binoculars and chicken bones, in this city
black with chicken-wire alchemists and bloody gutters, she feigns a fever
in her red brassiere… (47)
If “Orange Girl Suite” works to eulogize the orange girls of history, “Orange Girl Cast” celebrates the women who have successfully entered the academy and are producing poetry today. Sophia K of “2: the femme fatale” isn’t “winter sweet minutiae, she’s iridescent yellow, a meteorite. You can’t fold her up inside like a cocktail napkin” (48). Likewise, the “calendar charm” of Brandi H in “3: the arsonist” “kick-starts men’s lips while her wrists drip with doorbells” (49).
These poems are the sort that repeatedly surprise and that, as with much of Muench’s work, don’t always make a lot of immediate sense. They are so startlingly fresh, musical, and weird, however, that readers can’t help but read on. And, as the title of the section (“Recast”) and of the poem itself (“Orange Girl Cast”) suggest, the women who star in these poems are equated with the orange girls of the past. True, Muench implies, these women may be in less physical danger than the orange girls, but their status as productive individuals in our culture isn’t much improved.
The fourth and final section, “Redress,” opens with an epigraph by Kathie Acker: “All of us girls have been dead for so long. / But we’re not going to be anymore” and appears to work to empower women in the six poems that follow (61). The woman in “With Pendant and Bending Arch,” for example, “dial[s] [her lover’s] large white teeth / with her tanager-tongue” and croons “No one is without stories” (63). The drowned brides of “Bind” entangle the ropes of the sailors who return to the scene of their deaths and “leave them / sinking as we sing new shanties / and climb the rungs of the sea” (68). The final couplet of “Chiascuro” ends the book with a bold, declaration: “reflected in the sea / is the reversal of yourself / … / vast is a word the sea owns / beneath it your shadow shines” (75).
Overall, Orange Crush is not an easy book to read. It is not narrative; rather, it is thematic, harnessing the power of structure and organization to make its arguments and tell its stories. It’s a book that asks a lot of a reader who might get a bit lost in these sequences that rely more on image and their position in the book than more traditional elements to create meaning. But it’s not fair to say Orange Crush is a difficult read either; rather, Orange Crush is a lyrical book organized around a symbolic structure and the various artifacts Muench utilizes to create and illuminate that structure (such as epigraphs, a few brief end notes, the OED, etc…) along the way. This complexity makes for an experience that’s impossible to duplicate, and the poems themselves are wonderfully well written.
If originality is something we covet in Contemporary American poetry, Orange Crush has made its mark. If we care about poems that have something to say about our world, Orange Crush most certainly speaks. And if we care to encounter great poems, Orange Crush is a good place to find them.
Karen An-hwei Lee’s second collection of poems, Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008), is a book-length sequence of fragments connected by ellipses and interwoven with brief, surreal blocks of prose in sections titled “dreams,” “letters,” and “prayers.”
Each fragment is double-spaced with oft-excised periods. Many of the fragments repeat themselves in inverse order: the first line also being the last and the second line also being the second to last, and so on. Nearly each and every line of Ardor contains an image, concrete or abstract, and the book is suffused with rich word choices, internalized dilemma, and metaphor. And while there’s certainly a sense that these sections are in conversation with each other– each fragment, dream, letter, and prayer sharing a common obsession or genesis (algebra, blindness, and pomegranates, to name a few)– if you’ve come to Ardor desiring story , you’ve come to the wrong place– Lee’s intricately and austerely organized stream-of-conciousness taking the place of a more typical narrative:
Prayer is seamless
It is water
Goes beneath the literal
Surface of things
Love and order
dream Light underneath a bushel. Tabled love. Astringency is the beauty of pomegranates…quotidian grace such as rain and leaf and the gradual strengthening of bone.
prayer Vessel of wood or raiment or skin or sack, whatsoever it be, wherein any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean…and ye shall break it.
letter Unclean not only from my race but due to blindness.
Quarantined from life. Silence except for the leper’s cry of unclean…Say jin is wellspring jin is gold.
Gier eagle? Osprey?
Poetry has a long and important history of poems and books unanchored by story. And Lee’s first collection, In Medias Res: a primer of experience in approximate alphabetical order(winner of Sarabande Books’ 2004 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the 2005 Norma Farber First Book Award given by the Poetry Society of America), is also a book-length poem, this time organized via letters of the alphabet– the first section is titled “A,” the second “B,” etc. So it’s no surprise her second collection revisits this approach that has been so well received. This becomes a problem for Ardor because its form implies an arc, some sort of central axis or conflict around which the collection’s obsession turns, and, thus, some sort of resolution. While any reader will be immediately entranced by Lee’s word choices, images, and use of metaphor (Ardor opens with “Calque alphabet / Modulation with avian equivalence of hands / Translation perched around a white rose / Photographic grapheme of cardoid delight”) Ardor does very little to keep a reader actually reading.
Does this mean that the only reason readers read poetry is for story? Of course not. This is poetry not prose. It’s not narrative that Ardor lacks but clarity, and it’s hard to see why such an overtly elliptical approach is necessary here. A consistent narrative would in no way take away from this collection and would certainly make for a much more engaging experience. Books like Carolyn Forche’s Angel of History, Charle’s Wright’s Zone Journals, and Judy Jordan’s Fifty-cent Coffee and a Quarter to Dance do exactly this to great effect.
Occasionally, the fragments do open with echoes of narrative: “What marriage is, she says…A man who desired to make love / Desired to hear the sound of tearing silk” and “A woman, her mother, said / If you dare fall in love with the wrong man / I’ll cut the heart out of your body.” But these brief moments of clarity are immediately broken by the lines that follow and even if readers are drawn in by this surreal approach, it’s repeated so many times that it becomes old-hat just pages into the book.
The result: Ardor tires itself out. It’s the sort of book one can open to any page and have the same experience. While this may be ingenious in a number of ways, it doesn’t make for a book of poems one is compelled to actually read. This is a problem poetry often has. Even the best readers often find themselves unengaged with the books they encounter. Sometimes this is because they have other things to do like change a crying baby or paying the water bill. Sometimes this is because while the first few poems in a collection are singular, the poems that follow read more like filler than works of art. Sometimes readers leave a book because it’s too hard. But readers won’t leave Ardor for any of these reasons; readers will leave Ardor because they won’t be compelled not to.
Maybe it’s asking too much to point to seminal works by Carolyn Forche, Charles Wright, and Judy Jordan and expect a poet to write equally accomplished texts. But it’s bothersome to come across a book that has so much at stake and so quickly alienates its readers with choices that require a justification that never comes.
The poems of Joshua Poteat’s second collection of verse, Illustrating the Machine that Makes the World, are inspired by the illustrations of J.G. Heck, a 19th Century German painter and printmaker of whom almost nothing is known. As highly imaginative as the artist’s eerie renderings of decaying animal remains and cosmological devices, Poteat’s poems go beyond the mere reflection of Heck’s work, delving deeply into the illustrator’s psyche to examine Heck’s desire to dissect the world and shine light on its inner workings.
Many of these poems act like translations or exchanges between Poteat’s reverence for the natural world and Heck’s longing for a deep, almost spiritual grasp of it. In “Apparatus to Show the Amount of Dew on Trees and Shrubs,” for example, Heck expresses his discontent with his failure to make sense of his surroundings. He fears this failure will result in the damnation of his soul:
If I say this moment I am living through
is being lived for the first time by me, I am wrong.
The earth is not lost, not dear.
I know it will not take me back.
I have not lived enough to earn this yet.
In “Illustrating the Theory of Ebb and Flow,” we encounter a gentler Heck seemingly at peace with his inadequacies:
When I have had enough of reason,
I turn to the evening boughs
among the wild fern,
steam on the horse’s back…
…field after field
of fireflies saying, I’m here,
make love to me, I’m here.
While these poems are based on Heck’s illustrations, the titles Poteat has assigned to them are as invented as Heck’s musings. “Illustrating the Theory of Winds,” for example, is derived from an illustration of a double door, slightly ajar with a number of mysteriously-lettered points of reference called “PLATE 23, Fig. 62.” “Illustrating the Manner of Communicating Vibrations to the Air” finds its genesis in an illustration of what appears to be a rifle scope.
As in Poteat’s first book, few of the poems in this second volume are left-justified or in any sort of predetermined form. But the book as a whole is architecturally complex, opening with the prefatory “ILLUSTRATING THE ILLUSTRATORS,” which declares
When we wrote the name that we were told
was ours, the name that contained all
we would be given and all that would be lost,
there was a pleasure in the small, exact
movements of our hands…
The entire second section is comprised of a single prose poem, “Illustrating the Thirteen Transits of Mercury in the Nineteenth Century.” Many of the poems in the fourth section find their genesis in illustrations that don’t exist: “[PLATE UNKNOWN].” And the final section, titled APPENDIX ONE, revisits fourteen poems already in the book but with the majority of their words erased. “the illustrators,” for example, reenvisions “ILLUSTRATING THE ILLUSTRATORS”:
pleasure , exact
“the ebb” takes another look at “Illustrating the Theory of Ebb and Flow:”
I had enough of
across the field…
These “erasures” may be the best poems in the book, flensing Poteat’s language down to its barest elements while linking this final section of the book to the opening poem of the third section, “Illustrating an answer to a question through the order in which a bird reveals letters by eating the grains set on top of them”: “The simple things most please me: / illustrating the future by the actions of doves. // illustrating the future by reading figures in dirt.”
Unfortunately, with the constant need to reference the illustrations in the back of the book and with such a head-scratching architecture, these intricately designed and beautifully rendered poems tend to bleed into one another as the book progresses. The result is a collection of lyric narratives within a lyrical structure that leaves readers feeling they’ve witnessed the outcome of an experiment they lack the tools to understand.
Of course, both Poteat and Heck (as Poteat has imagined here) would argue this is the entire point. What are we, after all, but mortal creatures on an immortal and infinitely mysterious world?
Michelle Boisseau’s fourth collection of poems, A Sunday in God-Years (University of Arkansas Press 2009), recounts White America’s brutal history of slave-ownership paired with its desire for reconciliation via the exploration of Boisseau’s ancestry, dating back to 17thCentury Virginia.
Obsessed with the transitory nature of the conflict between White and Black America, A Sunday in God-Years opens with the prefatory “Birthday” wherein Spring is “full of exuberant ruin” and life is defined as “a frantic flight across a crackling room / where the clan feasts, harps gleam and the storm / is carefully forgotten.” Rebirth, war, fire, flight, and institutionalized denial: these are the obstacles “Birthday” declares must be overcome in the poems that follow. Luckily, Boisseau has no illusions regarding this task, asking near the end of the first section “…me, grandchild who makes herself the hero / since she’s the teller of this tale… / How can I begin to recount / [our] sins, a million ships on every ocean?”
Boisseau establishes herself as a master of transition and symbol in the title poem which opens with a depiction of God turning over in his afternoon nap to see the earth in an accelerated state of geological evolution, “continents crashing / and mountains popping up.” She then zooms in with a mid-sentence stanza break, focusing on a small “chunk / of limestone I plucked / from a wall fading into the woods / …shaped / like Kentucky” and zooms out to a bend in the river where “a runaway could hide / studying the floes.” The poem ends with a return to the snoozing God morphed into the more Pagan “younger sun,” disinterested in “these grainy eons, plunder / imbedded with the trails and shells / of creatures seen by no eye.”
This mastery of transition and symbol comes in handy in the next poem, “A Reckoning.” 21 pages of individually titled sections, it opens with “The Debt,” which compares Boisseau to a portico which depends on the stones that give it structure, asking “What do you owe when you find your / name on a parchment deed?” “Reward” directly lifts the Reward Notice her great grandfather placed in the Richmond Enquirer when one of his slaves escaped in 1834, and “Two Wills in Old Virginia” quotes word-for-word the family wills that passed slaves and their children to future generations. These documents overlap with depictions of early America when the future planes states “became Indian territory and ragged / bands of Shawnee were run out of Ohio” in “Meanwhile.” “Brown Study” compares the Kansas River’s flow south to those fleeing Lawrence, Kansas during the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856, and “The Subscriber” depicts a bounty hunter beating free blacks he hopes are escaped slaves.
Throughout “A Reckoning” an image recurs of Boisseau attempting to capture the essence of this American tragedy and the burden that still weighs so heavily upon us 150 years after emancipation. Seeking out the ruins of slave barracks at what was once the Boisseau plantation, she finds “not The House Where They Lived! // No be-lilaced cellar hole… / Nothing to weep over… // Instead, big as an airplane hangar, / a garage for backhoes and spreaders… / where the big house might have stood.” At the heart of this burden is the desire for a return to the past but in the actual, physical world. Of course, as time and “progress” slowly but surely destroy the physical evidence of America’s misdeeds, this return becomes more and more elusive. The closest Boisseau can get to this return is via the superimposed vision of her own poetry– an ingenious move poetically but one that comes with a woeful realization: we cannot return, we cannot forget, we cannot be fully forgiven.
This epiphany is on display in the final sections of “A Reckoning.” “Apologies,” equates these sins to the “millions” of slave ships that crossed the Atlantic for the New World, the resulting guilt as bound to White America as silt and oceans to the earth in “Field Guide to American Guilt.” In the penultimate section, her great grandfather’s escaped slave admonishes Boisseau’s attempts to understand or even lament his struggle: “Though you try to puppet me / what happened to me is not / for you to know.” In the final section the Boisseau plantation burns to the ground.
The only problem with this first section is that the narrative is given too much power, the more lyrical elements of the line that make poetry unique from prose overpowered by storytelling. This is not to say that this first section isn’t poetry or that it’s not worth reading; this is simply to suggest that it’s not as engaging on the level of the lines as, perhaps, it should be. Ironically, this problem is reversed in the second section, which (save for three of its 23 poems) abandons narrative for a more lyrical approach to Boisseau’s lamentation of history’s erasure in lines like “The iron taste of what / they did is laid down / in twisted bark, bit by bit” (“Outskirts of Lynchburg”) and “The rowboat is slapped by the harried lake. / The oars bob and beckon out of reach / …Today the future isn’t what it used to be” (“Sandcastle Guarded by a Cicada Shell”). Typically, shifting to the lyrical would be a good idea, but these poems go a little too far. They stand perfectly well on their own but depend too heavily on what is established in the first section without utilizing the story-telling tools Boisseau has already so richly deployed. As a result, the poems of the second section bleed together and much of the book’s momentum is lost.
The third and final section is dominated by “Across the Borderlands, the Wind,” a nine-page, elliptically sectionalized depiction of the brutal guerilla warfare between the Confederate bushwackers and Union jayhawkers over the indoctrination of slavery in Kansas, which eventually ignited the Civil War. It’s a difficult poem to follow, leaping in time, place, and speaker so often and quickly that, without the end notes, most readers will be completely lost. It also might be the best poem in the book, revealing how this seemingly resolved conflict within White America is anything but– “the football and basketball rivalry between the Universities of Missouri and Kansas…still often referred to as ‘The Border War'”; the celebration held each year in Blue Springs, Missouri called, as early as the 1990s, the Bushwacker Festival.
But “Across the Borderlands, the Wind” suffers from the momentum gained by the first section and lost by the second. It requires an energetic reader, one willing to allow a poem, first, to depend on end notes and, second, to actually apply these notes back to its elliptical approach. If Boisseau finds such readers, this book is quite an accomplishment, starting with the desire for reconciliation between White and Black America and ending with the realization that the conflict between White America itself has been the problem all along. If she doesn’t, then this book is a failure: the balance between narrative and lyric never reached– the potential for this collection unrealized.
But this leaves one wondering if this “failure” is, in fact, Boisseau’s achievement– this failure eerily similar to that of The New World’s. Of course, we’d have to trust Boisseau quite a bit to read A Sunday in God-Years this way. Only time will tell.
Ed Pavlić’s third book, Winners Have Yet To Be Announced, A Song For Donny Hathaway, poems by Ed Pavlić (The University of Georgia Press, 2008), eulogizes the life and music of the musical icon for which the book is titled. Hathaway, who is credited with revolutionizing American Soul in the 70s with hits such as “Everything is Everything” and Where is the Love,” receiving both critical acclaim and commercial success on the US Pop and R&B charts. Arguably, Hathaway’s vocal and instrumental vision pushed the nexus of Jazz and Soul deeper than it had ever gone, popularizing Soul in a way no one had before him. And yet, despite such unprecedented achievement, Hathaway was hospitalized several times for depression, hampering his career. And on January 13, 1969, in the midst of a return to musical success, the singer, songwriter, and composer was found dead in the street beneath the 13th floor window of his room at the Essex House in New York City– the glass purposefully removed, his death ruled a suicide.
Unlike other such book-length elegies (i.e. Robert Penn Warren’s Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy), Winners not only tells Hathaway’s story but deftly explores the music and depression of this masterful musician with language. Arranged in 14 sections (or, perhaps, chapters) of sequenced prose poems spanning 190 pages, Pavlić leans against facts borrowed from album liner notes, Hathaway’s own writings, and on interviews conducted by others with his friends, colleagues, and family. The material from these sources is then reworked into fictional form.
The first section of Winners consists of a single, 29-page poem, “Interview: Cause of Death: A Sound or Something Like It: February 15, 1979: Chicago, IL,” which reads like a sequence of interwoven testimonials by those who knew Hathaway and by Hathaway himself.
The book opens:
Sure, you could say I knew [Donny died], we all knew it all along. Or did we?…There it was, things spun into focus…like when you stare out of a train window at trees blurring by and suddenly turn your head against…motion…and…there’s one tree standing…Or falling… (i, 4)
The next section of the poem quickly moves away from discussions of the musician’s death and launches one of the major motifs of the book, that death is not the end of one’s life but is another state of existence:
He’d been there for years. Trying on disciplines. Midair right there in front of us. Propped himself upright and forced himself to look the other way. She in the funny-house mirror. Running scared… (ii, 5)
But Hathaway is foremost a master craftsman, a true disciple of song:
One night…we turned into a storefront service and I felt him blast off in his seat. Real rage and despair…he could tell from the sermon which song ‘d be next…they still use minor downstairs and major for tears on the way up…You know how, if someone’s really terrified, their voice sort of gurgles somewhere underneath, like they’re drowning somewhere under themselves?…That night he learned to play that sound with his left hand…learned it right then and there…And I remember that beam of light on chipped brick thing happening in his face. he said, ‘Well there’s something…’. (x, 13)
Success, however, is another story, his first poem revealing a brilliant man haunted by the notion that while he’s reached the height of commercial and critical acclaim, his music is ultimately a failure, never quite reaching his audience the way it reaches him:
Whole sections of the spoken language on the scrap heap. Worse than silence. A kind of sound with no song, with no roots in silence. It’s a lot to ask of music, then, isn’t it? To be song and silence at the same time to people hell-bent on holding them…separate?… (viii, 11)
The result is a man increasingly alone, a man who considers his success (and the people who hand it to him) a fraud:
People would talk to him and he just wouldn’t respond… (iii, 6). He’d begun to call the shit people hand each other “death sentences.” I can hear him now, “counterfeit flesh-bridges, webs of agreed-upon delusions.” (vi, 9). [He said,] they don’t want to be cured. [They want to be] entertained… (viii, 11)
What we end up with is a musician reaching into sound for an experience beyond music: “‘a kind of discipline…an unplayed card…something like hearing, and I can imagine sitting and talking to a person…Where does that leave us? The Mood…” (25).
This first poem also introduces us to what Hathaway calls “Mr. Soul,” a character of sorts who follows him around throughout the book and who ultimately narrates his death.
In the first poem of the book’s second section, “Listening Notes: Mercy Medical Psychiatric: January 13, 1973: Chicago, IL” Hathaway furthers his commentary on music in his own voice:
Most of them play it way too loud. Maybe they’ve already sold their souls to noise. Make noise out of anything. Fill mountain air with car horns. Up early, jack hammers with toothbrush fittings… (i, 36)
But, in my head, they’re somewhere beneath whispers. Volume, yes…[but] it really has nothing to do with amps…silent as karst in the fog on rice paper. Majestic, even, the longevity of a wave has its own sounds… (ii, 37)
Then, another voice suddenly interrupts and an argumnt ensues:
You mean wave length?
You again? Can’t you wait outside in the street anymore?
How’d you get in?
Don’t worry about that, you were saying?
Since you’re so interested… (37)
and Hathaway goes on to have a conversation with a person he believes is there.
Four pages later, another, more lyrical personae enters in in italics, on its own page between sections v and vi, “nude he’s on fire he climbs over the rocks on the breakwater and opens the blue with his body” (41), and after section xiii, “on fire over the rocks on the breakwater with his body,”(50)– the voice of Mr. Soul.
These opening poems of Winners forecast the narrative structure of the book. Swinging back and forth between the testimonial voices of the musician and of those who knew him with the multiple internal and external voices of the musician himself, Winners delves into the history of Hathaway’s musical education and family, the origins of music and of the Western world, and the nature of his depression, telling his story with wildly cross-referencing narratives in a way that, once you get to know Hathaway, it seems only Hathaway could.
This adaptation of such a legendary’s life, work, and words is, without question, a risk. But it’s nothing new. The narrative, imagistic, and lyrical impulses behind poetry written today work in much the same way, as mere representations of reality– as stand-ins for actual experience that, in the end, can only approach that which actually takes place. Pavlić briefly addresses this concern in “A Note On Fictional Truth,” which appears after the Acknowledgements page at the end of the book. “All correspondence,” he writes, “between the truths of this book and documented (or as-yet documented) lives of real people are a kind of unintended exhaust produced via my encounter with the tone of Hathaway’s voice and the power of his music” (190). Indeed. For what is music without its listener? And what is a listener without his/her various levels of interpretation?
What Pavlić has put together in Winners Have Yet To Be Announced, A Song For Donny Hathaway, poems by Ed Pavlić is, as the title implies, as conflicted as its subject. Is Winners a book of poems? A song? A work of fiction? All indications point toward yes. Like music (which overlaps tones, vocals, solos, instrumentation…), these poems at all times switch between (and yet, simultaneously rely upon) prose, poetry, fiction, and voice.
Pavlić crafts this voice by eschewing the conventions of the genres, oftentimes omitting punctuation, rarely using line breaks or citation, and manipulating ellipses, indentation, and typical stanzaic structures in such a way that boils language down to its bare parts with a control any writer would admire. Emulating with the word and with syntactical play what Hathaway did with instrumentation and voice, the rhythms and signatures of these poems slip within and beneath themselves, pushing for a deeper, self-created experience with poetry and music. The result is a truly unique encounter for the reader who not only gets to know Hathaway but gets to know his music in a way that simply hasn’t before been an option before.
As a result, when Mr. Soul breaks in in the penultimate section of the book in “Mr. Soul’s Listening Notes: ‘You Are My Heaven’: Lakefront Hallucination: January 13, 1979: 10:45 pm: Essex House Hotel, Manhattan,”
I had the man pegged before he was a man. I watched him from out in the rain. Remember me?…Didn’t think so. He knew me, though. And him trying to convince everyone I was real. His doctors. That band. Good luck. (i, 176)
we’re left convinced that it’s not Hathaway’s family or friends who are left out in the cold of a New York “January with a big old air-hole in the window” (“A Song For You”: A Conversation: October 26, 1979: Chicago, IL,” i, 66); rather, it’s Hathaway whose been let down…not so much by his doctors or his colleagues or friends and family, but by music itself, that artform he seems to know a little too well in “Listening Notes: After Shock Therapy: Mercy Medical Psychiatric: November 7, 1973: Chicago, IL”:
Deafening I sit with my hands weightless on the keys goddamn I could sit like that for hours Debussy said he never wrote down a line until just before it disappeared I tried it: Jesus, it hurt at first… (i, 56)
I could sense it getting light behind me and then what I wrote wasn’t the line I’d lost they don’t don’t fool yourself they never comes back…I’d wait…and I’d write down what I could feel coming on behind me as if it was right over my shoulder I swear I thought they were shadows I used to pretend they were people… (ii, 57)
When the final section presents itself as a quote from the Washington Post reporting on Hathaway’s death: “‘the door to the room was locked and there was no evidence of foul play…He was nominated for a second Grammy in 1978. Winners Have Yet To Be Announced'” (i, 184), it’s Mr. Soul who has the last word. We find we’ve come to the end of a book that, if we had it our way, wouldn’t end.