Blurbs and Brief Reviews for Others’ Books
The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I’ve rarely been so profoundly gratified while reading a volume of contemporary poetry. The blurbs, for a change, are spot on. The other reviewers work in a circle toward an unmistakable center. What dazzles me here is not only the command of craft, but also the appreciation of the creation of book-length poem through manipulation of layers of narrative in a wide variety of focal lengths–close up, long shot, two shot, even (Maori?) mythology. One reader says he couldn’t put the book down until he read it through, then started again. My experience was reading and re-reading every page in a feast that took two weeks for me to complete. As a poet, I read thousands of poems every year. I consider it my responsibility to read widely, reflectively, critically. The Suburban Ecstasies is the sort of wonderful event I’m looking for.
Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Seth Abramson is a superb modern poet. Deservedly, his poetry appears in many fine journals. And he has proven to be a champion of modern poetry and MFA programs in superbly written essays that can easily be discovered on the net. Seth is the real thing. I’ve carefully followed his work since a friend pointed out a poem of his in Poetry magazine. I included several of his poems in an anthology I edited called The Poets’ Guide to New Hampshire. So, if you’re inclined to question praise, there are my disclaimers.
His new book, Thievery, is a strong successor to Suburban Ecstasies and Northerners. Suburban Ecstasies, as the title might hint, was a gorgeous paean to language at its most opulent, its most gorgeous, its most generous. Northerners followed with a book that demonstrated Abramson’s virtuosity in several argots, from that of the down-and-outs he might have represented in his days as a public defender in Manchester NH to the academic elite he rubs shoulders with in pursuit of his calling. Thievery, in turn, is a rich exploration of colloquial speech, with a Shakespearian sort of twist. The poems here ennoble the common man, elevate what he has to say and how he says it, to the level of earnest discourse. Ultimately, it all boils down to what it means to be human, how to fill the great gap of time between birth and death, and how to meet the causal and accidental challenges encountered along the way. Abramson has a keen ear for the music in speech. The reader is often carried along on a wave of energy that helps him follow the larger meaning of a monologue or a dialogue as it folds over and over itself.
I can only add that, on many occasions, while reading individual poems in this book (and immediately re-reading them), I recognized myself on very specific occasions in my life. I’m still trembling from reading “The Fire Door.” What a surprise! And how precisely Seth’s craft accomplishes exactly what poetry is supposed to do when it is at its best: reveal the reader to himself as if for the first time.
Carousing with Gazelles, Homoerotic Songs of Old Baghdad (Jaafar Abu Tarab, trans.) (iUniverse, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I have known Abu Nuwas only by reputation, reading about him in such books as Orientalism. While working on my master’s in music, I had a Jordanian roommate who once told me that school children in his country were regularly drilled through choral recitations of poems by Abu Nuwas. I was shocked. Modern Islam being what it is, why would teachers require their students to memorize the poetry of a notorious drunken pederast? Because, he said, his poetry is perfect. And so, it is the work of a brilliant poetical genius who married classical and colloquial Arabic into a pliable, memorable new medium open to the mastery of scholars and villagers alike that has been veiled to us until now. Mind you, I’m not deluding myself about the virtues of translation, especially when the works of such a seminal genius are involved. But, all the same, I cherish the illusion that, if I read enough of a given poet’s work in translation, I eventually accumulate a strong sense of the person and his work behind the translations and the translators. Thus, four stars instead of five. More, please. A lot more.
Abu Nuwas, A Genius of Poetry (Philip K. Kennedy, trans.) (One World Publications, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I am no great scholar of Arabic poetry but, as a poet, I’ve read it in translation whenever available for the last 30 years of my life. As you might imagine, I’ve accumulated a strong sense of what’s going on in both ancient and modern Arabic poets and how they achieve it in terms of form and imagery. What this book has done is to pull it all together for me. If you’re interested in reading Abu Nuwas’s poetry, this is decidedly not the place to begin. But if you want a scholarly read that combines elements of biography, literature, and analysis of various poems in various forms, this is it. It’s dense. It’s pithy. It almost reads like a dissertation. It’s exactly what I need at this point.
Adonis (Ali Ahmen Said)
The Pages of Day and Night (Marlboro Press, 2000) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
It is impossible to do justice to such strong and beautiful poetry. And to think that I owe it also to the good graces and keen skill of a poet-translator, Samuel Hazo. You should read this book because (1) Adonis is one of the greater 20th century Arabic poets, (2) both his short lyrics and his longer odes (four included here: one each on Lebanon (?), Exile, New York, and Love) are worth committing to memory and imitation and (3) the book includes both a Preface and an essay, Poetry and Apolitical Culture, that serve as keys both to his poetry and to Arabic poetry across the ages.
An Introduction to Arab Poetics (Saqi Books, 2003) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
If I were teaching a class in contemporary American poetics, I would require every student to own and study a copy of this book. There is nothing Adonis says about Arabic poetics across the centuries that cannot be transferred to the history of thought about English poetry. I was stunned by the relevance of his comments to my own experience of English poetry since the 7th century, right down to the various ideas that have contended with each other throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Add to that the fact that he is both systematic and eloquent and you have a keeper for your library, to sit on the shelf next to Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, Sidney, Coleridge/Wordsworth, and all the rest.
Adolph, Andrea; Vallis, D. L.; and Walker, Anne (eds.)
Bite to Eat Place, An Anthology of Contemporary Food Poetry and Poetic Prose (Redwood Coast Press, 1995) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I read three or four books of poetry a week. It’s a major jones for me and, as you might assume, I get enormous pleasure from it. A while back, I was invited to be a reader at a jazz brunch and thought it would be great to find food poems to read. This anthology filled the bill. The editors have collected poems from good to excellent on all aspects of food in American culture: recipes, meats, vegetables, obsessions (including bulimia), food as metaphor (yes; you have a good idea of where that’s going), ways food brings us together and ways it pulls us apart, how we get it, who won and who lost in the process of obtaining it. And wit. Yes, wit. If the gorgeous seduction of Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler” doesn’t make you rush to the cashier like a teenager purchasing his first girly magazine, then the elation of “The Fat Enter Heaven” by Wesley McNair or the simple meditation of a lonely traveler in his hotel room on the room-service menu (Christopher Woods’s “Potatoes by Phone”) will make you saunter in the same direction with basically the same motivation: you’ll want to own this book.
Alexandre, Vicente (Harter, Hugh A., trans.)
Shadow of Paradise (University of California, 1993) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
While reading Stephen Kessler’s bilingual translation of Cernuda’s last two books, named after the last book, Desolation of the Chimera (1962), I discovered that Vincente Aleixandre was also a member of the Generation of ’27 (along with Cernuda, Guillen and Garcia Lorca). As it happened, I had a bilingual copy of Aleixandre’s Shadow of Paradise (1944), given to me by my friend, the translator Hugh Harter. The book has the excitement of a transitional, mannerist work–in many senses. Primarily, the author seemed to be moving from a vivid, youthful surrealism to something different, more plain-spoken, but still ecstatically wrapped in the imagery of surrealism. There’s also the issue of timing with three gay members of ’27: Garcia Lorca was killed in the early days of the Civil War. Cernuda went into exile and spent the rest of his life in the US and Mexico. Aleixandre stayed in Spain. I imagine certain adjustments in style had to be made for a gay man to live in Franco’s Spain and, to me, that becomes the ever-present thing unsaid in Aleixandre’s Shadow of Paradise. My only quibble with my friend’s translations is that they depend so heavily on Latin cognates. Spanish comes by its Latin vocabulary quite naturally; but a preponderance of Latin in English poetry is endemic to 19th century Romanticism, perhaps giving the wrong signal. Leaning more toward Anglo-Saxon vocabulary would restore the hard-edged freshness to this volatile and vital poetry.
Bright Felon (Wesleyan University Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
What a superb book. Kazim Ali obviously has all the elements of his craft under control, to the point that he can create a new form, an new rhetoric to tell the story he wants to tell, probing memory the way it happens: backwards from “now.” It really works well. This was a riveting book. I love the way he strikes a sort of passionate objectivity–everything/everyone is real and meaningful to him, yet he finds a way to write about them without resorting to “poetic” emotionalism. He catches the modern conundrum: so much information, so much experience, so many cultures, so many kinds of love, of family, so many loyalties, and the almost unbearable prerogative to walk into or away from any of it. And in that context we still are compelled to define ourselves; and in that context, he does. As I said, a super book. A tremendous book.
Notes from Air, Selected Later Poems (Ecco, 2008) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Sorry. Ashbery is enormously respected. He has been showered with awards and grants. He can boast the ultimate badge of accessibility, appearances on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. He has even been cited, along with Wallace Stevens, by all of my most respected poet friends as a touchstone of 20th century poetics. I decided that if, I just stuck to it long enough, I would get it–I would have to get it. But 100 pages into the book, I had to run up the white flag. He’s obviously extremely intelligent which, I guess, makes me a complete dolt. The titles don’t make sense to me. The interior narrative of each poem doesn’t make sense to me. And there seems to me to be very little modulation in the tone and intent of the poems, the sort of thing that makes you wade through an author’s philosophical poems or the more formally knotty poems with the assurance that they are also master of more direct, more communicative forms. I always had the feeling that Ashbery was talking to someone behind me, that he never made eye contact. The problem was that, besides him, I was the only other person in the room. I’ll have to try again later. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing.
Astley, Neil (ed.)
Staying Alive, Real Poems for Unreal Times (Miramax, 2003) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
First, despite the strange title and the morose cover art, please buy this book. It has been a long time since I’ve had so many strangers ask me what I was reading with such concern in their voices — the last time was when I was reading How We Die. Perhaps the publishers should have considered some modifications when releasing the book in the US. This is a very good anthology of contemporary (early 20th century to the right-now present) poetry. I have been delighted to discover many poems that have struck me as memorable from poetry readings and programs such as Poetry Daily and The Writer’s Almanac under one cover. And I like the way the poems are grouped by theme, and then paired by image within the thematic groups. This is sustained over 450-odd pages, which makes the book a very rich meal indeed. I’m assuming, from the essay at the end “The Sound of Poetry” and the following Glossary of poetical terms, that this is intended to supplant some Norton Anthology-like thing in the first year college curriculum. The glossary, incidentally, is fun to read as a sort of second essay, since it refers back to the contents of the book for its authority.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago
Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande (New Directions, 2004) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
A superb account of this stage of Santiago Baca’s development as a poet. I first learned of the author through Bill Moyers’s PBS Series, The Language of Life. I was immediately attracted to his hard edge, his economy and agility with words, his willingness to stare life down, unblinking. I found his autobiography, A Place to Stand, inspiring. And the recent bi-lingual selection of his poems intriguing. But what has most pleased me is that he has not fixed himself in one metaphorical place and refused to move from it. He seems the embodiment of the old idea that, whatever you do, you should do with all your energy and all your focus so that you can see it to its natural end and then move on. In Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande, he has pushed through the fabled runner’s wall and found himself in a deist’s natural world where, with the proper focus, attention and respect, everything has a message for him about the task of being human: the river, of course, but also the mallards, egrets, and herons, and the trees, the trail itself and those he passes on it, the dawn and dusk. No longer does the poet look to the world of people to shape himself, to inform himself. He has suddenly tuned into a new, more exciting discourse in nature and gladly takes that lighter, more joyful message back to the world of his lovers and friends. Sound a little superficial? Perhaps romatic nature worship warmed over? A little “Woo! Woo!” and New Age-y? It’s not. It’s pure. It’s sincere. I had the genuine impression that I was in the presence of a man who discovered a way to accept the entire world, fortes and foibles, in a more peaceable vision of himself and me, as a co-inhabiter of that world.
Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande (New Directions, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Santiago Baca’s powerful struggle to reinterpret life and living in terms of nature, started in Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande, continues and is brought to a stunning conclusion in the final poem, “What Is Broken Is What God Blesses.” Gradually through the Spring poems, he welcomes more and more people into his conversation with nature, his ancestors, people from his past, current friends and lovers, the other self with whom he has shared his life, strangers whose presence is evident from the footpaths that break from his running trail and head for the river, tiny footprints in the dust, or the chain sawed trunks and branches cleared from the same path. We often have to separate things to clearly understand them before reuniting them. Only a poet could say it so well, could take you along and help you experience every step of the process, could bring you so successfully to the end, banged up and new.
Selected Poems / Poemas Selectos (New Directions, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Baca writes extremely strong poetry: vivid, keenly observed, brutally honest. He looks squarely at experiences most modern poets would not consider appropriate material and reports them as he sees them. I am extremely grateful for the vision of his work. The group called Meditations on the South Valley are honest to the point of being brutal–but it’s a very different thing when a true poet is brutal–and Baca is a true poet. There is a strong sense of personal growth in his poetry, as represented in the scope of this book. The last two sets, Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande and Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande are absolutely ecstatic. The poet is outside himself, not in anything as tawdry and sticky as rapture, but in true ecstasy: yes, the world is “nasty, brutish, and short” but it is also laden with redemptive moments of vision, purified in the fire of experience. If you’ve ever wondered what poetry the other, non European, voices of America are committing to the pages of our literature, you could do much worse than to start with Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Drive-Through Window, Barbara Bald (Alton NH: (contact author for copies), 2013) [blurb]
Barbara Bald departs from the world of absolutes and devotes her life to an examination of the ambiguities knotted into the warp and woof of her once Cartesian world. That the world can be both ordered and chaotic at the same time, and that this state is one of special peace—grace, really—is the domain of the poet and, yes, teacher, Barbara Bald.
Belli, Angela and Coulehan, Jack (ed.)
Blood and Bones, Poems by Physicians (University of Iowa, 1998) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Very rarely is a book, let alone an anthology of poetry, ever completely successful at what it sets out to do. Horace said, “even Homer yawned,” meaning I think that in such a gigantic work such as the Iliad or the Odyssey, some parts will be stronger than others, and one shouldn’t be surprised to discover parts that fail completely. Not so this book. I expected a sort of catalog of poems by physician-poets that represented a sort of response to a general “call for submissions.” Some master of the craft, some well-intended tyros in need of encouragement. What I discovered is a beautiful anthology of work of 31 poets, each strong in the elements of his craft, each with something strong and focused to say, each a full participant in the great dialogue of the poetics of the body and those committed to its welfare. And in 150 pages, you get the full range of human response: comedy, tragedy; the present, the past; the actors, the acted upon; the physician alone, the physician an heir to millennia of collaborators; the physician as patient, as actor, as observer, as human being. The book is divided thematically into four sections with great care taken by the editors to create a narrative flow. Personally, as a poet, I feel the climax of the story is John Stone’s “Getting to Sleep in New Jersey,” a poem that does so many thing at the same time and so simply, I read it several times in succession–the first time. These days it seems that the essential humanity of every profession is being recognized by one or more anthologies of poetry (I recently read books devoted to farmers, lawyers and chefs). There are, thankfully, several devoted to medicine, notably from the patients’ point of view and the interns’ point of view. Here you have the doctors’ point of view. Wonderful.
The Dance of No Hard Feelings (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
There are several complex, exalted appraisals of this book on the back from the likes of Laurie Anderson and John Ashbery. What I would add to their considered praise is my own first impression, what a tremendous pleasure it is to be in the presence of a young, modern poet who is having so damned much fun writing. Some of the poems come off as serious, brow-wrinkled experiments in form and content but–and this may just be my own particular insanity at work–I am constantly aware of this sort of Puckishness at work. Even in his most serious work, I catch the glint of a pair of eyes peeking from behind it that seem to say, “Did I getcha?” I’m very happy to know that I share this world at this time with such a kindred spirit. It helps to make it all a bit more bearable.
Flood Song (Copper Canyon, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
A stunning book. A selection from this book was featured on Poetry Daily and I was intrigued by the economy, compression and use of language. Still, you don’t imagine that anyone could maintain such virtuosity for seventy pages. Wrong. I am a voracious reader of modern poetry; this book stunned me. Surprising nouns and verbs juxtaposed in surprising ways at every turn. The commonplace constantly elevated to the extraordinary. The everyday brutality of fact, as it presents itself in nature, appreciated for its kaleidoscopic thusness. And I read the whole book (in one sitting) before I discovered that the cover illustration was painted by the poet as well. Rarely have I seen a better marriage of cover and content. The painting tells you everything you need to know in terms of form, color and energy–and all the rest–about the poetry. The people at Copper Canyon have come through again, bless them. All that and, if the title (Flood Song) and the arrangement of the work throughout the book (such intoxicating celebration of negative space) mean anything, it is one poem. No titles. No numbers. No pretension whatsoever. The words working closely with the space to create a single arc of meaning. One poem. It is a rare thing for a poet to be so comfortable with telling you all there is to know about himself. Sherwin Bitsui does that here. Ultimately, that’s poetry.
Waiting for the Gulf Motel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012) [written on Amazon.com]
I never heard of Richard Blanco before he was selected to write the poem for Obama’s second inauguration. I feel so stupid. The president was quoted as saying something like, “I like his passion for family. How easily he writes about it. How clearly devoted he is to it.” So there’s the big picture. The little picture, the all-important background, is what I found most attractive about this book. Blanco’s language is so straightforward, so simple. He’s obviously not trying to impress anyone with Latinate polysyllables and knotty syntax. I do think, however, that he’s trying to impress himself (if impress is the right word). He wants to say what he needs to say so quietly. You know how, when we’re first taught how to read, we’re taught to hear the words in our heads? Well the voice that I hear is so confident, so confidential, it’s almost whispering. Richard Blanco is like a great actor who, instead of trying to blow the back wall of a theater out, speaks in a normal, conversational voice, forcing the theater to go quiet, the audience to sit on the front of their seats. That’s how good this book is and how good this poetry is. And, yes, unlike all but a few modern poets, he loves the idea and the reality of “family.” Put your lamp down, Demosthenes: we’re in the presence of an honest man.
Conversations with Akhmatova (np, 1995) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Ra’hel Bluwstein was born in Russia in 1890 (d. 1931, tuberculosis) and first visited Palestine in 1909 as a tourist. Her poetry is beautiful, formal and stands with one foot firmly planted in the poetry of Akhmatova and in the imagery of the Pioneers kibbutzim. I first came to know her through a friend’s paper on Ullmann’s 7th piano sonata. One of the themes of the final movement is a “folk song,” or what Ullmann learned as a folk song. In fact, it was a setting of one of Ra’hel’s poems, so well known everyone thought it was a folk song. I wanted to know more.
So, my friend sent me the earlier edition (1995) of these translations. (There’s another, bilingual edition, from 2008.) It is not only wonderful to learn some of the work of one of Russia’s poetic free spirits from the early 20th century, it is especially wonderful to become acquainted with one of Akhmatova’s many admirers and imitators. If you know Akhmatova, you know of her personal association with many of the giants of 20th century Russian and Soviet poetry like Blok, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva. But you also know that EVERYONE knew her work by heart, especially the early books, Evening (1912), White Flock (1914), Beads/Rosary (1917), Plantain (1921) and Anno Domini MCMXX1 (1921).
These books are perfectly reflected in these beautiful poems: the language, the subject matter, the spirit. But I don’t have the slightest impression that Ra’hel is writing ersatz Akhmatova. She’s having a conversation with a dear friend, in a common language.
Less Fortunate Pirates (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
There is little I can do here except echo the words of the other reviewers. The most important relationship in a man’s life is that with his father; I am more convinced of that the older I get. So regardless of whether it was easy or difficult, it gets examined and re-examined again and again. It’s like looking in a mirror for clues to your own identity. When the father dies, there is no more mirror. There is only memory.
The first time I read this book, it didn’t work for me. Clearly I was focused on something else at the time. But the second time I read the book, it was dead-on. Borland has a substantial arsenal of skills that are keenly developed and he uses them well. I especially appreciate his uncluttered honesty. Not once did he allow himself to reach for the ‘tried and true’ of our poetic past. He made himself state his truth plainly, as it is. The result was like having a late night conversation with a friend over coffee at a roadside diner: intense, hushed, private, honest, trusting.
I like it when I get the feeling that an author trusts me. It makes me trust him all the more.
Borland, Brian (ed.)
Assarcus Issue 7: A Journal of Gay Poetry (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Assaracus has been a major find for me. Throughout the years, various editors and publishers have taken up the challenge of creating anthologies of “gay” poetry (usually stuffy) or periodicals of contemporary “gay” poetry (usually of the academic, “what’d he say?” variety–with the decided exception of The James White Review). Assaracus (I can never spell it right the first time) is different. It is strong contemporary “gay” poetry by real human beings with something to say, under the metaphor of the contemporary “gay” experience. The poetry ranges from the earnest to the silly (I’m so glad people let themselves have a sense of humor about things), the stern and formal to the “conversation over a cup of coffee” familiar. What is more, the editor(s) struck a strong chord from issue one, so I actually look forward to reading every issue from cover to cover as they come out. Price is a problem for me, but the actual physical quality of each issue is good so I know they’ll last, and the product is exactly what I want so I buy it. I fully expect the editor(s) to have an “off” issue somewhere along the line, after all they’re only human, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Borland, Brian and Pennington, Seth (eds.) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Assaracus Issue 13: A Journal of Gay Poetry (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014)
I subscribe to Assaracus, so I need to state up front that I did not buy this item through Amazon. But you should. Another very successful issue devoted to gay male poetry. I’m particularly happy to see more poems by Stephen S. Mills whose book He Do the Gay Man In Different Voices I recently read and enjoyed enormously. Powerful. Honest. Among the other ten authors represented, Michael Walsh stands out for being able to speak autobiographically through his poetry without lapsing either into icy objectivity or sappy maudlin. I knew I was reading an author who takes his mission of direct communication with his readers very seriously. The great revelation of this volume was the set of poems co-written by D. Gilson and Will Stockton. They seem to be very well matched in that they strike together like flint and steel. The results are fresh, eye-popping poems that sizzle with volatile energy and wit. They caught my attention in my first skim-through and I really enjoyed lingering over them in my read-through. Generally speaking, it seems that the journal is slowly moving toward more and more writers with academic credentials and I’m starting to miss the strong work of gifted beginners, but that’s a minor grouse. I’m certainly not going to cancel my subscription to the major resource for strong, contemporary gay male poetry.
A New Hunger (Ausable Press, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I took a poetry workshop with Laure-Anne Bosselaar on 9/14/01–three days after 9/11. It was exactly what I needed to be doing at the time, and I have reflected and drawn on the contents of that workshop ever since. In her earlier books, Bosselaar demonstrates her deft mastery of the vivid image in the English language (she also writes in French and Flemish), and her fearlessness to apply such mastery to the hardest of subjects. To that, her new volume adds a profound appreciation for formal procedures in poetry and their ability to deepen and compress the writer’s visionary argument. And always–ALWAYS–the music. “Day dithers, no wind or breeze, and light / so drab it could be dawn or dusk.” (“March Chimes”) “AWE / for the veins on a woman’s hands today: their / swells and curves and how inside those // narrow blue rills brilliant twirls of DNA / whirled while she sold tickets.” (“Awe”) “Shut your eyes, face your walls, the scythe’s // blade is tilting toward the earth–so / sleep for the one who knows horror, // or the one who dares speak in any god’s name.” (“Night”) But reading excerpts is like trying to extrapolate the original vessles from brilliantly patterned pottery shards. I am a big fan Bossselaar’s poems and the anthologies she creates with her husband, the poet, Kurt Brown–examples to anyone wishing to break the academic mold. Read this one aloud to a friend or to yourself. You will be grateful for the opportunity–and the confirmation that being human can be very good, some times because of, but more often in spite of everything.
Tell Me a Story of the Wild (Independent Publishing, 2014) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I’ve been waiting for Adam Bradley to make a chapbook available for, what?, nearly 10 years. While working on his degree at the University of New Hampshire, he frequented some of the many open mic poetry readings on the New Hampshire Seacoast and presented his work to the public, where I became familiar with it. It was always accessible, as noted by one of the other reviewers. It was also spiritually grounded and open (qi, Swadhisthana), and often draws on some aspect of contemporary science for its metaphorical heart: parallax, syzygy, domatia, coelacanth, Siberian chromium, the spectacular array of SiO(2)*H(2)O. And there is an awed appreciation of nature: the pre-birth experience of skinny dipping at night, the accordion wheeze of a dead grizzly’s ribcage, E. O. Wilson’s ants. Fact is, you can’t read poetry that is more comfortable with the world it exists in and the one who made it. Thanks, Adam. And more, please. If you want to know what Mary Oliver might have written at the beginning of her career, read this book. [And special thanks to Adam for the poem on Siberian chromium yellow and the revolutionary difference it made in the works of Vincent van Gogh. It is van Gogh’s yellow, plain and simple.]
Collected Poems with Parallel Greek Text (Oxford/World Classics, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I don’t know anything about Greek, but I have been a poet all my life and, ever since my late teens I have been told I needed to read Cavafy. He’s the real thing. When I read him 35 years ago I, of course, wrestled with all the historical stuff. And the homoerotic poetry was cryptic to say the least. Mostly, I remember coming away from the book with a feeling that this was a very sober, very unhappy poet. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. He’s still dark. I’d still like to take him out for a drink on a regular basis just to cheer him up. The historical stuff is less difficult and I have nothing but the most profound respect and appreciation for the beauty of his erotic poems. The sadness at the passing of youth and beauty is immediately comprehensible, no matter what floats your boat erotically. I’ve read it in Whitman, of course, A. E. Housman, Gide, and both Garcia Lorca and Cernuda. I’m happy with crediting half of my new attitude toward Cavafy to my own experience and the other half to the excellence of this new translation. It seems infinitely more direct, more personal than that old translations. A lot less scholarly starch and something more like a beating heart.
Stone by Stone, Poems About the Art of Dry Stone Walling (Finishing Line, 2010) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
This book is a series of poems created over the last few years to honor the author’s interest in the creation and identity of the ubiquitous stone walls of New England, and the profound spirituality of their creators–in the past, certainly, but most importantly, in the present. Yes, there are masters of the stone wall art living today, quietly plying their trade with all the intensity and focus of Zen masters. To honor them, the author, not a stone waller himself, has created a series of 18 short lyrics, spurred by documentaries and books on the subject. In each, he captures a separate, imaginary meditation of the stone waller: on the resident chipmunks, on his own headstone, on the stones’ relationship with the earth (their origin, their eruption as field stones, their foundation), on the quiet business of walls shepherding their makers. Dennis has worked for years on a style in which each formalistic poem is one long sentence (in the manner of Tacitus’s Germania or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying), inviting his reader to embroider a thought over, sometimes a hundred, sometimes two or three hundred words, from germ to apotheosis, from simple everyday observation to a larger understanding of the universe. This is certainly one of the most successful, thematically-based collections of lyrics I’ve read in the last ten years.
Permanent Party (March Street, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
It is no secret that I’m a big fan of Michael Casey’s work. I think it is probably because my mother read a lot of the dialect poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (who was from my home town, Dayton OH) and James Whitcomb Riley (the “Hoosier Poet”) to me as a kid, and endowed me with an ear for it — as well as a delight in it. This Massachusetts working-class patois is Casey’s niche. It can’t be easy to catch the exact tone, the exact weight of each sentence, each phrase, to say nothing of the inevitable surprise “wrap up” of each poem. “Oh! That’s what we were really talking about.” He’s a lucky writer to have found his own voice, even luckier to have mastered it. There’s something else going on here, too. I’ve read a great deal of war poetry. After a while, it all starts sounding the same — which is not to devalue the experience of the poets by any means — it’s just that they all go to the same well for their vocabulary and the way they put it together and end up speaking of the deepest personal things in a uniformly olive-drab way. Casey has put the extra effort necessary into finding an immediately attractive way to talk about his Vietnam experience through dialect poetry, and the net effect is all the more profoundly personal to the reader. Don’t let the 31-page length discourage you; this book is a treasure. You should own it.
Desolation of the Chimera (White Pines Press, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
A gay friend from Chile once sent me Cernuda’s “Despedidas,” the last poem in this collection, and asked for a translation into English. As I was massaging the beautiful poem from Spanish to English, I was amazed by Cernuda’s knowledge of the works of Keats, especially the “Ode to a Nightingale.” He courageously quoted from it, cribbing the drug-dreamy diction of Keats’s ode for his farewell to boys and the joys of boyhood. Like Garcia Lorca, Cernuda is a member of the Generation of ’27 but, unlike Garcia Lorca (whom I also love), his vision does not tend to the surreal. Cernuda’s verse is suffused with a sort of nostalgia, a lens through which he perceives both the present and the past. But it’s not sticky sweet; it’s straightforward and honest. I think he compares favorably with Cavafy in tone and subject matter. Life is a bitter cup but it is the imperative of the poet to drink it to the dregs, and then record his experience with as cool a composure as he can muster, to benefit the friend sitting across the table from him. This is beautiful poetry and I’m glad to have it in both languages. (I wonder if we had any similar voices in American poetry in the post-World War I generation.)
Early Settlement and Other Poems (Beech River Books, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Charles Churchill of Porter, Maine is a strong example of the diligent devotees to poetry you find everywhere in New England. If the poems in this book are any indication, he’s often drawn to the ins and outs of metrical poetry and sometimes drawn to rhyme. In my experience, this combination works best in the narratives of North of Boston, Robert Frost’s second book. And Churchill’s Early Settlement and Other Poems is the proof. In the first two-thirds of his book, “Midnight Apples” is the strongest example of this, juxtaposing the sound of late-night apple thieves in the fall and their delight in ‘getting away with something’ against the missed opportunity to meet the man whose apples they’ve stolen, who’d gladly exchange “the larger juicy globes” for some neighborly conversation. In this part of the book, Churchill bobs and weaves between poems of longer and shorter lines, snapshots and aphorism, his choice of form and rhetorical mode always carefully weighed against the relative weight of his subject matter. Then the reader comes to paydirt, the last third, separately titled “Early Settlement.” Churchill turns his game up to high and “[his] hardest work, [his] most consistent concentration” pays off. “Ephraim” will remind readers of Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man” but the other narratives hold their own ground, and very interesting ground it is. There’s the move-in housekeeper who becomes a wife; the young girl impregnated by her brother, devoting her tight-lipped life after losing the child to “[nursing] the sick for fifty years, / A service to man, beyond the reach of men.”; the neighbor’s idiot child playing in a field; the man who foolishly sets off on his own of a winter’s day and breaks his leg–sitting in the snow at the onset of dusk, wondering when he’ll be missed, when they might find him, and in what condition; and always–ALWAYS–the slow exodus of neighbor farmers and their children to something easier than hard-scrabble farming in rural Maine, some to the arms of death, others to “a little room downstairs” in their children’s homes in a city ruled by a wool mill. Dark? Yes. Honest? If my life’s experience is any indication, yes. Intense? That’s the glory of unrhymed metrical poetry put to the service of narrative, and Charles Churchill’s great strength.
Collins, Billy (ed.)
180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (Random House, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
The biggest problem with modern anything is that there is so much of it. I am profoundly grateful to people like Billy Collins who are willing to put their excellent eyes and ears to work and help me sift through the straw for the gold. There’s humor here, and gravity, and classical themes treated with modern twists, and all suffused with masterly craft. High school? I’m one (with Frank Conroy) who believes you should always shoot over your head. So, definitely high school. And most of the rest of America, seeing how it seems to be unaware that the country is experiencing a great poetic renaissance these days.
And as for reservations on language or subject matter, it is the imperative of poetry to wade fearlessly into both and reveal the power inherent in the skillful marriage of the unusual and the unexpected. Everyone thinks of these things — regardless of polite or politically correct conventions — it’s someone’s responsibility to speak of these things … and that’s what poets are for.
I have more poems ticked in the table of contents of this anthology than any other poetry book I’ve read — and I read three or four of them a week (it’s my not-so-secret perversion, if you will). There’s so much to inspire here, so much to make one think. Billy Collins learned from what worked in the first volume — a powerful experience in its own right — and make the sequel doubly good. Hooray for him!
Natural Causes: Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I may just have to stop saying nasty things about the catastrophic effect of the post-1945 academy on the peoples’ art: poetry. This book is purity gorgeous. I was introduced to it while searching for poems about New Hampshire. A local librarian handed me Mark Cox’s poem, “Natural Causes.” A father and his young son are driving through the country. The son sees the enormous, modern “bails” of hay dotting the fields, wrapped in white plastic. The rest of the day father and son go from store to store, looking for normal-sized marshmallows.
I’ve got red checks all over the table of contents to mark the “keepers”: returning to the scene of your childhood in “Pail of Eggs”; the most fundamentally powerful list-poem I’ve seen in a long time, “Better Homes and Gardens”; “The Museum at the End of the World”; our compunction toward senseless violence, “Red Lead, 1978”; “Consolidated Freight”; the primal self reduced to banality by the ephemera of civilization, “Blind Cat at a Window,” “At the Crematorium, … ,” “Want”– all about living and loving in the face of ultimate mortality, “our sorrow bestowed / so we won’t float toward heaven too soon.” (from “Red Lead, 1978”) And who in the world needs another love poem? You do: “On the Way to See You.” My God, what an ache.
If Mark Cox ever needs someone to take his place at a reading and sell books, he needs to call me; I’ll do it. I’ve got a presentation that will make the bookstore wish it had ordered more books for sure.
Incidentally, if I had seen the book first, I still would have bought it. The cover is a Rockwell Kent, whose paintings’ compression of subject matter, simplicity of palate, and sense of breathless expansiveness, do everything a strong modern lyric does. We need to remember that sometimes–and how better than to be blindsided by a stunning painting.
Too Much Explanation Can Ruin a Man (Wordtech, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I happen to know Robert Crawford. He teaches and reads here in the Seacoast Region of New Hampshire. I have always admired his essential modesty, his profound appreciation for craft, and his unrelenting pursuit of it. If you’re the kind of person who looks at antique furniture and are taken by the way it reveals and conceals the years of training, skill and craftsmanship that went into it, as opposed to how it’s going to fit into your entryway or sewing room, or go with the new Persian carpet, Crawford’s poetry is for you. It’s grace. It’s classical form and balance. It’s the courage to take on the oldest poetic subjects and themes on, again, with the confidence that something enduring and beautiful will result. (We’ll call it the Michelangelo Connundrum — why would a man approach a block of marble with a hammer, knowing as much as he did of Greco-Roman statuary?) And, incidentally, this book contains the best “Christmas” poem ever, “The Love of One.” It’s in search of just such gems that I read so much.
The Empty Chair (University of Evansville Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
The recipient of the 2011 Richard Wilbur Award was Robert W. Crawford, for his sonnet, “The Empty Chair.” The poem is the first in the eponymous, hard bound book of fifty poems published in 2012 by the University of Evansville Press. But that has nothing to do with why you should read it.
You should read it because here is a contemporary poet who takes a poet’s commission seriously and applies all the fine tools of his craft to mirror our times to us, his readers. Crawford’s poetry is allergic to vague, escapist abstractions; he does not prescribe solutions to the problems of existence. He turns a hard eye on the realities of our world and our environment and finds sharp metaphors to help us probe our situation more deeply. Like all of us, he is attracted to the temptation to create order from an essentially chaotic existence by naming things, archetypally Adam’s great commission in Eden, but he also suspects that consolation of hope is just that, mere consolation, and that chaos, Blake’s invidious worm, lives on.
Naming, in fact, is the subject of two poems in this collection. In one, “The Truth About Discoveries,” he takes us into the world of ancient astronomy for his metaphor. During the day, our hunter/gatherer ancestors saw the world as filled with light in the sky and action on the ground. But at night, it was reversed; the terrestrial world was cloaked in darkness and all the action happened overhead. From this, he draws a little allegory about the social misfit (I read: poet) organizing the night sky into a parade of men and animals, reporting his discovery to the authorities. (I always remind myself that “discovery” means “to uncover something that is already there.”) After deliberation, the authorities ridicule it in the light of their own, committee manufactured, system. So, the poet names it one thing and the authorities another; and the authorities are “right,” by definition.
Crawford examines the same archetype, creating order through naming, in “The Naming of Lights.” After making a quick bow to the reader’s expectation, the poet suggests this poem is not about naming the heavenly bodies of light; it is about naming the earthly bodies of light. It is the very stuff of medieval philosophy, to see the universal in the specific. From his mountain top vantage, he looks down at night and names the city represented by each cluster of lights below him. (Surely, we’ve all done the same with night photographs of the earth taken from space.) Then his attention turns, as the ancient astronomers’ did, from the fixed “stars” to the “wandering stars” (the meaning of the Greek root for “planet”). In his cosmology, these are the cars that define the highways and roads between the cities. But Crawford goes one step further. As night progresses, the number of “wandering stars” decreases until there is just one left. In the concluding couplet of the poem, “A single light drops down the mountainside: / a hot white tear, or slowly falling star.” The tragedy of entropy; the pity and horror of knowing that everything that is, that is “named” into the realm of truth and existence, will cease to be.
Another way Crawford examines the problem of existential ambiguity is through word choice. Like the famous double entendres of Marlow’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a seemingly innocent word compels the reader to snap back to reality. In the case of Marlow and Shakespeare, the exonerating commands are to assassinate the king, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively. Crawford selects the `best word’ to create factual ambiguity in a world in which we are compelled to act on logical certainty in our everyday lives contrary to our existential knowledge that nothing is certain.
The concluding couplet of “The Empty Chair,” holding the place of the Shakespearian apotheosis or moral, is “They save a central place for what might be– / A certain absence, looking out to sea.” One could be forgiven for reading the word “certain” as “absolute, assured,” perhaps referring to the invisibility of the Divine Hand as proof of the existence of the Divine Hand. On the other hand, “certain” may mean “vague, unspecified”–the poet does not force one or the other reading–in which one is compelled to read an empty chair as just an empty chair, the vacancy of the invisible, the essential orphan state of all creation, its gaze fixed on a vast and featureless universe.
Elsewhere in the book, in “Irreconcilable Differences,” Crawford turns an observation–how few men wear their wedding bands while traveling–into a reflection on the clash between the rational impulse to fidelity at home, as part of one’s artificially ordered universe, and the “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” anonymous surrender to physical hunger of the open road, the essential, potentially inconsequential chaos of the universe. It is archetypal, the great theme of Homer’s Odyssey. Crawford’s key word, again, is in the final line. “The one who loved you first of all, / Can’t sleep with you alone.” In the first reading, this simple pair of quatrains suggest a simple vow of fidelity: “Other guys mess around when away from home, but I can’t because I love you.” But “alone” can mean both “knowing that you are by yourself, without me” or “you, exclusively.” In the first case, “we can only `sleep’ when we’re together,” in the second case, “I can’t `sleep’ only with you; I must have other people to `sleep’ with.”
Mind you, I am fairly certain how Crawford, whom I know, thinks about these subjects personally, but I think he is doing his poets duty to leave space in his poems for the reader, for all readers. At bottom, the poet is simply asking that you pause a moment and reconsider what you think you already know.
There is much more that can be said in the hope of compelling you to add this volume to your library, but I think I’ll conclude with a short appreciation of Crawford’s devotion to formal poetry. I identify Crawford as a member of “The Rhyme and Meter Gang.” I jokingly refer to them as such, as if they are some sort of sheriff’s posse out of a old, black-and-white, western, thundering out of town in search of the outlaw poets who follow the “Wanted–Dead or Alive” examples of Whitman or Ginsberg and ignore the formal elements of their writing, while still pretending that what they commit to paper is “poetry.” I said “jokingly.” I know that the Apollonian impulse is as strong and sincere as the Dionysian and that classical restraint is as valuable a rhetorical tool as ecstatic excess, as needed and when applied by the right artisan.
Crawford is one of those artisans. First, he devotes himself to reading the work of others. Second, he is in constant practice of applying what he is learning from his reading to his art. And third, he has done both with such commitment and for such a long time that he has passed through the marathon racer’s “wall” of dogged persistence, plagued in lesser authors by the clatter and clang of relentless rhymes or the maddening, telltale heart–lub-DUB, lub-DUB, lub-DUB–of incessant iambs. Crawford can, and often does, write formal poems in which the last thing the listener realizes is that it is “formal.”
One of my favorite examples among these poems in this anthology is the love poem, “Kitchen Remodeling.” In this, the antagonist (I love the fact that the author achieves universality by not specifying the gender of either of the actors in this poem) is downloading detail after detail on a kitchen-remodeling project in situ. The protagonist’s attention is so swimming in facts that it sublimates from the factual to the affectional, surrendering to a fantasy of what so much “unfinished” counter space might be used for, before it is cluttered with the functional and mundane. It is a 14-line tour de force of such transparent simplicity, it can only be achievable through the creation of hundreds of lesser poems in the course of decades of practice. Crawford has it–and you should have it too.
Currents in the Stream, Charlotte Cox (St. Cloud MN: North Star Press, 2014) [blurb]
The highs and lows, the tragedies and comedies, of Charlotte Cox’s rich life compress beautifully into the structures of lyric poetry. This is poetry that leaves plenty of room for us, her readers, to fire up our sympathetic memories. It reminds those of us buried in labor-saving technology that a large and vivid life is out there waiting for us, but to reap its rewards we must accept its risks and bravely go out to meet it.
The Lilac Thief, Young Dawkins (Sandown NH: Sergent Press, 2009) [blurb]
Wait until the world has closed its eyes, then sit in that big comfortable chair and read each of Young’s poems aloud. Linger on single lines. If one lacks flavor the first time, come back later. There is too much weight and depth in these lyrics not to give them all the time they require. Make these poems last. They’re worth the wait.
Fathers and Teachers (Beech River Books, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Robert Demaree’s book presents a selection of 68 pages of poems written between 1984 and 2006. This is the sort of personal photo album you will enjoy leafing through. Each poem is a sharply focused memento of an event, a person, or a scene that has informed and enriched his life. Here also is God, a reverence for creation, and a mastery of Latin syntax that turns colloquial English into something demanding further consideration and thereby acquiring poetic weight. Demaree is widely published for good reason: he understands the beauty of compression, the raw honesty of it that supports cool appraisal, ecstasy and horror alike. Read this, a six-line poem called “Break-In”: “Walking through the house after the break-in, / With the victim’s sick feeling of fault: / We note what had or had not been valued. / Why do we presume to know their features? / We will not return their visit, / We will not see their daughters’ pictures.” Do you recognize that sense of violation, amplified by that “we,” the presence of family? Do you recognize that sense of inadequacy to protect anyone–even your daughters–from anything? Do you also recognize that implicit hunger for revenge, however petty? How can you not buy a book with that poem alone in it?
Heartwrecks (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I am a poet and I read a lot of brainiac poetry, so it is simply wonderful to discover the work of Nicolas Destino and how perfectly comfortable he is in the presence of his reader. Really, reading this book was like sitting down with a friend at the local diner for Sunday breakfast and going through the highs and lows of the week. The book is called Heartwrecks, which pretty much summarizes most of our lives, and his eye is as clear in appraising them as his mind is capable of incorporating them into the big picture of his life. Nicolas is so un-selfconscious, too. Some of these poems are short prose poems, others are simply couplets, or single lines. He doesn’t seem to have any compulsion to sonnet, villanelle, or pantoum me. There is simply no reason for that, given his subject matter. Of course, it doesn’t hurt a bit that we’re both musicians and can talk music without sounding high-faluting. I actually wince whenever a brainiac poet starts rummaging through the arcane vocabulary of music and musicians for an “I’m smarter than you” adjective or simile. Not so, Nicolas. I’ve done the counterpoint exercises he refers to, I love the pieces by Bach and Corelli that are as much a part of his life as daybreak, a shower, or a bikeride across town, I know the point of the drudgery of practicing alone, and the unfulfillable expectation of practicing with someone else–both metaphorically and in reality. This is a surprise book. It was a gift that popped up in a pile of National Poetry Month “required reading” that I hope to get through. And boy, am I ever grateful. Thanks, Nicolas. Same time next Sunday?
Velocities, New and Selected Poems: 1966-1992 (Penguin Books, 1994) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
What?!? Five reviews on the best, most accessible, neither over-brainy nor dumbed-down poetry being written in America?!? What’s that about? No. Really. My first Dobyns was “How to Like It.” I’ve read it aloud in several poetry readings since then. The audience always has my reaction: brainy, funny, classical subject, modern angle — great poem! Since then, I’ve found the occasional Dobyns poem in anthologies, or heard others read him and put a big mental red-check by his name. I even was in the audience at an open mike once with the sole intention of listening, and was handed a Dobyns poem and told it was imperative that I read it. As a poet, this is what I want to be; like navigating by the North Star, I’m fairly positive I’ll never get there. If you read poetry, you should be reading Dobyns. Start with the poems from his book, Cemetery Nights. From there, your poetry-reading life is pretty well planned out (as is that library you’re taking with you to that deserted island).
Original Fire, Selected and New Poems (Harper Perennial, 2004) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Is it heresy to suggest that Louise Erdrich is a great storyteller, in at least two ancient traditions (Native American, Roman Catholic liturgy), and not necessarily a poet? I became aware of her poetical work on Bill Moyers’s last shows a month or so ago. They had an intense, engrossing, and very hopeful discussion centered on her poem, “Advice to Myself.” I was amazed at the balance, the sanity of the conversation. Essentially: yes, we know the world at large and in particular is going to hell in a hand basket and the most anyone can do, world-wise, is to push back on the flood of insanity. But, the most powerful and personal thing we can do is to refuse to surrender to despair. The strength of character in these stories grows for that amazing place. True to both traditions, they’re doggedly NOT about the teller, they’re about the tale. Beautiful, evocative writing. And what happens when she converts the Desiderata from second person advice to first person? “Advice to Myself”: … Let the wind have its way, then the earth / that invades as dust and then the dead / foaming up in gray rolls under the couch. / Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome. And regarding the heresy? In Huckleberry Finn’s immortal words, “I’ll go to hell.”
Alabanza, New and Selected Poems 1982-2002 (Norton, 2004) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I found this book in a used bookstore and flipped it open to a poem in praise of Neruda — I had to have it. I particularly enjoy “new and selected” anthologies because I not only get familiar with the work of a writer, but I also get a larger context — the poet’s life’s work — to understand each poem in. These poems start out strong (1982) and get stronger. Then, there is an explosion of stunning work, starting with Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996) and continuing right through the final poem (2002), a celebration of the lives of “Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees” who died in the twin towers. World Poetry is generally very political, a voice that I think is essentially absent from or clumsily handled (shrill, angry, repellant, pathetic) in poetry from the United States. Espada is a US citizen who shows that it can be done with strength, beauty, and conviction. It doesn’t hurt that he has the occasional touch of ‘magic realism’ on his side, as well.
Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I know Pat from Garrison Keillor’s inclusion of “Lightening Spreads Out Across the Water” (not in this collection) in one of his Writers’ Almanacs. I was immediately drawn to her because she had no problem looking reality directly in the eye and insisting that life was still worth living. With Pat, it’s not world-weariness; it’s open-eyed awareness, which I attribute to her experience as a psychologist and social worker. To engage, professionally, in those two fields and come out of it a poet says a lot for her strength of character and what she has to bring to the table as a fellow human being with a willingness to share. I am immediately drawn to “The Undeniable Pressure of Existence,” about sighting a sick fox from her car and feeling unable to help, and “The Small Hurtling Bodies,” about birds flying into buildings — both of which, coincidentally, I’ve written poems about. “Duties of the Spirit” will undoubtedly be the classic here. There is an echo here of St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:13: “… there are three things that last for ever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them is love.” Taking her point of departure from a letter of Thorton Wilder’s, she asserts the first is joy, the second is serenity, and “the third must be grief,” all encompassing, overwhelming, waiting patiently at the end of everything, grief. In the last stanza, she sums up the poem, and the heart of her greatness as a poet and fellow traveler, “and he weighs down your shoulders, ties a rawhide necklace / hung with a stone around your neck, and hangs on and on / But the first is slippery joy.” And don’t you forget it.
Death of a Ventriloquist (University of North Texas Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Two winners of the Vassar Miller Prize, 2011 by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc and 2012 by Matt Miller, have crossed my desk at the same time. They couldn’t be more different, which attests to the wisdom of selecting different judges every year. The net result is a variety of voices, and I appreciate that. It’s true, most of the award winners have an academic character about them, but that’s a good thing. Most of us have had drive-by experiences with poetry in high school and college, experiences focused on carefully selected (and oh-so-teachable) poems from the past. That, combined with our experience of hymnody (assuming we went to church) and the doggerel we pick up from our friends, determine our expectations regarding contemporary poetry. In those scales, it is found wanting. But the seeming consistency of contemporary verse should clue us into the fact that there is something different going on here. And it challenges us to read carefully and widely in contemporary poetry to pull an accurate bead on it.
Rejecting contemporary poetry because it is unfamiliar is like rejecting French because it isn’t English.
That being said, Fay-LeBlanc’s book is challenging. In fact, it is unusually challenging for most academically oriented contemporary verse. But it is also rich and strong. Like most contemporary poets, Gibson accepts the challenge to make poetry of everything. His poetic eye is open every day of his life. Also, like much contemporary verse, his poems usually include a second character. There are real people here; I especially appreciate his willingness to unfold the history of his courtship and his experience of being a father. Many young, male poets are boldly writing their responses to Plath’s “Daddy” from the standpoint of the father: as frightened, as challenged, as puzzled, as irrationally proud as any child has been of their mysterious father. I also enjoy the fact that Fay-LeBlanc proposes his poetic conclusions, not as doctrines but as invitations to debate.
Finally, reading this book cover to cover is puzzling. At least, that was my response. “What did I just read?” But, once again, it was a problem of super-imposing my expectations on the collection–as if it were one of this mid-20th century, thematically structured “slim volumes of verse.” That it isn’t. Yes, there are a series of poems, scattered throughout, that focus on the metaphor of a ventriloquist; but even more surprising, as I “flip and read” through the book to give substance to this review, I discover poem after poem that stands quite well on its own legs, that fascinates, that engages me as a reader, that makes me comfortable with the fact that Gibson and I are contemporaries, wrestling, in words, with the same problems, and floating our ideas out there in chapbooks, paper planes, if you will, for others to enjoy, to comment on–to accept or reject, depending on their frame of mind at the time.
Novels in Three Lines (New York Review of Books Classics, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Hey, James. 10,000 thanks for turning me on to Novels in Three Lines. WHAT a great book. Talk about all that “soul of wit” stuff. Very humbling. 1,000 lessons in the potential in compression. A handbook for every modern poet–except the obsfucating gasbags, of course; gotta leave some space for them. And, what a relief, no ersatz haiku. These poems don’t pretend to be anything. They are what they are: droll, piercing, witty, hilarious, self-effacing (especially the three stories in three lines entries); art and life in a blender, taken in teaspoon doses.
Bewilderment, New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I keep track of awards. I’m always interested in who won the Nobel in literature, the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer. And the National Book Award. But it’s really rare when I recognize the name of the winner. I read voraciously; never recognize a name. So it wasn’t a surprise when the name of David Ferry came up. Never heard of him. Worse, he’s an academic. But I consider the awards as personal reading assignments. Don’t wanna die ignorant. Am I ever grateful. Here is a writer who has devoted his life to poetry, has cycled it, presumably, through his teens, gone crazy for all the prescribed poets at the prescribed times, probably wrote his “greatest” stuff at about midpoint but stayed with it. Why? Because every great artist goes through “the wall” of greatness and sails through the eight or so miles on the other side in a state of euphoria. And the art created then is called “mannerism.” That’s a good thing. This wonderful book is so strong, demonstrates mastery of so many techniques and styles, it is pure pleasure. This poet has nothing to prove; he needs simply to do what he does, and he does it here. The heart and soul of this work is his translations. I’ve never seen translations that communicate so directly, so naturally. Vergil, Horace, Catullus, Rilke, Montale, others, all confidants sharing their best with the reader as if over coffee or a nice glass of wine. And the translation of Cavafy’s In Despair…Oh, my God. I was reading the book while riding the bus to work, a beautiful 12-mile trip from Portsmouth to Durham (New Hampshire) on a road through the country. I read the translation of In Despair just as I was crossing one of the three bridges on the route. I stopped breathing. I read it again. Still, too amazing. No one will ever prove by me that this poem was not written by this poet in these words. And it’s a damned good poem. That sounds like a good place to stop, but I really need to go on a little more. He pairs many of the translations with personal poems whose imagery draws on the translation for their metaphorical content. My understanding of “mannerism” at its best. And the suite of conversational responses to poems by Arthur Gold (gratefully included) is really outstanding–what a wonderful idea, but possible only in the hands of a well-seasoned master. A younger poet would flub it. I am very grateful to this introduction to the work of David Ferry. Thank you National Book Award gods. I’m ready for my next assignment.
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands (Graywolf Press, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
It’s hard to talk about war poetry / anti-war poetry. A child of the Vietnam era, I’ve always looked for consolation to the World War I British “war poets,” Wilfred Owen, mostly, but also Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brook and, recently, Edward Thomas (the young Robert Frost’s mentor). I’m probably trumpeting my ignorance, but I haven’t found their like in power to engage and move me until recently. Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet knocked the top of my head off. And now, Nick Flynn’s The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. This is such a powerful book. Each poem builds on those before, creating a growing psychological tension that forbids the reader to breathe easily even after the back cover is closed. I shared my new enthusiasm with a friend and he laughed at me. Apparently Flynn has been around for a while (the friend is young) and has been published in several genres. We should all have our innate gifts in such incontrovertible cross hairs. (And what a stunning cover. Talk about “worth a thousand words.”)
The Burning of Troy (BOA Editions, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I can easily imagine two inappropriate responses to this new collection of poetry by Richard Foerster: first, the classical illusion in the title might put some readers off as a suggestion of historical abstraction and academic stuffiness. Second, there are the disinterested blurbs that describe it as a book of poems on grief and loss; and potential readers might put it aside, after mentally inserting “yet another” before “book of poems on grief and loss.” BUT THEY COULDN’T MAKE A BIGGER MISTAKE. Three events happened in the poet’s life nearly simultaneously: the loss of his partner of 15 years, the winning of a large travel grant which he parlayed into a world tour and, on his return, 9/11. This strong, affecting volume of mostly one-page lyrics marries the best of an appreciation for the poets and poetry that have gone before us, and Richard Foerster’s responsibility to speak to himself and his contemporaries openly and honestly on the role of private grief in the context of public tragedy. By striking that flint on this steel, Foerster creates line after line that I wish I had committed to memory, both for their stunning elegance and for their raw, human vulnerability. Richard Foerster writes strong poetry. Poets should read Foerster’s book because he reminds us that the task before us is doable if we work steadily and hard at it; lovers of poetry should read his book because it will inspire them with the knowledge that good English poetry is not the exclusive possession of the Elizabethans and the Victorians. Yes, there are great poets writing now. BOA publishes many of them. This, the 100th volume in the BOA series, is a perfect example.
Teaching Metaphors, Nathan Graziano (Somerville MA: sunnyoutside, 2007) [review on Amazon.com]
The beauty of the new, democratic poetry movement is that a chorus of new voices has appeared at a time when copy stores and computers make it easy and inexpensive to publish their work. There is also a thriving community of micro-presses out there, which might be seen as intermediaries between self-publishing and the higher-status academic presses and publishing houses. To a voracious reader, such as myself, this is a source of great and ongoing pleasure–mostly because I get to pick which poets are working for me, and I get to watch the growth of poets’ writing style and tasted through a progression of works that would have been trivialized previously as juvenalia or vanity publications unworthy of notice. All that by way of explaining my great pleasure with Nathan Graziano’s 6th collection of poetry. Here are all the qualities characteristic of the new poetry movement, including honesty, clear direct communication, unashamed and unembarrassed confession and self-contradiction, and fearless observation of the new embraced in the expression, “nothing is ordinary.” All this is expressed by Graziano in bright, concise lyrics celebrating the everyday in arresting language, and with a sharp appreciation for the concluding twist that makes his lyrics memorable. These are not the portraits that the bureaucratic handlers would prefer to imagine best represent public education now days; they are real portraits drawn from the great variety of individuals that inhabit public education, teachers and students alike, and therefore, champion education as a sort of salad whose ingredients are constantly being added to and taken away from, and whose participants are trained to appreciate the variety drawn to the process and acquire a real hunger for the process that will outlive institutional learning and carry a sort of drunkenness on the variety of existence into their adult lives. In short, these are the people I want to know, these are the people I want to be a part of my life; and I thank Graziano for providing this album of snapshots as reminders of what I know life can be
After the Honeymoon, Nathan Graziano (Buffalo NY: sunnyoutside, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Such a beautiful book, such a REAL book, deserves fifteen or twenty rave reviews, minimum. Nate Graziano’s chief virtue is that he works, and works hard at his poetry. This is beautiful stuff, but not street worn Victorian beautiful. It’s truthful. Evocative. Reading Nate, I actually know that we’re living on the same planet at the same time. Best of all, he draws his metaphors from contemporary life to describe a very specific contemporary life. The series on the birth of his daughter is full of sweat and wonder. The poems devoted to his divorce, raw and white hot, the kind of frustration and fury I remember my dad exhibiting. I like the fact that he includes some very strong prose poems: terse, focused, the sort of prose that would be ruined by line breaks but is clearly poetry, all the same. And I like the fact that he includes some poems that seem to look backward to the voice of his earlier books, especially the most recent Teaching Metaphors. If I had to move into a smaller hovel than I already live in tomorrow, and I could only keep one short shelf of my poets, Nate Graziano would be among them. Besides, he’s hooked me; I can’t wait to see what he writes next.
Green, Timothy (ed.)
Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century, Issue 40, Volume19, Number 2, Summer 2013 (The Rattle Foundation, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I am a huge fan of Rattle. Have been since I discovered their “Cowboy Poetry” issue (No. 30). It’s not so much that they lock in on themes (or, used to lock in on themes) it’s just that the overall editorial quality is of such high standards–that start with accessibility–that I find them excellent issue after issue. The new issue (No. 40) has 67 pp of poetry to 20 pp of interview–a good balance. I’m a major poetry junky. In the last year I have let subscriptions to about 15 poetry magazines expire, but I’m keeping Rattle. Besides, if you need strong motivation to subscribe (at alarmingly reasonable prices), consider a list of the interviewees in the last 20 issues (I recognize more than half of them, which is REALLY good for me on the subject of contemporary poets): Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sam Hammill, Deena Metzgar, Alan Shapiro, David St. John, Denise Duhamel, Gregory Orr, Hayden Carruth, Mark Jarman, Jack Kornfield, Jane Hirshfield, Patricia Smith, Marc Kelly Smith, Ted Gallagher, Arthur Sze, Marvin Bell, Bob Hicock, Robert Pinsky, Natasha Trethewey, Toi Derricotte, Terrance Hayes, Alice Fulton, Molly Peacock, Carl Phillips, Aram Saroyan, Ted Koose, William O’Daly, Bh H. Fairchild, Brian Turner, M. L. Liebler, Chase Twichell, Amiri Baraka, Rhoda Janzen, Rhina Espaillat, Timothy Steele, David Bottoms, Ellen Bass.
American Busboy, Matthew Guenette (Akron OH: University of Akron Press, 2003) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
In a field, poetry, crowded with the work of perceptive and acute MFA’s, there’s a certain level of skill and craftsmanship that it is safe to expect–and Matthew Guenette fills the bill wonderfully. Here is an earnest and raw memoir of youthful hijinx as a busboy at one of those year-round seafood places that dot the New England seacoast: tourists in summer, locals in winter. Guenette’s poems capture that wild sense of unpredictability, the “where is this all going” feeling that everyone has to pass through between youth and adulthood, with an honesty that some will find shocking. It is easy enough for a poet to turn his attentions to the favorite subjects of hymns and the greatest hits of the English Romantics. After all, there’s so much precedence. It is much harder for the same poet to focus on personal experience as we remember experiencing it (pace Wordsworth), and raise it to the level of revelation. The glare is harsh, of course, the fundamental condition of reality. But the memory of it predominates for its brittle honesty. That is what elevates what might otherwise be the subject of highway-overpass graffiti or locker-room bandinage to art. And it is what Guenette does in American Busboy. So, if the occasional four-letter word, and “body parts and squishy noises” send your Sense of Propriety into a kerfuffle, don’t buy this book. It’s not for you. But if you find consolation in a sympathetic, unblinking reflection of what “being on this earth” is like at its core–which is certainly what I look for in modern poetry–Guenette’s pleasure is all yours.
January Thaw (University of Pittsburg, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
In New England, there is a week or so every January when the weather warms up, the skies brighten, and the snow all but melts away. The squirrels even come out of their nests and we’re all teased with an array of false harbingers of spring. That’s the January thaw. As a poet, I’ve always thought it the perfect metaphor for life, nestled uncomfortably between our “two sleeps.” Of course, immediately after, we plunge into round two of snow and cold, usually ending with a heavy, wet snowstorm around the “first day” of spring, just to remind us what’s really in control here. So goes this book: a collection of snapshots in which we often forget the presence of the cameraman. They’re Polaroids, not posters–there’s never too much, always just enough to pique the interest of the reader and throw him back into his own, tangential memories. Guernsey loves the ‘double subject’ lyric, the central focus of the poem thrown into high relief by something that seems incongruent at first, like that little girl with a chicken in Rembrandt’s Night Watch. And then there’s the shadow behind most of his poems, love and death: a high school shop teacher living with the transplanted heart of a boy his students’ age, the poet’s grandfather’s funeral and grapefruit, escaped cons on the TV news reflected in the steam covered bathroom mirror after his daughter’s shower, the primal horror of killing and gutting chickens, discovering “a half-formed egg. / No shell, / just a soft, damp sack, / like what I felt between / my boy’s legs, / and as warm.” and, my favorites, fathers and sons, and brothers. Here’s a snippet from “June 21,” midsummer night. In this late evening photo we see his parents chatting up the neighbors on the porch, his mother smoking, drinks all around. “On his hour’s reprieve from sleep, / my little brother dances / in the sprinkler’s circle of water. // At fourteen, I’m too old / to run naked with my brother, / too young to laugh with my father.” In toto, fifteen lines divided into three-line stanzas that race the narrative along like Dante’s terza rima. But the narrative is the only thing racing here, “The sun refuses to set,” and the actor in the poem has this (terrible?) sense of being suspended between something wonderful (boyhood) and something wonderful in a radically different way (adulthood), on the longest day of the year. I’m going to suggest that the reason Guernsey writes poetry is related to the reason his neighbor, a physician, had a human skull on his desk: “My neighbor smiled one of those weird, / faraway surgeon’s smiles and handed / me the head, saying, “Hold it to your ear / and you can hear the ocean.” It’s simple and dark, but true.
The Kid That Even the Dogs Didn’t Like (Mammoth, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
A very strong introduction, for those of us out here still reading traditional short stories and novellas, to the new short-short stories (that have a thousand different names clamoring for legitimacy). I saw Ray read from this book in Portsmouth NH and ordered it immediately. There’s a relentless, unembarrassed honest about them, communicated by the use of decidedly Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and syntax that owes nothing to high faulting Latin models that dominate most of English Literature. And it struck me that these stories owe a lot to the direct power of the simple declarative sentence. A strong modern poem is often characterized by its “photographic” quality. These short stories might be characterized by their “drive by” quality. You observe something for a few minutes, isolate the more outstanding characteristics of your observation, invent a few assumptions about the actors from their dialogue, their mannerisms, and then you move on. It’s the way we experience the world, trying to appreciate everything we experience by giving it a little slice of our undivided attention. And Ray’s book is a good illustration of how that is being elevated to a literary genre.
Shortly Thereafter (Main Street Rag, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
It is a fearful thing–in a couple of centuries that have sent the Light Brigade into the valley of death and shattered our ears with the Drum Taps of our own Civil War, that have listened in awe to the testimony of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, that have reflected soberly on Auden’s 1939 and Alan Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” that have found themselves still shakable by Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet—yes, it is a fearful thing to write a war poem. Yet, in the opinion of Roger Martin, Vietnam War veteran and poet, it is the right of soldiers to do so; indeed, the best war poetry is written by soldiers. So Colin Halloran is adding his voice to the chorus, a chorus that goes back 2,400 years. I purchased Shortly Thereafter from him at the December 2012 reading at the PPLP Hoot in Portsmouth NH. It is exciting to see him proving his fledgling poet’s strength against his recent experiences in Afghanistan, distilling them, and presenting them in his first book, winner of the 2012 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. The New England reader is introduced (along with the author) to the unimaginable heat of Afghanistan, the startling, sometimes featureless landscape, the choking claustrophobia of bunkered quarters, the vast array of armor and armaments, and the pelting rain of acronyms that become the common argot of soldiers. Here also are the arresting snapshots: a chess-playing translator whose son has been arrested by the Taliban and will probably die horribly for following in his father’s footsteps; an older brother selling his Joseph-like younger brother as a $20 “boy dancer” in the ancient practice of homosexual slavery called bacha bazi; the delight of a local guard thumbing through a contraband newspaper with a photograph of belly dancers on the back: “Democracy. Good!” In these forty-eight poems, I can easily detect signs of the author weaning himself from the trappings of his academic training implicit in his MFA and sampling the meat and potatoes of his true, writerly self. Based on this exciting signs, I join Brian Tuner, whose blurb appears on the back of the chapbook, in saying, “I’m looking forward to the collections of poetry that Colin Halloran will, given time, offer to us all.” All that being said, I wish there were a way to put this book into the hands of everyone entering the Service. Everyone. They need to know this. and who better to tell them than a soldier.
Babel (University of Pittsburg, 2004) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
This is a collection of complex, intense, extremely rich riffs on urban life in America and France — right now. And, just in case all those adjectives makes you imagine I’m ranting about some sort of unfocussed, drugged out beat wannabe ramblings — I mean Hamby is generous with her intelligence and sophistication and elaborates both into mind bending odes with a stunning sense of classical balance and judicious length. This poetry is as sexy as Miles Davis’s type of cool. If I were still giving dinner parties every other week, I’d invite her over every other month. Not all the time, mind you; but DEFINITELY often.
The Poetry of Arab Women, A Contemporary Anthology (Interlink Pub, 2000) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Whenever we’ve had theme-based poetry readings based on Arabic poetry on the New Hampshire Seacoast, I can always predict that someone will bring in Rumi and/or Hafiz and that all the other poets people read will be men. So, a couple years ago when I hosted such a reading, I required everyone who signed up for the open mike to pull a poem from a hat and read that one as well. They were all poems by Arabic women that I’d selected from a great anthology featuring poets from all 17 Arabic-speaking countries done in the late-50’s. Once the dozen or so readers realized what I’d done, it turned into a wonderful evening of discussions about relative strengths and readers’ prejudices. You won’t be surprised, then, when i say I am extremely grateful for this contemporary anthology by Nathalie Hanadal. Both the experimental poems and the more traditional ones are especially rewarding. Atalla’s “Diaspora” is a stunning and unexpected riff on the simple concept of inheriting her mother’s hairpins. Moosey’s “When Fat Women Fear Famine” take a taboo subject and spins it down to “They know the pain of the gnawing heart, / the ache of the hollow bone.” Jame’s “About a Man” has tremendous backbone about it and Nye’s “Yellow Glove” is, well, extraordinarily strong even for Naomi Shihab Nye, whom I worship and adore. I need to put a star next to Safie’s “Danger, Men in Trees,” too, before I tell you that Arnaout’s “Spinal Cord” alone is worth the price of the book. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be able to add this book to my library. It will get tattered soon enough.
Harker, Joseph (ed.)
Assaracus Issue 17: A Journal of Gay Poetry (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Another superb contribution to this series. I am in awe, again, at the variety of the poetic voices AND the quality. Doug Paul Case’s series on life drawings is very moving, a sort of new take on intimacy. Aaron DeLee’s suite based on the idea of the “selfie” transcribed into poetry is a brilliant new approach to the age old problem of form. And Francisco Marquez’s “Break Up Logic” is flat out hilarious; mind you, it wasn’t when it happened to me (or to anyone else, for that matter) but with some perspective, darkly hilarious. I especially appreciate the curated (by Eduardo C. Corral) feature on Gay Latino Poetry. It’s important to be reminded that what it is to be human and how we talk about it varies wildly from person to person, from culture to culture–and that is a wonderfully intoxicating thing.
Assaracus Issue 19: A Journal of Gay Poetry (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015)
The latest issue of Assaracus, A Journal of Gay Poetry (No. 19) is really a wonder. There are twelve different voices here, each that of a skilled craftsman, and each with a different angle on what it is to be gay and what sort of role that plays in larger, world-aware, life. Some poets appeal to classical models (or modern version of them) for their voices; others appeal to more modern poetic forms, such as the stunning—stunning—work of the Philippine prose-poet, B.B.P. Hostile.
Under the editor, Joseph Harker, most of the poets are MBA recipients or academics—which to me omits a large segment of the creative gay community; but that’s a personal grouse. Admittedly, it’s much easier to make a call for submissions in such a well-defined community through journals and contacts. But there’s a larger, much larger, community out there—hit the slams and open mics, for example. It takes a lot of homework to find the other voices, but it is tremendously rewarding.
A special note should be made about Issue No. 19. Five years ago, the publishers at Sibling Rivalry Press, Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington, decided they would publish four issues a year for five years and then focus on a different are of creative writing in the GLBT community. This was to be the second-last issue of Assaracus. Then the “gay marriage” debates happened. Then the opponents of “gay marriage” defaulted to slanders against GLBT people that I remember with disgust from the 1950s and ‘60s, the kind of stuff that turns my stomach when applied to an entire class of people. Then the editors decided their work wasn’t done and resolved to extend the life of Assaracus for another five years.
Assaracus Issue 20: A Journal of Gay Poetry (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015)
It may be their slimmest volume to date, but this Assaracus really packs a punch. I was propelled straight through it by the variety alone: ages, races, nationalities, degree of education. And the range of subject matter and approaches to for: some adept at word games, others at linear narrative; some exploring ways to express the fundamental, earthy aspects of being human, others looking for the metaphor that will move the subject from the personal to the universal. And my great discovery this time around is Ryan Dzelzkalns. What a poet. Check his entry on the Academy of American Poets webpage. What a voracious hunger for different subject matter, complemented with fearless exploration of ways to say it. All aimed at me, the reader. It struck me, half-way into this issue of Assaracus, that I always start a book looking for answers and always end a book–the good ones anyway–feeling less alone. No answers, really; but more comfortable with being myself. Not such a bad deal. And here’s the evidence, again.
Shakespeare’s Insistent Theme, Charles Harrison (Sewanee, TN: Univ of the South, 1985) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
The great pleasure of Charles Harrison’s book is his style. Harrison was obviously a “constant reader” and intellectually voracious–not for information, in the modern sense, piles and piles of glittering facts, but for the history of ideas, how they are assembled, and how they are presented in civilized conversation. Clearly from the title, Shakespeare, and the centuries of performances and scholarship that have outlived him, are Harrison’s central focus. But Harrison was also passionate about classical music, for similar reasons. He juggles the two approaches to narrative and form easily, demonstrating how they grow from a common, human, source. Don Keck DuPree has selected essays and address from 1939 to 1975, a full life of turning ideas over. But the potential buyer should not let that discourage him (“Who is Harrison and why would I want to read his stuff on Shakespeare?”) . Harrison is so comfortable with his material and congenial in his presentation, it was a real pleasure to share his company. His love for language and his audience always shines through in his elegant, never rigid, rhetoric.
I started my freshman year at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee the year after Harrison’s retirement in 1976. Of course, there were many upperclassmen of every academic pursuit with stories of his mentorship and his hospitality. His Monday night open houses were legendary, always including listening to music and incorporating it into the conversation. Those students are eager to share their gratitude and memories to this day: signs of a truly great teacher. A very dear friend sent me a copy of this volume when it was published, in 1985. If it weren’t so intellectually satisfying I’d feel embarrassed for waiting so long to read it.
Hennessey, Christopher Matthew (ed.)
Outside the Lines, Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets (University of Michigan, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
What an interesting book. An interviewer who has done his homework, who stays away from the ‘obvious’ interview questions, and who gives the poet as much control of the direction of the interview as they want (both in person, over the phone, and by E-mail, incidentally). The resulting book engages the reader in the poets’ personalities and the resultant poetry. One thing that sticks in my mind: so many of these poets cite Elizabeth Bishop among their poetic ‘teachers.’ I knew about her friendship with and influence on James Merrill, but I have obviously not been giving her enough credit overall.
Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Graywolf Press, 2010) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I could just kick myself. I lived in Houston for 30 years, then moved to New Hampshire, THEN discovered that Tony Hoagland was teaching at the University of Houston, my former employer. If I didn’t already know about Tony Hoagland, I’d have to find him. His writing is the sort of good therapy that every writer needs. He’s a superb craftsman but never beats his readers over the head with it. Instead, his overall message is more, “Do your best then kick back. Don’t beat yourself up; you can rely on the world to do that for you. Really.” What is more, he’s the chief protagonist of a poetic theory I’ve formulated that simply reads: Nothing Is Ordinary. There are poems here called “Food Court,” “Poor Britney Spears,” “My Father’s Vocabulary,” “The Story of White People,” “Requests for Toy Piano,” and “The Allegory of the Temp Agency.” Everything is fair game; and everything is metaphorically nutritious. I especially love his “guy” poems, a prime example being “Address to the Beloved.” Here we have an author who loves to listen to and understands the process of jazz, riffing on the simple exasperation from his sweetie, “get real,” and wandering off into the guy-labyrinth of “I don’t know what you mean but I’m willing to try everything until I stumble on it.” If you have not already collected his books and dog-earring the hell out of them, start with this one.
Poems: 1934-1969 (Wesleyan, 1975) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
A friend of mine, Gary Widger, recommended that I read the work of David Ignatow (1914-97) and I’m so glad he did. Ignatow is an urban (New York City) poet, who writes contemporary poetry in the context of noise and pollution, 20th century warfare, erasing the soft, cliché cluttered dreaminess of late Romanticism with the harsh pumice of American industrialism. No surprise, after a faltering start with which he establishes the basic tools of his verbal economy, especially focused on acute observation of the ordinary and emotional honesty to the point of rawness, he proceeds through a period of infatuation with Whitman, then another with William Carlos Williams, and ends in this volume with an independent voice that is a sublimation of the two. [To appreciate his artistic growth from the Whitman to the Williams periods, compare his two beautiful poems on the same subject, “Physical Love” (from the ’40s) and “My Native Land” (from the ’60s.] I only discovered half-way through the book that he lived for 28 more years [Poems, 1934-1969 (260 pp.) sounded so final] and that there’s a Selected Poems, 1934-94 (170 pp.) available from the same publisher. I recommend that you purchase and read that one. He was quite famous in his day (he taught at the New School for Social Research U KY, U KS, Vassar, York, CUNY, NYU, Columbia; receive Bollingen Prize, 2 Guggenheims, John Steinbeck Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, Shelley Memorial Award, Frost Medal, William Carlos Williams Award; was poet-in-resident Walt Whitman Birthplace Assn) but always remained accessible, the kind of guy you’d want to live next door to and ask to come over for dinner every once in a while. Despite his many University teaching positions, this is decidedly not mid-20th century “Academic” poetry and, IMHO, all the stronger for it.
Moth Moon (BlazeVOX, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Thank you so much, Matt, for the gift of your book, Moth Moon. My reading of it has been interrupted 100 times in the last month, which has had a very good effect: it is every bit as good as I thought it was every time I’ve returned to it. This is an excellent book. First of all, you’re tremendously skilled as a poet. There are amazing turns of craft everywhere. But what I appreciate most is that you are absolutely fearless when it comes to subject matter and vocabulary. This is our time in our language. I am convinced, in my heart of hearts, that poets are like locust-and-honey eating prophets. The are required to go into the most difficult or complicated of desert places and report to one and all on returning from those places. It’s only the readers/hearers who have the prerogative to ignore them, or pretend they don’t exist. We are required, forced really, to do this. It is a fire in their bones. Thank you so much, Matt, both for the gift of your book, for accepting your terrible responsibility as a poet and acting on it.
Jellison, Joyce Angela
Where Everything Fits Beautifully (Book Surge Publishing, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
There is so much beauty in this book, bought at great price. If you can take “honest,” then buy it and savor it; if you can’t, then stay the hell away. Joyce uses the principles of rap, especially including rapid-fire delivery peppered with repetition and drive-by rhymes, to elevate slam from featureless confessional narrative to experiential fireworks. Many contemporary poets start with what amounts to a photograph and elaborate their poetry from that image; Joyce starts each poem with a single, focused emotion, especially including gratitude to those who have both hurt and helped her, and wraps that emotion in complex syntax and showers of polysyllables. She shares her feelings and her beliefs in the casual, matter of fact way, a friend would, if you were dropping in from out of town for a day-long visit: no punches pulled, the facts laid out in their beauty and their gore as she goes through her daily routine, grateful for someone to talk to. I especially appreciate the way she speaks of her poetry in the same way epic heroes speak of their swords and shields, their horses: naming it, praising its genesis, its virtues, its uses as if it were as active a character in her life as her mother, her sisters, her daughter, and her men. This is clearly the work of a woman who, like early Lucille Clifton, goes through a hell of a day, everyday, and once everything is at peace, sits at her kitchen table and writes–in her own voice, a voice she was denied in all of her other daily guises: “Work.poetrrry.love.work.child.maaan. / Some mornings I awake / To make / Breakfast for my man … Work.child.work.poetrrry.work.child.maaan.dreams.breakfastssss. / Some evenings / I try to write / Away / … And then I find time / To day dream / I throw myself / Down / A surreal / Wishing well / … Work.work.dreams.child.maan.me.Ffreedom.Poetrrrry.” (from “Life in Abstract”) Screw polite. Who has time for polite in the presence of such openness? Go ahead. Read over her shoulder as she works alone at that kitchen table.
Jimenez, Juan Ramon
Diary of a Newlywed Poet, A Bilingual Edition (Hugh A. Harter, trans.) (Susquehanna University, 2004) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Like almost everyone else in the US, I think of Jimenez as the author of those charming children’s stories, Platero y yo. So, when the translator, Hugh Harter, gave me a copy of his new book, my mind immediately went to what a skilled children’s author could make from the situation described in the title. I was very wrong.
I have discovered something truly wonderful in Jimenez. At the risk of overstating, I saw three different rivers come together in this work: the German Romantics, the French symbolists, and the America of Whitman (the three-themed unity of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”) and the Dickinson of the sparkling shards of thoughts and phrases (each of which he read in the original — ah! for the days of a good old fashioned education!). And I saw the scene set for the surrealists. Suddenly, the lineage made perfect sense and the ‘missing link’ was this Spanish poet I’d written off, thanks to some skilled misrepresentation on the part of my high school Spanish teachers.
The book itself is exceptionally beautiful. The facing-page translations allow for grazing right and left, well laid out with plenty of negative space. I could never let myself buy a $60 book for myself; but I’d certainly buy it for special friends. And this book is definitely special enough to qualify.
Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint (Routledge, 1995) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I stumbled on this book when I was looking for new resources for good poems to read for Black History Month. Flipping through it, I found it instantly engaging, so I had no problem buying it on the spot.
It went on the stack of ‘next time you’re looking for something interesting to read’ and had to wait for me to finish a few books of poetry, as well as Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual. I felt some sort of irrational loyalty to the new Poet Laureate. But Kooser is good; very good. He made me think through everything that I write — carefully, critically — and my spirit was quickly wilting. I needed an antidote; or, more precisely, a complement, a little yin to counterbalance the substantial yang of Kooser’s superb book. June Jordan was the very thing.
Reading it is a joy. Thinking through how to teach people to write poetry that speaks to the truth of their world, their experience, and how to bring it to the public — all the grub with the glory, so to speak — with June Jordan and her students was pure pleasure. And I couldn’t argue with the results — which are generously sprinkled throughout the book, with an extra dollop at the end. Poetry, the craft and how to sell it.
I have to mention that one thing that initially attracted me to Poetry for the People was the memory that Jordan had recently died (in 2002, I believe). I’m in the habit of reading a book by an author when they die as a sort of memorial, an extended meditation on their contribution and general mutability, if you will. We lost a great one when we lost June Jordan; but she was responsible enough to leave a substantial legacy, so the net loss is negligible. It’s ours because she wanted it to be.
Kaminsky, Ilya (ed.)
The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Ecco, 2010) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
What a feast. I’ve been hooked on anthologies since I discovered my father’s ’30s era hundred greatest poems of the English language. Powerful additions since then have included anthologies of world poetry in translation, war poetry, women’s poetry, the Beats, slam poetry, urban animals and cars, children’s poetry, high school readers from different eras… You get the point. To me, the most valuable thing about translations is that they get me out of the western and/or contemporary American mindset. The passions seem more intense and they’re not shy about being political in their passion, which avoiding most of the shrillness or pathos that I think characterizes most American political poetry. I’m the first to admit that translation is impossible but also absolutely essential, so there are many caution signs that are givens whenever I might say “I love Rumi” or “I love Akhmatova.” I don’t read the language, I didn’t live in that culture, I don’t know what words are ‘loaded’ and which are merely brilliant poetic imagery, I don’t know their contemporaries and what conversation is going on among them through their poetry… That being said, Kamisky and Harris’s international anthology is a stimulating addition to my library. It starts with a poem by Tagore, first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and goes through poets born in the 1980’s and before. I am especially grateful for the latter–it’s really discouraging to pick up a “modern” anthology and discover that the youngest poets were born in the first third of the 20th century. Not so here. We live in a vital poetic culture, as respectful of its past as it is eager to stare into the future and report back to us what it sees. These voices are well represented and stand proudly beside those of all the grey elders we grew up with. Thank you Ilya, thank you Susan, and thank you Ecco. This couldn’t have been easy and I am deeply grateful for your efforts.
An Unkindness of Ravens, Meg Kearney (Rochester NY: BOA Editions, 2001) [review on Amazon.com]
A thoroughly engaging book, from beginning to end. I didn’t get through a single page without a fully-formed idea for a new poem popping into my head. Kearney believes the poem should be a trap that draws the reader/listener in, leads them through an argument rich in details, rich in comparisons that, although surprising are nonetheless true, and finally ushers them, safe but changed, out of the trap. These poems are such well told, well-crafted one-page stories, I don’t think I finished one of them without returning to the beginning again to see if it creates the same thrill the second time around. And, like a great song, a great movie, or a classic opera, every one of them does. And this collection contains loosely bound groups of poems on a single theme. Especially sobering is the series devoted to reflections on her father: in life, in death, and after.
Ms. Kearney and I saw each other once, probably within the last decade, at the monthly Poetry Hoot in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and we saw each other again this past weekend (Sep 10-13, 2015) where she acted as the poetry facilitator at the Writers in the Round Poetry Retreat on Star Island, in the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire Seacoast. This time I bought her books [this one and the PEN New England Poetry award winner, Home by Now (Tribeca, New York: Four Way Books, 2009)].
I could kick myself for not already owning this book. After all, a series that counts some of my favorite contemporary poets such as Li-Young Lee, Kim Addonizio, Laure-Ann Bosselaar, and Yusef Komunyakaa among its first twenty-three recipients should be a sure thing. And No. 23, Meg Kearney, easily hits the mark.
Home by Now, Meg Kearney (New York NY: Four Way Books, 2009) [review on Amazon.com]
Published eight years after her debut collection, An Unkindness of Ravens, Meg Kearney’s PEN New England Award winner, Home by Now, is an inspiring collection of “further tales.” Her style is still fresh, still brazen, still insistent on reminding the reader of things they may have forgotten in a way that makes them seem surprisingly new. (I LOVE that about new poetry.) And I’m not just talking about one or two poems in the collection. Kearney demands of herself that every poem hit that mark every time. Reading both books together, it’s clear that Kearney’s life is directed, haunted, blessed, and cursed by birds. (This book contains a series of poems about ravens; but it is not only about ravens.)
In a recent workshop, Kearney mentioned that she trashes a lot of her poetry; like Brahms, who burned two-thirds of his work, it’s a strategy that works for her. She is a keen observer of men in the act of being just men. As keen as she is of herself in the act of filling what Shakespeare’s Cleopatra called, “this great gap of time.”
I think Kearney’s greatest strength is that she is not an escapist poet. She reflects coolly on the events of her life, the minutiae that clutter her days, and draws the two together in combinations that are nothing short of redemptive. “Oh. So that happened to you too. We both survived. I’m glad I’m not the only one.” C. S. Lewis famously quoted a student’s father as saying, “We read to know that we are not alone.” And by God, for Clive’s sake, here’s confirmation.
Return (Book Surge Publishing, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I studied Medieval and Renaissance Spanish in college, leading me to explore Arabic and Persian literature (in English translation) — first, ancient, then, modern. So, I’m quick to pick up any translation of modern “Middle Eastern” poets to see where the art is. Khaki’s small book does not disappoint. Here is an exceptionally fine — refined — poet, fully aware of the conventions of great Iranian literature, bringing the full force of its elegance and power to bear on late 20th century Iranian politics. Most of us know about the Shah, the Savak, Khomeini, the Ayatollahs, the US alliance with Sadam Hussein during the Iran/Iraq War — but we rarely stop to think of the net effect of all of this turmoil (a nice word for systematic arrests, murders, brutal executions, disappearances all in the name of supplying or denying certain commodities to the West) on soul of a nation whose poetic traditions are at least 2,000 years older than ours. My only complaint here is that this book — with only 34 pages of poetry — is much too short. More rewarding, and certainly more worthy of the author, would have been a book that included translations of selections from his Farsi poetry. That’s a plea, not a pan.
Kinsella, Thomas (ed.)
The New Oxford Book of Irish Poetry (Oxford University, 2001) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
This is a very scholarly textbook. It absolutely does what it sets out to do: provide an academic overview of the breadth of the history of Irish and English poetry from Ireland. That being said: Where’s the humor? Where’s the humanity? Political and ecclesiastical history are well represented, and there are blood and tragedy a-plenty, but where are the people? I have to assume that I purchased something with extremely flawed expectations, but maybe that will help you decide whether to buy it.
The Talking Day (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I’ve had this book in my possession for nearly a year now and have passed it up on several occasions. I think it’s the fact that the cover communicates with me so directly I wasn’t at “that place” yet to be able to read it. I shouldn’t have been so reluctant.
Obviously, from what I know now, I should have dived right in. This is a well-known gay poet, with a strong track record that spreads over the last 25 years. His style is even-handed, mature. He knows to wrap his work in the minutiae of the everyday, to pull the reader into the “conspiracy of letters” with him. The trap having been set and sprung, he turns out to be a passionate and compassionate huntsman, revealing the spirit of his work to be the sort of abstracts and conjectures lesser poets are warned against. I think the sum total of his craft is trust. I trust him to say anything. And he trusts me.
I am particularly glad for the poem, “What it was like to have written.” This is a perfect summary of the conundrum of all poets I’ve worked with, and of all poets I’ve enjoyed as a reader. In a step away from the strong narrative of his other poems, he tackles the question of who, in a poem, is the writer, and to whom is that writer addressing the poem. Is it literally autobiographical, about you and me? Or is it purely imaginative? He writes the poem as a beautiful knot, which is what the problem is, always turning on “always” “isn’t always” “unless of course” “some other examples” and such which complicate things–just as the writer’s life is complicated.
My gratitude to this poet for sharing himself, and for Sibling Rivalry Press for sharing his writing.
Neon Vernacular, New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1993) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Some people read Komunyakaa because he’s a great Vietnam War Poet. Some read him because he’s a truly great Black poet. And they’re right, too. And there’s that unmistakable southern voice. And the omnipresent realization that nothing on this earth is ordinary and unworthy of praise, and brutal honesty is the poet’s greatest strength. But the reason everyone should read Komunyakaa is that he is one of the greatest, clearest voices of our age. Here is the confirmation of your own humanity that every reader seeks.
Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison (Carnegie Mellon, 2001) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
This book, by our current Poet Laureate, is as fine a book of modern poetry as you can hope for. During his treatment for cancer, the author is given medication that makes his skin sun-sensitive. So, in order to maintain his daily habit of walking the country roads of Nebraska for exercise, he has to do it before the sun comes up. To allay the inherent loneliness, he decides to send a friend, Jim Harrison, a poem on a postcard everyday. So, in the company of one of his dogs, plenty of different birds, and a keenly inquisitive mind to which nothing is ordinary and everything informs on everything else, this book was born. I usually read such a book in less than a week, marking the more effective poems in the table for contents for when I return. I couldn’t shake this one for three weeks, and I read and read each of them poems three and four times before moving on to the next. It’s winter in New England; that may be part of it. And the grey dawn hand of mortality has overshadowed me for the last few months as well. But neither is real reason I kept this faithful book with me; fundamentally, it’s just a good book. Look past that startlingly honest title and start reading. You won’t regret it. C. S. Lewis quoted a student, who quoted his father, saying, “We read to know that we are not alone.” If every a book does that, this does.
We Aren’t Who We Are and This World Isn’t Either (Cavankerry, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
How far modern poetry has come! At one time, we were instructed to divorce any knowledge of the poet’s life from our reading of the text. ‘The text is the only authority on the text.’ And that floated the English PhD industry for a good 50 years. Then, just as everyone seemed to be giving up on poetry altogether–everyone, that is, except the poets–this new movement happened. Poetry by, for, and about real people. Poetry as autobiography. Korfhage has shown herself a diligent student of the requirements of this discipline. She has avoided all the obvious pitfalls, especially maudlin whining and self-pity, and mastered the primal linguistic and musical elements of poetry to create what amounts to a 150-page autobiography that is brutally lyrical. Don’t expect a lot of rhyme and meter here. Don’t expect perpetuation of four millennia of stuff about birds and flowers. Expect a unique life and a unique voice. We poets are, first and foremost, witnesses. And if we tell the future about what it was like living now in the language of the past, what good will we have done? I am happy to know that someone, someday will pick up Korfhage’s book and, closing the back cover, say, “So. That’s what it was like.”
We Don’t Know We Don’t Know (Graywolf, 2010) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I saw one of the poems from this book excerpted somewhere–The Writer’s Almanac? Poem-a-Day? Poetry Daily?–and ordered the book on the quality of the writing. I had no idea I would get something so extraordinarily good. Here the poet take an array of excerpts from public statements by Donald Rumsfeld in high “the world is chaos and I’m the only one who knows why, you stupid bastards, so I get to do whatever I want” mode and counterbalances them with quotations from Pliny the Elder from a superb 17th English translation. From them, he writes these dazzling poems in modern poet mode: yes, the world is chaos, it doesn’t make sense, but we all know it and accept it as part of being human. It doesn’t make us feel superior. It doesn’t make us drunk on power. It doesn’t make us run out and attempt to impose an imaginary order on it. It makes us human. Merely human. Drunk, if on anything, on awe. This is one of the top five books of poetry I’ve read in the last two years, right beside Seth Abramson’s The Suburban Ecstasies.
Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I was curious about Larkin because I kept hearing that he wrote salty poetry, and managed to be famous at the same time. None of the poems I ever heard seemed particularly blue, but my curiosity finally got the best of me. What a surprise. Plain spoken, carefully crafted, clearly the work of a fellow life long bachelor which gave him a wry sense of humor about things that others might take all too seriously. And they are touching as well. “Born Yesterday,” a dedication poem for a child is exceptionally tender. There is none of that stiffness that others evince in occasional poems. His evocations of jazz come from an equally honest place: completely un-clichéd writing. And what work a day poet couldn’t see himself in Larkin’s two toad poems about the need to sweat out a living while aspiring to art. And yes, there are a couple of poems with what might be considered salty diction–by my grandmother; but I’d rather have such straightforward honesty in my poets any day instead of the turgid, recondite, I’m smarter than you and I’m not about to let you forget it stuff that’s sure to be consigned to the footnotes of history while they’re still reading Larkin for pleasure.
Walking Sticks, Dudley Laufman (Center Ossipee NH: Bach River Books, 2007) [blurb]
I love his slant, honest voice that I have come to identify, inextricably, as the sound of New Hampshire.
The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990) [reviewed in Amazon.com]
It is such a privilege to read the early work of an artist. Here are all the elements of his later work: the assured craftsmanship of language, the themes that pursue him through his other books [Rose 1986, The City in Which I Love You 1990, Book of My Nights 2001, Behind My Eyes 2008], seeing the world through his own eyes, his father’s eyes and sieving it through high childhood religious training. In his later work, his poems have less sprawl, become compressed, welcome the reader to participate through the use of negative space and the intersection of words and themes that do double- and triple-duty. But here is a book of transitional poems, racing for and getting to that point. The long poem, “The Cleaving,” is a masterpiece. I read it three times in succession the first time I read it. What a ‘beautiful machine.’ Whenever I’m exploring a used book store with a new friend, I always buy them something. More often than not it is a volume of the work of Li-Young Lee. I’ve never found these books put away on their shelves; they’re always left out for quick reference or casual reading. ‘Nuf said.
Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Because I have enjoyed his previous books so much, I bought a copy of this book when it was published in 2008. It was really overwhelming. I didn’t know what to say about it in a review because I was having difficulty appraising my own, positive, response to it. (I passed my copy on to a friend who became an instant Li-Young Lee convert and has been quoting him ever since.) Then, I was in Portland ME and stopped in at YES! BOOKS for something to read on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I’m glad to report that the “wow” factor is still there and, with five more years of reading and thinking about poetry in my head, I think I have a better take on what is working so well.
Lee is a poet who has succeeded in representing the unspoken/unwritten thoughts that float through our minds in the course of a day. They’re often unrelated, by definition, but very closely related in that they occupy the same space and time. Its as if they, held together by invisible threads, summon each other to the fore, then give way to their sibling thoughts in the slow dance that represents one man’s consciousness.
At the forefront of these thoughts is family, a mother, father, sister and brother. It is followed by a childhood spent as a refugee. Most ideas are grasped through Biblical imagery–not quotations, per se, but Bible stories and characters, absorbed from his preacher father as parables and examples of good and bad behavior. It’s not surprising that such stories easily become archetypes, well illustrated by the pair of poems, “The Mother’s Apple” and “The Father’s Apple,” that present his mother as Eve, gifting him with an apple (a fruit that reappears often in the poems),
I’m my mother’s apple and that’s that.
And though I’m told
apples come from apples, I believe
there must be a star somewhere among my ancestry,
and a bee, a map, a piano, and a shipwreck.
and his father as an archetypal Adam, gifting him with a book
He says I won’t always be an apple.
A voice sleeps inside me, he promises,
and a reader will come, bringing dawn.
The beauties of this book are relentless. From “Seven Marys”
Whoever says too long at childhood’s window
leaves earth’s shadow unsung.
From “My Favorite Kingdom”
My favorite window
looks onto two oceans:
one a house
in various stages of ruin and beginning,
and one a book,
whose every word is outcome,
whose every page is lifelong sentence.
And, darkly, from “After the Pyre”
Now that you’re older
at the beginning of a new century,
what kept you alive
all those years keeps you from living.
But, always there, always binding the poet and the reader to life, is an unshakable belief in love. From “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees”
Alone in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.
Through parallel construction (Psalm inspired?), anaphoresis, and references to Biblical characters and parables, Lee captures the free-ranging inquiry a curious mind makes without a filter, without fear of judgment, because it is unspoken. And, yes, he’s aware of the dangers implicit in writing it down, reading it aloud. It’s the imperative of all poets: to say the unspeakable.
Dynamite on a China Plate (Backwater Press, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
It’s fun to seen how far a poet can walk away from his inheritance of millennia worth of formal, rhyme and meter poetry and still be in perfect command of the poetry of linguistic compression. Many of these page or less beauties seem as if pencil never touched paper before the entire piece, word for word, was fully formed in the poet’s head. From there, it seems the revision process weighed heavily on oral recitation to perfect the music of the pieces (from “At Golgotha”: Then the first breath came. I remembered / the wooden boat shaking over the rapids / of the river’s mouth, bumping / at the sea’s gate. I remembered / running my hands over a newly / sanded board… Then the second breath” [ellipsis his]). Spice it all with a gift for aphorism (from “The Barber”: The barber is someone who creates / by taking away, like a writer / who only owns an eraser.), surrealism (from “Dream of Russia”: … She bakes bread / in a cruel gymnasium; bullets for brothers / as if they were crows. Now / we must eat the black spoons.), and a sense of humor (“Man Writes Poem”). The first time I saw the 8 line “Man in a Lighted Room at Sundown,” I read it three times–not because of its obscurity but because I couldn’t believe someone had written something so complex so beautifully. And this is the first time in a long time that I’ve read a series poem (with numbered parts) and found each of the parts holds up its part of the bargain (both “The Comedian’s Ten Songs” and “Boxes and Oceans”). In the Acknowledgements, it is all explained–to me anyway–with a reference to the Minnesota Sufi group. This is, at last, non-linear poetry that demands we shed our expectations and surrender to who and where we are in the ambient light of verse. All that aside, how could you not pick up a book with a title like Dynamite on a China Plate, take it out for a spin?
Slipping Under Diamond Light (Clamp Down Press, 2002) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I want you to buy this book and read it. It won’t take long. It’s short. Way too short, for my money. But boy is it good. The author appeared at an open mike recently, at Crackskull Books in Newmarket NH. (If ‘they’ continue this open mic, it will be the sixth monthly open mic on the New Hampshire seacoast — each with a different appeal to a different audience. Let poetry thrive!) Afterwards, I asked if he brought any copies of his book for sale. He said no; I demanded that he sell me the copy in his hands. His poetry violates every neat little rule I have for writing good, contemporary poetry at one turn or another — “and yet it moves.” Eugene O’Neill said, “Life is so intolerable that, if we do not create some sort of illusion in which we can live, we cannot survive.” Well, here is a man who collides with life-as-it-must-be in the late 20th century and make great, direct poetry from it. Such sweet illusion. I’m sorry Gene didn’t know Chris; he wouldn’t have felt half as drawn to darkness. (On the other hand, I wouldn’t lose the Gene we have for the world.) Poems in this collection have been published in The Sun and Exquisite Corpse (and 11 others) and have been read over Morning Edition. The book even has a blurb from Billy Collins. Don’t let any of that impress you. Buy the book. Read it. Impress yourself.
Waiting for Grace and Other Poems (Cincinnati OH: Turning Point, 2013) [reviewed in Amazon.com]
Since first discovering the poetry of Chris Locke about ten years ago, I have always looked forward to the appearance of a new batch of his poems. My hunger grows not only for the sameness that seems to move from book to book–let’s call it his personality–but also from the fact that Chris’s poetical culinary skills grow from book to book. They all start with his basic ferocity, his willingness to face life as it is, as it has happened to him, and roar back. To me, as a poet, that is the fundamental openness and honesty that many contemporary poets attempt to evade at all costs, be it escape into some Victorian fairy land of idyllic dreams and denial, or of contemporary Gordian prose that is best unknotted by simply putting the text to better use, roasting marshmallows or balancing restaurant tables. Chris’s work is not like that; it communicates. I think the strength of the current volume is his discovery of how powerful a poem becomes which each line has a surprising juxtaposition in it, none of which interrupt the narrative line of the poem. He has abandoned the hymn/sonnet insistence that each line make perfect sense in itself, and moved to the forward impulse given a poem when each line is utter nonsense, contributing to a more powerful cumulative result of each short lyric. And all the while, honest, accessible. To me that is strength and that is what I love in Chris’s poetry.
Signals (University of South Carolina, 2008) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
After reading a recent collection of my poetry, a friend in Arkansas recommended that I read Ed Madden. I am very grateful for his recommendation. Here is a poet who loves economy, whose language is lean, who makes every word work hard for its rightful place in a lyric. This winner of the South Carolina Poetry Book Prize builds observations and narratives from well weighed couplets, most of which link together in one page communications to the reader that merit reading and rereading like a letter from a very dear relative. I am certain we are kindred spirits if only for his elevation of the classic tropes of flora and fauna (especially birds) to the status of organizing principles, the eternal things from which we hang the stories of our lives and our search for meaning in our individual and collective past. If someone were to tell me this is someone’s first effort, I wouldn’t believe it. But it is, and I can’t wait to read his second book, Prodigal: Variations. I have a hunch where this slow unfolding is going and I can’t wait to discover if I’m right.
Prodigal: Variations (Lethe Press, 2011) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
We have a mistaken understanding of “masterpiece.” In the medieval apprentice system, a person would spend years as an apprentice to a master. Then, with the master’s permission, he would travel and study under a series of other masters as a journeyman. Finally, if he excelled as a student of all the masters, he devoted himself to a major work, creating a single work that demonstrated excellence in every aspect of his art. This was his “masterpiece,” based on which he was elected/appointed a master by the community of masters. Then he devoted his life to his work as a teacher of other apprentices and journeymen.
I know that’s a long winded intro to a short, enthusiastic review of Prodigal: Variations, but I hope you’re still with me. Signals was Ed Madden’s masterpiece. He demonstrated a command of a wide range of subjects and mastery of the poets tools. He demonstrated himself the complete craftsman he needed to be, the theme always serving the craft. But I felt there was something that wasn’t being said. He says it in Prodigal. This is a virtuoso set of variations on how we define ourselves as men in the context of all the men in our lives–fathers, brothers, lovers, and even biblical male role models (Saul/Paul, Lazarus). Because of his loyalty to his theme, because of his mastery of his craft, Madden’s Prodigal: Variations is worth reading, cover to cover. Then savoring each variation at random. Then re-reading. Such an honest, spiritually grounded voice. This is exactly the sort of work I was hoping for on the heels of his masterpiece, Signals. Here, the craft serves the theme.
Bones Washed with Wine (Gival Press, 2003) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
This book is a collection of poems in which the poet runs alternately toward and away from love. His peregrinations take him to Brighton, the British Museum, Buchenwald, Walden Pond, the grave of Alexander the Great’s father in Thessaloniki, and Civil War battle sights. In addition to the reader, his traveling companions include Heathcliff, Emily Dickinson, Edward II, and the Gray Lady. Like the rest of us, he is driven by love. Who wouldn’t want to get the following lines from an absent lover: “Whenever you enter my sight, my arms, / summer saturates us, evolution accelerates, / nakedness riling with honey and sunlight. / No sense of mine, made modest by loneliness, / ever dreamed such surpassing. Only you ever / made my love welcome, could face half my fire.” A strong poet understands that nothing is so ordinary it cannot add a piece to the puzzle of who he is. He is then bound, as a poet, to report it honestly, straightforwardly to all within earshot. Mann is a strong poet.
Search Party, Collected Poems (Mariner, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I know I give 5 stars too often. It’s usually because the writer has achieved what he set out to do–which is a five-star feat. But in this case, the 5 stars represent a truly exceptional book, on that makes me glad that I’ve lived this long to read it, and sad that I didn’t find it ten or twenty years ago. Ten years ago would have been reasonable. I met his first wife, then Poet Laureate of New Hampshire. And five years ago I read Sebastian’s, his son, memoir in pursuit of what I call “daddy literature.” I’ve even had many fellow poets refer in passing to “Bill said this” and “Bill said that.” Enough. This last month I’ve been immersed in this superb collection. The editors (including Sebastian and Stanley Plumly, the dedicatee of one of the poems) took great care in making the book chronologically ‘readable.’ As a voracious reader of ‘collected’ and ‘complete’ editions, I deeply appreciated this. But all the mastery of formal craft in the world doesn’t make a masterful work unless the materials at hand are worthy and these are truly worthy. I’ve rarely been so comfortable with a poet, so comfortable with his honesty, his sincerity. (His three ex-wives may differ.) Here’s a poet who is gifted, smart, and flawed, and upfront and frank about all three. It’s best summarized in what might pass for his ars poetica, although I think he’s too self-effacing to ever deliberately create anything as exalted as an ars poetica. Anyway, in “A Poetry Reading at West Point” (pp. 297-298), he answers a cadet’s question in three different places, “I try to write as well as I can / what it feels like to be human”, “I try to say what I don’t know / how to say but of course, I can’t / get much of it down at all”, and “I don’t want my poems to be hard, / unless the truth is, if there is / a truth”. And you know what? I believe he believed that. Tack those three sentences to your wall and make a life of them in your writing; with the evidence at hand, William Matthews did. And thank God for that, if there is a God.
White Sea (Sarabande Books, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Mathis is a poet from Dartmouth, whose students I am constantly encountering in the NH Seacoast poetry scene. She is as superb a poet as she is a teacher. This volume grew from the loss of a close personal friend to cancer but it is not a whiny grief. It’s the sort of grief that immediately establishes the reader’s camaraderie with the author as she examines the artifacts of a particular loss, from fury to helplessness and out. “Charmed by shine, / I’ve dragged a finger through the flame and stared into the sun. / Imagine, thinking that’s where I’d see you.” Fans of Mathis have been eager to read the sequel to What to Tip the Boatman? She does not disappoint. Extraordinary.
A Book of Dogs (Sarabande Books, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I have been a fan of Cleopatra Mathis for nearly ten years now. I was introduced to her work through poetry readings in New Hampshire. There is something sharp edged and honest about her writing–a keen eye reporting what it sees and a keen heart reporting what it feels.
So I was embarrassed to discover that she had written and published a book last year (2012) and I missed it. I bought it immediately and dived in. As with most things new, it took me a while to warm up to her again. This book seemed to be vaguely about loss–a divorce, a death–maybe several losses. But it wasn’t coalescing. That’s fine; I’m used to that, especially in strong work, musical or literary. I’ll just read it again until it becomes “mine.”
Then I hit the middle section, Book of Dog. Overwhelming.
It is a dangerous thing to write about sadness. The subject has accumulated too many clichés over time, it too easily lapses into the maudlin–there was even a movement in 17th century poetry designed to ‘make grown men cry’ in the fashion of the day. No such here. Mathis evokes grief through the particulars that surround it, the very things that make it so overwhelming: the absence of the lost from the landscape, from one’s daily habits; the imperative to continue as if nothing has happened; the denial of communication, of consultation with a trusted intimate–be they human or animal.
This as superb a threnody as I have read. And it succeeds because Mathis keeps her eye and her heart focused. No nostrums. No panaceas. No evocations divine solace. Just grief as it is. To summarize, you can’t beat Stephen Dunn’s blurb, which begins, “I love this book! And haven’t been able to say so about any book so unequivocally for a long time.” I agree with his passion, but think I could say so about Ms. Mathis’s previous books as well.
One Thousand Nights and Counting (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Amazing! Such a wonderful collection and no reviews yet? By rights, there should be 20, 200 reviews of this book. All encomiums, except a few “what’s this rhyme and meter” grouses. If you occasionally have your fill of affected contemporary free verse or academic verse so tightly knotted you think you’d need Alexander’s sword to even the odds a bit, One Thousand Nights and Counting is what you’re looking for. Glyn Maxwell’s work will cleanse your palate better than any sorbet ever has.
In my perfect ignorance, I’d never heard of Glyn Maxwell until late last year (2011) and I was arrested by the beauty and precision of a poem posted to Poetry Daily or read by Garrison Keillor. The obvious thing to say is that the nearest corollary to Glyn Maxwell I can think of is Auden, a favorite of mine for the last 40 years (yes; over Eliot whose Prufrock was my mantra in my 20’s). He even crossed the pond from England to do his journeyman’s work in America, like Auden. But I don’t want you to think Maxwell is ersatz Auden. these poems owe as much to Auden as Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is indebted to Haydn.
Here is a poets that speaks from our time, about our concerns, in our language (including the occasional witty profanity), and most of all to US as a good friend would who needs to bare his soul over a pint on a Friday night and wash the week away. Here is beauty. Here is formal precision so deft, so effortless you’ll be reading and re-reading poems wondering, “How’d he do that?” Then you’d do the old “high school fall back” and start counting syllables and lines, plotting rhyme schemes, confessing, “Oh. He’s good.” As if mastery of craft is so easily apprehended.
And he’s 11 years younger than I, the bastard.
Dog Star Delicatessen (Carnegie Mellon, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Praising Mekeel McBride on the New Hampshire Seacoast, especially among poets, is entirely unnecessary. Rarely has a human being been more appropriately attached to a craft. She is famous here as a strong poet and — such an unbelievably extraordinary thing — a teacher of strong poets. Here is lean poetry, focused poetry, powerful narratives well told in shimmering language. And here is the unexpected twist, the final flourish that makes short lyrics unforgettable and eludes most of their authors. If McBride ever had the gift of gab that might be deduced from her name, it is clearly bleached out of her by the winter sun and the summer sea. And what is left is truly beautiful, truly human. Most amazing to me: the presence of the ghost of her father in “I Don’t Know How,” the evocation of her aunt Romaine on driving past “The Foxy Romaine Produce Box,” the truly magical story of the mailman who is forbidden to read Westerns between deliveries in “Dreaming Space Awake,” and the 80-year-old who finally achieves her unsuccessful childhood attempts to turn herself blue by glutting herself on blueberries in “How Spring Appears This Time of Year in New England.” But don’t let my taste prejudice you. Here is a well-practiced artisan. You are likely to be equally passionate about four very different poems here. But you’ll have to read the book first.
Lovers of the Lost (David R. Godine, 2010) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Wesley McNair hardly needs any praise from me. He’s had a long and rewarding career with boatloads of awards by way of encouragement and has even served as one of the judges on the Pulitzer committee (haven’t you wondered who has that task?). But I want to say how grateful I am for this book. It is an excellent read, from cover to cover, and something of an autobiography, since he is an unashamed thief of the details of his own life. And, lest you think “Oh, great. Another stuffy academic poet wandering off into the stratosphere while I wrestle with step-children and rent,” I encourage you to give him another chance. I am especially delighted to discover at least two poems–“It” and “The Characters of Dirty Jokes”–that reveal a capacity for self-parody and humor–our chief tools for survival. But most of all I am happy to report that, as I read the book, cover to cover (following a recent reading at the University of New Hampshire, with the sound of his voice fresh in my mind), I was slowly seduced by his gift for exposition of life as a series of often non-sequitur, run on events. Where have I read such a master before? James Agee, “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” the intro to A Death in the Family. I don’t know if McNair would be flattered or not, but I think I’ve found a modern Agee and that is beyond wonderful to me. (And its a small pleasure to discover another author who knows that T-shirts are T-shirts, not t-shirts, because they’re shaped like a T, not a t.)
Selected Poems (Knopf, 2008) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I’m reading the complete/selected/collected of many late 20th century poets these days and was extremely gratified with the work of James Merrill. I think the most outstanding quality of his work, when compared to that of most of the others, is the fact that he maintains a sense of humor and delight from the first poems published in 1951 to the last, written in 1995. I don’t think Merrill is out to impress anyone; to please them, perhaps, but not to dazzle with erudition or intellect. Meanwhile, he’s a very clever manipulator of rhyme and meter, and I particularly enjoyed the poems that alternated ballad stanzas with terza rima to keep the narrative from grinding down into the predictable rhythm of either. He’s smart, well read, and well traveled and has obvious fun juggling all three in these performances. Nothing seems to have escaped his voracious curiosity, or the generosity with which he shares it with his readers.
Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs (Lexington KY: Accent Publishing, 2012) [from Amazon.com]
I heard Andrew Merton read from this book at the monthly Portsmouth (NH) Poetry Hoot (Wed Feb 6, 2013). I bought the book immediately. I go to a lot of poetry readings and read a great deal of contemporary poetry besides; Merton’s work stands out. First of all, there’s an attractive humility and cleanness to his writing, which he learned through his years as a columnist for the Boston Globe. Then, there is his sexegenarian’s take on themes and issues that preoccupy us in our lives, how they all boil down to death, and how Death isn’t half as scary as It would like us to think It is. As you might assume from the title, the book is larded with surrealism. But it’s not the petulant, youthful surrealism we might associate with the “angry young men” of the early 20th century. There is a lot of imagery that grows naturally from the poets bipolar disorder and various treatments for it (including electric shock therapy). His is the wisdom that has (wisely, if you want the opinion of a fellow sexegenarian) surrendered the impulse to make order of a chaotic universe, the experience that has witnessed the most unexpected things in the most unlikely places and is prepared to report it. A few tasty samples:
[from] “Last Peach”
then taste the remains of summer,
five tart bites.
[from] “A Widow at 93”
She says she’s surviving,
by which she means she’s dying.
[from] “The Poet Who Killed the Moon Pleads Guilty with an Explanation”
But I think you will agree
I have suffered enough,
since every sentence I write
now ends with an eclipse.
If it pleases you, love,
write a book about us.
Make something gorgeous
out of everything, even
the maggots in the cellar,
the mold on the pantry,
the tarantula perched on the bedpost.
Club Icarus (University of North Texas, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Club Icarus is the 2012 Vassar Miller Prize winner. It is a wonderful read. It won’t make your brain hurt from over-intellectualization, and it won’t make you wonder why you wasted your time for under-intellectualization. It’s a Goldilocks book; it’s just right. Matt Miller is a superb, contemporary writer whose craft is fully informed by his sensitivity to his audience. Each poem is immediately attractive–there’s something about the narrative and how it’s laid out that holds your attention to the end. And each focuses on a strong archetypal theme, so there’s time for reflection afterward and a compulsion to read the poem a second time, and a third. (That’s what all great artists write for, the encores.) I just read and reviewed the 2011 Vassar Miller Prize winner and the two books couldn’t be more different–which says a lot for the integrity of the prize. Another reason you’ll enjoy reading this book, cover to cover, is that it is wide-ranging in subject matter and style. Miller clearly understands that a good poet writes in many voices, and finds no subject too intimidating. After reading about 1/3 of it, I went back and started labeling the “big idea” behind each short lyric. They include: drive-by shooting; tow skiing; winter surfing; male bonding; human frailty; paternal care; terminal illness; a nail; a beached whale; primitive life; family outing; hawking souvenirs; childbirth; science fantasy; banality of tragedy; cult of youth; thanatopsis; childlike wonder; nothing personal, just business… And those are just the first half of the book. I have a theory that all strong contemporary poets share a single idea: NOTHING IS ORDINARY. Matt Miler seems to subscribe to it in spades, and he brings a substantial kit of skills to the challenge of communicating it, to make sure he shares it with you as clearly, and as openly as possible.
Selected Poems 1931-2004 (Ecco, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
What I love most about reading modern poetry is the open friendliness of the poets. I usually have two or three books in the works and picking them up and reading them is like sitting down with the poets in my kitchen and having a wide-ranging conversation with a really smart friend over coffee. Not Milosz. Reading Milosz is like enjoying an evening in someone’s formal living room, as silent as an invited guest should be. It is a privilege to read these poems. Here is a contemporary who lived through it all and was not ground to dust. Here is a survivor who grew suspicious of all — ALL — easy solutions and was absolutely confident that, whatever The World threw at him — and by extension, at us — he could wrap his mind around it. Seamus Heaney’s introduction says Milosz was “tender toward innocence, tough-minded when faced with brutality and injustice.” In the end, he retained his awe of the natural world and his believe in the holiness of everyday things. In short, when Milosz sees us being distracted by the insistence of externals, people and things that feast on our energy leaving us with nothing, he calls us back to ourselves, the point from which everything is adorned with meaning for each of us, the context in which even the most horrible is endurable.
He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I would like to add my voice to the chorus of positive reviews. (Don’t get the negative review. “Middle aged”? The author is 30.) Anyway, let’s start with the title. It’s an homage to the original title for T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which was “He Do the Policeman in Different Voices.” (Tom! I didn’t know you had it in you!) This collection has won the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, the most prestigious award for gay poetry. It deserves it. It is strong poetry, “full body contact” poetry. In his blog ([…]) the author modestly states that his work is about gender, sexuality and pop culture. And how. The thing that distinctly separates from the work is lesser talents is that he has taken all his training to heart: there is evidence of a substantial amount of critical reading of other poets here, and mastery of the elements of his craft through practice, practice, practice. I particularly appreciate the fact that he knows “which tool to use for which task.” The episodic, descriptive narratives are comfortably adapted to long, ropey Whitman/ Ginsberg type lines, and the intense focus of conversation and conflict are compressed into shorter, epigrammatic lines. Most of all, I appreciate his honesty. I appreciate the fact that there is no Victorian or academic escapism in evidence here. He reports life as he experiences it, or as his imagination reconceives it (in the series on a serial murderer). Above all, I appreciate honesty and respect from a writer for me as a reader, and Stephen Mills has both in spades.
Another Forty Years (South Berwick ME: Senile Monk Press, 2013) [blurb]
Mike Nelson and I have been friends since he first appeared on the New Hampshire Seacoast poetry scene in 2005. He was one of the first members of our poetry work-shopping group, Blood on the Floor. Mike is a member of the imporessive generation of forty-something, blue-collar fathers who are successfully balancing career and home life with artistic expression. Since his first book, The One in the Middle (2005) and the following chapbook, Sometimes at Night (2007), Mike’s fans have been waiting for a compendium of the strong poems they have been hearing at open mic venues throughout the Seacoast. Another Forty Years (2013) is that book. Mike has created a “New and Selected” that includes old favorites like “The Barn Door,” “Hole in the Wall” and “Meader Pond,” and new works that range across his sense of humor (“Book Review,” “Pee on the Bee”), rapturous narratives (“Don’t Touch the frogs,” “Picking blueberries at Sturgeons Cove”), divorce and dating (“Divorce,” “Of Man”), and metaphysical musings (“I finally understand,” “The Mouse”). In the classic lyric tradition, Mike draws on nature as his chief source of inspiration and consolation, and his audience and readers are rewarded ten-fold every time.
Wise Woman and Her Co-Pilot, Karen Nelson (Newton NH: Borrego Press, 2009) [blurb]
Anything you might imagine about Karen Nelson from reading her poetry is true by a factor of ten. She’s exuberant. She’s delighted and delightful. She stands directly in the path of life and walks away from the collision thrilled. Be the collision dark or light, winged or walking, it is assimilated in the meaning of life to her, which she then processes through an alchemist’s art into the tincture of poetry.
Neubauer, Alexander (ed.)
Poetry in Person, Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with America’s Poets (Knopf, 2011) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I approached Poetry in Person as one would one’s Saturday night dose of castor oil. Not pleasant, but necessary. After all, I am a poet. I read and write a lot of poetry. I talk to a lot of people about poetry and encourage many people to become poets. So I should do this, right? No problem. From the very beginning, these interviews provided real insight into the poets’ thinking. These were not the dulling and boring slog through metrics and personal biography of the “What made you want to become a poet?”-type I’d anticipated. They were real people saying real things about their work–and, if nothing else, you’ll come away from this book with a new appreciation of the enormous amount of work that goes into making a poem. Every interview is rewarding. Two other things. I just finished reading a collection of interviews by a generally younger group of poets who, to my surprise, all mentioned a real debt to Elizabeth Bishop. This somewhat older generation turned constantly to the essays of Auden and Eliot and the essays and poems of Stevens for auctoritatis and, yes, they referred to the work of Elizabeth Bishop (who was a near contemporary to some of them); but the touchstone poet they most referred to was Rilke, especially the Duino Elegies. Also, I should not wrap this up before I praise the index of this book. This invaluable index was clearly not farmed out to someone in the third basement of the publishing house. Some real work was put into this index by someone who appreciated the goldmine of information presented between the covers of this book. Not only are there the references to poets, which you’d expect, but there are also references to such poetically important topics as “anger in poetry,” “form,” “line breaks,” “rhyme,” “rhythm,” “revision,” and a hundred others, sorted alphabetically by the name of the poet commenting on them. At last! A useful index in a truly useful book.
Nye, Naomi Shihab
You and Yours (BOA Editions, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I met Naomi Shihab Nye through Bill Moyer’s The Language of Life series and have been a fan ever since. She is a poetry superstar, but she’s not the sort of poetry superstar you’d put on a pedestal. She’s the kind you’d invite into you kitchen to talk about current events on a truly fundamental, human level — over a cup of Turkish coffee. As a poet, I truly appreciate the fact that so much of her poetry is about words, the power of simple words, the systematic public abuse of common words. As a Lebanese American, Nye helps me to look on the Middle East at one remove, like her, and with compassion. Her poetry shows why, if we have only one thing clutched in our hands at the very end of everything, it should be our basic humanity. Now, wouldn’t you want someone like that to talk to in your kitchen over coffee? In a conversation that would be all poetry, no less?
Tales from the Francois Vase (Hobblebush Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I’m sort of at a loss in recommending this book to you. I’m glad the publisher sent me a copy to review. I think it’s wonderful, and I certainly think you should buy it and read it. But I’m not sure what to compare it to, the way people compare rattlesnake, or alligator, or any other exotic kind of meat to chicken–“It tastes just like chicken!”–to make it more palatable, to make you, the diner, sufficiently curious to share a newfound pleasure.
From the general description of the book, an obvious comparison would be Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” But this is a book length collection of poems, not just one poem, in various lengths and forms, about a real Greek krater (Keats made a drawing of a Greek vase, but I don’t think it’s the one in the poem), used to mix wine and water. (The Greeks did not drink their wine straight; and if you read your histories of Alexander the Great, you will discover that, when the did, they got into real trouble.)
Then, since the description mentions the history of the vase, it seemed a better comparison might be to the film, The Red Violin, tracing the history of an extraordinary piece of art from its horrific origins to its improbable silence on an auctioneer’s block, just as this book might sit silently on the shelf of a bookstore, beckoning you to hold it, to open it, to read it–and to listen to it. Maybe, but this book includes two introductions; abundant illustrations; a glossary of people and terms referenced in the poems; a pronunciation guide; beautifully translated journal and newspaper articles from its discovery, in 1848, and subsequent history; and a CD of a radio dramatization of the vase. Comparison to The Red Violin doesn’t seem adequate, somehow.
I once owned a copy of E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book that seemed similar. It included diary-type entries, personal reflections, quotations he came across that he wanted to remember, and nascent thoughts and scribblings that later became his books, Aspects of the Novel and A Passage to India. It was the sorts of things a Forster scholar would love to know to deepen his appreciation of the author. Doesn’t Tales of the Francois Vase work the same way, only regarding an extraordinary Greek vase instead of an Edwardian English author? Yes. And no.
In the end, it’s hard to discover any adequate formal comparison that might compel you, the reader, to own and read this book. Yet you should, and you won’t regret it. First, the author, Julia Older, bring impressive credentials, from her travels and her writings, to the primarily philosophical task of teaching us about this vase (I assume most of us have not heard of it before) and thereby extracting lessons about life in general and the value of observations in particular. And she does it by assuming the personae of the historical and mythological persons associated with the vase, to say nothing of anthropomorphizing the vase itself.
It’s something like a court trial, one in which there are no charges, except to confirm the existence of an object that has outlived any and all who have come to know it. The ceramist speaks; the painter speaks. The gods depicted on it speak, as do the mythological heroes and their adoring fans. The Etruscan newlyweds for whom it was probably an expensive wedding gift speak, as does the haruspex (a person who divines the future by examining sheep’s livers) who stored her sources in it.
You could probably complete this list. Be sure to include the discoverer, Alessandro Francois, iconoclastic Christians hoping to erase everything non-Christian from history, the wacko museum employee who smashed it in violent protest against his employer around 1900, and the character who disassembled it again, this time gently, after the 1966 Florentine flood, to reassemble the zillion fragments in a more probable order. But above all, don’t forget, as indeed our author does not forget, the voice of the vase itself. She (and what else would it be than a she, with that sensuously curvaceous, ample form) interjects dialogue in the historical flow like a priestess, hymning herself into existence.
At the end of the trial, the judge is incapable of coming to a conclusion about our vase. But the story of the vase is one of those “magnificent torsos” like Michelangelo’s incomplete slaves, or Mahler’s 10th Symphony, or Vergil’s Aeneid.
So, maybe, by way of comparison, we should defer to the Sufi story of the world being like a collection of gems held in an invisible sack. Each gem reflects the others in its facets. And no person sees all the aspects of all the gems at the same time. The report of each person, in a group sitting around the sack, must be taken for an honest assessment, and only the person who takes all reports into account can begin to appreciate the thing before them.
It cannot be more appropriate that Ms. Older’s book begins with a quotation from Krishnamurti, “Is it possible to understand this whole life, not in fragments, but completely?” If that is a rhetorical question, the answer is “no.” But it doesn’t stop us from trying, because that is where the delight, the adventure is.
New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press, 2004) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I was recently invited to contribute to a “poets and artists” event called Wings, Feathers, Flight. Each poet was to read a selection from their own work and another from another poet. One of the poets read Oliver’s poem on wild geese. Everyone seemed to know her and it. I immediately went out and bought this volume. Here is a poet who can lay such a careful argument that a line like: “We hope for magic; mystery endures.” flows naturally from its contest into the verses that follow. Others: “To live in this world // you must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it // against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.” “Oh what good it does the heart / to know it isn’t magic!” “I don’t know exactly what prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention. … / Tell me, what else should I have done?” “… the heart cries aloud: / yes, I am willing to be / that wild darkness, / that long, blue body of light.” All this, mind you, in the contest of sumptuous, sharply observed, nature poetry. (The poems on owls I find particularly arresting.) This as superb as any carefully edited anthology can be — and it’s by a single author! What must Volume 2 (published October 2005) be like?!?
Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems (Vintage, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Basically, it’s very dull. Not the spicy meatball I expected after all the hoopla over Sexual Personae (which I didn’t read). I guess I have to complete it although, at times, I feel like I’m taking my spoon of castor oil on Saturday night. And my God! She’s more Freudian than I am – I don’t feel like such a psycho-interpretive methodological dinosaur any more. I’m sure one motive for the anthology is to shock. After 26 “usual suspects” selected from the greatest hits of English poetry, she starts bouncing all over the place – I’ve not heard of at least half of the 18 remaining poets – then wraps it up with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” The essays would each be given A’s if submitted by an college graduate student. In that sense, they’re “exemplary essays”; but they’re written in such a homogenous style, it seems adaptable to any poem from any period. I admit, though, I’ve learned something new in nearly every essay; but otherwise … dull. Sorry. If you think June Jordan’s Poetry for the People is too scattershot and political or Adrienne Rich’s What Is Found There is unfocussed and uncomfortably earnest, this is the book for you. (And I don’t care how hard she tried to hide it with her formidable intellect, I have to believe that Paglia loves these poems.)
Talking with Birches, Poems of Family and Everyday Life, Pat Parnell (King George VA: Journal Press, 2004) [blurb]
As vast and varied a landscape of plots and as kaleidoscopic a cast of characters as in any Dostoyevsky novel. But Pat bests the Master in one important respect: her instincts lead her right to the life-sustaining humor in it all. We may never resolve what a good book is, but this is what a good book does.
Don’t Be a Stranger, Alice N. Persons (Westbrook ME: Moon Pie Press, 2007) [blurb]
Don’t Be a Stranger makes the reader feel comfortable. There are no school lessons, no diving for the dictionaries, not even the vaguest whiff of an impending test. The poetry has a “kitchen conversation” quality about it with a little good gossip thrown in with the Irish coffee and sliced cinnamon-y coffee cake. “No More Nature Poems,” a sort of manifesto, tells readers what to expect and what preconceptions to abandon. But you wouldn’t take baggage over to a friend’s house for coffee anyway, would you? Unless it’s your turn to bring the coffee cake.
Fancy Meeting You Here, Alice N. Persons (Westbrook ME: Moon Pie Press, 2015) [blurb]
Time and tide have brought Alice Persons and her passion for words to a moment of reflection in a collection of 25 new poems, Fancy Meeting You Here (201). In some of the poems, she focuses her mature wisdom on single events from her past and present. In others, she focuses on the mystifying variety of men, known and unknown, from her past and present—including a moving suite of poems on the recent loss of her father. Everybody who knows Persons and her work also expects animals: witnessing one of her cats dispatch a dove; walking her dog against an autumnal backdrop, complete with a fly-over of south-wending geese; discovering a spotted from huddled beside her birdbath. Sitting down with a book of Alice Persons’ poetry is like enjoying a mid-morning conversation with a friend over coffee and pastry in her kitchen. A friend who speaks poetry.
Museum: Poetry About Art and Artists (Westbrook ME: Moon Pie Press, 2016) [blurb]
Museum is a fun collection of ekphrastic poems, a synaesthetical celebration that will appeal to artists and poets alike. I’m not surprised to see Mr. Plunkett, who is absolutely drunk on language and the games it invites, walk into an art museum and have wild conversations with the artists and their works, enriched by his passion for sometimes bilingual puns, slant rhymes, and good, old fashioned English alliteration. And just as Mr. Plunkett would have had to know several different languages to visit these paintings in the late 1990’s and late 2000’s in museums in Italy, France, Spain, and the United States, he crafts his poetry in the perceived individual dialect of each painting: Some poems are full-blown rhyme-and-metered verse to reflect their representational bent. Others are haiku-like jottings suggesting impressions registered during a quick walk through a gallery. And modern paintings are often treated in a cubist-like rearrangement of his easily decrypted words on the page. When not addressing a painting, Mr. Plunkett may take the artist aside for a personal conversation; or he may take you, the reader, into his confidence for some gossipy tidbits about the painter. I have long loved art museums, both as retreats for quiet reflection, and as arenas for imaginary arguments about The Big Issues of life. I’m glad to discover in this fun little book that Mr. Plunkett and I share a personal, poetic appreciation of the paintings that inhabit them.
Po, Li and Fu, Tu
Facing the Moon, Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu (Oyster River Press, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
My introduction to Li Po (Li Bai) and Tu Fu (Du Fu) came via my high school sophomore World History text. I thought it was strange to see poetry in the side bar then (1967) and I still wonder at its inclusion. But the poems seized my imagination and stayed with me. Later I discovered the translations of Whaley and Rexroth and my life-long love affair with Chinese poetry in translation was secured. So, why would I need yet another English translation? I feel strongly that you always need new translations; English changes, culture changes, scholarship changes, and tastes change. And no one is entitled to the last word, however great. The particularly refreshing aspect of this book is that the translator honors the formal aspects of the originals, giving careful consideration to their formal balance, a fact anyone can appreciate from looking at the originals (provided in facing-page format), even if they don’t read Chinese. True, many translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry from the past have taken a more rapturous, whimsical approach. Catching a dreamy culture in dreamy, amorphous layout on the page. They can be effective, but they are a long distance from the “original intent.”
From there, as with all translations, it’s the translator’s game. All that moot technical stuff aside, I especially enjoyed reading the book as a sort of on-going conversation between two friends. The greatest poets of their age, and nearly exact contemporaries (Li Bai 701-762; Du Fu 712-770), we can only be certain that they met twice; but they went on to write poems addressed to each other. It is wonderful to have this sort of handbook recounting their similar interests, their observations on similar topics, and their different takes on everything. Considered the Yin and Yang of Tang poetry, there’s never a note of contention or jealousy between them. They honored each other as colleagues. None of this is to trivialize Holyoak’s work. What he has achieved here is enormous and merits the investment of time in technical study and appreciation. But it should not be overlooked that his achievement starts with “first principals”: the translations are immediately attractive. It is hard to believe we have the privilege of reading the work of poets writing 1250 years ago, yet Holyoak gives us give us just such a privilege.
Sound Travels on Water (Fishing Line Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I was moved to purchase this volume at one of the monthly Hoots, a meeting of the Portsmouth (NH) Poet Laureate Society. Ms. Potvin, whom I’d heard read years before, had come a long way in mastering her craft. Her voice was more sure and it supported strong poetry with a good backbone. Even better, her confident writing allowed plenty of space for the reader/listener to cohabit the poems with her. It was one of those situations where the reading made me intensely curious about how the poems looked on the page–always a good sign.
I especially appreciate the fact that Ms. Potvin has joined those modern poets who don’t run from the world, who face it head on and grapple with its most humble elements to incorporate them into the warp and woof of her formalist work. I’ve read many classic poets from cover to cover and failed to detect a single sign that they were married or had children. And then, of course, there’s the case of Shakespeare, where biographers have found non-canonical documents full of hints about his private life, then bent over backwards to read those facts into his poetry and plays. Not so, many of the modern poets, and I’m glad to see Ms. Potvin among them. The trick is to write strong poetry about your life and not surrender to maudlin Victorian sentimentality while doing so. Ms. Potvin is successful in doing so.
She is a married woman, with a husband and two boys, lives near a “pond” in southern New Hampshire (that’s “lake” to most of the rest of the English speaking world), and has a career in a public relations firm; and she has recently had the “domestic felicity” of all that challenged by cancer. All of this is in her poetry, explicitly and implicitly. Of the twenty-three poems in this beautiful chapbook (Fishing Line Press really knocks themselves out on presentation), seven are sonnets, one is a villanelle, and others flirt with other stanzaic forms, in addition to free verse. Normally, I’d suspect that the author was attempting the traditional “first volume” ploy, trying to “be all things to all people”; but I don’t think that’s what Ms. Potvin is doing here. Her sonnets, for instance, are not simply fourteen, ten-syllable lined things of one or another rhyme scheme. They really evince an understanding of why a poet would select this form of argument, and how to manipulate the argument to persuade the reader. She really understands the “beautiful machinery” of poetry, and inevitably selects the right tool for the right job.
And there is an immediate, comfortable beauty when she turns philosophical. A few years ago, I selected “Red Jacket” for inclusion in the second volume of The Poets’ Guide to New Hampshire. The battle of safety versus freedom, the comfort of the known versus the bedazzlement of the irresistibly attractive, is presented in a simple poem of eighteen short lines, divided into three, six-line stanzas. The persona of the poem is staying at a hotel near a skiing area called, rather wonderfully, Red Jacket. Overnight, there has been a heavy snowfall; the desk clerk, commenting on her physical frailty, warns her against going out into it. She imagines her two options: putting on her snow-armor and striding out into the natural fray, or soberly staying inside until conditions improve. The operative metaphor tells it all: icicles on the window frame protrude in all directions, like an old, “wizened” woman’s eyelashes. Stride into the “unknown country” with the assurance that you’ll not return, or observe it from a position of safety–and experiential ignorance. I am reminded of the saying that “the young want to die for a cause, the old, to live for one.” And each has their reason for regret.
In addition to materially supporting a modern poet, an obligation which I believe rests on the shoulders of all responsible, modern poets, I think lovers of poetry should own this volume for the sober, friendly wisdom it contains. Having read it cover to cover, I’ve already found myself referring back to it in the course of my everyday life. Yes, we’re living in a complex, messed up world. There’s no chance we’re going to “get out of this alive.” But complexity also describes poetic beauty. We simply have to take up the poet’s commission, the poet’s challenge: to observe it all coolly, and to report it unsentimentally to friend and stranger alike, with a strength that belies our acceptance of the challenge of being human.
On Entering the Sea, The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Qabbani (Interlink Pub Group, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I have long been a fan of Persian and Arabic poetry. While reading reviews of other translations I came to the startlingly hyperbolic statement that Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) was the most popular Arabic poet. I’d never heard of him. I didn’t even know if he was contemporary or ancient. So, it was time to sample. That lead me to this beautiful book.
It is the kind of translation that I particularly enjoy. Working with Arabic-English scholars, seven established poets (Lena Jayusi and Sharif Elmusa, Jack Collom, Diana der Hovanessian, John Heath-Stubbs, W. S. Merwin, Christopher Middleton, Naomi Shihab Nye and Jeremy Reed) have provided translations of select different poems by Qabbani. What happens in the process is that the reader becomes super-aware of the variation in voices as they approach a hypothetically single subject. Think of the story of the blind men and the elephant. In a strong way, by combining the “descriptions” of all the poet-translators, the reader can arrive at a more complete idea of Qabbani and his work than any single poet-translator could be expected to communicate.
I was very pleased to see, for instance, what sort of wonder can happen when a poet acknowledges and translates the formal beauty of Arabic poetry, as Jack Collom does, including at least one ghazal (“The Book of Love”). Diana der Hovanessian (“Notes on the Book of Defeat”) and John Heath-Stubbs (“In Memory of Taha Hussein”) each include at least one panegyric–a form that, at one time, dominated the Arabic poetry tradition. Merwin, not surprisingly, favors the shorter, more aphoristic poems, that often have the drive-by mystical quality of haiku. Here is an example:
And woman too is beautiful
and more beautiful still
is the imprint of her feet
across our papers.
And I am grateful to Naomi Shihab Nye and Jeremy Reed for their honesty in representing the “love in the context of world politics” quality that dominates so much World Poetry in general, and Qabbani in particular.
What is most pleasant about this sampler, however, is the scope of Qabbani’s love poetry. Sometimes the male lover speaks, sometimes the female. Sometimes the male lover argues, describes, surrenders to the power of love to erase him (“You Write the Poems and I Sign Them”), and sometimes the female lover responds (“Diary of an Indifferent Woman”). His inventiveness in finding new ways to say the classic “three little words” is dazzling.
When a man is in love
how can he use old words?
Should a woman
desiring her lover
lie down with
grammarians and linguists?
I said nothing
to the woman I loved
love’s adjectives into a suitcase
and fled from all languages.
Laughter, Pain, and Wonder, Shakespeare’s Comedies and the Audience in the Theater, David Richman (Newark, NJ: Univ of Delaware, 1990) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
A valuable introduction to my Shakespeare library, and to my library of literary criticism. Richman applies an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays in general and his comedies in particular to create a rhetoric of comedy, as it evolved from the early “workshop comedies” through the “problem comedies.” He demonstrates clearly how Shakespeare strove to generate comedy through the constant friction between the elements of laughter, pain, wonder, and mood. Of course, this presents him with the inevitable problem of how to wrap it all up, a problem that he found ultimately unsolvable while presenting his audiences with a brilliant arrays of failed solutions: from several comedies that end with “I’ll explain it all after the play’s over” to one comedy (“problem comedy” indeed) that ends with a funeral procession. This book is a Shakespeare fan’s dream guide to help pull all those theatrical experiences together, enriched with quotation from detailed critical reviews of productions from the 1950’s into the 1990’s, Richman’s first-person experience directing the plays in collaboration with his actors, the array of texts ranging from first quartos through the 1900’s, and–let us not forget–the all important calculation of the effect on a live audience.
I also mentioned this book’s value to the library of literary criticism. As I studied it carefully in my first reading, I gradually came to the conclusion that, in the absence of the actual second part of Aristotle’s Poetics, the one on comedy, this book will do nicely. The more I kept reading, the more I was convinced. The hope that the secret book kept in the monastery in The Name of the Rose will someday be discovered springs eternal; but until it is actually discovered this comprehensive and readable volume will do just fine.
The Best of It, New and Selected Poetry (Grove Press, 2011) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
In the episode on Emily Dickinson, the PBS Series Voices and Visions took great pains to make three points about her background. Dickinson lived in an age when everyone lived in the constant company of Death, and she lived in an age when all youths were encouraged to be voraciously curious about nature. Add the omnipresence of Protestant hymnody in the lives of everyone in New England with its implicit poetic form and, like flour, milk and eggs to a cake, you have the three main ingredients of Dickinson’s poetry.
It wasn’t until I made this connection (thanks to a jacket note by J. D. McClatchy in the current volume) that I felt I was ready to enter the kitchen with Kay Ryan. I think she is a poet who, deliberately or not, has reincarnated the spirit of Dickinson in the late 20th century and, to make sure I don’t go too far with the comparison, summoned that spirit on the opposite coast. No great preachments here. Personal observations, usually brightened with the presence of a birdy, a bunny, or a bivalve but especially birds (particular birds as well as wings, feathers, eggs an eggshells, flight, nest etc.).
And all peppered with an appreciation for the shimmering verbal effect of internal rhymes and off-rhymes. All the poems in this collection are a page long or less, which focuses my attention on form, which seems to be the focus of Ryan at her most playful. Take, for instance, her drive-by sonnet, “Full Measure,” a sonnet in the progress of its argument, a sonnet in its fourteen-line length. Imitating the `jangling sack-full-of-keys’ relentless rhymes of a sonnet, she scatters off rhymes throughout, like tart bits of lemon zest in a poppy seed cake: measure, favors, another, water, flavor, butter, pressure, shatter and nature. Only at the end, in what suggests the Shakespearian apotheosis-couplet, does she change the rhyme to break and -take. Otherwise, it isn’t anything as historically full-of-itself as a sonnet. It’s a fully realized human being sharing a moment of unselfconscious fun.
I read a collection of Ryan’s poetry, Say Uncle, on her ascendancy to the Poet Laureateship and was completely befuddled. To my poor eyes, her poems certainly had nothing in common with the work of Simic, Hall, Kooser, Gluck, Collins or Kunitz, her immediate Poet-Laureate predecessors. Lines were unrelated to meaning. She placed line breaks on conjunctions and articles. Lines were one to five (usually two to four) words long–again, regardless to meaning. Potential end-rhymes in the poems were scattered here and there by the irrational line breaks suggesting the hand of a really bad typesetter. Sense was there, but made hard to abstract because of the way the poems were presented.
Reading this belated collection (belated because her term as PL is almost over and I think they’ve lost out on a lot of sales), The Best of It, New and Selected Poems (which is in reverse chronological order of composition), I think I have a better idea of what’s going on in Ryan’s poetry. Ryan’s poems are not about conversation or communication; they’re about unvarnished observation, with the interjection of a droll sense of humor, that poppy seed cake (again) the moment you slice it and slide the first piece out. Just that. I may be wrong about her inspiration and her intentions, and I certainly missed the point when I read her before, but I really like these poems all the same. Mind you, I don’t think it would have made any difference to Dickinson if I told her I liked her verse (unless my last name were Higginson, of course), and I get the same impression when I’m reading Ryan.
Other Flowers, Uncollected Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Believe it or not, I became acquainted with the poetry of James Schuyler through a biography of Fairfield Porter, the representational painter who hung with the Rothko / de Kooning / Pollock crowd. Was I ever grateful. Schuyler, too, was a part of that great florescence of modern art that occurred in New York City after the second World War. In him (and in Frank O’Hara, whom I also love) is an openness and honest I just don’t sense in most other modern poets. And a clear, unapologetic sense of where they are and when they are. I guess you might sum it all up in the words, “Nothing Is Ordinary.” Everything is poem-worthy. It really is wonderful to have this additional volume of his work, additional to the Collected Poems (1993). It’s like getting a surprise visit from a dear friend you haven’t seen in years–and instantly falling in with each other as if no time has passed at all. And, as many of the previous “official” reviews point out, this isn’t simply a collection of stuff that was found on the back of old shopping lists or lining his bird cage; these are bone fide vintage Schuyler, with all the detail and wit that make his “collected” poems a must have (assuming the Pulitzer in 1981 didn’t pique your curiosity in the first place). And now, damn it, I’m going to have to give John Ashbury another try. There are more than a few poems dedicated to him or addressed to him. I tried reading his most recent collected poems (Notes from the Air, 2007) and had such a hard slog of it I had to surrender around page one hundred. But apparently he and Schuyler were great friends (they even wrote a novel together) and you should always try extra hard to be friends with your friends’ friends. Thankfully, American Library has a collection of Ashbury’s earlier books.
Fast Animal (Etruscan Press, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I like contemporary poetry that is honest–like “two guys sitting in a coffee shop shooting the breeze about their lives with nothing else to do” honest. No holds barred. No topics taboo. No one out to be offended; just guys talking. That’s what I found here. Tim Seibles has led an interesting life. It is wonderful that he’s a poet and knows not to let a single, seemingly insignificant or maybe even embarrassing detail of that life slip away. “Delores Jepps” is a good example. It’s a reflection of a teenaged crush, which is common enough. But the way he writes about it is so honest, so open, so absent of pretentious or the million-and-one cliched formulas that hover around the topic like gnats, that I totally believe him. Better yet, I’m grateful to him for pointing to a door to my own, similar experiences when I was that age. No wonder this book was a finalist for the National Book Award. I may not be able to give it any rewards, but I’ll be happy to pay for that coffee.
Stupid Hopes, Poems (Graywolf, 2009) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I read a poem selected from this volume on Poetry Daily and was moved enough by the craft and focus of that one poem to buy the book. Great investment. Every poem is sharp, drew me in. None came across as the result of a classroom prompt, an exercise of the “…and I can do this, too” variety. And the cumulative effect is tremendous. Literally. “Causing one to tremble.” Thanks to the collective efforts of his four executors (Sophie Cabot Black, Lucie Brock-Broido, Tony Hoagland and Marie Howe) the narrative moves with the inevitability of a good drama. But the catharsis is not part of the text. Or maybe it is: the text ends, the poet ends. All that aside, here is a poet to whom “nothing is ordinary.” Everything is fodder for poetic reflection. That and the surprise image. The reader is never allowed to become complacent. It’s too facile to imagine such strong poetry comes from the poet’s certainty that he would die soon. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think it comes from the poet’s commitment to his craft. Besides, we all know we’re going to die; it doesn’t make us all strong poets of Jason Shinder’s ilk.
Boy at the Screen Door, Bruce Spang (Westbrook ME: Moon Pie Press, 2014) [blurb]
Bruce writes about readily identifiable landmarks and specific people engaged in specific actions—with immediate and long-term consequences. And he does it in the compressed language of poetry so anyone reading one of his poems can recognize themself in its well polished surface. Here is an honest poet, honestly inviting his readers into a conversation of equals—not because our experience, background, and credentials are the same because we hold our fundamental humanity in common.
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Vintage, 1990) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
There is nothing I can write here to either enhance or detract from the status of Wallace Stevens. Reading this book was more an act of reverence than anything else, to find out what so many of the poets I love and respect are talking about first hand. I was surprised to discover that most of the poems by Stevens that are widely know and quoted are in his first book, the first hundred pages of this five hundred page books. But reading on, I discovered the Stevens of the sound bite type quotations I’m constantly running into. This is the poem working out his larger philosophical concerns in greater and greater detail. Sometimes it was hard going, like reading the works of a 12th century Scholastic; but it was always worth it. He always had a clear point. This is a must read. It shouldn’t necessarily be the first collected/selected/complete anthology you should read, but it should be definitely there among the others.
Edible Amazonia: Twenty-One Poems from God’s Amazonian Recipe Book (Steven Ford Brown, trans.) (Bitter Oleander Press, 2002) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I read three or four books of poetry a week. It is a serious habit. Recently, I was invited to read poetry at a Jazz Brunch. In search of “food” poetry, I stumbled across this thin volume. I cannot over-recommend it. The poems achieve their effect through simplicity of language — both in Spanish and in English — and an almost naively simple device: political outrage stated through what are presented as recipes. I deeply admire most World Poetry because, unlike popular or academic American poetry, it is fundamentally political and manages to still be truly great. This is one of the most breathtaking examples I’ve read in a long time. Consider: 100 pages, 30 of them introductory material, the rest, facing-page translations. And I was still bowled over.
Easy to Keep, Hard to Keep In (Koenisha Press, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Remember when Walter Brennen’s character, the granddad on “The Real McCoys,” would walk in on a situation and ‘set things straight’ about five minutes before the episode ended? He’d always wrap up with his tag line, “No brag. Just fact.” It came back to me when I closed the back cover of this collection. Here are honest poems by a hard-working guy who’s in the middle of everything blue collar in eastern Massachusetts, and who keeps his eyes open. What I’m most grateful for here is his sense of humor. No. That sounds like he’s cracking jokes all the time. How about “bemusement.” That’s a nice five-dollar word. He seems to have the capacity to come to peace with whatever life throws at him: city life/country life; the underworld characters who share the bar with him and his dad; two friends vying for the favors of the same girl; the unflattering references to him in his daughter’s diary; a pet ram in diapers; a skittish border collie–all filtered through the Roman Catholic, French Canadian culture that I’ve learned to be more sensitive to here in New England. AND his experience as a high school teacher–let’s not forget that. There is also a sort of delight with the ironic twists life throws at him: dinner with his wife and daughter at a diner, they’re facing downtown, he’s facing the gaudy front of an adult movie house; comparing the daily newness of someone in love to a sort of benign Alzheimer’s; buying a couple of anti-war CDs over the weekend and getting stabbed by the classroom flag as it falls out of his teacher’s locker on Monday morning. I’m sure you have plenty of poetry books by the prescribed greats, the ones your high school teacher made you read or poets who won a Pulitzer or Nobel prize, or became the latest Poet Laureate. And I’m sure you’ve occasionally picked up an interesting looking chapbook by a product of the MFA mill and either been dazzled with the poet’s smarts or put it back down scratching your head. Surette’s book, I’m glad to say, is neither. It’s plain spoken, straightforward stuff that says, “Look, man. I’ve been here, too. Here are some of my notes. Let’s go get a beer and talk about it.” It’s written with a huge respect for hard won craft, the sort of artfulness that is gratefully appreciated for its unintrusive presence. And if, somehow, you don’t “get it” when you’re reading it, look him up on the internet and catch him at a poetry reading. All will be revealed.
Wicked Hard (Koenisha Press, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Wicked Hard is by David Surette, one of my modern poetry heroes. You’ve got your epic writers out there. And your Great Poets (Byron, Keats and Shelley and the gang). And the 20th century saw plenty of brainiacs ready to give you a lesson in humility at the crack of a cover. All good. But then you’ve got the modern poets who are devoted to the elements of their craft AND come across as regular guys, just out to share a beer, to share a story. David Surette is the Massachusetts equivalent of the everyman poet.
This is life. This is how it goes down. These are the take-aways. Here’s David the father, David the teacher, David embracing his French Canadian/Irish background. There’s also David the hockey player, David the teen enthralled by the eternal mystery of women, David the band manager.
There’s not much about David you don’t know when you read his poems. “No brag. Just fact,” as Walter Brennan used to say in The Real McCoys. But the best summary of what David wants to do–and does–is in his epigraph for the book from the contemporary poet Wendell Berry: “Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts.” How could you not want to make such a generous person part of your life?
Stable, David Surette (Westbrook ME: Moon Pie Press, 2015) [blurb]
David Surette has collected his published “animal poems” and added a few new ones to create his new volume, Stable. By focusing on his memories of horses, sheep, goats and alpacas, of goldfish, turtles, cats and dogs, and of mice, a deer, a loon, and a fox, he gives us a peripheral, loving portrait of the people who crowd his family and his community. He studies and teaches the classics and the work of his contemporaries; it shows in his craft. But that broad background has also given him license to carpenter a personal voice from the everyday diction and cadence of blue collar, eastern Massachusetts. Unlike the first horse stall he built, every one of the poems in Stable is level and plumb. “…all rides aren’t rough,” David reminds us over drinks in a pub,
“and yes is an answer to some of our questions.”
Here (Mariner, 2012) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
When Szymborska (b. 1923) won the Nobel Prize in 1996, we had View With a Grain of Sand. This survey sampled her work from 1957 to 1993 and firmly supported the wisdom of the Nobel committee’s decision. Shortly after, there came Poems, New and Collected, which added about 60 pages of poems from 1957-1993 and 7 poems written between 1993 and 1997. Now, the same translators (Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak) bring us Here. You should be cautioned: this is a facing-page book of translations; its 85 pages of poetry amount to only 42 pages of new poem. As any sane person would expect, these poems are mellower and deeper. There are echoes of “The Joy of Writing,” “Theatre Impressions,” and “Under One Small Star,” poems that I know intimately from reciting them over the last ten years at open mic poetry readings. I think I would characterize this mellower voice as “don’t worry; things work out.” It’s not a blind naiveté by any stretch of the imagination. It is the voice of a great poet in her eighth decade, representing a life lived out during a truly bizarre, I’d say self-destructive, century. She says, ekphrastically, “So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum / in painted quiet and concentration / keeps pouring milk day after day / from the pitcher to the bowl / the World hasn’t earned / the world’s end.” (“Vermeer,” p. 55) The photo on the cover says it all.
Rumble Strip (sunnyoutside, 2007) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Jason is a skilled craftsman and writes poetry in the ‘shake-n-bake’ school: he tosses stunning images and word combinations, and every experience in his life into a sack with his well-practiced sensibility, shakes it up, and records it as he pulls it out. What the hell am I talking about? Let’s play ‘flip-n-read,’ I’ll open the book to four places, at random, point to something, and write: From “Lambs Grove, Iowa”: “Continue west to visit your friend, / a scarecrow with cancer for a brain.” From “Toronado”: “Two girls join us at the table / eating hot pizza from their purses.” From “The Dead Man in the Piano”: “There is no body, only clothed air, / his raincoat, grey slacks tangled in metal wire.” From “Men at the Lamprey”: “They give chase into the trees, / guns and hounds in hock. / Taste tender fat and tire tracks / with their tongues in moss.” Isn’t that beautiful? I look at it this way, if you wanted rhyme and meter, you’d probably not be reading modern poetry. If you wanted straightforward narrative, you’d probably be reading Time Magazine. But if you want volatile creativity, with a “Boom! Boom!” combination of danger and delight, you’ll read Jason Tandon. He’s young, he’s honest, and he’s probably good for a damned good story over a beer. The only starch here is in his credentials. (From “Ars Poetica…”: “Two women at a window table poke a Peking duck.” Poke that duck, ladies! Poke it!”)
Wee Hour Martyrdom (sunnyoutside, 2008) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Since Rumble Strip, Jason Tandon has clearly been working on compression. I loved the youthful recklessness of Rumble Strip‘s narratives, the “I don’t know how we survived that one, but we did!” exuberance. Wee Hour Martyrdom brings us a different approach to poetry and a different approach to narrative. These strong poems seem like economically described photographs. But to keep the poems fully charged, Jason almost always describes two of these random photographs at a time, juxtaposing jarring images then using the poet’s magic to describe what they have in common. It’s wonderful. All the material is familiar, the language straightforward. Jason is a poet’s poet.
Quality of Life, Jason Tandon (Pittsburg PA: Black Lawrence Press, 2013) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I have been a fan of Jason Tandon since I first hear him read, with Nathan Graziano, years ago at River Run Books in Portsmouth NH in 2007. He is a member of a small group of modern poets (Mike Nelson, David Surette, Adam Shlager, and others) who are young fathers, fully engaged in their marriages and the task of raising their children, but who also devote themselves to recording their memories and experiences in short lyrics. I think they’re heroes.
Jason’s poetry has grown from strength to strength–the early Rumble Strip (2007), followed by Wee Hour Martyrdom (2008) and Give Over the Heckler and Everyone Gets Hurt (2009)–as he continues to devote himself to the craft. It is interesting to see how he continually recasts his youth in the context of his adulthood–making a clear record of the core experiences while stripping them of the short-lived passions that gave birth to them. The cover, a lit match, refers to a poem called “Elegy.” A friend disappears in the Pacific. His body washes up on sore. The author goes to a store for cigarettes and soda. And his existence, for the moment, is scrubbed clean of everything but “the explosion of foam, / the flare of match after match, // as I sat shivering on stone bench.”
Jason is attracted strongly to the short, Zen-y, lyric: On their way to bed / mom slipped on the top step / and dad helped her over the tricky lip. ?? We sat at the table in silence / until I tried to liken the stars / to something else. (“Reunion”) But most of his short lyrics run about a page, making the page as much a part of the form as the short lines and stanzas. And his titles are spot on. How can you resist seeing a title like “Christmas Putz” or “A Good Heat for Haying” and not turning directly to those poems to see what they’re about?
And that’s the heart of Jason. His poems are not preachments. And they’re not floating clouds of ideas and ideals trumpeting his superior intelligence. They are a down to earth conversation with an exhausted friend: after work, after dinner, after the kids are put to bed, sitting around the kitchen table, waiting for sleep to take us all.
Compass Rose (Westbrook ME: Moon Pie Press, 2015) [from Facebook, Star Island Writers in the Round, August 15, 2015]
I read it this week. It is a wonderful book. It stands out in a pile of new poetry books that I’ve read because the writing is so clear-eyed, so straightforward and honest, and–need it be said–suffused in the flow of effortless craft. (I know she probably slaved over it, but in the Keatsian spirit of ‘you work at it unrelentingly until it looks like it just happened that way.’)
Survive, Survive, Survive (Bicycle Comics, 2011) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I’m surprised there are not more reviews of Sam’s Survive, Survive, Survive on Amazon.com. He has a large following. And for good reason, he’s totally immersed in the New England slam scene, even co-host of Manchester NH’s Slam Free or Die series. As the previous reviewer noted, this is personal, confessional poetry of the highest order. Sam’s eye is voracious, his curiosity, insatiable. Nothing is so ordinary it is beyond poetic examination, appreciation, juxtaposition with the dissimilar that shares time and space with it. He is not one of those poets who locks himself into what was called, among the academics, his “voice.” He writes effectively in personification (an conversation with his neglected guitar, Boston writing a letter to New York); he engages a wide range of cultural awareness (The Beatles’ “While my guitar gently weeps,” the Ramones, the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac–given a decidedly Freudian twist); the ongoing lessons he is learning in bed. There is a profoundly moving series of poems on his mother’s long illness, something he will be so glad he recorded when he gets older, as are his slam fans now. More than once, it reminded me of “looking for the right way to say it” poem’s I’ve written about my relatives and friends. Slam poetry was once characterized by Billy Collins as a ride in a speeding ambulance with a person who wants to tell you every last thing about their life (peppered with expletives to force you to believe it’s real) in the three minutes it will take you to get to the hospital. It is decidedly no longer that. Most of the chaff of desperation has blown away and we’re now left with the grain. Slam poetry has transitioned from something exclusively volatile, in the air, to something that lives comfortably in the air and on the page. Sam Teitel is a perfect example of an heir to that process. These poems flow as effortlessly down the page as they fill the air in his recitations.
In his introduction he says, “…I do believe that it is in the nature of things to come together in a certain way and that it is our job as people to aid in this process.”–a smart marriage of Lucretius’s De rerum natura and Kant’s free will. I think the best way to summarize Sam’s effective work here is to cite William James: “Trying to understand consciousness is like trying to understand the dark by turning on the light.” In this beautiful and rewarding book, Sam Teitel rapidly turns the light on-and-off 31 times–so often that you’ll feel yourself slipping into his poet’s comfort with both the light and the dark, and the surprising imperative to “survive, survive, survive.”
(And yes, Sam, I’m one of those ponytailed guys over 50–in the ’60s and ’70s we earned those ponytails the hard way–who would encourage you to “keep writing.” My twist on the theme, though, is “always read 100 times as much as you write.” That’s the magical balance. Nothing hirsute or paternal intended. Just one poet to another.)
The Penny Poet of Portsmouth, A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2016)
Just finished it. What compelling reading. I am attracted to books that treat solitude: the Bible, of course; Crazy Cloud Zen; Solitude, Seeking Wisdom in Extremes (the author retreats to an island off the coast of Chile); Rockwell Kent’s memoir about retreating to the wilds of Alaska with his son; etc. This book is a compelling addition to the shelf. The story of a man who devoted himself to a deep examination of his interior life in an urban setting, and the story of a writer who (like concert pianists) masters her craft in solitude and is required to practice it in public. Katherine Fowler’s writing is so well calculated, it is difficult to put the book down. I’ve been no fan of the current fad for memoirs; the majority are onanistic exercises that begin with a paucity of meaningful experience and struggle to move very far for such unpromising beginnings. Not this. NOT this. There are so many clearly defined levels to this narrative, each engrossing. And in the end, like any complex story, fact based or not, it all sublimates into something both simple and profound. I know Kathleen. I knew Robert. I am so grateful for this opportunity to have so many of my questions about the life of my adopted city answered–or asked better. Sometimes that’s what you’re looking for: someone to ask the question better.
Late for Work (Mariner, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
When Terry Gross interviewed David Tucker on Fresh Air, my ears pricked right up. So straightforward, so down to earth. He draws on his work — his real work as an assistant managing editor for the NJ Star-Ledger — and write poetry as affecting and plainspoken as Auden, Frost, or James Agee in “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” I used to be afraid of writing poetry that revealed, in any way, the culture and time in which it was written and I despised such poetry as trivial and pointless. Now, I am completely intoxicated by it. Here is another poet whose work I hope they dig up 1,000 years from now and say, “Oh. So that’s what it was like.” Read this. Meet his mother or his father or his grandfather, sit with him on his day off or when he’s watching crows or listening to the clothes dryer, read his first person account of the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts operations of God himself.
Here, Bullet (Alice James, 2005) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Subject aside, this is raw poetry. It is bare. It is honest. It has all the marks of a true theophany: the mystery that attracts irresistibly, and the horror that repels, that paralyzes with trembling fear at the same time. If you cannot have the experience itself, or if you want to read someone else’s notes on an incomprehensible experience you’ve shared with them, you will want to read this. Most “great” poetry about earth-shaking events was written decades, if not centuries, after the event. There is, however, a short shelf of poetry written by the people who were there, written when it happened. I think people hesitate to call it “great” because it lacks the essential distance of greatness. That does not make it any less personal, any less human, any less intense–and a hundred times more fundamentally human. Reading this, I’m reminded of the overwhelming effect the Crusades had on European culture. The conquerors were conquered one by one, and Western Culture is all the greater for it. I hope Brian Turner goes on to cast this writer’s eye on every detail of the remainder of his life. The everyday life he grew up in the US with is no less worthy than the life he experienced over there–after all, THAT is the life millions have grown up with as everyday, by definition. Yet look at how extraordinary.
Phantom Noise (Alice James, 2010) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
You don’t need to have read Here, Bullet, Turner’s book that burned up the peace poetry world a couple years ago, to read this book; but I’m grateful to have this update on the state of his craft and his mind. Brian Turner is an honest, straightforward poet, not ashamed of what he knows and trusting enough to share what he has experienced. What he does best is demonstrate how he takes his particular array of experiences–all his experiences, physical and psychological–and makes some sort of sense of them. There’s no preaching, no pretense here. I’m sure I’d learn a lot from his classes in creative writing, but I’m even more certain that I’ve enjoyed his side of our epistolary relationship, held up through his poetry. In my unrelenting encouragement of new poets to let the 19th century poets speak for their century and accept the challenge of representing your own century, Brian Turner and a handful of others (such as Seth Abramson, Tony Hoagland, Patricia Smith, and others) are exhibit A for how to do it successfully. (And I’m grateful to find another poet who seems to be as haunted by the metaphorical weight of the Mogul destruction of the great library of Baghdad–“and the river ran black with ink”–as I am.)
Doorway to Poetry (Harcourt, Brace, 1938) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
A bus-friend, knowing that I am a poet, decided to loan me his grandmother’s copy of the original 1938 edition of Doorways to Poetry. My initial thought was, “Great. Another reading assignment. And a primer on poetry. Yikes.” Boy was I ever wrong. This book is so excellent, so comprehensive, so amazingly fair, I’d require every poet I know to read it, if I thought I’d get away with it. (Unlike me, they’re unlikely to accept such assignments gracefully.) Here is a comprehensive introduction by a voracious reader, anthologist, and accomplished poet (both high brow and humorous) that it is indispensable. This was clearly NOT a bid for a PhD or an assignment by a publisher, as many of the preferred contemporary texts are. This guy loves poetry for concrete reasons and he wants you to know why. And apparently, he’s shared his passion with generations of poets and poetry teachers ever since the original publication in 1938. For instance, I have ALWAYS wondered where my 5th grade teacher got the thumbnail definition: “A simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’; a metaphor doesn’t.” Of course, in the 50 years since then, I’ve been able to put a little subtle English on my appreciation of simile and metaphor, but this quick and dirty rule has proven very useful all the same. And where did she get it? Right here, in Louis Untermeyer’s Doorways to Poetry. Another useful feature, to me a fellow anthologist, is the sic transit gloria mundi implicit in all the great examples he cites for every point he makes, most of them by poets whose names have faded over the years. Honestly, it’s wonderful to know who the poets of promise were in the years immediately preceding World War II. Frost was clearly the golden boy; but Sandburg was too. And Cummings, the top selling American poet (with Frost) of the 20th century, was not anywhere on Untermeyer’s radar. But Untermeyer cites hundreds of others for illustrations of good, bad and in-between whose names are officially the property of history. I find it inspiring, actually: write because you have to; let history make the awards later. So, consider this a rave review of the original 1938 hardback, so many copies of which (apparently) were distributed to teachers and students and treasured in their private libraries, that their heirs are ready to let go of them for a song.
Wallace, Helen Pruitt
Shimming the Glass House (Ashland Poetry, 2008) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Helen Pruitt Wallace, a classmate of mine (C’80) at The University of the South in Sewanee TN, has made an opulent debut with Shimming the Glass House. The 57 poems (20 previously recognized with awards and publication) range in form from free verse to several fixed forms including sestina, ottava rima, (primarily Petrarchan) sonnets and what I like to call hidden sonnets–14 line poems whose argument follows that of a Petrarchan or Shakespearian sonnet but that omit some strict aspect of the form, usually the rhyme scheme. She also demonstrates a gift for inventing new forms, their inspiration growing directly from both her subject and argument. Many poems carry either dedications or epigraphs and a few enjoy the effective modern poetical device of using the title as the poem’s first line. She takes great pleasure in customizing quotations from poets like Jesus (“In my mother’s house are many pots”), Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden (“Auden’s right about disaster, the way it often finds us / in the ordinary.”) and W. B. Yeats, and she is obviously immersed, in her teaching life I assume, in Elizabethan rhetoric and Victorian vocabulary. The result is a rich smorgasbord of poems, most of which draw their inspiration from intensely personal observations of modern life, nature and work. Her success grows directly from her passion for specificity of details, welcoming the reader into her experience (many poems start with the first-person singular or plural pronoun)–which is somehow appropriate to the Southern belle she is.
The Last Island (Deerbrook Editions, 2008) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
There’s a great stillness in Mimi White’s poetry. The stillness of the sea, the stillness of the night, the stillness of birds, mice, foxes and dogs, at their feathery and furry business. And the tremendous stillness of whiteness: snow, the moon, sheep. But there is another sort of stillness here. Many of her poems are about conversations with the physically present, and both the temporarily and permanently absent. I get the same feeling reading about these conversations that I got back in the `60s, as I listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s early song, “The Dangling Conversation” many times. To have that come back in such a rush is a very good thing. Finally, there is often a sort of magic that imbues Ms. White’s poems. It the magic of the crypto-poetic utterances of the Delphic sibyl. It requires priests and priestesses to understand and interpret it. If you’re a poet, I’m sure it will be perfectly clear.
Interrogation Place, New and Selected Poems 1982-2004 (University of Pittsburg, 2006) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
I like Wojahn’s respect for tradition, but unwillingness to lapse into fawning imitation of it. I like his insistence on considering all of the materials of life, public and private, as appropriate materials for poetry. Friendships, family, current events and history are each fair game. He is, in my estimation, what a poet should be: fundamentally human, well educated, engaged with the world he lives in, and absolutely courageous in offering his fortes and foibles to the reader for consideration. If you’re looking for an honest poet whose doesn’t buy into the modern cant that a poet must beat the reader over the head with their superior intellect in a hailstorm of verbal and syntactical obscurity while jealously avoiding any clues to their personal identity, Wojahn is your man.
Young, Kevin (ed.)
The Hungry Ear, Poems of Food and Drink (Bloomsbury USA, 2014) [reviewed on Amazon.com]
Most of the other reviews are spot on, but I want to add my voice to the chorus of praise. Five or ten years ago, I needed an anthology of “food poems” because I wanted to see the ‘lay of the land’ before I embarked on writing some myself. There were slim pickings. Sections of other anthologies (particularly, What Cheer? from 1945) had strong sections dedicated to “food poems”; but otherwise, the strongest contemporary anthology I found was one dedicated to issues of eating disorders which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. The Hungry Ear, however, is a genuine celebration of our second greatest appetite. Arranged by seasons, inclusive of breakfast, lunch and supper; appetizers, main course, dessert; seasonal harvests and drinks for all occasions, Kevin Young has gathered a praiseworthy, 300-page collection of “food poems.” But what kind of poets would only focus on the virtues and vices of the food in question? The poets, at their best, see in our connection to food a connection with our ancestors and with our planet. They draw us to food’s special ability to enhance a celebration, and to alleviate a loss. They celebrate food’s ability to evoke memories as well. And I’m glad the editor has included “food poems” by many of my favorite poets from the second half, yea the last quarter of the 20th century as well as a few that are completely new to me. It’s a reminder of food’s magical ability to cement and strengthen relationships. And, Kevin Young’s fingerprint again, the anthology begins and ends with poems about blackberries. (It’s amazing how many disparate poets have poems about blackberries–and crows.) How can you be more attuned to the zeitgeist than that?