Monday, November 29, 2010

Phantom Noise -- Brian Turner

Brian Turner’s poetry can’t help bring to mind the poets of the First World War: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke.  It’s not just that Turner writes about “war, and the pity of war” like Owen, but that no other major poets have done so since the Great War.  Where did the poetry of WWII and the Korean War go?  I have read one poem written about the Vietnam War—an unpublished poem by my father.  So Turner’s poetry is at once novel and grounded in tradition—the tradition of bypassing the temptation towards the lugubrious or the nationalistic when dealing with war, and confronting the horror and pain with unflinching resolve.

The title poem of the volume is a good example:

Phantom Noise

There is this ringing hum   this
bullet-borne language   ringing
shell-fall and static   this late-night
ringing of threadwork and carpet   ringing
hiss and steam   this wing-beat
of rotors and tanks   broken
bodies ringing in steel   humming these
voices of dust   these years ringing
rifles in Babylon   rifles in Sumer
ringing these children their gravestones
and candy   their limbs gone missing   their
static-borne television   their ringing
this eardrum   this rifled symphonic   this
ringing of midnight oil   this
brake pad gone useless   this muzzle-flash singing   this
threading of bullets in muscle and bone   this ringing
hum   this ringing hum   this
I like how the thread of tinnitus unites a series of impressions and memories to the point where the unceasing roar stands in metaphorically for the strife and pain.

Specific connections to First World War poets arise poem by poem, connected by particular subjects and concerns.  But whereas Sassoon observes post-traumatic stress disorder (he would have called it “shell shock”) in general terms, Turner focuses on the fractured first-person impressions of a returned soldier.

S. S.

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're "longing to go out again,"—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk,
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Perimeter Watch
B. T.

I lock the door tonight, check the bolts twice
just to make sure.  Turn off all the lights.
Only the fan blades rotate above, slow as helicopters
winding down their oily gears.
                                                Water buffalo
chew the front lawn, snorting.  When the sprinklers
switch on, white cowbirds lift up from the grass
with heavy wing-beats, a column of feathers
rising over my rooftop, their wing-tips
backlit by the moon.
                                    Through Venetian blinds
I see the Iraqi prisoners in that dank cell at Firebase Eagle
staring back at me.  They say nothing, just as they did
in the winter of 2004, shivering in the piss-cold dark,
on scraps of cardboard, staring.
Brian Turner, like Sassoon and Owen, excels at personalizing experience and alluding to generalities through specifics.  In Phantom Noise we get a wide slice of this experience, ranging from guarding prisoners to a panicked stampede at al-A'imma Bridge, from a VA hospital to childhood memories.

Turner clearly has respect for both valor and mercy; he treats the people and cultures involved in the Iraq War with understanding and insight.  One poem, “Stopping the American Infantry Patrol Near the Prophet Yunus Mosque in Mosul, Abu Ali Shows Them the Cloth in his Pocket” is no war poem—simply a poem borne of the tensions and misunderstandings between cultures alien to each other.

Through it all, Turner remains reserved.  He shows but does not tell, so that while he speaks in the voice of a soldier, a father, a lover and a passing observer, he only alludes to any grand statement or unambiguous opinion.  He never writes, as Sassoon does,

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Part of me wishes he would.  Part of me is glad that he doesn’t.

American Internal

Down in the hole, down in the clay and mud,
we dig. The noon sun hot on our backs
as we bend to the task, as if digging
down into our own shadows
with the stained shovels of our hands,
digging until someone gasps—another,
they have discovered another; with pale eyes
the dead faces are rooted among worms and stone,
the brassy shells of bullets in their mouths.
We raise each one carefully out of the earth,
men dressed in sandals and thawbs,
wet cotton robes dyed by clay,
and women, like the one I lift now,
how her hair unravels in a sheen
of copper, cold as water in my palms.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Still Life" — Dejah Léger

A friend of mine, Dejah Léger, won two poetry contests recently, and what is fascinating is that both poems sprang from the same initial concept.  A real photograph of her grandfather inspired a short story, which she reworked into two poems.  The poems, though, could not be more different.  First the short story became a haibun, a piece of short prose followed by a haiku that elaborates or comments on the prose; it then became a sonnet.
Still Life

In a chocolate box beneath my bed I found several pictures belonging to my grandfather. One photo was of him and his Waco biplane, with the name "Tin Goose" written in shiny paint along the side. He stood in a grassy Ohio field that stretched for miles, joining the wide sky like a seam in the distance. Grandfather leaned his elbow against the wing of the plane. Even when he was young he looked old. His face was long and his smile was brief. The army uniform he was wearing looked too large for his frame. If the photographer had only waited a second longer to take the photo, my grandfather's smile might have been broader, perhaps a little more gentle. As it was, his features seemed as vacant as the flat, glossy landscape surrounding him.

The photo was taken the day before grandfather was to be stationed, on a breathless afternoon with a low, late autumn sun that cast shadows behind his feet. The day grandfather's photo was taken a whisper could have been heard for miles. The very click of the shutter was as loud as a gun being cocked.

quiet Thanksgiving—
the family receives
a letter
 (This won an award from Contemporary Haibun Online)
Still Life

In the photo, grandfather is in a field
Standing beside his bi-plane, a still span
Of sickle-wheat against his boots, eyes peeled
Toward the horizon. Open cold-blown land
Frames his quiet face, the camera finding him
A moment from what might have been a smile.
His hands in his pockets, he casts a slim
shadow behind him like a black grassy isle.
It was the week before he went to war.
His uniform seemed like a shiny bruise
Against the plane. In only three months more
His family in Ohio would receive the news.
The silence in the photo is silence mocked.
The click of the shutter—as loud as a gun being cocked.
 (This won the Carlin Aden poetry contest, hosted by the Washington Poets Association)

Any poet so adept at such different forms is admirable, but it's also interesting to see what images and phrases persist between the forms, and which seem to spring naturally from the form itself.  I can't think of a better case study to examine the differing effects of particular forms—how an initial choice of rhyme and meter, with all of the associated historical and cultural implications—influences, constrains and emphasizes different feelings and attitudes.

Dejah Léger is, I must add, an accomplished lyricist and musician, as well.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

from UNINCORPORATED TERRATORY [saina] – Craig Santos Perez

I find I come to review Craig Santos Perez’s from UNINCORPORATED TERRATORY [saina] just as I was thinking up a post having to do with what actually counts as poetry.

I was reading about how Ford Maddox Ford, as poetry was tilting towards modernism near the turn of last century, proposed that poetry should be written ‘in exactly the same vocabulary as that which one used for one’s prose.’”

A hundred years later, we end up with selections like this from Craig Santos Perez:

i visit her and grandpa more often since the move from
fairfield ca to fremont ca

sometimes i bring them dinner after work
sometimes they cook

i was somewhat afraid
because when i was a kid
grandma once made me
chicken liver and onions i ate it to be polite but
everytime after that she made liver
became forever known as ‘craig’s favorite’

even when they came over to her house on holidays and birthdays
when we all still lived on guam
they would bring a small tupperware of liver
‘for later’
Well, that’s certainly “written in the same vocabulary as prose”. It is prose. One wonders if this is what F.M.F. had in mind.  But it's hard to call poetry.

The collection as a whole is a whirlwind of snippets from all sorts of sources having to do with his native home in Guam, and the struggle over culture and identity following the history of colonial oppression. Perez weaves personal memories, historical facts, word definitions and origins, quotations and phrases in his native tongue into pages and pages of poetry, but it never feels like poetry. It feels, instead, like personal memories, historical fact, word definitions and origins, quotations and phrases in his native tongue, diced, tossed, and sprinkled with creative punctuation—a word salad connected by a theme. Instead of poetry, it feels like slapdash collection and regurgitation. I have difficulty appreciating it for the same reason I have difficulty appreciating Jackson Pollock’s paintings: if all you are doing is throwing paint (or words) at the paper and seeing what happens, it just doesn’t feel like you have crafted something with the mindfulness necessary for us to appreciate it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Missing You, Metropolis—Gary Jackson

Wow. Just wow. This is great poetry, and it’s the perfect combination of subjects and attitude that I appreciate personally. The first poem in Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis is “The Secret Art of Reading a Comic”, written as a parody/homage of W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”. This combination of the “high” and the “low”—the appreciation of both tradition and the every day—is one of the reasons I love poets such as Wendy Cope. Gary Jackson nails it.
Jackson’s collection largely focuses on superhero comics, a subject I’m not completely unfamiliar with. My favorites in that genre are those that go beyond the often uncritical and superficial nature of superheroes and use them to examine and comment upon the complexities of our own lives. Examples of this include Alan Moore’s Watchmen and some of the X-Men comics written by Grant Morrison. Jackson does the same thing using poetry. His monologues in the voice of superheroes, or their family, or of anonymous bystanders, are all aimed squarely at examining the basics of being human: love, hate, fear, anger, ambition, aging, family life, yearning… So familiarity with superheroes is not a prerequisite for the reader.

Iron Man’s Intervention, Starring the Avengers

As if I can’t have a drink
or two in the morning,
before risking my life
for people who don’t
know my name.

As if I can’t enjoy
a bottle of Chianti
and a smooth woman
when I’m not disarming
warheads in mid-flight
over the Atlantic.

As if the bottle of Johnnie
Walker you found, half-
empty, in my briefcase
implies I’m not capable
of defending New York
from shape-shifting, green
men from another world.

A man at Starbucks shoved
me during the morning rush.
I stumbled on chairs,
fell. With my suit—
my marvelous iron prison—
I could pop his head with a flick
of one finger. But without it
I’m just a man lost in the city.

Meanwhile you walk
down the streets with a cowl
or cape the only difference
and you’re transformed—
the man underneath as real
as the one slamming villains
into concrete. You think
I need a drink to get in
the suit. But you’re wrong.

I need it to get out.
Other poems along this theme similarly humanize the superhuman: Mary Jane and Betty discuss their love lives with Spider-Man and the Hulk; Magneto laments hate crimes against mutants; a father holds his newborn mutant son.

This theme makes up about half of “Missing You, Metropolis”. The other half is more personally centered on Gary Jackson, often involving his childhood in Topeka, Kansas. Poems consider love and sex, gangs and drugs, race, and friendships changing over time.


Stuart shows me the cross-like scars
on his wrists, proud of his curiosity.
He wanted to see how the veins
pulled it all together, hoping to make sense

of god’s machine. Now I’m standing
with him in a room with twin beds;
crayon children dancing on wooden frames.
I’m trying to make sense of my friend

in a place where people pace down
the halls because they can’t write
with pencils or play the instruments
locked away in the rec room for fear

they’ll cut themselves with dull lead
and nylon strings. As I exit
I hear the whine of the speakers
announcing dinner: chicken breast

with green beans. Desperate to impart
some final words of empathy
that will convince him to stay with me,
I tell him it feels like a part of me

is in this place. He smiles.
A part of you is. Then laughs,
as if he realizes the world
has finally broken us
in two.
Each poem is accessible, beautiful, touching and clever. Highly recommended.

Present Tense – Anna Rabinowitz

Rabinowitz’s poetry swings on a pendulum between incomprehensible and banal. When her poetry does make sense, it is either maudlin and preachy or smug with its own “cleverness”. Though I have nothing against political poetry, Rabinowitz lacks the skill to make it interesting. My favorite poem was “Gun Moose Snow”, which describes a female hunter shooting a moose. The fact that it’s a woman is intriguing, and the images are provocative and effective. It concludes:

So it goes:
          unraveled chevrons of crimson
               darn white snow, a toppled belly
     ringed by the broad, black wheel
Of eagleflight.

His amber pile,
     riddled with hoarfrost,
Punctures the lowering dark
          with stippled light.

Rivers clotted with ice lumber through frozen fields.
Later, in her notes at the end of the book, Rabinowitz feels the need to mention that this poem is about Sarah Palin, which utterly ruins it for me.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Heart Turned Back – Bertha Rogers

Bertha Rogers write complex free verse frequently about nature, farming, animals and family. Her poetry, lacking any kind of sound or rhythmic device, relies mostly on image, metaphor and juxtaposition, her best poems leaving the reader enjoying the pictures seen or the language used to describe them. In theme and mood she is something like Robert Frost or Seamus Heaney.

Here’s the thing: her poetry is not easy.

No one says it should be; even before the obfuscatory modernists got their hands on it, good poetry was not necessarily easy to understand the first time through. I’m just saying that many things about Rogers’ poetry make it difficult, like a tight knot of words that the reader must unpick. Consider this poem of hers:

At sixteen I cut into the worm, I
contemptuously dissected the frog,
laid out on mirrored metal—I saw my face.
Who, you ask, will kill the cat that murders
the bluebird’s chick? In that doomed orchard
dying trees forgot how they edged toward
bees, convulsed to fruit. High in the woods,
beneath the hawthorns, the skirted brambles,
deer the color of dying leaves turn and
turn and go to sleep. The clock in the kitchen,
time swollen, ticks. I talk to the dishes,
the immortal cats. Days like this, the dew
dazzling the sky, it’s all beauty to me;
even the stopped wing; the bent, wet grass.
It’s not that it is incoherent, but it does feel like we are playing cards, and I’m trying to guess Rogers’ hand as she lays down one card slowly after the other, her face inscrutable. The meaning lies in the relationship of the images to each other, but like those “magic eye” posters, you have to keep staring until the meaning comes into focus.

Furthermore, Rogers is not bound by typical diction (not that any poet should be, of course). As a result, the reader is faced with phrases like

I beg them back—those gone prodigals; their
sweet hapless speech outvoicing resilience.
Such word choice can induce both insight and head-scratching.  My guess is that Rogers’ appeal will largely depend on the reader and the reader’s mood: read these poems without distraction and hurry, and savor the rich descriptions.

My favorite from this collection is “A Hunting Story”:

The Saturday hunter meant well.
He meant to kill the jackrabbit
jumping from rotten corn stalks
in the winter-rimed field.

Confused, the old black spaniel
forgot she was a hunting bitch;
became the hunted, the white tail.
She jumped, too.

The bullet from the .22
Got the spaniel clean in the chest.
Her heart’s blood burst to snow,
to stalks, to furrows.

She died in slow black circles.

I sat straight on the wooden chair,
comforting the spaniel’s daughter
and crying, crying. Linoleum roses
grew red at our feet.

This happened in another time.

In the evenings, when I tell
my city-provincial dogs, they stare,
then run in happy circles and fall,
glad, on the Turkish rug.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Breakfast Machine – Helen Ivory

Helen Ivory makes her poetry out of intriguing (and often disquieting) observations, often of impossible scenes or vignettes like something out of a strange dream. Add to this her love of metaphor, and you get something akin to Craig Raine and the Martian poets. Compare Raine’s famous lines
Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on the ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

…with Ivory’s:
People are pebbles
and windows are mirrors.

When the moon is pushed
down the chimney’s throat,
the music begins.
In this house, everything sleeps.
Even the walls have relaxed
and the roof is too tired
to hold up the weight of the sky.

What Helen Ivory adds beyond poems like Craig Raine’s is that she trains her metaphors not on observations of the real, but meditations on the unreal. My favorite poem is this:
The Tooth Mouse

All of the teeth
brought by the Tooth Mouse
are piled high in an out-of-town

They are gnashing
and grinding
and want to return
to the mouths of sleeping children.

It is said that they are whiter
than bone, cleaner
than melt-water, more innocent
than the children themselves.

But look at them here
all broken and angry,
chewing at the cold
metal door to get out.

The imagery of discomfort, childhood, and the dark side of maturing bring to mind Seamus Heaney. Ivory’s particular style of free verse are also reminiscent of Raine and Heaney. The lines are extremely well crafted, and there is no sloppiness nor unnecessary embellishment, nor any sentence twisted out of shape. I found myself excited to see what each next poem contained, as if I were opening old jewelry boxes. Each poem was like a curious new picture from a scrapbook of someone’s dreams.