Thursday, September 15, 2011

Elinor Wylie

I can never tell, when I discover a poet new to me but many years gone, whether I should feel like I have found a beautiful though dusty artifact in an antique store, or like I have simply come late to the party. I had never heard of Elinor Wylie before, but I’m glad I found her. I’m self-conscious, though, at the thought that I was supposed to have known about her all along. I found this sonnet of hers in an old textbook, sandwiched between Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meager sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay;
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.
I love this. This era—with Frost, Millay, and E. A. Robinson in the States (and Kipling and others in the UK) were writing—this is when English poetry hit its peak: a modern sensibility paired with a classic form. It surpasses the ornate decoration of earlier times while employing a technical skill that at the time was being busily abandoned by everyone else.

There’s a stanza from another of Wylie’s poems that has been buzzing around in my head since I read it—from her poem “Let No Charitable Hope”:
In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear
And none has quite escaped my smile.
It somehow brings to mind William Ernest Henley (“Invictus”) and Dorothy Parker at the same time. As if those two could collaborate. I wonder if they would have gotten along.

More reviews to come!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Come, Thief – Jane Hirshfield

This blog is good practice for me; I often react to poetry quickly, and either like it or don’t like it, and it’s good for me to be patient, finish the book, and figure out why I like it (or not). Jane Hirshfield presents an interesting example because I like her poetry—I really do—although it is a style of lyric free-verse meditations I don’t usually like. Maybe that shows the power of her words: she even won over the formalist. Her verse reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s, Jacqueline Berger’s or of Wendy Cope’s when she writes free verse—I admire her skillful use of words to make an observation in a surprising and beautiful way. This manifests itself best in the first poem of Hirshfield’s that I read, which remains my favorite.

These Also Once under Moonlight

A snake
with two small hind-limbs
and a pelvic girdle.

Large-headed dinosaurs
hunting in packs like dogs.
Others whose scaly plates
thistle to feathers.

Mammals sleekening, ottering,
back towards the waters.

Ours, too, a transitional species,
chimerical, passing
what is later, always, called monstrous—
no longer one thing, not yet another.

Fossils greeting fossils,
fearful, hopeful.
Walking, sleeping, waking, wanting to live.

Nuzzling our young wildly, as they did.
Part of what I love about that is it takes on time and mortality—common poetic themes—at new, larger level: the rise and fall of species, including our own. That last line, far from debasing humanity, links us to part of something even greater. It is not that humans are doomed: we are transitory; being an animal, one of many, is suddenly reassuring. We are tiny, yet connected. After that, I was predisposed to like all of Hirshfield’s poems. Sometimes she is more straightforward:

The Promise

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider
who fled.
Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat like a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossilized escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,
But poems like this—patterned, forthright, allegorical—are not typical Hirshfield; she is usually more guarded and complex. Take instead:

“Distance Makes Clean”

Best when gods changed
into rag and sandal,
thinness, wrinkle,
knocked, asked entrance.

Such test is simple, can be passed or failed.
The softest bed,
The meat unstinting.

But when from far and mountain
they would ask
and for amusement, “What are mortals?”

even the flocking creatures came to tremble, cattle, sheep.

Scentless      silent
the distant slaughters, like toy armies in the hands of boys.

It so happens that my daughter, noticing me reading, asked me to read a poem, and I was on this one. I read it, and tried to explain it (it shouldn’t be too far off for her—she likes the Odyssey); I found it easy to understand and difficult to explain, which is a quality often found in a good poem.

Things I like about this poem:

1) It had focus; much lyric poetry can lose its focus.
2) Elision—how she leaves out unnecessary words even if they have a grammatical function (too much of this, by an unskilled author, would drive me crazy).
3) Phrases that make no sense syntactically yet perfect sense intuitively: “But when from far and mountain…”

One more tonight, because I’m a sucker for cool traditional forms: a haibun (discussed in an earlier post)…

Haibun: a Mountain Rowboat
Go for a walk on the mountain. The trail, up many wooden stairs, passes some houses. In front of one, an old man is building a boat. All summer I have watched this mountain rowboat. Like a horse in its stall, patiently waiting for its evening hay, it rests on its wooden cradle. Finally, today, it is being painted: a clear Baltic blue. Horses dream. You can see this move through their ears. But the hopes of an old man spill, as waking life does, through the hands.
amid summer trees
blue boat high on a mountain
its paint scent drying
By the way, Jane Hirshfield is coming here to Portland this Tuesday, September 13, to Powell’s Books.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Afterglow—Alberto Blanco (trans. Jennifer Rathburn)

Bitter Oleander Press, as I learned when I read the most recent issue of their journal, has an interest in international poetry and side-by-side translations. This is seen once again in their publication of a side-by-side translation of the work of Mexican poet Alberto Blanco, Afterglow, translated by Jennifer Rathburn.

I find it fun to read the original of a poem next to its translation whenever I know even a little of the language. In this case I got to see some of the interesting choices that Rathburn made. A good example is “Psalm of Transfiguration”. 
En las amapolas de cobre
Cantan los pájaros ultramarinos;
En la espuela de caballero
despunta la fiebre que no cesa.
El fuego se aviva y el humo crece
como las ramas de un árbol planetario.

In copper poppies
chant ultramarine birds;
In the knight’s spur
spikes the endless fever.
Fire arouses and smoke grows
like the branches of a planetary tree.
Rathburn translates “cantan” as “chant” instead of “sing”, which fits the poem well. The original Spanish original has a sense of both possibilities, but an English translation must pick only one.

She translates “la fiebre que no cesa” as “endless fever”, but think of all the possibilities: it could have been “fever that never ends” or “fever that never ceases” or “neverending fever” or “fever without end”. It’s always a challenge to balance truth to a translation and poetic necessity; I think Rathburn does a great job in this volume.

Another interesting think to note in this poem is how sound devices, which are usually destroyed in a translation, can be spontaneously (or intentionally?) created. “Amapules de cobre” ends up as “copper poppies”, and the line “el fuego se aviva y el humo crece” results in the wonderfully alliterative/assonant sentence “fire arouses and smoke grows”. Whether by serendipity or design, it is fun, and somewhat reassuring, that the sound elements of poetry aren’t doomed upon translation.

As for the poetry? It is something like the wild hallucinatory prophetic visions of the Old Testament prophets or the Book of Revelations. The entire book is written in the present tense, and there is no sense of specific everyday life. There is nothing that happened, only things that happen, always, universally, even in cases like
The failing calf
in the corral dies.
A dazzling bull
contemplates the field.
The images spill forth as from a dream—disconnected, intense, packed with significance but without meaning. Any references to “you” or “I” are disembodied and universal as well. Either one might refer equally to the poet, the reader, or anyone else, real or imaginary. We never get to see into Alberto Blanco’s life—only into his mind, and the visions that live there.

Monday, June 20, 2011

body English – Peter Cornwall

I really enjoyed reading this collection, and what I loved is that Cornwall is not afraid to play with words and form, to experiment, and to focus on sound. Poetry today seems full of caution and self-consciousness: sure you can express the depths of your soul, but don’t let your words do anything interesting. But not Cornwall. He writes
The exigencies! You put in a word of hope against
the exigencies. You put in a word of hope against
our clasped hands, pressed to your lips.
Our clasped hands, pressed to your lips:
your lips pressed to put the exigencies in a word
of hope against your clasped hands. […]
Peter Cornwall knows that poetry began as sound, and must concern itself with sound. Even when not writing verse, he often weaves rhyme and other sound devices throughout his poems: The rhythm in his poem “Gavotte” builds to a fantastic energy, like a waterfall or a rock slide. 
September remember the ochre the red and
the golden beholden to shadow, burnt umber
penumbra, the chill wrapping warm in the mist;
the time that our kiss took the form of a beam
unlocking October’s first dream, the days not as
long as they’d been just before, still peace and
still war, rotation dilation translation mutation
beneath a bough soon to come bare. It were there […]
Playing with words includes puns—not the heavy-handed groaners that we all dread, but the occasional winking drive-by witticism, such as 
[…] She love a man
who know a code she do not know but do.
He write it on her wall her grace.
She love a man in cuneiform.
My favorite poem was the last in the collection. There is something distinctively English about it, it seems to me. It reminds me in ways of Philip Larkin’s poetry, and Rudyard Kipling’s, too, maybe in the quite dignity and remembrance of the past, maybe in the mixing of childhood and military honor. Though not formal verse, the poem is clearly aware of itself as verse, which captures the mood precisely.

Standing on my grave

Children, do be careful!
Stay with me, stay with me.
Look now, a pretty falling leaf:
who will bring their colours here
who will take a rubbing?

I grabbed my crayons resolute
and newsprint in my hand, I
climbed the hill halfway and then—
A leader of our finest men!
A credit to our land:

Rest sweetly on the sand.
I meant to go up further still and
catch the leaf atop the hill.
I did not mean to misbehave

But stood beside the admiral’s grave.
I’d found the rubbing that I wanted
Modest life and yet much vaunted:
sea and surf and love, and haunted
stood there with my crayon blue

that I might get a bit on you
to take back down with me, Sir John
(who lead as I meant to go on) and
did not mean to be a knave but
leant across your fulsome grave

that I might get a rubbing,
that I might get a rubbing.
Miss Brown I thought might be upset
but even still she seemed to let
me tarry, let me get you still

Sir John; in one tremendous act of will
your name upon my newspage rested:
Always calm and never bested
And now it’s 1939
and behind a glass of wine

a second thanks I give,
a second thanks I give
and make my way across the brine.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Theodore Roethke

A review is on its way, but I wanted to take a moment to post a poem I came across on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.  If I time it right, I can catch this brief show on the radio on my way home from teaching my night class.  One night last week I caught this poem by Theodore Roethke, whose work I love, even though I never made a thorough examination of it.  In fact, I could only name “My Papa’s Waltz” and “I Wake To Sleep” as poems of his I know (the latter of which I parodied as “I Wake To Eat”, and published in The Formalist a while back).  So I was happy to stumble across another one of his.
I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in a chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant notes to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © Anchor, 1974.
It feels like this poem would be at home in the court of Henry VIII alongside Thomas Wyatt, or the Cavalier Poets like Robert Herrick.  It’s a shame we seemed to lose poets like this in the 20th century except for a few like Roethke.

You can always see the current Writer’s Almanac at, and search the archive as well.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Here Lies Lalo—Abelardo Delgado

I must admit that I was skeptical about this collection when I received it. The poet Lalo—Abelardo Delgado (1930 – 2004)—was an activist for social justice and a central figure in Chicano literature. I am ashamed to confess that I expected ranting and moaning. Instead I found a vibrant, engaging consideration of life, the universe and everything...with a Chicano twist. Though many of his poems take a uniquely Chicano perspective, Lalo ought never be pigeonholed.

Though many poems concern politics, Lalo makes political poetry beautiful because he focuses on emotion, not policy.
stupid america, hear that chicano
shouting curses on the street
he is a poet
without paper and pencil
and since he cannot write, he will explode
Political poetry is hard. The two parts of the term hardly understand each other. A poet fails when he or she tries to debate, analyze or support an argument. Elizabeth Alexander got it right at Barack Obama's inauguration:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
But all too often political poems try to argue in verse, or more frequently, argue in prose, and are soon reduced to an editorial. Not Lalo: the fact that his poems have political implications is secondary to the fact that it captures emotion with skillful language:
stupid america, remember the chicanito
flunking math and english
he is the picasso
of your western states
but he will die
with one thousand masterpieces
hanging only from his mind
Lalo's style is a wild ride of sound and image, often mixing languages and voices. He uses rhyme in different ways in different poems, even occasionally writing in metric verse.  (In case it's not clear, the second stanza is not a translation of the first; Lalo switches languages back and forth throughout this poem.)

que te alcancen mi beso y mi abrazo
felicitando el hecho que hoy es tu día,
que en la palabra mi corazón pierda un pedazo
al dicirte, feliz cumpleanos, esposa mía.

after all these years together we have learned
to assume, without too much trouble, each other's identity
and in all these years how often i've yearned
not to take for granted the fact that you are an entity.
But even in his free verse, sound and rhyme play an important role. Lalo often likes rhyming couplets at the beginning and end of poems; sometimes he combines English and Spanish to do this. Occasionally a rhyme requires some awkward syntax, but usually the rhymes leap naturally, spontaneously, from the page. Alliteration, too—just the beauty and fun of language—are sometimes an element:

to scunner and not to hate,
to scupper and keep the taste,
to hide under the thick scurf
of scurrile life that yearning
to scurry itself leaps out
and is able to see its own scut,
obsolete as old scutage.
Here Lies Lalo is a great collection and tribute. Much of the publicity surrounding Lalo and this book focuses on his activism for social justice. I want to emphasize that his poetry is more than that. “Preguntas Pesadas”, for instance, sets aside ethnicity, nationality and discontent to peer deep into human questions. Here, the motifs of sleep, questions and definitions, and the tender concern for another, remind me of Jorge Luis Borges.

for some strange reason i cannot explain
i woke from my usual unperturbed sleep...again,
trying to define you...
          a bottle...that's it, one with no bottom
so that many can pour themselves into
but none can be contained within.
that glass
          from which the bottle is made
is very sensitive
          very sensuous
and desirable
and it can accommodate
   and all can rub themselves
into the sides
               and the sides are warm
but nonetheless
made of glass.

Poetry News in Review

I wanted to let you know about a great website I found: Poetry News in Review.

If you will allow me to lift some text straight from the website, "Poetry News in Review is a weekly curated and aggregated newsletter intended for anyone with an abiding interest in poetry of all kinds and all languages.  The encapsulated stories are linked to the original sites without commentary. While much of it is current, there is, from time to time, a story or review that refers to earlier publications."

You can see the current issue here, and sign up for a weekly e-mail.

Up next: Here Lies Lalo: the collected poems of Abelardo Delgado.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wild Horses, Wild Dreams – Lindy Hough

Wild Horses, Wild Dreams collects the poetry of Lindy Hough, founder of the magazine Io and North Atlantic Books.  The poems range from 1971 to 2010, so we get the opportunity to look at an entire writing career.  In her preface, Hough mentions Ezra Pound, H.D. and William Carlos Williams as influences.  I do see the similarities, to H.D. in her early work and Williams in the later.  Here I think Hough comes up short for the same reason that Williams does.  Her poetry is often simply the stuff of everyday observation.  I am reminded of someone—not necessarily a poet—chatting to me about what she has been up to since I last saw her.  Her poetry is better than Williams’s, and we are spared notes left on refrigerators and “Dude, that wheelbarrow is so cool,” but I often found myself waiting for the poetry to start. Her titular piece, for instance, begins

     Jacqueline moved onto land
     where a heard of horses already lived

     It became obvious they were no one’s,
     had drifted up and down this coast
     for years, a bother to many.
     They were not a bother to her.

She continues for pages with the same MO: chatting about the horses.

     They stick around near the water’s edge.
     J’s gotten good fences so they don’t straggle
     down onto the highway, get themselves killed,
     her sued.

     They big eyes are serious.  They look at you with no
     guile.  That’s why she loves them.

A few poems degenerates into polemics, which again I can best imagine a friend delivering over coffee:

     Because the gun lobby is unopposed
     Because Charlton Heston played Moses,
     standing on the mountain with the flowing beard,
     arms uplifted, holding the Ten Commandments
     People see him as The God of Guns
     like his tough western persona which
     gives authority to the concept of a citizen’s
     “right to bear arms”, an idea left over from 1776.
     They contribute to the NRA
     thinking only of defending themselves.
     We’re the only industrialized nation
     in the world with such a lack of
     gun control.  Most European countries
     don’t allow guns in their borders.

That last stanza particularly seems to escape any definition as “poetry”.

Nevertheless, Hough gets much more lyrical when she gets less political.  Her earlier poems have a kind of eerie dreaminess at times:

     What she already knows
     is a rich tangle
     of possibility.

     Threading through
     the lover’s hair,
     knot by knot,

     living with him to unravel
     the sequel to the mermaids.
     Not always searching.

One poem I particularly enjoyed was “Seeing: To the Mailmen”, which I’ll put here in its entirety.  I felt from this poem a sense of structure, image, complex metaphor and focus.

     I would wish, growing up
     in a round dance
     that if I made a picture
     you would not dilute, ex-
     tend, wash further
     the colors beyond the border.

     You would stop the eye there
     and he sense given to the eye
     by the eye; the colors therein
     and not extend.

     Even so, it would not be enough.
     The picture would have to sing, not only
     be seen; as an ocean or a far off
     coyote is heard, the eye seeing
     and the ear listening, breath & pulse
     of the joy of living pushing out
     though the chest and throat
     to the world.  Keep coyote
     particularly in mind: full white chest,
     head thrown back to the moon, his howl
     a statement to all and the heavens—
     outlasting Geronimo, the lion, the red wolf—
     I am here.  Know that I still exist.

     A decent wish.  Hoping for
     a decent pleasure,
     for the seer, whether watching
     or hearing or reading,
     loving or unloving.

As I was reading this collection, thinking about Hough’s style and topics, I came across one poem I found fascinating because it considers exactly this.  In “The Poet’s Métier” Hough asks what her style might be called.  She responds, “I am a cat on a fence…  There’s a skittering between my eyelids, a sort of imbalance only righted walking very carefully along a fence, & then down another, and another.”  In the poem she wonders how to classify her style, and whether her uncertainty indicates that “it engages me but no one else.”  Her conclusion: “I’d rather be a cat, walking successive winding fences, silent and moonstruck.”

I find this an apt metaphor, and salute her for her candor.  Her poems do wander like a cat on a fence, and like a cat, no plan or purpose is necessary other than to be a cat.  If you feel compelled to follow a cat on its perambulations, this collection may well be for you.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Blood Honey – Chana Bloch

Chana Bloch’s strength lies in image and metaphor.  Her style of free verse is simple and fairly typical of poetry today.  Her subject matter, too—themes of life and death, family and culture—are not unexpected.  It is the sudden and surprising image or metaphor that begs to be read again and again--not from confusion, but from the sense that such a line needs to be savored--that makes her poetry engaging.

Wild Honey

A puddle of sun on the wooden floor.
The infant crawls to it, licks it,
dips a hand in and out,
letting the wild honey
trickle through his fingers.
Then a voice from on high—
Look at the pretty color!—
Wipes up the glory with a rag of language

A Life on Earth
An adult heart is the size of a fist, he said.

And what does the heart do?
Hoists itself up each morning into the weather.
A fist is not just a sign of defiance:
four fingers and a thumb can grasp.  And hold.

And what does the heart hold in that tight little fist?
The string of its life on earth,
taking the tug of it, letting it fly,
not letting it fly away.

Sometimes the surprise is more deliberate, and Bloch reveals a deft control over her words and an admirable wit.  One of my favorite stanzas, discussing her mother, reads:

Things are easier between us lately.
She’s not so carping. Is even willing to listen.
One would almost think death
had mellowed her. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Bitter Oleander v. 17, n. 1

I just read The Bitter Oleander v. 17, n. 1. Great stuff. I liked the side-by-side translations of poems in Chinese, French, Spanish and Estonian. I also liked the inclusion of short fiction. Here’s my favorite poem:

“Fragmentation” – Philip Todd

     For a long while now it’s only been a man and his garden rock.
     The garden’s not much—just a patch of yard with scattered thistle, clover, dandelions, crabgrass.
     Before this the man had his one wife. When she left there was no wife. Only the rock in the garden was left.
     Years ago the rock was almost buried. The man dug it out when he built the house. He built the house when he had the one wife.
     The rock was large, really too large to roll, and colorless, caked with grime and grit. Rain washed the exposed rock. Soon streaks of color surfaced, baked by the bright sun, highlighted by the moon.
     So, long after the one wife had left, they sat in a scruffy garden—a man, his one rock. No words exchanged, just the sound of wind between them, ruffling the man’s beard, passing smoothly over the rock’s surface.
     The man was prone to smile at his rock, its colors now bleached. He would raise it with both hands, fingering its grainy texture, probing its crevices.
     Rock solid, he whispered to himself on more than one occasion.
     One day the sight of the rock in the middle of the garden stopped him cold. The rock, weathered by the elements, had split apart along a deep crevice.
     The man fell to his knees before the fragmented rock and stared. One rock plus one rock equals… two… Again, two precious things belonged in his life.
     Oh, but which one should he touch first? His outstretched, trembling hands paused before each rock fragment as tears moistened the sides of his beard.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Poems Seven -- Alan Dugan

Here is Robert Pinsky's review of Alan Dugan's Poems Seven.  A good review, though I found it curious that the poem (Dugan's "best known" poem, apparently) was edited for length in the radio broadcast, though that was never mentioned.  I understand the need for brevity with radio broadcasts, but leaving out select "non-essential" parts of a poem (as opposed to using only an otherwise unaltered excerpt) and never mentioning it seems like dangerous ground.  I wonder if Dugan was consulted.  If not, Pinsky was taking quite an editorial liberty.  I think of poems of my own and shudder to think what a self-appointed editor might do with them to cut them down to a desired length.

Click here for the review on NPR.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Farang – Peter Blair

I thoroughly enjoyed this new collection—it was a delight to read, though in saying that I don’t mean that most of the poems were meant to be amusing. It is simply that they worked, and they worked together as a collection, too. In style, subject and attitude, Farang reminds me of Patrick Hicks's This London.

“Farang” is the Thai word for “foreigner”, and the focus of the collection is Blair’s experiences in Thailand. The sense of foreignness is woven throughout the collection, and applies not only to Americans in Thailand. An ex-monk just out of the monastery feels foreign; a Chinese son fled to Thailand sends letters home, to the amusement of the government censors; Blair feels foreign among his friends back in the states. The effect is a sense of unreality even within the activities of everyday life:

He’s naked except for flip-flops
and frayed jeans cut-off
above mid-thigh and tight
around his bulging belly.

Look at that farang strutting
down the sidewalk, I think,
sweaty, hairy-chest and shock
of frizzed, blond hair bright
in sunlight. Ragged pants,
no shirt, that beard.

I’m about to cross the street
to warn him that we Thais
find big white bodies unsettling
as ghosts, until I glimpse
my pale reflection in a store
window, my round farang eyes
staring back at me in wonder.
One thing I liked about Farang was the way that the poems connected and supported each other. Since Blair writes essentially in prose, unconcerned with any syntactic devices, the collection reads like snippets from a travel diary. As you continue to read, you get to know the personalities of recurring characters: Blair, his Thai girlfriend, his American associates, Thai friends and students. They interact in various situations and small threads of narrative develop. Other poems are not connected to this, but all are somehow concerned with exploring a strange new country that the poet clearly loves. 
Making Sticky Rice on Edgerton Place

I pour the dry white grains into water.
Golden chaff rises to the surface.
Remembering the rice’s bready smell,
the roots of my teeth stir, anticipating
its sticky sweetness. I ate it plain,
or wrapped in banana leaves and roasted
over coals, crunchy outside, a raisin hidden
in the center. I ate it with Sirpan,
at Professor Kwaam’s party.
In the cool season wind, I drove her home
on my bicycle. He came running
with a basket of sticky rice:
For later tonight. Now I stir the pan.
In the water, a curled brown thing wakes,
moves tiny antennae, legs hugging
a swelling rice grain. After 12,000 miles,
years in dry sacks, months on a shelf
at Kim Do Store, this creature revives
in the ricey water like a seed
opening, a memory: Sirpan’s smile
as she lifted her dress around her thighs
wading in the Mekong’s moonlight waves.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Garden of Beasts – Anita Sullivan

It's not that there is anything wrong with Anita Sullivan's Garden of Beasts, but I searched and searched for something that grabbed me, and I remain ungrabbed. Emily Dickinson said that she knew poetry if she felt as if the top of her head had been taken off, and with this collection, my skull rests intact.

Sullivan returns often to topics of birds and nature, of family, and of music. These are most interesting when they are combined somehow. My favorite poem was “Bach Muses Aloud”, a poem in which Sullivan atypically speaks in something other than her own voice, about something other than personal recollection:

My music comes from avoiding
all the spires of Leipzig.
As the clock is striking one
on my way to conduct the young boys,
around me shapes turn me
as if I were a many-sided pot
in a wheel of spikes.
Today this partita’s opening phrase
comes out of the loose left flap
of my trousers adhering to the corner of
that low stone stair.
Even the key is a noise plucked
from a passing hoof, or the pie-maker’s
cry. And if I were to tip
my head
back when my wig
is drawn suddenly to mate
with a cage on the bird-seller’s back
I could smile at the slow mordent
this impresses into a courante’s second ending.
It often feels like the images and scenes in each poem have potential, and remain undeveloped. They are interesting to observe as it is interesting to observe a closed-circuit TV camera, but simply watching things happen is different that watching a well-plotted story. Sullivan’s real talent is in the occasional image or simile that catches the reader off-guard:
But the notes bite,
peel my wing on the way past
like the pried-up lids of empty cans
village children use in wartime
to slit the throats of sparrows.
This image and this phrasing stick with me, though I quickly forget what the poem is about.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The River is Rising -- Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

One reason that Patricia Jabbeh Wesley’s The River is Rising is interesting is that she is both African (Liberian) and African-American, and she can stand with a foot on each continent.  Her poetry can thus bring together insights and observations from both worlds, and we can see a church service or a landscape in ways that might be alternately familiar or unfamiliar to us, depending on our background.

The thing that captures me about her poetry is the rhythm and pulse created by her repetition and arrangement of phrases.  She does not write verse, but her words are ebullient, and seem to bubble over the edges of the poem.  Simply to say that she uses many resumptive modifiers and absolute phrases makes it sounds like she is just using grammatical tricks, but when seen in action one can understand how she uses these to build energy and flow:

[...]She weeps when she teaches King Lear and his
good-for-nothing daughters.  King Lear, weeping

in the storm, King Lear giving away his fortune
before his death.  My professor wipes her large,

blue eyes when she remembers King Lear. 
I pity my professor who weeps for King Lear,

my professor loves the storm and the rain
and King Lear, caught in the rain [...]


[...] Yes, all the bones below the Mesurado or the St. Paul

or Sinoe or the Loffa River will be brought up
to land so all the overwhelming questions
can once more overwhelm us.

But they are bringing in our lost sister
on a high stool, and there she stands, waiving at those

who in refusing to die, simply refused to die [...]
A number of Wesley’s poems concern her awful experiences in Liberia’s civil strife under the dictator Charles Taylor.   She stands then as a witness to history, even though most of her poetry is made of personal emotion and observation.  Hers is an important role, yet I have to say that I liked much of her other poetry—also made of personal emotion and observation—better.  Poems such as “When My Daughter Tells Me She Has a Boyfriend” (there is tension over whether the boyfriend is black, and whether a mother has a right to ask) and “After the Memorial” (about a student’s death) touch me more.  I’m curious as to why.  Possibly I simply can relate better to things closer to my experience, and civil war is simply too far away; possibly it is just very difficult to memorialize the details of history and not sound like a news report.

Nevertheless, because of her broad range of experience and deft ability with imagery and words, “The River is Rising” offers something for everyone, written with sincerity and passion.

Poem Written From a Single Snapshot

On the beach in Monrovia
my children and I are building sandcastles.
You can see the Atlantic’s waves in the distance,
fighting for a place to roll their way onto shore.
Waves are flapping in the wind
as the tide rises up and down.
Before we know it, we are in the middle of water.
Besie is two years old.  MT, who is only
six months, clings a short arm around my knee.
He’s staring at Besie and the sandcastle
she’s erecting with her right foot.
This is how my mother taught me
to build a sandcastle.
You put your foot down and build mounds around it until
the castle becomes stable.
This is how we search for home.
You put your foot down in a place long enough
that new place becomes home.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Book of Emblems – Matthew Ladd

I have found T. S. Eliot’s love-grandchild.  From the first poem in “The Book of Emblems”, Matthew Ladd’s poetry seems imbued with similar themes, memes and style as Eliot’s.  Ladd’s poetry is well crafted and precise, and generally evokes a calm yet melancholy mood:


Out open windows usher in the cold.
The market falls, and gentle tycoons
postpone their vacations.  A billion children flock
to well-protected dunes

where one can watch the ridleys lay their eggs,
then leave before they swim away.
Each night is a boat, unmoored, that spins and drifts
into a waiting day

that disillusions no one.  No stray wind
erases the eye of your cigarette,
and Saturdays once mad with Chardonnay
are pacified an quiet.

The history books have ripened into fables.
Only a few old men, their hair-
less heads drawn down in collars of soft wool,
play hearts in a leaf-strewn square.

Along with Eliot’s tight control of words and general demeanor, other similarities leap out.  The pages of “The Book of Emblems” are filled with references to the Iliad, Dante, Rousseau, Friedrich Hölderlin, Sir James Frazier, Glen Gould and others.  If you are uncomfortable with cultural references, avoid this book.  Then there are the snatches of French and German, the habit of dividing poems into outline format (Ia, Ib, IIa…), a sense of aloofness: while I sometimes imagine Pablo Neruda tugging at my shirtsleeve, Eliot I often feel is avoiding eye contact—so too with Ladd.  His poem “Marcel Proust’s Last Summer Holiday” captures these traits perfectly.

Balbec’s only historical marker
is a 16th century iron starboard anchor
half-buried in Pinot Grigio.

No one goes there.  The fishmongers congregate
in martini bars inland from the old city
to drink pastis and sleep with each others’ daughters.

In April, a toxic luminescent algae
masses like crown fire atop the breakers;
fish wash up and are shoved in wheelbarrows.

And when you visit, three months out of the year,
you rarely need to ask questions.  Everything
is answered for you already, the gate unlatched,

the shutters pushed open.  You confess
things are not always as you remember:
the stalls still prop their skate-wings in beds of ice,

but L’Auberge des Oiseaux, over the off-season,
has renamed itself Le Harlequin Hotel.
Marcel, forgive them.  You, too, will end up a liar.

There you have it: muted dissatisfaction; tradition, culture and the decline of both; finding significance in mundane detail; Europe as seen by an outsider.  Eliot through and through.

In full recognition of Matthew Ladd’s poetic skill, I might make a small observation of personal taste: I like his poetry better when he leaves behind the Iliad and the coffee spoons and lets himself be more immediate and less reserved, and to play with language a bit.  My favorite poem was this:

        II. Poem

Start small: a pip.
Now a plate of pips:
mandarin, lemon, soursop.
Now a cluster
of Queen Anne’s Lace,
a blip
on the radar of an RAF pilot.

Now the pilot getting pipped
in the windpipe by a plug of shrap-
nel, roughly the size and shape
of a scarab beetle.
His fingers fly to his neck.
The biplane tailspins,
dives into the jungle.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love Birds Love Birds Love Birds Love

Throughout the vast sweep of the centuries
Through the years since the apple was bitten
To ensure good avian conduct
A number of laws have been written,

Some voted upon by the people
Some handed to us from above
That love birds cannot love love birds
Or birds that those love birds might love.

But though lawyers and senators squabble
And proscribe in a flurry of words
The excesses of avian affection
And which birds may be loved by which birds,

In the end they cannot change nature:
When push comes to squawk comes to shove,
Love birds cannot but love birds
That love birds cannot but love.

Happy Valentine's Day!  More reviews to come soon! 

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Ode Less Travelled—Stephen Fry

A fun new book from British actor, writer and humorist Stephen Fry is an introduction to poetry, a handbook of metrics and a treatise on poetry. Entitled The Ode Less Travelled, I think it fills all of the above roles quite well, and were I currently teaching a course on poetry, I would use it as the required text, or one of them. Fry writes in his own personal voice, erudite and witty, full of opinions and judgment, and that adds something which is missing from objective, scholarly textbooks.

I appreciate that Fry doesn’t shy away from technical language and questions of prosody. He points out that no beginning student of the piano is ever told “Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.” Says Fry, “We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result. Yet this is the only instruction we are ever likely to get in the art of writing poetry.” Later on, Fry adds, “It is useful and pleasurable to have a special vocabulary for a special activity. Convention, tradition and precision suggest this in most fields of human endeavour, from music and painting to snooker and snowboarding. It does not make those activities any less rich, individual and varied.”

One passage which caught my attention was this: “…it encourages readers to believe that they and the poet share the same discourse, intelligence and standing, inhabit the same universe of feeling and cultural reference; it does not howl in misunderstood loneliness, wallow in romantic agony or bombard the reader with learning and allusion from a Parnassian or abstrusely academic height.” The “it” in question? Light verse. Funny, I would have said this was a description of “good verse”. Not that I’m disagreeing with Fry—his definition according to popular usage is likely accurate. His characterization of “light verse” as potentially “moving, angry, erotic and even religious” yet still “not embarrassed by the idea of likeability and accessibility” is not false, but I find the implications tragic. Fry suggests that Modernism did much to extinguish this quality from poetry, an opinion I share.  This also brings to mind an anecdote from a friend of mine remembered from his university English class: upon suggesting that a particular poem was good in part because it was easy to understand, he was subjected, he claims, to audible snorts from his fellows.

Fry’s use of the phrases “howl in misunderstood loneliness” and “wallow in romantic agony” brings to mind an essay by Garrison Keillor from the Atlantic Monthly.
In it, Keillor agrees to judge a poetry contest: “Though I had no time at all, none, I said yes because I was angry about some awful stuff I'd read recently—dreadful sensitive garbage, and because dreadful people have plenty of time to serve as judges, this garbage had won awards. It was a book of essays by a Minnesota guy who specializes in taking walks in the woods and looking at the reflections of sunlight on small bodies of water and feeling grievous and wounded in a vague way—a thoughtful guy in a harsh unfeeling world with too much molded plastic furniture, and he mopes for a few pages and then resolves to soldier on as a sensitive writer. This guy's stuff reads like a very long letter from someone you wish would write to someone else, it is mournful and piteous as if he is about to ask if he can come and live in your home for a few months, but it won awards because it is pretentiously sad and is "about" something, maleness or the millennium, and that means his books will find their way into schools, his glum reflections will be disseminated among innocent schoolchildren, and they will learn that a great writer is one who can lead the reader away from the dangerous edge of strong feeling and into the barns of boredom. So the brighter ones—even though they love to write stories! —will decide not to be writers, and you'll have another writerless generation like the thirty-something adolescents of today, and our beloved country will pull the shades and sink ever deeper into the great couch of despond. That is why I agreed to judge the poetry contest: to save America.”

One of the poems that reaches Keillor is entitled “going to my brother's wedding reception at the minikahda club after seeing a documentary about rwanda". Keillor says, “I could easily—yes, easily—imagine some judges who would snatch this poem out of the pile, and give it the blue ribbon or the Naomi Windham Nissensen Award for Sensitivity of Greater Than Medium Length. I know people who might read the self-aggrandizing agony of the young man in the white tuxedo and think he was quite insightful: Teachers of creative writing who seduce their students into writing journals—yards and yards of sensitive wallpaper! Administrators of literary programs who keep humor alarms on their desks! Artistic politicos and commissars who insist that Literature must express the anger of oppressed people, thus forcing oppressed people to watch TV for their entertainment. Proponents of the Pain Theory of Literature and devotees of pitiful writing…”

I wonder if the attitudes expressed here have something to do with the fact that Stephen Fry and Garrison Keillor primarily entertainers, at least professionally, and assume (shock, horror) that good poetry would have some of the same qualities as a good novel, film or song: technical skill in its execution and audience appeal.

And as long as I'm at it, here's a clip from Stephen Fry's sketch show, ages and ages ago, with Hugh Laurie.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Gift that Arrives Broken – Jacqueline Berger

Jacqueline Berger’s poetry is the poetry of everyday life, through which some insight—sometimes transcendental, sometimes merely intriguing—is seen. This poetry doesn’t have an agenda, isn’t part of a movement, does not aspire to revolution. Each poem is a short personal essay. I suppose you could call it “Flash Non-Fiction”, though most poems are longer than such a genre would indicate. It reminds me in ways of David Sedaris’s writing, but more brief, and not as constrained by the need for cohesion. Berger is free to connect seemingly dissimilar thoughts or observations and watch the light refract off of them. Also, she is not a humorist—the comparison to Sedaris has more to do with her ability to make keen observations based on everyday life in skillful essay-style prose. Aging, marriage and family are frequent subjects. Berger’s meditations on the illness and inevitable death of both of her parents are so prominent a focus that it became a motif of the collection, but Berger’s treatment is neither morose nor lugubrious. In “My Mother’s Refrigerator”, for instance, Berger contrasts her desire to clean with her mother’s pack-rat tendencies. The result is touching:
My mother tells me it’s okay.
I sweep the crumbs, stack
the papers she won’t toss.
Some day they’ll be mine
to do with as I wish.
And the food will be mine
the encrusted, the furred,
apples that soften to their end,
lamb that hardens.
I’ll want to keep it all
just to keep the argument alive.
I appreciate the fact that Berger’s stylistics are not the focus of her poetry. Her prose is pure, and not a hodge-podge of warped syntax. This allows her to be clear, accessible and poignant. One of the things that I liked the most was how in many poems she brings up a thought or image and comes back to it at the end, whereupon it has new significance. It’s not a “twist” at the end, but more of a “click”: you suddenly understand why this particular image is so important. Here’s an example:
At the Table

Those who practice moderation,
their faces mild and benign,
their plates cleared away
with half their dinner remaining,
don’t believe every meal is their last,
but even if this one is,
they’re fine leaving some of it untouched.
Then there are those of us who order the bottle
because the best wines
aren’t offered by the glass.
We share dessert, but share two of them
because we love both chocolate and plums.
Our off switch doesn’t work, Lisa says,
and the next day’s punishment of pleasure
is just part of the bargain.
Her dog tosses a stuffed snake across the room
in the gleeful dance dogs do to celebrate a visitor.
He’s a big dog, mastiff and pit bull,
scary looking with gold eyes
which makes me want to trust him
the way I’d give a thug a second chance.

Joy may be ephemeral
as the full moon swaying on an alpine lake,
but we are like the villagers
in the fairy tale I read as a child
who thought they could scoop
a chunk into their bowls and eat it.
The author intended his young reader
to understand the foolishness of this,
but I loved the villagers,
up all night with their slotted spoons
digging in the milky water.
Maybe they pulled buns from wicker baskets
and shared them with their neighbors,
the floury moon, the custardy moon
one way or another filling their mouths.

The body is a source of joy
but also the servant.
We feel no compunction
keeping it up all night
then calling the the morning for a favor.
And desire is a dog
that’s bred to kill,
but we let him in the house
and love him.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Interesting Article

Good morning.  More reviews will come soon.  In the meantime, here is a recent article on death haiku sent to me today by a friend.  As it turns out, I am currently reading James Clavell's Shogun, and though the plot is focused primarily on culture shock and power struggles, poetry, and its place in Japanese culture, comes up every so often.  Characters compose short verses as a prompt or response to each other, sometimes as a game, sometimes to share a moment together.  Near the end, one of the main characters, ordered to commit seppuku, composes a death poem before carrying out the order.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Decomposition—Renée Roehl & Kelly Chadwick, eds.

Well, Christmas is well past, and I have a long list of titles for review. This is exciting. It’s like being turned loose in a candy store. Actually, I was turned loose in a candy store once, and I couldn’t finish everything I took and felt a bit ill afterwards. Let’s hope the same isn’t true of poetry.

So since I can pick anything, the first title I choose is Decomposition: an anthology of fungi-inspired poems, because it’s just such a cool idea. Poetry sometimes takes itself too seriously—an anthology like this reminds me of making a mix-tape, injecting a note of fun into what has the potential to nevertheless be an inspired collection. The authors within include some biggies: William Butler Yeats, Gary Snyder, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver and Robert Bly, as well as many others. I find myself excited to see what any and all of them have to say about fungus.

Of course, many are not about fungus per se, but rather use something closely associated—mushroom hunting, for example—to explore something deeper. But you expected that, right? The haiku master Issa writes
before my hand
stretched out for the mushroom,
a butterfly breathing
Many poets find mushrooms an interesting, useful metaphor. The way that mushrooms grow secretly, silently, pushing their way through the leaf litter of hidden forests inspired poems by Jane Whitledge, Nance Van Winckel and Sylvia Plath. For Laura Kasischke, the hook is the idea of the vast expanse of tiny filaments comprising a single organism: the 2200-acre fungus in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest.
We have waited all our lives
to taste it, waited
through hate & rain, licking
the wind, spooning through the fog, while it
spread in all directions, rolled
through the forests, across the fertilized lawns. Call
it mildew, mushroom, smut. What
is it if not
the world’s moldy heart?
Blood-surge, sweet meat, sleep. It is
a gorgeous sprawling brain, dreaming
you & me.
It is interesting to see what else tends to be connected with fungus, and how. When poets bring up the eating of mushrooms, for example, it often is to contrast something deep and ancient (mushroom) with something modern and superficial (cuisine). Decay and rot are an frequent focus, as well as earth, rebirth, and even eroticism (the physical similarity of mushrooms to genitalia does not escape the notice of a few poets, including one of my favorite writers, Sherman Alexie):
[…] I often pause in the middle of lovemaking
to think about the fog-soaked forest into which we all travel
to think about the damp, dank earth in to which we all plunge
our hands

to search for water and spore and root and loam
to search for water and room and roof and home.

As one might expect, verse is hardly represented, abandoned as it has been by contemporary poets. Exceptions include Emily Dickinson and W. B. Yeats. Dickinson’s is a delightful poem I had never read before:
The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants—
At Evening, it is not—
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop upon a Spot

As if it tarried always
And yet its whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay
And fleeter than a Tare—

’Tis Vegetation’s Juggler—
The Germ of Alibi—
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie—
Richard Wilbur and Elizabeth Bishop also write excellent verse; I was pleasantly surprised by Bishop—I always think of her as writing prose poetry, but the rhyme and structure of “The Shampoo” is intriguing and the images evocative:
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.
Decomposition: an anthology of fungi-inspired poems is a great success. It seems fitting to leave you with the final stanza of Richard Wilbur’s “Children of Darkness”.
Gargoyles is what they are at worst, and should
They preen themselves
On being demons, ghouls, or elves,
The holy chiaroscuro of the wood
Still would embrace them. They are good.