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.