Posted May 1, 2011
The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception :: The Grief Performance :: What Other Choice :: Color Plates :: The Year 3000: A Dream :: Light Lifting :: Applies to Oranges :: The Alphabet Conspiracy :: Where We Think It Should Go :: The Book of Emblems :: Beauties :: A New Red :: In the Kingdom of the Sons :: Lightning's Dance Floor :: Animal Magnetism :: The Paris Poems :: Brushstrokes and Glances :: The Patience of Horses :: Perishables :: From the Box Marked Some Are Missing :: No Eden
Poetry by Martha Silano
Saturnalia Books, February 2011
ISBN 13: 978-0-9818691-9-4
Paperback: 90pp; $14.00
Review by Kristin Abraham
Although she has published two books prior, I’d never read Martha Silano’s work, but she’s earned a new fan in me after reading this, her latest volume. Chosen by Campbell McGrath for the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception definitely deserves such an honor. Buy it, and you’ll have a constantly surprising little treasure in your collection to return to often.
These poems are quirky and playful, yet serious and impactful on several levels.
The book begins with a section titled “What I Will Tell the Aliens,” which—of course—features poems exploring “otherworld” encounters. It is here where we’re first introduced to Silano’s exceptional ear for conversational dialect:
…It’s like Mardi Gras threw up
in my den, Santiago’s saying, my diseased mouth propped open
while he scrapes; but that’s nothing. My dad? He worked, you know,
in commercial wiring. So, this one time, he goes touch that and I’m like
is it hot? And he’s all of course not, no, no, go ahead. So I touch it
and it knocks me out. Know what he says? Don’t trust nobody.
We’re also introduced to wonderful moments of play with language, rhythm and sound, as in the poem “Her Panel,” which calls to mind works such as Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary:
is a smooth-legged diction vixen
is go-go boored
is a tribute to the demystified domestic
to the mystic
to the frisky
this many-gendered-splendor investigation
is a play date collaboration
is a get-me-a-glass-of-water praline
After this section, the presence of aliens seems to disappear, which leaves the reader wondering for a while how the aliens fit in with conception and bearing and raising children, religion, motherhood. They do reappear, at the end of the third section, which might be a little too “late”; however, with that reappearance, connections among the poems seem to take shape, and that is the only real hiccup in the book.
These poems are searching for our place in the universe, for explanation. And they go to God, to aliens, to children, to the earth/nature for enlightenment; Silano’s poems are not discriminatory. They seem to take the “awe” away from prayer and religion in order to ground it in the immediately real, the more understandable—but still reverent:
I believe in the dish in the sink
not bickering about the dish in the sink
though I believe the creator
of the mess in the living room
cleans up the mess in the living room
sucks up cracker pizza potpie peanut popcorn
and I believe in the earth which also ends up on the rug
which must also be vacuumed up as I acknowledge
our blessings running water not teeming with toxins
At times, The Little Room of the Immaculate Conception is nearly laugh-out-loud funny:
I Wanted to Be Hip
but with a kid strapped into the stroller
my size 38EE breasts my husband
accidentally hi there mammary glands
but with not knowing which belt
black with silver studs or multi-colored sash
which sandals wedge or flip-flop
then which flip-flop beaded or bangled
instead I got escorted to the elevator for the un-hip
child on each hip for the totally un-tuned-in
“It’s All Gravy,” Salinas writes, and God is the cook,
a benevolent meddling like the hand
that stirs and stirs as the liquid steams
obvious and simple everything and nothing
my gravy your gravy our gravy the cosmological constant’s
As a totality, the poems in The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception offer no clear existential answers or explanations—how could they?—but what they do offer readers is an evident appreciation for the here-and-now: “and this is just what happens.” This book is a unique and delightful collection, a promise of surprises.
Poetry by Emily Kendal Frey
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, January 2011
Paperback: 61pp; $15.95
Review by Alissa Fleck
Emily Kendal Frey toys with the utmost minimalism in The Grief Performance. In the first section of the book, her poems strongly favor striking imagery over narrative with—at-times cryptic—snapshot poems consisting of very short lines and frequent line breaks. The images are nonetheless powerful, always expanding unconventionally on a telling title, including six pieces entitled “The End.” Death is, pertinently, the great equalizer in Frey’s poems: “Then you die / in the big wooden chest of glory / alone,” she writes in “Meditation on a Meditation of Frost” and “We’re all going / to the same place” in “The March.”
The second section of her book moves into a longer, more narrative form, which still manages to convey a significant amount in few words though they are more plentiful. Frey’s poems are exceedingly sensuous while performing the expression of emptiness, grief, failure, and “faking it.” There is a great deal of emphasis on the corporeal, particularly images of the body physically opening up in a way that is almost delicate rather than gruesome.
The third and final section is one extended sequence piece which returns to the minimalistic form and incorporates what appears to be found poetry—the poet expands cleverly on small quoted quips. Frey is a master of the two and three line poems, which leave a lingering bitter taste once the reader has moved past the page. Despite the collection’s title and recurring themes, Frey does not deprive us of great beauty, as she searches for the real meaning of success: “so love becomes / a blue thing / and we shine,” she writes in “The End.” Simple, but perfect: an analysis which sums up the entire book.
Poetry by Jeremy Halinen
Exquisite Disarray, 2011
Paperback: 74pp, $12.95
Review by Angela Veronica Wong
Jeremy Halinen’s debut book of poems, What Other Choice, is an urgent collection of poems, driven by acknowledging the physicality of being gay in spaces that do not always allow for it. Exploring bodies—“as if my body // had been the trap,” Halinen writes—through sex and through violence is a focus throughout the collection. Halinen writes the body as a thing understood and alien, as something presented and interpreted, as something that is not necessarily but also necessarily representative of the self: “If…this body / a magnet, // would you understand / why I was here?”
Halinen plays with dichotomies: between inside and outside, between private and public, between religion and sexuality, love and violence. He sets up a delicate balance in his poetry, using crystalline, almost innocent, language often immediately countered by a following image of savagery. As if daring his readers to turn away, he flashes harsh, “ugly” words—cock, fisting, fuck, ejaculation—words of overbearing masculinity, words that threaten, inviting them into the poems at unexpected moments. But within the context of what surrounds them, these words that menace violence are almost tender. They are painful reminders of what is demanded of being out and gay, of how a gay man is defined and interpreted, by others, by himself: “So I missed my ex-boyfriend’s // funeral. I was busy fisting my current / boyfriend, his first time, if you must know.” The bravado masks sadness, and the sadness provides strength.
One of the most powerful poems in the collection, “The End of Time,” shows Halinen’s control of narrative and line:
After church, the older boys
chased me. I was all tongue and lifted
lips, thought they wanted to wrestle
me down and kiss me.
One returned and muscled me down.
He sat on my chest
and, before I could get a hard-on,
lifted my head toward his
and smashed it down on the sidewalk
again and again, like an innocent cock
forced to try to rape the cold, hard ass
of a statue…
The poem explores the conflation of arousal and violence and the dehumanization of the “I” through the parallel simile of raping a statue. A mere two words—“after church,”—gives the reader access to the personal guilt and social condemnation of the speaker’s feelings. And yet the innocent desire, the frustrating hopefulness present in the speaker’s narration is beautiful. To experience Halinen’s poetry, is to accept that brutality shares much with beauty, and to know we are rarely able to have one without the other.
In the last poem of the collection, Halinen writes: “I know no other way / to say this, so I’m waiting for the world / to make me new, suitable words.” In What Other Choice, Halinen takes words that are available to him to build a story of heartbreak and resiliency, of how to turn questioning into determination. Yes, these are poems that live on the edge of a building, one minute from drowning. And yes, there is fear but there is faith as well, love poems folded into elegies, fond remembrances and perhaps shameless recollections. The urgency arising in the poems is an urgency to live. As Halinen tells us: “Sometimes beneath me / buildings rise and I don’t // want to jump.”
Fiction by Adam Golaski
Rose Metal Press, September 2010
Paperback: 209pp; $15.95
Review by Alex Myers
Composed of sixty-three petite fictions, Color Plates combines excellent prose with a unique organizing principle, making this a volume unlike any other. The stories are sorted into four books, each book containing prose relating to an artist: Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Mary Cassatt. Each of these books contains more than a dozen stories, which take their titles from the names of paintings by the artists – “Woman Fixing Her Stocking,” “The Boating Party,” or “The Dance Class,” for instance. Each title is accompanied by a brief description of the paintings while the stories that follow respond to, recreate, inhabit, and expand the world of these pictures.
Some of the stories simply animate the picture, setting the static images in motion. “Luncheon in the Studio,” for example, has the narrator walk into Manet’s painting. The items in the story are consistent with the items in the painting: “On the table was a plate of oysters over ice, a lemon—curl of peel dangling—a wine goblet, and tea cup.” The people, however, are transformed. Or, not transformed, because they look the same, “dressed in yellow pants, a black velvet jacket, and a yellow hat,” but given identity. The men in the painting are now publishers, the narrator there to see them for an appointment. The fiction that follows brings the painting to life, reads into and over everything that Manet put there originally.
Other stories offer commentary on art. The creation, the style, the inspiration, the method of making paintings all figure into the fiction. Some of the more subtle aspects of artistic commentary were positively beguiling. For instance, in “Claude Monet in his ‘Studio,’” a painting that depicts the artist at work in a little boat with a woman on board with him, Golaski crafts a dialogue between the artist and the woman – the woman talking and the artist painting. In fact, the artist is painting the woman: “he dips the tip of his brush onto her skin...swirls the boar bristles around and again.” She takes shape and form under his artistry, which is a lovely enough image. But then Golaski lifts it even farther, when the artist suggests that the woman go for a swim and “she strips. Beneath her clothes, there is nothing for her to be modest about—there is nothing.” The fiction asks what is art, what is subject, what is perception. At its best, this collection makes the reader reconsider both visual art and fiction writing.
When I first sat down to read this collection, I approached it as I would any other short story collection. But soon I found myself wanting to see the paintings that were being written about. I set up my laptop and found an online image for each painting that Golaski writes about. Though this slowed down the reading process, it enriched it tremendously. I found myself switching between book and image, studying the painting for the detail referred to in the story. Some were easy to find, as in “Breakfast after the Bath” where “the floor is covered with carpets: strewn,” while other details were more evasive. In the same story, the bather dries off and “puts on a blue, flannel, shapeless dress.” Does she? Is that the rag of blue hanging in the background? Or is this fiction, an invention of Golaski’s? The interplay between the real paintings and the fictional world added a unique dynamic to the reading experience.
Many moments in this volume are breath-taking and original. The sheer number of pieces, coupled with my desire to study the paintings on which they are based, made reading a lengthy process, but an enjoyable one. This is a collection certain to delight those who delight in short form fiction and those who delight in the visual.
Fiction by Paolo Mantegazza
Translated from the Italian by David Jacobson
Bison Books, November 2010
Paperback: 207pp; $19.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Clean energy, universal healthcare, and stress-free air travel are reality. There is no crime or homelessness. The universal language is called Cosmic. Political parties are banished to desert islands. Hamlet is still performed. All this and more is the world Italian anthropologist Paolo Mantegazza creates in The Year 3000: A Dream. Translated into English for the first time as part of The University of Nebraska’s “Bison Frontiers of the Imagination Series,” this entertaining 1897 novel has been rescued from the black hole of book oblivion.
Mantegazza presents his future in the form of a travelogue. This easygoing approach presents the “cosmic civilization” of the United Planetary States as accepted fact or through the eyes of the characters. There is no brainwashing of the populace (though mindreading is imminent), drug-induced consciousness, or deviants seeking revolution. Everyone is happy. The lack of inferred commentary might surprise readers of Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin, but it is refreshing.
However—as in any utopia—there is unsettling business. The Year 3000’s travelers are the inventor Paolo and his fiancée Maria. They love each other and the world they live in. The pair is making their way in a private aircraft (part of everyday life!) from Rome eastward towards the United Planetary States’ capital city of Andropolis to see if their “love match” now qualifies as a “mating match.” The Year 3000 is one where life is so cherished that parenthood is sanctified by the State. Perhaps readers of this era may not think this is such a bad idea with the abduction/recruitment of child soldiers, social workers and educators failing to recognize at-risk children, or children of the rich and famous achieving fashion icon status. Paolo explains to Maria the basis of cosmic society:
A large assembly of sociologists and biologists buried socialism and founded the United Planetary States, governed by the best and more honest through a two-phase election. The government of dull-witted majorities was replaced by a government of knowledgeable, honest minorities. Nature’s aristocracy was copied by humankind, who made it the basis of human society. But, unfortunately we are still only halfway there. The art of choosing the best has not yet come; and men and women thinkers, the priests of thought and priestesses of feeling, still toil to find the best way, so that every man born to woman should have the rightful place nature accorded him at birth.
Later, the pair observes genetic testing on newborns to determine whether or not they are fit to live. As the doctor (now called a hygeian) explains, “Eliminating babies destined for suffering and premature death is the true act of pity.”
Besides guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens from birth, Paulo, Maria, and readers learn a great deal about four great concerns of cosmic civilization: agriculture, health, education, and industry fused with commerce. Religion still exists but “Hope” is the core belief. The couple and everyone they encounter know their world is not perfect and embrace innovation to make it better. Mantegazza wisely has an Engineer describe this fusion of faith and knowledge:
The Gospel of Christ was in its day a sacred work, a great battle won by universal justice, but in the twentieth century Edison’s school wrote another book on the applications of electricity that exerted a much more powerful influence on the morality of the future.
Hence, The Dream of the book’s title explained.
In addition to predicting the demise of socialism, the author has other interesting insights. A “great war” is prophesized eerily evoking both World Wars. One battle description could be mistaken for Gallipoli. Mantegazza envisions a powerful India, home of Andropolis. Today, this is a reality in industry and cinema but consider that The Year 3000 was written when India was part of the British Empire. In addition to private airplanes, other devices that make life in cosmic civilization easier include an “algophobus,” a sophisticated CAT scan machine, and an unnamed device for messaging that works “via telegraphic dispatches that were automatically written in luminous characters in a small black box kept in darkness.” Too bad smart phone users pour out onto the sidewalk in daylight.
Like Dante, Mantegazza loves all things Italian. Also like Dante, he cannot resist inserting himself in the text or poking fun at his contemporaries. His United Planetary States is noble and progressive, yet slightly biased. The author’s most glaring error in judgment is the prediction French Impressionism is a fluke:
At the end of the nineteenth century there came a period of great decadence, particularly in architecture and painting. At that time mediocre artists, too proud to copy antiquity and not knowing how to create any new form of beauty, lapsed into grotesquery.
By The Year 3000’s publication in 1897, Impressionism’s influence was permanent not only impacting painting but music, poetry, and drama as well. What is accurate is that the movement was both genuinely polarizing and revolutionary.
The Year 3000 is indeed an alternative universe where the world is a better place for all and true love is the most powerful force in the universe. Enjoy the trip.
Fiction by Alexander MacLeod
Biblioasis, April 2011
Paperback: 219pp, $16.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Finalist for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, Alexander McLeod writes his first short story collection, Light Lifting, with intense physical details and mostly dark but realistic endings.
The emphasis is on the physical, whether it be two first-rate runners trying to outrun a train in a dark rat-infested tunnel between Windsor and Detroit, or the life of lice next to a baby’s dangerous plunge towards death, or a woman’s swimming to overcome her fear of water only to face a greater danger in the Detroit river, or a kid drugstore courier bicycling in snow and ice and falling into traffic, or a kid experiencing bad sunburn while hauling bricks, or another kid’s violent initiation into a family of boys’ games, or an injured man walking thirty miles rather than getting into a car.
MacLeod immerses the reader in the characters’ often threatening world. The first story “Miracle Mile” gives the serious runner’s world:
The numbers meant more than the words and the smaller numbers meant more than the bigger ones. It was like we belonged to our own little country and we had this secret language that almost nobody else understood. Almost nobody can tell you the real difference between 3:36 and 3:39…Put it this way: if you ever wanted to cross over that gap, if you ever wanted to see what it was like on the other side, you would need to change your entire life and get rid of almost everything else…Can’t run and have a full-time job…Can’t run and have a girlfriend who doesn’t run…
I used to think that a bus full of track people on their way to a meet was like one of those old fashioned circus trains with…all the freak show people…Each of us had one of those strange bodies designed to do only one thing…
If I ever have a kid, …I’ll move him from track …to something with a team or something where you can put the blame on your equipment if it all goes wrong…
It always got bad before the biggest competitions…like before the Olympic trials. You’d get stuck with this feeling like when you’re blowing up a balloon and you know you’re almost at the limit and you’re not sure if you should give it that little extra puff because there might still be room for a last bit of air or it might just explode in your face.
The runners’ values are molded by their experience: “We have to scrounge for meaning wherever we can find it and there’s no way to separate our faith from our desperation…We can only value what we yearn for and it really does not matter what others think…We are what we want most and there are no miracles without desire.” And yet the ending defies some of these values, as runners are sadly only human.
Since lice have been with us from historical times and are hard to eliminate for good, MacLeod has to “Wonder about the Parents” in terms of asking whether parents are negligent or how committed they are in stopping the problem. He sets this question alongside the realistic tale of a baby sicker than her parents think. It is a fact of human nature to not know when and why disease and lice thrive.
One of the most disturbing stories is “Adult Beginner I,” because the reader feels the woman’s fear of water: “the recordings of breaking waves some people used for relaxation—they gave her a twisting feeling deep in her gut and bowels, as if someone were wringing out her intestines like a wet dishcloth.” A near catastrophic childhood event caused this fear:
Across the road, the water streamed in steady and grey and metallic, like an assembly line churning through its rotations. Before they broke, the waves rose up three or four feet, not big but jagged-looking and ugly. You could see chunks of debris and streaks of roiled up seaweed in their faces like lines of graffiti scrawled on broken concrete walls.
The undertow was “water, working like a rope, like a tangled line attached to a massive winch at the bottom. I am going down the drain, she thought. I am going down.” Even with fear, insights emerge “We are made most specifically by the things we cannot bear to do…Fear is our most private possession.”
Many of the stories leave us hanging. A few turn the good fortune around to end in a fight. Defeat but also resilience, unsentimentally shown. Characters are less memorable than the threatening events, but the writing is strong, like a light in the dark.
Poetry by Maureen Thorson
Ugly Duckling Presse, March 2011
Paperback: 59pp; $13.00
Review by Marcus Myers
The title of Maureen Thorson’s first full-length book Applies to Oranges announces the project’s aesthetic intentions with a sort of typographic pun. At first glance, your brain decodes the title as “Apples to Oranges” and, since you’re most likely an adult with years of experience reading and categorizing, the momentary discordance in discovering the intentional error likely pleases you as much as the first time you walked your stubborn, teenaged eyes up and down M.C. Escher’s infinite staircase to visit his impossible rooms. A sort of double sound pun (where one word sounds like another) for the page, the title readies us for the ways in which Thorson will break apart linguistic categories, subvert the order of things, and refashion the language of loss for her own uses.
We realize from the first lines of the first poem (the first in this book-length series) that Thorson’s squat little poems (most are around 12 lines long) have some heavy lifting to do. We learn that someone close to the speaker has gone away, either dead or missing:
I’d rather tell you a better story, but
disease and boredom and a bad connection
brought that plan to night. You took off
with the oranges and the spiders,
the ending and the plot, and left me
with the Zenith’s chrome housing,
the cruise ships in their moorings.
With the title’s punning in mind, “disease” immediately reads as dis-ease, and thus “a bad connection” takes an existential or psychological tone, and we realize “the ending and the plot” and the bad reception has little to do, really, with electronic cables or signals. We also notice the play on the idiomatic “brought to night [naught].” The “you” who “took off with / the oranges and the spiders” must have walked away with two of the speaker’s cardinal directions, with her way of making sense of the world. “The orphans / and beachheads, … / The satellites’ red signals. The hotel’s / common gestures. Once you were gone, / there were only these few things left,” the opening poem ends. This economically sound poem establishes the series’ matrix of personal symbol. Reading through the series, each mentioning of oranges, spiders, tourists, scheming, imaginative orphans, ships at sea, satellites, and the television set (static, test pattern, or blue) adds to the pattern of recursive expression Thorson weaves from the emotional center of the speaker’s loss.
What, exactly, the speaker has lost is never clear to us, even while the location of her loss remains close-at-hand. She writes:
High in soft mountains, where indigo
is the color of shadow, spiders crawl.
In that place, there is no purpose,
but there is a system that sends me
to the porch at daybreak to watch the mist
dissolve over what used to be oranges,
where I hear the Zenith’s test pattern
drown in birdsong…
The system she refers to here seems to be language and the imagination, maybe even lyric poetry itself, with its ability to transmute the ethereal ugliness of personal trauma into something beautiful and knowable: “The boneless pulsing / that carried you off might return you yet.”
Thorson’s form—the compact, candy bar elliptical poem with medium line-lengths—serves her well throughout. Capitalizing on internal rhyme, consonance and assonance, and utterances sculpted into gorgeous syntactic units by line break and punctuation, her sound work is considerable:
…The Zenith clicks to commercial
and flicks its light across the table, where
a hardbacked Sonnets from the Portuguese
stands idly tented in its orange binding.
Outside, treefrogs sing their one refrain:
it’s night it’s night it’s night.
While reading, I kept hearing the sounds the poems made as various parts of a painting. Often the images (of the moon as “a peeled orange / admiring itself in the darkened river,” for example) combined with the sounds that formed them to complete an experience similar to standing inches away from an abstract representational canvas. Taken in as a whole, however, these sonically laden images create an incomplete picture, which successfully speaks to the aims of Thorson’s project. “I used to tell stories. Things swelled, / and crested. In a word they ended / …No sunsets and no after. Only holes / strung together, a succession of lacks / …its sections more spacious than any story, / too expansive for an ending to take.” Applies to Oranges accomplishes what the best lyric poetry sets out to do: it resists the temptations of resolution and closure. Instead it frees language to sing about the only sure thing, which is the heartache of our world’s impermanence: “the biggest fish, the departing ship, / our house decaying hourly into landscape— / …the things that fail are the only things that stay.”
Poetry by Rita Mae Reese
Arktoi Books, February 2011
Paperback: 79pp; $17.95
Review by Alissa Fleck
Rita Mae Reese’s The Alphabet Conspiracy is a book replete with anecdotes and snapshots of memory, ranging in subject matter from the religious to the informatively historical to the contemporary, which thoroughly explore both the whimsy and restrictions of language. The first poem in the collection, “Intercession,” is a sort of loose, and strikingly clever abecedarian, which sets the stage for the unpredictable throughout Reese’s book, and, by the nature of its form, hints at the way children are introduced to and subsequently forever influenced by language. There is a huge emphasis on the exploration of language throughout the book’s poems, with particular pieces devoted entirely to the complexities and nuances of the subject. Language as theme also works itself into poems dealing with much heavier subject matter. Reese is clearly a lover of the strange in words and thought, and seeks every opportunity to highlight it for the reader. Reese writes in the collection’s title poem:
no one could tell us what to do.
We know grammar is just a byproduct,
like schizophrenia, of a brain that grew
too fast for its own good
Her work explores language as simultaneously a source of despair and salvation. Without language perhaps human suffering could be lessened, perhaps we could be freer, but language is also a safe, neutral ground we can return to when the world is too much. Reese’s gift lies in her ability to swing the camera from the general and hyperbolic to the small yet satisfying details, leaving us with the lasting glow of beautiful imagery. The poet is able to make the reader enter her world, even sustaining interest throughout the poetic deconstruction of a single word, as in “Hunger.” There is a real sadness to this book as well as it interweaves snippets of familial turmoil and tenderness and toys with death, but it never throws the reader fully overboard without a way back.
Poetry by Claire Becker
Octopus Books, December 2010
Paperback: 75pp; $12.00
Review by Kristen Heine
We tend to have expectations for who people should be, what things we should do, how language should act... all of these ideas for what the world and our lives should be like. Everything has its place. Claire Becker, in her collection of poetry, Where We Think It Should Go, asks us to take a step back from those traditional (mis)conceptions. She uses language to play with boundaries, and moves us to see that we can perhaps better make sense of things when they’re less clear:
I only know
in movie lighting,
not summer morning.
The language and cadence in her poems is playful, though she is considering (or reconsidering) what our place in the world is; bodies fold into themselves, minutes become lifetimes, words turn into “brown earth,” into sky, into rain, into gestures. The way that she arranges the words in her work mimics this coming together of things, people, and places; the poem is an extension of our bodies—“the possible”:
the physical fact of being
one person + the physical fact of being more.
Next to napkin and packet of soy sauce on the table.
Becker’s work implores the reader to think about how the way that we’re used to connecting with other people and places has no meaning, or at least not the right/important meaning. She speaks of little moments, things that would frustrate a lot of people, and finds the beauty in them:
A slowdown can last
forty-five minutes. You’re watching
the accident, I’m watching the slowdown.
The way that she writes gets the reader to explore her poems in the same way that she explores the world—there aren’t many obvious connections. This looseness can sometimes be tricky to navigate, as the poem often takes you to unexpected places. Though as you move through the book, wonderfully strange relationships begin to develop, and themes—water, the recording of events, love—draw these seemingly random happenings together. Where We Think It Should Go is a book that you’ll want to keep coming back to.
Poetry by Matthew Ladd
Waywiser Press, January 2011
Paperback: 80pp; $15.95
Review by Renee Emerson
Matthew Ladd’s poetry collection, The Book of Emblems, reminded me of a modern take on Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. Larkin, perhaps an influence on Ladd’s work, is referred to in his poem “Imitation,” which begins “When I read Philip Larkin / and picture him mugging to Kingsley about WATCHING SCHOOL-GIRLS” and goes on to say, admiringly, “Larkin is such an unrepentant asshole / and for all that, still beautiful, // like an aging circus performer.” The author admires and identifies with Larkin in the difficulty of writing poetry, concluding “how impossible the accurate naming of things: / cathedrals, children, the blank self-regard of the bachelor.”
The “blank self-regard of the bachelor” encapsulates the tone of this collection. The poems offer an intelligent and detached perspective on life. In “And the Merciful Harrow Grew Dull,” the speaker begins to allow the reader into his inner thoughts, delving into his memories of his deceased mother. The poem pulls back, however, in the concluding lines, focusing instead on the ending of The Trial, then on speaker’s changed perspective of the world as “apologetic” rather than cruel. Though the poems are largely about the author, they keep a certain distance, focusing more on the author’s knowledge rather than the author’s inward life. In “Fountain of the Planet of the Apes,” this theme is summed up in the lines “She said, ‘Our knowledge removes us from our past,’ / and I didn’t say, ‘It also removes us from each other.’”
In keeping with the attention to self, Ladd concludes the collection with a poem obsessing about his work, “Coelacanth.” Resisting writing, he states:
Is it such a crime to stop writing?
We all could burn our manuscripts
and not once dwell on their absence.
Then I would be at liberty
to sit all day at the kitchen table
carving toys for my children
The second stanza of the short poem goes on to conclude with a news report of fisherman catching a coelacanth, a metaphor such as the ones he is trying to “burn,” representing the elusive and rare action of writing a truly great poem.
The Book of Emblems, though aloof, is a collection with substance, one that is well-worth the read.
Fiction by Mary Troy
BkMk Press, November 2010
Paperback: 365pp; $16.95
Review by Alex Myers
Delicate, patient, and loving, Mary Troy’s novel Beauties offers what only good novels can: a world the reader can escape into. Set in the year 2000 in a seedy neighborhood in St. Louis, Beauties tells the story of two cousins who move in together. Bev, a woman born with severe physical disabilities (she is missing a leg and all but one of her fingers), has just opened a café and, in addition to cooking, is busy fending off a lawsuit from her previous job. Her cousin, Shelly, fresh from a divorce, moves in to help run the café. Soon, both women are handling all the drama life in an urban café can provide.
Troy alternates the point-of-view in each chapter, and though the voices of Bev and Shelly don’t vary much in terms of style and diction, their worldviews are certainly distinctive. Bev is the pessimist (no doubt she’d say realist), the one who has had to tough life out. Shelly is the optimist, a former model, a believer that everything can be made better. As both women fall in love, struggle with loss, and come to terms with what success means, their viewpoints shift and develop: Troy makes her characters believable and convincing.
Food, though, is the main character in this book. Though Bev’s ambitions for the café are minimal—of serving the customers, she says “pitching mice to the inhabitants of the zoo’s reptile house would have been as interesting”—Shelly takes cooking as her new calling. Her first breakthrough dish is a new take on pork cutlets, and she relates her plans in exacting detail:
I decided to add a Mexican touch to the German and dust the cutlet with cumin. Rather than gravy, I would make a sauce of orange and lemon juice and garlic to give it even more bite. Instead of the mashed potato/green bean/applesauce/ sauerkraut accompaniment, I chose to serve the pork over greens marinated in an Asian sauce that would pick up the citrus flavors of the cutlet sauce. I made that Asian sauce first by mixing the peanut oil, lime juice, a shallot, a chili, fish sauce, and sugar. Then I sautéed some mustard greens, bok choy, and some basil from my backyard garden, then tossed it all with the sauce and let it sit as I started on the cutlets.
This is not a book to read when hungry, but it is a book to read when looking for culinary (and other) inspiration. At times, the details of recipes go on at length, but for the most part, Troy uses the food effectively to convey tone and emotion.
The book sparkles with details of place—from the customers who offer Shelly carp from the Mississippi to the concrete playground of nearby St. Hedwig’s Catholic School—and digs in to the family dynamics of the two cousins. Subplots spread and multiply throughout the novel, from Bev’s desire to adopt a neighborhood boy, to Shelly’s love interests, to an aunt’s entry into a Senior Ms. Missouri beauty pageant. On the whole, the novel would have benefitted from a little more focus, a little trimming of the excess. The most delightful sections come from the depth of the relationship between the two cousins, as when Shelly realizes that Bev resents people being interested in her disability, that she is “offended that what [she] did not have was more interesting than what” she did have. A more focused storytelling might highlight and develop this relationship even more.
That said, Beauties is a delight to read. With exquisite attention to décor, food, fashion, and emotion, Troy has created a full and rich world and a novel certain to enchant anyone who picks it up.
A Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups
Poetry by Lana Hechtman Ayers
Pecan Grove Press, November 2010
Paperback: 129pp; $15.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Once upon a time there was a poetry book that re-imagined the popular fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood” in a modern context through more than 120 pages of Red Riding Hood poems divided into nine chapters. Most of the poems, with a few exceptions, were introduced by titles in the present tense announcing an act by Red Riding Hood or one of the other familiar characters from her story (“Red Riding Dreams of Another Winter,” “Red Riding Hood Ends Up with the Hunter”; “The Hunter Has His Say”).
The narrative unfolds in the first-person voice of Riding Hood in the present tense—with occasional breaks for poems in the voice of the other characters—which gives the story a sense of dynamic forward motion and immediacy. The poems are deliberately and tightly structured, some in couplets, some in strophes of three lines, some in four, some in five, some (like the first one about winter) in six line stanzas. Riding Hood’s story is framed by epigraphs from a variety of wildly different sources including Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, singer/songwriters Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan, comedian George Carlin, Sappho, Adrienne Rich, and many others. And Red’s story includes, as well, references to the stories of other famous girls and women, including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Eve (of Adam and…), Salome, Gretel (of Hansel and…), and Philomena, among others.
In Riding Hood’s modern incarnation she copes with many of the issues we modern women face: emotionally damaged parents; grandmothers dying of terminal diseases; our relationships with men; our relationships with female friends; body image (we’re always too “fat, fat fat”); the hours spent at thankless or troubling jobs (taking care of other women’s children all day long, for example); and naturally, the images we see of ourselves in stories that have popularized who we have been and who we are and who me might become. Unlike “little” Red of the original story, who was earnest and naïve, grown-up Red is often sarcastic, witty, and innocent only of her own motives and not always even then.
After her adventures (which include marriage and an affair), Red Riding Hood concludes:
I used to envy those women in romance
novels, the exotic places they dashed
off to, the men who expended all that
energy falling in love with them.
No more. Now my heart tells me
where, my feet lead me there.
I have been out of back-roads alone,
zigzagging the sun-split countryside
finding sundry places for my art—
bones and burls, seeds and oddments.
I’m making friends in unlikely places.
I’m heading home again through Wyoming,
to the place where three rivers interlace, where forest
deepens with Limber pine and timber-wolf-women spirit.
If you go there, kindly find me by the welcome sign I’ve honed
from salmon scales, reclaimed bones and sea glass, and say hello.
By the end of the story, it seems that Red Riding Hood has learned something important about herself. Nevertheless, we can only guess if she lives happily ever after.
Poetry by Bonnie Bolling
Briery Creek Press, February 2011
Paperback: 69pp; $10.95
Review by Renee Emerson
Bonnie Bolling’s collection In the Kingdom of the Sons, winner of the 2011 Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry selected by Tom Sleigh, is a sensual work from a distinctly female perspective, exploring topics of motherhood, sexuality and domesticity, and how these aspects of being a woman interplay.
“Unliving” describes a mother’s overwhelming, claustrophobic, feeling of being practically and physically needed by her family. She moves “swiftly” and “proficiently,” “peeling potatoes, / killing ants on the countertop” or “remembering to love” her husband, all the while having one of her children sick, one crying, “one latched onto her nipple and another child’s cells / … dividing inside her.” She is “washing and nursing and waiting,” with “a book in one hand.” There is no complaint in the description of her life, only simple statement and description of her actions, which leave no time for complaint. Yet, at the end, the woman’s yearning for something more, a yearning that is seen throughout the collection, is shown as she “was always listening for something / as impossible as the small unsound / of a million butterflies shuddering by.” The moment of pause at the end of the poem is the only moment of stillness for her. And while the imagined butterflies, though a beautiful and fanciful thought, go by, they go by in a shudder. Whether this shudder is for the swift-paced relentlessness of her life or for her imagined escape of that life cannot be told.
The theme of living a life that she did not choose occurs again in the poem “Red Apples,” where the author describes a typical domestic scene—a woman with her child shopping for groceries—and pulls out a moment of clarity. The speaker realizes in the “dull whine of a fading day,” that she is “in a life I didn’t choose but had chosen me.” The poem ends with her placing fruit into a “plastic, lattice basket.” The use of “plastic” in this last line indicates that perhaps the speaker feels the life she has is fake or cheap, and once again brings forward her discontent with her life.
The last section shifts focus from the female to a wounded young soldier, an amputee who has an affair with an older woman. Both characters focused on in the collection are crippled in some way—the woman by her family, the man physically crippled by war—and are both leading lives that they did not choose. The force of need and longing in this collection propels the reader forward, and left me, as a reader, eager for more of Bolling’s work.
Poetry by Ronald Wardall
Rain Mountain Press, December 2010
Paperback: 143pp; $12.00
Review by Renee Emerson
Ronald Wardall’s collection of poems Lightning’s Dance Floor examines the ordinary, what surrounds us everyday, and finds the extraordinary in it. In “Necessity,” the author sets the poem in his “blue-bright child-memory.” Among the details of the train on “the Nebraska track like spaghetti,” “the star-struck window,” and “tell-tale neighbors,” he finds, as a child, that “like my father, my soul / was willing.” “Seeking the Minotaur” works as a type of thesis for the poems, setting the author in the detailed landscape of New York in “immutable / November.” The author “summon[s] up ambition enough to map / the waves” and to “practice prying apart / my ribs with a tuning fork,” a metaphor for his undertaking to pull meaning from the simple everyday actions and objects around him.
Many of the poems in this collection are focused on story telling, not always necessarily a story about the author’s childhood or memories. For example, “Lighting Out for the Territory” introduces a recognizable character by the name of Huck and his simultaneous fear and desire for Becky Thatcher. The poem outlines this character’s ideals of married life, death of a spouse, and finally ends on the philosophical note of Huck attempting to “whittle memory / into something/ small enough to carry.”
Wardall’s strength as a writer is derived from his keen sense of observation; the attention to detail in these poems adds an authenticity to the meaning he derives from common situations.
Poetry by Kim Roberts
Pearl Editions, January 2011
Paperback: 76pp; $14.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Animal Magnetism was the winner of The 2009 Pearl Poetry Prize, selected by Debra Marquart, who describes the book as having “great buoyancy” and a “stubborn clinging to life, to love, to human connections.” I agree wholeheartedly with Marquart’s judgment about what makes Animal Magnetism especially worthwhile reading:
While these poems are beautifully-made and sometimes funny or painful, they are also brimming with information. Do you know who the world’s biggest show belongs to? Have you seen the bones of the American Giant, measured at seven feet, six inches at the time of his death at age twenty-three? Do you know where you can view a preserved section of President Garfield’s spine where the bullet almost entered?
The book is dedicated to a friend, Martha Tabor, for whom Roberts was caring as Tabor was dying of cancer and during the period the poet began to visit medical museums, which serves as the inspiration for the first of the book’s three sections. Roberts was herself subsequently diagnosed with and treated for cancer, which served to intensify her interest in the subject, which resulted in poems rich in the strange and fascinating details of such collections, artifacts, and facts. Inspired by the Physick House in Philadelphia, Roberts opens her book with “Blood Letting”:
…Now his house is a museum,
all his tools and vials and paraphernalia
lined up in glass cases, and labeled.
I want to know what the labels don’t reveal:
who were the patients who laid their arms
over this basin, while Physick leaned close
to cut their inner elbows, that same
fragile furrow, and let their stories flow.
I think I see a little left, a rusty stain,
a life there, hidden.
She continues with poems inspired by the work of Franz Anton Mesmer (the discoverer of animal magnetism); the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC; The Shoe Museum, Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine in Philadelphia; The Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University in Boston; La Specola Museum, at the University of Florence in Italy (“The Grand Duke of Tuscany, / Peter Leopold, opened La Specola / to the public in 1775, / the lower classes in the mornings, / ‘provided they were cleanly clothed,’ // and the upper, ‘intelligent // and well educated,’ in the afternoon.”); a radiation exhibit at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago; and the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia (“The American Giant and the Achondroplastic Dwarf”).
Poems in Section II are also inspired, in large part, by historical texts and practices, including the “custom of creating mementoes from a departed loved one’s hair” (the poem based on this custom, “In Memoriam: A Catalogue,” was inspired by Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri):
After your beloved died, you clipped her hair
one last time and brought it to the artisan.
There were pattern books to look through.
One specialist threaded hair through a needle
and embroidered pictures on white silk.
Someone is always departing.
What is more natural than grief?
It is a slack flotilla in a shifting sky,
clouds that drift and flinch.
I’ll take a weeping willow on pale silk—
Poems such as “In Memoriam” demonstrate the poet’s particular skill at turning what might simply be interesting or curious information into the expression of something larger, more interesting, and, ultimately, more artful—the poetic impulse that moves her from contemplating the threading of hair as a way to grieve and preserve memory to a consideration of grief as a natural, fundamental, and pervasive aspect of human experience.
The book’s third and final section includes poems also based on historical texts and realities, including The Falnama, an Islamic illuminated manuscript, and the life of Henry Wellcome, who “made his fortune by introducing medicines in tablet form…in England.” Wellcome had once planned to create a museum of the history of medicine and his collections can be viewed in the British Museum in London.
Roberts describes Wellcome’s obsessions in the final strophe of “On Looking at the Collections of Henry Wellcome.” She might as easily be describing her own, as well:
A mania for objects, for creating a world—
a metaphor for the world—a smaller cosmos,
but controlled, and controllable.
Is it triggered by loss? Fear of abandonment?
Depression? As if the wonders of the little world
had magic properties, as if these fragments
on display could keep the body whole,
could stop time, stop death: keep the blood
moving through the veins, the food digesting,
keep the muscles and the bones from splitting
and the delicate webbing of skin—
a fragile cabinet whose textures imply
so much activity beneath the surface—
were somehow under our own control.
Poetry by Suzanne Burns
BlazeVOX [books], October 2010
Paperback: 78pp; $16
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
BlazeVOX’s tagline is “publisher of weird little books,” and The Paris Poems qualifies, beginning with the dedication: “This book is equally dedicated to my husband and traveling partner, my parents, Victor Hugo, and the French macaron.” But, who isn’t captivated by the allure of Paris? (“Always arrive in Paris / on a Sunday afternoon / the skeleton of this fastened city / will become your bones”). Who can forget that Paris has given us some of the most memorable of artistic characters, stories we can never relive or truly adequately duplicate? (“Paris can never be our poem / it belongs to / Gertrude Stein and Alice B. / Henry and Anaïs / the filaments of a million lights / totemic in the tourists’ eyes”). Who doesn’t know that Paris is fashion central? (“Admit / it was a little sadistic / that 249 mile jaunt from / farm country / into history / the soles of your shoes / diffusing the gold medallions of dawn,” from the poem about Louis Vuitton). Who doesn’t long for the patisseries of Paris? (“Pledging my loyalty / like an immigrant seeking citizenship / I drank a cup of chocolate chaud / in a dessert house / steps from where Marie Antoinette / lost her head.”)Who doesn’t believe that Paris is about romance? (“Paris makes you want a man / who understands how to wear a scarf”). Who doesn’t realize that Paris is overrated? (“Most people fly to Paris to see the Louvre / between you and me / Mona Lisa isn’t that pretty / really”). Who doesn’t wish for (nationless) salvation?
When the gypsy closest to me dropped
his fake offering I thought about faith
being a concept more than a state
as the polished tin rolled towards a sewer grate
near the base of Notre Dame where they sell
hot cross buns to represent
the crucifixion of Jesus
as every moveable feast
and how we store the idea of resurrection
in such a dark, brooding place
that seeking our fortune in a gypsy’s ring
might be enough salvation.
This weird little book is magnifique. It made me long for Paris. It made me want to read more of this poet’s work, to write, to meet Suzanne Burns in person, to support BlazeVOX Books, to bring the city (where I went only once briefly as a teenager) back:
Yesterday I baked macarons
to bring the city back.
Paris, but not really Paris…
But really…The Paris Poems.
Poetry by Djelloul Marbrook
Deerbrook Editions, December 2010
Paperback: 83pp; $16.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
A lovely gallery of a book. The poet contextualizes his museum/art-inspired poems in a note at the end of the book. His mother, Juanita Rice Guecione and aunts, Dorothy and Irene Rice (Pereira) were visual artists and they, and museums, have long fueled his imagination. In fact, he cannot imagine his life, he says, without them. Poems in the collection were informed by artworks in The Brooklyn Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Chelsea Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, The Frick, art forgeries, artwork he has encountered in journals, and his mother’s paintings, among other works.
Having seen one of the exhibitions that served as a source for a poem in this book, a glorious exhibition of paintings by Pierre Bonnard at the Met in NY in 2009, I can see from personal experience how adeptly and creatively the poet moves from the visual to the verbal:
Bonnard, painter of ghosts,
his table is set,
May we come in?
Only on second thought perhaps.
Our first thought is
this is not for us,
it is for Marthe
Are we them
or are we not to know?
May we eat?
If we do
what will happen?
The poem is much like the paintings in the exhibition, deceptively simple, satisfying in a totally visceral way, both inviting and intimate, yet still somehow far off, apart, unknowable, to be admired from a distance. The viewer/reader wants to enter and partake of its abundance, but knows the scene was set for someone else.
Marbrook is something of a philosopher: “We need a museum to show us / we can unbind our captive lives,” he writes in “Picasso’s Bull.” “There’s so much for the dead to miss, / why don’t the living die of sorrow?” he asks in “Francisco de Zurbarán.” “Truth is / we all have an asymmetrical face,” he claims in “We are all Van Gogh.”
In “Accordion of worlds,” he concludes: “We will fly / when we’re not proud. / Until then we have museums.” And, thanks to Marbrook, lovely, smart poems about museums.
Poetry by Rick Lott
The Ledge Press, 2010
Chapbook: 33pp; $10.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Lott’s chapbook of 16 poems, the majority of which appeared previously in a variety of journals (Texas Review, Mid-America Poetry Review, and Crazy Horse, among others), is the winner of The Ledge 2009 Chapbook Award. I happened to be reading Lott’s book while the debate over the “cleaning up”/“contemporizing” of Mark Twain’s language was being played out in the press (like most items in the “news,” any mention of it quickly disappeared), so I was particularly interested in the chapbook’s opening poem, “Passage,” with its description of a “Negro church”:
What force drew the nightcrawlers
out of the blind earth on the lawn?
My grandfather knew, and never
missed a chance to tell you so.
I went with him one Sunday
to a Negro church in the country,
he behind the podium and I
slumped in the front row, clutching
a songbook limp as a bundle of rags.
He preached of burning tares,
and sparrows sold two for a penny
that fell not to the ground
except for the Father’s will,
quoting from his big black Bible,
as fluently as if he had written it.
And the amens flew up like starlings
to light among the resinous rafters.
Squeezed against me, an old woman
whose moist black face shone black
as the light from grandpa’s polished shoes.
Lott’s strength is the ability, as he does here, to create a specific time and place, an atmosphere particular to a narrow and specific milieu and moment. The title poem recreates the exact and unique physicality of horses in the rain (“The horses steam in slow rain. / All day long they have stood / like great boulders in wet-light, / their rubbery lips nibbling / brown wisps among the stones.”). In “The Farm,” the poet recreates, with the same attention to the precise atmosphere of a moment, the child’s experience of bedtime in winter (“Winter bedtimes, my brother and I / warmed before the fire, then raced / down the hall to burrow under / a burden of layered quilts. / Our shivering breath rose / as vapor in the starlight.”). In “The Watchers,” he paints an evocative picture of a languid summer night in the country (“Those endless nights we hung around / The Mobil station at the edge of town, // Propped up on Coke flats against the wall, / We breathed the ancient grease and diesel. / /Random cars left behind only wind, / That fanned sedge beside the pavement.”). I liked especially “The End of the World,” a lovely and gentle narrative of what did, indeed seem like the end of the world as Lott explores it:
…Scrub pines seethed in the wind,
And gulls quarreled
As I followed the debris at strand line:
Starfish, seaweed, broken shells.
The ground swell of a distant storm
Crashed on the sand, gnawing
The narrowing beach.
I searched the flotsam
For anything lost: coins, ambergris,
The glass globes torn from fishing nets.
Fiction by Tina Egnoski
Black Lawrence Press, November 2010
Paperback: 39pp; $9.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Perishables is the winner of the publisher’s fiction chapbook contest, and it’s certainly prize-worthy work. Egnoski’s a fine storyteller and the four stories in this handsomely produced little chapbook provide strong support for the recent interest and increase in chapbook fiction.
“My Sister on Fire” is quirky sibling fantasy (who hasn’t imagined her sister on fire?) told in an original and engaging voice:
The chair my sister sits in is on fire. See, a simmering puddle of flames around the base of the legs, frayed tips of the shag carpet aglow: a brush fire that smokes, heats up and widens into a mischievous blaze. I snicker behind my hand. No, I won’t let on. She’s so smart, she’ll have to figure it out by herself. The same way she figured out that Jamie Marks is the one true boy of my heart.
“What I Saw on the Corner of Guava and Aurora” re-imagines and conflates the documented experiences of Zora Neale Huston in Florida in the 1950’s and the 1970’s.
“The Push of Gravity” recounts a mother’s experience of the loss of a child in exceptionally compelling prose: “I know love,” the story begins:
I know love. A coil of hair, warm skin, hollow of curved bone. The love of a lover, fitting back to belly, thigh against thigh in the deep part of the night, sleepy, not yet asleep. Easy touch, the flat of his hand on my face. Mother love, rose-bud mouth on my nipple, arch of his spine when lifted from the crib. My reflection in his unfocused eyes.
The title story brings together all of the author’s strengths: dynamic, smartly-paced prose; original voices; an authentic sensibility; emotional restraint coupled with emotional intensity; and a sense of immediacy: “Len wants me to pick like my friend Willa, slow and careful. I’d fall asleep. This, of course, isn’t her real job. Her occupation—preoccupation—is to look beautiful every minute of every day in every kind of weather.”
Egnoski understands the human condition and she understands how fiction can depict it. It doesn’t hurt that the chapbook is handsomely produced with its lovely glossy cover and polished production. Anything worth preserving likely began as something…perishable.
New and Selected Poems
Poetry by Charles W. Pratt
Hobblebush Books, October 2010
Paperback: 86pp; $15.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
This volume contains poems from Pratt’s two previous published collections, from an unpublished earlier manuscript, and new poems. The collection is bookended by poems that consider the poet in the world: an early poem (1986) that situates the poet “In the Woods” (“What’s he doing, you’d wonder, here in the very / Middle of the woods, shouldering logs from a stack / Someone cut and left so long ago”) and a new poem, “Resolution” that is decidedly more global in scope and perspective (“When the tsunami draws back its fistful of waters / And crushes the city, let me for once be ready /…When the suicide bomber squeezes the trigger / And fierce flames spurt and wild the body parts fly, / Let me be holding my lover or drinking my coffee // Let us be drinking our coffee, unprepared”).
Of course, the poet’s job, to some degree, is precisely to prepare us for all of the world’s many possibilities, disastrous (“when the ground shudders and splits and all walls fall”) and glorious (from “Evening Meditation in a Cathedral Town”: “Small concentration of the evening air, / Lacewing I look through you and glass to where / Beyond the fields the late sun condescends / To denseness, and its true brightness bends / And bursts to beauty where the transparent ends.”) Pratt moves between these emotional poles, between the real stories of childhood and myths and fables (he is a Francophile with a special fondness for stories and poems from France), between pastoral imagery and exploration of cultural and social realities, and between seasons (“November: Sparing the Old Apples,” “May 15,” “Prayer for December,” “The Pleasure of Summer Light”).
While later poems include descriptions of travel to Ireland, explore the themes of marriage and fatherhood, and make reference to the poet’s role as a teacher, Pratt seems most at home considering the natural world we first encountered in the opening poem quoted above, “In the Woods,” and these are, it seems to me, his finest poems, the ones with the freshest images, and the most carefully and artfully composed lines. Some of these, in fact, are especially effective, affecting, and often elegant. Here is “Child in the Herb Garden” in its entirety.
Exuberance of bird not turn of worm
not nuclear power plant beyond the curve
of eastward hill disturbs the child here curled
as if asleep among the herbs. Sky
crack, earth quake and siren bleat, still he’ll
not wake to cry; sunlit, rainwashed,
buried in snow, observed or unobserved,
clenched kernel of this world, perfect stone.
Poetry by Sally Rosen Kindred
Mayapple Press, January 2011
Paperback: 65pp; $14.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Kindred’s poems are carefully composed examples of the successful intersection of lyric and narrative impulses. No Eden opens with “Prayer for Mrs. Snead,” which is representative of the poet’s style and sets the tone for the collection:
Out of thorn-apple, out of love-apple,
out of bramble-fruit like green ice
comes the heaven I wish for Mrs. Snead
who held me in the hard-work breath
of Greensboro mills till I’d sleep…
…on Mrs. Snead’s last day
that is almost what I saw: her body at its center
holding me, holding any of us close, and
all around, her Ashley, James and Fritz, reaching in
under drifts of blooms, playing not harps or flutes
but scratched windows of fruit, God as green
delicious as her hands had always been.
Many of the poet’s preoccupations and tendencies present themselves in this first poem, among them a changing and changeable relationship with God and the language and imagery of Christian religious tradition; the world as it can be understood “in color” (“God as green”); the balance of everyday living (and dying) between joy and grief; the experiences of childhood; and the southern landscape of the poet’s childhood. Drawn often, initially, to distress, anger, frustration, grief, or despair (her own or others’), the poet is inevitably redeemed, as in the first poem, by a sense of purpose, joy, and expansiveness. Here are the final lines of “To Noah”:
Do not speak of covenants
or gifts made out of sky.
Look at what survives the journey
into broken weather, broken story:
look at each face and into the wilderness eyes
and across the teeth and down to the hands
of your own righteous hungry people and ask them
to lift the garnet lanterns
and lead you all the way back up into this world.
In Kindred’s work personal stories merge with biblical ones, as in “Seven Sorrows,” in which she links the experience of desiring another child to Lilith and Eve; the experience of sex to “holy darkness”; and an experience with her mother to Mary, “the mother of seven sorrows.” Life’s saddest moments, and it’s most joyous, are presented often in their relationship to the presence of God. “Sad pear, God gave you / no fine story,” begins the poem “No Eden.” “We won’t need to climb / the desert pine. We might walk all the way / around it, thumbing faces in the bark—milagros—we might lift our heads,” she concludes in “Mercy on Pecos Road,” the final poem in the collection. (Milagros means miracles.)
Kindred’s poems are poignant and often elegant. Here is “Yearn” in its entirety:
Twenty-five years and I want beets
at my mother’s table, beets on a white plate.
And want my small shoes drifting
beneath the wood, my hands reaching for things
they still can’t touch. Blue china chicken
at the center, where is your shine?
Take this grief and feed it back to me,
dark burgundy taste of my mother’s soil and sleep.