Posted December 14, 2010
Vivisect :: Reliquary Fever :: Up From the Blue :: Baby & Other Stories :: The Sixty-Five Years of Washinton :: Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room :: Nine Worthies :: An Invisible Rope :: Birds for a Demolition :: Sweetgrass :: The Oldest Hands in the World
Poetry by Lisa Lewis
New Issues Poetry & Prose, October 2010
Paperback: 95pp; $15.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Vivisection—such an evocative word—is experimental surgery performed on animals typically for research purposes, considered unethical by many, and harsh and aggressive as the word itself sounds. I am somewhat surprised at this title, wondering at the poet’s choice of a word with such negative connotations for her book, but the title poem (the final in the collection) demonstrates how poetry can take any term and make it one of great power, salvaged by artistic achievement, prowess, and mastery, rendering it positive on some level. Despite difficult and painful images (or, perhaps, because of them), the title poem reminds us that poetry’s unique power resides in its ability to make every human experience unique (yet universal) and exquisite.
“Vivisect” begins with a line that echoes the title’s sounds, mimics its rhythmic impact, and sets up its thematic objectives:
Invert the starfish.
Its muscular points
Contract to resemble
A nerve-damaged hand.
Workers in the mirror shops
May be thus injured.
But the scars show.
Of the starfish is
Clear of marks, unless
It comes from ocean
With broken glass.
Vivisect is a metaphor for the times in which we live and which we have, in the last century, lived through. A symbol of how we approach the general sense of unease and disorientation that informs our life and times. The process that enables us to examine daily experience. The act of poetic recreation of the world we explore and bring to life in verse. It is the dissection of language (“Bob wanted to write a fiction, / He had a novel in him.”); the analysis of history (“I tell friends / What I read / About vivisection / In concentration camps / But they already know.”); and, for, Lewis, it is our connection, as well, to popular culture and the “messages” of the moment (Sesame Street, professional conferences, and the DSM). “Vivisect” is Lewis at her best, terse, acerbic, sound-savvy. Pointedly unsentimental, sharp, driven, able to cut (vivisect) to the chase:
as with war
Crime trials, the criminals
Untainted by regret.
Lewis, author of four previous collections of poems, director of the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University, and poetry editor for Cimarron Review, is a master of the pithy remark and its—often understated—rejoinder: “What happens. What happens is all good What / Happens is all bad. I look at it either way.” And “Despite what she said, / I do not resemble an angel.” And “I am going to make myself a little girl / Again.” Is this the linguistic embodiment of vivisection?
These are “tall poems” in a tall book, long lean columns, urgent, relentless, elegant in their desperation, desperately spare. They examine illness, historical atrocities, personal confusion and failings. They are mature poems, almost impossibly adult, even when reflecting on childhood. They are heartbreaking in their emotional precision (“It had been afternoon as long as I could bear.”); credible (“I dreamed about my stepbrother Greg; / Something happened to make him deaf, / And he didn’t take it well, he turned helpless. / He’s a salesman, a good talker. / Whatever it takes for him to get what he wants / Is what he wants.”); and, happily, unpredictable (“Something tumbles through the snowy branches. / Branches near the tops of the pines are sagging: / The bottom limbs have melted clear, and the sky / Shimmers bright tundra. / I didn’t want to get up today.”).
“Only A Little” begins “I hear lots of stories about people who have it rough.” I read lots of poetry, too, about life’s griefs and struggles. Few are as devastating—or as brilliant—as the cautious, painful poems in Vivisect.
New and Selected Poems
Poetry by Beckian Fritz Goldberg
New Issues Poetry & Prose, October 2010
Paperback: 214pp; $18.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The final lines of the book’s opening poem (“Our questions are / our miracles.”) are uncharacteristically positive (even to use the word “positive” here seems an awkward choice, perhaps “affirming” is more apt) for Goldberg. Drawing a poem to an eloquently surprising and surprisingly eloquent and obsessively conclusive conclusion, however, is not. In fact, this is Goldberg’s special talent—perfected over twenty years and throughout her six books—demonstrated with astonishing consistency and brilliance in her new poems, of which a dozen and a half appear in this volume. “It’s not a season if it expects / a conclusion. That’s what I think, / because of you,” she concludes in “Everything is Nervous.” “If you can’t bear to forget don’t / be born,” concludes “Absence.”
Of course, we cannot control “being born,” at least as it is the literal expression of ourselves in the world. And unhappiness with our fate, having not asked to be born, is also characteristic of Goldberg’s work. She is not nostalgic for the childhood she did not have—or, in fact, for the one she did—instead and consistently throughout the books and in the new poems she reveals a particular and idiosyncratic longing for an unimaginable childhood. Here is the beginning of “Absence”:
It is where it isn’t. For instance, the hallway. For instance, What next? The apple that
says then I was happy, or I was happy then…When
you aren’t here. I don’t have to make the bed. I don’t have to eat on time. Well,
I’m just like memory and what good
does Papa do there? The red dog. The old house. The old baby. At least there’s
California where it’s still possible to think while you
drive, stop, eat, watch the desert disappear and the flowers grow giant,
famous and rich. I’ve been there, done
that. “Talk to me as if I were there…” and some clipping taped to the side of the
he was gone and I was back in my mother’s kitchen, back at the mountain.
In the new poems, Goldberg has not only perfected the art of the intensely and relentlessly perfect conclusion, she has elevated to perfection the art of looking back with unadulterated clarity. “I See the Light Shining Through” recounts the experience of a brother coming home from the Vietnam War (to which the only specific reference is Saigon), broken himself and to a broken-down family. He brings her a shirt (“a blouse tried on by / girls my age in / Saigion”). “I thought as a girl / it was not my war,” she concludes. Entire family histories, a whole war, and a lifetime of adult misperceptions are contained in those brief—and desperately relevant—lines. Would we be entering the second decade of another ill-conceived war if any of us thought it was “our war”?
There is nothing in the new poems that does not seem, on some level, to have pushed Goldberg further, deeper, more intensely and intently forward with the themes, subjects, and tendencies developed in the first six books, the personal and collective psychic pain and circumstances in her “Twentieth Century Children” series from The Book of Accident (2006); the troubled relationship with her father from “Lie Awake Lake,” from the book of the same title (2005); the inventive retelling of a well-worn myth as in “Lucifer’s Crown,” from Never Be the Horse (1999); the drive to define the divide between absence and presence (as we have already seen) in “Love, Scissor, Stone,” from The Badlands of Desire (1993; “But we bear it. / Because it’s here. It’s where / the hell we are.”); and the elements of nature as emblems of our emotional landscape, as in “Salvation” from Body Betrayer (1991).
You must be willing to hurt when you read Goldberg because she relies on pain to get us through; to suspend belief (there is much that is, if not surreal, then unexplained); to embrace the cruel or grotesque (if rejecting would mean avoiding her insistence on it); and to be disappointed (“Maybe / the dreams that keep us going / are no better than our lives. // Maybe it hasn’t turned out like this.”)—or, at the very least, to be confused about whether you’re disappointed or not.
Above all, you must be open to the possibility that the perfect conclusion is both “miracle” and the “resemblance” of a miracle; that the self is the source of our own grief (“The conclusion: Every body has / a wound that is secret”); and that every narrative (every poem, every life) is equally disturbing and redemptive, as the final poem in the volume (“There is a Rock in Tent City,” “one more new” as it is categorized) insists:
Now, they look American. The way
is dark. Tonight, there’s little difference I can tell
between the cruel and the kind, except that one has
a longer memory. And this story depends on which.
It is kind of me to recommend this book—it is a must read. It’s equally cruel— I know you will suffer.
Fiction by Susan Henderson
Harper Paperbacks, September 2010
Paperback: 317pp; $13.99
Review by Alex Myers
Striking, sad, suspenseful, Up From the Blue tells the coming-of-age story of Tillie Harris. Set in her third-grade year, the novel focuses on the home life of Tillie. The father, a colonel in the air force, develops navigation systems for missiles. The older brother, Phil, tries his hardest to be a small soldier: orderly, emotionless, and compliant. Tillie herself is an energetic eight-year-old, full of conflicting emotions and confusing expectations from the adult world. It is her mother, though, who is the star of the book. Red-headed, dreamy-eyed, the mother swings from being loving and tender, the only one who understands Tillie, to vacant and lost, sitting on the couch or lying in bed for days on end. As the mother’s depression deepens and the conflict extends from between the parents to create an ever-widening gulf into which the entire family slides, Tillie risks losing not just her mother but herself.
The most successful aspect of this novel—and there are many successes—is the counterpoint that Henderson has set up. While most of the novel takes place in the mid-seventies, while Tillie is an eight-year-old, the novel opens with a present-day story line: the grown up Tillie about to give birth, unexpectedly early, to her first child. The movement between the two story lines, and especially the poignancy with which Tillie enters into motherhood in her own way, keeps the novel taut. The best moments come not from the tension between these two storylines, but from the resolution, as Tillie notices her father, whom she has been forced to call in this emergency, and how “even when he’s not wearing his uniform, and though there’s no way for the nurse to know that this slender man is largely responsible for nearly ninety thousand tons of bombs dropped this winter in the Persian gulf war, my dad is giving orders and people carry them out.” The juxtaposition of the grown-up Tillie and the child Tillie allow for not just growth but realization and, ultimately, acceptance.
Henderson’s novel is full of good story; I found it to be a page-turner from the start. Good writing also abounds, particularly in the minute definition of characters, as with Tillie, who, in third grade, likes to bite:
The feel of my teeth sinking into something so soft was only part of it. There was something comforting about that first yelp when I went deep, something about the crying, and the teacher shouting my name as she pulled us apart…I liked how everything happened the same way each time, right up to me walking home with a note pinned to my shirt that proved the things I thought had happened were the very same things my teacher thought had happened. Everything made sense.
Henderson has meticulously crafted these individuals. Every member of the family, as well as the minor characters, such as Anne, the father’s secretary, is fully embodied and understandable to the reader. So too is the setting, the details of a school recently integrated, of a house made both plain and confusing by military order. Best, though, is Tillie, and her luminous interior world. Henderson carefully explores the psychological dimensions of a girl who loves her mother and doesn’t understand her father or the world around her. Lost and unable to figure out how to find herself, Tillie’s moments of reflection are gorgeous and troubling: “everyone likes to tell you the ways you’re wrong and the ways you can improve yourself and what you should and shouldn’t do. Sometimes you have to tune it out or there’s nothing left of you that’s right.”
Given the abundance of coming-of-age stories and the plethora of tales of troubled, depressive mothers, Up From the Blue has a hard time charting new ground. Indeed, Henderson does slip into the clichéd phrases, as when Tillie hears her parents fight and decides that “after another moment, it didn’t hurt anymore. I found I could do this—could put my emotions in little boxes and close them up tight.” At times like these, Henderson offers nothing new: not a new idea and not new phrasing. That said, the novel resists predictability in several key ways. Without spoiling the story, I’ll simply say that Henderson makes the reader walk the edge with Tillie, creating a world that could be fantasy or could be real, and this tension of possibility (and the risks associated with either answer) is hair-raising.
Eminently readable, this is a novel to get lost in. Before opening the cover, prepare for some sadness and clear the rest of the day: it isn’t easy to put this one down.
Fiction by Paula Bomer
Word Riot Press, December 2010
Paperback: 176pp; $15.95
Review by Elena Spagnolie
In her collection of short stories entitled Baby and Other Stories, Paula Bomer explores the dark underbelly of marriage and parenthood and fearlessly puts to paper horrific human desires. Anger plays out through violent (and sometimes sexual) acts and, even more dangerously, through toxic passive aggression. There is a stark contrast between what her characters say and what they think, and real communication takes a backseat to resentment and isolation. She raises questions that aren’t easy to answer, as in the title story “Baby”:
What did it mean, to know inescapably that you married the wrong person… It wasn’t something that she even thought in solid sentence formation… And yet the knowledge was there inside of her, choking her lungs, and burning her stomach, furrowing her brow with concerns for the children, the houses. She’d married the wrong man.
She resists the temptation to fix her characters’ problems, and instead allows them to drown in an ocean of unfulfilled needs and repeating behavioral patterns. While her written dialogue feels unnatural at times, Bomer’s descriptions are vivid, and her writing, though sparse, is thoroughly engaging and strong. I would certainly recommend this collection to a friend, but with a gentle warning about its dark subject matter.
Fiction by Juan Jose Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
Open Letter, November 2010
Paperback: 220pp; $14.95
Review by Olive Mullet
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer flows like the walk it entails, divided into three sections of seven blocks each, in the Argentinian town of Rosario, taking place around 10 a.m. on October or November 1960 or 1961. On that day Angel Leto decides not to go to work and encounters The Mathematician, just back from his grand tour of Europe. The two men, different in important respects (class, town’s years of residency), nevertheless walk together for most of the distance, the Mathematician regaling his companion with accounts of Noriega Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday, a party to which neither man was invited.
The characters and events are not many. Leto, an accountant, has just come to Rosario with his mother Isabel whose statement about his father haunts Leto, “He suffered so much.” The Mathematician, so called by journalist Tomatis because of his literalness and basic noncombatant, intellectual nature, is walking to deliver his press release of his European tour. The Mathematician recounts two versions of the birthday party for their friend Noriega Washington, one that Boton (nicknamed Button) told the Mathematician on a ferry the previous Saturday and one told to both of the walkers by Tomatis when they meet him. Boton’s version seems more reliable because depressed Tomatis is burdened by what he calls his “menace” that day when they meet him on their walk. But ultimately both may be “false memories of a place neither of them has seen.”
Similarly, the Mathematician’s repeated but altered one-phrase summaries of each of the cities he visited become meaningless and not listened to. Of course, there are the guests and the birthday boy about whose lives, and violent endings, we learn. Most are leftists the government goes after. Leto certainly and even the Mathematician do not escape violence. Yet “nothing will be left after the rage, the faith, the daring but a sardonic and not even self-pitying intransigence of someone who, chased by a torrential storm, or by an uninterrupted series of explosions, runs in a straight line, without caring whether the direction they are running in will lead them to safety or to a precipice.”
The most vivid part, in spite of the repeated details from the party, is the progress of the walk, which ultimately defines the relationship between the two men. The constant movement between shade and sunlight, the danger of jaywalking, the few acquaintances they meet and the change in landscape are the backdrop. Protection is needed because of “the habitual system of motor vehicle conduction in rectangular cities: brakes and deceleration before the corner, accelerator after the intersection, reduction of speed midway down the block and so-on.” Leto protects The Mathematician’s all white outfit as they weave between cars, and later the Mathematician reciprocates. Similarly Leto feels himself excluded or embraced by the people they talk to on the street. In spite of their quite accurate and critical assessment of each other, by their walk’s end they have formed a bond. Yet afterwards the two men have virtually no contact.
Like other South American writers, Saer writes long paragraphs, which flow with oft-repeated details, appearing like boulders in the river. However, the details, as is evident by the indefinite date of this walk, are less important than the insubstantial flow. The party discussion is consumed with whether a horse can stumble and also about Washington’s three mosquitoes:
Shade, gray pavement, the angled sun, cable, cobblestones, cable, gray pavement, angled sun, shade: there they go, without incident or much modification of rhythm or speed, or trajectory movement, walking down the next sidewalk. The Mathematician says that Washington lifts his head when he hears the triplicate buzzing, somewhat bewildered, and sees the three mosquitoes swirling not far from the lamp. Bewildered because the previous summer it had been too dry for the larvae.
Feelings survive—shame and humiliation of not being at the party—but mainly it’s either a limbo like of an “airplane among the clouds” an “internal vacuousness, without a doubt painless, not much different from well-being.” Or the Mathematician wonders whether “submerged in psychological trifles, he has been missing the best things of being there, the morning sun,” which “produces a shiver of pleasure and a startling sense of liberation.” The men may disappear—and not just because of the government—but the walk does not.
The reader has to give into the flow of the narrative, bolstered occasionally by real events, but the ultimate pleasure is in the journey.
Poetry by Kelli Russell Agodon
White Pine Press, October 2010
Paperback: 99pp; $16.00
Review by Renee Emerson
Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, by Kelli Russell Agodon, is a collection of charming, intelligent poems that invoke the idea of a modern day Emily addressing the world from the safety of her room. Agodon incorporates anagrams in many of the poems; for example, in “Believing Anagrams,” “funeral” becomes “real fun,” “Emily Dickinson” becomes “inky misled icon” and “poetry” becomes “prey to.” While with some poets this kind of word play can become gimmicky, Agodon masterfully weaves the words into the poem in a natural, organic way. “In the 70s, I Confused Macramé for Macabre” is another poem where language is taken apart and put back together, using the words incorrectly in two different memories, as the speaker “wanted / my mother to remind me / that sometimes we survive.”
There is an element of self-analysis, self-dissection, and resisting correction in the book; in “Discovering the Tasmanian Devil is my Life Coach” the speaker is told “to rip apart the wildflowers without feeling / guilty for what was” and “to spin naked through a continent.” These images again invoke the modern day Emily Dickinson, being told, against her character (or what we as readers suppose of her character), to loosen up.
Emily Dickinson is often viewed as an isolated, distanced poet, and the speaker in “Ghosts” relates to this as she “live[s] in a house / of irises where I am a ghost / searching for words / in my family’s mouths.” This element of Dickinson’s character is also seen in that many of the poems are letters—the author addresses people formally, rather than face to face.
Agodon’s writing is immersive, reminding the reader of Dickinson while also resisting her through her style and references to modern day living.
Poetry by Caroline Knox
Wave Books, 2010
Paperback: 48pp; $20.00
Review by Renee Emerson
Nine Worthies by Caroline Knox is a book that blends the genres of prose and poetry to tell the story of Nathaniel Smibert (1734-1756) painting the portraits of nine men and women from Boston and Newport in the year of Nathaniel’s death.
The book is beautifully made. The letterpress cover, antique hand-stitched design, and slightly oversized dimensions lend the book the appearance of having come from the 18th century, of being a true relic of that period.
The nine portraits are interrupted by small vignettes from the artist, Nathaniel. His recollections often focus on his father, who was also a portrait painter. He also shows an interest in history, giving little tidbits of information about the locale, for example, in “Nathaniel: Little Rest”:
On the march to the Great Swamp Fight in 1675, during King Philip’s War, the troops of the colonies rested on the hill at Little Rest, Rhode Island, it is said.
While the book is primarily prose, poetry is weaved in subtly. Nathaniel is handed a paper containing a poem, while he is out on the street, that foreshadows his death that year by referring to the river in Hades in the poem’s final lines “A darkling oar the satin surface marls; / It’s not the Styx exactly—it’s the Charles.”
Of the nine men and women, many of them are associated with a position of prestige in the community. The first, Charles Chauncy, is a “Unitarian Minister and Bon Vivant” according to his subtitle. Other portraits include that of Peter Harrison, “first American architect,” John Lovell, “Master of the Latin School,” and Dorothy Tyndale, “A Lady.”
Nine Worthies is an interesting step back into the 18th century viewed through a modern perspective.
Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz
Edited by Cynthia L. Haven
Ohio University/Swallow Press, January 2011
Paperback: 273pp; $26.95
Review by Lisa Dolensky
Cynthia L. Haven has gathered an exquisite collection of thirty-two memoirs, which pay tribute personally through historical and personal accounts of one of the most celebrated poets, Czeslaw Milosz. The bevy of contributors who share encounters with Milosz spin intimate stories oft with intimate ease—spanning from the 1930s until just days before his death in 2004. Haven did an excellent job selecting memoirs from a well-credentialed, diverse group of contributors who represent political, literary, environmental, cultural and spiritual spectrums on many levels. She also weaves in lines form Milosz’s vast works in relation to the time period, stories, and references.
One of the most touching, soul revealing glimpses in the book describes a conversation with Milosz and Dr. Bogdana Carpenter. They were commenting on details of the sculpture of his late and beloved wife Carol Thigpen. Milosz stated, “Now I have her only in stone.” Carpenter goes on to connect his statement to her recollection of Milosz’s poem, “Orpheus and Eurydice”:
I thought of the beautiful and moving poem “Orpheus and Eurydice” Milosz wrote after Carol’s death: “Only her love had warmed him, humanized him.” And then his desperate cry: “Eurydice! How will I live without you, my consoling one!”
For many, Milosz’s work continues to be an invisible rope—like a life line and inspiration rescue for fellow writers who also write from deep-rooted experience that can help make a difference/change. Much thanks to translators, Milosz’s poetry and prose continues to timelessly inspire readers and writers.
Just a few years ago, I was unexpectedly introduced to Milosz’s influence during a casual read of A Monk’s Alphabet, by poet and Benedictine theologian, Fr. Jeremy Driscoll. Driscoll’s sprinkled mentions of Milosz whet my own literary and intellectual appetite to learn more about Milosz’s immense body of work. Haven’s collection is a very insightful read for both old and new fans of Milosz. In fact, I highly recommend it to fellow poets or scholars who are “new” to him because it can deepen the appreciation for his work prior to reading more of it. This book is the ultimate “back story.”
Poetry by Manoel de Barros
Translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey
Carnegie Mellon University Press, September 2010
Paperback: 95pp; $16.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The ninety-two-year old de Barros, recipient of the most prestigious poetry awards in his native Brazil, is author of more than 20 books, though this is the first to appear in English. (Birds for Demolition is a collection of poems from the poet’s oeuvre over the last few decades.) Novey, director of Columbia University’s Center for Literary Translation and author of the poetry collection, The Next Country (2008), explains in her introductory note that de Barros writes of the wetlands and rivers, the “poverty and solitude of rural life,” the part of Brazil where he was raised and which he knows best, not the city, where we often expect (however erroneously) to find most poets. She classifies his writing as “riverbed-poems” and describes the intensity of the experience of translating their unique sense of place.
The poems are fluid and the translations pleasing and effortless. I wish this were a bilingual edition—even readers who do not know Portuguese would benefit from the opportunity to see the originals. Nonetheless, the distinct cultural and geographic realities of the poet’s experience are everywhere in evidence, expertly translated, from the jaguar as metaphor (a common image in Latin American literature), to local flora and fauna (lizards, palm trees, river birds, scrub grass and swamps), to the specific names of people and places. The verse is supple and natural, even when “writer-ly” with translations that appear lucid, self-assured, and comfortable.
I was impressed with the poet’s ease moving between tones, forms, and styles. I appreciated, in particular, a few of the more unconventional (though not wildly inventive) poems, such as “An Education on Invention,” one of the longer poems in the book. Here is the first of twelve segments:
To touch the intimacies of the world it’s essential to know:
a) that the splendor of a morning doesn’t open with a fork
b) how violets prepare a day for its death
c) why red-stripe butterflies are so devoted to tombstones
d) that a man who spies his existence in the campfire
will be saved
e) that a river flowing between two hyacinths
bears more tenderness than one that runs between two
f) how to assume the voice of a fish
g) which side of the night will dampen first
Unlearning eight hours a day teaches such principles.
The poem’s “education” merges the sense of local precision, philosophical insight, and emotional yearning (to be saved) that is the poet’s special strength and which is lovingly, intelligently captured by the translator.
De Barrios is at his best, too, in poems such as “Day Three,” in which he conveys whole histories in brief lines (“I’m various people undone”) and “Day Two,” where sound is paramount, yet never superfluous (“I repose in the water’s composure”). Without the original for comparison, it is impossible to know if the line’s exquisite construction in terms of sound and rhythm replicates the original or embellishes, but it is nonetheless pleasing, effective, and memorable.
While prone on occasion to grand pronouncements (“Nobody fathers a poem without dying.”), de Barros can be humble in the face of the world that confronts him and his task of interpreting it, as in this example from the prose poem “Invented Memoir”:
Later, calmer, writing to a friend, he remembered the vision: even the stones in the street had cried. It was such a beautiful sentence because there was no reason in it. He said this.
And true to the tradition, habit, and cultural exigencies of Latin American writers, de Barrios is necessarily political, as in the book’s opening poem, “Visit”:
In the cell of Pedro Norato, twenty-three years in seclusion,
death naps with its legs open…
Between the prison bars its weeds its way in.
It has the blighted sleep of thighs.
While Novey has published numerous translations of the poet’s work in journals, I am surprised that this is the first full-length collection of his work, and I am pleased that Carnegie Mellon University Press has given us a book, finally, from this fine and accomplished Brazilian poet.
Poetry by Micah Ling
sunnyoutside, November 2010
Paperback: 58pp; $13.00
Review by Chey Davis
I am convinced this will end well,
That it will not be too late,
That it will take place without witnesses.
I have never been to Montana, but I want to go, courtesy of Micah Ling’s exquisite collection, Sweetgrass.
No one I know would consider me a farmer or anything very like it, but Micah Ling’s prose poetry evokes a deep desire to be outside and in the grass. The language is vibrant and suggestive. Ling spends a great deal of energy minding the traditions and sensations of the upper Midwest. Each description of cattle and farm border on lyrical while remaining true to the sense of work and livelihood. It seems obvious to me that Ling, while many stories and experiences were shared with her by the locals in Montana, functioned as a kind of embedded observer. Her language about the land is offset by quotes from Bill, a cattle rancher, and other locals in town whose investment in rain, land and fire is played in stark contrast to Ling’s understanding of the more ethereal beauty of place.
Morning fog will pull you from warm bedding with the call of the sandhill crane, all ochre and blushing, sharp and sweet.
Each poem exerts a pull. With the use and juxtaposition of the simple and commonplace next to truly elevated descriptions of land and people, Ling draws us in. We are coaxed into this love relationship.
This is mecca, this is home; why would there be more?
At no time does the writing become pedantic. Ling arranges the poems in a compelling storytelling epic that follows the movement and seasons of the land that she is becoming a part of. She punctuates these vignettes with gentle commentary on the human experience within this particular universe of living.
And then the fire comes. And then the fire doesn’t stop.
And sometimes, we are led to weep, with her and for her. For the people that we have met, for the land that has opened before us, for the sky that has sheltered us and rained on us in this journey. We are transported to be near her, with her and within her.
Have you grabbed a stranger’s hand just to feel the rough skin of someone sadder than yourself?
And when we return to ourselves, to observing the land, to hearing a cow lowing in the distance, to walking mindfully for the sake of the bears, we meet more characters that we’ve known all our lives, but never knew their names.
Shield your eyes from this wreck; the man who snuck in tonight is formally known as the moon, but was fired for being angry and shining too much light.
Here, Ling = poetry.
Poetry by Daniele Pantano
Black Lawrence Press, April 2010
Paperback: 88pp; $14.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Daniele Pantano is a Swiss poet, translator, critic, editor, and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University in England. Work from this volume was published in numerous journals and anthologies in the U.K., Germany, Italy, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, and the U.S.
Pantano is a storyteller with an appreciation for poetry’s ability to convey whole lifetimes in a confined space. He is an economical poet, adept at crafting a taut, clean line behind which lies all the messy emotion of narrative (“Finally. Dessert. He opened / The shutters and revealed / Everything that would cease / To matter the next day.”). He favors poems that begin in media res (“How wonderfully it all matches” or “As for the farmer” or “Their last embrace”), which is, in many ways, the work of every poem, taking us inside a larger story that started before our reading and will (in the best of instances) echo long after. He is never dull, presenting a variety of engaging forms. And he is never repetitive, tiresome, or predictable. The volume includes prose poems, hybrid forms, short lyrical bursts, short numbered poetic fragments, and poems composed of a single couplet (“I saw her in the mirror of the burnt hall / Her black hair spreading across Europe.”—a poem titled “The Stranger”).
There is throughout the book a tone that moves, waivers, hovers between yearning and grief, expectation and despair, desire and determination. Just when I think the poet’s given up (“I’m alone. The porch. Empty. / Except for a wooden ashtray. / Still. She’s there. My neighbor / Cancerous. Rotting. I watch.), he surprises me and saves himself (“…I turn the ashtray. Over-Flowing. Not with the usual cut / Stems. But small flower heads / Of the most delicate white flesh.”)
The work is delicate, but not flimsy; elegant, but not precious; emotionally charged, yet restrained. The poet is an unsentimental father (here is “Lullaby” in its entirety):
Through my window.
Myths of grapes. Cacti.
Burning field. I notice
My daughter’s slumberous
Smile. Cough heavily
Across waters. Flames
Rise to devour a hill
Amidst the Sicilian night.
He’s a savvy anthropologist (here is an excerpt from the title poem):
On this chair, as I am every morning, waiting
For the cappuccino and brioche to arrive,
And the girl with the oldest hands in the world,
I sense exile is a city reared by eternal artifice.
All sweet violence and thought and repetition.
And he’s part philosopher, part psychologist, part prophet (here is an excerpt from the book’s final entry, a prose poem, “Late December”):
No one misses the ordinary. Not even the blackbirds. Just as no one, on either side, misses the end of the world.
I would, without doubt, miss a world in which poems like Pantano’s did not exist.