11 June 2012

Living with Haiku by Pieter Scholtz

Living with Haiku
Haiku by Pieter Scholtz, drawings by Andrew Verster
Horus Publications, 2012
52 pages. ZAR110
Review by Moira Richards

There are a bare handful of South African poets who pay serious attention to the exploration of Japanese poetry form and genre. But, happily, since Steve Shapiro's debut collection, In a Borrowed Tent, won the country's Ingrid Jonker Prize for debut poetry collections in 1996 there has been a steady, albeit slow, growth of interest in haiku, tanka, haibun and more recently, renku.

Writing haiku in English can take you far from the peaceful and monkish communing-with-nature roots from which you may think it arose. There are those who know the form to comprise (as in the Japanese) a fixed five / seven / five sound rhythm – no matter what the text you squeeze into those three lines; there are those who argue for haiku to be written in one line (as the Japanese did, albeit vertically); there are those who eschew any formal sound rhythm but argue that a certain internal structure and/or subject matter comprises the quintessence of the form.

Pieter Scholtz wisely sidesteps, or perhaps straddles, these often bloody divides of opinion in his collection of haiku. He also looks to Japanese master, Yosa Buson's, haiga art to match a drawing by Andrew Verster to each of the twenty-five haiku in the book. The drawings vary in style but most of them have a traditional African flavour that sits well with the ancient poetry form from across the equator.

The poet writes about illness and death, and about the brain haemorrhage that almost killed him, yet he still manages to find a stark beauty in even the difficult parts of life.

Flakes of gold fallen
Ripeness and mortality
Sunset of my days.

Scholtz also writes a number of delicate love haiku and I'll share two favourites of these, with their serendipitously paired drawings.

When your love touches
The universe becomes light
Stars and moon dancing

On the potter's wheel
Shape dreams with your gentle touch
A bowl for my thirst

05 April 2012

Thirty-Five New Pages

Thirty-Five New Pages
by Lev Rubinstein
translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky
Ugly Duckling Presse,  2011.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

Many of us recall the careful little Emperor from Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”, who encountering a baffling scene in Mozart’s operatic rehearsal, tactfully inquires “Is it modern?” That no one today asks the question testifies to the success (and also the failure) of the great modernist project. In an age of reactionary finance and Tweety Bird attention spans, who, aside from aesthetic antiquarians, academic row-hoers and the tabula rasa’d young, takes Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce or Le Corbusier seriously, however much we admire their energy, wit and nerve? (The Villa Sovoye is a very clever structure but you wouldn’t want to live there. Almost no one has.)
But if these great monuments of modernism stand as carefully preserved barely ruined choirs, there is the still active and vital, like nibbling mice, other modernist motif of refusal, obliquity and off-beat critique, a movement whose particles continue to proliferate along the cyclotron of the long 20th century, its taxonomy extending at least from Dada to Zaha  (and includes Radical Randomists, Found Objectivists, Rushing Constructivists, Situationalists, Saturationalist,  Atmanic Confabulists,  Fruit Oulipoists and Branch Derridians (a term I co-invented back in 1984 when it was already old).
Lev Rubinstein’s (the librarian and artist) Thirty-Five New Pages is placed somewhere in that spectrum. This device for reading consists of thirty-five 3x5 inch cards (with a colophon card) of the type:
The major integerial presentation, with the modification of a mathematical or editorial super- scripture conveys a kind of lexical authority, belied by the subordination of the rather gnomic (Gnostic?) text in red ink. These elusive/allusive propositions, proposals of what should appear, are linked / generated via a loose bell change effect, a not quite continuity of phrases that suggests but doesn’t constitute a continuum. Card 35 (which we won’t spoil) is a surprise ending-or is that a beginning? So what does this rosary for reading do, apart from looking nice and feeling good in the fingers? Well, it would violate the spirit of Rubenstein’s project to tell you what. (But questions come readily to hand : what is reading? Narrative? The frame of art?) Suffice it to say, after reading a hundred conventional chapbooks—“man passing misery to man” (Sophocles or was that Larkin?) Thirty-Five New Pages comes on like a crisp cracker after predictably acrid wine. And some credit, surely, to the translators who midwife us to the humanity and clarity of Rubinstein’s desiderata.
The folks at Ugly Duckling Presse are always turning out hard to pigeon hole objects that make you think.  I recommend their work (and website) for its interest and stimulation Theirs is a risky enterprise; they are surely more aware than me how the radical object can easily transmute, via reverse alchemy, into just another bit of conceptual bric- a-brac.
P. Nelson is a librarian and the pseudonymous author other of, among other things, “Distractions”(1980)  a novel written on twenty 3 x 5 file cards, designed for reading and shuffling. 

09 March 2012

Inheritance by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Finishing Line Press in Georgetown, Kentucky, 2011
25 pages, US$12

Review by Moira Richards

This chapbook opens with an Amy Lowell quote in which the speaker gives of herself to her beloved in the form of little jars of words and the collection too, comprises twenty-three small sonnet-like jars of memory, written with love.

Love is a wonderful thing but it can often, I guess, be constricting – because of the demands, dependencies or other complexities arising from the relationship with a loved person. At the bottom of Iris Dunkle’s first ‘jar’ lie these intriguing last lines.

               ...Now, that satin ribbon tied
around my throat—love—is loosening

Many of the poems address a lover, absent – lost to death? It’s not clear – and they also veer, often, into remembrances of the speaker’s childhood and of her mother. Many of the first few ‘jars’ also hold anxieties; a variety of vague, unnamed worries until at last, in the eleventh poem, there is a sense of turn-around and assertiveness:

It was my mother who taught me the fear—
taught me to gather its silver reluctance
like a crow gathers light, carries it back
to the straw of its nest. With enough bulk,
the fear makes for a tin-foil fortress.

Now the poems become more embracing of loss, more definite in their sorrowing as, paradoxically, the overall tone becomes more confident…

                                    I’ve lost a part
of myself to you—a lizard whose tail
let loose its spring extension—and now there
is air, stars, a new galaxy of growth
expanding against all those eyes…

Perhaps the lovers connect again, perhaps not – I’ll not give away the ending of the tale – but the last poem-jar opens with this macabre yet optimistic image:

Afterwards, in the earth, where our bodies
separate and returned reveal their flaws by
decay—perhaps, the same bright beetle will
make communion of us buried…

08 February 2012

To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met

To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met
by Mary Kathryn Jablonski
A.P.D. (The Alternative Press for Albany Poets), 2008
21 pages, $8.00

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

One of the things I like best, as both a reader and writer of poetry, is poetry that takes off from the imagination, poems that lead the reader into imaginary scenes or situations. Which is why this chapbook appealed to me as soon as I saw the title—these poems are based on an imagined scenario, a husband who does not yet exist (in the poet’s present world, at least). Throughout this book the boundaries between past, present, and future are permeable, constantly shifting, as Jablonski says in a poem about a visit to the post office: “I go there expecting messages/ from the past or future, in a tiny/ locked box that opens to another world . . .”

The first section of the book, “Prelude,” consists of five poems situated in landscapes that are  real and imaginary at the same time—there are place names including the seas of the moon as well as actual towns and rivers in Vermont (all of them identified in the helpful notes at the end of the book). There is some gorgeous language in these poems—the first one begins: “Take me to that floating light in fractals, / conjuring new hues of remedy mirrored/ in the meniscus. Drive me back to Mary Lane/ past Hebron and the great blue heron” and ends with these stunning lines: “this place in all the universe has marked us./ Let that which is visible and brought to naught/ dissolve. Let me perish in concern for this life.”

In these opening poems the poet is searching for an elusive companion who is at once in the past, present, and future: “I am lost in a swarm of snow./ Turning, you are everywhere again./ I hear you to the left and then behind me,/ leading me back, a drone from the past.” She is also searching for a lost child: “I send out/ the empty boat for the solitary one/ who wakes me weeping, her nightsong like/ a cello.” These poems are mysterious and beautiful. In the second section, which consists of twelve “letters” addressed to the imagined husband, the tone and language are quite different—conversational, often humorous, but always interesting as the poet plays with imaginary scenarios: “In the years I’ve spent waiting for you/ I have thought: if you do not come this spring/ I will turn back into the earth, I will learn/ to drive a truck with a stick, I’ll get a dog,/ although I established myself as a cat/ person long ago” (Letter 1). “I’ve decided/ even after you arrive, I’ll write/ as though you haven’t. I hope that saying this/ won’t jinx me . . . /You will love how transparently I lie” (Letter 8). This is one of my favorites (from Letter 5):

I already told you this and it’s true:
if you do not come this year, I will get
a dog. I tell you now that I will name him
Husband. Do not interpret this to mean
that I have lost all hope. He will be Hubby
for short: not a toy, not pure bred, a mutt
from the pound, a grateful sort, older of course,
strong, silent obedient, yet set in his ways.
When I walk him I can finally say,
Have you met my Husband? I’ll take him
into town, and he will hump the legs
of younger bitches I am jealous of . . .

Humor, longing, and resignation are mingled in these poems: “A ghost of a husband is no kind/of husband but sometimes the only/ husband that one gets in this life . . .” In the end, it’s the longing that is strongest: “This is my desire: that you will speak/ to me in a completely different language/ and believe only the verse of my flesh.” It’s hard to pull off a collection of poems with so many shifts in tone, but Jablonski succeeds because the imagined scenarios are so compelling, and because her language and images and references are so rich.

A final note: the poet designed this chapbook herself, and the layout of the poems as well as the cover design (with a beautiful woodcut by Allen Grindle) are very effective—a reminder that a well-designed book adds to the pleasure of reading it.

23 January 2012

The Mechanics of Rescue by Amy Miller

The Mechanics of the Rescue
Poems by Amy Miller
Nine Bean-Rows Press, 2007

Review by Laurie Rosenblatt

"Why play at all?" is the question Amy Miller asks in the first line of her poem, "Short Game Rules". Most poems in this chapbook start with a tantalizing hook. Here are some other opening lines:

I love the way men die/on Big Valley
Big Valley")

She calls it Timmy, for alliteration
("Mom Names the Tumor")

I can't stop reading any poem beginning with a line like that. But this chapbook is not all technically skilled entertainment and quirky humor. The poems in The Mechanics of Rescue may take off from interesting directions but lead the reader along darker paths. For instance, the first stanza from "Cheerios,"

She wants a heart attack:
swift, sure goodbye
on the living room floor,
or maybe in the car
alone. She thought about it
those nights in the still,
clean halls of Vista gardens,
spooning soup into the woman's
hungry-fish mouth.  The woman:
That's what she came
to call her, like faeries
took her mother, left a skin,
a stranger in her clothes.

A close look at "Cheerios," will show how many of Miller's poems work. As we've seen "Cheerios" opens with the wish for a quick death, an end before any radical stripping away of one's place in the world imposed by, say, dementia. The poem's title layers the innocence of childhood, the cheery British goodbye, and the sunny tone of a 1950's movie heroine facing disaster—devastating mix. The second stanza gives us the speaker's thoughts on how to court the quick death by turning away from healthy living while her husband cheerfully, optimistically, trustingly looks forward to a benign future and makes her a breakfast to guarantee long life. As with all good poems, this trot doesn't do justice.

The Mechanics of Rescue gives us many poems like "Cheerios." I've read the chapbook again and again. But sometimes Miller doesn't trust herself as much as the reader trusts her. For instance in "Picking Blackberries" she divides the poem into eight sections complete with titles. This structure deflects the power of the whole.  Without division, a single poem unfolds and the small discontinuities add to the reader's connection and identification with the intimate voice speaking about the tragedies, errors, missteps, and beauty of life in quiet, arresting images. Ignore the distracting breaks. It's a gorgeous, moving poem. That's the worst I say about this collection. A trivial complaint.

Since publication of The Mechanics of the Rescue in 2007, Amy Miller has written Tea Before Questions (2010) and Beautiful/Brutal (2009) as well as five other chapbooks. I look forward to chasing them down.

02 January 2012

Hunger All Inside

Hunger All Inside
by Marie Gauthier
Finishing Line Press, 24 pages, 2009, $14

Reviewed by Susan Jo Russell

Sometimes I long for plain first lines, the ones that tell me exactly where I am and exactly what is happening.  Sometimes I tire of making my way through metaphor, fragment, or obscure juxtaposition and long for something like this:

He squats, his boy haunches
leaning against wrought
iron with one hand
through the gap as he flings
pinecones into the river.

Are you not pulled in?  What lovely end words: haunches, wrought, flings.  The scene is drawn so sharply—we see it—the boy, the railing, the river.  It’s a lovely scene out of childhood—what could be more innocent?  Yet wrought and flings, hanging at the ends of lines, already signal something deeper.

Many of the poems in Marie Gauthier’s deftly crafted chapbook, like “Gravity” from which the lines above are taken, focus on the complicated course of motherhood—the wonder and the fear.  In “The Second Miracle,” returning to her son in the bathtub after “a second away” to get a fresh towel, she imagines:

his small head dashed against the porcelain,
his body a broken toy floating in pink-tinged froth.

Everywhere there are depths and precipices—yet the mother knows her boy must charge into the world:

. . . we grab tufts of hair, sticky hands,
cotton shirts by the score—we yank him back,
over and over, as irresistibly he goes,
over and over, to that verge.

Ms. Gauthier’s language is precise, but layered, like those first lines with which I started this review.  She is grounded in the outdoors and the seasons, the leaves, the trees, but the different perceptions of adult and child of the commonplace bring a depth to the entangled emotions:

Out, out, he cries each morning,
          so we bundle up, and he barrels
through phalanxes of leaves—

dun-colored, breath-thin,
          they crumple beneath his feet
like letters from the dead,

unearthed too late, or too soon
          for his reading . . .

Ms. Gauthier’s biography reveals that she worked at the Jeffrey Amherst Bookstore in Amherst, MA for many years before it, like so many independent bookstores, went out of business.  I was in that bookstore often during those years and do remember her from her picture on the back of the chapbook, but never knew she is a poet.  Through some internet sleuthing, I found that Ms. Gauthier is now the Director of Sales and Marketing at Tupelo Press; a blog by her and some of her poetry can be found at: http://mariegauthier.wordpress.com/.

12 December 2011

Fading into Bolivia by Richard Taylor

Fading into Bolivia
by Richard Taylor
Accents Publishing, Lexington , KY
28 p., 2011.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

As writers, we are all pushing product and that’s good even if at times it has horse before the cart aspects. We need first and frequently to have taken standard delivery, ( Pegasus pulling his load of aesthetic affects), to have consumed the artistic goods and to have been consumed. Many poets are diverted by the various wrappings: technical strictures, narratising authentications, sparkles of language when the purest poetic object is in its being “ a still point of the turning world.”, a composed composure.  The greatest power of poetry is this of concentrating our concentration-and if the counter is made “Sure-- and so does prayer and zen” (not bad bedfellows, by the way), poetry does this in a special way, powering-up our attention at the same time it provides objects, profounder than jig saw pieces for that empowerment in a timeless circuit of feed and feedback.  Which is to say. and maybe this got boring five minutes ago, lyric poems at their best are deep and deepening. They are quiet. (They do not draw attention to themselves by tripping over themselves.) This is the sterling quality of Richard Taylor’s Falling Into Bolivia. His work is carefully shaped and paced.  
“The skim of algae into which /she waded to escape the heat / accepted her, pond ooze
hugging like a lethal stew.”
(For a Newfoundland Drowned in a Farm Pond)
Skim and stew are re-enforcing but the real fixer, after the lulling ordinary language of “escape the heat”, is that terrible-inevitable verb “accepting.’
And the poet must accept “that among all the sounds of late summer
the “hum of semis along the bypass and lunch-break siren when the wind was right,” he had actually
heard “ a hoarse barking, plaintive, faint, its agony never surfacing.” and done nothing.
His Peaks Mill Road is perfectly observed
In the near dark where the doe lies /(a musical, fairy tale set up)
half on, half off the road, / my headlights cone unto the survivors: /
two bucks, a spotted fawn,/ and two or three vague others.
Ears tenses, sleek heads swiveling / in the glare, hooves as lustrous,/
edged and deadly as a shot glass, they find no refuge in shadow,/
the brightness welding them together.
They do not break they do not scatter.
And to our surprise and gratification, the poem from that natural ending continues for two excellent stanzas.
If some poems are trope-ically overloaded (kayaks as relationships?), or topically conventional (prof grades papers), they are consistently sound in the units of their construction, especially the bond of noun and modifier – “heft of light” the griever’s rain of “gentle tamping, small erosions”- that ineptly fabricated, undermines so much contemporary verse. (If you can’t get noun and modifier right- all the metaphors in the world won’t save you.).

The chapbook itself, as object, is admirably low key and refined; a matte dual-tone cover, a chaste title page, good printing, a back cover of sober, uninflated blurbiage. No ribbons, no fandangles, no (ever-disappointing) author portrait.
One of Taylor’s poems end ... “I brace to face the weather—bundled, blank, at last reduced to words.” As is the reader, in fulfillment, at end of this good book.

28 November 2011

Thirteen Designer Vaginas

Thirteen Designer Vaginas

by Juliet Cook
Hyacinth Girl Press, $5, 15 pages

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk

Hyacinth Girl Press is “a feminist micro press” that aims “to bring feminism, mysticism, and scientific inquiry together with awesome poetry,” according to editor Margaret Bashaar, and has certainly done so here with Juliet Cook’s 13 poems, all titled “Designer Vagina,” and “partially inspired,” the poet says, “by looking up Vaginal Rejuvenation Surgery online.”  Remind me never to do that. 
I much prefer reading these lively poems, rich in humor and wordplay, but also rather frightening in what they suggest about what can be done surgically to alter or repair women’s nether parts.  Unless that is done in the woman’s mind and/or of her own free will.  “I was just looking for a new female doctor, / but I got sucked into this Exclusive / Embossed Edge.”
These poems are consistently provocative in a variety of ways.  “A bonbon and a boner walked into a bar” is now one of my favorite first lines ever, but it does invite us to question the value system that makes women into bonbons and celebrates vaginas for their “boner” potential, and then treats it all as a joke.  “In between a pair of masochistic doll legs, // a designer vagina might be just another punch line poem.”  Not to mention the implied violence in all this.
I appreciate the questions raised in these poems, and the speaker’s dogged, half-repulsed pursuit of knowledge and self-knowledge.

Why do I write mutant love letters
to men who don’t even read?
It’s like a botched cosmetic surgery
when all they want is push-up bra love.

Together the poems evoke an experience similar to relentless page-turning in a medical textbook, or, since the poet’s own research was online, repeated clicking on websites offered in a search, but the poems render the anatomy in unexpected ways, often with images of food:

The heaviness of this body, raw biscuit dough
swelling out of its tube.  Am I wrong
to want to be more like a patisserie,
instead of a discount grocery store.
An exotic candy-making machine
instead of a homey spoon rest.

There is plenty of design here in Thirteen Designer Vaginas.  A pink ribbon in poem #1 carries over into poem #2; the bonbon in poem #2 carries over into poem #3.  The endpapers are pink.  The covers are “jeweled,” evidently each one uniquely, with tiny shiny glued-ons that remind me of the jewelry-like surgical scars in one of the short films in Aria, “Nessun Dorma” directed by Ken Russell. I’m glad to have encountered all 13 of these vaginas.
Full disclosure coincidences:
I am eager to see the other books available individually or by subscription from Hyacinth Girl Press, one of which will be mine in winter 2011-12 (!).  I am also included in the anthology Make It So…, an anthology inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generation, published by Prime Directive Press, an imprint of Hyacinth Girl Press.  It’s nice to see a chapbook anthology (and fun to be a Kirk writing about a Picard).

11 November 2011

The Cows by Lydia Davis

The Cows
by Lydia Davis
Sarabande Books, 2011
37 pages, $9.95

Reviewed by Emily Scudder

He says to us: they don’t really do anything.
Then he says: But of course there is not a lot for them to do.

It is hard to resist a chapbook with a cow on the cover. It’s even harder when the cow is good-looking, standing in a green field, and staring straight at you.  I like cows. Who doesn’t? Having worked on a dairy farm I have a sense of the cow - the one you milk, feed, let out, bring in.  The Cows by Lydia Davis is not, however, about our active relationship with cows at all, or in other words humans are not in the picture. Good move. What Davis does is watch 3 cows from her kitchen window through the seasons and record her observations in spare precise lines of poetic prose. Or is it prose poetry? No matter.
Sarabande Books and Davis include 26 black and white photographs of the 3 cows in this chapbook, with the title page photo appropriately being a panoramic of 2 of the protagonists and (SPOILER ALERT!) the calf born on page 35.  I wish more chapbooks did this.
The Cows is a meditation on bovine nothingness. And it’s relaxing.
Against the snow, in the distance, coming head-on this
way, separately, spaced far apart, they are like wide black strokes of a pen.
Cows become isosceles triangles, cars of a train, a compass, teardrops, and then there is the choreography of the day – how they move, and how they don’t at all.  
After staying with the others in a tight clump for some
time, one walks away by herself to the far corner of the
field: at this moment, she does seem to have a mind of her own.

Lydia Davis makes this all look effortless. There is no Lydia in her lines. It’s about the cows. It’s that simple. Moo.

24 October 2011

For Crying Out Loud by Cid Corman

For Crying Out Loud
by Cid Corman
Mountains and Rivers Press in Eugene, Oregon 2002
Second printing 2011 www.mountainsandriverspress.org
31 pages, US$8

Review by Moira Richards

It’s not often, I guess, that a poetry chapbook goes into second printing. It’s not often either, that someone produces more than 80 chapbooks of poetry in a lifetime – even if he does live to be octogenarian. For Crying Out Loud is, by my count, the 81st and last collection of poems by Cid Corman published before his death in 2004.

Cid Corman did a lot of translation work too, and I love the energy he gives to Bashō’s oku-no-hosomichi translated as Back Roads to Far Towns (The Ecco Press, 1968 and again in 1996 with introduction by Robert Hass). Corman translates the hokku in the haibun in a way that evokes the sense of a rich variety of writing technique at the command of the old master. His translations suggest too, that Bashō reveals diverse facets of mood and personality through his poems.

I’ve also noticed interesting similarities between the way in which Cid Corman and Bashō led their lives. Corman, like Bashō, devoted his life to poetry; to teaching and to sharing the poetry of others, with others. Both earned very little money from their literary work, and both men were indebted to the generosity of friends and patrons to be able to pursue their passion. I thought it’d be fun to place a few of Corman’s poems from his last chapbook alongside his translations of Bashō’s last journey. And to watch how the two old men converse.

Both poets are master of drawing great beauty with few words – is it too fanciful to imagine Corman also standing, in 1689, at that most sacred of shrines atop Mount Nikkō albeit a few months later in the year?

O glorious
green leaves young leaves’
sun light                                                          (Back Roads to Far Towns, 29)

Within the
fallen leaf

to trace the
standing tree.                                                  (For Crying Out Loud, 17)

Perhaps Cid Corman was there, alongside Bashō that long-ago autumn night to echo, as drily, Bashō’s resignation at the non-appearance of the year’s much-anticipated full moon…

harvest moon
Hokkoku weather
don’t depend on it                                          (Back Roads to Far Towns, 143)

The only
thing you can
be sure of
is nothing.                                                       (For Crying Out Loud, 22)

Do you not enjoy picturing Corman, sharing three days of enforced stay in an inhospitable border-guard hut at the Shitomae Barrier, bouncing repartee off Bashō’s droll, dour, and powerfully succinct comment on the experience?

fleas lice
horse pishing
by the pillow                                                   (Back Roads to Far Towns, 91)

Get the life
outta here

That seems to
be the word.                                                    (For Crying Out Loud, 26)

I like to think of Cid Corman as travel companion who understands and empathises with the old master’s weariness and ambivalence at the aloneness of a nomadic life; the upside of which is privileged of witnessings of  the grandeur of the natural world.

wild seas (ya
to Sado shoring up
the great star dream                                        (Back Roads to Far Towns, 117)

Like finding yourself
lost and knowing there was no
where else you could be.                                 (For Crying Out Loud, 15)

Bashō, at the end of his months-long oku-no-hosomichi, does get to celebrate the joy of good friendships renewed but he acknowledges, simultaneously, the inevitability of future partings. Corman, with considered choice, placement and replacements of the few words selected for his own poem as well as for the translated poem, demonstrates mastery in both poets.

shell and innards parting
departing fall.                                                  (Back Roads to Far Towns, 151)

moment now.                                                  (For Crying Out Loud, 14)

In a long conversation, a couple of years before his death, Cid Corman talks about his life’s work and explains his reasons for not wanting to be published or anthologised by a big publishing house. That entire interview with Philip Rowlands is online (http://www.flashpointmag.com/corman1.htm) and is as well worth the reading as is For Crying Out Loud. Both pieces gives great sense of the voice of the man and the can’t-stop-or-sit-down busy-ness that must surely be trademark of anyone with so large a body of work which includes, some dozen and a half translations.

12 September 2011

Nine Hours from Oswego: poetry mostly

by Elaine Schear
Big TablePublishing Company Chapbook Series, 2011
36 pages (32 poems), $12

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

This chapbook covers a lot of ground, as we accompany the narrator through various stages of life: growing up in cultural exile in upstate New York, coming of age, and then life as an adult—relating to aging parents, family life with a partner and children as they grow up. These experiences are common to many of us. Why should we read this book? Because of Elaine Schear’s distinctive voice—her vivid language and images, her wit, her moments of tenderness in the midst of the difficulties of family life. I especially like the way this chapbook is structured—I think the poet put a lot of thought into the sequence of the poems as the book unfolds. It feels like a journey through life, with a long prose poem at the center in which the narrator describes the final cleaning out of her parents’ house after both have died. The book has surprises as well-- unexpected changes in subject, variation in tone and imagery, alternation between poems and prose poems, all of which keep the pace of the book lively and interesting.

The biggest surprise for me was a strong prose poem that occurs just after the poems about the old age and death of the narrator’s parents and precedes the poems about her family life with her own children. This poem, titled  “In War, the Dog,” is told from the point of view of a dog in four different wars spanning World War II and Iraq—a stark reminder that along with growing up and dealing with aging parents and bringing up children, war is a part of life as well. There are some powerful lines in this poem: “Once I rode in a box car. There was no room and no light” (Poland, 1942); “I was left behind when the Ba’th master went away . . . These new soldiers  . . . hold me on a leash when the hooded ones stagger off the trucks. Fear is my job.” (Abu Ghraib Prison, 2005). Although at first this poem seems to stand alone in the book, after a few readings I saw many connections with the rest of the poems (there is another poem about dogs; there is a poem about 9/11).

The first poem in the book, in fact, is also about war—a vivid imagining of the narrator’s father’s experience in World War II. As Schear portrays it, he “slept in his helmet, stupefied, grit-mouthed, cold / half-dry mud advancing into his boots and pants,” and he hated everything he had to carry—his gun, knife, and shovel. But in the end, “The shovel saved him, pitched that moment at an odd angle / just behind his head. He fell into shrapnel and stone, / got dragged by the guy behind him, who he could never repay / except to dig a soldier’s tomb into sickened ground.” In the following poem, “Before she was my mother,” Schear imagines her mother’s early married  life just as vividly, but with very different language:

She glowed before the clean foaming smash of Niagara
that first married summer in upstate New York,
her rounded figure dressed for the camera in mother-to-be,

glad to be pregnant but more than the baby
the belly of success, her bright open face as if to say
Look! I’ve got a man and he got me this way!

The liveliness and humor of Schear’s voice are evident in poems like this, and I like the way the narrator evokes her parents so strongly in a time before she was born. The subsequent poems in the first part of the book take us through her younger years, with her tufted poodle socks and candy cigarettes, to her awkward early teenage years (in the wonderful poem “Thirteen” she says “I’d like to not be thirteen and just / be a nice older age / like twenty-one /  or a single digit / like nine”). And on to the later teenage years of summer jobs (scooping ice cream at Ho Jo’s in a summer resort), and then suddenly in the next poem she’s an adult, working as a barmaid at the The Jazz Workshop in Boston.

The poems that follow, about the narrator’s parents in their old age, have poignant details: while waiting in the hospital to see a specialist, the mother gamely puts on lipstick because her daughter has heard that elderly women get better medical care when they are wearing lipstick, “even while in their beds after surgery”; the father steals band aids from a jar while waiting for his medical appointment. After both parents have died, the narrator goes to Florida to clean out their house; this exhausting and disorienting experience is described in a prose poem, “Her Last Week in Their Paradise,” told in the third person and divided into the seven days of a week. It’s an effective poem: the prose form conveys the endless, numbing list of tasks the narrator has to deal with, one thing after another, and the third person makes it feel like a universal experience: “She is not sure where to begin: the bank, the realtors, the leaks in the sink and the roof. She needs to decide what to pack and ship. She needs to call her 92-year-old aunt. . . . The large bathroom mirror shows too much. Dark circles, lines. . . . She takes down the zippered satchel wedged into the corner of her parents’ bedroom closet. She has waited a long time for this . . . canvas bag of love letters written by her mother and father to each other when Dad was still in the army . . . their unrestrained desire.  . . . She brings eighteen bags of clothes to the Goodwill, but they’re too busy to accept them. A Haitian woman approaches her on the way into the parking lot and offers to take them all. She is grateful to give them to a real person . . . She imagines skinny Haitian men wearing her father’s oversized shirts and heavy E-width shoes.  . . . She finds one remaining jar of Dad’s homemade sauce in the freezer, buys the kind of spaghetti he liked, cooks it al dente the way he taught her many years ago, and sits down to eat  in the stillness of her parents’ kitchen.”

The remaining poems in the book are about the narrator’s family life with her partner and children, and they are beautiful and moving (and sometimes have biting humor, as in the pantoum about same-sex marriage in Massachusetts).  She describes the way her daughters change as they grow up, as in the poem “Generosity” when one of her daughters invites her mother to share her bath and have a foot massage:

Last year toy boats and farm animals
bobbed under the bathtub mirror
. . . . .
These days she reads in quiet water,
washes her hair by candlelight.
. . . . .
She invites me for a foot massage
insisting, Don’t Look! as she raises
her young body, unguarded, from
her warm water cover, even though
I’ve been there all along admiring
her steamy shrine, the shine of her.
. . . . .
She takes up the washcloth in silent concentration,
applies her favorite cinnamon soap.
She gently bathes each toe and wrinkled sole.

In the poem “Standing By” Schear portrays vividly the painful emotions that a child often has in “the middle / days of her child life,” emotions that many of us still remember all too clearly:

She is ten and
longs for the single digit
time before taunting
ruled the classroom
where she’s learning to lower
her head and risk nothing

Raw from her day
she stomps upstairs
jaw clenched against
the sour taste of seven hours
worth of unspoken words

The next poem, “Chill,” is about an older daughter:

I am lost in the unfamiliar bigness
of her ideas at fourteen,
her passion for the knife edge,
mountain climbing with backpack, bed and utensils,
outerwear and underwear strapped to her back.
She is happiest now above tree line.

The book ends with the beautiful poem “Harvest,” in which the speaker and her partner have moved beyond the bringing up of children, in a time that is compared to autumn:

. . . . .
Yes, that’s the gift of it: the giving up
into flowers, fruit, and song,
gold flotsam, chocolate branches, unchosen edibles
bolting into something tall and tough with petals.

This could be the way with us,
moving on, relieved of our birthing,
regally flapping our rusty foliage in the wind,
sending out blooms in the off hours.

That last line could be a description of this chapbook—it sends out blooms in the off hours. I’ve found that many of these poems have stayed with me.

29 August 2011

Cinders of My Better Angels by Michael Magee

Cinders of My Better Angels by Michael Magee. MoonPath Press, 2011. 51 pages.
Review by P. Nelson.

While not all the poems in Michael Magee’s ‘Cinders on My Better Angels” chronicle his explorations of medicine (or medicine’s of him), the many that do are notable. Americans of this era, we may not fully appreciate the clinical oddity of top forty radio infused treatment rooms or the off hand discourtesy of painful diagnostics that Magee has experienced up close and very personal; in Shakespearean terms—he has drunk the spider-or at least the banana flavored barium. That’s almost a Magee type jest but he has risen the stakes of his play and his jokes are better. But it’s what happens with poetry of distinctive utterance; the reader begins to mimic the poem’s performative gestures. Of course poetry can be distinctively good or bad (only the banal is oblivious), so let’s be clear – Magee’s is good.
My Sigmoidoscopy wasn’t that flexible./ I tensed up as the snake went in… / what were they looking for anyway?/ Hidden canals in Venice? / As they discussed me like gondoliers taking tourists for a ride-decked out / in another language of jargon. (from My Flexible Sigmund Freudoscopy)
“Language of jargon” is suggestive and artful. And the whiff of Venice, as even a tourist as delicate as Henry James might agree in a closeted moment, wholly appropriate ; La Serenissima, golden flecked, serpentine, glisteningly intestine, with its hints of the fetid and fecal. And something apt too about those gimlet-eyed, almost cynical medical gondolierists who have Charoned too many over the familiar crossing.
Magee’s manner at its best is “American” at its best : informal, funny, fundamentally modest, conversational, riffing; ragtimeingly intelligent, alert, capacious. It knows how to envelope his sharp edge subject-objects, needles, endoscopes, tumors, rasorial nurses. She says something about a home visit/which sounds like a death sentence/but maybe I’m reading into someone /else’s life, besides for right now / I get my twenty dollar co-pay back. (from Lab Results)
It would be easy to glide over the not calling attention to themselves subtleties, a death sentence read, a reimbursement that is actuarially temporary.
People here today look lost. “I don’t /care as long as they don’t operate on me,”/ someone says. The lobby is under construction / and no one can get through. The deli is under / the jackhammer’s rule as people spin off / in different directions. It’s Friday and we’ll / soon be keeping each other company …/ The unemployed, SSI, charity cases and elderly / we are all here on life support, waiting / for hip replacements, or cataract surgery / and no one is admitting to anything.” (from Admitting)
Our minds are parliaments (or medical grand rounds) and sure there is some party that will earnestly assert that the chief value of this poetry is as courageous and often humorous (which is, in this context, a re-iteration of “courageous”) testimony.
But the opposition would be as right to counter we don’t care about another such testimonial ; talk to your local oncologist or veterinarian; uncommon courage is a common virtue. And for all we know or really care , Michael Magee is actually a tri athletetic pre-med student with a serious case of writer’s itch. Our concern and Time’s is the vitality of the body of words, a corpus sufficient unto itself, its health a matter of images, rhetorical and verbal musculatures. Our project has nothing to do with “the ghost in the machine”, an author somewhere charting his course along the Seven Ages. Are some of Maggee’s enjambments detached? A few of his adjectival phrases loose or thematics too rue-mantic? Should they be looked to? Yet every poem in Cinders of My Better Angels gives pleasure as art, communicates qualities of courage, wit, observancy. So we do care. Stay well Magee, for your next book.

10 July 2011

Under Taos Mountain: The Terrible Quarrel of Magpie and Tía by Penelope Scambly Schott

Under Taos Mountain: The Terrible Quarrel of Magpie and Tía
by Penelope Scambly Schott
Rain Mountain Press, 2009
41 pages. US$10

Review by Moira Richards

“During a stormy February and March, I was provided with a mountain, house, and magpies, for which I am most grateful.”
So reads the preface to Under Taos Mountain and, I wonder, what would I do with such a gift?

Penelope Scambly Schott creates a bright reflected/reflective picture of a mountain, a woman, and combative magpie. And she gets herself sucked into a verbal duel with that magpie; a duel in which Magpie always maintains the upper wing – right from the first meeting in which, kindly, ‘Magpie Invites Me’…

            Tía, my Auntie, we live;
            let us fly together
            above this mountain.
                        But the wings of my soul
                        are daubed with mud.

            Then stand in the round oven
            and bake;

            your pin feathers will toughen,
            your wings will strengthen.

… until, at the end of the acquaintance, ‘Magpie Dispatches Me’ and then carelessly invokes the narrator’s ‘Expulsion’ from that house under Taos Mountain:

Magpie flaps at my window:

Tía, it’s time to go home.
You’ve bothered me plenty

and I’m bored with you

            Magpie, I thought you cared.

Don’t you get sick of caring, Auntie?

            I do, I do.
           That’s why I came here:

            my heart was so crowded
            that my brain was squeezed.

That’s very peculiar anatomy;
no wonder your feathers don’t work.

Magpie’s affect is clear from the quickest of scans down the titles in the chapbook’s content listing… ‘Magpie as my Patron Saint’, ‘Magpie Assaults me on Ash Wednesday’, ‘Magpie on the Afterlife’. Through the poems Magpie emerges not as muse, not as conscience, not as alter-ego but, irresistably, as amalgam of all three…

            Tell me your sins, Tía.
            (I, of course, have none.)

Or perhaps Magpie is just a teasing magpie; the poet leaves the possibilities wide open – and uses her Magpie to invite as much uncomfortable introspection as the cover image suggests.

Magpie variously taunts the poet narrator and here, likens her nest to the writer’s work:

            See how it all connects.  Pull one twig and the nest unravels.

                        My whole life is like that, Magpie.

            Someday you will go back to being a pile of twigs.

            In our dry climate, you will decay slowly.
            Every word you have written on the rough bark
            will remain legible
            for awhile.
            That will be enough.

And other times, when least expected and never for very long, the narrator elicits comfort, soothing words, magical imagery, from the mercurial Magpie;

                        Magpie, why can’t I sleep?
            You write too much, Auntie.
            Let your dreams lie in peace.
Drop your pencil           
            I will rock you back to sleep in a basket
            woven from the tails
            of shooting stars.

So the poems for this chapbook… lots of soul-searching (only by Tía), lots of quarrelling – maybe more intense than terrible – the magpie a formidable verbal opponent and, tantalisingly, there’s no real resolution by the end of the tale – except of, course, Magpie gets to say the last, sly, words.

            That’s why I like you so much, Tía,
            whenever I like you at all.