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/

31 March 2011

Fiddler Crab Feature - Interview with Seven Kitchens Press' Editor, Ron Mohring

What brought you to poetry publishing? How did you get your name? In other words, a brief history of your press? 
I've been attracted to poetry chapbooks for a very long time (and had three of my own published before my first book came out), so the decision to launch a chapbook press was pretty easy. When I left a university job in 2007, I also left a job on the editorial staff of a literary magazine, and suddenly there was time to go ahead and take the micropress leap. I haven't looked back. 
Our name owes a debt to my partner and to my friend Deirdre O'Connor, in whose kitchen we were drinking wine & telling crazy housesitting stories when Randy suddenly exclaimed: "You guys should publish a collection!" Even though that housesitting anthology is still in limbo, I still believe it will happen, and I wanted to acknowledge a debt to all the nurturing conversation and brilliant ideas that hatch in our kitchens.

Books from Seven Kitchen have a very distinctive and, we think, attractive design/look. Do you have any comments about the design work or publishing aesthetics at your press or in general? Do you do all the work in house or outsource parts? 
Thank you! We've been fortunate to gain permission from some very talented artists and photographers for some of our cover images. I learned a bit about design at my old job, but some of the process was very trial-and-error, especially in our first year. Last year, I had the help of a madly talented intern, Kari Larsen, who designed some awesome covers (R J Gibson's Scavenge, Naomi Lazard's Ordinances, Erin Bertram's Inland Sea). I print the pages at home on my laser printer and have the covers printed locally. I trim, assemble, and tie each chapbook at home. 

Is there a kind of poetry manuscript or poet you are looking for or are passionate about? 
Ron Mohring, Editor of Seven Kitchens Press
My goal is to represent a wide range of voices and aesthetics. I think we're doing all right so far, though I really want to represent more poets of color (and I'm working on that). I read a lot--a lot--of poetry, and if a manuscript stays with me, even if a guest judge didn't land it in the top for whatever series, I will probably try to find a way to publish that manuscript. So many titles in our Editor's Series, and almost everything in our Summer Kitchen Series, happened because I couldn't let those poems go unpublished!

How are manuscripts selected for publication at Seven Kitchens? (Do you, for instance, ever use outside vetters or “ manuscripts made anonymous” for reading?). 
For our open series (Robin Becker, Keystone, Editor's Prize), we remove identifying information as soon as the manuscripts come in and assign randomly-generated log numbers. I don't know who wrote what until the finalists are selected. I like soliciting guest judges for the Keystone and Becker Prizes; it brings a fresh reader every year to those series, and I've been completely happy with the judges' selections. I do read every manuscript that comes in, though a time may come that I'll need help with that, but I'd rather hire a co-editor than ever hand the manuscripts over to outside readers who may not be as passionate about the press as I. 
What’s the hardest thing about running Seven Kitchens? And the best? 
The biggest challenge for me is time: my intentions are constantly undermined by the realities of my daily schedule. The second biggest challenge is money: we have a tiny budget--you wouldn't believe--yet here we are, thirty titles strong, pushing ahead and feeling very grateful for the support we've received so far. 
Editorial Assistant, Sadie
The best part about running 7KP is the absolute delight of bringing each writer's work into print in thoughtfully designed, carefully edited, lovingly constructed chapbooks. I love every stage of the process.

What are your thoughts about the current status of the chapbook in the poetry world, and how do you see the chapbook developing in the coming decade? 
I'm blown away by the ways that some folks--Didi Menendez and Nic Sebastian, for example--are creating gorgeous digital chapbooks. But there's so much creativity in the physical chapbook as well: Betsy Wheeler makes incredible chapbooks at Pilot Books, as does David McNamara at sunnyoutside. It's almost unfair to name names because so many folks out there are creating beautiful, original, stunning work. Chapbooks are thriving!

What do we need to know what about you do that we don’t know? 
When I'm not writing poems or working on the press, I quilt. I'm a hand quilter. Some antique Pennsylvania quilting fabrics inspired the cover designs for the Summer Kitchen Series; just wait till you see this year's batch. Finally, I want to thank you again for this interview, but especially for your commitment to the chapbook and the fine work you're doing with Fiddler Crab Review.
interview by P. Nelson and Emily Scudder.  photographs by Ron Mohring. All Rights Reserved.

03 January 2011

Stepping Through Moons by Toni L. Wilkes

by Toni Wilkes
Finishing Line Press, 2009
27 pages, $14

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk

Stepping Through Moons starts with a bang and a bucket of nails.

Bucket of Nails

He comes back, a bucket of nails
in one hand, a pear weeping
brown bruises in the other.
Stems of quince tear his face
when he squeezes the redwood gate
from its latch.  The tin bucket
slaps his thigh, nails jangle.  His
parents’ house, a waste of bottles
and shame glares back at him.
Near the porch, black bees dart
from the riven trunk of
a maple.  Remnants of a tree swing
sag from its branches.  Laying the
fruit on the porch railing, he prods
slats of steps in place as the pear
rocks to the blows of his hammer.

Here’s the book in a nutshell, or, rather, a tin pail.  Strong visuals, suffering and stoicism offered in a language of charged restraint, and always something that can be heard—nails jangling, the hammer blows—in the clusterings of words and consonants.  
Toni Wilkes has organized her chapbook into sections that echo the title phrase Stepping Through Moons: Walking Through Myths, Threading Shadows, Scattering Clouds, plus a little transitional Diptych of two poems that respond to paintings.  The ekphrastic poems in the book underscore the landscape poems, in which she artfully reveals nature’s beauty. 
But most compelling to me is the first section, Walking Through Myths, where we follow that boy with the bucket of nails through his life with challenging parents—a sometimes distant, sometimes shouting father, and an artist mother whose sketchbooks (and “independence”) he finds “stashed away in cupboards and drawers.” 
Part of my attraction to this section is that the female poet takes us deeply into the life of a male character, presumably one she knows well.  She knows his personal history, or perhaps his personal mythology.  We see him old enough to repair a porch.  We see him young, a “triangle-faced boy” in one of his mother’s colored chalk portraits.  We see him playing with a sister.  We see him losing this sister: “They took his sister away at dawn, / her face the pearl-gray of shadowed water.”  We see him grown past his griefs, disposing of the contents of his parents’ house.  This is a grown-up boy who commands my attention and compassion as a reader, and here Wilkes is both poet and masterful portrait artist. 
Stepping Through Moons is one of the signature saddle-stapled chapbooks of Finishing Line Press, with colored endpapers and ribbons tied around the spine.  I know the poet has some choice in colors and book design but that the press also uses available scrap paper stock from its printer, so I count myself lucky to have a copy of the book with shimmery moon-colored endpapers and a blue ribbon that matches some of the blue lettering on the rear cover and the blue illustration on the front cover.  It’s a lovely book with a bound-in erratum slip crediting the cover art—a color etching called Moon Rising—to Kathan Brown, a gift of the artist to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.  

Wilkes is a California poet, and I was pleased to learn two words from her poems!  “Nandinas” and “neoprened.”  Nandina is an evergreen plant known as the heavenly bamboo, but not really a bamboo at all.  Considered a pest in Florida, it is tolerated in California, and is a good place for towhees to hide and find seeds in winter, as in “A Study in Gray,” one of those artful landscape poems. And neoprene is a DuPont plastic and the stuff of wetsuits, which makes perfect sense in “Ghost Surfer,” the last poem in Stepping Through Moons, where a surfer whose “shadow, like an indigo / stain” is there and not there, and then “evaporates / in the wing-beats / of swifter currents.”