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

Stepping Through Moons
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.”

28 November 2010

Investigating Nancy Drew

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

Nancy Drew has had a long career in popular fiction, and even though many things about the novels seem very dated now, she is still a character that many readers remember with admiration and affection. Especially readers, like me, who grew up in the 1950s. It was the decade of postwar complacency, and the role models for teenage girls were limited in that pre-Feminine Mystique era when we couldn’t even imagine the changes the 1960s would bring. Our mothers mostly stayed at home, and many of us had little independence before we went to college. Nancy Drew offered a picture of a different kind of life. Not only was she smart, attractive, independent, and resourceful, but she had no mother telling her what to do! Her father, the prominent attorney Carson Drew, supported her sleuthing activities, admired her intellect, and financed her lifestyle--including her sporty blue roadster, her impressive array of outfits for every occasion, and her constant road trips with her friends--without ever a complaint. Even though there was no mother to run the household, Nancy had no duties in that area because Hannah Gruen, the Drews’ efficient housekeeper, took care of everything. In short, an enviable situation!
But it wasn’t just Nancy’s comfortable life and freedom that we envied, it was her job--even though she was still in high school, she spent much of her time as a very competent detective. She could recognize clues when she saw them, and she knew how to interpret them. She got to the heart of things. She tracked down evildoers and miscreants, and brought justice to the innocent. This, I think, was her real attraction: she could solve mysteries.

For all these reasons, I was delighted to come across Kathleen Aguero’s chapbook, which consists of nineteen poems that are all inspired in one way or another by Nancy Drew. But there’s more to these poems than nostalgia--many of them move quickly into other territory, and Aguero writes with humor and insight about a variety of situations. In the poem “Ambition” she shows the kind of independence that Nancy represented for her readers:
            Nancy, like Athena,
            must have been born
            straight from her father’s head.
            .  .  .  .  .
            out of windows, hiding
            in dark cellars, hardly
            a woman at all, at least
            not like our mothers,
            hair in rollers, lipstick
            smears on coffee cups.
            Go into law or business,
            my mother told me,
            meaning I might have a chance
            to call the shots,
            meaning, she’d also
            wanted to be Nancy.

In other poems Aguero acknowledges the privileged life that Nancy led, as when the faithful housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, speaks to Nancy’s readers in one poem: “How could Nancy get to be Nancy/ without me, a flowered apron/ doing magic tricks--food appears,/ dishes disappear--but not quite a mother/ reigning her in? How many of you/ were born in a house with a live-in housekeeper?” And in “No Parking” she refers to one of the most dated aspects of the novels, the fact that the criminals Nancy pursued were always from the lower social classes: Nancy walks confidently on the beach in a shorefront town where she belongs to the country club, while the “swarthy criminals/ . . . circle in their pick-ups,/ searching for legal parking./ . . . Let them park in Revere and hitchhike here.”
Whereas in the novels Nancy never fails to solve a mystery, in many of these poems she is unsuccessful, as in “Stumped,” “Unsolved Mysteries,” and “Mystery of the Tolling Bell.” And in the poem “Mammogram,” Nancy is confronted by a situation unlike anything she’s had to deal with in her investigations:
            The clue, a small lump
            she finds sleuthing
            in her own breast.
            .  .  .  .  .
            She’s felt baffled before,
            but what is this drop in her gut
            like an elevator going down?
            Her own pale breast
            withholds its secrets.

We are in very different territory now. And in the poems toward the end of the book, Aguero leaves Nancy Drew behind to explore more general situations, all of them mysteries where we have no certain answers. In “Suppose” the poet asks how it is that teenagers, even one’s own children, can do things that hurt others, or can be victims. In “The Case of the Suicidal Friend,” she writes about the helplessness of those left behind after a suicide, and the way the living search for clues to the reason for the death. Three of the book’s most moving poems are about the speaker’s mother, who is suffering from dementia and eventually has to live in a nursing home. Dementia is certainly one of life’s biggest mysteries, as Aguero says at the beginning of “The Case of the Impersonator”:
            The first clue is she doesn’t know me.
            The mystery is that she looks just like my mother.

In these three strong poems the language of mysteries and clues takes on a whole new resonance.
In the book’s final poem, “Zen Nancy,” Aguero returns to Nancy Drew, but this is a very different Nancy who has gone beyond the solving of mysteries and has reached a new level of consciousness: “What curiosity/ she feels is inner, quiet./ The mysteries she solved, so innocent/ they hardly seem crimes at all.” These days, Nancy is solving “more difficult cases”:
            the code of the aurora borealis,
            the trail of the horseshoe crab, the sound
            of stone, the color of air,
            the vast and clueless sky.

I love this picture of a new, enlightened Nancy. It’s a satisfying ending to a very enjoyable book.

10 February 2010

Medusa Discovers Styling Gel by Dian Duchin Reed

Medusa Discovers Styling Gel by Dian Duchin Reed
Finishing Line Press, 2009. 27 pages. $14.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

“Don’t be stupid.” This might be the prime moral exhortation were it not for the many one word negations, such as “Goebbels”, by all accounts, a very intelligent man. So OK, “let’s not be verbally stupid”; there is never, ever, virtue in that. Possibly the chief value of Poetry is as a kind of reciprocating engine, producing and recycling verbal intelligence, more effectively as container and medium than for any particular content or message, a perpetual notion machine that makes the reader smarter simultaneously with his investment of that intelligence in the poem’s own potentiality for meaning. And so it goes, the most ascendant of Hegel’s Aufhebung, a Convolvulus, and yes, it really is that simple! We pause, dear reader (always assume one reader) for rebuttal and to assert that this unintegrated arabesque is not nearly as detached as it must appear but derives from the work in hand. Because the poems in Dian Duchin Reed’s’ "Medusa Discovers Styling Gel" are intelligent* (and nothing rebarbative, as when the Brits say “clever”, in the praise), instantiating a verbal alertness where words reflect and refract in arrangements that compose the unified object of many facets. Can we count on Space? But it was less / than nothing before the Big Bang ./ Even now, confronted by a massive object, / it bends the truth, stretches the facts.//And that trickster Time,/ as dependent on speed as any junkie,/ always relies on someone else’s /perspective, having none of its own.//Perhaps Truth does not exist. Perhaps /the universe is composed of Consequences/ instead. And perhaps Consequences / are the only path to an honest universe./No matter how long it takes, no matter/ how far from the sources, Consequences / will always catch up with us./Then, the Big Bust.( from The Search for Truth). “Matter” being a pun that matters. Most of the poems explore an argument that extends, for force and effect, through one long sentence so that redaction does this work a disservice. Yet every map moves me/from metaphor to mystery//my own town shrunk down/to a dot, all spheres turned to/ a series of concentric circles. //Evenings, the swish and crash/ of sea onshore reminds me/of cymbals, of the hopeless // hope of symbols. I need no flowers, my only rose/the compass rose.//in whose petalled points / I lose myself/to show the better ways. (from “The Mapmaker Muses ) At its best, the writing is vectored in that perfect location of inevitability and surprise, reminiscent of Heather McHugh or at a more distance remove of prose, Donald Barthelme. Among Reed’s big subjects are fate, loneliness, truth, the Medusa, Epicurus, all sat down and effectively interrogated in a focused light as if she knows what most contemporary poets forget: every poem is guilty, guilty of the gravest crime, Existence, its only possible expiation being the transcript of the transgression, the poem itself. ‘Lucifer’s reaction to his own dizzying/descent, the kind of cosmic crash/that lovers of commotion might/consider dazzling, a work the meek /cache to praise the sun’s daily glissade / to music that’s so subtle, its silent.” /(From Dazzled) If there is a criticism of Reed’s brilliant successes, it is, as usually the case with persons, along the line of their virtues. There’s a sometimes relentless, working-it-too-hard monotonic quality, though this persistence and pursuit is also, subtextually, a pointing to and moral insistence that in a world exiled from its own best garden where “Fame and her best friend Fortune strut down the street arm in arm with their double dates, Pain and Fear", we must do better, be brighter. Only an old bold critic (careless of crashing) would prescribe a writer’s next book, suggest that Reed’s further advance might involve a step backwards to the bad poetry badlands of looseness, inexactitude and dreamy relinquishment. But something like that drift is what makes Tennyson deeper than Browning, Coleridge more compelling than Byron, Thomas’ plainsong more plaintive than ... Never mind. We await the next turn of this author’s poetic karma-dharma wheel. *[And by "intelligent" one means capacity and capability, verbal mindfulness in its many modes, including the emotive. For the most exhaustive (some say exhausting) study of intelligence as moral moderator, succeeding and failing, see Henry James, The Golden Bowl.]

20 January 2010

thought-fish by Ruan Wright

by Ruan Wright
Moon Journal Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Emily Scudder

thought-fish. If the title isn't intriguing enough, then the cover art seals the deal. You can hardly help yourself – the color, the geometry, this ethereal woman ascending to where? Who cares! The design by Moon Press Journal, the cover illustration by the poet Ruan Wright herself, establishes a mood – experimental, optimistic, unique.

Recently I read a publisher’s lament that out of 50 chapbook contest finalists, over 20 of the manuscripts were almost indistinguishable, lacked a distinctive “voice.” The poems seemed workshopped to death - rough edges smoothed, loose ends tightened, exclamations muted. A poet gives something up when toning down, but this is not Wright’s problem.

Ruan Wright gives up nothing! “Oh Earth! Give way and let me in…” Wright exclaims in the opening line of her poem titled “Insomnia.” She illustrates her four yoga poems – “Balasana,” “Dandasana,” “Shavasana,”” Tadasana.” She shapes and breaks lines to her own liking, steps into a male chauvinist’s shoes, then drops a dead sparrow on your doorstep – stunning and still. After each poem I had absolutely no idea what was coming next. Two playful short poems appear. Why? Because they do.


In my dreams
I’m a cat
and lithe
with nine
each of them

thought-fish is no New Age Yoga poetry collection, yet it does have something of that eclectic feel. I almost found myself looking for a yoga CD tucked inside the back cover, but the thought vanished when Mary and Jesus appeared. The few poems deeply based in the Christian tradition strengthen the contemplative grain of the whole collection rather than disrupt. “Worm” is one of Wright’s best, and for anyone who has ever sat in a childhood Sunday School class and wondered exactly what it meant when instructed “Jesus died for our sins,”- it’s a flashback, skillfully carried forward.


Was it the lie I told in Fourth Grade,
That saved my skin, but gave Clyde hell –
Is that the sin you saved me from?

Or the time I told Mum I’d cleaned my teeth
But hadn’t – she must have known,
She always did – was that the one?

Or the lie I tell myself each day
That I am OK and everyone else is wrong
Or just as bad, so it’s all the same?

So what’s next? How about board games? “We Played Monopoly” and “Tiddlywinks” take us right into Wright’s childhood in 1960s England. Her direct language, not folksy but comforting nevertheless, mirrors the nostalgia of rainy days stuck inside a grandmother’s house, or the reassurance of worn 500 pound notes, game-money hoarded and counted. Mostly, Wright reminds us why any of this matters at all. It is what good poets do.


Do you remember how we played
Monopoly the long days of summer?
You were always the racing car,
I was always the flat iron, ….

And does it matter if you don’t remember?

Well, yes,
it does now,
now that our childhood home is gone
along with our parents,
and our childish selves are buried
under the dirt of so many years of work
and child rearing and
trying not to go bankrupt or end up in jail.

For all her play and unpredictability, there is a pervasive quietude throughout thought-fish that weights it. Remember the woman on the cover? Look again. She seems to ascend unencumbered. To do so requires an interior launch pad, confident and known. Annie Dilliard’s book title “Holy the Firm” comes to mind and easily describes a place Wright herself seems to inhabit. Each poem is a bit of this world – reeled in. thought-fish.

03 January 2010

Further Adventures of My Nose by John Surowiecki

Further Adventures of my Nose by John Surowiecki Illustrated by Terry Rentzepis Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005 $10 Review by Laurie Rosenblatt Small in size, text in Cochin with titles in Copperplate, printed on soft paper, and bound with a hand tied brown hempen string—ok, I don’t really know it’s hemp, I didn’t try to smoke it or anything—still, Further Adventures of my Nose, is gorgeous. And Ugly Duckling Presse doesn’t rest on its laurels, they throw in color illustrations by Terry Rentzepis to boot! So, what’s the catch? John Surowiecki’s chapbook is, let me say it again, beautiful, but it is not, if our reviewers are a representative sample, for everyone. Some readers may find Rentzepis’ surreal illustrations frightening. Ok, ok there is a nose standing in a field--grass below, trees behind, sky above—a nose free from its face looking at the reader with asymmetrically placed eyes. There is also a print of The Beloved with her cello (she has no nose), and a nose posed with several noses painted by Picasso. Finally, yes Virginia that is a tumor penning a postcard. For some readers the poems may be hard going as well. If you don’t like Gogol and Sterne, if Ionesco and Durang set your teeth on edge then Surowiecki’s chapbook is not for you. In addition, some readers may find Surowiecki’s poems unpleasing simply for taking on, as they do, cancer of the nose. On the other hand Further Adventures of My Nose, is definitely for some people, me included. And, Surowiecki should be required reading for anyone working with people being treated for cancers of the head and neck. Though serious in intent, the poems do not speak in earnest tones. Nor is this chapbook sentimental or upliftingly courageous in the manner of a Lifetime Special or a Disney film. So if you’re looking for a cancer story to make you feel cancer might be tolerable all the while dutifully providing that little frisson, that small taste of suffering that makes the telling believable, Surowiecki is not your poet. “My nose/walks the world while I’m only a mirror to it...,” the absurd premise concretizes that me-not-me feeling when the body betrays through cancer. It’s a shock when some part of your body goes solo, revolts, seems to develop independent intentions, a purpose of its own. In “Epigraph & Epigram” the speaker first quotes Sartre— But in order for this absolute exteriority to be given in the form of the “there is,” there must be a world… He then gives us the view from where he stands, “Either everything exists except my nose/ or nothing exists except my nose which/ somehow amounts to the same thing.” Just so. The nose goes through some indelicate changes, it grows colorful, grows a tumor; then takes off, travels, and starts a family. Finding itself far from home, and perhaps feeling a bit guilty, the nose writes e-mail from Egypt: Sphinges have no noses no larynges, either. They remain silent on the subject of everyday life & refuse to covet the stir & wealth that lingers closest to the ground. Sphinges are ¼ Pharaoh & ¾ housecat. They behave like antimatter. A nose, on the other hand, connects the causeless world to another lacking consequences ABC. Always be cartilaginous. How else would the speaker show us his mutilated face, his horror and shame, without sending the reader right out of his or her chair? In, “A Nose of Color,” the speaker eludes feeling, dissociates rather than taking inventory and unbundling his feelings for us: He has become a nose of color’ unfortunately, that color is purple, darkening to ruby unparagoned, color of the Crab, of shadows sliding along fresh morning snow, of a plum hastily stolen, flesh to flesh, stone to heart, skin to livid skin. Dr. S**p points out pustules, papules, rhinnorrhea, ______, _____, _________, & _______. Current has spilled somewhere,…. (A Nose of Color) Now a separate individual, the nose has become heedlessly, recklessly colorful. The betrayed speaker attempts to deny the consequences—first by comparing the hideously abnormal color to shadows on snow, then to a plum—chasing solace through lyrical description and sensuous associations. The word livid brings us back to reality—and sends us back to that plum. Stripped of, “hastily stolen” and “flesh to flesh,” the plum has a nasty exactness and tormenting clarity (like the Sphinges). When, Dr. S**p speaks, the reader gets only a couple of technical terms before running into blanks—anguish and fear deafen us as well. Somewhere current has indeed spilled in this chapbook where playful word choice and an artful, almost light voice give the poems an edge, a false bravado whistling in the dark. This tightly wound speaker, made nearly insane by horror and suffering, reveals the terrified depths sounded during treatment for cancer. He lets us watch him sweat and spin punning, ironic, absurdist attempts to distance himself from pain. We end up face to face with agony. And sometimes, for instance in “Daydream No. 2: Speaking of Oral Sex” or even more starkly in “A World w/o Odors,” only small stylistic flourishes such as, “w/o” and “&,” provide an anemic feint before we take it on the nose (as it were): There is a darkness of another kind, a place of dead shapes & flat sounds where nothing rides on the air, where lilacs & the ocean are only sad movies of themselves. In this same vein, the final poem, “Follow Up” speaks plainly and truthfully about the human inability to sustain intense feeling: Dread is a vague sensation of discomfort from a barely remembered dream. Joy has slipped away, H2O thru fingers. Sublime purple skies are pushed aside. Floods recede & droughts are quenched. You know, it really lasts only so long---- ----this new appreciation for life. This is a gutsy chapbook about a terrifying illness by a skilled and humane poet. It’s worth the trouble.

15 December 2009

Private Graveyard by Arlene Naganawa

Private Graveyard By Arlene Naganawa Gribble Press, 2009 $10.00 Winner of the First Gribble Press Poetry Contest Review by Susan Jo Russell Private graveyards—we all have them. Arlene Naganawa shares hers with us—the literal place, as yet unhaunted for the children playing there in the title poem, and memories of the individual dead who exist now only in images. The brief opening poem, “Compass,” almost an epigraph for the collection, which was the Gribble Press Poetry Chapbook Winner for 2009, draws the reader in with a question, as if to a friend met on the street, “Diane’s dead now, did you know?” The tone is deliberately too casual, too blunt—a cover for what the words can’t contain. “Compass” points to, encompasses, in its terse five lines, a central theme of this collection—it is not simply that we have become separated from those who once knew us, but that, in that separation, the very selves we once were are dead to us, as the devastating last line reveals, “and I’m not the girl in the flowered dress.” Naganawa’s work shows an easy spinning of meter and line. One rarely stumbles in a reading of her poems—image is supported by sound, without fuss, as in the insistence of hard “c” sounds that undercuts what might otherwise be too sweet a memory in “Diane Mae 1951-2005” (whom I assume is also the Diane of the opening poem): Your childhood friend (her hair slicked back with a headband, white plastic stamped with rosebuds) is standing barefoot under the sprinkler. It is not until the next couplet that the slight unease we already sense is made more explicit: “No one will give her/a map of her young heart . . . .” In these poems what is gone remains as an emptiness, never filled in, an open grave in the private graveyard. The people we encounter here confront an unrelieved wanting (“want,” as a noun, occurs frequently), as in this poem, whose title is its first line: It May Come As a Surprise but you are not the center of the universe anymore, not since your mother buttoned up her blouse and walked away, leaving you to watch pink clouds circle the sky over your crib, mobile turning on invisible wire. . . . Not all of the poems are scenes from lost childhood. Two, in particular, open up into an examination of fear, greed, racism, and the power relations of U.S. history. “Great Northern Railroad” recounts a story of a Japanese farmer who never recovers his land, and the life that land would have enabled, after his internment in the U.S. camps. “Peaches in North Carolina” is a surprise in this book, a leap from the poems of loss that are closely connected with Naganawa’s own history. This ekphrastic poem is based on a photograph of the lynching of John Richards in 1916 from Without Sanctuary (edited by James Allen; the reference to this book might have been made more clearly). It is a remarkable interpretation of that photograph, juxtaposing the imagined dailiness of the lynchers and the lynched with the almost sensual violence of the act itself. Although a poem or two did not lift me beyond a simple sadness for those who die too young, most often Naganawa’s imagery and deceptively straightforward language express a palpable longing and regret. The children in “One Afternoon” already yearn for something they can only describe by imagining objects they might find in the woods: “whole robin egg, shed snakeskin/mouse skull, perfect and clean.” Nagawana’s poetry reveals how the persistence and accumulation of loss, death, and unfulfilled promise claim pieces of the self, pieces of history and culture, leaving holes in the fabric that can’t be repaired.

30 November 2009

From a Burning Building by Kerry O'Keefe

From a Burning Building by Kerry O’ Keefe
March Street Press, 2005. 25 pages.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

I’ve never met an extended metaphor I liked, especially my own, as the device stretches easily to Cutetitude and the shallow reaches of self congratulation. This said, it is an old and not very bold image—the poem as plane. Frequent poetic flyers, we’ve all been on board the relentlessly ground bound object that rolls down the runway and never takes off. When what we want is transport - velocity, lift off and flight. Uncommonly, one encounters poems already airborne, your awareness coeval with their instantly at altitude attitude, a craft that has already passed several thresholds of thrust (V1, V2) and is immediately in its ideal poetic element, which is Ariel’s. The best poems in Kerry O’Keefe’s chapbook “From a Burning Building” are of this type. Winter grass cracking under their shoes/ as they stand and look at the eight-paned/ window that blew off the house last fall./ The squirrels now able to scratch through/to the garbage on the porch …/ Their children throw a ball back and forth, not used / to seeing him there in the yard. The man and woman/ navigate all the familiar distances, less urgent.— from “Ex-Husband Comes to Pick Up Ladders”. The topics are the usual destinations-estrangement, divorce, death, the consolations of children and new love. Yes, we’ve all been here and for good reason; these are the hubs of the human heart. The day you learn the terrifying difference in the air/between the sound of a man quiet in another room,/ and one who has gone… Left to barter with pictures and helpless pets. / For a few weeks, the smell of the food you cooked./The fading world of the bed. Cigarette ashes left / for a while, then everything clean. The way, for years,/ you confuse each new, beautiful thing you encounter/with the casual habit of a weak and oblivious god. --- from “Worst Fear” Such poems are not necessarily reliant on an exoskeleton of linked imagery (the best mechanical means for making Post-Metrical poetry). Rather, they occur within an epistic framework of testimony (lest this seem critically gratuitous, consider some alternatives: the meditative, the dramatic, the dialectical, the pastoral, etc...) where images aren’t so much produced and laid out as appearing and surfacing; imminent but determinate .(And this not to diminish the conscious artistry of such a method where judgment must be deployed at its extremist verge). Maybe I’m talking out of my critical hat, believe me, more Emmett Kelly’s than Adam Verver’s but consider the uncanny sequencing of A sense of what is foreign./The leaves breaking. The hills/weighted down with guilt over /the yearly lewd display. Still/only able to do what they know./Endless reaches of geese/trying to look brave in their dissembling.// A lone traveler/trying to reach the gate before/ the plane takes off….the season left behind for all/of its reasons … a passage that convinces us way before (yet literarily after) the convicting title “Before Signing the Papers.” In a sense the poetry seems co-generated by a dually operative containment vessel consisting of an intense outward thrust to express surrounded by a constricting force, pressurizing the internal matter (or as the poet better puts it-“‘Let the unspeakable weight against the pleasure of a song, isn’t that how it is every day?’). When this pressure lessens, as this reader believes it does in the more “positive” poems about children and new friends, the lines flatten out, lacking, as I take it, a recombinant genesis that is strictly linguistic. You could call this ambient force “history” or “Truth”, the seemingly more endurant element of Keats’ famous compound. It is Truth, in the conveyance of Poetry, that elevates these poems from the low lying arbitrations of so much chapbook verse and that makes this propellant little book worth reading. Which is what, to begin with, we booked the flight for. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- And speaking of containment vessels, the March Street Press of Greensboro N.C. has produced an exemplary chapbook of the nonletter press variety, one right sized for the hands, with careful typography and layout including that rara avis of contemporary publishing- the chaste, alluring plumage of a title page properly set.