15 November 2009

Four for the Price of One

An Uncommon Accord Poems by George Kraus, Marcia Arrieta, Pat Landreth Keller, and Michael Carman Quartet Series, Toadlily Press, 2008 64 pages, $14.00 Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer Kudos to Toadlily Press for this excellent idea! Each book in their Quartet Series includes four different poets, with sections consisting of (in this book) anywhere from 10 to 14 poems by each poet. The reader can gain a good idea of each poet’s voice and subjects, while at the same time appreciating the volume as a whole--an interesting and rich tapestry in which four voices are joined together in a kind of mutual conversation. This book is also very nicely designed--the typeface is the readable and elegant Sabon, the page layout is spacious, and the artwork on the cover (by Myrna Goodman) is repeated in an innovative way on each of the four section openers. Toadlily should also be commended for choosing a printer that’s a member of the Green Press Initiative, “a non-profit program dedicated to supporting authors, publishers, and suppliers in their efforts to reduce their use of fiber obtained from endangered forests.” According to Toadlily, printing this particular volume in this way saved 1 tree, 345 gallons of wastewater, 1 million BTUs of total energy, 44 pounds of solid waste, and 83 pounds of greenhouse gases--something all publishers should strive for, and an increasing necessity if books printed on paper are going to survive in the future. The poems in this chapbook are powerful, characterized by intense and expressive language. George Kraus’s poems, with strong and compelling images, are filled with faces and bodies--a shipwreck survivor, a woman under the spell of a magician, dawn personified as a clown with a cracked and peeling mask. The bodies of passengers in the aftermath of a bus crash (possibly the bodies of all of us, at the end of life) are “so peaceful they seem asleep,/ without blood or bent bone./ . . . Now they no longer move,/ nor speak enigmatically in dialect,/ nor chatter busy as leaves/ when the wind strolls in a stand/ of eucalyptus trees. The air is pale/ without assurance of garlic,/ or the dark smells of soils/ black under fingernails.” Describing the skeleton of a woman who was tortured in El Salvador, he writes (in a strong villanelle): “A modesty a feast of birds did not strip,/ Suspended over other stark debris,/ I think it should be told another way. / . . . Upturned eyes that left the light of day,/ Her torturers I hope will always see,/ A perfect skeleton in weathered slip./ . . . I think it should be told another way.” Marcia Arrieta’s poems are grouped under the title “The Curve Against the Linear,” and many of them play with this idea of opposites. The poems are constructed with short phrases (often just one or two words in a phrase), extra space in the interior of lines, ampersands, and no capitalization whatsoever (even for proper nouns). This can get a little repetitive, but when the language works, it really works. The juxtaposed phrases and lines are often evocative and moving, as in her opening poem, “it happened long ago”: hermits & monks. eagle. rain. the dream of the island. . . . . . could I ask you to reconsider? the charity of yellow flowers in wind. . . . . . mansions of sense. mansions of silence. learning to see. the ladder opens. the gate closes. hourglass & field. She uses the language of mathematics and physics, as well as a philosopher’s questioning of the world: “forest. three hills. nonlinear equations./ free oscillations. forced oscillations./ perturbation. significant. insignificant./ i analyze alone.” After reading her poems, I feel as if I’ve been on a journey: “between lives. between dreams./ ordinary./ sacred.” Pat Landreth Keller’s poems are characterized by strong narratives. In the moving poem that opens her section, “Draglines,” she tells the story of two young girls, twins, who were murdered and drowned: “water lapping the willows/ barehanded man whipping wire into lassoes/ spinning those girls like sugar tied back to back.” And she ties this story to an old woman’s memory of being molested as a child: she said she’d kept the taste of metal on her tongue fingerprints on her thigh old as she was said the twins never would quit turning in her mind washing into the river out of the river hair tangled in the willows just like wanting she said just like words In “Snowscape,” a poem about a small wedding in mid-winter, the realistic opening stanzas of a ceremony in a room shade into memory and the snowy world outside, as the couple gradually becomes part of the natural world: “We are being married in this room. In silence./ His breath moves like a glacier. We are being towed/ in its wake like trees./ Surely it will turn into water,/ and we will find ourselves on the edge of things, sending forth/ shoots and buds and little leaves.” Her language is beautiful and memorable. Michael Carman’s poems have to do with intersections and meetings and connections. In the spare couplets of her opening poem, the speaker encounters two horses in a wild and deserted place. It’s a haunting poem, and the short enjambed lines keep it moving forward: “The North Sea has no direction/ here. It beats the rocks on all/ sides of this island. / . . . I see two horses/ shamble knee-deep in yellow grass./ They look at me as if I were the/ wild one. . . . Eyes on me, they stop/ where the grass stops. This/ is all they can do. This is/ as far as they can come.” In other poems, she traces traits that connect different generations of families, and she connects the personal and the political: in the strong and startling poem “Beets,” a woman preparing beets for dinner is connected in a very immediate way with another woman, a terrorist bomber in another country: From my knife springs the radio running underneath the faucet, hot skin slipping off like a disguise. Stems ribbed with grit light up in veins while a rat-tailed root-string burrows to the center of the earth and out the other side of the world where another woman straps a bomb to her belly, explodes a restaurant by the sea. In “Opera House in Time of War,” an American flag draped over the front of the opera house is a visual reminder of the war, while inside “tuxedoed, cushioned/ in choice orchestra seats,/ men weep at the final thrilling scene/ as if Valhalla in flames/ could lick us clean.” This volume is a reminder of the importance of the poet’s voice. There are common themes and subjects in the poems of all four poets--the natural world and its mysteries, narratives of pain, death, love--but each poet’s voice stands out clearly as a unique one, and together they have created a memorable chapbook.