31 March 2009

Mr. Gravity's Blue Holiday by Justin Lacour

Mr. Gravity’s Blue Holiday By Justin Lacour The Providence Athenaeum, $5 Winner, 2004 Philbrick Poetry Award Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt Even if John Ashbery hadn’t written the blurb on the back of this chapbook, you’d have to eat the book instead of reading it to miss the influence. So, if you hate Ashbery and can’t follow—for this reader another seeming influence—Kenneth Koch, skip it. What? Still reading? Then, don’t write Mr. Gravity’s Blue Holiday off as just another pallid imitation. Though you will find lines like these from “Rendezvous in the Anthology”: “The years had been reconfigured/ As if obscured by trapdoors,” that strike the ear as Ashbery’s often surprisingly moving absurdist-abutment-that-gets-to-meaning mode; though here we don’t get the pay-off. And a little later in the same poem we find Ashbery’s sentimental/lyric absurd, “In the fields of whiskey and starlight,” again without the sudden and surprising emotional kick-in-the-gut that Ashbery can deliver. Luckily, Lacour has an engaging voice of his own and after verbally touching his hat a few times, he capers off along its own pleasing paths. For example “Ekphrastic” begins: We both had high hopes for ironclads, Though we’d been hood winked this way Before: the desire for sudden curtsies, The promise of more affordable flagpoles. Or later in the same poem, we find the surprising, “So little ever changes,/Just the little ducks and gunboats here.” Lacour uses language play to create a bit of mist that lifts just enough to make out the landscape. For instance skipping through sonnet III: There was a small disaster with the marching band: Someone’s pet was trapped, somehow, inside the red drum, But the parade-goers tried to remain polite to us. …… I existed in a purely ceremonial capacity, ………. Then the final couplet: It was so embarrassing. If you hadn’t been there, I don’t know how I would have told you. He rewards us with the occasional laugh-out-loud abutment, or absurdly touching explanations as in these lines from “Gravity’s South,” “ Your story could be epic,/But it is hard to tell; the light is so bad here./ And I am saving my voice for now.” Lacour also gives us enticing opening lines, “If you should suddenly become a swashbuckler,” and “Though the Welsh have the worst/Sort of folklore for our situation,” or even, “Well, I don’t like the look of that cloud.” Finally Lacour has the capacity to write character through voice. With it he builds a story, or the impression of a story, about ultimately compelling and important passages in a relationship with a “you.” In the end, the poetic style of Mr. Gravity’s Blue Holiday is poorly served by excerpting, so cut Lacour a bit of slack. If any of this appeals to you, let’s say it’s worth the five dollars. Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

29 March 2009

"I Lied All Winter..." by Arline Levinson

I Lied All Winter by Arline Levinson Angelfish Press,Ithaca, N.Y., 1970. 18 pages. Available at libraries and out-of- print online book vendors. Reviewed by P. Nelson

Arline Levinson’s “I Lied All Winter …” is an instance , at 7 inches tall and 18 poems in length, of how small a chapbook can be and a reminder of how small can be big.

Big because a chapbook can exemplify that rare thing in literary production, the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. This is because chapbook crafting allows a close collaboration between poet and book designers that’s impossible at larger “mainstream” presses.

In this case, wood engraver Gary Marcuse, pen artist Anna Shapiro and the anonymous printer who worked in letter press Garamond (ever the most elegant and legible of typefaces, though there are nearly as many various Garamonds as presses), have achieved an ensemble that’s more than pretty and perhaps less than beautiful; something authentic and aesthetic in a non-trivial way. (Bricks and leaves, respectively, being examples of the trivial way.)

The 18 poems, even as lyrics, are small; the longest at 16 lines and the shortest (several) at 6. This stakes the poems’ risk- and something always needs to be-at their peculiar point of brevity. Longer lyrics, like Larkin’s, place their chips on a different square of exposure: the initiating scaffolding, the arch of drama, the stretching nave of narrative. Short pieces, like Levinson’s are just there, exposed in their bare necessities, ‘poor and unaccommodated” (to almost misquote Shakespeare). There is no room for error, which is to say, there is great room for error.

And there are mis-takes here. A certain unconnected and conventionalized use of images “O untie the rainbow before the storm is done./ Over your brow, what wind shall flow?” [Ver Perpetuum] .There is a reaching for a/effect “who drags the blood through the vein until you softy come again? [My Pleasures].

But these flaws fade before a cardinal virtue: the poems are poetically conceived. Levinson may misstep but she knows the dance- that lyric poetry is intensified language, between and in literary tropes…”who crosses the bridge at twilight to darkness?/Entering the heart of it through the aorta of boughs …” . That poetry should not merely report perceptions but propose and propound them: “the thoughts deprived of ease/that have regained it make the poem, which like a double-note/holds the extracted thought/against the restlessness.’

There are two manifest influences here. One is A.R. Ammons, epigraphically twice flagged, in his short stanza-long enjambment phase. Characteristically, the poems are free-verse, with some syllabic discipline and terminal couplet riming, suggestive of more formal procedures.

The second influence then, lest we forget it in its distant obviousness, is sonnet Shakespeare’s monologic “dialogues” with a problematic beloved. ‘I Lied all Winter’s" thematic unity-and delight, is in the relating,via imagistic snapshot, of a relationship.

"The crayoned tulips not in beds, but rising out of the sweet grass. Your appearence interrupted only my dream of you. All drugs suspend their action in the spreading candlelight, the blood's undertow." [Point Lobos]

One may be reminded of Wordsworth’s (another of Levinson’s tagged poets) short poem about the sonnet (and its Tudor master-maker) where he observes that bees, which can fly over mountains, are happiest in the cone of flower. Little can be sweet; in the context of poetry, little should always be big, as Levinson’s small book, satisfyingly, is.