Author Archives: Lynn Domina

Review of Pictograph by Melissa Kwasny

Kwasny cover

Pictograph. Melissa Kwasny. Milkweed Editions, 2015. 69 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Melissa Kwasny’s latest collection, her sixth, consists of a series of prose poems many of whose titles contain the word “petroglyph” or “pictograph.” These poems are ecological in the deepest sense, for although they acknowledge human viewpoints, they refuse to be centered in the human. The speaker observes closely, meditating on what she sees—birds, hares, red drawings on rocks. And though the speaker is sometimes accompanied, or at least addresses human relationships whether or not a companion is literally present, the mood of this book is solitary, and from that solitude honesty emerges. The speaker isn’t speaking so much as mulling over her experience in a world that has been created as a refuge for all creatures. And yet, through their titles and subject matter, the poems also draw attention to human consciousness and expression, human connection across millennia. The meaning of this expression sometimes remains mysterious, as one title, “Pictograph: Possible Shield-Bearing Figure,” makes clear, but though witnesses may not absolutely understand the meaning of a given figurative symbol, those witnesses do understand the urge toward expression and experience a reciprocal urge toward reception. Kwasny’s success in this collection stems from the confluence of these factors: the reader trusts the writer and so follows her through this meditative experience, and the writing itself rewards the journey.

Before I take a closer look at any of the poems, I need to confess that I’m often suspicious of prose poetry as a genre. Not every descriptive paragraph earns the title of poem, regardless of how its author classifies it, and much of the time when I read prose poems, I wonder what the poem gains from its form that is worth sacrificing the power of poetry’s line. Then I begin to wonder whether the prose poem is simply a way for the writer to avoid attending to much of the craft of poetry, for I sometimes find prose poems wordier and rhythmically flatter than conventionally written poems. If a prose poem has a narrative thread, I wonder why it’s called a prose poem, rather than, say, flash fiction (an admittedly recent term). On the one hand, labels ultimately don’t matter much. On the other hand, art of any genre comes with its conventions, so when writers reject those conventions, their choices should be more than arbitrary. All this is to say that I surprised myself as I began to read Pictograph; I had to lay down my prejudices. This collection has taught me that prose poetry does have a legitimate place in contemporary writing, and it has taught me a “formless” form presents its own sufficient challenges to a receptive writer. (I realize now that in speaking of prose poetry, I am rehearsing some of the same arguments that have surrounded the validity of free verse—there’s a lesson here for me, and I suspect for others.)

Here is “The Wounded Bird” in its entirety:

In order of least shyness: evening grosbeak, junco, pygmy owl. When the pine siskins come, they will be shameless. The bats have their holocaust in their Vermont caves. The pines die from pine beetles on our slopes. Some presences are not blessings; they are self-contained, invitations to investigate further, or warnings to stay away, or inscrutable, unreadable as a god is. You there, mountain chickadee, in the thicket, then hopping up my leg. You were struggling, off balance. You could flutter but not fly, a wobbling presence come out of the blue. As if you knew I would understand this as approval. Look, I have always been uneasy using the word god. It has no wind to it, like you do. It sounds like clod, self-satisfied, a fat man in an overbuilt house. A period, not a comma, which has wings. I kept returning to the window until you disappeared into the dusk. Then, nothing could lighten my mood.

Concrete language fills this poem, and when its ideas become more abstract, those ideas relate logically though unexpectedly to the surrounding imagery. The names of the birds in the opening sentence are specific and unusual enough to attract the reader’s attention, and the assonance of “least…evening grosbeak…pygmy” commands the attention of the ear. The poem continues with depressive descriptions of the natural world, the bats with their “holocaust,” the dying pines, but in these sentences too, they rhythm is tight—notice the proportion of accented syllables, much higher than in ordinary prose. In sentence five, Kwasny turns toward the abstract, suggesting a difference between “blessings” and “warnings,” though those distinctions may collapse into something “inscrutable, unreadable as a god is.” That simile startles, and it lingers as Kwasny returns to a description of another bird, the wounded one of the title. A few sentences later, she returns to the idea of a god, but it is the word rather than the thing itself she is considering, suggesting that “a god” is simply a word rather than the thing the word should signify. The speaker resists the word because of its sound, a poet’s concern, and then she describes the lack she finds in “god” through metaphor: “It has no wind in it.” Here, Kwasny introduces a bit of humor, unusual in this collection: “It sounds like clod, self-satisfied, a fat man in an overbuilt house.” We can see this “fat man,” and indeed, he isn’t terribly different from some more conventional representations of a god. Kwasny immediately returns, through another metaphor, to the apparent subject of the poem with the reference to “wings” before she concludes with disappearance.

“The Wounded Bird” succeeds finally as a poem rather than simply as a piece of evocative prose not only because of its use of common poetic devices: figurative language, concrete imagery, patterns of sound. As importantly, it juxtaposes one idea against another, the bird and god, god and the bird, without surrendering to a compulsion to explicate, without any irritable reaching after explanation, as our ancestor John Keats might say.

I admire the poems in Pictograph. They invite the reader in despite their exploration of the writer’s solitude. They encourage a meditative reading, a consideration of what it means to be alive in this world, here, now, even as we connect with those who have come before and leave our own signs for those who will come after.

Review of Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

Faizullah coverSeam. Tarfia Faizullah. Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. 65 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Seam, Tarfia Faizullah’s first collection, is that book many of us have been hoping for and the type of book some among us have probably tried and failed to write. Politically engaged without descending to diatribe, empathic without plummeting into sentimentality, Seam explores the effects of the 1971 war that led to the separation of East and West Pakistan and the establishment of the new nation of Bangladesh. Faizullah provides some historical context for the poems, most significantly the detail that military strategy included the rape of over 200,000 Bangladeshi women; the government later awarded these women the title of “birangona,” which translates as “war heroine,” though many of these women continued to experience shame and ostracization. The book explores the experiences of these women through the voice of an interviewer and of the women’s own voices filtered through hers. This book is successful as political poetry because it so directly addresses the horrifying experiences of some human beings through the systematic and willful behavior of other human beings; it is successful as poetry because the poet relies effectively on figurative language and exploits the possibilities of the line and stanza. Seam is structured not so much as a collection of individual poems as an extended meditation, a multi-part exploration of a single theme. The center of the book, for example, consists of eight sections titled “Interview with a Biragona,” interspersed with five poems called “Interviewer’s Note” as well as four other related poems.

The eighth section of “Interview with a Birangona” addresses the questions, “After the war was over, what did you do? Did you go back home?” In answering these questions, the speaker describes her reception when she did return home once, briefly. As with each of the other sections of “Interview with a Birangona,” Faizullah structures this poem in couplets, perhaps the most controlled stanzaic form, as a means of constraining some of the emotion, which might otherwise overwhelm:

I stood in the dark
doorway. Twilight. My grandfather’s

handprint raw across my face. Byadob,
he called me: trouble-

maker. How could you let them
touch you? he asked, the pomade just

coaxed into his thin hair
a familiar shadow of scent

between us even as he turned
away.

These opening couplets illustrate Faizullah’s ability to write evocatively even of such pain. The imagery is striking, her word choice not simply careful and precise, but unique. How differently line three would read with just a small change: “his handprint red across my face.” With “red,” the image would barely rise above cliché; with “raw,” we retain the visual image, but it also becomes tactile, and “raw” connotes not only anger but a coldly merciless response. A few lines later, Faizullah includes an image that in other circumstances could be nostalgic: “the pomade just / coaxed into his thin hair.” Here, “coaxed” is a particularly effective verb, implying a subtlety that pomade sometimes lacks. She relies on synesthesia next, “a familiar shadow of scent,” describing the aroma as visual, a “shadow” that evokes the real thing without being the thing itself. This olfactory image becomes the symbol not of grandfatherly affection but of rejection. Faizullah’s line breaks are equally effective. The pause between “dark,” concluding the first line, and “doorway,” beginning the second reinforces the speaker’s outsider status. The phrasing of the second line suggests that the doorway into the home proceeds through the grandfather, who will block it. Similarly, by breaking line four at the hyphen, rather than after the more syntactically logical “trouble-maker,” Faizullah emphasizes the speaker’s familial identity as trouble itself. The speaker’s grandfather orders her away, and she describes all she sees as she leaves, concluding with these lines:

…The dark rope

of Mother’s shaking arms was what
I last saw before I walked away.

No. No. Not since.

This last line answers the interviewer’s questions, but the answer is insufficient without the story that precedes it. And the story, through its precise rendering, is what readers remember.

Seam includes a few untitled prose poems, including the last poem of the book which I quote here in its entirety:

I struggled my way onto a packed bus. I became all that surged past the busy roadside markets humming with men pulling rickshaws heavy with bodies. A light breeze from the river was cool on our faces through the open windows. Eager passengers ran alongside us. The bus slowed down. A young man grabbed those arms, pulled them through. The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned my face toward it.

The language of this poem suggests violence as much as it suggests hope—the “rickshaws heavy with bodies” rather than with people, for instance, or the man who “grabbed those arms.” Still, the speaker turns toward the light, dim and “dust-polluted” as it is. Having heard the stories of women who have survived experiences that seem nearly unbearable, the speaker has fulfilled a listener’s responsibility: to bear witness.

Faizullah tells these stories with grace and honesty, refusing to turn away but also refusing to exploit them through the inclusion of explicit violence that would only be gratuitous. Seam is not simply well-crafted; it is one of the most important collections published in these first decades of the 21st century.

 

Review of Cloud Pharmacy by Susan Rich

Rich coverSusan Rich. Cloud Pharmacy. White Pine Press (print); Two Silvias Press (ebook), 2014. 67 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I have read Susan Rich’s Cloud Pharmacy several times now, intrigued by its motifs, its figurative language, the speaker’s precision and simultaneous detachment. The poems are kaleidoscopic. Images coalesce and break apart; my attention follows one pattern and then notices another and then another. Each reading reveals a new entry point into the relationships among individual lines and poems and the collection as a whole. The poems are frequently characterized by an ekphrastic impulse, even when they are not responding directly to another piece of art. For the most part, Rich prefers the shorter line, shorter stanza, and often, the comparatively short poem. Composed primarily as lyrics, the poems nevertheless avoid the simple scenic mode or a straightforward autobiographical rendering of experience. The reader is invited in through stimulating language, words that create interesting sonic effects as well as phrases that develop compelling visual impressions.

I’ll discuss two of the poems in this review, The first, “American History,” is a commentary on the effects of our contemporary political culture, though the political commentary is muted, and it initially seems like a nostalgic look at all that has changed since the speaker’s childhood. Here are the opening lines:

Someday soon I’ll be saying, at school

there were chalkboards, at school
we read books made of paper,

we drank milk from small cartons…

So far, the changes, much as some of us might bemoan them, are comparatively neutral. Technologies of reading have changed, but those changes involve no moral component. But then the speaker recalls other details, and the changes recalled by the middle of the poem are more disturbing: “At school we met children unlike us, / studied evolution, enjoyed recess, plenty of food.” Despite efforts toward diversity, the student body in many schools remains homogeneous. And the content of virtually every academic discipline has become controversial, with the study (or not) of evolution evoking perhaps the most vociferous debate. The poem continues with a gesture toward Gwendolyn Brooks—“At school we sang harmonies of Lennon- / McCartney, we were cool;” but then turns toward a comparatively direct statement of its theme: “all paid for by taxpayers // supporting an ordinary American school.” The poem concludes with this critique of contemporary divisions in American culture, divisions so deep that an “ordinary American school” has become endangered. As with all successful poems, the success of “American History” stems from its approach to its subject, not from the subject itself. The poem brims with concrete detail, each likely recalling the reader’s own school days. Until the last two lines, the tone shifts between neutral and nostalgic; at the conclusion, the tone becomes more challenging but remains understated. The poet, that is, trusts her material and her readers, and she respects her craft.

I am most intrigued by the poems in section three of the collection, “Dark Room.” They consider the work of photographer Hannah Maynard who, according to Rich’s notes, experimented with self-portraits involving multiple exposures of her film following the death of her daughter, Lillie. Maynard’s idea is interesting, and so are the poems that respond to the photographs. As with the best of ekphrastic poetry, these poems are stimulated by the photographs, but they do much more than simply describe—a particular challenge when the reader is unlikely to be familiar with the original piece of art. And like the best of poems in a series, each one stands fully on its own but also gathers significance from the poems surrounding it. “The Process of Unraveling in Plain Sight” presents Hannah in the third person; she stares out into the world, appearing to gaze at viewers, including the speaker of the poem. Early in the poem, Rich conveys the effect of the multiple exposures:

Then she overlaps the images and leaves
no line of separation

but splits herself open like a magic trick;

now she’s Hannah times three.

Here, the break after the first quoted line appears to suggest that Hannah removes herself from the space, though the next line reveals that her multiple images become amorphous, indistinct from one another. She isn’t absent after all, but hyper-present. Yet, paradoxically, she isn’t present as an individual but as an amplification, one image juxtaposed against or superimposed upon another. Also paradoxically, the line in which she leaves “no line of separation” itself separates one description of the portrait from the next. Two lines later, the speaker describes the image this way: “a severed body (hung // in a golden frame, floating on tired air). The stanza break after “hung” emphasizes the image of the hanging body, which we discover is only hanging in a frame—but we cannot forget the gruesome image of “a severed body (hung.” The poem ends with the assertion that Hannah “Does not, // does not, does not allow / Lillie to stay dead.” I will remember the imagery in this poem because it is vivid but also because it works on two levels, as a description of a more literal photographic image and also as poetic imagery.

Cloud Pharmacy is a book to be read intently rather than merely skimmed. It is Susan Rich’s fourth collection of poetry, and for that I am grateful—not simply because there’s a sufficient body of her work out in the world now, but because her rate of publication (four books in fourteen years) suggests that she is a working poet who is likely to write and publish more.

 

Review of Reckless Lovely by Martha Silano

Silano coverMartha Silano. Reckless Lovely. Saturnalia Books, 2014. 68 pgs. $15.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

The most succinct statement I can think to make about Martha Silano’s fourth collection, Reckless Lovely, is that it is wildly imaginative. It’s the juxtapositions, the connections, the metaphors she creates that attract me so, and they are all entangled in a clash of language that compels the reader’s curiosity. There’s no nodding off in the middle of this book. Reading her poems, I’m reminded a little bit of Pattiann Rogers, a little bit of Barbara Ras, a little bit, even, of Gerard Manly Hopkins. Yet Silano’s voice is her own. The poems are reverent without being pietistic, irreverent without being mean-spirited; they are smart without being pedantic, studded with references to popular culture yet also engaged with large questions; they are fetching and feminist and downright funny.

Reckless Lovely is arranged in three sections, reasonably similar in length. Most often, the poems are composed in couplets, though the collection includes several other forms, including prose poems, odes, abecedarians, glosas, and others. There’s enough variety of form—including overlap or combinations of forms—so that the predominance of couplets seems an active choice rather than a default mode.

While there are many poems I would like to discuss, I’ll limit myself to two. (Regarding the others, such as “Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows,” I’ll just thrust the book at you when we meet, saying, “Here, read this.”) Although these poems differ in form, they both exhibit Silano’s strategies and strengths in terms of poetic craft, and they both illustrate some of her interests in terms of content.

“Black Holes,” the second poem in the collection, is a prose poem that relies on extended metaphors and consistent patterns of imagery in its attempt to explain something that is, to many of us non-scientists, just too bizarre to comprehend even if we believe we possess a rudimentary understanding. A black hole is itself, of course, a metaphor, not a hole at all but a segment of space so dense, whose gravity is so strong, that nothing, not even light, escapes. To our human eyes, any space absolutely devoid of light appears to be empty. So many poets have used the phrase “black hole” simply as a metaphor, to the extent that its use as a metaphor has become clichéd, even though many people who seem to find the phrase attractive also seem to have little understanding of its actual meaning. Silano refreshingly (at least as far as I can tell), in this poem and others, gets the science right, although the poem has at least as much to do with daily life and human longings as it does with a scientific concept. The poem begins with an interesting explanation of a black hole’s characteristics:

Those pink splotches up there on the planetarium ceiling? What happens when fusion ceases and gravity wins, the lighter stuff spewing in all directions, winding up as craneflies and shrews, the big stuff collapsing, reducing down to a dark pumpernickel loaf the baker neglected to knead. Challah’s much less dense—light escapes. Same goes for Wonder Bread.

The poem continues this way, describing the human form in terms of pasta, mentioning Einstein, parking spaces, and Mick Jagger, incorporating technical language—“gravity is just the curvature of space and time” and “the point of singularity”—along with “Aunt Josephine’s eggplant parmigiana.” It all concludes with this elaborate sentence that both summarizes and extends the poem:

It reminds me of the summer I tried to learn a foreign language, feeling all wow, when really I knew about fifteen words: Por favore, un mezzo kilo di pane, and just like that—thwack of a knife, hunk of crusty bread—the same way I’m telling you now there’s no escape.

To catch on to what Silano is doing here, the poem requires rereading, but the language is so much fun that most readers, I imagine, would be drawn to reread it anyway. The poem rewards several readings, in fact, as allusions and images reveal the poem’s structural logic. We reach the last line again and again, acknowledging that there is no escape, not from the laws of physics and not from our human frustrations, anxieties, and desires.

“How to Read Italian Renaissance Painting” relies on equally interesting language. Written in couplets, it represents on the one hand many of Silano’s characteristic strategies. Yet it also reveals how adept she is with these strategies. She relies on parallel sentence structures and repeated phrases often enough to create insistence, but she also shifts the phrasing frequently enough to maintain readerly interest. Initially, the poem introduces features common to Renaissance painting:

Pay attention to the cryptic grapes, wandering
aimless skulls, a robed apostle’s vortex

of red. Pay attention to luminous gloom,
to the attention paid to each fold, each leaf,

each angel’s blue-tipped wing, to every look
of beseeching dismay. Notice uneasy clouds

to the right, uncertain urns to the left. Notice
theatrical expressions, God diving in to shatter

the silence in Mary’s room. Notice shutters
everywhere. Take these to mean the master

is a master of worry…

This repetition works because the structure of the lines does not simply duplicate the structure of the sentences. The repeated words “Pay attention” and “Notice” never appear in the same position within a line more than once. The rhythm of the poem, then, as the product of line and sentence, becomes much more interesting because Silano attends thoughtfully to both, composing as good poets do, according to the line. The meaning of lines, taken separately from the meaning of sentences, enlarges the meaning of the poem. For example, if we read the lines “theatrical expressions, God diving in to shatter” or “everywhere. Take these to mean the master” as lines rather than only as components of sentences, their meanings shift, sometimes slightly, sometimes more profoundly. Is God’s activity a piece of theater? Is the master everywhere, just as the shutters are? Of course not every line will function this way, but most of us could probably improve our craft by reading Reckless Lovely specifically to analyze how Silano uses the line.

The repetition in this poem also works because it’s not the only thing going on. Notice, for example, the assonance in “luminous gloom,” followed by “blue” two lines later. Then there’s “uncertain urns” in line seven. And there’s the alliteration of “shatter the silence” and “shutters.” And there’s the off rhyme of “shatter,” “shutters,” and “master.” In addition, the vocabulary is consistently concrete, and the parts of speech that tend to flatten out rhythm—prepositions, articles—occur rarely. Nouns and verbs predominate, but even the modifiers are interesting: “cryptic grapes,” “blue-tipped wing,” “beseeching dismay.” “How to Read Italian Renaissance Painting” is a finely wrought poem. It’s given me pleasure as a reader, for it’s encouraged me to think about the visual arts more carefully, and it’s given me pleasure as a writer as I’ve noticed how attentively Silano approaches craft.

Silano’s care for language is apparent throughout this collection. The content of her poems suggest that she is a poet with broad interests, which makes for interesting reading. Reckless Lovely is a collection I look forward to rereading.

Review of Darktown Follies by Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Johnson coverAmaud Jamaul Johnson. Darktown Follies. Tupelo Press, 2013. 61 pgs. $16.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Darktown Follies, Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s second collection of poems, is intriguing both for its content and its craft. In fact, the first time I read it, I didn’t think I understood it, but I returned for another reading because of the poet’s skill with sound. The alliteration, the assonance, the consonance, the rhyme and near-rhyme—he relies on it all, with enough originality to captivate the reader’s ear and reinforce the content but not so much that it overwhelms the poems. As I began rereading the collection, I wondered why I’d been confused the first time. This book is engaging and disturbing, or at least at times uncomfortable, as the reader both identifies with the speakers and understands herself to be critiqued by them.

As an example, the opening poem, “Encore,” begins with a sentence that seems to have as its primary concern an exploration of metaphor:

Take the architecture of the wrist,
how the hands flit, hinged

& bony as a blur of wing pulling
each egret across the slow drag

of the lake, or the way the whole flock,
given the hound dog’s solfeggio

& the report-refrain of some pistol,
how each tendon, how every muscle

of the limb seems to reach
some agreement & move.

These couplets describe the movement of one joint in the human body, and though that movement may occupy only a few seconds of real time, the poem stretches it out in order to examine the movement in terms of other types of movement—a bird or a flock of birds lifting from a lake. The language here is attractive: “bony as a blur of wing,” “the report-refrain of some pistol.” The reader becomes invested in the attention and thoughtfulness the speaker devotes to such movement, the clapping of hands, which can sound like “the report-refrain of some pistol.” But then, after an extra space break, we read this:

Even the box seats & the balcony,
the taste of that song tangled

like moss about my Adam’s apple,
& I see them beginning to stand

& applaud, & if I could spoon
out every eye, or fasten their tongues

like red scarves around a flagpole.

The first four lines of this second sentence seem to emerge logically from the first sentence, until we reach the caesura of line five. The wished-for violence and vengeance is particularly startling after the beautiful and nearly romanticized imagery of the first sentence. This is what I mean when I describe the reader’s position—at least this reader’s position, this liberal white reader’s position—vis-à-vis the speaker of the poem. I believe I can understand the speaker’s response, positioned as an entertainer whose racialized self is a component of the entertainment, and yet I also share the privilege of those who would comprise the audience. Whether or not I want that privilege (and who among us doesn’t want privilege, at least sometimes), I have it.

The poem continues with the speaker restraining his urge by recalling the benefits he will receive through this performance:

Think,
come morning, the both of us, rich men.

So I wait for them to release
their bellies, to rest their elbows,

to stop slapping their knees. I adjust
my top hat, smooth my hands

against my breast & tail. I step
center-stage. I steady, I steady

& bow.

The audience of this performance likely believes they have been simply entertained, but if so, they are naïve. Readers of the poem, however, cannot claim such innocence.

Here is “The Front Matter,” the second poem in the collection, which foregrounds many of the sonic effects that Johnson is so skilled with, but which also challenges readers to recognize that the playfulness of the language isn’t all there is:

Pity the ringdove, the silver-tongued
Coxcomb, throb and pulse, the hurly
Burly of the hurdy-gurdy man. Pity
The pomp, all the prunes and prisms,
That miscellany of light located beneath
The lips and gums. It’s all that cockeyed
Peacockery, the dumb show high flown,
Guffaw, and that garbled moonlight.
Now, I got the big talk. I’ll play the heavy.
Watch me in my cap and bells, my jingle.
In a nutshell, all patter and ballyhoo aside,
I’m aping the Sun. I am the Jack-pudding.
I reckon to out herod Herod, and trademark
My move.

The words in this poem are fun to say. Initially, it sounds simply exuberant, even raucous. The dynamism makes me want to laugh. But the speaker’s desire to “out herod Herod” sounds ominous, though what the speaker promises isn’t as threatening as King Herod’s decision. The speaker will “trademark / My move,” forcing anyone who wants to incorporate his performance in another act to pay a fee. The speaker, in other words, is hitting his competitors, the theater managers and producers who might want to imitate his success, where it hurts. There’s a lot more to say about this poem, particularly some of its allusiveness, but I also want to consider the second section of this collection in the space I have left. So rather than analyzing “The Front Matter” more thoroughly, I’ll leave it to readers to sit with it, reaching their own conclusions.

The second section, titled “The Olio,” is quieter and more personal. Even so, Johnson still exploits the sounds of English, and his ability to manage this for such different purposes testifies to his skill. For example, “Midnight at the Abandoned Monastery” begins with this stanza:

We were reluctant to walk.
The last few glasses of vino
Had tinted the dying Tuscan sky.
But enough were game, so
The girls changed into their sensible
Shoes, and the overly prepared,
Who bragged about bow hunting
And the shades of deer blood
Near their Virginia home, had packed
Plenty of headlamps to please the mob.

The alliteration, assonance, and consonance in this stanza are subtler than in “The Front Matter,” but the poem nevertheless achieves its effect in part through Johnson’s control of its sound. The poet’s care with these poems encourages me as a reader to attend to them with equal care.

The second section of Darktown Follies, functioning as a second act to the poems in the first section, “The Walk Around,” inevitably comments on those poems in the first section. The more personal nature of these later poems suggests that the performances described in the earlier section have not been relegated to the past. The ambivalence in relationships between audience and performer in early twentieth-century vaudeville continues to characterize relationships among Americans today. This collection reminds us how far the past is from being over.

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To propose a guest review or submit a book for potential review, fill out the contact form or contact Lynn Domina directly at lynndomina (at) gmail.com.

Review of Albedo by Kathleen Jesme

Jesme coverKathleen Jesme. Albedo. Ahsahta Press, 2014. 105 pgs. $18.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I have been a fan of Kathleen Jesme’s work since I stumbled across her Motherhouse a few years ago. Her style is unique—spare and elliptical yet also direct and inviting. Her poems suggest that there’s more below the surface, that if we sit patiently, even meditatively with them, deeper meanings and fuller pleasures will reveal themselves. Albedo, her newest collection, has already received a widespread positive response (it’s currently a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award), but I would like to look at it here also, to mull over some of her strategies, to think about why her poems appeal to me so much.

Albedo is divided into three sections, with the first, “Albedo,” consisting of two long multi-part poems and the others, “Ordinary Work” and “Coastline,” composed of many more generally shorter poems. Throughout the collection, Jesme exploits the white space of the page as effectively as she chooses her imagery, figurative language, and form. It’s almost as if, especially given the collection’s attention to light and darkness, the whiteness itself becomes an image.

The title of this collection is risky simply because “albedo” is a word few of us will know (ok, maybe your vocabulary is more comprehensive than mine), but its meaning is perfect for the collection. I would have picked up this book regardless of its title because I want to follow Jesme’s work as long as she keeps writing, and I would also have been drawn to its beautiful cover image, a photograph of the trunks of hundreds of birch trees, reinforcing the prevailing imagery of light and darkness in the book. I hope readers new to Jesme’s work will be intrigued enough by the title and cover to pick it up. Here is a link to Jesme reading three of the poems.

“Albedo” is a technical term in both meteorology and astronomy and relates to the ratio of light reflected, say by the earth’s surface, to that received. The word appears in a section of the long poem “The Mythology We Have Now”:

A pine forest in winter has among the lowest albedo
of any land environment
this is due partly
to the color of the pines
and partly to multiple scattering of sunlight within the trees

Although these sentences explain a concept, what lasts for the reader is the image, the darkness of the pine’s green shading to near black set against the “scattering of sunlight.” This poem, “The Mythology We Have Now” is an extended elegy for the speaker’s father. It’s an experiment in language, an attempt to discover how we can connect, through language or through other elements we describe with language, to those who exist now only in our memories. Here is the section from which the title comes:

In the mythology we have now the entire universe exploded
from a marble-sized nugget

in a trillionth
of a second

light is the fossil
of that great scattering of matter and dark energy:
how like us our little universe—

but I have discovered
my love of shadows:

things visible only in the absent
part of sun

Many part of this section are intriguing—the understanding of physics and astronomy as mythological systems, the metaphor of light as a fossil followed by the simile comparing human beings to “our little universe.” Because of the strength of its imagery and the turn it takes in the penultimate stanza, this section could stand alone as an independent poem, but it becomes geometrically more resonant in its context within the longer poem. The section that precedes it relies on language and imagery similar to the “lowest albedo” section I quoted above, but it also incorporates a direct description of the deceased father’s communication:

We no longer speak together as we once did
on the contrary

his voice in particular is much changed                      and I can’t
hear it in the same way

I am not opposed                    to this alteration
but only to the way the light
is drawn

in such a dark place
and to my own absorption in it

The imagery in this section works thematically to connect sections that precede and follow it. The direct meaning of a given section deepens through content revealed in other sections but related imagistically from one section to the next. “I have discovered / my love of shadows” is more resonant because it follows “the way the light / is drawn // in such a dark place / and to my own absorption in it.” Yet the language remains mysterious, or maybe mystical—it’s not as if one section of the poem simply explains another section. Instead, we follow the speaker experiencing loss but not complete loss, attempting to understand the nature of this life that is both finite and infinite, just as the universe seems to be.

Albedo is the type of collection that presents an unfair challenge to a reviewer, for it’s extraordinarily difficult to excerpt lines or stanzas; though short passages may illustrate Jesme’s tone or style, they don’t adequately convey the effect of the book. The only adequate review of this book would be a complete reproduction of it. Instead of reading such a reproduction, readers will be much more gratified if they pick up the real thing. As poetry goes, Albedo is the real thing.

 

Review of Beauty Mark by Suzanne Cleary

Cleary coverSuzanne Cleary. Beauty Mark. BkMk Press, 2013. 95 pgs. $13.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Beauty Mark, Suzanne Cleary’s third collection and winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, is an ambitious and dynamic response to popular culture. The speaker seems to address the reader directly if not exactly intimately, the way extraverts comment their way through encounters, entertaining their companions with energetic observation. Cleary’s close consideration of the ordinary leads her to metaphor, even to the transcendent, yet the shift from concrete to abstract, from literal to figurative, is subtle. The world of the figurative is as attractive as the world of the literal.

For example, “Temporary Tattoo” opens with the speaker in a bookstore noticing a “bowl of what seem to be postage stamps” though they are, of course, temporary tattoos. What follows is a riff on impermanence, for tattoos are meant to mark our bodies permanently:

…A tattoo should be permanent,

a commitment, a cross-hatched cobra coiled
around the biceps, inks of deep blue and green
like the veins that pop from the carney’s arm

when he makes a fist. A tattoo should not
smear, dissolve with baby-oil-on-tissue,
should be bold as a snake swallowing a mouse

and the mouse-shape traveling the length of it
like a bad idea shaping a life, distorting a life.

Here we have simile (like a bad idea) embedded in simile (bold as a snake swallowing a mouse), preceded by an additional simile (like the veins that pop)—yet the imagery remains clear, easy to follow, and compelling—for who among us can turn our eyes from that bulge inching through the snake? The poem then returns to the tattoo, of an apple:

…pink-red, like the tip of a cigarette,

its single leaf the green of the 1964 Chevy convertible
on cinder blocks behind the bookstore,
a car that will never run

despite the young man who works
under the hood every night until dark.

Readers might, at this point, have begun to wonder whether these images are simply associative details, interesting as they might be—but where’s the point? The point is the nature of impermanence, the idea to which we’re about to return, as the poem begins to address the young man who stands for us all. “Someone” ought to give this young man a piece of good advice: “Tell him the Chevy’s time / has come and gone, that nothing lasts forever / except our desire for things to last forever.” Temporary tattoos don’t last, of course, and neither does a Chevy. Nor the mouse, nor the snake that eats the mouse. Nor do we, which the poem avoids stating directly, turning against itself instead as it concludes: “in the gravel lot behind the bookstore / the last of the sun shines / pink, and everywhere, and always.” Do we believe it? Not literally, but we recognize our desire to believe it. With this last line, the poem circles back upon itself, the pink of the sun reminiscent of the red of the apple on the temporary tattoo with which we began, confirming our suspicion that the final assertion of permanence is more hope than fact.

“Temporary Tattoo” is composed in tercets, the lines fairly evenly divided between end-stopped and enjambed. Many of the poems in Beauty Mark are composed in regular stanzas, tercets mostly with occasional quatrains and couplets. Several poems consist of one long stanza, but even in these, Cleary often indents alternating lines, the extra space suggesting a subtle break. The lines are generally long, sometimes fourteen or eighteen syllables, so the rush of the lines is balanced by the regularity of the stanzas. The poems demonstrate both exuberance and restraint—though it is the exuberance, I suspect, that most readers will remember.

“As the Story Came Down to Me” illustrates Cleary’s poetic strategy as well as her manner of thinking. The poem opens with an odd family detail: “My grandmother was arrested / nearly, for driving with too many saints on her dashboard.” The speaker describes the police officer, the car, the “nine plaster statues.” Exactly two-thirds of the way through, the poem turns, in the manner of a sonnet, to the speaker-poet’s composition. The speaker confesses that she has “lied in saying it was my grandmother, / although I did in fact see an old woman / driving a dark blue Chevy with saints.” And she’s lied about the police officer and the number of statues. As poets know, few of the details in our poems are factual, and yet our poems are still true, and we write them to understand how we perceive truth, as Cleary states so movingly in this poem’s last lines: “I swear the short white-haired woman / peering through the space between Joseph and Mary, / I swear it brought tears to my eyes, / and I am still trying to figure out how.” This poem illustrates the argument writers often make, that sometimes you need to invent in order to tell the truth. Whether or not we agree with that argument, we respond to the poem.

Beauty Mark is more playful than many of the collections I’ve read during the last couple of years. Even the titles of many of the individual poems are playful: “Cézanne’s Clogs,” “God Visits the Televangelists,” “Imagining the Shaker Meeting at Which the Founder Ann Lee Announces the Policy of Sexual Abstinence.” The titles made me want to read, and the poems made me want to keep reading. I did, and I’m glad.

Review of Keeper by Kasey Jueds

Jueds coverKasey Jueds. Keeper. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. 78 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, Kasey Jueds’ Keeper is filled with poems that have stuck with me, and only now am I fully understanding why. Most of the poems are image-driven lyrics, but the speaker’s presence is often muted, even when she enters the poem as “I” or, less often, “you.” The poems are thoughtful, as if the material continues to turn in the speaker’s mind, as if meaning emerges like light tilting against a holograph. Although each image blends logically into the next, we often end up quite far from where we began. This is how poetry ought to work, through reliance on the concrete, the work of comprehension transpiring in the reader’s mind, the poet providing all that is necessary and nothing that is not necessary for comprehension.

The opening poem in the collection, “Bats,” serves as prologue and illustrates how the poem develops through associative links among its images. The first and second stanzas describe that recognizable yet confusing experience—waking to the soft motion of swooping bats. Then the poem shifts toward the mystical, challenging us (or at least those of us, like me, whose dread of bats is nearly unspeakable) to perceive these creatures differently:

First dark, then more dark
smoothed down over it.

First sleep, then eyes
open to the ceiling
where something circles. For a moment,
you can’t name it. And for a moment

you’re not afraid. Remember

Blake’s angels, how they leaned
toward each other, and balanced
by touching only the tips of their wings?
Between their bodies, a space

like the one just after rain begins, when rain
isn’t rain, but the smell
of dust lifted, something silent and clean.

The syntactic repetition in the first two stanzas is inviting, even comforting. “First dark, then” leads to “First sleep, then”—though the second occurrence becomes eventually startling. We can recall a bat’s distinct darkness against night’s darkness, and against the darkness of sleep. And we can recall the moment between noticing and naming. Here is where Jueds’ skill with lineation is most evident: For a moment, / you can’t name it. And for a moment // you’re not afraid. Remember…” The lines break at “moment,” extending that moment for the reader. Line seven serves as the fulcrum upon which the poem balances, a single-line stanza that reads as a reminder to be not afraid. But “Remember,” of course, carries the poem over its turn, the speaker describing Blake’s angels so that we seem to remember them even if we’ve never seen them. The angels balance themselves somehow because they hover above empty space—or space that is filled with meaning rather than with material structures. A thing becomes itself through time apparently, for during the immediately preceding moment, “rain / isn’t rain.” Rain is what will be, and space is filled with understanding of what will be. Jueds describes rain plausibly as “something silent and clean,” and if we’ve been reading attentively and receptively, we’re now willing to consider the bats as angels balanced on the tips of their wings, as things “silent and clean.” We might resist such an suggestion almost reflexively, until we remember the poem’s central caution: “you’re not afraid. Remember.” I appreciate the suggestiveness of this poem, not so much in its identification of bats with angels, for that identification relies on the clear logic of analogy, but with the next leap, the association of these flying fearsome creatures with the cleansing precision of rain.

A poem I particularly like is “Stratus clouds form” which opens the second section of the collection. The title leads into the first sentence, which is itself unusual in its syntax. The first part of the sentence consists of three clauses, one subordinate, all balanced on that most common of coordinating conjunctions, “and.” But the clauses on either side of the “and” are not balanced in their meaning as we might expect; that is, the meaning of the sentence veers toward a new direction at the “and.” “And” often signals only accumulation, so readers relax their attention. Here, we’re surprised at the shift, and we’re surprised in part because the syntax minimizes any expectation of surprise. Here is the poem:

Stratus clouds form

when a layer of air is cooled
to the saturation point, and today
I want to call it kindness:
like lilacs permitting us their scent
just sometimes, off to one side
of the entire, rain-shined bush,
mountains keep to themselves
behind gray, thinking we can’t hold
all of this at once. In Siena
I saw a leafless tree, covered
in oranges, and St. Catherine’s head
preserved behind glass in the church,
as if too much wholeness
could be too much. Then last winter I forgot
about daffodils, and felt so surprised
when they returned, yellow all the way through
like a ball of wool that, even behind
a closet door, contains the baby’s blanket
wholly in its globe, and waits
for our hands to begin.

The poem begins factually, and the fact is interesting in itself, but the poem then shifts to the undeniably subjective: “I want to call it kindness.” The poem moves through several figurative turns, including some startling visual images. The “leafless tree, covered in oranges” startles us with brilliant color, and then the head of St. Catherine startles us differently—after these references to nature, we aren’t expecting the macabre. But Jueds doesn’t include this detail as a gratuitous shock; it, too, illustrates the “kindness” the universe extends to human beings. We are limited creatures, intellectually and emotionally as well as physically. Yet the kindness the universe extends also implies fulfillment: water vapor contains the cloud even before the air is cooled; the head suggests the body even when severed from it; and finally, the ball of yarn contains the blanket the hands will knit. Most crucial to this final image, of course, is the requirement of human participation.

Having read this book, I find myself thinking differently. These are poems of quiet revelation. They show me a mind thinking, in images and through metaphor, turning an idea over and then over again. Reading Jueds’ work feels like walking around a large scuplture, noticing how it seems to move of its own accord, responding to our angle of vision. I won’t say I’m looking forward to her next book, not yet, because Keeper provides me with enough to mull over until that next book arrives.

————————————————-

Regular readers of this blog will note that Kacey Jueds has contributed a couple of guest reviews. In the interest of full disclosure, I want to state that my relationship with her is limited to correspondence regarding those reviews.

Review of After the Tornado by Diane Hueter

Hueter coverDiane Hueter. After the Tornado. Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013. 87 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

After the Tornado by Diane Hueter is the most character driven collection of poetry I’ve read in quite some time. Individually, the poems are (apparently) autobiographical lyrics exploring family and landscape—and the effect of landscape on family. Some members of the family appear in poem after poem, however, so the cumulative effect is—not exactly a story—but a presentation of atmosphere that suggests story. While the collection itself illustrates a narrative impulse, the individual poems vary sufficiently in style to keep the reader engaged and even occasionally surprised.

In “Digging Clams at Sequim Bay,” the speaker visits her childhood coastal home, recalling both the childhood and the occasions she took her own children to visit. But her memory is imprecise; she remembers her longing more intensely than she remembers the individuals who accompanied her:

Did I stand there with Josie
Balanced on my hip?
Or was it Erin, years later?
Someone whimpered over the cold
The sand
The wind

I watched the houses across the iron bay
To see if anyone came out
Paused at the shore
Or got in a boat to chug away.
No one did.

Through the light fog
The houses, red and white toys,
Lay scattered along the bank.
I waited for the fisherman
Or his wife
To stand waving from the headland
A miniature lighthouse
A beacon to the farther shore.

This center section of the poem is disconcerting not simply because the speaker can’t remember which child she held at the moment of this memory, but also because the speaker herself seems so alone in a desolate landscape. In another context, the “light fog” could become almost romantic, as slightly out-of-focus photographs can seem romanticized, but here, in the cold at the “iron bay,” the fog serves only to separate, to conceal. No one emerges from the houses; no one offers acknowledgment; no one serves as guide. Within the next several stanzas, the speaker recalls generalized experiences, those that occurred over and over again through each summer, until they seem like one extended memory. Finally, in the last stanza, she decides, “It must have been the summer we felt / Death hovering in the fog.” But even this understanding does not clarify her earlier confusion. The poem ends with this question: “Which damn child whispers into the sleeve of my coat / I’m cold, I’m cold, I’m cold?” The intensity of the emotion—“Which damn child”—suggests that the speaker is unusually invested in this memory. Readers, of course, understand that the cold whispering child may be neither Josie nor Erin, but the speaker herself waiting yet, her own childhood superimposed upon her children’s, comfortless still.

A poem with a similar but more ominous mood occurs close to the end of the collection. In “Icicles” a character identified only as “she” receives a phone call from her father announcing that a third character, “you,” has died. Similarly to “Digging Clams at Sequim Bay,” “Icicles” opens in darkness, cold, and isolation: “She stood in the chilled and darkened room / because the only telephone was in a room / shut off each year against the cold.” The woman listens to her father deliver his news, unsurprised at its content though startled by her own eventual reaction:

But it was the season they lost the pup to coyotes,
and the neighbor’s dog slaughtered all their chickens
when they were at work.
The winter they marveled at water spilled from a jug.
The time it froze as it hit the cooking pot—
then froze in the jug, too.

So it was winter when she learned of your death.

Images follow, of winter details, of ice—both so beautiful and so dangerous. Her father wouldn’t understand that for some people, including his daughter, this death might be good news. “You” is not someone she plans to mourn. The poem itself doesn’t reveal why the woman responds as she does, only that

for a moment, she was ready suddenly to say
as if it poured from her like water—

Good
Good I’m glad

But she stopped,
because it hurt so much she couldn’t see.

“Icicles” is one of the few poems in the collection not narrated in the first person, though it’s reasonable to assume a relationship between the “she” in this poem and the “I” in many of the others. Read in the context of the entire collection, “Icicles” gains meaning, similarly to how individual stories within collections of linked short stories acquire significance through their context. I won’t reveal here the interpretation other poems in After the Tornado suggest; instead, I will only compliment Hueter on her restraint. The poem is as effective as it is because readers can sense the effort at self-control the news demands of the woman.

At first glance, After the Tornado seems to be about the hardships of life on an unforgiving land. It seems to be about natural disaster. And it is about these things. More significantly though, the poems address personal disaster, as Hueter takes up the task of describing—through figurative language because literal language is insufficient—the effects of such disasters.

Review of Particular Scandals by Julie L. Moore

Moore coverJulie L. Moore. Particular Scandals. Cascade Books, 2013. 84 pgs. $13.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Particular Scandals, Julie L. Moore’s second full-length collection, is a book about faith and trust, family and nature, the glory and horror of each of those things. The speaker’s faith here is informed and open-eyed and subject to interrogation. The speaker celebrates her family members but also acknowledges loss. Creatures and plants enter the poems as they often do our lives, evoking our awe but also warning us away. Addressing these topics, a less capable or less honest poet would have defaulted to the romantic or perhaps surrendered to rage; Moore chooses instead to stand her ground, turning away from neither beauty nor pain.

From this perspective, the two most thematically significant poems are the opening one, “Amen and Amen,” and the ten-part title poem, “Particular Scandals.” In “Amen and Amen,” the speaker sits outside as night descends, listening to her daughter “playing the piano, / singing Cohen’s Hallelujah, / her voice rising, the keys / stirring sparrows in pine trees and maples.” This particular song, of course, stirs many listeners—and the temptation for the writer could be to hope the evocative force of Cohen’s art would carry the emotional weight of the poem. But in the next stanza, Moore veers away from, even undercuts, “Hallelujah”: “but I’m reading O’Connor, considering displaced / persons, the ungodly ways we ruin one another.” The poem then lists several ways contemporary American social forces have “ruin[ed] one another” before shifting focus to monarch butterflies and their poisonous defenses. Here she again briefly evokes Cohen: “how terrible they taste. Hallelujah.” Then the speaker turns to her own physical pain before returning, finally, a dozen stanzas after introducing her daughter’s music, to that haunting song: “Ashley sings on, as though her breath’s / no longer her own, absorbed now / in benediction. Our amen un- // broken, like a world without end.” Moore isn’t simply rehearsing or commenting on Cohen—she has expanded the effect of the song by applying it to a new, unanticipated context. The concluding lines of the poem are particularly effective. I am usually not a fan of hyphenating words at line breaks because so often the motive is simple linguistic cleverness. Here, though, the last line acquires an entirely new, and challenging, meaning: “broken, like a world without end.” The world continues because it is broken, even if the “amen” itself is unbroken.

“Particular Scandals” is the most formally complex and inventive poem in the collection. The opening section consists of descriptions of multiple human tragedies, the sort that encourage us to question either God’s goodness or God’s power. The speaker turns in that direction, but then questions herself, and the organization of her responses is what I find most interesting about this poem:

3.

Why not disavow God, and say, once
and for all, he does not exist,
or if he does, he is not good?

4.

Yet.

5.

Think: Tomorrow morning when I rise
with the sun to start another day,

will I notice the particular
drops of dew glistening like stars?

Section five continues with images that appeal to our desire to connect with something divine. But then section six acknowledges that we often fail to notice these aspects of our environment, intent on the smaller details immediately before us. Finally, section ten urges us back toward praise:

Hyacinth and huckleberry.
Hopkins’ beloved bluebell.
Deepening. Blooming.
Like the intelligent

design of a newborn’s lungs.
Isn’t it scandalous, I wonder, to praise
nothing
for creating beauty

as particular as these?

Which is worse, to refuse divinity as a response to pain, or to ignore it in the presence of beauty? I admire the presentation of a mind thinking in this poem, and I also admire the disruptive effects of some of the section breaks. Thought staggers in this poem before it comes to its resolution, as our thinking often lurches about before we reach clearness. The central idea of this poem isn’t new—human beings have been cursing and questioning and praising God for millennia—but Moore has made it new through her attention to concrete imagery as well as the rhythm of the poem’s development.

In several of the poems, Moore refers directly to several other writers—Hopkins, Hemingway, Longfellow—but the influence I hear most strongly is Dickinson. Moore relies on aspects of nature to develop her themes in that slightly off-kilter way typical of Dickinson, and in some of the poems, the speaker enters the metaphor in straightforward fashion, also characteristic of Dickinson. These features are particularly evident in several poems in the center and toward the end of the collection, “Royal Candles,” “Hells Angels,” “Chicory.”

Finally, I also want to state that Particular Scandals is thoughtfully constructed as a collection, with the poems often arranged to enhance the meaning of those that surround them. “Christmas Stillborn,” for instance, is followed by “What We Heard on Christmas Day,” such that anticipant waiting becomes ironic even if nevertheless faithful. The next poem is “Wonder,” addressed to the incarnated infant Jesus. Because of the arrangement, we cannot read about the “wonder” of incarnation without recalling the infant who did not breathe in “Christmas Stillborn,” a poem that concludes with lines that look forward to the poems that follow: “We wonder at the grave / of our anticipation.” Individually and collectively, the poems in Particular Scandals reward slow, close reading.