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Review of Still Pilgrim by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. Still Pilgrim. Paraclete Press, 2017. 77 pgs. $18.00.

The first thing readers might notice about Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s latest collection, Still Pilgrim, is that the title character is an ordinary (if more attentive than some) woman meandering through this ordinary (and yet extraordinary) world. She is observant and devoted and also witty. Hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour, her world seems to preclude stillness, yet she seeks it nevertheless and occasionally even finds it. Her outer world, in which she watches her mother undress and later dresses her own son, reads poetry and visits museums, listens to Frank Sinatra and fries pork chops, guides her pilgrimage inward. This collection confirms what every pilgrim learns—every journey is a journey to the interior.

The poems are near-sonnets (she refers to them as sonnets, but I am more curmudgeonly conservative on these matters), 14 rhymed lines close to iambic pentameter. Through the collection, the poems demonstrate how flexible a form the sonnet can be. Despite the consistent iambs, O’Donnell’s rhythm varies through strategically placed caesuras, polysyllabic words juxtaposed against monosyllabic ones, hard consonant sounds interspersed among softer ones. The rhymes, too, vary in tone, from somber to hopeful to humorous. The variety O’Donnell exhibits within the comparatively restrictive form mirrors the construction of the speaker, always identified only as “the pilgrim” but nevertheless developed as a round character with moods and worries and insights, successes and failures.

Here is the opening stanza of “The Still Pilgrim Tells a Fish Story”:

Find the fish you need to kill and kill it.
The Moby Dick of your life. The one who
keeps running away with your line. Chill it
on ice, then eat it cold, smoked, and blue.
This is the way you have your way with it
after it’s had its way so long with you.

The imperative mood of the opening line is enhanced by its ten consecutive monosyllabic words, including the repetition of “kill.” The sentence, reproduced as the line, is emphatic. The rhythm slows a bit in the next two lines, in part because they contain three words of two syllables each, but also because the sounds of the words are softer, and their grammatical functions are less insistent—the two consecutive prepositions in line three for instance. Line five approaches the force of line one—and its structure is quite similar—but it is immediately and effectively undercut by line six. We get the sense that the speaker won’t turn out to be as triumphant as the stanza wants to suggest. The second stanza confirms this impression:

Yet even once you kill it, it will still
haunt your dreams, aim its skull at your small boat,
batter your bow till it shatters, spill
the sea into your world and down your throat.
By night, at the mercy of the same fish
whom you dispatched and served upon a dish.
Did you really believe there’d come a day
when you would be the one that got away?

With the repetition of “kill it,” the first line of this stanza recalls the first line of the poem, its meaning emphasized by the insistent internal rhyme: “kill…will still.” “Still” here also evokes the “still pilgrim,” though in this poem her spirit seems anything but still. The pattern of rhyme means that we’ll notice one more instance two lines later, “spill,” but again that line contains an internal rhyme with “till.” The line between includes the off rhyme of “skull.” The sonic effects are appropriately forceful, aligned with this content, an obsession, a haunting, of a person determined to rid herself of “the fish” she needs “to kill.” Obsessions can never be truly killed, of course, as Melville’s novel teaches us. The last lines respond to the colloquial expression, “fish story,” in the title: “Did you really believe there’d come a day / when you would be the one that got away?” She will never, in other words, get away. Perhaps the “fish story” is the one she’s told herself—that she could get away.

Ironically, pilgrims don’t generally try to escape their obsessions but rather walk toward them. Those who flee end up like Jonah, awash in the stinking bodily fluids of the beast that will force them to face their calling. Pilgrims aren’t necessarily prophets—through their more contemplative practices, they can often seem the opposite of prophets—but the two roles share at least one characteristic, the near impossibility of being declined.

Some of the poems are more light-hearted, and among my favorites is “The Still Pilgrim’s Refrain.” This poem exploits the line breaks to build anticipation, repeating a single word at the beginning of each line, the reader’s delight increasing with each instance. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Home again and most like home
is the need to leave and return
again, the sojourn fun and done
again, and now my life’s my own
again. I wake up in my bed
again, make up my day from scratch
again, give thanks I am not dead
again, make sure my two shoes match

again, and walk into the world
again, set foot upon the path
I’ve walked so many times before
again. I will not do the math.
Again I sing my pilgrim song.
Again I am where I belong.

Is a pilgrim simply a restless soul, unable to sit still, to take a vow of stability, a mendicant rather than a monastic? Perhaps. But this pilgrim recognizes her pattern of departure and return, the rhythm created by walking the same path. By the end of the poem she recognizes the foundation of her calling, not to go where she is not, but to be where she is.

O’Donnell includes an afterword that I found particularly insightful in its discussion of the origin of these poems. Her description of her visit to Melville’s grave reveals something we readers often know but seldom accept—the coincidental, associative, and indirect nature of artistic inspiration. These poems do have an autobiographical origin, but as with much art, it’s not what many readers might predict.

The book is also one that readers might not predict, featuring a speaker who can be serious about her faith without being dogmatic, who is comfortable with paradox, who trusts that her life has meaning even when that meaning remains partly obscured.

 

Review of The Goddess Monologues by Vandana Khanna

Vandana Khanna. The Goddess Monologues. Diode Editions, 2016. 28 pgs. $12.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Vandana Khanna’s The Goddess Monologues exemplifies what are in my opinion the best qualities of a chapbook.  Featuring 22 related poems, it is thematically focused on several Hindu goddesses, the stories that circulate around them in Hindu mythology, and responses of contemporary believers to them. Through its content, the collection is able to exploit the limits of the chapbook and seems best served through this form of publication.

Many of the poems adopt a regular appearance on the page, with couplets and tercets being Khanna’s favorite stanzaic forms. The lines themselves are tightly composed, reinforcing the stanzas’ crisp appearance. “Why Sita Is Chosen,” for instance, consists of five couplets, the first two consisting of single sentences, their second lines firmly end-stopped. The next three stanzas also consist of three total sentences, though here none of the stanzas duplicates the sentence, and the only line that concludes with a period is the final one. Through these choices (along with others—the frequency of caesuras, her use of monosyllabic or polysyllabic vocabulary), Khanna demonstrates how rhythmically variable such a traditional form can be.

Each line is tightly written, and the language concrete—yet the imagery reveals a Sita who retains her mystery. The poem opens with details that connote setting: “Amongst peacocks and jacaranda / she is humble, calls everything leaf, bird, sky.” Is referring to a peacock as merely a bird a characteristic of humility? Or is a goddess simply unimpressed with a peacock’s pomp and strut? The remainder of the poem relies on equally concrete language, particularly nouns. Here are the final three couplets:

She is always in the wrong season, wakes
to a mouth full of pine needles, winter grass,

imagines the cold hush of stars, spiked and luminescent,
as halo, as proof. She is wary of fire, backing away

from stove, candle, match. In mirrors, she sees only
a mouth yielding, practices bending to the wind.

The character Khanna conveys through these details is compelling. Readers watch her, puzzled perhaps, but also curious. The language and structure of the poem arouse the kind of interest that inspires us to read it again, and again, until its lines promise to linger in our memories.

Another poem, “Parvati Laments Her Reincarnation,” relies on similar imagery and rhythmic strategies. Many American readers, for whom reincarnation is a romantic idea, will be surprised at Parvati’s opening statement:

My body a revision of bones and skin,
face a dim-lit moon looking for its place
in the sky. How many times must we

rewind, start the story over?

Parvati’s question suggests that reincarnation isn’t actually “revision” so much as repetition. Her tone is frustrated as she anticipates replicating her earlier narrative. The poem is successful, though, not only because Khanna can so effectively inhabit Parvati’s voice but also because she is adept with craft—metaphor, imagery, lineation. Notice how these elements work together in the second half of the poem:

…Each time we meet
something gets subtracted: the peculiar
beat of my blood, the brown husks

of my eyes. Read my palm, tell me where
to stand. Lie and say you hear the river
rushing through me, vein by vein.

At the stanza break, Khanna exploits the options of the line break to defer the metaphor’s power. The previous image, “beat of my blood,” isn’t particularly unusual, but it becomes more resonant when the final image and metaphor recall it, “hear the river / rushing through me, vein by vein.”

Sita is a popular character in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. As is true with many characters in religious mythologies, many different stories are told of her, not all of them consistent with each other. Parvati is Shiva’s consort and the mother of Ganesha, one of the most endearing Hindu deities. Some potential readers might wonder whether they are adequately informed to understand these poems. My advice is to plunge right in. Although readers steeped in Hinduism will catch allusions others won’t, the poems are strong—they will more likely encourage readers to learn more about these goddesses than exclude readers who are unfamiliar with their stories.

I am looking forward to reading more of Khanna’s work, and I am also looking forward to reading more books published by Diode Editions. When I purchased The Goddess Monologues, I also picked up a couple other chapbooks. Diode has done a remarkable job with production—the cover stock and paper are high quality, and the design flourishes are thoughtful and appropriate to this collection. As a material object, the book does justice to its contents.

 

Review of True, False, None of the Above by Marjorie Maddox

Marjorie Maddox. True, False, None of the Above. Cascade Books, 2016. 90 pgs. $14.00.

The poems in Marjorie Maddox’s True, False, None of the Above are amusingly erudite. Nearly all of them allude to other pieces of literature and other writers, from Dante to Hawthorne to Hopkins to Flannery O’Connor. While they take life seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they accept the foibles that so often characterize human beings.

Much of the sense in these poems emerges from their epigraphs, as in “Euchre and Eucharist,” which cites Robert Frost speaking of T.S. Eliot, “I like to play euchre. He likes to play Eucharist.” The poem proceeds as a series of—references, more than misquotations, revisions, playful paraphrases of both Frost and Eliot. “Something there is that doesn’t love a game,” it begins, “that wants its end.” Later, the poem responds differently to games: “Hope is the cruelest game, breeding / lies out of the dead hand, mixing / memory and desire.” Maddox refers to multiple Frost and Eliot poems, revealing deep understanding not only of both poets’ oeuvres, but also of their different philosophical commitments. Yet as fun as “Euchre and Eucharist” is to read, it transcends any temptation to become simply a spoof. Religion is an easy target, and many writers have taken their aim; if all a poem does is demonstrate how easily religion can be satirized, it also demonstrates a lack of ambition for itself. Frost in the epigraph suggests that Eliot at least, if not all Christians, approaches a central tenet of his faith falsely, as an impersonation of the real thing, if the real thing exists. Rather than rise to that bait, Maddox plays with the most well-known lines of both, forcing readers to ask how serious play can be, or how playful serious questions can become without losing their urgency. “In this garden of numbers / that promise redemption, / picking apples is a distraction” another stanza asserts. Here Maddox is doubly allusive, referring not only to Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” but also to the story of the Fall in Genesis. One reading of the line is that the poem critiques Frost, even as Frost critiques Eliot, for his poem, his dream of apples, of an abundant harvest, his long sleep. Is picking apples a distraction? Or is it a distraction only when the player is already distracted by play? Is the harvest a component of redemption, or does it create the need for redemption? Such fruitful (no pun intended, really) ambiguity reveals the depth of this poem and the true seriousness of its game.

Maddox frequently captures the essence of human weakness, often more unfortunate that overtly malicious. “Mañana” responds to Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” a story of temptation and delayed promises of repentance. The poem illustrates how easily we persuade ourselves of our good intentions, even as we surrender to temptation:

“Mañana,” we call over our shoulders
to our other selves on the brink of the forest,
the ones testing the shadows with a toe,
calculating the time and temperature of predicted
repentance. “Mañana,” we hang on the breeze
drifting toward the dark leaves that decay
beneath our dust-clad feet traveling nowhere
but away…

This poem succeeds in part due to its imagery but even more, I think, due to its rhythm and other sonic effects. The proportion of monosyllabic words in this excerpt is high, permitting a steady beat, and the longer words often reproduce sounds from the shorter ones. Notice the alliteration—“testing,” “toe,” “time,” “temperature” and “drifting,” “dark,” “decay,” “dust.” Notice the off-rhyme of “breeze” and “leaves” and the internal rhyme of “decay” and “away.” Notice the assonance—“over,” “shoulder,” “toe.”

The most immediately noticeable detail of the poem, though, is its title, “Mañana,” which is repeated five times within the poem itself. Why the Spanish, we might ask, especially since the poem responds to an author who could not be more strongly identified with New England. Why not simply say, “tomorrow”? Although “mañana” means “tomorrow,” it also means more than “tomorrow.” It means “not today,” which might be tomorrow or might be someday, maybe. The connotations of “mañana” don’t include a definite commitment but rather an indefinite non-committal. The speaker, and all of us who intend to get around to repentance someday approach the idea casually. The task isn’t urgent. The last lines, though, suggest that such an attitude is precisely our undoing:

…just as the last lights sink
and—from the thick woods of our denial—
the serpents uncoil.

Readers shudder at the image, its suggestion accentuated by the off-rhyme of “denial” and “uncoil.”

The poems in True, False, None of the Above share a consistent approach in their allusiveness, but the collection also highlights stylistic variety. It includes poems that rely on rhyme and meter as well as free verse; poems written in couplets, tercets, and quatrains; poems divided into sections and poems composed without stanza breaks; poems reliant on short lines and long lines. The shortest poem here is seven lines, the longest over a page. Through her ability to exploit form, Maddox adapts form to content. Because of this variety, the book avoids predictability, even as so many of the poems cite their ancestors.

Taking tradition seriously, the book also recognizes how relationships between writing of the past and present create a living text.

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 Iron String by Annie Lighthart

Lightheart cover

Annie Lighthart. Iron String. Airlie Press, 2013. 77 pages.  $15.00

Reviewed by Kasey Jueds, Guest Reviewer

“I stop again and again/to hear the second music,” Annie Lighthart writes in the first poem of her collection Iron String, a poem which functions as a luminous ars poetica, a map for all the poems that come after. The two musics here—“one easier to hear, the other/lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard/yet always present”—are the musics Lighthart listens to and makes known to us throughout her wise and graceful book, which concerns itself with the everyday noise of rain, birds, children playing or crying, and with the numinous music that runs beneath these sounds like an underground river.

Some poems, like some people, don’t reveal themselves easily. They are slippery or barbed, difficult to engage with, to find a way into and through. These sorts of poems present their own pleasures and rewards, but they can also frustrate, can seem to withhold on purpose.

The poems in Iron String offer a deep and different type of pleasure, one that seems rare to me these days: the pleasure of open-heartedness, of deep feeling and thinking offered as gift. They manage to speak both clearly and surprisingly of often-mysterious things, of emotional and spiritual states that feel absolutely true at the same time as they feel unnamable—except, of course, in the way Annie Lighthart does name them, by making them into poems that become their names.

One of the collection’s many beauties is the full expanse of its feeling life. In the poem titled “February,” the speaker is “too small for much wreckage, too tight and done with resisting.” In “Light Rain,” after a painful argument, she is “ready to fail,/to go back inside and begin it again.” And in “The Sea Lion Tank,” she recognizes that “to rise in the morning/could be to lift your head from that sleep/and love each salted star for what it may bring.” Iron String’s moments of epiphany, of tenderness and love, feel believable because they feel earned: the poems speak with quiet authority of both tenderness and its difficulty, its lack.

The poems feel bravely themselves: bravely non-ironic, bravely forthright in naming abstractions (love, grief) and making them alive in their ways of seeing the things of the world: a loaf of bread, a cow in a field. The poems’ quotidian details are gates into their world of recognition and newness. I love the balance of relief and wonder these poems offer: relief because they reveal their truths so generously, and wonder because they do so strangely, magically, startlingly. In “There Were Horses,” Lighthart writes, “An open white page in any book was a lean white horse/looking out, and a swollen door stuttering at night was the breath and stamp of a horse nearby.” Here are the familiar forms of horse, book, and door, both reassuringly, invitingly themselves, and magically transformed. (Or possibly not transformed, but seen through into the otherness they also are.) Later in the same poem: “Those days we brushed each others’ hair like the manes of horses/and with their kindness gave each other kingly gifts.” The generous, open-hearted psychic space of this poem—and many others in the book—feels so deeply lived, reading it makes it easy to believe such a way of being is possible.

This has been a difficult review to write. Not because Iron String did not move me deeply, but because it did. And because it is beautiful. In her introduction to Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry, Louise Glück writes that our natural response to beauty is silence. It’s been challenging to move beyond silence (my own first reaction to Iron String: a wordless sense of happiness and gratitude) to find the right words to describe Lighthart’s book.

But I can say this: I carried Iron String in my pink shoulder bag for weeks. I read it in the dentist’s office and on the train. The poems remind me of what I need to remember: to watch and listen, to pay attention, to recognize that there is always more to hear and see. That second music, again. Annie Lighthart reminds me to “set my ear to it as I would to a heart.”

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