Category Archives: A Review A Week

Review of The State of the Art by David Lehman

Lehman coverDavid Lehman. The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. 198 pgs. $24.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

David Lehman’s The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014 collects the introductions he’s written to introduce the individual volumes of The Best American Poetry series over the last twenty-five years. Taken together, these brief essays—for they are much more broadly conceived than the word “introduction” would indicate—trace the controversies and other points of attention within the American poetry world over the last quarter century. Often as I read, I thought, oh, I’m glad we’re through that phase—the theory wars that not only pitted scholars against each other but also unnecessarily pitted scholars against creative writers (as if many of us don’t fill both roles), the flurry of trash-talking reviews by William Logan, the perennial complaint that there’s too much bad poetry because of MFA programs or slam poetry events or the ease of online publishing (a discussion we’re, alas, not yet through having). More often, though, I found myself glad to be a poet in our time when there’s so much vibrant poetry being written by so many different writers, and when there’s such energetic conversation occurring in libraries and cafes and bars and, yes, universities, about our art.

Too often, introductions to anthologies are written as if they are formal necessities or polite niceties that no one actually reads. Too often, such introductions fail to provoke or even inform. I find myself wishing that the five pages devoted to an introduction could have been devoted to five more poems instead. No so here. Lehman seems to think deeply about poetry every breathing day, and his thoughtfulness shows. He notices which canonical poets are exerting fresh influence on their contemporary descendants, and he notices when allusions to poetry increase in pop culture. He can speak about poetry’s relation to sit-coms and to boxing, to politics and to celebrity.

The essays earlier in the book are comparatively brief and focus more directly on an introduction of that year’s co-editor and the specific contents of that year’s volume. As the book develops, the essays become fuller, Lehman’s discussion of poetry and poets augmented by his observations about the wider world within which poetry circulates. This shift is appropriate, I think, as the series has lasted probably longer than anyone anticipated, and as Lehman himself likely discovered that he had more to say. And though he wouldn’t have been thinking of a collection of introductions early on in the series, the variety of topics he addresses through the years makes for a much more interesting book. I suspect most readers will still prefer to read The State of the Art two or three essays at a time over the course of a couple of weeks rather than reading them all straight through—but that’s how I prefer to read most collections of essays by a single author. I prefer to listen to the same voice in shorter segments, twenty or thirty pages at a time, but paradoxically, in terms of content there’s also much to take in, and I want to mull over what I’ve read, to think about what it means that Adrienne Rich included a poem by a high school student in the volume she edited, for example, while Harold Bloom, editing a best of the best of collection for the tenth anniversary of the series, included no poems from the volume Rich edited. (As with many issues, I find that I have my own knee-jerk response to these facts and then my more considered one.)

In addition to the obvious fact that The Best American Poetry series has lasted now a lifetime as far as some younger poets are concerned, The State of the Art also illustrates how thoughtfully Lehman has been in selecting co-editors. The first was John Ashbery, certainly an influential poet every aspiring poet in 1988 had to reckon with; the second was Donald Hall, perhaps equally influential though his style is dramatically different than Ashbery’s. Subsequent editors have included poets as diverse as Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Robert Creeley, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Muldoon, Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Mark Doty, and many others. This list reveals Lehman’s commitment to inclusion of many stylistic preferences, to a refreshing fairness.

I’m glad I’ve read The State of the Art. I’m glad The Best American Poetry series exists, even when I’m irritated that particular poems weren’t included or occasionally that certain ones were. Every year, the series alerts me to the work of poets I’d been unfamiliar with and lets me know that there’s just too much good poetry for one person to read. How could I be anything but grateful for that?

Review of A Lightness, a Thirst, or Nothing at All by Adele Kenny

Kenny coverAdele Kenny. A Lightness, a Thirst, or Nothing at All. Welcome Rain Publishers, 2015. 65 pgs. $15.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

As a form, prose poems often puzzle me. For a long time I resisted them, for they relinquish the one element that permits poetry to exploit language as prose cannot: the line. Relationships between lines and sentences affect rhythm and create layers of meaning to augment the meanings of sentences alone. Line breaks can disturb or reinforce tone and mood; they can lull or jar the reader’s response. So why would a poet choose to relinquish all those possibilities?

Yet I have read several collections of prose poems lately, generally written by poets who have published lineated verse in the past, including Adele Kenny’s moving A Lightness, a Thirst, or Nothing at All. Reading this collection, I finally realized what may have always been obvious to others: the most important characteristic of prose poems isn’t their abandonment of the line; it’s their exploration of what else a poem can do. Relying on the paragraph rather than the stanza forces poets to foreground figurative language or sonic devices to distinguish their writing from more unequivocal prose.

These poems are meditative, and they rely on the image to guide us through the speaker’s thoughts. Throughout the collection, Kenny relies on images of light and rain, as well as other components of the natural world, both wild and domesticated. Among the collection’s prominent motifs is grief, and in the opening poem, Kenny considers her natural environment to explore her experience of loss. Here are the first sentences:

Even if the asters were permanent, the last crickets under the pine still fully alive, fully present—the balance not so easily tipped. Even had she kept what she couldn’t, it was always this: what stayed broken—literal dust and the way light thinned.

As an opening, this paragraph is both hospitable and mysterious. Because its references are so concrete—asters, crickets, dust—readers feel (perhaps deceptively) stable. Yet there’s still so much we don’t know. What couldn’t “she” keep? What won’t be repaired? Although we may presume the poem is set in autumn, we’re uncertain about where exactly we are, or even if place is important. Given the vocabulary—“permanent,” “alive,” “dust”—we suspect that the poem may be leading to death, but doesn’t everything lead there? Here are the remaining two paragraphs. Notice how Kenny follows the image to her insight:

She thinks of the house in the mountains, how rain settled for days in the hollow between two hills—without thunder, without stopping—the way rain sounded then, the field’s dim glistening. She remembers how wet earth pushed its cold up, the creek overfilled, fast over fallen leaves, the leaves singing—how it feels (that wanting to go home)—the mortal act of are and are not. That simple, that clear.

Now it’s about what lasts, the way nothing ends without pouring itself out—chrysanthemums shattered by rain, light that lingers in lessening light—what she means when she says my life is not this or that she is not really here.

Because of the compelling imagery early in the paragraph (especially, I think, the uniquely accurate “how wet earth pushed its cold up”), readers will accept Kenny’s direct expression of her core concern: “the mortal act of are and are not.” For that is what mortality is, a recognition of the difference between “are” and “are not.” But the poem doesn’t end there. As we reach its conclusion, we realize that its topic is not death, exactly; it’s life, that part of life that merges into death through a climactic display of one’s essence: “nothing ends without pouring itself out.” We see the deeply colored autumnal chrysanthemums, as we consider what becomes of light, ours and the world’s. Kenny’s observation here is apt; rather than interpret light as the simple opposite of darkness, she recognizes its continuity, how it remains even as it gradually disappears: “light that lingers in lessening light.” Because of how attractive and thought-provoking this imagery is, readers, too, want to linger, mulling over the last clause, “that she is not really here.” Is she not here, as the light is not fully here (though it is, still, here)? Does she now understand what she means when she claims not to be here? The poem has already suggested that even as she pours herself out, she lasts. She is here, and she is not here, just as everything that has ever been, all that she remembers, has disappeared and also remains.

This is what I mean when I say these poems are meditative. Kenny can describe an experience without, as Keats phrases it, “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This quality persists throughout A Lightness, a Thirst, or Nothing at All. In “What Calls You,” one of my favorite poems in the collection, the speaker explores the nature of her own spiritual calling. Like many of us, she once thought a true call would arrive like the bolt that struck St. Paul off his horse. And as it does for many of us, that experience evaded her. This poem is structured similarly to “What She Means,” in three paragraphs, with the first presenting her dilemma, the second exploring it through concrete imagery, and the third conveying an insight acquired through close attention to the world. “Back then,” the poem begins, continuing:

I wasn’t sure what calling meant. I thought something mystical—God’s hand on my arm, a divine voice speaking my name. Instead, I discovered the colors of cyclamen, how even the meanest weeds burst into bloom.

It ends this way:

Whatever idea I had of myself turns on this: what lives on breath is spirit. I discover the power of simple places—silence—the desire to become nothing.

What she discovers is mystical, even if it is not abrupt or disruptive or extraordinary, as “a divine voice speaking [her] name” would have been. It is “the desire to become nothing” that permits the ability to pour oneself out, as “What She Means” describes a similar experience.

My memory lingers on these poems as I move through my day. Perhaps that is the best we can say about a poem, or any piece of art.

Review of For Dear Life by Ronald Wallace

Wallace coverRonald Wallace. For Dear Life. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. 75 pgs. $15.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

For Dear Life is the most recent collection by Ronald Wallace, a steady poet who has, for the past several decades, published a new collection (as well as books in other genres) every few years. Although he writes most often in received forms, his use of meter and rhyme is subtle (I am tempted to say natural). He responds to the tradition comfortably, with a light hand, adapting it to a contemporary American idiom, expressed in a conversational tone. The effect on the reader is gracious rather than insistent, invitational rather than adamant. Reading these poems, I appreciated Wallace’s reliance on traditional forms, but I didn’t feel battered by the patterns, as occasionally occurs with some neo-formalist poetry. Instead, I admired how his facility with metrical patterns, and variations on metrical patterns, enhanced the poems’ tight language.

The opening poem considers the paradox of paradise—for who among us hasn’t longed for that perfect home, with perfect weather and a life of ease? Ease breeds restlessness though, as this Adam, this Eve, and this God soon discover. At eighteen lines, “Thank God” is not a sonnet, but it is informed by a sonnet’s strategies. Though not strictly iambic, the lines average ten syllables. Wallace abandons end rhyme until the final lines, when he emphasizes closure by rhyming “could” with “good!” Most significantly, the poem turns about two-thirds of the way through, not after line eight as in a sonnet, but after line ten. Until then, the poem consists of a series of judgments on Eden: “Where were / the restaurants, the music halls, the movies? / Where were the children to badger and tax them?” Where, in other words, is variety, or challenge? Uninterrupted continuity mars perfection with monotony. The poem continues with an ironic use of a common expression:

Thank God, Eve thought, for the snake and the tree
that promised such interesting suffering!
Thank God, Adam thought, for Eve
who knew that things couldn’t go on like this,
who could teach him to love pain and loss!
Thank God, God thought, He had left them
to their own best devices, so they could
get out while the getting was good!

The idea that Eden could be understood as perfect only temporarily isn’t new. What’s interesting about this poem is the amusing hyperbole Wallace relies on at the introduction of God, the irony of God saying “Thank God” that the creatures had known better than the creator. In this poem, God is consciously anthropomorphized as a figure who isn’t so omniscient—for God apparently hadn’t realized that perfection wouldn’t remain perfect for long. God experiences surprise and relief, emotions that can be experienced only if one isn’t sure of the future.

The word choice in this passage is interesting, too. Nearly all of the words are monosyllabic, with a few of the lines consisting exclusively of monosyllables, a fact that permits a quick pace—with the exception of “that promised such interesting suffering!” According to the line above, the snake and the tree make this promise, but it’s not only the suffering that’s interesting here; it’s the word choice also, for “promised such interesting suffering” elongates the rhythm and emphasizes the sibilants. The sound of the snake is reproduced here, contrasting with every other line. This line, in challenging the reader’s expectations, demonstrates how variation from a pattern can function effectively, surprising the reader for a purpose.

The most intriguing surprise of this book, though, lies in Wallace’s adaptation of the sonnet. As anyone who has written numerous poems in the same form knows, eventually its challenges dissipate. The writer either tries a new form or tries a new approach to the old form. For Dear Life contains nearly two dozen poems (Wallace calls them sonnets, though because they lack end rhyme and iambic pentameter, I would call them sonnet-inspired) each containing a classic haiku formed by the last words of each line. The right margin of “Song of Myself,” for example, which cites Issa as its source, can be read downward to reveal the following haiku: “heedless of the dew that marks our closing day we bind ourselves to others.” The poem itself opens this way:

I think it’s enough just to sit and meditate, heedless
of the needs of others close to us and of
their perpetual demands that seem to sap the
strength from us…

The title obviously references Whitman, and the poem also comments on Thoreau’s preference for solitude. Whitman’s work suggests that he was much more sociable than Thoreau, but the two share a tendency to center their interpretations of the world within themselves. Thoreau enters the poem at its turn, but then it turns back on itself, contradicting the assertions it has made for thirteen lines:

…Thoreau knew how to spend the day
alone with his peas and beans and ledgers, and we
can do the same. So much for the ties that bind.
“We must find our occasions in ourselves,”
said self-reliant Thoreau. And so I’m going to sing to
myself. And the birds. And you. And one or two others.

This speaker’s song may be “of myself,” but it is not exclusively “to myself.” The accumulating  “And…And…And” of the final line belies the speaker’s insistence on solitude, or even on self-reliance. At least in terms of self-expression, human identity is communal.

The rhythm of these lines is particularly interesting, especially as it is affected by the line breaks and the caesuras. While three of the lines are end-stopped, two with periods, these lines contain five internal periods. These hard caesuras sound even more definite than the end-stopped line breaks. As occurs in much of Wallace’s work, this excerpt reveals how flexible the line can be.

There’s much more to discuss about For Dear Life—its humor, its arrangement, its responses to popular and classic culture. If I were able to interview Wallace, I’d ask many questions about his craft. Until then, though, I suspect the answers can be found in a close and sustained reading of his work.

Review of Yes, There Will Be Singing by Marilyn Krysl

Krysl cover.2Marilyn Krysl. Yes, There Will Be Singing. University of Michigan Press, 2014. 180 pgs. $27.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Nearly twenty years ago when I read Marilyn Krysl’s Warscape with Lovers, already her seventh collection of poetry, I learned something crucial. Krysl is, as anyone who has read much of her work knows, a master of the sestina. It’s a form that’s easy to write very badly and extraordinarily difficult to write at all well. Its six repeated words, the teleutons, can so dominate the writer’s consciousness that the entire rhythm—not only the content—of the poem is controlled by their presence. All movement in the poem is thrust toward them, even if the lines are enjambed and the sentences develop beyond them. Reading Krysl’s sestinas, I noticed a different strategy. In “Nammu: To Adam,” for example, or even moreso in the book’s title poem, “Warscape with Lovers,” Krysl relies on other content to determine the rhythm, lovemaking or an ocean’s waves or fear. The rhythm of the line, therefore, becomes at least as strong as the lexical repetition required by the form, until the repetition recedes from the reader’s ear. Sestinas so often collapse in on themselves—much more often than poems in other forms—but Krysl’s escape this fate because she approaches this potentially heavy-handed form with an extraordinarily light touch. Once I understood why Krysl’s sestinas succeeded so well, I understood form itself much more fully. There are only two or three other contemporary poets whose work has taught me so much.

So I was very glad to be able to read Yes, There Will Be Singing, a collection of Krysl’s essays. Three of the essays focus on the sestina specifically, and another explores the litany, whose core definition is also repetition. In these essays, Krysl analyzes several examples that work differently from each other, and she discusses the attraction of repetition generally, along with the necessity of variation. I particularly appreciated her engagement with James Cummins’ “Tiresias”—which uses “father,” “woman,” “man,” “mother,” and “face” (used twice) as its teleutons—and Patricia Smith’s sestina about Stevie Wonder, “Looking to See How the Eyes Inhabit Dark, Wondering about Light”—which uses light,” “wonders,” “dark,” “eyes,” “see,” and “look” as its teleutons. These two poets had clearly set themselves a challenge, and Krysl’s explanations of their strategies are both insightful and useful. Through her close analysis of craft, Krysl shows the reader not only how these particular poems were written, but also how more poems might be written. Patient with the work, she is an attentive teacher.

This section on the sestina follows the opening section of the collection, containing five essays that are predominantly autobiographical. Their focus is language and how Krysl came to appreciate it as a way of making and revealing meaning as well as a source of musical pleasure. Three additional sections follow those on the sestina and litany: “Illustrious Forebears,” “Poetry as a Way of Witnessing,” and “Poetry and the Healing Arts.” The essays in the first two focus on individual poets, including Marianne Moore, Anna Akhmatova, W.S. Merwin, Ingrid Wendt, and others. The final section returns to Krysl’s own work, describing the relationship between her writing and her experiences caring for the destitute. As a whole, then, this book illustrates the integration of the work and the life.

As a working poet, I most appreciate the poet-critic who can comment on the content and context of a poet’s work as well as evaluate the craft, analyzing the poet’s strategies with language. When I am particularly affected by a poem, I want the critic to answer my astonished question: “How did she do that?” Through her experience in the world and her thoughtfulness about poetry, Krysl guides the reader through several poems by positioning the poems within their context and by describing how context and craft interact. In her chapter on Ingrid Wendt, for example, she discusses William Stafford’s influence on Wendt, focusing particularly on their mutual commitment to nonviolence and to their concern for environmental sustainability. Analyzing Wendt’s poem “Endangered Species,” Krysl attends to the poem’s grammar, its sentences and lines, to show how she succeeds artistically while simultaneously engaging the world as a responsible citizen: “the poem ‘Endangered Species’ is much more than an evocative description of wild turkeys. ‘Endangered Species’ is a political term which highlights the fact that the violence of species depletion is violence visible only in statistics. Wendt highlights the extremity of species’ deaths by a cunning use of the words ‘if’ and ‘as if’—‘if’ through the body of the poem, ‘as if’ at the poem’s conclusion. Notice how ‘if’ builds a chain of linked contingencies…” The poem Krysl cites is evocative, and it is not trite. Her discussion demonstrates how through attention to craft, poetry can be made more rather than less relevant to significant cultural issues.

Yes, There Will Be Singing consists of highly interesting essays, and so in that sense it feels like a quick read. The essays are also often meditative and thought-inspiriting, so in that sense it also feels like a contemplative read. It is a book that speaks to our time. Given the unfortunate complexity of the interrelated problems—war, poverty, environmental destruction, hunger—that are ours to solve, I imagine it will remain relevant for quite a while. Fortunately, the quality of the writing will make it a congenial companion as we discern our responses.

Review of No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay

Kay coverSarah Kay. No Matter the Wreckage. Write Bloody Publishing, 2014. 143 pgs. $15.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Sarah Kay’s No Matter the Wreckage is the print version of her spoken word poetry. (If you’ve never heard one of her performances, there are many links here.) The turn to print initially seemed odd to me since so much of the energy of spoken word poetry often emerges from its “spoken” qualifier. I wondered how this energy would emerge from the page, or if it could. I also wondered how the poetry would stand up to a silent reading pace, which is often more contemplative than the listening pace. Reading through this collection, I sensed Kay’s spoken voice fairly often, almost like an echo, more individualized than the “voice” we often speak of in a writer’s work. I was also relieved to notice that the flatter language oral communication can sometimes get away with occurs only rarely here. All this is to say that No Matter the Wreckage rewards reading as well as hearing.

Many of Kay’s poems directly address contemporary national or international events. One of the most moving, “Shosholoza,” narrates an event resulting from South African apartheid. “Hiroshima” describes destruction, yes, but also impossible survival and regeneration. Others are more personal. “Something We Don’t Talk About, Part I” describes family disintegration. In “The Call,” the speaker imagines two different possible scenarios following a call to her ex-boyfriend.

“Forest Fires” considers an environmental emergency but focuses most on the speaker’s extended family situation as it explores how individuals grieve and what they grieve for. The poem opens by contrasting a trip to California with her family’s situation in New York:

I arrive home from JFK in the rosy hours
to find a new 5-in-1 egg slicer and dicer
on our dining room table.
This is how my father deals with grief.

Three days ago, I was in the Santa Cruz
Redwoods tracing a mountain road
in the back of a pickup truck, watching
clouds unravel into spider webs.

Two days from now, there will be
forest fires, so thick, they will have to
evacuate Santa Cruz…

The first line seems optimistic with its “rosy hours,” the color recalling the fire in the poem’s title. The tone turns slightly comic in the second line, the “5-in-1 egg slicer and dicer” satirizing commercial language. Following these two lines, readers may think they know where this poem is going, how it may descend from Frank O’Hara with its brand names and references to popular culture. But then the final line of the first stanza shifts its tone, making a direct statement devoid of image or figurative language: “This is how my father deals with grief.” In the next stanza, the poem moves to the recent past, and its method returns to image and metaphor as the speaker is “tracing a mountain road” and “clouds unravel into spider webs.” Then the poem turns toward the near future. The poem moves through these time periods, juxtaposing different events according to their place in time until the fire that erupts in the future becomes a metaphor for the dying that is happening in the present. A fire burns out of control in California, while in New York the speaker’s father stirs egg salad and the speaker’s grandmother lies in a hospital bed, appreciating her family even as she forgets who they are.

A couple of stanzas toward the end of the poem illustrate how adept Kay can be with lineation. The poem is composed in quatrains with lines of comparatively similar length. The relationship of the line to the sentence is what most interests me because of how the literal meaning of the sentence can be augmented by the suggestive meaning of the line. Here are four and a half lines that demonstrate how Kay takes advantage of possibilities:

when he says no. I will leave him to slice
and dice the things he can. My grandmother
folds her hands on mine and strokes
my knuckles like they are a wild animal she is

trying to tame.

Because of the arrangement of these lines, the grandmother is affiliated with the things the father can control, or at least manage, even though the family’s inability to ward off death forms the thematic center of the poem. Similarly, breaking the fourth line between “she is” and “trying to tame” suggests that the grandmother herself is wild, at least for the split second before we read the sentence’s final phrase. Although lineation certainly affects the rhythm of a poem, whether read aloud or silently, its effects are much more dominant in print.

Occasionally, Kay’s lines do simply reproduce the grammatical unit, as in the opening stanza of “Peacocks”:

Lately? Lately I’ve been living with spiders.
But as roommates go, they haven’t been too bad.
The one in the bathroom keeps to his side of the tile,
and the one in the bedroom can get a little bit grabby,
but for the most part he keeps his hands to himself.

Most of the lines in the poem are end-stopped in this way, and both the rhythm and the language here is flatter than in “Forest Fires.” “Peacocks” is an example of a poem that benefits most significantly from performance. As I discussed above, Kay does most often exploit the characteristics of print that help distinguish poetry from prose. When her poems lose some of their energy on the page, it is often because the line isn’t constructed as attentively as it might have been. Such a comment should not deter readers from this book though. Its virtues far outweigh this one shortcoming.

I’ve both enjoyed reading No Matter the Wreckage and learned from it. The elements of craft that performance poets develop most fully and that are fully present here, especially those related to voice and style, are particularly worth mulling over for those of us who compose primarily for print. I will be returning to Kay’s work as a model for conveying energy to the page.

Review of Plunk by Tom C. Hunley

Hunley coverTom C. Hunley. Plunk. WSC Press, 2015. 67 pgs. $16.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Plunk is one of those refreshing books that delivers on its promises. Its title is certainly colloquial, its “blurbs” are entertaining ironic anti-blurbs, and its table of contents lists such entries as “What If There Lives, Within You, a Man Who Loves Random Consolations?” “Self-Portrait as a Child’s Stick Figure Drawing on a Refrigerator,” and “While We Were on Fire, Our Shadows Glided on Water.” The whole collection—and Tom C. Hunley has written several—is ironic and loquacious and wily. Although many of the poems are written in free verse, several pay homage to received forms—though those forms aren’t always received from poetic tradition. They include, for example, not only villanelles and an ode but also multiple choice questions and questionnaires. The poems in Plunk are energetic and energizing, and, basically, fun to read and to read aloud.

Several of the poems illustrate an “ultra-talk” style—manic, associative, expansive, yet somehow consolidating the multifarious references by the conclusion. “Permanent,” for instance, discusses tattoos, marriage, gangs, coffee shops, cable tv networks, and other topics. It opens with an odd piece of dialogue: “Hey, your tattoo fell off,” odd because even temporary tattoos don’t “fall off.” Immediately, therefore, readers begin to question the idea of permanence. Eventually, the speaker himself rambles toward an acknowledgment of his strategy:

Hey, your tattoo fell off, I said, and picked it up,
but she thought I was trying to pick her up,
so she rushed away, her legs long and tan except
for a balloon-shaped vacancy on her ankle where
the tattoo had rented space. She was beautiful with
curly hair and probably men had been hitting on her
for as long as she could remember, and maybe she
assumed that fending off their attentions would be
a permanent part of her life. Listen, my parents died
last year. They were always there, hovering,
when I was small. First the air went out
of their marriage, and then Pop was gone, and after that,
Mom was gone, and a little while after that, I made up
that preposterous story about the woman whose tattoo
fell off, I guess to illustrate something about impermanence.

It may seem as if we’re merely encountering a speaker who can neither stop speaking—for this quoted section comprises about one-third of the poem—nor very easily get to the point. It may seem as if whatever the writer thought of made its way arbitrarily into the poem. If we follow the leaps more closely, however, we can notice a pattern in the language. The woman’s tattoo isn’t just any inked image; it’s a “balloon-shaped vacancy.” Then the marriage of the speaker’s parents didn’t simply fail—“the air went out of” it, as if it too were some sort of balloon. And the speaker doesn’t refer to his father with the more common “Dad” but as “Pop,” evoking the sound most closely associated with a balloon. By the time the speaker draws overt attention to the poem’s conceit, we’re beginning to understand his concern for permanence, a concern that has very little to do with tattoos.

After a short discussion of gangs and coffee and Mt. Rainier, he returns to family and marriage, those institutions we most identify with permanence, despite all of our evidence that ought to undermine such assumptions:

I shouldn’t have made that up about my parents dying
or about the gangs trafficking in coffee. I wanted,
I guess, to show you something about impermanence.
I wanted, ironically, to make a lasting impression
on the subject. I should have just led with the fact
that the old Rainier Brewery is now the headquarters
for Tully’s Coffee. If a landmark like that can’t last,
maybe no one’s marriage has a chance; maybe all of us
should tattoo tears beneath our eyes or fill our hearts
with helium and reckless love and let them fly
untethered and brightly-colored across the sky.

Most of us have experienced that peculiar shock when a restaurant or department store we’ve known all our lives closes. We feel a little destabilized, a little, yes, untethered. Maybe nothing is permanent, including those things we hold most dear. Maybe that means we ought to insist on a different permanence, the grief symbolized by a tattooed tear—until we recall that the poem opens with a suggestion that even tattoos fall off. Here, the speaker returns again to that image we’d likely forgotten, the balloon shape of the first tattoo, but the image is transformed in these last lines, into an image of spontaneity and joy. The point of life isn’t permanence after all, it seems, but release. That’s not a new idea, but Hunley has created a new way of saying it.

The chatty style prominent in these poems, together with their pop culture references, can mislead us into assuming they are simply slight observations of mundane details, that they have little significant to say. Such an assumption would be a mistake and would do not only the poem but also the reader a disservice.

Most of my favorite poems in Plunk, including “Elegy / Litany,” “Eight Bits Usually Equals One Byte,” and “Prelude to Pillow Talk,” adopt the style and strategies of “Permanence.” Toward the end of the collection, a few poems combine Hunley’s colloquial language with received forms; this juxtaposition of elevated form with idiomatic diction works particularly well in the two villanelles. On occasion Hunley’s ironic commentary on form reads more like an exercise than an actual poem, in “A Little Less Beauty” for instance, which gestures toward the blues poem but doesn’t quite pull it off, primarily because of the too-predictable rhyme. So, do I wish Hunley had omitted one or two of the poems here? Yes. Do I think their inclusion is a fatal flaw? Not at all. For just as the truest poems are always risking sentimentality, to paraphrase Hugo, the most inventive poems perhaps also always risk falling flat. This caveat aside, Plunk is an enjoyable collection, of its time without being limited to its time.

 

 

Review of American Psalm, World Psalm by Nicholas Samaras

Samaras coverNicholas Samaras. American Psalm, World Psalm. Ashland Poetry Press, 2014. 233 pgs. $22.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Nicholas Samaras’ second collection, American Psalm, World Psalm is a hybrid book, though not “hybrid” in the sense that we often hear the word applied to contemporary literature. It’s not the offspring of prose and poetry, of memoir and fiction, or of print and electronic text. It is, instead, a hybrid of psalm and poem. Those two aren’t entirely distinct genres, of course, since psalms are by definition poems, though the reverse is not true. Yet psalms in their canonical sense share particular characteristics even as they can be further classified as psalms of praise, psalms of lament, imprecatory psalms, historical psalms, etc. The most common linguistic feature of Biblical psalms is their use of parallelism, e.g. “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples, / I will sing praises to you among the nations” (Ps. 108:3). Consistent parallelism as a formal trait is rare in contemporary poetry in English, though canonical psalms also rely on the types of figurative language we also expect in other types of poetry, e.g. “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). In these modern psalms, Samaras doesn’t rely on the parallelism so characteristic of their Hebrew kin; nor do these psalms always respond explicitly or directly to those in the Bible. Yet American Psalm, World Psalm contains 150 entries, just as the Book of Psalms does, and Samaras’ collection is arranged into five “books,” just as the Book of Psalms is. And Samaras’ psalms are prayers as much as poems, with God clearly among his intended audience. A few of the pieces in this collection do succeed more as prayer than poem (odd as it is to suggest that prayers “succeed” or not), but I will focus here on the psalms that are also most effective as poems.

The poems in this collection vary in form—couplets, quatrains, single long stanzas; rhyme and free verse; litanies and blues. They also vary considerably in length, though the average might be about a page. Yet they are consciously products of their time, containing frequent political and cultural references in the vocabulary of our day—that is, they are “American” psalms and they are “World” psalms. Samaras’ position and politics, in both the narrow and broader senses, drive several of the poems as the speaker responds to contemporary events and values with anger and occasional despair. Many of the poems, though—and these are the ones I’m most drawn to—are more personal lyrics that also respond to the human condition.

“The Unpronounceable Psalm,” Psalm 2 in the collection, illustrates how figurative language can be used to express frustration with the limits of language, even while exploiting the beauty of that very language. It begins with these sentences:

I couldn’t wrap my mouth around the vowel of your name.
Your name, a cave of blue wind that burrows and delves
endlessly, that rings off the walls of my drumming, lilting heart,
through the tiny pulsations of my wrists, the blood in my neck.

Many people consider that God has a name, and that God’s name is “God,” and that they can pronounce it very well. The poem here though specifies “the vowel of your name,” the breath of it linking one consonant with another. If Samaras is referring here to a specific name, it is likely the word generally translated as “Yahweh,” a breathy word itself, or he may be alluding to the fact that Hebrew is printed without vowels. Or he may not be referring to a specific name but rather to the challenge of knowing God well enough to pronounce God’s name. Regardless of Samaras’ intent, however, all of those meanings are layered into the first line. The poem continues with an explicit metaphor: “Your name, a cave of blue wind…” which extends through the sentence, until we reach its end, understanding that God’s name pulses in human veins and human blood. What is attractive to me about these lines, however, is the language and the imagery, words that invite my return until, hearing the ringing and drumming and lilting, I follow the language into its possibilities of meaning.

As this poem progresses toward its conclusion, the figurative language remains prominent, until in the penultimate sentence circles back to the imagery above:

…my words
are only the echo of you that rings within my soul, my soul
a cave of blue wind that houses the draft of you,
the eternal vowel of you I can’t wrap my mouth around.

God’s name is equivalent here to the human soul, each metaphorized as “a cave of blue wind.” and it is God, rather than the name of God, that is the “eternal vowel” here. Extending these figurative equivalencies, God is God’s name, and God’s name is the human soul, and so therefore God is the human soul. We want to be careful to avoid overinterpreting metaphor, but the theology of this poem is undeniably complex. The poem is not a treatise, however, and the reader’s primary task is not to untangle its logic. Rather, the reader surrenders to immersion in metaphor and image, the true pleasure of this text, and then perhaps considers the theology, patiently, curiously.

Some of the poems in this collection are overtly political. Others border on the mystical, though in contrast to some mystical writing, they are not impenetrable or hermetic. As with other types of writing, the mystical and the political form separate threads in this volume. Most readers, certainly those with a Christian background, will find all of the poems accessible. And like the Biblical psalms, American Psalm, World Psalm is most fruitfully read in small sections, a poem or two at a time, over the course of weeks rather than hours.

 

 

Review of I Watched You Disappear by Anya Krugovoy Silver

Silver coverAnya Krugovoy Silver. I Watched You Disappear. Louisiana State University Press, 2014. 73 pgs. $17.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Like many readers, I found Anya Krugovoy Silver’s first collection, The Ninety-Third Name of God, published in 2010, absolutely stunning. I waited impatiently for her next collection, I Watched You Disappear, and eagerly read it when it was published a few months ago. The two books share several themes, especially the speaker’s relationship with God and the effects of living with cancer. I Watched You Disappear is the more somber of the two, as the speaker’s community seems to absorb one death after another, and it more predominantly focuses on death and grief. This collection is more emotionally difficult because of death’s relentless hovering and so harder to read straight through, but the poems are just as accomplished and memorable as the ones in Silver’s first collection.

“Night Prayer,” the second poem in the collection, is stylistically representative of many of the poems in the book. At fourteen lines, it gestures toward the sonnet, with some iambic stretches in the lines though no absolute iambic pentameter, and with some near rhyme though no pattern of true rhyme. If there is a turn in this poem, it is slight and occurs after line ten, or maybe even line twelve, rather than following an octave. Still, the poem takes prayer as its subject, something that can be turned over and examined from multiple angles, relying on imagery and metaphor rather than narrative to drive it forward, and it concludes with a couplet (though the poem is arranged as one stanza) that clicks closed with the finality common to sonnets. Many of the lines seem to question not only the efficacy of prayer but also the existence of an always apparently silent audience. The poem opens this way:

I talk and talk and hear nothing back.
You who are neither voice, nor sign,
nor image. In answer to my pleas,
not the slightest flutter of humid air
or pause in cicadas’ raspy vespers.

According to this poem, prayer is what makes nothing happen. Not only does God fail to respond, but the speaker’s environment is so uniform from one minute to the next that she can’t interpret any event as a sign even if she’s determined to.

If nothing happens around the speaker, however, something does happen within the poem. The first line begins iambically, and it contains the near rhyme (or at least a sonic reference) of “talk” and “back.” With seven of its eight words being monosyllabic, this line sounds insistent, and the insistence carries into the first half of the next line. By sentence three, however, beginning in line three and carrying through line five, the pace slows, with softer sounds and substantially fewer monosyllables. Rather than the hard sound of “k” repeated three times, line five renders its meaning through the thrice-repeated “p.” Because Silver has slowed the pace, the reader becomes prepared for a more reflective consideration of the speaker’s experience, as eventually occurs. The next lines reproduce some of the sounds we notice in lines four and five:

No stutter of starlight, no pillow
slipped beneath my knees or swallow-
tail alighting on my waiting hands.

Line six develops through true alliteration—“stutter of starlight”—and moves into the closest example of true rhyme in the poem, “pillow” and “swallow.” In addition, “slipped” extends this section of the poem’s reliance on “p” and “l” to maintain the slower rhythm. In terms of content, the imagery reinforces the statements in lines one through three suggesting God’s absence. Because of its mastery of craft, the poem has been pleasurable to read throughout, but the final two lines provide the most satisfying surprise. I, at least, was expecting some sort of resignation if not outright anger from the speaker, but instead she closes with an acceptance that reminds us, through image as well as denotation, of her connection to God:

And what I speak remains traceless—
like a beetle’s breath, this Amen. 

The speaker’s words leave as little evidence of their existence as the God whom the poem addresses, and in this way the speaker resembles her audience; she is an “image” that was called absent in line three. Her last word, “Amen,” concluding the prayer, reinforces the speaker’s status as creature rather than would-be creator, as understanding and accepting her identity in terms of the divine.

A poem toward the end of the collection, “Portraits in the Country,” adopts a similar strategy at its conclusion. Several of the poems in this last section of the book are ekphrastic, and Silver provides an identification here: “Gustave Caillebotte, 1876.” The poem responds to Caillebotte’s painting, Portraits à la Campagne, in which four women relax in a park, doing needlework or reading. The speaker associates herself with them as she proceeds through time without the hurry or rush or busyness so characteristic of our era. Instead, she says,

I am shutting my ears to the hours,
to the bell tower’s quarterly reminder
that I should be doing something useful.

Usefulness can be valuable, but it does not constitute the total meaning of our lives. This speaker chooses attentiveness and meditation:

For death has come to our windows,
the preacher says, it has entered our palaces.
But I will not rush to push down my sash.
Instead, I will turn the leaf of my book.

Here, the speaker refuses to deny what she knows, death’s undeniable presence, but she also refuses to permit that knowledge to consume her. Again in these lines, Silver creates part of the effect through sound, here the repetition of “sh”: rush, push, sash. The poem would be perfectly fine it if concluded with this line, but Silver extends it with a surprising turn similar to the one in “Night Prayer”:

See with what gentle gravity God
lets it hover, in balance, then fall to its side.

These poems call their readers to share in their reflection. They don’t demand rereading as more elusive poems sometimes do; instead they invite rereading through the hospitality of the tone and language. Of course, now, I am looking forward to Silver’s next book. But I am also content to wait, for the poems we have already in her first two collections welcome our lingering.

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To propose a guest review or submit a book for review consideration, send a message to lynndomina (at) gmail.com.

 

 

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.