Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review of Iron String by Annie Lighthart

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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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Review of The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward

Lockward coverDiane Lockward. The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. Wind Publications, 2013. 263 pgs. $20.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I didn’t know I was looking for Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, but I sure am glad I found it. I’ve benefited from Lockward’s newsletter and blog over the last few years; many of the poetry prompts featured in her newsletter have encouraged me to think about language differently—attentively, curiously, mischievously. Her newsletter is an act of generosity that few of us could sustain for as long as she has (though I assume she also has fun with it). I’ve written some poems I would never, ever, ever, ever have written without the challenge of her prompt. What I have appreciated about her prompts, and what I appreciate about the book, is the detail and complexity. She extends her prompt well beyond the first expected instruction; she assumes her audience consists of working poets.

Like many of us, I own many books on poetic craft, and I’ve found almost all of them useful in one way or another. But mostly these days I find them more helpful for my students than for my own work. Lockward’s prompts are challenging, though, because they’re inventive. And they’re inventive because she uses poems by other poets as the inspiration. She reads those poems carefully, noticing the elements that are just peculiar enough to intrigue writers who’ve been at it for a while.

The book is organized in ten chapters. Each chapter includes two or three “craft tips” from other writers, ranging from Kim Addonizio to Jane Hirschfield to Jeanne Marie Beaumont to Vern Rutsala and many others. Each craft tip is followed by a poem and a prompt inspired by that poem, followed by poems written by Lockward’s readers in response to the prompts. We see, therefore, not only that the prompts work, but that they inspire dramatically different poems by different writers. Each chapter also includes a feature called “The Poet on the Poem”; here, Lockward prints a poem and then interviews the poet about the composition of that poem. Then each chapter concludes with a “Bonus Prompt.” The Crafty Poet, in other words, is both craft book and anthology, but its unique characteristic is the direct relationship between the included poems and the exercises.

For example, in the chapter on “Voice,” Lockward begins with a poem, “Post Hoc,” by Jennifer Maier. “Post Hoc” plays with cliché to establish tone. It starts this way: “It happened because he looked a gift horse in the mouth. / It happened because he couldn’t get that monkey off his back. / It happened because she didn’t chew 22 times before swallowing. / What was she thinking, letting him walk home alone from the bus stop?” The poem uses enough repetition and variation to keep us engaged; it lets us think we know where the poem is going, and then it turns a corner we hadn’t anticipated. Toward the end of the poem, we read these lines: “Why, why, in God’s name, did he run with scissors? / If only they’d asked Jesus for help. / If only they’d asked their friends for help. / If only they’d ignored the advice of others and held fast / to their own convictions,…” The first instruction in Lockward’s prompt after this poem is just what we’d expect: brainstorm some clichés. We might even anticipate the second step: recall some pieces of advice. Many of us might stop with the combination of those two instructions. But Lockward’s prompt continues: “Use at least three different repeated sentence beginnings…” And “Use lots of questions and alternate them with declarative sentences.” And then finally, “You might use a different Latin phrase as your title.” The prompt is complex and contains enough different instructions that all of us could start somewhere—and all of us could be led where we might not otherwise go. This is what I mean when I say her prompts are both challenging and inventive. The sample poems that follow, by Kenneth Ronkowitz and Ingrid Wendt, illustrate how this prompt encourages both wit and reflection.

Even the craft tips are thoughtfully complex, much more than the word “tips” might imply. Wesley McNair offers not one but “Ten Tips for Breaking Lines in Free Verse.” Each tip focuses on a different purpose—meaning, rhythm, mood, shape. The final tip could be added to every piece of writerly advice: “Believe these tips and don’t believe them. Let the feeling life of your poem be the final authority.” Take seriously the insights of other writers, but not too seriously. Take seriously your own intentions for your work, but inform your intentions with the practices of others.

Reading through this book, I find myself torn by competing desires: to linger over many of the poems, and to rush to my desk to try the prompts. A book that inspires me to do more than is possible—what a good book that is. I’m glad The Crafty Poet found its way to my hands, and I’m looking forward to leafing through my notebook in a year or so, counting up the poems that owe their conception to this book.

Review of Life Work by Charlotte Mandel

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Charlotte Mandel. Life Work. David Robert Books. 2013. 97 pgs. $18.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Life Work, Charlotte Mandel’s eighth collection of poetry, is arranged into five sections, each one containing poems related either by content or form. The collection is, therefore, something like a compilation of chapbooks, and it illustrates the title’s suggestion—by including such a range of poems, the book does seem to represent a poet’s “life work.” Many of the poems are written in received forms, from sonnet sequences to pantoum to ghazal. Several of the poems are elegiac; others are ekphrastic. They describe the quotidian—a new mattress, an old sweater—as well as the majestic, both immanent and transcendent.

The first section contains several elegies to the speaker’s husband, often composed as sonnets. “Crossing the Calendar Bridge” is a sequence of three sonnets that trace grief’s evolution, eventually linking end to beginning. In a sense, it does begin at a beginning: New Year’s Eve, but it is the first New Year’s after her husband’s death, and the speaker recalls his New Year’s ritual, the recitation of a sentence which now can never again be true: “Lucky us, we’ve earned / another year.” By the end of this sonnet, she imagines him waiting for her with a “welcoming embrace”; the next sonnet begins, “I did not always welcome his embrace.” So this middle of the three sonnets explores some challenges and rewards of marriage. The final sonnet of these three returns to grief, and it is the most formally intriguing of the three. In the second sonnet, the speaker had referred to the match between herself and her husband as “rhymes” that “were true or near or simply free.” The rhymes in these sonnets are as often near as they are true, and at times they border on free. In the third sonnet, the rhymes are almost never exact. As the poem nears its concluding couplet, however, its attention turns to language itself as a factor in experience. Mandel says: “Get past the calendar, switch off the screen / stop conjugating ‘is’ as ‘might have been.’ // Yet how to tell the poem ‘don’t reminisce’ / all moments lived are sparks to genesis.” On the one hand, the speaker encourages herself to receive the present as it is rather than interpreting it as absence. Yet she also addresses a conundrum—how to convey the difference between what was and what is without reminiscing. As we reach the final line, however, the rhyme—reminisce/genesis—delights us. We are surprised by what the form can do, and so we pause—as we would at the concluding couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet anyway, or as we would at the concluding line of any poem—but here we pause to consider the truth that this rhyme forces: everything does lead to beginning, whether that is the beginning or a (perhaps new) beginning. “Sparks” here is a particularly interesting noun, especially as they are not sparks from but to genesis. That aspect of ourselves that is life, that spark brightening for a moment before it dies away, does connect us to the beginning. The poem works in part because it leads not where we would expect, to an end, but instead it chooses to end with beginning.

I’ll discuss only one other poem, this one written a bit more freely than a sonnet demands, yet not entirely in free verse either. “Flood Washed” is written in energetic syllabics and describes a snake, already dead on the sidewalk, which serves to recall an earlier snake killed by the speaker’s husband. The poem is composed in couplets. In the first several, the first line consists of nine syllables while the second line consists of three. Eventually, the pattern is reduced to lines of eight and three syllables, then seven and three, then again eight and three. The speaker is attracted to the snake’s beauty, linking it to creative desire: “Who framed you, the visionary / poet asks— // from whence comes this earthly design / built into // matter’s insistent desire: In / all things, form.” A snake can seem oddly formless, and yet its length curls into forms as patterns of scales create forms of its skin. If not all pattern and form create beauty, beauty nevertheless requires pattern and form. In concluding with the word “form,” the poem itself testifies to the beauty of its own structure, and it confirms the beauty of form in much of the rest of the collection.

I often find contemporary poetry written in received forms a little heavy-handed; I hear the metrical rhythms too definitely. The rhythms of Charlotte Mandel’s poems are refreshingly subtle, often nearly natural. I appreciate poems written in received forms most when my recognition of the form is secondary to my appreciation of the whole, as it is throughout Life Work.

Review of The Storehouses of Snow: Psalms, Parables and Dreams by Philip Memmer

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Philip Memmer. The Storehouses of Snow: Psalms, Parables and Dreams. Lost Horse Press. 2012. 67 pgs. $15.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

We’re fine with dreams, most of us, but who will say what a psalm is, or what a parable does? Psalms in the Bible, of course, address God and are often attributed to King David; sometimes they curse enemies, and sometimes they praise creation. Sometimes the speaker moans about his sorry state before cursing enemies or praising creation. Parables seem to be straightforward enough, once we’ve read Jesus’ explanation—but then sometimes we take another look and say hey, wait a minute. There are other interpretations too. Parables are slippery creatures, never quite securely within our grasp. And along with its psalms and parables, the Bible is full of dreams, though not the kind of dreams we describe today. Biblical dreams are never silly; they’re often seeking an interpreter; they’re always prophetic. So what is Philip Memmer doing in his fourth collection, The Storehouses of Snow, whose contents consist entirely of pieces labeled “dream,” “psalm,” or “parable”?

When I read Memmer’s Lucifer: A Hagiography a few years ago, I was astonished. He’d taken a character I thought I knew well enough  and revised him sympathetically. Although he provocatively called that book a hagiography, it also reads like an extended parable, for it is a story we want to keep turning over in our minds, understanding more and differently each time. The Storehouses of Snow is equally rewarding, though structured very differently. It begins with a piece called “Psalm” that functions as a preface, then contains eight sections, each consisting of three parts, a “Psalm,” a “Dream,” and a “Parable,” not always in the same order. Between sections four and five, he places another single “Psalm,” and the collection concludes with another “Psalm.” Each of these pieces takes our conventional notions of the form and adapts it to a 21st century psyche, inevitably informed by at least as much skepticism as belief.

The opening psalm challenges us to consider the relationship between ourselves and our belief—perhaps the two words, “self” and “belief,” are after all just synonyms; perhaps the symbol that links them is just an equal sign. Or perhaps it’s desire that corresponds to belief, and meaning is simply projected desire. This psalm consists of three short stanzas (every poem in the book relies on this pattern of tercets, an opening line followed by two indented lines). I’ll quote the second two stanzas: “I can tell myself I see you, / until I realize / that I face you // with both eyes shut, and the dazzle / I might have called truth is / my own bright blood.” As a preface, this poem seems to warn us not to put too much faith in, well, faith. Such would seem to be the end of it, if the entire book that follows didn’t also address this “you.”

Many of the psalms here invite consideration, discussion, pondering. They include memorable lines: “Because you are always ceasing / to be, and then ceasing / to cease to be” and “How, Lord, could you have created / a creature such as me, / enamored with // (of all the things here in this world) / the freshness of a field / of new asphalt?” and “looking down / through December // to this one mystery floating / so cheerfully towards / its own melting…,” this last from the title poem. Their language both replicates Biblical language and reads as entirely contemporary.

The poems that intrigue me most, however, are the parables. They captivate as riddles do, each solution a surprise. In one, a row of houses is broken into by thieves. The parable begins with a generalized situation, as parables are prone to do: “There was a street.” The first two thieves do what we expect thieves to do—they break windows and locks, hunting for valuables. But they leave empty handed because they find nothing of interest. The third thief, however, walks in through an open door and claims the house as his own. And then, the poem concludes, “like this man—and though / you will always // be a thief in your heart—you must / find the kingdom empty, / then make it yours.” Perhaps this parable reflects the opening psalm, in which we see only our own blood but call it glorious. Even so, this parable suggests that we can make a kingdom of emptiness. The poem is as successful as it is because the final turn, beginning in the penultimate stanza, transforms it from a simple story to an invitation to perceive ourselves anew, with understanding and compassion. In the final parable in the book, three voices sit before a teller, each voice hoping for favor. They are Lie, Truth, and Story. The teller lies on his deathbed, and distinctions among the three voices fade. After the teller does die, the three share his heart: “for the last time, / in their terrible greed, / they devoured it.” But before this moment, when the three notice that the teller has died, they interpret the event according to their own preferences: “He’s better off, sighed Lie. / And in his sleep, // smiled Truth. Story said nothing…” But Story does say something eventually, “There once / was a man…” Story seems to have the last word, converting the teller into a story, one that resembles a parable in its opening. Is every story a parable, every last word a riddle? Perhaps. We are left to make our own kingdoms of—no, not emptiness—but language, which insists on meaning.

As for the dreams, they too are provocative. I encourage you to read the book and discover them for yourselves.


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