Monthly Archives: June 2017

Review of Les Fauves by Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker. Les Fauves. C & R Press, 2017. 75 pgs. $16.00.

Barbara Crooker’s most recent collection, Les Fauves, considers two primary subjects—visual art and language. Those subjects are admittedly broad, but her approach narrows them considerably. The book is arranged into four sections, with the first and fourth primarily exploring specific paintings by artists like Matisse and Van Gogh while the second and third consist of poems whose forms depend on language play or that respond to peculiarities of language in daily life. Initially, these two sources of material might seem decidedly distinct, but it is the notion of play that connects them. One of the early poems quotes Gauguin: “if you see / a tree as blue, make it blue.” Painting, even representational painting, need not be absolutely realistic, any more than language guarantees any absolute identification between signifier and signified. These poems have encouraged me to think about painting differently, and they’ve also offered me a lot of fun.

The second poem in the collection, “Odalisque avec Anémones, 1937,” demonstrates much of what Crooker does best in this collection. It opens with these lines:

Delacroix said Banish all earth colors, and Matisse
took this to heart, not a smear of clay, dirt or sand
anywhere in this painting. Anemones—red, orange, purple—
drape themselves in front of the woman lounging
on the divan, her red-striped yellow wrapper falling open.

The comparatively long lines here, typical of many of the poems in the collection, permit Crooker to exploit opportunities that distinguish poetry from prose. Beginning and ending the first line with painters’ names, for example, emphasizes the significance of the artist, and it also defers the reader’s satisfaction—will Matisse accept this advice regarding color or not? The second line with its string of monosyllables adopts an interesting rhythm (one other line in the poem consists exclusively of monosyllabic words, but its rhythm is entirely different, a fact attentive readers will find pleasurable). The third line enacts what I most appreciate about the poetic line; it augments the meaning of the sentences. The first sentence means that no “earth colors” appear in Matisse’s painting; the second sentence shifts to the bright anemones and their positions vis-à-vis the woman. The line, however, suggests the additional possibility that the anemones fill the painting. Ekphrastic poetry presents particular challenges regarding visual imagery—it’s almost impossible for a poem to be as visually stimulating as a painting—but Crooker rises to that challenge throughout the collection, and as these lines demonstrate, she also attends to elements of poetic craft that visual art cannot provide.

Midway through the poem, the subject shifts from the painting itself to the speaker and a companion. Crooker creates a series of images reliant on the color yellow, beginning with line five above, and leading to a moment in a café where she experiences unexpected happiness:

the one with the surly waiter in the striped jersey
who wouldn’t bring us bread, then brought us the wrong wine.
But the day was warm, and our lunch, when it came—
grilled sardines drizzled with oil—was just what we wanted,
and we were happy in the sun on the white wicker chairs,
something blooming in my heart, anemones
spilling from their vase.

I enjoy the sonic effects of these lines, particularly the assonance, alliteration, and repeated anapests.  But even more I appreciate how these concluding lines return so satisfyingly to the poem’s opening. The shift in subject that occurs in the center of the poem develops naturally and would have been enough of an ekphrastic response, but the last two lines, risking sentimentality as Richard Hugo says we must without collapsing into it, elevate the poem’s accomplishment. We’ve almost forgotten the anemones until, ah, there they are again.

A few pages later, we come to “Les Boulangers,” one of the most exuberant poems in the collection. The poem is a celebration of that most ordinary and delicious substance, bread. It begins with an appreciation of those most responsible for bringing it to us, the bakers, and proceeds quickly to a litany of thanksgiving for its wonderful variety:

Blessed be the breadmakers of la belle France
who rise before dawn to plunge their arms
into great tubs of dough. Blessed be the yeast
and its amazing redoubling. Praise the nimble
tongues of those who gave names to this plenty:
baguette, boule, brioche, ficelle, pain de campagne.

With its focus on language, this poem might have been placed in section two or three of the collection, but it more appropriately belongs where it is, among others set in France. Crooker’s skill is particularly evident in this poem, with the alliteration in lines one and six, the pun on “rise” in line two, the variation in placement of “Blessed” (a variation which continues in later lines), and the shift from “blessed” to “praise” to keep the list engaging. As the poem reaches its conclusion, having blessed every possible aspect of bread, including butter and crumbs, the focus shifts, demonstrating the surprising suggestion that praise is characteristic of humility: “And bless us, too, O my brothers, / for we have sinned, and we are truly hungry.”

This poem is truly pleasurable to read, and I imagine it would be even more pleasurable to hear read. I hope I have that chance.

There’s much more to say about Les Fauves. That’s the thing with good books—you just want to keep talking about them. But you also want to return and reread, and that’s what I shall do now.

Review of Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November

Yehoshua November. Two Worlds Exist. Orison Books, 2016. 76 pgs. $16.00.

Yehoshua November’s second collection, Two Worlds Exist, resembles his first, God’s Optimism, in terms of the ease with which the life of faith is integrated with the life of poetry. As we move further into the twenty-first century, religious belief has both declined substantially and continues to be contentious. Poetry—or any literary writing—which takes faith seriously must confront two temptations, to ignore the secular world and become pietistic, or to prioritize the secular world and become defensive. Neither of these stances is good for literature, and fortunately, November evades them both. He writes of his faith tradition as naturally as he writes of his children, his ancestry, his teaching.

Several of the poems address November’s young daughter’s hearing loss. He grieves that circumstance with the desperation common to parents who wish only to protect their children. He contextualizes the poems describing that experience by writing about one of his father’s more extreme parental losses in “Conjoined Twins.” November’s father was a physician whose wife had just delivered stillborn conjoined twins, “Two bodies / and one heart.” Other physicians plan to use the bodies of these infants as an opportunity for teaching, so

Early the next morning, another Jewish resident
stood over the bodies with my father,
performed the ritual circumcisions in the silence
of an unoccupied delivery room.
“Choose names you would not otherwise use,”
the rabbi had instructed on the phone.

What should have been a joyous occasions has become somber, one whose meaning is unclear, even to the faithful and scientifically trained father. The rabbi drives the father from his faith with the age-old suggestion that evil visits those who lack sufficient faith. The poem, though suggests a different interpretation, one which situates these boys imagistically within their tradition:

“I looked quickly
and saw them embracing,”
my mother later said
of the two boys, who were to be born
between Purim and Passover.

One was named Mordechai,
who gathered all the Jews
when they thought they had been forsaken.
And one was named Pesach,
the holiday when all Jews,
even idol worshippers,
were freed,
as long as they desired to go.

And they left their bondage
and arrived at the mountain
where, the Midrash states,
they camped in the desert
like one man
with one heart.

A poet’s interpretation of events does not rest in explanation but in description, in representation, in the image. Poets gather meaning from the concrete, as November does here. He may not have been able to satisfy his father’s desire to know why any more fully than the rabbi had, but he is able to use his poet’s attention to interpret the event very differently, placing the boys within the very foundation of Jewish tradition, the freedom marked by Passover.

Other poems are more joyous. November includes several that recall his first sighting of and experience falling in love with his wife. In these poems, he recognizes the sacredness of marriage, of one soul’s longing for another, but he also recognizes that body and soul are complementary, each allowing the other insight into our human existence. In “The Life of Body and Soul,” November links his own life to Chassidic tradition and to scriptural interpretation. “Yaakov is the soul, and Aisav is the body,” he says, and then recalls a recording he’d heard years before:

I heard a crackling silence,
and then an old rabbi said, The soul
is God’s greatest opponent. It wants
always to break free of the body,
leaving the world barren of holiness.

In dualistic religious traditions that separate body from soul, interpreting them as opposing forces, we are so often taught that it is the body that craves, that carnal experience leads us to sin, that purity resides in the soul. So it is startling to read, as I imagine it was to hear, that the soul craves too, and that holiness enters creation through incarnation.

After the reference to the world’s barrenness above, November alludes to the story of Hannah praying for a son before turning to his own desire:

And the laws of prayer mirror her prayer—
her desire reflecting His desire
for the life of souls in bodies.
And, sometimes, the mystics say, the body’s desire
is really the soul calling out from underneath—
Yaakov reaching into the world
with Aisav’s hands
for the lot the soul has descended to sanctify.
And always, that ascetic, the soul’s high priest,
mistakes the body’s desires for nothing more.
So that when, for example, I saw you standing
at the soda machine in college, and my body was awoken,
the high priest of my soul,
having just returned from a year in the Holy Land, said,
This is just a young man’s desire
for a young woman with long dark hair.
But in the body’s version, there are five Jewish children
and our life together.

“The body’s version” exceeds the body. “A young man’s desire,” like Hannah’s desire, reproduces God’s desire for creation. I appreciate this poem for its insights, but also for its tone. As the poem explores its subject, observing body and soul from multiple angles, it produces its own insights. Its subject is revealed as the poem unfolds, as gratifying to the writer, I suspect, as to the reader. The best poets explore questions rather than provide definitive answers, and this is what November does here.

Yehoshua November is an extraordinary poet whose books are worth waiting for, but I hope not to have to wait very long for the next one.


Review of Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry. Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. 143 pgs. $21.95.

One of the pleasures of following Kelly Cherry’s work is that it’s so varied—every book explores new territory. She has written in multiple genres about topics that fall within numerous academic disciplines. She seems to surrender to her obsessions, permitting them to lead her where they will. Her latest collection, Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer, benefits from the range of her interests, as it does from her discipline as a writer, for with this book she has set herself an intriguing challenge. On its most obvious level, the book functions as a poetic biography of its title character, but it reveals the character of Oppenheimer and the experience of his times through references to T.S. Eliot and his own quartets, and to The Aeneid, as well as many others. Cherry structures the book as a modern epic, though one developed through lyric as much as narrative. The individual poems, though not always written in received forms, contain sufficient echoes and instances of meter to feel regular. Cherry’s skill with craft, in other words, permits her to weld formal to free so as to almost create a hybrid of the two.

The opening poem invokes the muse in the manner of Homer or Virgil, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously: “Invoke a muse? How quaint.” However, Cherry also suggests that those of us modern writers  who consider a muse as little more than a conceit might want to rethink our attitude: “But is it quaint, / considering that words appear upon / the page almost before one’s thought of them.” She’s right, of course; when the writing’s going well, it often does feel as though something beyond our consciousness is guiding our hand. This invocation adheres to the tradition, asking for the right words not to bring the poet glory but in order to praise the epic hero appropriately, to honor “a man, if not his killing weapons.” A challenge for writers who wish to bring an old form, especially one that has been nearly abandoned by contemporary writers, into a modern context is to decide which of its elements to retain and which to relinquish. Cherry addresses that issue already in her invocation, asking to praise the book’s hero without glorifying war. The ethics of a national poet, if that is what the creator of an epic is, have changed in the millennia between the classical period and our own.

Undoubtedly because of my own readerly training, I found the poems that imagine Oppenheimer’s emotional life most compelling. The first section of the book traces Oppenheimer’s childhood and young adulthood, as he begins to reconcile himself to his difference from others. The opening of “East and West” provides an example of Cherry’s approach:

Hard-working German Jews on the Upper West Side
put distance between themselves and the Ostjuden,
who, they thought, were too Jewish, redolent
of shtetls and ghettos.

The strange off-rhyme of “shtetls” and “ghettos” catches my attention first, along with the assonance of those words and “redolent.” But even in the first line, we notice the assonance of “working German” and the alliteration of “German” and “Jews.” What’s particularly intriguing about these choices is that the similar sounds are most often not reproduced in the spelling, the soft “G” in “German,” for instance, alliterating with the “J” in “Jews, or the “or” in “working” creating assonance with the “er” in “German.” The reader’s ear is challenged to do all of the work rather than sharing it with his or her eye. The music is more surprising than it would be if we could see it coming, and that surprise offers bonus delight.

Cherry brings Oppenheimer into this poem in its second half. He was the son of one of these embarrassing new interlopers, but maturity is accompanied by perspective:

like Mark Twain, he discovered that the old guy
had somehow learned a helluva lot, and then
belated love for the father flourished in the son’s heart.

The shift in diction catches the reader’s attention here—another instance of the poet not taking herself too seriously—and the casual vocabulary protects the last line from sentimentality.

The last poem in the collection, “Ashes and Stardust,” is both transcendent and realistic. Oppenheimer has died, along with most of his generation and many of later generations. Each of us is here and then gone. That fact, however, does not evacuate life of its meaning. As the poem says, some leave evidence of themselves in books or art or scientific discoveries, but most do not. Most people loved at least one other person during their lives, and many of us love many others, but evidence of that love disappears eventually too. Surrender to nihilism is tempting here, especially given the book’s focus on a discovery that has made immense destruction possible, but the poem concludes more compassionately: “We are here and then nowhere. Not there. Not there.” This line doesn’t suggest resignation as much as it does mystery. Even with all of the knowledge Oppenheimer acquired and created, even with all of the knowledge required for this book to have been possible, that mystery remains.

A thorough discussion of Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer would take pages and pages more. There’s much to be discovered in it. It is erudite and it is allusive without being at all pedantic. It is a book that could only have been written in our time, not simply because of its subject but also because of its ability to praise and critique simultaneously, to reference generic conventions without being bound by them, and to tease the reader with its shifts in levels of discourse. It is a book that deserves to be read, yes, but also engaged with, discussed, analyzed, and argued about. I hope I’ll be able to meet up with some of its other readers to do just that.