Review of Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky

 

Daniel Borzutzky. Lake Michigan. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 81 pgs. $15.85.

Daniel Borzutzky has published several collections of poetry and translations, and he’s won prestigious prizes, including the National Book Award. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll want to pick up his latest, Lake Michigan. If you’ve not yet read his poetry, you should begin now, with Lake Michigan. Although the book is organized into scenes and acts, the individual poems are each structured similarly—each line, long or short, a sentence, straightforward and devoid of punctuation. The book is inspired by an unbelievable and yet absolutely believable investigative report asserting that the Chicago police run a secret interrogation facility where they torture individuals into confession and where they can keep these individuals hidden from their families as well as from the (more public and documentable version of the) judicial system. Borzutzky’s stylistic choices reinforce his stark chilling content, though you may finish the book wishing you did not know the truths it reveals.

The collection opens with a prologue that captures Borzutzky’s tone and style as well as foreshadows the degree of implicit and explicit violence that will be described throughout the book. Here are the first few lines:

There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house asking questions about the boy they shot 22 times

There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house screaming about how the videotape of the shooting was covered up so the mayor could get reelected

And a police officer says down there where they live there was a shooting     you should be protesting that shooting     a 9-year-old boy was shot by a gangbanger     why aren’t you protesting that shooting     why are you only protesting this shooting

Another police officer wants to know why we are protesting this shooting when just yesterday there was a drive-by shooting in Rogers Park and two innocent bystanders were shot and one of them died

We don’t answer      instead we do a die-in in front of the mayor’s house and the camera crews from the nightly news stand above us as we lay stiff and motionless on the cold wet pavement

They shot the boy 22 times

Here in the prologue, the collective speaker understands how precariously we hold those things we claim to hold dear: democracy, equality under the law, basic human rights—as state-sponsored violence makes absolutely clear. While the questions the police ask are valid, and while every form of gun violence in the United States needs to be addressed, state-sponsored violence against citizens and other residents is qualitatively different from any other type of violence. State-sponsored violence reveals that we, especially if we are not white, have no rights, to paraphrase Justice Roger Taney, that the police are bound to respect.

The poems in this book, titled as scenes, range from two to five pages. The speakers are occasionally collective as in the prologue, though more often they are individuals or presumably omniscient figures external to the action in the poem. Despite the stylistic consistency, the poems hold the reader’s attention because the details are so chilling, and because the events narrated here have become so undeniably typical of American life.

This excerpt suggests that Lake Michigan is poetry of witness, which it is, challenging readers to position themselves among the witnesses who speak in this book. Individuals become witnesses because of what they observe, but more significantly because they testify to their observations. Neither witness nor testimony is served very well by the pensive lyric that has constituted the dominant mode of American poetry over the last few generations, so Borzutzky’s choice of this straightforward, almost non-poetic, form is strategic and effective.

Nevertheless, Borzutzky exploits elements of traditional poetic craft, sometimes by drawing the reader’s attention to what it cannot accomplish. Here are the first several lines of “Lake Michigan, Scene 10”:

The police shooting boys are like police shooting boys

And the nazis burning Jews are like nazis burning Jews

And the police protecting nazis are like police protecting nazis

And the prisoners who are tortured are like prisoners who are tortured

And the psychologists overseeing torture are like psychologists overseeing torture

And the mayor privatizing prisons is like the mayor privatizing prisons

And the rule of law being suspended is like the rule of law being suspended

And the broken prisoners on the beach are like broken prisoners on the beach

I dream I am pregnant and my baby is a revolutionary plan to destroy the global economy

And my baby is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth

And the disappearing public employees are like disappearing public employees

And the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner is like a puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner

Similes are insufficient; everything here can only be like what it is. Language can describe only what is. Attempts to imagine similarities between what is and what isn’t only dilute the horror of what is. Borzutzky extends this catalog nearly to its limit, shifting the rhythm slightly—by exaggerating the catalog even further—in line 10, just after he has interrupted the pattern in line nine. Subsequently, the poem shifts briefly into concrete imagery, “the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner,” before returning to the catalog of more straightforward violence, eventually linking these events to the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Virginia, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As the poem progresses, however, it distinguishes between witness and bystander, suggesting that the two roles are mutually exclusive. If readers begin to feel implicated here, the book has achieved one of its goals.

Lake Michigan is a serious and disturbing book. It is ambitious, not simply for the success of its art, but for the survival of the nation which has made it necessary.

 

Review of The Paraclete Poetry Anthology, edited by Mark S. Burrows

Mark S. Burrows, ed. The Paraclete Poetry Anthology. Paraclete Press, 2016. 188 pgs. $15.60.

Paraclete Press has, over the last few years, become one of the most prominent publishers of contemporary poetry emanating from the Christian tradition. Their list includes some of the finest poets writing today, and their production values mirror the quality of the literature. So it is no surprise that Mark S. Burrows, poetry editor at the press, has also edited an anthology featuring several of the poets they’ve published. Some of the poets featured here will be familiar to many readers, e.g. Scott Cairns, Paul Mariani, Rainer Maria Rilke; others will be familiar more likely through their writing in other genres, e.g. Phyllis Tickle, Thomas Lynch; others still may be new to many readers, e.g. Paul Quenon, Fr. John-Julian. In addition to Rilke, the book includes two other poets in translation, Anna Kamieńska and Said. Several other poets are well-published but not yet as known as they should be—Bonnie Thurston, Greg Miller, William Woolfitt, and Rami Shapiro. One of the most gratifying features of the book, though, is its inclusion of new work be each of the poets (with the exception of Phyllis Tickle), as well as poems from collections published by Paraclete.

I could easily devote several pages to discussions of each of these poets’ work. As with reviews of most anthologies, it’s nearly impossible to do justice to the collection by focusing on only one or two of the contributors, especially when they write in such different styles and examine such a range of topics—both good things in an anthology. In an attempt to suggest this collection’s range and also to write a review of reasonable length, however, I’ll discuss two poems by two quite different poets, trusting that readers will be intrigued enough by these examples to explore the book further.

William Woolfitt’s “Flat-Spired Three-Toothed Snail” functions on one level as a description of one creature’s difficult life during drought and on another as a metaphor for the speaker’s and perhaps reader’s own experience of spiritual dryness. The poem opens with a stanza describing the environment:

Dog days, shut sky, zero rain,
wood sorrel and lamb’s tongue
smell like hot pennies,
copper scorch. Tiny blazes almost
kindle in the leaf litter, almost
give off sputters of smoke.

This stanza succeeds for several reasons, but most particularly through its concrete language and strong rhythm. The metrical insistence of the first line, consisting of two consecutive spondees followed by one trochaic foot and a final accented syllable, is augmented by its hard consonant sounds. The second line slows down a bit, with its longer and softer sounds, but it retains sonic interest, opening and closing with spondees, though these are less obvious than the pair in line one. (This poem—like many of Woolfitt’s—is  written in comparatively regular stanzas, but it is not composed in a strict received form. It is clearly informed by metrical practice without being enslaved by it. I’m paying so much attention to Woolfitt’s attention to meter—or if not meter, at least rhythm—because one significant challenge of free verse is to retain music, a challenge Woolfitt meets particularly well.) Additional devices enhance the music—the consonance and alliteration of “blazes…kindle…leaf litter,” the assonance of “hot…copper scorch.” Such attention to craft keeps a reader reading, even when the reader believes she’s attending only to content.

The poem concludes with these affecting lines:

Three-tooth secretes his shell, shapes
its apex and spire-whorls, patches
the temple that houses him,
mixes his mortar from calcium
in the dark soil that he eats.

While objectively accurate, the details in this last stanza are also emotionally and symbolically evocative. Through feeding itself, the snail provides for its safety. Despite its arid and arduous environment, the snail, in doing what it was created to do, survives. Even in its driest season, the snail receives what it needs. I don’t think I will ever forget that final image, “the dark soil that he eats.”

The contributor whose style is perhaps most different from Woolfitt’s is Said. His longest poems are ten lines, and his lines frequently consist of only three or four words. In his earlier poems, he addresses God directly, and even his later poems, wherein the audience is less specific, read like prayers. Here is one of his poems (they are all untitled) in its entirety:

lord
you can pray to everything
that is near me
because I’ve given up my claim on
any privilege
so that I won’t be immobilized by my own light
and i ask you o lord
reveal all your names to me
even the last
the hidden

According to Islamic tradition, God has 99 names (though some sources suggest many more), with the 100th name hidden. The speaker here in asking to become acquainted with all of God’s names is asking to know God fully, to let nothing of God remain hidden, even the final name which is both hidden and “Hidden.” The speaker is humble, recognizing the possibility of being “immobilized by my own light,” that is, by the light of the created rather than of the creator. The poem begins peculiarly though, with the speaker it seems giving God permission to “pray to everything / that is near me.” Does God pray? If God prays, what would God pray to, or about, or for?

As a poem, this piece relies most on lineation to achieve its effect. The lines most often alternate between longer and shorter, so the rhythm speeds up and then slows down. Although nearly every line reproduces a grammatical unit, Said (or Burrows as his translator) nevertheless exploits line breaks so that meaning becomes augmented through the surprise of what comes next. To demonstrate how line breaks matter in free verse poetry, imagine that the second line broke after “pray” rather than after “everything.” The emphasis, the meaning, of the sentence would entirely shift, for a line like “to everything that is near me” suggesting a solipsism contrary to the poem’s purpose. At first glance, this poem looks simple, and its simplicity is part of its strength, but its simplicity is neither arbitrary nor easy to achieve.

The work of the other poets in the anthology are equally interesting. The representative sample of each poet’s work is large enough to pique any reader’s interest and to demonstrate the consistency of the poets’ styles and strengths. The book is a welcome introduction to Paraclete Press’ poetry list—I look forward to a second volume featuring their newer poets in a few years.

 

Review of The Canopy by Patricia Clark

Patricia Clark. The Canopy. Terrapin Books, 2017. 77 pgs. $16.00.

Patricia Clark’s most recent collection, The Canopy, is filled with nature—trees, birds, flowers—and with death—or perhaps not death so much as dying, or perhaps moreso the residue of death and dying. The poems are precise, attentive to the physical world, and poignant. The book’s thematic concerns—how astonishing the fact of life, how profound and yet also how slight the difference between being alive and no longer being alive—are effectively developed because of Clark’s reliance on the concrete. Readers are seduced into appreciating the world as it is and then reminded of how temporarily we inhabit it.

Clark introduces these themes cautiously. In the opening poem, “Knives on the Irish Air,” a prelude to the collection, the speaker hears the cry of her sister’s name called across the morning, but it is only as the book develops that readers come to understand why such a sound would so catch the speaker’s attention. Then the opening poem of the first section, “Balance, January,” seems less haunting than awe-struck and even a little humorous. Here is the poem in its entirety:

It’s stranger than you can account for,
being alive, a cold January morning and twenty
wild turkeys high up in white oaks,
their waking up stretches in half light—
first unbending out of a hunched ball, then
unfurling a wing, the second, while the broad
tail sticks out, flares, judders up and down.
Everyone says how stupid they are, will drown
when it rains simply by gazing up. I can’t
call them beautiful—but I grudgingly give them
credit for the way they balance on brittle thin
branches seemingly without fear. How to have
poise, to nestle down to rest on a fragile thing?

The first straightforward line turns on the following phrase, “being alive,” which leads us (or at least led me) to expect a meditation on transcendence, which this poem may in its own way be. The bigger surprise, though, comes after the next line break, “twenty” not a statement about temperature on this “cold January” day but leading instead to “wild turkeys.” Already, Clark has exploited the line break twice to suggest that this poem won’t go where readers expect. Ten of these thirteen lines are devoted to a detailed and lyrical description of these turkeys, each line both magnificently concrete and sonically attractive, even sometimes playful. The speaker earns the reader’s trust because she has been so attentive to her subject—how else to narrate a turkey’s early morning moves: “first unbending out of a hunched ball, then / unfurling a wing, the second, while the broad / tail sticks out, flares, judders up and down.” Rather than an object of ridicule, the turkey becomes almost glorious. The sounds as well as images in these lines draw out attention, first the short “u” in “unbending…hunched…unfurling” and then the series of accented syllables, “broad / tail sticks out, flares.” The spondee here, in the exact center of the poem, insists that we pay attention—and I love that later word, “judders.” In the following lines, the speaker steps back, commenting rather than describing, responding to human interpretations of the world rather than to the world’s opening up at dawn. Before the final question, she returns again to an alliterative image, “the way they balance on brittle thin / branches seemingly without fear.” This line recalls the poem’s title and reveals the lesson humans can learn even from such unlovely birds. “Balance” we’re so often told is desirable, but the more important detail here is that the turkeys claim their comfortable place in the world “without fear.” That’s what the speaker seems to envy, the turkeys’ acceptance of the world’s and their own fragility without any anxious grasping after security. “Balance, January” succeeds because Clark is careful with craft but also because the tone is both respectful and vulnerable. The speaker, we sense, is honest and so trustworthy.

A trustworthy speaker is essential when a poetry collection explores the fraught territory of grief. Near the end of the collection, “My Sister’s Earth Day” presents the occasion of grief much more directly. The poem begins with an environmental reference that alludes to global warming and hints toward an ominous future through its central image: “That it was Earth Day and still the leading / edges of an iceberg fell into the sea with a hiss.” The poem proceeds this way, primarily through sentence fragments, as if this transitional state between a body, a person, living and not living cannot be described with the grammatical fullness of a complete sentence. At its conclusion, the poem explores the mystery of our corporeal existence—we are so much more than our bodies, and yet without our bodies we seem entirely gone. The moment of death is presented directly, leaving the reader stunned:

And each of us, that we are not the body,
exactly, and yet through the skin, eyes,
hair, we love.

That the clothes are not the person, nor objects,
books. Memory is the fixative.

There she moves. There she stops breathing.

“My Sister’s Earth Day” is an exploration of grief and simultaneously an attempt to discover what it means exactly to be alive. We are alive as long as we are breathing perhaps, yet our bodies seem such poor representations of our selves. As Clark has stated in “Balance, January,” “It’s stranger than you can account for, / being alive.”

The poems in The Canopy are moving and memorable. Clark’s skill with craft means that she can present difficult material effectively, without overwrought angst or false notes along the way. The individual poems are arranged so that the collection’s power is cumulative. It’s a thoughtful collection that will invite its readers toward thoughtful responses.

 

 

 

 

Jo Pitkin. Rendering. Salmon Poetry, 2017. 80 pgs. $21.00.

Jo Pitkin’s most recent collection, Rendering, will challenge some readers—at least it did me—not because its references are unduly obscure or because its style is irritatingly inaccessible under the guise of experimentation, for neither of these qualities is true of the book, but because of some ethical choices the speaker makes. The poems in Rendering examine a love affair between the speaker and a married man. As a reader, my initial response to this fact was judgment rather than sympathy, yet Pitkin’s exploration of the relationship is so honest and full and avoidant of self-pity that I became increasingly sympathetic with the speaker, even though this relationship between a single woman and a married man ended just as many similar ones do. For the speaker, the operative word in the phrase “love affair” is “love,” and the relationship retains a permanent effect, as evidenced by the book’s arrangement into sections: “Before” (by far the shortest), “During,” “During,” “After,” “After,” “After,” “After.”

Most often for me, the success of a collection of poetry depends less on its content than on its craft. Most often, when I am additionally attracted to poetry because of its content, it’s because I already share an allegiance with or interest in the content. I am already, therefore, part of the author’s intended audience. Not so here—Pitkin needed to overcome my resistance to her content through her skill with craft, and that she did.

Here is “In Love,” the opening poem in the first “During” section, in its entirety:

Everything, everything—our afternoons,
the awful clock ticking on a nightstand,
the key to a room with its mirror and bureau,
the borrowed sheets, the beige drapes framing a view
of the thin river and the arched bridge,
the torn corner of the Daily Register,
the open copy of The End of the Affair,
the radio playing a Brahms piano trio,
the coffee mug marked with its copper ring,
the squat water glass clotted with red wine—
everything kept in that room’s narrow gallery
where we were never two but always three
has now resolved to dust and in motes flown by
yet quivers and pulses always in the mind’s eye.

This poem is reminiscent of a sonnet (if, like me, you define “sonnet” narrowly) and exploits several of the opportunities a sonnet provides. Many of the lines are almost yet not quite iambic and almost yet not quite pentameter. True rhyme occurs only with that absolute last click of the final couplet, but many of the other words occurring at the ends of the lines subtly echo each other. This choice is often the better one in contemporary American poetry, when regular true rhyme can so quickly become heavy-handed. We hear the muted echo of “afternoons,” for example, in both “bureau” and “view” and of “bridge” in “Register.” The meaning of “afternoons” is somewhat wittily contradicted by “nightstand” in the next line. Slight alliteration, assonance, and consonance occur throughout the poem, with “clock ticking, … key,” “borrowed …beige…bridge,” “beige drapes,” “torn corner,” “mug marked,” “coffee…clotted,” and other instances. The sonnet’s classic turn begins in line nine, as Pitkin begins to rely on the much harder consonant sounds and a more insistent monosyllabic rhythm than had occurred in the first eight lines. In terms of meaning, the turn takes full hold in line eleven, after the list of objects populating the room has concluded. Line eleven begins as did line one, with “everything,” and it concludes by describing the room as a “gallery,” not a place where events occur but where objects are displayed and observed. The next line contradicts readers’ expectations by manipulating a cliché. The more common description of lovers, especially when they marry, is two become one. Here, however, “we were never two but always three.” The two never have absolute privacy because of their constant awareness that their love forms a triangle, the third one perhaps excluded but never absent. The knowledge of the end of the relationship is never quite absent either, for even here at the beginning of “During,” everything becomes dust.

Two poems earlier, the speaker says that “Low dust devils skitter by. / Something sharp catches in my blue eye.” That uncomfortable sense is repeated here in “In Love,” though it is only the “mind’s eye” that perceives the dust. Yet the memory “quivers and pulses” as if still alive. This poem, accessible as its language is, is nevertheless dense with meaning. It succeeds on multiple levels, from individual word choice to theme.

Many of these poems demonstrate Pitkin’s skill with craft, and particularly her skill using and adapting received forms. She has clearly trained her ear as well as her eye. She understands the value of received forms as well as free verse, not simply well enough to compose in a variety of forms, but deeply enough to borrow some of a form’s expectations without bowing to their encumbrances through thoughtless obeisance. These poems benefit from Pitkin’s knowledge of the long tradition of received forms in English poetry, the increasingly long tradition of free verse, and the practice of inventing new forms by poets of every century. Throughout the late 20th century, “formal” and “free” were considered opposing terms, and most poets skilled in one tradition were inept in the other. We’ve passed through that moment. In the integration of these traditions lies the future, I suspect, of much American poetry.

 

Review of Mercy Songs by Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee

Mercy Songs. Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee. Diode Editions, 2016. 31 pgs. $12.00.

Mercy Songs is an unusual collaboration between brothers, Kai and Anders Carlson-Wee. The twenty-two poems alternate between the two authors—so it is the collection rather than the poems themselves that is collaborative—but thematically, imagistically, and even stylistically, the poems are closely linked. Many of the poems are composed in comparatively long lines arranged into a single extended stanza. The language is accessible yet sonically attractive. They are set on and around freight trains and railroad tracks, with the first-person speakers not exactly plural but often speaking of (if not as) “we” and poems written by each author referring to “my brother.” The concept and strategy of this chapbook is therefore (I think) unique, but its success depends on what every other collection depends on—the quality of the poems themselves.

The title poem (by Kai) opens with these sentences:
He heard them in the weight room, in the white
expanse of the courtyard covered in snow,
the way it reminded him always of Sundays,
waking up late in the empty apartment at noon,
pulling his socks on, holding a cold can
of Steele Reserve to his chest. He heard them
in the mess hall, in the empty machine shop walls,
the drone of the late-night stations on faith,
the pop of the ping-pong ball in the background,
the gorgeous prayers of Emmanuel Paine
when he really got going, when he drowned out
and slipped into tongue…

The title here, “Mercy Songs,” is crucial to understanding the poem, but what is most impressive is how the imagery becomes so auditory and how the word choice creates auditory impressions for the reader, until the reader begins to hear mercy songs in the language of the poem, just as the speaker hears them in the noises of the day. Many of the poems in this collection rely on alliteration as a primary aural device, the most extended example here being “pop of the ping-pong ball…prayers of Emmanuel Paine.” The poem becomes nearly a litany, but its rhythm and content are both so interesting because of the specificity of the list—“the weight room,” “the mess hall,” “the empty machine shop walls,” “the late night stations on faith,” which is the first overt reference to the religious content of traditional mercy songs. The list continues with items that seem ordinary until we come to “the high-pitched scuff of the bald guard’s boot.” This guard is

…The one who wore crosses
and belted out Lowly, My Savior and Sinnerman
the way Nina Simone had sung it live
at the Winterland Ballroom in ‘75…

The description of this guard occupies the center of the poem, which quickly returns to daily details until we reach the final transcendent sentence:

But mostly, he heard them in the private hours
of waiting to fall asleep, when everyone else was alone
in their dreams and the whole penitentiary seemed
to be floating, like one of those city-sized cruise ships
you take to the Arctic, or Cape of Good Hope,
or those Indian islands with lions and dragons
where pirates had one time divided their treasures
and slept in the mouths of caves.

We don’t absolutely know the setting for the poem until this last sentence, and it is here that readers understand why mercy songs might be so necessary. The speaker experiences this rare moment of privacy as he listens to the night noises while everyone else sleeps. The night is so peaceful that it almost feels free: “the whole penitentiary seemed / to be floating.” The references to lions and dragons and pirates make it seem almost magical until we remember that no, it’s a prison.

Many of the poems in Mercy Songs function this way, surrounding the harsh reality they describe with the pleasurable music of language.

The next poem, “Muscles in Their Throats,” (by Anders) contains a reference near its beginning that directly connects it to “Mercy Songs.” Initially, its content seems quite different from most of the other poems, but as the poem develops, it reveals its true subject: language. Here is the beginning:

The Neanderthals tracked mammoths through the snow.
Postholed twice between each of the creature’s
blue-hued prints. Peered down at the toe digs, hoping
for any fissures in the powder that might be a sign
of weakness. Nightmares larger than the caves
they slept in.

As soon as we reach that fifth sentence, we recognize that the two poems are connected, though not as obviously as the repeated reference to sleeping in caves might suggest. “Muscles in Their Throats” is not about imprisonment, though it may be about mercy. The speaker imagines these Neanderthals hunting, cooking, and eating, likely eating together, but “we don’t know for certain how much they could say / to each other.” Could they speak? Did they have language? In this, perhaps they are radically different from modern humans. But no, the poem suggests:

…It’s no different now. My brother
strips boughs off the wind-stunted pines at treeline
and stacks them on a boulder…

Our resemblance to Neanderthals doesn’t depend on their hypothetical ability to use language. Rather, our language does not solve our inability to communicate, even with someone as close as a brother. The middle third of the poem describes the speaker and his brother attempting to build a shelter. Then it returns to a consideration of Neanderthal anatomy, which suggests that it’s possible they did speak. We can’t know now, but perhaps soon we will: “When scientists / finish a life-size model of the esophagus, we’ll finally hear / what their voices must have sounded like.” This poem is thematically complex. It is skillfully crafted, like every other poem in the collection, which is a good thing because these writers have something to say.

Kai and Anders Carlson-Wee have mastered many of the strategies of poetic craft. For that reason, their work appeals to me as a poet. And the poems themselves are remarkably compassionate. For that reason, they appeal to me as a human being.

 

 

 

Review of Still Pilgrim by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review of The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir

Rajiv Mohabir. The Cowherd’s Son. Tupelo Press, 2017. 99 pgs. $16.95.

The Cowherd’s Son, Rajiv Mohabir’s second full-length collection, is filled with references to Hinduism and  India. Readers encounter Krishna, Sita, the Ganges river, Holi, Kolkata, curry, and henna—as well as colonialism, Coca Cola, New York City, and Hawaii. To many American readers, the collection will initially feel, therefore, remote or even alien (or worse, exotic), for though American culture has become increasingly diverse over the past two or three generations, it has also become profoundly secular. We may eat more tandoori or masala, more pad thai or pineapple fried rice, more falafel and tabouleh, but the average American’s knowledge of non-western religious traditions is probably not much more extensive than it was in 1950. Yet these poems are written with such precision—Mohabir’s attention to craft is so detailed—that readers will return, intrigued, even if they remain also for a time confused, because the language is so attractive.

Mohabir’s incorporation of traditional Indian cultural content succeeds because he treats it dynamically. Rather than simply describe Krishna or retell an ages-old story, he connects tradition to his speakers’ own lives. The past seeps into the present, for tradition is on the one hand explicitly concerned with time, connecting ancestors and descendants; yet tradition also transcends time, suggesting that these things we do and believe ever were and always shall be. Inasmuch as The Cowherd’s Son addresses and confronts tradition, therefore, it is about connection.

“Holi” opens with these couplets:

Coward, how can you warm your hands
so far from the Holika in flames?

Come closer and trace the subway and ship
lines in these palms. You gather embers

in your dustpan to light your own fire
and dream of the return of some god

who will pull you from this coolie history
unscathed,…

Holi is a Hindu spring festival, the festival of colors, which begins during one evening and continues through the next evening. As the festival opens, celebrants pray before a bonfire that evil will be destroyed, including their own evil, burned as the ancient figure Holika was burned. This poem relies on images of fire and heat, juxtaposing details of the tradition against details of modern life. The speaker is both being warmed by coals and in danger of being consumed by fire, unless “some god” pulls him “from this coolie history.” The poem develops through an accumulation of allusions to the Holi narrative, and then concludes:

Cowherd, can you pray, your tongue
so cleft, or do you eat the coals

to cauterize the mantras flapping
wild as cicadas in your hollow?

Look around at beauty cloaked
in orange. Everything you love

will one day burn.

This last sentence, which in another context might be read as a threat, is here reassuring instead. The cycle of living and dying will continue, and we will each be consumed. The poem shifts at the beginning of this second quotation, turning toward different questions and answers than the speaker had provided at the beginning. Yet the turn is not absolute, as we hear in the near repetition of “Coward” and “Cowherd.” “Cowherd” also opens onto a series of alliterative words—“can,” “cleft,” “coals,” “cauterize”—particularly attractive to the ear. The simile that follows, “wild as cicadas” (with the internal hard c in “cicadas” not technically alliterative but creating nearly the same sonic effect), initially strikes me as odd, for I don’t usually associate cicadas with wilderness. As I consider the simile further, I think also about the “mantras,” those words or phrases meant to keep us focused. How, or when, is a mantra like a cicada? Or, what happens when a mantra becomes undifferentiated noise? Isn’t that what mantras are intended to be, more sound than meaning?

The next line contains another alliterative hard c in “cloaked,” and this line break is especially effective, as the line suggests that beauty is disguised until we cross over the line break to the end of the sentence, “in orange.” We see again the beauty of flame. Everything will burn, but fire and smoke rise and disperse, becoming not nothing but a part of everything. The embers remain for a time, able to reignite the fire, just as cicadas seem to crawl from the earth, alive again after a period of dormancy. The language of this poem is beautiful, and its ideas are evocative. Attentive readers will mull it over, returning to it again and again, attracted by its refusal ever to have its meaning completely resolved.

Many of the poems in The Cowherd’s Son enact a similar puzzlement over meaning. “Cow Minah: Aji Tells a Story,” is structured in several sections, each section narrated in English and a patois. “My Name is a Map” is also arranged into four sections, each exploring connotations of one of the speaker’s names—“Paul,” “Raimie,” “Rajiv,” and “Mohabir” or “Mahabir.” “Mysterious Alembics” consists of eight brief sections of prose that together explore relationships among caste, sexuality, geography, family,  and language.

Reviewers often look for some weakness to cite, as if to prove our objectivity or our distance from the author. Here there are none. Individually, each of the poems in this collection compels rereading. Together, they present a complex portrait of a person whose position in the world seems unstable but only because it is so intricately layered.

 

 

Review of In the Volcano’s Mouth by Miriam Bird Greenberg

Miriam Bird Greenberg. In the Volcano’s Mouth. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 101 pgs. $15.95.

The poems in Miriam Bird Greenberg’s first full-length collection, In the Volcano’s Mouth, are compelling for both their content and craft, but be warned—the collection is not an easy read. There’s very little safety here, and what safety there is is temporary. The book explores implicit violence, threat, unease, with the reader becoming increasingly apprehensive.

An early poem, “Valediction,” explores the speaker’s childhood memory, of a mother, yes, but also of a much more sinister image. Referencing Octavio Paz, the poem begins,

My earliest memory

              is aboard a train, drowsing. My mother

covers my eyes

                             suddenly with her hand, startling

 

me awake. Light spills

              between her fingers, then a long shadow,

hanging from a pole.

                             Flag of civil

 

wars, swaying

              on its rope…

 

The poem begins comfortably, even nostalgically. But the nostalgia is a decoy, for although the mother does act protectively, the image that follows, “a long shadow, / handing from a pole” is horrifying. Greenberg’s attention to the line in this excerpt enhances the effects of the sentences. The second line, for example, reinforces the deceptive hint of nostalgia as “My mother” is positioned adjacently to the suggestive “drowsing.” Then the break between lines three and four, with “suddenly” introducing line four, contributes to the abrupt shift. Despite the mother’s attempt to shield her child, the speaker nevertheless glimpses the “long shadow.” The next line, “hanging from a pole,” one of the few in the poems where a line consists of a single complete grammatical unit, is as disturbing as it is in part because the stark phrase is isolated from other material. Greenberg’s next line—and stanza—break emphasizes the particular disruption of civil wars, when danger arises not from beyond borders but from within them.

The poem progresses through linked images until we reach the last couple sentences and stanzas. Soldiers, we are told

                                           lie

              asleep as animals

bedded down

                             at their tethers. One covers

 

the back of his neck

              with his hand, as if warding off a blow

in his sleep.

These concluding sentences recall the opening, when the speaker was nearly asleep and then startled awake in time to perceive the residue of violence. These lines suggest that the world contains no safe space, as even in sleep a man must settle into a posture of defense.

I admire how this poem proceeds, the experience conveyed subtly yet directly. Its format requires deliberate reading, which permits the content to unfold gently—if gentleness is not too paradoxical for the revelations that ensue.

Throughout In the Volcano’s Mouth, the poems are most often composed in short stanzas, particularly couplets, with some lines indented as in “Valediction” above. “How Loss Inhabits a Body” consists of twenty-three couplets followed by a final single line, with alternating lines indented. Its strategy, however, is quite different from “Valediction,” as it opens with a series of imaginative similes responding to the title:

Like your collar is always turned up.

              Like the wind twisting in your ears, conch

 

and cilia. Like the spine of the roof

              peering behind other roof-spines, green

 

with moss. Like waking up as someone

              else. Like when you’re having sex, but you’re not

 

quite you; you’re a German woman

              who can strip and clean an automatic weapon,

 

and reassemble it in the time it takes to fry an egg.

This poem opens suggestively enough, with loss compared to a chill. References to the body lead to a metaphor in which a body part becomes the vehicle rather than the tenor, “spine of the roof.” The most startling metaphor occurs a few lines later, “a German woman / who can strip and clean” not a bed but “an automatic weapon, / and reassemble it in the time it takes to fry an egg.” Here, Greenberg incorporates a more traditional domestic image, “fry an egg,” to emphasize the most undomestic of skills, “strip and clean an automatic weapon.” Juxtapositions like this typify Greenberg’s work. They keep the reader nearly constantly off balance, guarded against what might come next, just as the speaker and other characters are.

The poems in In the Volcano’s Mouth are not apocalyptic, but they are ominous. They are set not in the peaceable kingdom but in the bloody and carnivorous world we actually inhabit. This collection won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, an award it clearly deserves. Greenberg’s voice is already distinctive, and each of these poems calls out for multiple readings.

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.