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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Review of Communion of Saints by Susan L. Miller

Susan L. Miller. Communion of Saints. Paraclete Press, 2017. $18.00.

Communion of Saints, Susan L. Miller’s first collection, is arranged into four sections, “Faith,” “Hope,” “Love,” and “Pax et Bonum,” a phrase which translates as “peace and all good” and is particularly associated with Francis of Assisi and Franciscans. This last section contains poems inspired by a pilgrimage the author took to Assisi. The other three sections consist primarily of poems connected by a conceit—their titles link an acquaintance of the speaker with a saint, e.g. “Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia” or “Portrait of Ann as St. Stephen, Martyr.” This device could grow old, functioning more as a gimmick than a driving force. Fortunately, Miller knows what she is doing; the links between the titular figures are neither superficial nor simplistic; the appropriateness of the figurative identities is revealed gradually and emerges from the details of their lives. Miller does provide notes identifying pertinent details regarding the saints, but the poems could, in fact, be read without any prior knowledge, though familiarity with the saints’ lives certainly deepens appreciation of the poems. Some of the saints she mentions—St. Francis, St. John the Baptist—will be familiar to almost any reader; others—St. Agnes, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bonaventure—will be familiar to most devout Catholics; a few—St. Roch, St. Pascual Baylon—might be entirely unfamiliar to almost all readers. Yet the poems do what literature does best, make the readers want to know more.

The collection opens with a poem placed as prologue, “Manual for the Would-Be Saint.” Miller provides instructions that apply to the dailiness of what it means to be human, those moments when so much harm can be done, as well as to those experiences of transcendence we so often associate with saintliness. Here are the opening lines:

The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.
The fourth is the dark night; the fifth
a subtle scent of smoke and pine.
The sixth is awareness of our duties,
the burnt offering of our own pride.
Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.

These lines illustrate both Miller’s perception of saintliness and her attention to craft. Some of the lines allude to Biblical language or to writings of saints, “the dark night,” “burnt offering,” “pray without ceasing.” Even in these lines, though, she suggests that holiness occurs through actions that might be more difficult than we anticipate; the “burnt offering” we are called to offer is not a sacrificial animal but “our own pride.” Other lines suggest that these saintly qualities occur in the context of incarnation; human life is imminent as well as, we hope, transcendent: “a subtle scent of smoke and pine.”

The content of  this poem is thought-provoking and will easily appeal to readers invested in spirituality; the form offers lessons to any poet invested in craft. Of these nine lines, seven are end-stopped; of the entire poem’s twenty-six lines, in fact, nineteen are end-stopped. Yet the rhythm varies significantly from one line to the next, primarily because Miller includes caesuras at different points in the lines. In line one, the caesura occurs between syllables five and six; in the second, it occurs between syllables three and four; and in the third, it occurs after the first syllable. Miller achieves this by relying on modest anaphora, the suggestion of repetition without its full weight—“The first principle,” “The second,” “Third.” By the time we reach line five, Miller begins and ends the line with the numeric signals, “The fourth” and “the fifth.” Miller’s strategies throughout these lines permits her to exploit syntactic devices without risking monotony.

Just when Miller has extended this strategy about as far as it can be extended, the poem shifts direction again:

Eighteenth, we enter the stranger’s city
at the mercy of the stranger’s hand.
Nineteenth, love flees the body,
and the spirit leaves its husk. And suddenly
the numbers do not matter: nothing that is matter
matters anymore: all is burned, all is born,
all is carried away in the wind.

This conclusion is satisfying on several levels. It demonstrates that all of these instructions, expected and unexpected, have been leading toward something greater. Miller plays with language, punning on “matter,” that substance we often mistake for the opposite of spirit. And finally, the imagery suggests that the way to sainthood transcends not only “matter” but also religious distinctions, for those last two lines could have as easily been spoken by a Hindu or a Buddhist. Sainthood it seems according to this “Manual” is not achieved so much as simply experienced.

Perhaps this is one reason why Miller is able to ally so many of her acquaintances with saints. In “Portrait of Evie as St. Martin de Porres,” she describes her friend and colleague, the poet Evie Shockley, speaking with commitment and grace, revealing that power can reside apart from domination:

….And she writes, we too: specific,
in every hue, the human family emerges and recedes
like the patterns behind eyelids when I close

my eyes. San Martin taught this kind of grace:
when called by royalty to heal the sick, he arrived,
knelt, and queried, Why would a prince have need

to call on a mulatto, a poor friar like me? Then,
knowing his powers exceeded anyone’s
in that room, he laid his hand on the man’s flesh

and healed him.

The line breaks in the last full stanza are particularly effective. We pause after “Then,” lending the syllable additional weight, until the “poor friar” does what he has come to do.  Breaking the next line between “anyone’s” and “in that room” permits the prepositional phrase to do double duty—St. Martin has more power than anyone in the room, and it is also “in that room” that “he laid his hand on the man’s flesh // and healed him.” Miller doesn’t often indent lines as she does with the final one here, but the additional pause reinforces the effect of the saint’s action. We are left with the suggestion that St. Martin might have healed the prince more fully than the prince had hoped. He is presumably healed of his physical illness but perhaps he is also healed of the spiritual wounds that encourage him to draw distinctions between himself, the prince, and St. Martin, the mulatto.

Miller’s poems are ambitious, perhaps even more so collectively than they are individually. They show us what poetry can do, encouraging us to notice grace-filled people in this grace-filled world.

 

Review of The Goddess Monologues by Vandana Khanna

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

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rewind, start the story over?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes by Cheryl Dumesnil

Cheryl Dumesnil. Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 90 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Let me just say right off the bat that Cheryl Dumesnil’s Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes is among my favorite collections from the last few years. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and this is what I’ve come to: the writer’s confidence in her voice. These poems are tight but accessible. Every word pulls its weight—so often in less accomplished poems, the language is hesitant, characterized by a few too many modifiers and imprecise verbs that flatten the lines. Dumesnil’s poems, in contrast, are pleasurable, occasionally because they’re overtly fun and funny, but more often because they present experience exactly and concisely. It’s not just their content but their aesthetics that reward the reader.

Most often, these poems are composed in couplets, a particularly rigorous form because the abundant white space highlights lax writing. Poems written in couplets can be spare, reinforcing their stark appearance, or they can be almost hyperbolically rich, in ironic contrast to their appearance on the page, but it’s difficult for them to succeed at any point between. Poets can get away with more in long dense stanzas than they can in briefer stanzas that will never be mistaken for paragraphs.

“Notes to Myself on the Morning after His Birth,” for example, gestures toward the catalogue, but the items it refers to are developed so fully through imagery and implied metaphor that it quickly surpasses the expectations of that form. Having just given birth, the speaker hopes to remember everything, what it felt like to notice her son’s skin, breath, aroma for the first time. She captures that paradoxical combination of awe and loss that occurs so frequently to parents:

…his body’s
plumpness in the first hours,

like a cake’s perfect rise held only
for a moment, as if on the breath

of god before the exhale—you will
never get that back. Nor will it ever

leave you.

Although she will witness the miracle of her son’s breathing over and over again, she will never again be quite as stunned by the experience. The structure of this poem enhances the reader’s experience, partly because the couplets seem to float on the whiteness of the page, but also through the frequent enjambment which encourages the reader to hesitate, wondering if the meaning of the line  will shift after the break. In the excerpt above, the enjambment sometimes reproduces the meaning of the sentence, as in “held only / for a moment” where the reader pauses just as the breath is held briefly at its peak. The next line break accomplishes something similar, the baby’s breathing held “as if on the breath // of god…” Dumesnil emphasizes the subject of these lines—breathing—by breaking the line and stanza after “breath,” separating that phrase briefly from its object, “of god,” a phrase that heightens the significance of the infant’s breathing to the universally sacred. Then, the next break works differently: “you will / never get that back.” Initially, “you will” seems to gesture toward a positive accomplishment, and it is only as the next line begins that we realize the grammatical move into future tense signifies loss. But not complete loss—although the speaker will never again experience this awe in exactly the same way, the subsequent line confirms that she will always remember it.

The most poignant lines occur a few stanzas later, as the speaker begins to understand how radically her life has changed: “Mama, he warned, / you have signed on to witness / / a daily parade of exquisite / losses.” Parenting includes many experiences beyond this witness, but it never occurs entirely apart from this witness.

Throughout this collection, the speaker pays close attention to the world. In “The Flock,” for instance, Dumesnil asks, “If a house sparrow arrives on my sill, / sprig of language pinched in her beak, who am I / / to tell her no?” The “sprig of language” is one of the most evocative metaphors in the book, exploiting the habit of birds to carry literal sprigs in their beaks, juxtaposing that with the patterns of birdsong to accomplish some of the tasks of language, while also suggesting a closer relationship between humans and other animals than the characterization of humans as language-using animals would suggest. This poem concludes with imagery that indicates life is fundamentally paradoxical, that wishing it otherwise is a futile even if understandable desire: “The window-stunned robin who hunkered // on my deck for hours—that she flew away meant / one thing, that she left a red stain meant another.”

The poems I’ve discussed are thoughtful and thought provoking. I said, though, that some of Dumesnil’s poems are actively amusing, so if you’re looking for humor, be sure to read the genuinely funny (yet also poignant) eight-part “Tampons: A Memoir.” It encapsulates the experiences many of us have shared—so many of us in fact that I’m tempted to edit an anthology called Feminine Hygiene.

The control Dumesnil exhibits in the craft of each poem extends to the entire collection. It’s tone and content are nicely balanced between the internal and the external, the personal and the social, the serious and the lighthearted. I’m grateful I live in a world where this collection can exist.