Review of Inheritance by Carla Drysdale

Drysdale coverCarla Drysdale. Inheritance. Finishing Line Press, 2016. 29 pgs. $14.49.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

We might be entering a new age of the chapbook, just as we’re entering (I think) a new age of the prose poem. Dozens of presses are now publishing chapbooks, and writers who’ve published multiple full-length collections are embracing the form, often for projects well-suited to this publishing mode, sequences of related poems, for example, that gain substance from being published together without the context of additional unrelated poems. Although poets still often begin their careers with chapbooks, the form, in currently appealing to established poets also, is redefining itself and elevating its prestige.  Finishing Line Press is no longer an upstart as small presses go—it’ll celebrate its twentieth anniversary in two years—and it specializes in the chapbook, publishing multiple titles each year. It has become, in fact, one of the most influential chapbook publishers in the country. Carla Drysdale’s Inheritance is her first chapbook, but it follows a full-length collection, Little Venus, which was published in 2009. The poems included in Inheritance are thematically linked, as the speaker considers the lives of her children and her parents. The content is often difficult, but Drysdale is able to articulate strong emotion by recollecting it, if not exactly in tranquility, then with measured concern.

The opening poem, for instance, which is also the title poem, explores her two sons’ differences which align them with her in distinctive ways. The poem intensifies as its proceeds, until what’s most surprising is also what’s most unsettling. The opening lines are straightforward, and the tone seems calm, nearly objective, but it is also deceptive:

One of my two sons devours books
as I did, bespectacled, silent.

There are childhood facts I’d like to check,
but the past is unpopular

with my mother. Her husband wasn’t a reader.
His eye was on me during the day

and at night,…

The transition from assurance to ominous occurs already in the second couplet, which—through Drysdale’s line break—initially seems to refer to the son. Readers are startled, then, at the introduction of the mother, and slightly uneasy therefore with the husband who “wasn’t a reader.” Drysdale exploits her options with the line again between couplets two and three: “during the day // and at night,…” The poem narrates the speaker’s experiences with her mother and stepfather and then turns again, at the 2/3 mark, to discuss the “other son.” He

peers into

the legacy behind my eyes,
at what I’m trying to hide.

His pleasure and pain
are always mine

as when he kisses his cat or bends
his pen in half and yells at me,

enraged by the words
on the page.

This son initially seems empathic and affectionate, and again meaning bends across the turn of the line break. He “bends,” not for a hug or caress, but to break the pen that won’t properly write the words he can’t properly read. Superficially, this son is the opposite of the first who “devours books,” but this son is devoured by inarticulate rage, just as the speaker is as she recalls the actions of her stepfather and the inaction of her mother. The sons, by responding to print as differently as they do, create a composite of their mother’s apparent and hidden character. Drysdale, in choosing the restraint of couplets and the flexibility of the enjambed line, permits the poem to reveal rather than to declare its meaning.

Many of the poems in Inheritance work similarly, including the final poem, “Rafael’s Question,” which is also composed in couplets and also concerns the speaker’s position generationally between her sons and her parents. This poem imagistically and thematically links the chapbook’s end to its beginning, but now there’s an implication of reconciliation with the events life has brought rather than rage at them. The son’s final question regarding his grandparents is poignant—“He asks, ‘Do you still love them?’ / So gently, so gently”—because it’s ultimately a question about whether the speaker’s ability or inability to love as a daughter will be replicated in her ability or inability to love as a mother.

Formally, the most unusual poem in the collection is “Labyrinth,” which relies on anaphora to establish a chant-like rhythm through the first half. These stanzas describe the speaker’s mother’s protection:

She who bore me, supported my slack newborn neck
in her palm while she bathed me in a small basin,
warm water tested on her wrist

At exactly the half-way point, though, the tone and content shift:

Who covered me up in the sun, but neglected the darkness
I was in…

There is no more “She who” protects the speaker, but lines like this: “Abandonment, it sounds so harsh, then and now, / well, doesn’t it?” If it sounds harsh, it is because maternal abandonment is harsh. The final stanza describes the speaker’s relationship with her mother as a “labyrinth of denial”—complicated denial, for its unclear whether it’s established by the mother or by the speaker, and so is attached to both. A labyrinth, though, is different from a maze in that the path of a labyrinth never leads to a dead end. The path of a labyrinth always leads to the center and then to the exit as long as the pilgrim keeps walking. So although the poem ends with the word “dead,” some hope remains, at least implicitly.

Although short, Inheritance is not slight. The poems are thoughtfully composed, and they will stay with you.

Review of Cause for Concern and Family Resemblances by Carrie Shipers

Shipers cover CauseCarrie Shipers. Cause for Concern. Able Muse Press, 2015. 84 pgs. $18.95

Carrie Shipers. Family Resemblances. University of New Mexico Press, 2016. 70 pgs. $17.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Carrie Shipers’ second and third collections of poetry appeared within a few months of each other, and I read them within a few days of each other. Stylistically, the poems in the two collections are similar—most careful readers would with reasonable confidence identify them as composed by the same author—but they differ in theme and tone. The first, Cause for Concern, explores Shipers’ experience as primary caregiver for her husband as he recovered from kidney surgery, while Family Resemblances includes a broader range of material, though many of the poems examine the speaker’s position within her family of origin. In both collections, the poems rely on implicit or explicit narrative, comparatively even line lengths—though the lines nevertheless contribute substantially to the rhythmic interest—and language that is interesting yet direct. Both collections include a series of poems scattered throughout—in Cause for Concern it’s a sequence of haunting dog poems, and in Family Resemblances it’s a sequence of poems narrated by “The Woman Who Can’t Forget” (one of which was recently featured on Verse Daily)—that function as commentary on the poems that surround them. Throughout the collections, the speaker’s reliability is provocatively questionable, but her character is also reassuringly familiar. Like it or not, we’ve all been this speaker.

Shipers cover FamilyDespite the often somber content, the poems do contain some humor. “Field Guide,” for example, from Family Resemblances, reveals how the certainties of a relationship can become both less certain and more interesting: “She married him for what he knew— / names of trees, animals, how to hot wire / his Mercury…” She is gullible, however, or naïve, or both: “They had three kids before / she caught on.” Shipers delays the reader’s gratification for a few lines—“caught on” to what? Revealing the answer to that question, Shipers shifts from the names of birds to other names: “Did he make up socket wrench? Phillips head?” The husband has been answering all along, but his responses have included more fantasy than fact. The stanza breaks here, at approximately the 2/3 point, and the beginning of stanza two becomes more serious. The speaker also fantasizes,

…by pretending
to know what she only hoped, each time hoping
he’d catch her out so she could tell the truth:
I’m scared too.

Telling the truth often is a relief, and the truth the speaker is able to acknowledge demonstrates Shipers’ skill in exploiting an anecdote to reveal the poem’s own deeper truth. By its end, the poem circles back to its beginning, with the speaker asking about a bird and her husband stating, “Three-toed warbler.” What began years earlier as curiosity and play has grown into ritual, a practice that in its simplicity sustains the relationship. The poem circles back to its beginning, but that beginning has acquired more significance. Looping back this way, tying the poem’s final image to its first, is a common strategy that, in successful poems, redefines the opening. Through these twenty-three lines, readers understand how the speaker has grown through decades.

The primary factor in the success of “Field Guide” is its structure. But Shipers is also skilled in other areas of poetic craft—choices made at the level of word and line to enhance rhythm and image. Although the poems are most often free verse, the lines are informed by English poetry’s iambic history; they are not shackled by a compulsive adherence to regular meter, but the echo of meter is suggestively pleasant. Here is the last couplet of “Appetite,” a disturbing response to the tale of Hansel and Gretel: “And while I talk I’ll dish up supper—black pudding, / potatoes, a roast as sweet as suckling pig.” The first of the lines begins with three iambic feet which are interrupted with syllables “up supper” that include an internal rhyme, with the “p” repeated two syllables later and then repeated again at the beginning of the second line. Following “potatoes,” the final line returns to an iambic meter, emphasized again with alliteration and assonance. Other lines adopt similar strategies, and they are able to do so because of Shipers’ reliance on concrete, often monosyllabic vocabulary. The creepiness of this poem’s content is ironically contradicted by its pleasing music.

The poems in Cause for Concern are also memorable for their concrete imagery—one would hope, of course, that poems describing sick and wounded bodies would be concrete. The opening poem, “Wound Assessment,” alternates between references to Doubting Thomas, as he’s often called, reaching into Christ’s wounded side, and descriptions of the speaker changing the dressing on her husband’s surgical wound. The speaker here isn’t an idealized nurse but an afraid and resentful young wife. Everything begins to signify her husband’s illness, from scissors to her dining room table. Her husband’s wound is as obvious as Christ’s, but the speaker’s wound is as invisible as either doubt or belief. The poem succeeds, like “Field Guide” which I discussed above, in part because of its structure, the references to Thomas woven throughout, and also because of the language itself, particularly the verbs.

Both of these books are provocative. In Cause for Concern, the speaker acknowledges unattractive, if understandable, traits. Some readers will empathize with her response; others will not. As in fiction, it’s much more difficult to write well of an unsympathetic speaker than of an attractive one. These poems raise ethical questions, not only about marriage and the care we owe each other, but also about the responsibility of the writer, which must include a commitment to truth, especially when it’s a truth, like resentment of a spouse’s suffering, we would rather not acknowledge. The speaker in Family Resemblances is generally more sympathetic, but the family dynamics explored are nevertheless also often troubling. We could say the same about many poems, of course, including many badly written ones. The content of Shipers’ poems is interesting, but it’s her craft that’s most admirable.

Review of Lifeboat by Kristine Ong Muslim

Muslim coverKristine Ong Muslim. Lifeboat. University of Santo Thomas Publishing House, 2015. 109 pgs. $18.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

The poems in Lifeboat feel haunted. Although the syntax and vocabulary are exceptionally straightforward, the imagery and tone leave the reader unsettled. Things are not as they seem—the poems describe horses “that thump the oceans flat,” spiders as “the stuff made of time,” companions disguised by fog. Deceptively accessible, the language of the poems hovers above a   suggestive depth of meaning. Word by word, readers understand the sentences, but poetic language is nothing if not figurative, and the metaphors here disconcert. The poems are memorable, therefore, not only through their striking imagery but also through the emotional resonance.

Here, for example, is “First Day of September”:

The house crouches,
an angular juggernaut
of gray, brown, and green
against an infinity of white.
Inside, even Mahler cannot
drown the hush. This time
of the year, we are all wolves
drunk with stealth, misled by
the stillness of the dirt road
that leads to the ranch,
and we understand that
the horses are the whole world,
remember the half-light striking
the water in the trough where
the cows drink—their thirst
a ripple on the water’s surface.

At first glance, the title seems simply descriptive, a phrase to anchor the poem that will follow. (Muslim’s titles are most often direct and minimalist—“Horses,” “The Pilot,”  “Spiders”—though occasionally they are more unusual—“The One Called Sunday,” “The Discovery of Laughter,” “He Ate Himself to Death.”) By the time we finish the poem, however, and return to the title, we realize its significance, for “This time / of year,” when summer is fading into autumn (at least in the northern hemisphere) and the year is veering toward its conclusion, caution does increase, in contrast to carefree spring.

Initially, the house in the poem seems abandoned and its setting, “an infinity of white,” desolate. If Mahler plays inside, though, even if only in the speaker’s imagination, the house is inhabited by at least one consciousness. Muslim’s word choice, “hush,” is evocative, suggesting a soft restful quiet rather than, for example, a fearful silence. Yet fear is exactly what emerges in the next sentence as “we are all wolves / drunk with stealth.” Such a line suggests that stealth is much more than the caution that distinguishes predator from prey, for we are “drunk” with it. We are overcome, our judgment dissipated. Overwhelming our self-control, our stealth exerts control over us. Then the sentence, at its midpoint, makes an odd turn: “we understand that / the horses are the whole world.” Maybe the horses are prey, for to an intent predator, prey can form “the whole world” of attention. I think there’s more going on in this poem though. I think this line captures the speaker’s epiphany, that each moment comprises the entire universe, that every creature is here now, and that here now is the center of all life.

If such a statement seems too mystical, let me support it with some discussion of craft. The speaker’s insight, “the horses are the whole world,” occurs on line twelve of sixteen, at exactly the three-quarter point. Effective lyrics often adopt the strategy of a sonnet, with a turn occurring somewhere between the two-thirds and three-quarter mark. In this line, a subordinate clause—for it actually begins with “that” on the previous line—is treated as an independent clause so that the line sounds like a sentence. That is, through Muslim’s use of the line, “the horses are the whole world” reads as if it stands alone. The verb “are” conveys presence without action or movement, so nothing is changing in the line; the moment extends into eternity. As the sentence continues, the speaker moves from the present into memory, conveyed through image, such that the horses remain in the continuous present:

…the half-light striking
the water in the trough where
the cows drink—their thirst
a ripple on the water’s surface.

The speaker’s vision of the horses evokes through association her memory of a trough and the image of “half-light striking” the water. The speaker has been attentive to detail, noticing how elements of nature interact. Her habit of attention has prepared her for the epiphany she describes in the poem. Although the individual sections—the house, the stealthy wolves, the horses, the cows drinking water—could seem disparate, they all eventually serve the poem’s purpose and contribute to its meaning.

Many of Muslim’s poems open out like this, into mystery. The final poem in the collection, “Hunger Strike,” explores presence and absence, layering human physicality with emotional weight. It begins with a statement that is strange in what it finds strange:

Strange how we do not alter ourselves
to fit the dimensions of this room
in order to fill it completely.

It’s impossible, isn’t it, to alter ourselves that much, or to fill a room completely—unless, of course, the poem isn’t talking about simple bodies. The poem explores the location of childhood, its tone midway between sinister and nostalgic. It concludes with a description of the past infusing the present:

Upstairs, we hold hands with the
versions of ourselves, the dead girls
who will live and live and live.

Read in isolation, the last line of this poem and the book would indicate that the collection is extraordinarily optimistic. But the last line cannot be read in isolation; “the dead girls” echo through it. Muslim exploits language this way throughout Lifeboat. Her sentence structure most often illustrates English at its most basic: subject, verb, object. Her word choice is most often monosyllabic. Yet her patterns of imagery and thematic concerns are deeply complex. One closes the book the first time, and the second time, strangely puzzled, as if comprehension waits just out of sight, not to be grasped at but to be patiently awaited.



Review of The State of the Art by David Lehman

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

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ends this way:

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

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

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

Review of For Dear Life by Ronald Wallace

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

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Yes, There Will Be Singing by Marilyn Krysl

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

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

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

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

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

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

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

Review of No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay

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

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

trying to tame.

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Plunk by Tom C. Hunley

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

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Review of American Psalm, World Psalm by Nicholas Samaras

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

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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