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.

 

 

Review of I Watched You Disappear by Anya Krugovoy Silver

Silver coverAnya Krugovoy Silver. I Watched You Disappear. Louisiana State University Press, 2014. 73 pgs. $17.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Like many readers, I found Anya Krugovoy Silver’s first collection, The Ninety-Third Name of God, published in 2010, absolutely stunning. I waited impatiently for her next collection, I Watched You Disappear, and eagerly read it when it was published a few months ago. The two books share several themes, especially the speaker’s relationship with God and the effects of living with cancer. I Watched You Disappear is the more somber of the two, as the speaker’s community seems to absorb one death after another, and it more predominantly focuses on death and grief. This collection is more emotionally difficult because of death’s relentless hovering and so harder to read straight through, but the poems are just as accomplished and memorable as the ones in Silver’s first collection.

“Night Prayer,” the second poem in the collection, is stylistically representative of many of the poems in the book. At fourteen lines, it gestures toward the sonnet, with some iambic stretches in the lines though no absolute iambic pentameter, and with some near rhyme though no pattern of true rhyme. If there is a turn in this poem, it is slight and occurs after line ten, or maybe even line twelve, rather than following an octave. Still, the poem takes prayer as its subject, something that can be turned over and examined from multiple angles, relying on imagery and metaphor rather than narrative to drive it forward, and it concludes with a couplet (though the poem is arranged as one stanza) that clicks closed with the finality common to sonnets. Many of the lines seem to question not only the efficacy of prayer but also the existence of an always apparently silent audience. The poem opens this way:

I talk and talk and hear nothing back.
You who are neither voice, nor sign,
nor image. In answer to my pleas,
not the slightest flutter of humid air
or pause in cicadas’ raspy vespers.

According to this poem, prayer is what makes nothing happen. Not only does God fail to respond, but the speaker’s environment is so uniform from one minute to the next that she can’t interpret any event as a sign even if she’s determined to.

If nothing happens around the speaker, however, something does happen within the poem. The first line begins iambically, and it contains the near rhyme (or at least a sonic reference) of “talk” and “back.” With seven of its eight words being monosyllabic, this line sounds insistent, and the insistence carries into the first half of the next line. By sentence three, however, beginning in line three and carrying through line five, the pace slows, with softer sounds and substantially fewer monosyllables. Rather than the hard sound of “k” repeated three times, line five renders its meaning through the thrice-repeated “p.” Because Silver has slowed the pace, the reader becomes prepared for a more reflective consideration of the speaker’s experience, as eventually occurs. The next lines reproduce some of the sounds we notice in lines four and five:

No stutter of starlight, no pillow
slipped beneath my knees or swallow-
tail alighting on my waiting hands.

Line six develops through true alliteration—“stutter of starlight”—and moves into the closest example of true rhyme in the poem, “pillow” and “swallow.” In addition, “slipped” extends this section of the poem’s reliance on “p” and “l” to maintain the slower rhythm. In terms of content, the imagery reinforces the statements in lines one through three suggesting God’s absence. Because of its mastery of craft, the poem has been pleasurable to read throughout, but the final two lines provide the most satisfying surprise. I, at least, was expecting some sort of resignation if not outright anger from the speaker, but instead she closes with an acceptance that reminds us, through image as well as denotation, of her connection to God:

And what I speak remains traceless—
like a beetle’s breath, this Amen. 

The speaker’s words leave as little evidence of their existence as the God whom the poem addresses, and in this way the speaker resembles her audience; she is an “image” that was called absent in line three. Her last word, “Amen,” concluding the prayer, reinforces the speaker’s status as creature rather than would-be creator, as understanding and accepting her identity in terms of the divine.

A poem toward the end of the collection, “Portraits in the Country,” adopts a similar strategy at its conclusion. Several of the poems in this last section of the book are ekphrastic, and Silver provides an identification here: “Gustave Caillebotte, 1876.” The poem responds to Caillebotte’s painting, Portraits à la Campagne, in which four women relax in a park, doing needlework or reading. The speaker associates herself with them as she proceeds through time without the hurry or rush or busyness so characteristic of our era. Instead, she says,

I am shutting my ears to the hours,
to the bell tower’s quarterly reminder
that I should be doing something useful.

Usefulness can be valuable, but it does not constitute the total meaning of our lives. This speaker chooses attentiveness and meditation:

For death has come to our windows,
the preacher says, it has entered our palaces.
But I will not rush to push down my sash.
Instead, I will turn the leaf of my book.

Here, the speaker refuses to deny what she knows, death’s undeniable presence, but she also refuses to permit that knowledge to consume her. Again in these lines, Silver creates part of the effect through sound, here the repetition of “sh”: rush, push, sash. The poem would be perfectly fine it if concluded with this line, but Silver extends it with a surprising turn similar to the one in “Night Prayer”:

See with what gentle gravity God
lets it hover, in balance, then fall to its side.

These poems call their readers to share in their reflection. They don’t demand rereading as more elusive poems sometimes do; instead they invite rereading through the hospitality of the tone and language. Of course, now, I am looking forward to Silver’s next book. But I am also content to wait, for the poems we have already in her first two collections welcome our lingering.

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To propose a guest review or submit a book for review consideration, send a message to lynndomina (at) gmail.com.

 

 

Review of Pictograph by Melissa Kwasny

Kwasny cover

Pictograph. Melissa Kwasny. Milkweed Editions, 2015. 69 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Melissa Kwasny’s latest collection, her sixth, consists of a series of prose poems many of whose titles contain the word “petroglyph” or “pictograph.” These poems are ecological in the deepest sense, for although they acknowledge human viewpoints, they refuse to be centered in the human. The speaker observes closely, meditating on what she sees—birds, hares, red drawings on rocks. And though the speaker is sometimes accompanied, or at least addresses human relationships whether or not a companion is literally present, the mood of this book is solitary, and from that solitude honesty emerges. The speaker isn’t speaking so much as mulling over her experience in a world that has been created as a refuge for all creatures. And yet, through their titles and subject matter, the poems also draw attention to human consciousness and expression, human connection across millennia. The meaning of this expression sometimes remains mysterious, as one title, “Pictograph: Possible Shield-Bearing Figure,” makes clear, but though witnesses may not absolutely understand the meaning of a given figurative symbol, those witnesses do understand the urge toward expression and experience a reciprocal urge toward reception. Kwasny’s success in this collection stems from the confluence of these factors: the reader trusts the writer and so follows her through this meditative experience, and the writing itself rewards the journey.

Before I take a closer look at any of the poems, I need to confess that I’m often suspicious of prose poetry as a genre. Not every descriptive paragraph earns the title of poem, regardless of how its author classifies it, and much of the time when I read prose poems, I wonder what the poem gains from its form that is worth sacrificing the power of poetry’s line. Then I begin to wonder whether the prose poem is simply a way for the writer to avoid attending to much of the craft of poetry, for I sometimes find prose poems wordier and rhythmically flatter than conventionally written poems. If a prose poem has a narrative thread, I wonder why it’s called a prose poem, rather than, say, flash fiction (an admittedly recent term). On the one hand, labels ultimately don’t matter much. On the other hand, art of any genre comes with its conventions, so when writers reject those conventions, their choices should be more than arbitrary. All this is to say that I surprised myself as I began to read Pictograph; I had to lay down my prejudices. This collection has taught me that prose poetry does have a legitimate place in contemporary writing, and it has taught me a “formless” form presents its own sufficient challenges to a receptive writer. (I realize now that in speaking of prose poetry, I am rehearsing some of the same arguments that have surrounded the validity of free verse—there’s a lesson here for me, and I suspect for others.)

Here is “The Wounded Bird” in its entirety:

In order of least shyness: evening grosbeak, junco, pygmy owl. When the pine siskins come, they will be shameless. The bats have their holocaust in their Vermont caves. The pines die from pine beetles on our slopes. Some presences are not blessings; they are self-contained, invitations to investigate further, or warnings to stay away, or inscrutable, unreadable as a god is. You there, mountain chickadee, in the thicket, then hopping up my leg. You were struggling, off balance. You could flutter but not fly, a wobbling presence come out of the blue. As if you knew I would understand this as approval. Look, I have always been uneasy using the word god. It has no wind to it, like you do. It sounds like clod, self-satisfied, a fat man in an overbuilt house. A period, not a comma, which has wings. I kept returning to the window until you disappeared into the dusk. Then, nothing could lighten my mood.

Concrete language fills this poem, and when its ideas become more abstract, those ideas relate logically though unexpectedly to the surrounding imagery. The names of the birds in the opening sentence are specific and unusual enough to attract the reader’s attention, and the assonance of “least…evening grosbeak…pygmy” commands the attention of the ear. The poem continues with depressive descriptions of the natural world, the bats with their “holocaust,” the dying pines, but in these sentences too, they rhythm is tight—notice the proportion of accented syllables, much higher than in ordinary prose. In sentence five, Kwasny turns toward the abstract, suggesting a difference between “blessings” and “warnings,” though those distinctions may collapse into something “inscrutable, unreadable as a god is.” That simile startles, and it lingers as Kwasny returns to a description of another bird, the wounded one of the title. A few sentences later, she returns to the idea of a god, but it is the word rather than the thing itself she is considering, suggesting that “a god” is simply a word rather than the thing the word should signify. The speaker resists the word because of its sound, a poet’s concern, and then she describes the lack she finds in “god” through metaphor: “It has no wind in it.” Here, Kwasny introduces a bit of humor, unusual in this collection: “It sounds like clod, self-satisfied, a fat man in an overbuilt house.” We can see this “fat man,” and indeed, he isn’t terribly different from some more conventional representations of a god. Kwasny immediately returns, through another metaphor, to the apparent subject of the poem with the reference to “wings” before she concludes with disappearance.

“The Wounded Bird” succeeds finally as a poem rather than simply as a piece of evocative prose not only because of its use of common poetic devices: figurative language, concrete imagery, patterns of sound. As importantly, it juxtaposes one idea against another, the bird and god, god and the bird, without surrendering to a compulsion to explicate, without any irritable reaching after explanation, as our ancestor John Keats might say.

I admire the poems in Pictograph. They invite the reader in despite their exploration of the writer’s solitude. They encourage a meditative reading, a consideration of what it means to be alive in this world, here, now, even as we connect with those who have come before and leave our own signs for those who will come after.

Review of Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

Faizullah coverSeam. Tarfia Faizullah. Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. 65 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Seam, Tarfia Faizullah’s first collection, is that book many of us have been hoping for and the type of book some among us have probably tried and failed to write. Politically engaged without descending to diatribe, empathic without plummeting into sentimentality, Seam explores the effects of the 1971 war that led to the separation of East and West Pakistan and the establishment of the new nation of Bangladesh. Faizullah provides some historical context for the poems, most significantly the detail that military strategy included the rape of over 200,000 Bangladeshi women; the government later awarded these women the title of “birangona,” which translates as “war heroine,” though many of these women continued to experience shame and ostracization. The book explores the experiences of these women through the voice of an interviewer and of the women’s own voices filtered through hers. This book is successful as political poetry because it so directly addresses the horrifying experiences of some human beings through the systematic and willful behavior of other human beings; it is successful as poetry because the poet relies effectively on figurative language and exploits the possibilities of the line and stanza. Seam is structured not so much as a collection of individual poems as an extended meditation, a multi-part exploration of a single theme. The center of the book, for example, consists of eight sections titled “Interview with a Biragona,” interspersed with five poems called “Interviewer’s Note” as well as four other related poems.

The eighth section of “Interview with a Birangona” addresses the questions, “After the war was over, what did you do? Did you go back home?” In answering these questions, the speaker describes her reception when she did return home once, briefly. As with each of the other sections of “Interview with a Birangona,” Faizullah structures this poem in couplets, perhaps the most controlled stanzaic form, as a means of constraining some of the emotion, which might otherwise overwhelm:

I stood in the dark
doorway. Twilight. My grandfather’s

handprint raw across my face. Byadob,
he called me: trouble-

maker. How could you let them
touch you? he asked, the pomade just

coaxed into his thin hair
a familiar shadow of scent

between us even as he turned
away.

These opening couplets illustrate Faizullah’s ability to write evocatively even of such pain. The imagery is striking, her word choice not simply careful and precise, but unique. How differently line three would read with just a small change: “his handprint red across my face.” With “red,” the image would barely rise above cliché; with “raw,” we retain the visual image, but it also becomes tactile, and “raw” connotes not only anger but a coldly merciless response. A few lines later, Faizullah includes an image that in other circumstances could be nostalgic: “the pomade just / coaxed into his thin hair.” Here, “coaxed” is a particularly effective verb, implying a subtlety that pomade sometimes lacks. She relies on synesthesia next, “a familiar shadow of scent,” describing the aroma as visual, a “shadow” that evokes the real thing without being the thing itself. This olfactory image becomes the symbol not of grandfatherly affection but of rejection. Faizullah’s line breaks are equally effective. The pause between “dark,” concluding the first line, and “doorway,” beginning the second reinforces the speaker’s outsider status. The phrasing of the second line suggests that the doorway into the home proceeds through the grandfather, who will block it. Similarly, by breaking line four at the hyphen, rather than after the more syntactically logical “trouble-maker,” Faizullah emphasizes the speaker’s familial identity as trouble itself. The speaker’s grandfather orders her away, and she describes all she sees as she leaves, concluding with these lines:

…The dark rope

of Mother’s shaking arms was what
I last saw before I walked away.

No. No. Not since.

This last line answers the interviewer’s questions, but the answer is insufficient without the story that precedes it. And the story, through its precise rendering, is what readers remember.

Seam includes a few untitled prose poems, including the last poem of the book which I quote here in its entirety:

I struggled my way onto a packed bus. I became all that surged past the busy roadside markets humming with men pulling rickshaws heavy with bodies. A light breeze from the river was cool on our faces through the open windows. Eager passengers ran alongside us. The bus slowed down. A young man grabbed those arms, pulled them through. The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned my face toward it.

The language of this poem suggests violence as much as it suggests hope—the “rickshaws heavy with bodies” rather than with people, for instance, or the man who “grabbed those arms.” Still, the speaker turns toward the light, dim and “dust-polluted” as it is. Having heard the stories of women who have survived experiences that seem nearly unbearable, the speaker has fulfilled a listener’s responsibility: to bear witness.

Faizullah tells these stories with grace and honesty, refusing to turn away but also refusing to exploit them through the inclusion of explicit violence that would only be gratuitous. Seam is not simply well-crafted; it is one of the most important collections published in these first decades of the 21st century.

 

Review of Cloud Pharmacy by Susan Rich

Rich coverSusan Rich. Cloud Pharmacy. White Pine Press (print); Two Silvias Press (ebook), 2014. 67 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I have read Susan Rich’s Cloud Pharmacy several times now, intrigued by its motifs, its figurative language, the speaker’s precision and simultaneous detachment. The poems are kaleidoscopic. Images coalesce and break apart; my attention follows one pattern and then notices another and then another. Each reading reveals a new entry point into the relationships among individual lines and poems and the collection as a whole. The poems are frequently characterized by an ekphrastic impulse, even when they are not responding directly to another piece of art. For the most part, Rich prefers the shorter line, shorter stanza, and often, the comparatively short poem. Composed primarily as lyrics, the poems nevertheless avoid the simple scenic mode or a straightforward autobiographical rendering of experience. The reader is invited in through stimulating language, words that create interesting sonic effects as well as phrases that develop compelling visual impressions.

I’ll discuss two of the poems in this review, The first, “American History,” is a commentary on the effects of our contemporary political culture, though the political commentary is muted, and it initially seems like a nostalgic look at all that has changed since the speaker’s childhood. Here are the opening lines:

Someday soon I’ll be saying, at school

there were chalkboards, at school
we read books made of paper,

we drank milk from small cartons…

So far, the changes, much as some of us might bemoan them, are comparatively neutral. Technologies of reading have changed, but those changes involve no moral component. But then the speaker recalls other details, and the changes recalled by the middle of the poem are more disturbing: “At school we met children unlike us, / studied evolution, enjoyed recess, plenty of food.” Despite efforts toward diversity, the student body in many schools remains homogeneous. And the content of virtually every academic discipline has become controversial, with the study (or not) of evolution evoking perhaps the most vociferous debate. The poem continues with a gesture toward Gwendolyn Brooks—“At school we sang harmonies of Lennon- / McCartney, we were cool;” but then turns toward a comparatively direct statement of its theme: “all paid for by taxpayers // supporting an ordinary American school.” The poem concludes with this critique of contemporary divisions in American culture, divisions so deep that an “ordinary American school” has become endangered. As with all successful poems, the success of “American History” stems from its approach to its subject, not from the subject itself. The poem brims with concrete detail, each likely recalling the reader’s own school days. Until the last two lines, the tone shifts between neutral and nostalgic; at the conclusion, the tone becomes more challenging but remains understated. The poet, that is, trusts her material and her readers, and she respects her craft.

I am most intrigued by the poems in section three of the collection, “Dark Room.” They consider the work of photographer Hannah Maynard who, according to Rich’s notes, experimented with self-portraits involving multiple exposures of her film following the death of her daughter, Lillie. Maynard’s idea is interesting, and so are the poems that respond to the photographs. As with the best of ekphrastic poetry, these poems are stimulated by the photographs, but they do much more than simply describe—a particular challenge when the reader is unlikely to be familiar with the original piece of art. And like the best of poems in a series, each one stands fully on its own but also gathers significance from the poems surrounding it. “The Process of Unraveling in Plain Sight” presents Hannah in the third person; she stares out into the world, appearing to gaze at viewers, including the speaker of the poem. Early in the poem, Rich conveys the effect of the multiple exposures:

Then she overlaps the images and leaves
no line of separation

but splits herself open like a magic trick;

now she’s Hannah times three.

Here, the break after the first quoted line appears to suggest that Hannah removes herself from the space, though the next line reveals that her multiple images become amorphous, indistinct from one another. She isn’t absent after all, but hyper-present. Yet, paradoxically, she isn’t present as an individual but as an amplification, one image juxtaposed against or superimposed upon another. Also paradoxically, the line in which she leaves “no line of separation” itself separates one description of the portrait from the next. Two lines later, the speaker describes the image this way: “a severed body (hung // in a golden frame, floating on tired air). The stanza break after “hung” emphasizes the image of the hanging body, which we discover is only hanging in a frame—but we cannot forget the gruesome image of “a severed body (hung.” The poem ends with the assertion that Hannah “Does not, // does not, does not allow / Lillie to stay dead.” I will remember the imagery in this poem because it is vivid but also because it works on two levels, as a description of a more literal photographic image and also as poetic imagery.

Cloud Pharmacy is a book to be read intently rather than merely skimmed. It is Susan Rich’s fourth collection of poetry, and for that I am grateful—not simply because there’s a sufficient body of her work out in the world now, but because her rate of publication (four books in fourteen years) suggests that she is a working poet who is likely to write and publish more.

 

Review of Reckless Lovely by Martha Silano

Silano coverMartha Silano. Reckless Lovely. Saturnalia Books, 2014. 68 pgs. $15.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

The most succinct statement I can think to make about Martha Silano’s fourth collection, Reckless Lovely, is that it is wildly imaginative. It’s the juxtapositions, the connections, the metaphors she creates that attract me so, and they are all entangled in a clash of language that compels the reader’s curiosity. There’s no nodding off in the middle of this book. Reading her poems, I’m reminded a little bit of Pattiann Rogers, a little bit of Barbara Ras, a little bit, even, of Gerard Manly Hopkins. Yet Silano’s voice is her own. The poems are reverent without being pietistic, irreverent without being mean-spirited; they are smart without being pedantic, studded with references to popular culture yet also engaged with large questions; they are fetching and feminist and downright funny.

Reckless Lovely is arranged in three sections, reasonably similar in length. Most often, the poems are composed in couplets, though the collection includes several other forms, including prose poems, odes, abecedarians, glosas, and others. There’s enough variety of form—including overlap or combinations of forms—so that the predominance of couplets seems an active choice rather than a default mode.

While there are many poems I would like to discuss, I’ll limit myself to two. (Regarding the others, such as “Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows,” I’ll just thrust the book at you when we meet, saying, “Here, read this.”) Although these poems differ in form, they both exhibit Silano’s strategies and strengths in terms of poetic craft, and they both illustrate some of her interests in terms of content.

“Black Holes,” the second poem in the collection, is a prose poem that relies on extended metaphors and consistent patterns of imagery in its attempt to explain something that is, to many of us non-scientists, just too bizarre to comprehend even if we believe we possess a rudimentary understanding. A black hole is itself, of course, a metaphor, not a hole at all but a segment of space so dense, whose gravity is so strong, that nothing, not even light, escapes. To our human eyes, any space absolutely devoid of light appears to be empty. So many poets have used the phrase “black hole” simply as a metaphor, to the extent that its use as a metaphor has become clichéd, even though many people who seem to find the phrase attractive also seem to have little understanding of its actual meaning. Silano refreshingly (at least as far as I can tell), in this poem and others, gets the science right, although the poem has at least as much to do with daily life and human longings as it does with a scientific concept. The poem begins with an interesting explanation of a black hole’s characteristics:

Those pink splotches up there on the planetarium ceiling? What happens when fusion ceases and gravity wins, the lighter stuff spewing in all directions, winding up as craneflies and shrews, the big stuff collapsing, reducing down to a dark pumpernickel loaf the baker neglected to knead. Challah’s much less dense—light escapes. Same goes for Wonder Bread.

The poem continues this way, describing the human form in terms of pasta, mentioning Einstein, parking spaces, and Mick Jagger, incorporating technical language—“gravity is just the curvature of space and time” and “the point of singularity”—along with “Aunt Josephine’s eggplant parmigiana.” It all concludes with this elaborate sentence that both summarizes and extends the poem:

It reminds me of the summer I tried to learn a foreign language, feeling all wow, when really I knew about fifteen words: Por favore, un mezzo kilo di pane, and just like that—thwack of a knife, hunk of crusty bread—the same way I’m telling you now there’s no escape.

To catch on to what Silano is doing here, the poem requires rereading, but the language is so much fun that most readers, I imagine, would be drawn to reread it anyway. The poem rewards several readings, in fact, as allusions and images reveal the poem’s structural logic. We reach the last line again and again, acknowledging that there is no escape, not from the laws of physics and not from our human frustrations, anxieties, and desires.

“How to Read Italian Renaissance Painting” relies on equally interesting language. Written in couplets, it represents on the one hand many of Silano’s characteristic strategies. Yet it also reveals how adept she is with these strategies. She relies on parallel sentence structures and repeated phrases often enough to create insistence, but she also shifts the phrasing frequently enough to maintain readerly interest. Initially, the poem introduces features common to Renaissance painting:

Pay attention to the cryptic grapes, wandering
aimless skulls, a robed apostle’s vortex

of red. Pay attention to luminous gloom,
to the attention paid to each fold, each leaf,

each angel’s blue-tipped wing, to every look
of beseeching dismay. Notice uneasy clouds

to the right, uncertain urns to the left. Notice
theatrical expressions, God diving in to shatter

the silence in Mary’s room. Notice shutters
everywhere. Take these to mean the master

is a master of worry…

This repetition works because the structure of the lines does not simply duplicate the structure of the sentences. The repeated words “Pay attention” and “Notice” never appear in the same position within a line more than once. The rhythm of the poem, then, as the product of line and sentence, becomes much more interesting because Silano attends thoughtfully to both, composing as good poets do, according to the line. The meaning of lines, taken separately from the meaning of sentences, enlarges the meaning of the poem. For example, if we read the lines “theatrical expressions, God diving in to shatter” or “everywhere. Take these to mean the master” as lines rather than only as components of sentences, their meanings shift, sometimes slightly, sometimes more profoundly. Is God’s activity a piece of theater? Is the master everywhere, just as the shutters are? Of course not every line will function this way, but most of us could probably improve our craft by reading Reckless Lovely specifically to analyze how Silano uses the line.

The repetition in this poem also works because it’s not the only thing going on. Notice, for example, the assonance in “luminous gloom,” followed by “blue” two lines later. Then there’s “uncertain urns” in line seven. And there’s the alliteration of “shatter the silence” and “shutters.” And there’s the off rhyme of “shatter,” “shutters,” and “master.” In addition, the vocabulary is consistently concrete, and the parts of speech that tend to flatten out rhythm—prepositions, articles—occur rarely. Nouns and verbs predominate, but even the modifiers are interesting: “cryptic grapes,” “blue-tipped wing,” “beseeching dismay.” “How to Read Italian Renaissance Painting” is a finely wrought poem. It’s given me pleasure as a reader, for it’s encouraged me to think about the visual arts more carefully, and it’s given me pleasure as a writer as I’ve noticed how attentively Silano approaches craft.

Silano’s care for language is apparent throughout this collection. The content of her poems suggest that she is a poet with broad interests, which makes for interesting reading. Reckless Lovely is a collection I look forward to rereading.

Review of Darktown Follies by Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Johnson coverAmaud Jamaul Johnson. Darktown Follies. Tupelo Press, 2013. 61 pgs. $16.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Darktown Follies, Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s second collection of poems, is intriguing both for its content and its craft. In fact, the first time I read it, I didn’t think I understood it, but I returned for another reading because of the poet’s skill with sound. The alliteration, the assonance, the consonance, the rhyme and near-rhyme—he relies on it all, with enough originality to captivate the reader’s ear and reinforce the content but not so much that it overwhelms the poems. As I began rereading the collection, I wondered why I’d been confused the first time. This book is engaging and disturbing, or at least at times uncomfortable, as the reader both identifies with the speakers and understands herself to be critiqued by them.

As an example, the opening poem, “Encore,” begins with a sentence that seems to have as its primary concern an exploration of metaphor:

Take the architecture of the wrist,
how the hands flit, hinged

& bony as a blur of wing pulling
each egret across the slow drag

of the lake, or the way the whole flock,
given the hound dog’s solfeggio

& the report-refrain of some pistol,
how each tendon, how every muscle

of the limb seems to reach
some agreement & move.

These couplets describe the movement of one joint in the human body, and though that movement may occupy only a few seconds of real time, the poem stretches it out in order to examine the movement in terms of other types of movement—a bird or a flock of birds lifting from a lake. The language here is attractive: “bony as a blur of wing,” “the report-refrain of some pistol.” The reader becomes invested in the attention and thoughtfulness the speaker devotes to such movement, the clapping of hands, which can sound like “the report-refrain of some pistol.” But then, after an extra space break, we read this:

Even the box seats & the balcony,
the taste of that song tangled

like moss about my Adam’s apple,
& I see them beginning to stand

& applaud, & if I could spoon
out every eye, or fasten their tongues

like red scarves around a flagpole.

The first four lines of this second sentence seem to emerge logically from the first sentence, until we reach the caesura of line five. The wished-for violence and vengeance is particularly startling after the beautiful and nearly romanticized imagery of the first sentence. This is what I mean when I describe the reader’s position—at least this reader’s position, this liberal white reader’s position—vis-à-vis the speaker of the poem. I believe I can understand the speaker’s response, positioned as an entertainer whose racialized self is a component of the entertainment, and yet I also share the privilege of those who would comprise the audience. Whether or not I want that privilege (and who among us doesn’t want privilege, at least sometimes), I have it.

The poem continues with the speaker restraining his urge by recalling the benefits he will receive through this performance:

Think,
come morning, the both of us, rich men.

So I wait for them to release
their bellies, to rest their elbows,

to stop slapping their knees. I adjust
my top hat, smooth my hands

against my breast & tail. I step
center-stage. I steady, I steady

& bow.

The audience of this performance likely believes they have been simply entertained, but if so, they are naïve. Readers of the poem, however, cannot claim such innocence.

Here is “The Front Matter,” the second poem in the collection, which foregrounds many of the sonic effects that Johnson is so skilled with, but which also challenges readers to recognize that the playfulness of the language isn’t all there is:

Pity the ringdove, the silver-tongued
Coxcomb, throb and pulse, the hurly
Burly of the hurdy-gurdy man. Pity
The pomp, all the prunes and prisms,
That miscellany of light located beneath
The lips and gums. It’s all that cockeyed
Peacockery, the dumb show high flown,
Guffaw, and that garbled moonlight.
Now, I got the big talk. I’ll play the heavy.
Watch me in my cap and bells, my jingle.
In a nutshell, all patter and ballyhoo aside,
I’m aping the Sun. I am the Jack-pudding.
I reckon to out herod Herod, and trademark
My move.

The words in this poem are fun to say. Initially, it sounds simply exuberant, even raucous. The dynamism makes me want to laugh. But the speaker’s desire to “out herod Herod” sounds ominous, though what the speaker promises isn’t as threatening as King Herod’s decision. The speaker will “trademark / My move,” forcing anyone who wants to incorporate his performance in another act to pay a fee. The speaker, in other words, is hitting his competitors, the theater managers and producers who might want to imitate his success, where it hurts. There’s a lot more to say about this poem, particularly some of its allusiveness, but I also want to consider the second section of this collection in the space I have left. So rather than analyzing “The Front Matter” more thoroughly, I’ll leave it to readers to sit with it, reaching their own conclusions.

The second section, titled “The Olio,” is quieter and more personal. Even so, Johnson still exploits the sounds of English, and his ability to manage this for such different purposes testifies to his skill. For example, “Midnight at the Abandoned Monastery” begins with this stanza:

We were reluctant to walk.
The last few glasses of vino
Had tinted the dying Tuscan sky.
But enough were game, so
The girls changed into their sensible
Shoes, and the overly prepared,
Who bragged about bow hunting
And the shades of deer blood
Near their Virginia home, had packed
Plenty of headlamps to please the mob.

The alliteration, assonance, and consonance in this stanza are subtler than in “The Front Matter,” but the poem nevertheless achieves its effect in part through Johnson’s control of its sound. The poet’s care with these poems encourages me as a reader to attend to them with equal care.

The second section of Darktown Follies, functioning as a second act to the poems in the first section, “The Walk Around,” inevitably comments on those poems in the first section. The more personal nature of these later poems suggests that the performances described in the earlier section have not been relegated to the past. The ambivalence in relationships between audience and performer in early twentieth-century vaudeville continues to characterize relationships among Americans today. This collection reminds us how far the past is from being over.

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To propose a guest review or submit a book for potential review, fill out the contact form or contact Lynn Domina directly at lynndomina (at) gmail.com.

Review of Albedo by Kathleen Jesme

Jesme coverKathleen Jesme. Albedo. Ahsahta Press, 2014. 105 pgs. $18.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I have been a fan of Kathleen Jesme’s work since I stumbled across her Motherhouse a few years ago. Her style is unique—spare and elliptical yet also direct and inviting. Her poems suggest that there’s more below the surface, that if we sit patiently, even meditatively with them, deeper meanings and fuller pleasures will reveal themselves. Albedo, her newest collection, has already received a widespread positive response (it’s currently a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award), but I would like to look at it here also, to mull over some of her strategies, to think about why her poems appeal to me so much.

Albedo is divided into three sections, with the first, “Albedo,” consisting of two long multi-part poems and the others, “Ordinary Work” and “Coastline,” composed of many more generally shorter poems. Throughout the collection, Jesme exploits the white space of the page as effectively as she chooses her imagery, figurative language, and form. It’s almost as if, especially given the collection’s attention to light and darkness, the whiteness itself becomes an image.

The title of this collection is risky simply because “albedo” is a word few of us will know (ok, maybe your vocabulary is more comprehensive than mine), but its meaning is perfect for the collection. I would have picked up this book regardless of its title because I want to follow Jesme’s work as long as she keeps writing, and I would also have been drawn to its beautiful cover image, a photograph of the trunks of hundreds of birch trees, reinforcing the prevailing imagery of light and darkness in the book. I hope readers new to Jesme’s work will be intrigued enough by the title and cover to pick it up. Here is a link to Jesme reading three of the poems.

“Albedo” is a technical term in both meteorology and astronomy and relates to the ratio of light reflected, say by the earth’s surface, to that received. The word appears in a section of the long poem “The Mythology We Have Now”:

A pine forest in winter has among the lowest albedo
of any land environment
this is due partly
to the color of the pines
and partly to multiple scattering of sunlight within the trees

Although these sentences explain a concept, what lasts for the reader is the image, the darkness of the pine’s green shading to near black set against the “scattering of sunlight.” This poem, “The Mythology We Have Now” is an extended elegy for the speaker’s father. It’s an experiment in language, an attempt to discover how we can connect, through language or through other elements we describe with language, to those who exist now only in our memories. Here is the section from which the title comes:

In the mythology we have now the entire universe exploded
from a marble-sized nugget

in a trillionth
of a second

light is the fossil
of that great scattering of matter and dark energy:
how like us our little universe—

but I have discovered
my love of shadows:

things visible only in the absent
part of sun

Many part of this section are intriguing—the understanding of physics and astronomy as mythological systems, the metaphor of light as a fossil followed by the simile comparing human beings to “our little universe.” Because of the strength of its imagery and the turn it takes in the penultimate stanza, this section could stand alone as an independent poem, but it becomes geometrically more resonant in its context within the longer poem. The section that precedes it relies on language and imagery similar to the “lowest albedo” section I quoted above, but it also incorporates a direct description of the deceased father’s communication:

We no longer speak together as we once did
on the contrary

his voice in particular is much changed                      and I can’t
hear it in the same way

I am not opposed                    to this alteration
but only to the way the light
is drawn

in such a dark place
and to my own absorption in it

The imagery in this section works thematically to connect sections that precede and follow it. The direct meaning of a given section deepens through content revealed in other sections but related imagistically from one section to the next. “I have discovered / my love of shadows” is more resonant because it follows “the way the light / is drawn // in such a dark place / and to my own absorption in it.” Yet the language remains mysterious, or maybe mystical—it’s not as if one section of the poem simply explains another section. Instead, we follow the speaker experiencing loss but not complete loss, attempting to understand the nature of this life that is both finite and infinite, just as the universe seems to be.

Albedo is the type of collection that presents an unfair challenge to a reviewer, for it’s extraordinarily difficult to excerpt lines or stanzas; though short passages may illustrate Jesme’s tone or style, they don’t adequately convey the effect of the book. The only adequate review of this book would be a complete reproduction of it. Instead of reading such a reproduction, readers will be much more gratified if they pick up the real thing. As poetry goes, Albedo is the real thing.