Review of Beauty Mark by Suzanne Cleary

Cleary coverSuzanne Cleary. Beauty Mark. BkMk Press, 2013. 95 pgs. $13.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Beauty Mark, Suzanne Cleary’s third collection and winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, is an ambitious and dynamic response to popular culture. The speaker seems to address the reader directly if not exactly intimately, the way extraverts comment their way through encounters, entertaining their companions with energetic observation. Cleary’s close consideration of the ordinary leads her to metaphor, even to the transcendent, yet the shift from concrete to abstract, from literal to figurative, is subtle. The world of the figurative is as attractive as the world of the literal.

For example, “Temporary Tattoo” opens with the speaker in a bookstore noticing a “bowl of what seem to be postage stamps” though they are, of course, temporary tattoos. What follows is a riff on impermanence, for tattoos are meant to mark our bodies permanently:

…A tattoo should be permanent,

a commitment, a cross-hatched cobra coiled
around the biceps, inks of deep blue and green
like the veins that pop from the carney’s arm

when he makes a fist. A tattoo should not
smear, dissolve with baby-oil-on-tissue,
should be bold as a snake swallowing a mouse

and the mouse-shape traveling the length of it
like a bad idea shaping a life, distorting a life.

Here we have simile (like a bad idea) embedded in simile (bold as a snake swallowing a mouse), preceded by an additional simile (like the veins that pop)—yet the imagery remains clear, easy to follow, and compelling—for who among us can turn our eyes from that bulge inching through the snake? The poem then returns to the tattoo, of an apple:

…pink-red, like the tip of a cigarette,

its single leaf the green of the 1964 Chevy convertible
on cinder blocks behind the bookstore,
a car that will never run

despite the young man who works
under the hood every night until dark.

Readers might, at this point, have begun to wonder whether these images are simply associative details, interesting as they might be—but where’s the point? The point is the nature of impermanence, the idea to which we’re about to return, as the poem begins to address the young man who stands for us all. “Someone” ought to give this young man a piece of good advice: “Tell him the Chevy’s time / has come and gone, that nothing lasts forever / except our desire for things to last forever.” Temporary tattoos don’t last, of course, and neither does a Chevy. Nor the mouse, nor the snake that eats the mouse. Nor do we, which the poem avoids stating directly, turning against itself instead as it concludes: “in the gravel lot behind the bookstore / the last of the sun shines / pink, and everywhere, and always.” Do we believe it? Not literally, but we recognize our desire to believe it. With this last line, the poem circles back upon itself, the pink of the sun reminiscent of the red of the apple on the temporary tattoo with which we began, confirming our suspicion that the final assertion of permanence is more hope than fact.

“Temporary Tattoo” is composed in tercets, the lines fairly evenly divided between end-stopped and enjambed. Many of the poems in Beauty Mark are composed in regular stanzas, tercets mostly with occasional quatrains and couplets. Several poems consist of one long stanza, but even in these, Cleary often indents alternating lines, the extra space suggesting a subtle break. The lines are generally long, sometimes fourteen or eighteen syllables, so the rush of the lines is balanced by the regularity of the stanzas. The poems demonstrate both exuberance and restraint—though it is the exuberance, I suspect, that most readers will remember.

“As the Story Came Down to Me” illustrates Cleary’s poetic strategy as well as her manner of thinking. The poem opens with an odd family detail: “My grandmother was arrested / nearly, for driving with too many saints on her dashboard.” The speaker describes the police officer, the car, the “nine plaster statues.” Exactly two-thirds of the way through, the poem turns, in the manner of a sonnet, to the speaker-poet’s composition. The speaker confesses that she has “lied in saying it was my grandmother, / although I did in fact see an old woman / driving a dark blue Chevy with saints.” And she’s lied about the police officer and the number of statues. As poets know, few of the details in our poems are factual, and yet our poems are still true, and we write them to understand how we perceive truth, as Cleary states so movingly in this poem’s last lines: “I swear the short white-haired woman / peering through the space between Joseph and Mary, / I swear it brought tears to my eyes, / and I am still trying to figure out how.” This poem illustrates the argument writers often make, that sometimes you need to invent in order to tell the truth. Whether or not we agree with that argument, we respond to the poem.

Beauty Mark is more playful than many of the collections I’ve read during the last couple of years. Even the titles of many of the individual poems are playful: “Cézanne’s Clogs,” “God Visits the Televangelists,” “Imagining the Shaker Meeting at Which the Founder Ann Lee Announces the Policy of Sexual Abstinence.” The titles made me want to read, and the poems made me want to keep reading. I did, and I’m glad.

Review of Keeper by Kasey Jueds

Jueds coverKasey Jueds. Keeper. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. 78 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, Kasey Jueds’ Keeper is filled with poems that have stuck with me, and only now am I fully understanding why. Most of the poems are image-driven lyrics, but the speaker’s presence is often muted, even when she enters the poem as “I” or, less often, “you.” The poems are thoughtful, as if the material continues to turn in the speaker’s mind, as if meaning emerges like light tilting against a holograph. Although each image blends logically into the next, we often end up quite far from where we began. This is how poetry ought to work, through reliance on the concrete, the work of comprehension transpiring in the reader’s mind, the poet providing all that is necessary and nothing that is not necessary for comprehension.

The opening poem in the collection, “Bats,” serves as prologue and illustrates how the poem develops through associative links among its images. The first and second stanzas describe that recognizable yet confusing experience—waking to the soft motion of swooping bats. Then the poem shifts toward the mystical, challenging us (or at least those of us, like me, whose dread of bats is nearly unspeakable) to perceive these creatures differently:

First dark, then more dark
smoothed down over it.

First sleep, then eyes
open to the ceiling
where something circles. For a moment,
you can’t name it. And for a moment

you’re not afraid. Remember

Blake’s angels, how they leaned
toward each other, and balanced
by touching only the tips of their wings?
Between their bodies, a space

like the one just after rain begins, when rain
isn’t rain, but the smell
of dust lifted, something silent and clean.

The syntactic repetition in the first two stanzas is inviting, even comforting. “First dark, then” leads to “First sleep, then”—though the second occurrence becomes eventually startling. We can recall a bat’s distinct darkness against night’s darkness, and against the darkness of sleep. And we can recall the moment between noticing and naming. Here is where Jueds’ skill with lineation is most evident: For a moment, / you can’t name it. And for a moment // you’re not afraid. Remember…” The lines break at “moment,” extending that moment for the reader. Line seven serves as the fulcrum upon which the poem balances, a single-line stanza that reads as a reminder to be not afraid. But “Remember,” of course, carries the poem over its turn, the speaker describing Blake’s angels so that we seem to remember them even if we’ve never seen them. The angels balance themselves somehow because they hover above empty space—or space that is filled with meaning rather than with material structures. A thing becomes itself through time apparently, for during the immediately preceding moment, “rain / isn’t rain.” Rain is what will be, and space is filled with understanding of what will be. Jueds describes rain plausibly as “something silent and clean,” and if we’ve been reading attentively and receptively, we’re now willing to consider the bats as angels balanced on the tips of their wings, as things “silent and clean.” We might resist such an suggestion almost reflexively, until we remember the poem’s central caution: “you’re not afraid. Remember.” I appreciate the suggestiveness of this poem, not so much in its identification of bats with angels, for that identification relies on the clear logic of analogy, but with the next leap, the association of these flying fearsome creatures with the cleansing precision of rain.

A poem I particularly like is “Stratus clouds form” which opens the second section of the collection. The title leads into the first sentence, which is itself unusual in its syntax. The first part of the sentence consists of three clauses, one subordinate, all balanced on that most common of coordinating conjunctions, “and.” But the clauses on either side of the “and” are not balanced in their meaning as we might expect; that is, the meaning of the sentence veers toward a new direction at the “and.” “And” often signals only accumulation, so readers relax their attention. Here, we’re surprised at the shift, and we’re surprised in part because the syntax minimizes any expectation of surprise. Here is the poem:

Stratus clouds form

when a layer of air is cooled
to the saturation point, and today
I want to call it kindness:
like lilacs permitting us their scent
just sometimes, off to one side
of the entire, rain-shined bush,
mountains keep to themselves
behind gray, thinking we can’t hold
all of this at once. In Siena
I saw a leafless tree, covered
in oranges, and St. Catherine’s head
preserved behind glass in the church,
as if too much wholeness
could be too much. Then last winter I forgot
about daffodils, and felt so surprised
when they returned, yellow all the way through
like a ball of wool that, even behind
a closet door, contains the baby’s blanket
wholly in its globe, and waits
for our hands to begin.

The poem begins factually, and the fact is interesting in itself, but the poem then shifts to the undeniably subjective: “I want to call it kindness.” The poem moves through several figurative turns, including some startling visual images. The “leafless tree, covered in oranges” startles us with brilliant color, and then the head of St. Catherine startles us differently—after these references to nature, we aren’t expecting the macabre. But Jueds doesn’t include this detail as a gratuitous shock; it, too, illustrates the “kindness” the universe extends to human beings. We are limited creatures, intellectually and emotionally as well as physically. Yet the kindness the universe extends also implies fulfillment: water vapor contains the cloud even before the air is cooled; the head suggests the body even when severed from it; and finally, the ball of yarn contains the blanket the hands will knit. Most crucial to this final image, of course, is the requirement of human participation.

Having read this book, I find myself thinking differently. These are poems of quiet revelation. They show me a mind thinking, in images and through metaphor, turning an idea over and then over again. Reading Jueds’ work feels like walking around a large scuplture, noticing how it seems to move of its own accord, responding to our angle of vision. I won’t say I’m looking forward to her next book, not yet, because Keeper provides me with enough to mull over until that next book arrives.

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Regular readers of this blog will note that Kacey Jueds has contributed a couple of guest reviews. In the interest of full disclosure, I want to state that my relationship with her is limited to correspondence regarding those reviews.

Review of After the Tornado by Diane Hueter

Hueter coverDiane Hueter. After the Tornado. Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013. 87 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

After the Tornado by Diane Hueter is the most character driven collection of poetry I’ve read in quite some time. Individually, the poems are (apparently) autobiographical lyrics exploring family and landscape—and the effect of landscape on family. Some members of the family appear in poem after poem, however, so the cumulative effect is—not exactly a story—but a presentation of atmosphere that suggests story. While the collection itself illustrates a narrative impulse, the individual poems vary sufficiently in style to keep the reader engaged and even occasionally surprised.

In “Digging Clams at Sequim Bay,” the speaker visits her childhood coastal home, recalling both the childhood and the occasions she took her own children to visit. But her memory is imprecise; she remembers her longing more intensely than she remembers the individuals who accompanied her:

Did I stand there with Josie
Balanced on my hip?
Or was it Erin, years later?
Someone whimpered over the cold
The sand
The wind

I watched the houses across the iron bay
To see if anyone came out
Paused at the shore
Or got in a boat to chug away.
No one did.

Through the light fog
The houses, red and white toys,
Lay scattered along the bank.
I waited for the fisherman
Or his wife
To stand waving from the headland
A miniature lighthouse
A beacon to the farther shore.

This center section of the poem is disconcerting not simply because the speaker can’t remember which child she held at the moment of this memory, but also because the speaker herself seems so alone in a desolate landscape. In another context, the “light fog” could become almost romantic, as slightly out-of-focus photographs can seem romanticized, but here, in the cold at the “iron bay,” the fog serves only to separate, to conceal. No one emerges from the houses; no one offers acknowledgment; no one serves as guide. Within the next several stanzas, the speaker recalls generalized experiences, those that occurred over and over again through each summer, until they seem like one extended memory. Finally, in the last stanza, she decides, “It must have been the summer we felt / Death hovering in the fog.” But even this understanding does not clarify her earlier confusion. The poem ends with this question: “Which damn child whispers into the sleeve of my coat / I’m cold, I’m cold, I’m cold?” The intensity of the emotion—“Which damn child”—suggests that the speaker is unusually invested in this memory. Readers, of course, understand that the cold whispering child may be neither Josie nor Erin, but the speaker herself waiting yet, her own childhood superimposed upon her children’s, comfortless still.

A poem with a similar but more ominous mood occurs close to the end of the collection. In “Icicles” a character identified only as “she” receives a phone call from her father announcing that a third character, “you,” has died. Similarly to “Digging Clams at Sequim Bay,” “Icicles” opens in darkness, cold, and isolation: “She stood in the chilled and darkened room / because the only telephone was in a room / shut off each year against the cold.” The woman listens to her father deliver his news, unsurprised at its content though startled by her own eventual reaction:

But it was the season they lost the pup to coyotes,
and the neighbor’s dog slaughtered all their chickens
when they were at work.
The winter they marveled at water spilled from a jug.
The time it froze as it hit the cooking pot—
then froze in the jug, too.

So it was winter when she learned of your death.

Images follow, of winter details, of ice—both so beautiful and so dangerous. Her father wouldn’t understand that for some people, including his daughter, this death might be good news. “You” is not someone she plans to mourn. The poem itself doesn’t reveal why the woman responds as she does, only that

for a moment, she was ready suddenly to say
as if it poured from her like water—

Good
Good I’m glad

But she stopped,
because it hurt so much she couldn’t see.

“Icicles” is one of the few poems in the collection not narrated in the first person, though it’s reasonable to assume a relationship between the “she” in this poem and the “I” in many of the others. Read in the context of the entire collection, “Icicles” gains meaning, similarly to how individual stories within collections of linked short stories acquire significance through their context. I won’t reveal here the interpretation other poems in After the Tornado suggest; instead, I will only compliment Hueter on her restraint. The poem is as effective as it is because readers can sense the effort at self-control the news demands of the woman.

At first glance, After the Tornado seems to be about the hardships of life on an unforgiving land. It seems to be about natural disaster. And it is about these things. More significantly though, the poems address personal disaster, as Hueter takes up the task of describing—through figurative language because literal language is insufficient—the effects of such disasters.

Review of Particular Scandals by Julie L. Moore

Moore coverJulie L. Moore. Particular Scandals. Cascade Books, 2013. 84 pgs. $13.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Particular Scandals, Julie L. Moore’s second full-length collection, is a book about faith and trust, family and nature, the glory and horror of each of those things. The speaker’s faith here is informed and open-eyed and subject to interrogation. The speaker celebrates her family members but also acknowledges loss. Creatures and plants enter the poems as they often do our lives, evoking our awe but also warning us away. Addressing these topics, a less capable or less honest poet would have defaulted to the romantic or perhaps surrendered to rage; Moore chooses instead to stand her ground, turning away from neither beauty nor pain.

From this perspective, the two most thematically significant poems are the opening one, “Amen and Amen,” and the ten-part title poem, “Particular Scandals.” In “Amen and Amen,” the speaker sits outside as night descends, listening to her daughter “playing the piano, / singing Cohen’s Hallelujah, / her voice rising, the keys / stirring sparrows in pine trees and maples.” This particular song, of course, stirs many listeners—and the temptation for the writer could be to hope the evocative force of Cohen’s art would carry the emotional weight of the poem. But in the next stanza, Moore veers away from, even undercuts, “Hallelujah”: “but I’m reading O’Connor, considering displaced / persons, the ungodly ways we ruin one another.” The poem then lists several ways contemporary American social forces have “ruin[ed] one another” before shifting focus to monarch butterflies and their poisonous defenses. Here she again briefly evokes Cohen: “how terrible they taste. Hallelujah.” Then the speaker turns to her own physical pain before returning, finally, a dozen stanzas after introducing her daughter’s music, to that haunting song: “Ashley sings on, as though her breath’s / no longer her own, absorbed now / in benediction. Our amen un- // broken, like a world without end.” Moore isn’t simply rehearsing or commenting on Cohen—she has expanded the effect of the song by applying it to a new, unanticipated context. The concluding lines of the poem are particularly effective. I am usually not a fan of hyphenating words at line breaks because so often the motive is simple linguistic cleverness. Here, though, the last line acquires an entirely new, and challenging, meaning: “broken, like a world without end.” The world continues because it is broken, even if the “amen” itself is unbroken.

“Particular Scandals” is the most formally complex and inventive poem in the collection. The opening section consists of descriptions of multiple human tragedies, the sort that encourage us to question either God’s goodness or God’s power. The speaker turns in that direction, but then questions herself, and the organization of her responses is what I find most interesting about this poem:

3.

Why not disavow God, and say, once
and for all, he does not exist,
or if he does, he is not good?

4.

Yet.

5.

Think: Tomorrow morning when I rise
with the sun to start another day,

will I notice the particular
drops of dew glistening like stars?

Section five continues with images that appeal to our desire to connect with something divine. But then section six acknowledges that we often fail to notice these aspects of our environment, intent on the smaller details immediately before us. Finally, section ten urges us back toward praise:

Hyacinth and huckleberry.
Hopkins’ beloved bluebell.
Deepening. Blooming.
Like the intelligent

design of a newborn’s lungs.
Isn’t it scandalous, I wonder, to praise
nothing
for creating beauty

as particular as these?

Which is worse, to refuse divinity as a response to pain, or to ignore it in the presence of beauty? I admire the presentation of a mind thinking in this poem, and I also admire the disruptive effects of some of the section breaks. Thought staggers in this poem before it comes to its resolution, as our thinking often lurches about before we reach clearness. The central idea of this poem isn’t new—human beings have been cursing and questioning and praising God for millennia—but Moore has made it new through her attention to concrete imagery as well as the rhythm of the poem’s development.

In several of the poems, Moore refers directly to several other writers—Hopkins, Hemingway, Longfellow—but the influence I hear most strongly is Dickinson. Moore relies on aspects of nature to develop her themes in that slightly off-kilter way typical of Dickinson, and in some of the poems, the speaker enters the metaphor in straightforward fashion, also characteristic of Dickinson. These features are particularly evident in several poems in the center and toward the end of the collection, “Royal Candles,” “Hells Angels,” “Chicory.”

Finally, I also want to state that Particular Scandals is thoughtfully constructed as a collection, with the poems often arranged to enhance the meaning of those that surround them. “Christmas Stillborn,” for instance, is followed by “What We Heard on Christmas Day,” such that anticipant waiting becomes ironic even if nevertheless faithful. The next poem is “Wonder,” addressed to the incarnated infant Jesus. Because of the arrangement, we cannot read about the “wonder” of incarnation without recalling the infant who did not breathe in “Christmas Stillborn,” a poem that concludes with lines that look forward to the poems that follow: “We wonder at the grave / of our anticipation.” Individually and collectively, the poems in Particular Scandals reward slow, close reading.

 

Review of Zion by TJ Jarrett

Jarrett cover

TJ Jarrett. Zion. Crab Orchard Review & Southern Illinois Press, 2014. 73 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

What is it that makes TJ Jarrett’s Zion so compelling, I’ve asked myself in the weeks since I’ve read it. The voice, of course. Yes, but what is it about the voice? The collection consists of a series of poems in which the characters respond to, negotiate, live through, and forgive one another for their American culture of racism, particularly in the early-to-mid 20th century south. A prominent reference throughout the book is Theodore Bilbo, the viciously racist governor of Mississippi and U.S. senator. Given this content, we might expect a jeremiad, since rage is an appropriate response to racism—and I often associate the prophetic mode with a character like Jeremiah or a sermon title like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The voice of Zion is prophetic, for it is filled with truth, but it is also restrained, direct, quiet. Its restraint is enhanced by its form; although the collection contains some prose poems and free verse arranged into longer stanzas, most of the poems are written in couplets, the stanzaic choice whose appearance on the page most suggests control.

Although its title might suggest reassurance or healing or redemption, one of the most frightening poems in the collection is “Meridian, MS 1958: My Grandmother Meditates on the Miracles of the Christ.” Here it is in its entirety:

In the world we knew, what went blind stayed blind.
What was laid low, languished. The world we knew was dark

but manageable. The world we knew favored speed
or steel. Or both. We could run when they took up arms or

we could square the body against the pain we each would know.
The world revealed itself in this way, the choice it offered.

Hard then, to pray for more than this. But we did pray. Oh,
how we prayed. We prayed to the river to spare us flood. To the trees

and their turning. To the wind and its lamentation. If you know
nothing of prayer, know this: to pray is to ask—Lord, will we be delivered?
 
The world we knew said no. Said wait. Said no again. To pray is to ask—
Lord, have mercy. The world we knew said no, said wait, said wait.
 
And the Lord said unto us: You ask not for My mercy; go forth
and ask your brethren. And we were sore and right afraid.

In this poem, “the Lord” appears to refuse to intervene in history, to turn the minds of “your brethren” toward repentance or justice. Yet “the Lord” does respond to the speaker with clear if terrifying instructions. This representation of “the Lord” is Biblically consistent, for God is seldom presented there as relieving people of danger—though God does generally accompany Biblical characters through danger. This is how the title begins to make sense, for readers might reasonably ask what “Miracles of the Christ” appear in the poem. Most readers will be aware of the varieties of racial violence the speaker might have witnessed or experienced—“we could square the body against the pain we each would know”—but we also know that change came.

The success of this poem depends in part on the depth of its theme, but it also occurs through Jarrett’s skill with craft. The regularity of the couplets is balanced by the rhythmic variety in the lines. Only half of them are end-stopped, for instance, and most of the lines contain caesuras—sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes more, a few syllables into the line, or midway through it, or nearly at its break. These caesuras occur because Jarrett exploits her options in sentence length and grammar, layering the line upon the sentence rather than simply reproducing the sentence or other grammatical unit with the line. And the line breaks often reinforce the content, “To the trees / and their turning” for instance, or “The world we knew said no, said wait, said wait. // And the Lord said…” This poem is an excellent example of what a poet can accomplish by considering the effects of a sentence in relationship to the effects of a line.

A secondary motif of this collection has to do with the relationships between figurative language and that other language we believe is literal. In “Miss Polly Experiences the Consequences of Gravity,” the speaker asserts, “To be free of metaphor is a mercy.” Some titles draw insistent attention to language as language—“How a Question Becomes a Lie” and “How the Past Tense Turns a Whole Sentence Dark.” In a prose poem toward the end of the collection, the speaker describes a woman making paper birds out of napkins. Then, “she crossed the room to the hearth and threw a bird into the flames, then another, then another until she had destroyed all she created. Years later when I asked her what she meant, she couldn’t remember. The worst has already happened to us, she said. What good is metaphor now?” In a lengthier analysis, one could evaluate the relationships among the literal, the figurative, and racism. For language is a prominent technology of power—think of the number of nouns created to reinforce racial categories. As readers of poetry, however, we presumably value metaphor, not because it is decorative or because it can divert us from fact or even because it can sometimes be particularly memorable. We value metaphor because it can reveal a kind of truth that more literal language sometimes cannot. Consider, for example, the last lines of the book, from “Theodore Bilbo and I at Last Turn Face to Face”:

…But there is this:
once there was me and there was you

and from my mouth like a shock of doves
comes forgiveness. Believe me,

I am as surprised as anyone.

The simile in these lines, “like a shock of doves,” is part of the reason the speaker’s acknowledgment of forgiveness is persuasive. She opens her mouth and doves burst forth—not magic but miracle. Most of the miracles in the Bible are stories of healing, and that is the story here too.

I’m grateful to have come across TJ Jarrett’s work. I’m grateful for the time I was able to set aside to linger over her poems. And I’m grateful for the poems and their challenge—to write better, to live better.

 

 

 

Review of The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, edited by Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman

Aiger and Silverman coverDeborah Ager and M.E. Silverman, eds. The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. Bloomsbury, 2013. 329 pgs. $29.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

In their introduction to The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, editors Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman suggest that the parameters of inclusion in this anthology are broad. They implicitly define “contemporary” to include poets born after 1945, that is post World War II, an obviously defining moment in Jewish and Jewish American history. Although I can easily think of a few influential Jewish American poets whose ages make them ineligible for this collection, a cut-off date of 1945 nevertheless means that most living poets could be represented. Similarly, the editors define “Jewish” as an ethnic category that subsumes the religious category also known as “Jewish.” That is, religious observance isn’t a requirement for the poet, nor is a religious theme a requirement for the poems—although many of the poems do take Jewish ritual, belief, and practice as their topics.

The anthology includes the work of well over 100 poets, that number in itself testimony to its inclusive nature, most poets represented by 1-3 poems. Contributors range from household names (at least in poetic households)—David Lehman, Charles Bernstein, Liz Rosenberg, Edward Hirsch—through mid-career poets—Susan Rich, Arielle Greenberg, Ruth L. Schwartz—to poets who haven’t yet published their first collection—Sandra Cohen Margulius, Rachel Trousdale, Onna Solomon. Such an array of poets is among the anthology’s strengths, although it also of course makes the task of reviewing more difficult. Before I’d read even 100 pages, I felt overwhelmed, for I’d already paused over so many good poems, and I’d already noted at least a dozen titles by the contributors that I should check out. So I’ll just admit here that the poems I will discuss represent a tiny percentage of those I could discuss.

“Relax” by Ellen Bass is filled with humor and good advice. We needn’t worry about the future, the poem implies, because it’s bound to be filled with misfortune. Here are the opening lines:

Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door…

The juxtaposition of the elements in this list suggest that we grieve the significant and insignificant alike, that we cling to the mundane, that we will each likely experience some calamity we’d not even thought to be concerned about. This list is effective because the elements are both precise and universal. But all is not lost, even when all is lost. Here’s the last third of the poem:

There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice—one white, one black—scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

The taste and scent and texture of a single strawberry makes all of the other disasters worth it. The poem develops through the accumulation of detail, and seems to be primarily a clever list that will easily persuade us to continue reading—though perhaps not bear up to rereading if it remains simply a clever list. The Buddhist story seems initially to comment on the speaker’s worries—life may be bad, but it could always get worse. But the poem turns here, not toward further tragedy but toward pleasure. And the turn leads to the most overt Jewish reference in the poem: “Oh taste.” “And see,” we might want to say, “how good the Lord is,” completing the line from psalm 34. The allusion is more oblique than many, but the imagery enacts the lesson from the psalm, three lines developing an image that appeals to nearly every human sense, as if (think of it!) sensual pleasure is what we are made for.

“The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashern” by Philip Schultz is much more serious, its solemn tone a response to its solemn subject. Observing a group of photographs, the speaker imagines what knowledge these children have acquired: “They understand they are no longer children, / that death is redundant, and mundane.” The speaker questions God, and the children question God, that divine being who this time does not intervene in history. The poem concludes with lines that straddle resignation and acceptance:

We look at their faces and their faces look at us.
They know we are pious.
They know we grieve.
But they also know we will soon leave.
We are not their mothers and fathers,
who also could not save them.

The line breaks here follow the structure of the sentences, and the sentence structure is equally straightforward, each one beginning subject-verb. The tone—objective, neutral—permits the horror of the event to be made manifest.

The editors of this anthology have done an extraordinarily good job in representing the diversity of American Jewish poetry. It is diverse not only in the ways they state in their introduction, but it’s also stylistically diverse, so it avoids the monotony of some anthologies wherein the poets are too aesthetically similar. Yet regardless of style, the poems are consistently energetic and engaging. It’s a collection I want to return to, though I hesitate, because it’s also a collection that encourages me to seek out further work by so many of these contributors.

Review of Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney

McLarney coverRose McLarney. Its Day Being Gone. Penguin, 2014. 93 pgs. $20.00.

Reviewed by Kasey Jueds, guest reviewer.

“Is the rendering of precise image a form of attention to this world or a means of departure from it?” Melissa Kwasny asks in Earth Recitals: Essays on Image & Vision (Lynx House, 2013). “Is the non-human another dimension we have been excluding or is the non-human a symbol masking a symbolic or mystical dimension, an other than earthly dimension? Do animals and plants stand for something else, and thus, lose their value as beings that exist?”

I’m reading Its Day Being Gone and Kwasny’s book in Wisconsin, at my family’s farm, in my own place of rivers and histories: Rose McLarney’s poems abound with both, and with the non-human presences of chickens, fish, dogs, cougars—her words, and the meadow I walk into every day here, making Kwasny’s questions about the more-than-human world and how to take our place, to write, within it, even more alive.

“I said I would never use animals/as the figures for my sorrow again,” McLarney writes in the book’s first poem, “Facing North,” which is, in part, about euthanizing a goat. I love this admission, its honesty, its hard look at the question of what and whom we do use in order to make things. And I love it that the next lines turn this sort-of promise on its head, as effortlessly as feelings change inside the body, and with the same dizzying suddenness:

But when the goat dropped shot,
the bread I’d brought to get her
to put her head down still in her teeth,
the chickens pecked at it.

I’m still here. I can’t stay away
from the hard images. Bread
taken from her mouth even then.

Throughout the book, these dazzling shifts: from precise seeing of the physical world to the mysterious, the abstract, the dim interior of the speaker’s mind and heart—and then back again: graceful, seamless. In “Redemption,” the lines weave between the bears the speaker’s watching and her unanswered, unanswerable questions about faith, belief, what it means to be human. “Are bears like humans,” she asks, “haunted/by deaths or the less definite and so ceaseless losses/that are love?” These poems take up Kwasny’s questions about the non-human world as image and as itself by embodying those questions: by their clear-eyed looking, their stepping back to see the bears, or the spilled organs of the shot buck in “Guts, Gleam,” twined with their stepping forward, into mysterious layers of feeling and spirit.

McLarney’s poems are like the bodies of water she keeps returning to: smooth surfaces over a deep, tangled, often contradictory, and fully human emotional life. In “Watershed,” an Appalachian river hides not just fish but trashed cars: “I swam over a wreck for years without seeing it until I grew old enough,/got long legs, and something soft and slick wrapped around my toe,/a seat belt unloosened, rotten backseat leather unfurling in current,/drawing me down to the metal below. Imagine where such/waters could let you drift.” In “Imminent Domain,” whole towns lie below a dam-created lake. The speaker, vacationing, swims above them, but she can’t stop thinking and feeling her way beneath the surface, can’t “stay away from the hard images,” can’t stop looking or writing: “My thoughts should swim/with darkness, hearths gone cold, emptied graves,/fish slipping slick-bellied over stones,/when I turn on an electric lamp.” In her fierce seeing of herself among the other people and creatures who inhabit her poems, McLarney’s speaker is both individual, etched against deer and mechanics, and woven among them, part of the same cloth.

The poems’ graceful musicality makes reading them—swimming in them—feel full of ease: I read through the whole book in one sitting. It’s the unsettled and unsettling emotional life underneath the poems’ surfaces that is difficult, often painful. In “Arcadia,” a woman burns down her own house because she’s “that desperate for something new,” while the poem’s speaker tries to do the opposite: let go of desire, purify her life, put away her own yearning for change. One of the last poems in the book, “I Float,” flips the ache for the ruined towns of “Imminent Domain” upside down: here a flooded river wrecks the speaker’s family’s harvest, but the speaker is dazzled (though she knows she should be distressed) by the damage:

The leaves wafted, the rounds
of fruits that had hung,
though ruined, were buoyant now.
Broken by refraction, they changed
to baubles I wanted.

The flood was a costumer, a jeweler.
And the way water cut ordinary sights,
that was appealing labor:
making stone toss about weightless light.

Everywhere, within and between poems, Its Day Being Gone tugs between poles: past and future, staying and leaving, finding contentment with what is and longing for something other. But because the book makes such a glowing whole, it argues for—it is—a place where those seeming opposites fuse. They will keep tugging at each other, but the poems take that tugging and turn it, miraculously, into a place to rest, a place where beauty and truth-telling offer a profound solace. In that way, they are a form of redemption.

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Review of Second Sky by Tania Runyan

Runyan cover

Tania Runyan. Second Sky. Cascade Books, 2013. 73 pgs. $12.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

In Second Sky, Tania Runyan’s third full-length collection of poetry, she has taken a unique approach to her content—even given the fact that her previous two collections, Simple Weight (2009) and A Thousand Vessels (2011), also find their inspiration in the Bible. Here, the poems either focus on the life of Paul or respond to lines from his letters—nearly every epistle attributed to Paul has inspired at least one poem in this collection. What makes Runyan’s approach unique, however, is the relationship between Biblical verses and the poems. Nearly all of the poems include a citation, e.g. 1 Cor 1:25 or Eph 2:9 as an epigraph; when the epigraph refers to Acts of the Apostles, the poems most often respond to the life of Paul as narrated there, but when the epigraph refers to one of Paul’s epistles, Runyan uses a quotation from that verse as her title, e.g. “The Fruit of the Spirit,” “God’s Folly.” Such a strategy could quickly descend into gimmick. Runyan, however, uses these scriptural passages as points of entry, as commentary on contemporary life, just as the descriptions of contemporary life in the poems serve as commentary on the scripture. The poems acquire a richness and depth through their allusive titles; they expand the significance of the titles while the titles reveal a potentially greater weightiness to the poems.

This is not to say, however, that the poems are unrelentingly somber or simplistically pietistic. In fact, the speaker in these poems reveals her character flaws as forthrightly as I’ve seen in contemporary American poetry. “The Fruit of the Spirit” is filled with self-deprecating humor. The speaker acknowledges that, like many of us, she would find it easier to maintain her faith if God would just provide, well, a sign:

If the Spirit left me a bushel of pears
on the counter, I’d find it easier to believe
than any possession of peace

or self-control—waking without belly
dread or keeping Cherry Garcia
in the freezer for more than twelve hours.

Here is a woman after my own heart—those pints of Cherry Garcia are so small, after all, and twelve consecutive hours are so unreasonably long. The reference to Cherry Garcia plays on the “Fruit” of the title, of course, but it also aligns orthodox Christian spirituality with the trivia of our daily lives—for many of us likely do spend more time thinking about ice cream than we do about peace on earth. Cherry Garcia also points toward a brand, for if we know Cherry Garcia, we know Ben & Jerry’s, and the poem’s strategy suggests that these branded products might compose part of our spirituality. A couple of lines later, the speaker’s son “spills a lime green MegaSlush in the car.” Does the speaker demonstrate wisdom, understanding, fortitude, or any of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that mere objects hold very little meaning in the great scheme of things, even when they are stained lime green? Nope. She “instead bang[s] the dash: Crap! / Pay more attention!” But then she does turn to God, wondering whether her faith has ever been authentic. Jesus responds:

Come on, you didn’t say shit, He says,

And the ice cream made it past
the ten-hour mark. That’s as sweet
as peaches in August, my friend,

that’s juice running down my beard.

Jesus, it seems, is light-hearted, forgiving, fully invested in the material world. The fun of the poem emerges from the speaker’s understanding of herself and of Jesus.

Many of the poems rely on a more serious tone, even as they also demonstrate the acceptance and grace found in “The Fruit of the Spirit.” Among the poems I find most attractive for its craft is “No One Can Boast.” The first sentence exploits the sounds available in English as it also creates memorable visual and auditory images:

On the toll way just south of Kenosha
spring sets the boarded-up porn store ablaze,
topaz dousing the peeling paint,
the harp-notes of ice on the gutters.

Aside from the article “the,” every word in this excerpt contributes to the alliteration, assonance, and consonance present in the sentence. The first line contains a series of “o” sounds, followed in the second with the alliteration of “spring sets,” which then returns to the use of “o,” this time with syllables that also function as near rhymes: “boarded-up porn store.” Then the sounds of “ablaze” are reproduced in “topaz.” The imagery reveals how transcendent even the seediest environment can seem in the right circumstances. The speaker explores this insight further in the final stanza of the poem, when the ordinary again becomes extraordinary, for no reason but that it does:

I kill the radio. Just the hum of the motor,
the pitted road, my slow, steady breath
like the syllables, Yah, weh. I didn’t work
at this joy. It just appeared in the splash
and shine of I-94, as suddenly as these Frisbees
and sand buckets in the roadside yards
laid bare by the shrinking snow.

I could spend several more pages analyzing the thematic developments of this poem—its rich with imagery, and its layered meaning rewards close attention. But I’ll simply conclude with a comment on the facility Runyan has with ordinary language—in the midst of all of this attractive imagery, she inserts straightforward lines: “I didn’t work / at this joy. It just appeared…” We’re left with a recognition of how the least significant of objects and moments can lift our spirits, of how reassured we can be by the turning of time.

When I initially picked this book up, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it, for Paul is not among the Biblical figures I generally feel most drawn to. I suspect Runyan has read his epistles more carefully than I have, though, and thought about them more deeply. These poems are fully immersed in Paul’s language and life; they are also fully immersed in the language and life of the 21st century. Given how imaginatively Runyan has written about the Bible in her recent three books, I’m intrigued to see what she’ll do next.

 

Review of No Need of Sympathy by Fleda Brown

Brown cover

Fleda Brown. No Need of Sympathy. BOA Editions, 2013. 87 pgs. $16.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

All poems, I’m told, are love poems in one way or another, and the object of all love poems is really the language in which it’s written. Fleda Brown’s most recent collection, No Need of Sympathy, is all about language, and imagination, and memory, and perspective. Perhaps these four nouns ultimately refer to the same thing, but the poems in this book are characterized by a playful variety that doesn’t boil down to just one thing. The poems often develop surprisingly, as one idea leads to another and then turns back on itself, so that one sometimes continues reading just to see where these words will go. More than many contemporary poets I read, Brown relies on rhyme and received form, but she does so subtly, as if the form were almost a coincidence. She is clearly a skilled poet, and her skill is perhaps most evident in the fact that she wears it so lightly.

The collection opens with a poem called, “For, Or, Nor.” Those of us experienced in teaching basic grammar find ourselves often reciting “and, or, but, for, so, nor, yet” the list of coordinating conjunctions students may use to correct their run-on sentences. Despite their identical grammatical purpose, however, and despite our temptation to view them as mere place-holders in a sentence, the conjunctions alter the meaning of a sentence and occasionally also alter our perceptions of a speaker. Brown’s poem explores how language both reveals and forms person and persona. Here is the first stanza of the first section, “For”:

“I’m leaving you,” she said, “for you make me sick.” But
of course she didn’t say that. She thought the “for”; she admired
its elegant distance, the way it’s wedged like an iron strut
between result and cause, the way it’s almost “far,” and dire

as a raised eyebrow.

“For” is certainly among the more formal of coordinating conjunctions, and it is used in ordinary conversation much less frequently than most of the others, as the speaker recognizes. It’s formality does suggest distance. The speaker’s analysis of “for,” here is intriguing, for she initially claims to admire “its elegant distance,” as if it signals class—the sort of personality for whom “a raised eyebrow” would be “dire,” but then “it’s wedged like an iron strut”—it’s forceful, even implicitly violent. My favorite compositional detail in this stanza, though, is the inclusion of “But” at the end of the first line. It not only amplifies the insistence of “But,” but it also serves to gather in one of the conjunctions otherwise missing from the center of the poem.

The second section of the poem, “Or,” finds it controlling metaphor in Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the Pastoral, which the speaker describes according to its compilation of options: “repeat and repeat, always with variation.” The third conjunction, “Nor,” excludes rather than permits options, and this section of the poem becomes more somber. If in the first section the speaker is experimenting with persona, in the third section it’s her life rather than her personality that’s at stake:

As a flower sheds petal after petal, as further tests
strip away one after another of the last hopes for a cure,
as a person shakes into the waste bin all her cigarettes
and goes down the street not knowing who she is, the pure

air of saints is achieved by abandonment: Jesus in the garden
alone, cold moon disappearing, Buddha at the morning star,
mind emptied of its snarl of ignorance. Neither to harden
against loss, nor to welcome it. To let it be who you are.

The accumulation of choices available through “or” are absent here; choice is negated through “nor.” Through the positions of her figures of speech and allusions in this section, Brown has constructed multiple layers of meaning. Initially, it seems that the petals lost from the flower are compared to the hope lost through medical tests—and those two events are compared here—but then they both come to refer to “the pure / air of saints…achieved by abandonment.” The stanza break in this section serves as its fulcrum, as the speaker moves from hopelessness and disorientation toward acceptance and neutrality. The return to “nor” in the last line is particularly telling, for it doesn’t close off an option, exactly, as we expect “nor” to do. Yet it doesn’t exactly open itself to options either. Rather, it disengages itself from attachment to one future or another; it permits the speaker to be simply who and what she is.

The rhyme in this last stanza is particularly effective, as the “a” rhymes—garden / harden—are also near rhymes with the “b” rhymes—star / are. In fact, Brown uses similar near rhymes to fulfill the rhyme pattern in earlier stanzas, as “admired” rhymes with “dire” in stanza one and “where” rhymes with “repaired” in stanza four. The concluding stanza, therefore, functions to enclose the formal strategies Brown has chosen earlier in the poem as well as to fulfill its thematic intent.

In several of her poems, Brown incorporates multiple sources of knowledge, juxtaposing one image against another and then developing the first as metaphor for the second. This works particularly well in “Sugar, Sugar” which initially seems to be about a sugar maple, and then seems to be about the ubiquitousness of refined sugar, but ultimately reveals its central concern—a girl’s adolescent development. She experiences herself as quickened energy, like what she tastes in “Pepsi, its sugar- / fizz, and the frozen orange clouds of the Dreamsicle, the slow / caramel centers of the Milky Way…” Each of these is like “lightning up my body,” and her body is also like the tree:

…It was so far away, so far from the tip
of a tree to the ground, yet the waters traveled through the narrow
tubes and arrived from roots and leaves, and the trunk slowly
thickened with its quiescent heartwood that shored up
all the rest, that was, really, quite finished with all the rest,
that let itself be wrapped by the sugar-hyped layers, so it could
think. It was not really thinking. What was it doing,
not bothering to call itself happy or sad?

This poem is an exploration of growth and of life, obviously, but it is also an exploration of how creates meaning and invites us to accept our own meaning. Brown exploits this strategy in several other poems here, many of which are among my favorites: “The Kayak and the Eiffel Tower,” “My Father and Hemingway Go Fishing,” “The Dead,” “The Puffball.” No Need of Sympathy is a collection that is clearly contemporary and yet understands its place in tradition; it is serious without being somber, playful without defaulting to the merely clever. The poems are set in specific geographic locations and often mention individual human beings, and their particularity succeeds in that paradox we hope for from literature, in reading of another to understand ourselves, “To let it be who you are.”

Review of Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

Szybist cover

Mary Szybist. Incarnadine. Graywolf, 2013. 70 pgs. $15.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Late in 2013, I asked a group of friends about their favorite collections of poetry published during that year. Several mentioned Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine. Perhaps it was fate or destiny or maybe just coincidence, but the next time I wandered into a small bookstore that generally stocks very little contemporary poetry, I saw Incarnadine on the shelf. I picked it up and quickly understood why so many readers had found it so compelling, and why it won the National Book Award in Poetry for 2013. This book explores the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to suggest that she would become the mother of Jesus, from multiple angles and through numerous forms. Szybist’s skill with poetic craft permits her to construct a collection that is wildly imaginative. She links this story to historic persons from medieval Cathars to Kenneth Starr and George W. Bush; she retells it by listening to girls complete a jigsaw puzzle and by diagramming a sentence. She examines canonical artistic renditions, and she contributes her own words to a mural at the Pennsylvania College of Arts & Design. She doesn’t, in other words, simply repeat, repeat, repeat, or even revise, revise, revise; she exploits her obsession in order to make it new in each poem.

The collection opens with “The Troubadours Etc.,” a poem that situates us clearly in our postmodern 21st century, when we so often default to irony, deflecting belief (whether religious or not) rather than engaging with it. The poem begins:

Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.
Not their curtsies or cross-garters
or ever-recurring pepper trees in their gardens
promising, promising.

At least they had ideas about love.

Of course troubadours are easy to mock, with their stylized gestures, their flamboyant clothing, their apparent willingness to sacrifice so much comfort for romance. Yet the speaker and her companion are also traveling, following a highway west toward some unstated destination. Their setting includes pastoral details—cornfields, cows, sheep—but they are undercut by images of mechanized modernity. The cows, for example, are “poking their heads / through metal contraptions to eat,” and the sheep are surrounded by “huge wooden spools in the fields” and “telephone wires.” The speaker eventually reveals her own longing:

The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love
only through miracle,
but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through,
how to make themselves shrines to their own longing.
The spectacular was never behind them.

The spectacular, in other words, was before them. They moved toward it. Yet that time is over, or perhaps only seems so:

At what point is something gone completely?
The last of the sunlight is disappearing
even as it swells—

Just for this evening, won’t you put me before you
until I’m far enough away you can
believe in me?

Then try, try to come closer—
my wonderful and less than.

At its conclusion, the poem urges a return to something like the troubadour’s belief in what lies ahead rather than only behind. This poem instructs us how to read the collection, taking an idea seriously, acknowledging our place in history and tradition. For what is a poet if not a troubadour, even one who discounts the identification by attaching “Etc.” to her title? And what is a troubadour but someone devoted to the beloved’s absence? Yet the collection is more than a troubadour’s love lyrics, for it acknowledges that while the Annunciation is a love story, it’s a story of many other things also—power, fear, violence, embodiment.

Yet tradition needn’t be solemn or even serious. “Update on Mary” is a tongue-in-cheek prose poem that quickly suggests an identification between Mary Szybist and Mary the mother of Jesus. Its opening sentence suggests that good intentions might not have changed much in 2000 years: “Mary always thinks that as soon as she gets a few more things done and finishes the dishes, she will open herself to God.” This Mary worries about her wardrobe, seeks order, enjoys cookies perhaps a tad too much. In another collection, the link between the two Marys—author and subject—might be less prominent, but here we’re virtually required to superimpose one woman upon the other as we continue reading. Then the fifth sentence states, “When people say ‘Mary,’ Mary still thinks Holy Virgin! Holy Heavenly Mother! But Mary knows she is not any of those things.” On the one hand, Mary Szybist could easily experience these thoughts; on the other hand, Mary the mother of Jesus could also be critiquing historic interpretations of her. This poem is among the most humorous in the collection, and the humor is refreshing, urging us not to take ourselves too seriously or our faith too solemnly.

I don’t want to spend so much time discussing the content and themes of Incarnadine that I neglect Szybist’s accomplishments with craft. The book includes poems in free verse and in form, including forms Szybist has created. But she occasionally also adapts received form, writing poems that allude to received forms without actually representing them. For example, the form of “I Send News: She Has Survived the Tumor after All” alludes to the villanelle through its rhyme scheme and tercets, with a concluding quatrain, but it does not include the salient feature of a villanelle, the repeated lines. “Annunciation: Eve to Ave” suggests a sonnet—it contains fourteen lines, rhymed abba abba cab dea, with additional internal rhymes, and many of the lines are basically iambic pentameter. But some are not. The poem takes more liberties with the form as it proceeds. And those liberties are what I admire most; the poem overtly disrupts our expectations of form, just as the event it describes must disrupt any expectation of nature and human life. Szybist understands form thoroughly enough, she is comfortable enough within poetic tradition, that her poems pay homage to these forms and also extend them.

I have read Incarnadine numerous times, as one does preparing a review. Yet I sense that I am only beginning to comprehend its depth. I look forward to keeping these poems near, for what they can teach me about poetry, yes, but more for the pleasure I experience, each time, reading them.