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.

Review of Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand by Dave Harrity

Harrity cover

Dave Harrity. Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand. Seedbed Publishing, 2013. 183 pgs. $16.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand by Dave Harrity is a unique contribution to the set of resources available to contemporary writers. It is on the one hand a writing guide, for it includes a month’s worth of daily writing exercises; on the other hand, it is a devotional book, for it approaches writing generally and poetry specifically from the perspective of a believer, one who interprets his own writing practice as poemia, the creative work of God. God’s creative nature is reflected through creation, and we who have been created as images of God participate in creation and re-creation through our own artistic enterprises. Harrity addresses his readers as Christians, and this book will be most helpful to those who are sympathetic to faith traditions and spiritual practices, of which writing can be one.

In his introduction, Harrity explains the dual identity of the book this way: “The ultimate aim of this book is two-fold: first, to demystify writing practice, but not domesticate it; second, to give you and your faith community the tools you’ll need to create art, live intentionally in and outside your own religious community, and explore the mysteries of your faith through acts of writing, like journaling and poetry” (xiii). The intended audience, therefore, is also at least two-fold: members of faith traditions seeking to enrich their spiritual practices but who might not have significant experience as writers, and writers who are hoping to further integrate their art with their spiritual lives. Many of the exercises are designed for beginning writers, but they can easily be adapted for those with more experience; at the very least, the exercises will assist experienced writers in producing work they would not otherwise have produced. I worked through each of the exercises earlier this summer, and three or four of them have led to drafts of poems that I will be hanging on to (three or four poems emerging from one month’s worth of brief exercises is a much better than average rate for me).

The book is organized into weekly chapters, each opening with a poem. Each day’s section includes a reflection piece as well as a writing exercises, and these exercises are often linked to each other and/or to the opening poem. Some of the exercises focus on content—memories, emotions, observations. Others focus on elements of craft: figurative language, word choice, imagery. I won’t summarize any of the exercises here because their effectiveness often results from the surprise of the sequence of instructions, but I will say that I expect to return to some of the exercises again, tweaking them a little bit each time in order to continue exploiting their strategies.

I worked my way through this book independently, but it could easily be used in a writing group. Harrity has included a section at the end that provides discussion suggestions and further exercises for people who want to use Making Manifest as a guide in writing communities. The book itself and particularly this concluding section is an excellent resource for parishes and congregations, spiritual formation groups, and other small group ministries that focus on spirituality and the arts. I know that I will be recommending the book, as well as Harrity’s affiliated website, http://thisisantler.com/ , in the work I’m currently doing with spirituality and writing.

Review of Estrus by Bill Neumire

Neumire cover

Bill Neumire. Estrus. Aldrich Press, 2013. 89 pgs. $12.60.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Reading through Estrus, Bill Neumire’s first full-length collection, I was both puzzled and intrigued. Rereading it, I felt my intrigue heighten, as I began to understand the logic of his craft, yet I seldom anticipated the choices he’d make next. His language often feels more detached than personal, even when a first-person speaker enters the poems, as if the writer has examined each word for its interest, the way an artist might examine each tile before inserting it into a mosaic. The poems often rely on facts about the external world for their controlling images and metaphors, and his language is both precise and surprising. The poems suggest more than they state directly. They are tantalizing—accessible word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence, yet I often felt as if I hadn’t quite grasped their full meaning. There is enough going on with rhythm and image, however, to reward rereading, and eventually the relationships among the various components become clear. I often felt that unique delight of recognizing another poet accomplishing something I wouldn’t have thought to try.

“The Arctic Tern,” one of the earlier poems in the collection, is written in free verse though clearly influenced by the sonnet. It consists of an octave and a sestet, and there is something like the sonnet’s turn between the two stanzas. Here is the first stanza:

Fact: The tern sees more daylight than any creature on earth
as it turns at each pole before the end of each summer.
At both white ends of the world there is a warmest moment,
a courtship hour when the right dance
can catch the right eye. In therapy this flight
is called avoidance. In archetype this is called the quest.
In science, migration. In a song
this is the refrain.

Neumire opens with “Fact” here, but he interprets that fact from the beginning, steering away from the apparent objectivity with which he begins. Terns are astonishing for their extreme migrations, but for the purposes of this poem, the migrations are important because they are linked by sunlight and warmth, despite our association of the poles with cold. Subjectivity enters early on, in other words, becoming obvious by the “courtship hour.” We might think we know where this poem is headed now, but we’ll be wrong, for interpretation depends on context—the therapist’s office, a discussion of depth psychology, the ornithologist’s lab, the musician’s keyboard. Reading this poem, we might immediately assume that the tern will function as a symbol, but if its flight serves as metaphor, lines five through eight warn us away from too presumptive an interpretation. I appreciate how Neumire juxtaposes two meanings from related disciplines but with such divergent connotations: “avoidance” and “quest.” Then he seems to revert to the objective, to the extent that we are willing to grant science objectivity. And then he concludes with the possibility that is most surprising to me: “In a song / this is the refrain.” It’s the pleasing return, the delightfully familiar bit upon which the rest is built. How is this so?

The second stanza seems to introduce an entirely new metaphor:

Once, overwhelmed by a patch of strawberries,
I spent the whole day running
from the biggest berry to the next biggest, stuffing
them in my red-stained mouth with my red-stained hands
not for fear of their vanishing but for the taste
that was everywhere in me.

How is a patch of strawberries related to a tern’s migration pattern we might ask. This stanza adds an additional interpretive layer to the list of possibilities from the first stanza. This poem doesn’t mourn scarcity—it’s not a fretful commentary on the limits of polar survival—but rather celebrates abundance, of strawberries, yes, but also implicitly of arctic warmth. The speaker’s ingestion of the strawberries is driven not by gluttony but by astonishment. The last line suggests how fully we merge with the world, for just as the speaker is in the world, the world is also in him. And the “fact” that permits this integration is the recognition of abundance.

Many of the poems in Estrus rely on the sort of context-less fact that begins “The Arctic Tern” as their impetus, facts that could seem like bits of trivia more suitable for a game show than a collection of poetry if Neumire weren’t in such control of metaphor. Some of the most effective poems that rely on this technique are “Think of the Bioluminescence You Do Not Emit,” “It’s the Hour of the Helpless Horse,” “A Stitch of Facts,” and “Beached Pilot Whale.” Each of these is written in conventional poetic form, with lines and stanzas, but the collection also contains several short prose poems that also achieve their purpose through the incorporation of unusual bits of information. “The City’s Pediatric Emergency Room” is one of them, and it is also one of the most moving poems in the collection. Neumire’s often matter-of-fact tone paradoxically invites the reader’s emotional response:

This morning the pig-tailed, corduroy-legged neighbor girl was erased by a red Mazda obeying the limit. She’s still there, though, like a De Kooning erased by Rauschenberg. In a box of facts, I found that one can tickle a penguin into a shattering chuckle & that babies’ eyes all begin blue. There are men in chimneys today & streets being named after berries which were named after scientists who were named after saints. Can we go on? Apparently, for the shifts are turning at the paper mill: night to graveyard, graveyard to day, manufacturing calendars with empty boxes for all your plans.

Until the last two prepositional phrases, this piece reads like an accumulation of arbitrary facts, intended to demonstrate the reality of chaos or even nihilism. Yet, the end suggests, we go on with our lives, making our plans, penciling in our commitments, as if we control our future, as if we won’t be “erased by a red Mazda obeying the limit.” There’s no one to blame for this tragedy—it might be meaningless, as empty as the boxes on a blank calendar. And yet we can’t ignore this girl, even if she’s been written over by a “box of facts.” The poem achieves its effect because it delays its sense until the end. Neumire obviously understands not only the rhythm of individual lines and stanzas, but also the rhythm of meaning as he reveals and withholds and reveals.

I’ve enjoyed reading and thinking about this collection. Many of the individual poems were originally published in such respected literary magazines as The Laurel Review, Salamander, Saint Ann’s Review, and Rattle, so Neumire obviously has readers. I hope this book will garner more.

 

 

Review of Book of Dog by Cleopatra Mathis

Mathis cover

Cleopatra Mathis. Book of Dog. Sarabande Books, 2012. 69 pgs. $14.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

At first glance, Book of Dog by Cleopatra Mathis does not seem particularly unusual. It’s arranged into three sections, the poems mostly shorter than a page and mostly justified left. Although taken together, the poems imply a narrative, taken individually they read as lyrics, focused on the speaker’s perceptions of the moment, an aesthetic inclination common to much contemporary American poetry. In other ways, however, particularly tone and content, the collection is unlike most others I’ve read. The first section of the collection, “Canis,” focuses on the dissolution of a marriage, revealed more through the geographic context of the human characters than through their actual interactions. The second section, “Book of Dog,” is a thirteen-part sequence narrating and grieving the death of a dog. The final section, “Essential Tremor,” opens further outward, describing the lives of other creatures and the speaker’s relationships with them. In this book, Cleopatra Mathis is a nature poet, but her approach is her own. The poems are neither as romantic as Mary Oliver’s often are nor as scientifically precise as those of Pattiann Rogers; nature doesn’t serve here primarily as an avenue to epiphany, nor is it the means to an interesting description. (And lest I be misinterpreted, I admire the work of both Oliver and Rogers.) Instead the poems explore encounters between the speaker and the other life forms, more fully dependent on the speaker’s personality than many nature poems are. Mathis participates in a tradition, in other words, but she makes it her own.

In the first section, the characters are often identified simply as “he” and “she.” As often occurs when relationships dissolve, neither character is particularly admirable, the “he” withdrawn and silent, the “she” resentful and accommodating. Fortunately, the poems’ attention to the sound of language and the imagery, especially as it describes the world beyond the couple, keep us reading. My favorite poem in this section, “Song of If-Only,” is stylistically unusual, though thematically linked to the others. It conveys the obsessiveness of hindsight and regret, while acknowledging the futility and irritation of both. Here is its opening sentence:

If only the bird had been alive, not something dead
delivered onto sand; and not this packed cold sand,
where nothing moves even slightly, no blow-holes,
no scurrying things, and if only the shore birds’
seaweed nests, that little piping, hadn’t been smothered
by a freak spring tide.

That’s how regret works: if only this, if only that. The sounds of this sentence attract me—the alliteration, “dead / delivered”; the assonance, “sand…packed…sand” and “no blow-holes”; the rhythmic shift between the hard “packed cold sand” and the softer “shore birds’ / seaweed nests.” The speaker continues, introducing a bit of humor and hyperbole: “O save me” and “Euphoria / just the name of the shack I want in this driving rain.” Finally, the poem concludes with self-awareness, an acknowledgement that thought patterns can retain their hold over us even when we understand their ineffectiveness:

And if only it would stop, shut itself up for good—
this off-key if only that goes on singing,
like some deranged child, repeating.

I will not discuss any of the poems in the second section at length, although they are central to the collection’s themes. My neglect of them is perhaps unfortunate for that reason, and also because the speaker’s extended close attention to a companion animal (as opposed to wilder species) is unusual. This section is best read in its entirety, however, and so I will leave it to each reader to do so.

The tightest poems in the book occur in the last section, and they are nicely balanced between imagery and interpretation. In “Magnet” the language is attractive even when the imagery disturbs:

The ocean’s fickle, especially when it’s cold June
and the packrat bands of ducks and gulls,
all the worse for their nipping and wailing, force themselves
on trash and more trash the winter tides kept hoisting up.

Humanity enters this poem only through its residue, the “trash”: “the fishing line hung from the gull’s mouth / and the ribboned balloon wound itself tight / around the dead seal’s neck…” The trash is both trite and dire, but the poem avoids preaching. Nature thrusts itself into the future, as this season’s birds hatch and plants blossom. The individual is merely representative. Even time and place, despite their continuity, become incidental as the poem offers its conclusion: “Think of it all / in motion, season to season, minute by minute, so that no one / who has been here, not one, occupies an actual place.” The poem urges its readers to abandon that anxious grasping after meaning and significance which will not be found so much as accepted with proper attention to “the sand’s / glassy quartz, even the duller grains a semi-precious stone.”

These quoted lines suggest both Mathis’ thematic concerns as she explores the human relationship to other elements of nature and her stylistic proclivities. She most often relies on concrete language and a monosyllabic vocabulary. These choices contribute most to the poems’ success, for the most memorable lines achieve their effects through this tight rhythm and vivid imagery.

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