Poetry reviews currently posted:
The little, lingering, white, lies we allow ourselves to live with by Charles Portolano (Review by Stephen Levi)
Copenhagen's Bicycle by Yearn Hong Choi (Review by Karolina Gajdeczka)
The Tao of Walt Whitman by Connie Shaw and Ike Allen (Review from ForeWord Reviews)
One Bird Falling by CB Follett (Review by Joseph Zaccardi)
Moonlight in the Redemptive Forest by Michael Daley (Two reviews posted: by Martin Abramson and by Ellen Jane Powers)
Bare Branches by Stephanie Mendel (Review by Joseph Zaccardi)
Roads of Bread: The Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles (Review by Zara Raab)
Bajo La Luz De Mi Sangre/Under The Light Of My Blood by Jorge Enrique González Pacheco (Review by Gavin O’Toole)
My Minotaur by Keith Holyoak (Review by Zara Raab)
Inquisatorial Verse 2008-2010 by Raoul A. Leblanc (Review by J. Glenn Evans)
Ordinary Mourning by Carrie Shipers (Review by Zara Rabb)
The Gift That Arrives Broken by Jacqueline Berger (Review by Zara Rabb)
Untitled Poems by Richard Kovac (Review by Zara Rabb)
My Minotaur by Keith Holyoak (Review by M. L. McCarthy. Reprinted from Candelabrum Poetry Magazine,
Swerve by Bruce Cohen. (Review by Zara Raab)
The Postman by Mun Dok-su. Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé (Review by J. Glenn Evans)
Seeded Light by Edward Byrne. (Review by Zara Raab)
The Signature of All Things - Kenneth Rexroth – DVD from Hen House Studios and Michael C. Ford. (Review by PoetsWest)
Nevertheless, hello by Christopher Goodrich. (Review by Zara Raab)
Songs from a Small Universe by Raphael Block. (Review by Joseph Zaccardi)
Storytelling – A Collection of Poems by Charles Portolano. (Review by J. Glenn Evans)
Breather by Bruce Dethlefsen. (Review by Charles P. Ries)
Stars Beyond the Battlesmoke by David D. Horowitz. (By Lana Hechtman Ayers and William Kupinse)
Selected Poems 1972-2005 by Eric Greinke. (Review by Dave Wheeler)
One of the great strengths of a Charles Portolano poem is that it is timely. Far too often, poets produce works that are good but not for this moment. Portolano does not disappoint the reader with his most recent book, The little, lingering, white, lies we allow ourselves to live with. The poems are topical, precise, and timely. “Gandhi is smiling down on us,” thinks the poet as he “walks with locked arms” across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the 1% who have hired the cops who will arrest all of them on the far side of the river.
Before Copenhagen’s Bicycle, Yearn Hong Choi wrote two other poetry books in English, including Autumn Vocabularies and Moon of New York. Like his other books, Copenhagen’s Bicycle, Yearn Hong Choi’s third poetry book in English, includes moments captured from an immigrant’s life. This book also includes scenes of travel from his retirement.
The Tao of Walt Whitman: Daily Insights and Actions
Potent reassessments emerge when unlikely threads are woven together. Authors Connie Shaw and Ike Allen, "pilgrims on the bumpy path of insight," light up the inspirational shelf with The Tao of Walt Whitman: Daily Insights and Actions to Achieve a Balanced Life (Sentient Publications,). This friendly daybook serves up pocket wisdom, starting with "Truth" and concluding with "Celebration." The entry on Tuesday, of Week 13, is typical: "How curious! how real! / Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun. Go dig in the dirt . . . beautify a spot in your yard or repot a house plant." Inspired by mystic wisdom, the smallest actions can resonate with import.
The Tao of Walt Whitman: Daily Insights and Actions to Achieve a Balanced Life, by Connie Shaw and Ike Allen, won the Gold Award in the Body, Mind & Spirit category of ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year competition. The Tao of Walt Whitman is distributed by National Book Network. Walt Whitman was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, whose mysticism, lyricism, and great heart made him beloved by many.
After reading CB Follett’s varied and wonderful poems in One Bird Falling, I found that they would sneak up on me days after I read them. They worked their way into my body. I have gone back to many of her poems and found more of the otherness they possess; her use of animals –– fox, geese, deer, pelican, dogs and horses et al –– helped me to understand more. Their sweetness ruins me; their mixture of pain and pleasure terrifies me, because what she writes about is truth, and truth is almost indefinable, since everyone has his own history and beliefs; everyone feels he has right on his side.
This is foremost a book of poems about all living things and all things that have lived. It concerns reconciliation, an accounting. The narrative thread is in the weave of their forms: incantations, allegories, concrete prose poems, stories; all done with the feel of an artist who uses the broad sweeps of her brush to create a pastiche that is both historical and personal, fictional and fantastical; a certain cursive movement of language that entices the reader.
Here, in One Bird Falling, CB Follett’s seventh full-length collection, there lie significant leaps between the political world and the natural world, leaps that bear upon the imminent concerns of today. Follett allows the travelers in her poems to act out their own tales in their own ways and gives the reader the sense that the characters, real and imagined, are receptive and reflective, and most of all vulnerable. She is acutely aware that her prophetic words make it difficult to answer the questions she poses. She follows Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken, “…the one less traveled by,” to lead us out of the desert into a garden of regeneration.
Follett gives her poems a voice that is direct and wry. The collection is a journey through its six sections. I found that by putting the section titles together, one discovers an overview of this work that can be read as a coda, as follows:
Somewhere in Time
In the section Heading Out, she begins with one of the finest poems I’ve ever read about September 11th, One Day Last Week, that builds upon this tragedy and expands it to the tragedy of our war in Iraq. In a prose poem sited in the desert of that country she writes, “Sand is the guerrilla ambush, the dirge heard in the wind. This is the enemy. This, the invincible foe.” These are strong words, and strong words are what America and the world needs to hear. The poet says, violence is wasteful, terrorism is wasteful, both are wrong.
And from section to section there are several weaves –– i.e., in the poem Odysseus,
In this book Follett attempts (and I believe, succeeds) to take a new approach to the longstanding questions and their answers, about all our longfelt and heartfelt needs. By any standard, the poems as they face each other from one page to the next are fascinating; they exude wit and humor, suffering and endurance, courage and tenacity. What they do not evince, from first poem to last poem, is cowardice.
The penultimate section deals with remembrance, past and present, of the poet’s mother, “In her tenth decade…” where the poet directly faces mortality and a daughter‘s guilt, “to watch your mother sinking in shadows.” Then Follett shifts to an earlier time, in This Is Not a Poem About My Mother, where the first line starts with these striking words, “Rather, about a young woman…” The last section, Outside, Calling, is more thoughtful, meditative and prayerful. In the poem of the same title she writes, “a cairn of stones / blue flies cracking through sunlight.” And then shifts again to a wistful poem where she imagines a life completely different, a place where she could have been “horse ridin’, boot wearin,’ “ concluding with, “How to enjoy so much space. How to call this home.”
My hope is that for those who have already read One Bird Falling, they will find something in this review to send them back to re-read and contemplate CB Follett’s work, and for those who have not yet read them, to seek out this book and return, as did Odysseus, to their own homes, to try on the body of these poems and feel the way it feels. This is poetry that does not talk to the reader; this is poetry that allows the reader to think, and to find that universal path:
Moonlight in the Redemptive Forest by Michael Daley
Originally published in Book/Mark Spring 2011 and posted here with permission of both Book/Mark Quarterly and Martin Abramson.
This collection is difficult in the manner of much modern poetry; much indeed of the very best. It recalls styles practiced by poets like Pound or Ashbery: elliptical, fragmented, personalized, ambiguous, with missing referents, elusive meanings and seemingly random geographical or temporal settings. But if poetic abundance is an indication, Mr. Daley has indeed achieved a form of ‘redemption’ in his re-creation of a long, eventful life. A list of some the book’s major venues would include Poland , Turkey , Auschwitz , Maine , Oregon and New York . Some of the characters who appear include members of the poet’s family, either viewed directly or in parable. They are often offered with titles that revisit Chaucer: “The Daughter’s Tale”, “The Wife’s Tale” and so on.
The Complex Darkness of Family
No compass is needed to walk through Michael Daley's forest. The way may be difficult, but only through the indirect light of the moon. Daley's quest in history proceeds almost in a straight line through history of family, people affected by history, and the poet. Its forest, a confessional of sorts, may indeed be a redemptive. Daley, an accomplished poet, with five books and chapbooks of poetry, combines narrative and lyric. A revealed detail or person becomes more fully realized or understandable only further into the poem, or in some cases, another poem. The connections are lyrical.
At the Jewish cemetery the puppet seller,
The difficulty Daley's poems, lies in the density of the tale, its elusive history, unhinged syntax, our uneasy connection among pronouns and characters, and its heady metaphors. Difficult, though, doesn't mean incomprehensible. This first long poem firmly establishes Daley's storytelling style.
Before the groceries and laundry,
A difficult yet revealing section, "Wake," recounts a family history from early 20th century Boston, and centered on waking of the poet's great grandfather whose story is told in a 14-page poem, "Frankie The Milkman's Song." In their Boston accents we hear about an unnamed family member: "Jaysus all that's holy molestation! She was voyolated, wasn't she." It was"[n]o dark man ever climbed a stair" and seduced her. She had lain with the husband of her sister. Within the poem's sea of pronouns and characters, and its indirections and withholdings, The child was raised not by her birth mother, but by the betrayed sister, the mother of the poet's mother.
The last section, "Meat," has important, meaty poems, that sing, like Whitman, of suffering brought about by wars and conflicts.
In "The Fire Storm," a multi-sectioned poem that ends the volume, we move through the fires of our history (Mai Lai. Fallujah. Tokyo. 9/11) personalized as Daley the story-teller does so effectively, because "When no one remembers, history ends." We sense redemption, at least for the poet, whose father was on a plane that took part in the firebombing of Tokyo.
Bare Branches, published by Red Berry Editions, is a work of art; from the way the poems are placed on the page, to the font by John Baskerville, whose letter “J” levitates above and anchors below, the lower cased letters. And to the art of Art Riggs, whose peaceful and monochromatic photograph of branches along a river wraps around the entire book.
The first section, “Listen,”opens with the title poem, “Bare Branches.”Its tone is prayer-like. The last stanza, a couplet, ends with these words of inspiration and contemplation, Soon, I hope snow will come. Like a poem, / a miracle each time it arrives. What follows are poems of loss and loneliness. The poems rise up from experience, from remembrance of a lived and shared life with Stephanie’s husband John. The impressions build from poem to poem, from place to place: Pittsburgh, and the imaginary “…town of Lionel,” to a child’s tale and a childhood’s end, to the 1960s World Series baseball game. This is not confessionalism; these are the day to day happenings that we recognize in ourselves, because Stephanie Mendel writes about the universal, she writes to and for the reader. We become a part of her joys, her hopes, her love, and, yes, the tragedies of her life.
These poems feed the heart as surely as blood in the veins feeds the body. Why do these poems of loss and sorrow bring us, not toward hopelessness, but rather toward the truth: because, as the poet writes, “…I couldn’t tell this to anyone / only interested in logic.” (p.33) Perhaps there’s an analogy here, that one must experience hunger to fully appreciate fulfillment. The opposites of satisfaction and deprivation strengthen both the body and the spirit. There are in Bare Branches poems that are meaningful but playful, such as “Secrets,” and “When Bill Mazeroski Hit His Home Run.” And in “Visitor to Vinahaven,” and “Ode to Living Alone,” poems of pleasure. The unhappy and joyous parts of all our lives are celebrated in these songs and poems. The poet raises her voice, and says that each day will become smaller, a reminder of the ones we have loved and lost; that each day there will be minutes that no one else can find. We become a choir. The breath inside the body itself. There are shadows in Mendel’s poems, they exist and they are not left unexpressed, they are not floating in the nebulous. They are discernible and solid.
In the second section, “The Beginning,”Mendel takes us through the horrible day, Tuesday, September the eleventh, 2001. She relives, relates, and tries to comprehend the terrible acts committed on this day and how it affected all of us; not just in America but throughout the whole world. She recalls the conversations between relatives and friends. The phone calls. The ringing and ringing. How we all struggled to return to some kind of normalcy. I’m reminded of the poet T. Carmi who wrote about an equally difficult time in Israel and Lebanon that took place forty years earlier. I quote here a few lines from his poem, “Diary Entry:” “I keep to my schedule. / First stop: the accountant. / What can be accounted for on such a day? / The pocket calculator lights, turns off, / adds up; it stores, remembers, / predicts what is to come.”
The final section in Bare Branches is “Every Moment a Threshold.” That title alone makes me hold my breath. I know what will transpire; I know her beloved husband John is going to die. I say to myself, I will read these last poems slowly. I will hold each page between my fingers and let what must come to pass settle in, slow down time; even back away from the threshold; let hours pass before going on to the next poem, maybe let a day or few days go by. I think while you’re reading this you know what I’m going to write next. I read all the poems straight through, almost in a rush. Line breaks and stanzas blurred. And at the end I stopped. I said out loud in a soft voice, No! Then as I promised myself, I re-read each poem with care; let the weight of what they held coalesce.
I find it interesting that Bare Branches comes after her first collection, March, Before Spring, seamlessly,and can only believe that there is yet another book to come that will complete a trilogy. From reawakening to dormancy, where the life cycle is temporarily stopped, to the predictive; before the onset of an adverse condition occurs, to the consequential, to understanding. And to ask of oneself, is it the changing of the seasons that accounts for the absence of the leaves on the branches or the surcease of the life force ― the untimely death of her husband John? It is, I think, both. It is the constant reminder of time passing.
I end this review, this tribute to a fine poet, with a short poem by her entitled, “Entering.” (p.62)
Like the infant’s outstretched arms
Bare Branches and March, Before Spring are available atAmazon.com and from National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association, NSDA online (no shipping fee or taxes). Visit Stephanie Mendel’s website at www.stephaniemendel.com.
Joseph Zaccardi is editor of the Marin Poetry Center Anthology. He is the author of two books of poetry, Vents (Pancake Press, 2005) and Render (Poetic Matrix Press, 2009). He received the Individual Artist Grant from the Marin Arts Council in 2003. He volunteers at convalescent hospitals reading poetry to the residents and they in turn recite poetry back to him.
Eugene Ruggles: Poet of Hands
Eugene Ruggles had an intensely expressive gift for opening his mind to vivid imagery and apt metaphor. It’s a powerful, hazardous gift, a rapture that could be deadly and certainly led in his case to misjudgments and occasional ruin. It was as if he made and lost himself in a single gesture, like a waterfall. It is no accident that water(s) occurs twenty times in The Lifeguard in the Snow, fifty-eight times if we include cognates like river, sea, and rain. The place that holds the water even as it falls is a pair of cupped hands, making Ruggles the Poet of Hands. Though he is often described as a poet of the heart, but in a closer look, he becomes the Poet of Hands, in a contest with hearts, Ruggles’ hands (mentioned thirty-three times) win hands down. Even in poems that do not explicitly mention hands, their gestures are integral to the poem, as in “A Simple One,” in which the poet imagines lying in his coffin beneath the ground “looking up at a wooden sky/with the rest of the immigrants/my friends the roots//waving—“ .
Ruggles finds and expresses his meanings in the simplest physical gestures, often though not always involving hands. The gestures of kneeling, folding, covering, guarding, protecting, occur again and again in Ruggles’ poems. In “Beginning Again as Morning,” we are instructed:
Ruggles’ presence in his own body, and his awareness of it is palpable in almost every one of the thirty poems in the remarkable Part I of The Lifeguard in the Snow.
This presence extends to the elements in physical contact with him, the weather, the land, the quality of light, the time of day, seasonal affects:
As with powerful actors like Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, or Anthony Hopkins, it doesn’t matter so much what is said. Alec Guinness is eloquent by his very presence. A person can speak with his entire physical body and mind. So Ruggles writes in the title poem of The Lifeguard in the Snow:
It is the way we speak to ourselves, in incomplete sentences, unmindful of grammar, when we feel something deeply.
Ruggles’ descriptions of the body are fresh, original. An old man’s arms are thin as oars / buried in the sliding daylight . A man’s dark face is packed with scars . The lover embraces the beloved, his arms like the rain about [her] . Ruggles’ understanding of the world is derives from his physical body, his very words brushing against / the ancient drawings on the walls / of the mouth . In “Love I Have Kept You Poor,” the lover withdraws this last breath / from the bank of your thigh . Ruggles’ bodies are part of a seamless fabric of living things. A logging foreman sleeps alone in the woods where, after a few hours of sleep / there are small movements in the dark / hollow where he has lain, / as when you roll back an old log / in the fields .
Of the twenty-nine poems in Part I of The Lifeguard, all but the final poem have at least a few, often several, of the cognates for weather––water, rain, snow, wind, light (or sunlight), and various cognates for the physical body––body (bodies), hand, thigh, arms, bones, earth. In The Lifeguard as a whole, body and its cognates—bones, heart, eyes, fingers, shoulders, stomach, ankle, waist, skin, thighs, chest, face, arms, hair, blood, and especially hands, occur an astounding 263 times.
John Updike, a far luckier man than working-class, last-of-a- gaggle-of-kids Ruggles, once famously described a television in one of his novels as a “warm fire.” For Ruggles, in “Lines from an Alcoholic Ward,” the television becomes, more vigorously, a raging stove into which the poet shovel[s] [his]. . . share of coal . The external world is not “out there,” it is fully incorporated by the experiencing, perceiving body. Ideas are in things, and specifically in the human body, the poet’s body: I stand in my casket light and piss / through it [63, “Deciding to Run for Office”). Describing the coming of night in the alcoholic ward, the poet writes:
In the corner of a barred window
And my hand a yard turning dark.
The poor in prayer are
In other poems, Ruggles sometimes stumbles, losing control of his image. In “The Poor Man moves through Washington, D.C.––Spring 1968” (one imagines at an anti-Vietnam war rally), the poet’s “vision [is] shaded by the scar tissue/above his heart. And he is bringing/a load of firewood in his arms./These are the different logs of his rage.” In this, and in the Earth Day poems in The Lifeguard in the Snow, written in 1973 and comprising the middle section of Lifeguard, he strains too much for a political statement. “Ending War,” for example, advises
Chain all pregnant women together
Let every stomach hear the clock
I am not sure what to make of this. Ruggles seems to lose his sea legs; ashore, he cannot quite make his way. There are remarkable poems in both Spending the Sun and Enough, the two unpublished manuscripts––“The Animal That Waits Beneath Me,” “Love’s Migration,” “The Room,” “Small Morning Prayer,” “The Unemployed Automobile Workers of Detroit,” “Homeless.” But some of the power is gone; the physical vigor of the earlier poems wanes all too often to the kinds of spiritual, political, emotional searching common to much of contemporary poetry since Lowell’s Life Studies half a century ago. Ruggles can still astound, even as he gropes for subject matter, once he returns to his core themes. “Amputee” is one of the later, unpublished poems we are blessed to have in this new volume. I quote it in full:
I listen to the dark
I empty into sleep,
In “Amputee,” Ruggles returns to the archetypal image at the heart of “The Lifeguard in the Snow,” the collection nominated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1977 when the poet was thirty-eight years old. In the unforgettable title poem of that collection from which I quoted at the beginning of this essay, the poet narrator returns in winter to the swimming hole where he was the lifeguard on duty when “a small girl water [was] carved out of [his] arms forever.” An era of history can leave its signature in the emotional lives of a generation. In the times of Eugene Ruggles, with the Vietnam War still a foul taste in the mouth, and when to be a man was not to be a warrior, but still to guard and protect, the failure to do so could mark a life, a body of work, and perhaps an era, as well.
Zara Raab’s most recent book is The Book of Gretel. Swimming the Eel is due out later this year. Her work appears in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, The Dark Horse and Spoon River Poetry Review, with poems scheduled to appear in Evansville Review and River Styx. Her literary reviews and essays appear in Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Rattle on-line, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review and elsewhere. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Delicately crafted poetry can appear to shimmer gently, as if what is not there and said is trying to surface constantly beneath the words that do appear anchored to the page, bumping up against the letters impatiently and making them bob to and fro with hidden meaning.
A poet chooses his or her language to represent all those concealed connotations, sounds, rhythms and colours. Each word is a delegate, there to stand for a hundred or perhaps a thousand others, their constituencies a whole chapter of life or lore. That is why economy, well managed, can speak so voluminously.
The Cuban poet Jorge Enrique González-Pacheco understands this great and noble form of linguistic politics, selecting only the very finest examples of symbol and sound to serve as senators of the written word.
Take this, from “Del Pesebre, Madre” (“Of The Manger, Mother”) and directed like most of the poems in Bajo la Luz de Mi Sangre/Under the Light of My Blood to the memory of his late mother:
Sílaba que reina lo materno
“A syllable that rules things maternal
This stanza delivers a mournful message at several levels, speaking superficially to the history of the protagonist, to the poet’s memory of her, to her continuing role in his life, to the language that she spoke and so on. It is a rare talent, and one that the publisher Trafford has thankfully recognised.
González-Pacheco was born in Havana and moved to the US in 2003, eventually settling in Seattle. He is co-founder and programming director of the Seattle Latino Film Festival (http://www.slff.org/). He has been widely published and is the author of a number of books and anthologies including Antología de la Décima Cósmica de La Habana (2003).
Bajo la Luz de Mi Sangrebrings together a series of poems, some previously published in Latin America, which are dedicated to the poet’s mother, “woman of branch, softest woman, diffused”.
Pain and desolation emanate throughout, and the poet takes refuge for a loss so keenly felt in memory, in God, in his own beautiful verse. He displays sensitive delight in his new circumstances, alongside all the longing of the disconcerted displaced, writing of Havana (“Habana”):
lúcida eres, sombra que retorna jardín
“Lucid, shadowed reminiscent garden
Observers draw attention to the piercing lyrical aesthetic of this work, which Spanish poet Diego Ropero Regidor suggests derives from the selfless, forceful role of protagonist that González-Pacheco assumes to convey grief but also to resist fad and fashion.
The ceremonious or epic language, he suggests, combines the diverse but always classical influences of San Juan de la Cruz, Juan Ramón, Lorca, Cernuda, Blas de Otero, Eliseo Diego and Serafina Núñez. Ropero Regidor writes “These long-lined poems feed on themselves; they filter their mood with the skill possessed by the one portrayed. In the mildness of his time, he condenses - as if it were a memorandum - the complex and coarse substance that flows or bursts from the human species.”
For Martin Boyd, one of the translators along with Vanesa Cresevich, the poems in this collection also resonate with echoes of the masters in Spanish literature – particularly Lorca and the Generation of ’27 – while establishing a prosody that is clearly the author’s own.
Boyd and Cresevich have certainly done immense justice to this heritage, with translations that are both accurate to the register and alive with the sentiment expressed in the original.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books
My Minotaur: Poems by Keith Holyoak
Keith Holyoak, whose fine translations of classical Chinese poetry appear in Measure and as a book length collection (Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu), defies expectations by his scientific credentials (as Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles), and by his strict use of meter and rhyme in this, his first collection of original poems. This volume contains many very fine, extraordinary poems, even if in a few poems, he shapes the poetic line into rhyme patterns or metric schemes that seem to tame his own expressive ferocity, the minotaur of his title poem.
Holyoak, who grew up on a farm in British Columbia, is at his best in his long narratives of moral courage and the vagaries of farm life, as in “Clearing the Peat” and “Farm Accident.” In the latter, a farmer and his wife reminisce about Harry, the poor, kindly neighbor who falls from a hayloft while helping to bring in their hay. Years before, he had given them refuge during flood. In echoes of Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man,” a farmer and his wife, awaiting their son’s return from school, prepare to break the news about Harry, just as Mary in Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man” waits for his husband to come home to speak to him about the old hired man who has returned. Violet, the wife in “Farm Accident,” remembers Harry with tender affection.
“Still, he’d invite us
The poem actually opens with the arrival of the couple’s son, and the boy’s realization that something’s amiss, and then flashes back to the couple speculations that Harry, who felt out of step in a mechanized world, wanted to die, may even have sought his own death. Holyoak touches on this point in a final stanza, in which we seem to hear Harry speaking to himself in his final moments,
Another long narrative, “Three Soliloquies in the Death Zone,” retells from three viewpoints the story of a young man’s rescue on Mount Everest. The first climbers to pass the young man leave him there,
Pathetic kid—must have been climbing solo,
Here, the rhythms hold to the natural rhythms of English speech. This skillful poem is illustrated by one of the book’s many small drawings by Jim Holyoak (the poet’s son), drawings which are most effective when they are simple landscapes with trees, clouds and sky, while others here emphasize the literal details of a poem.
The rhymes in “Three Soliloquies” are natural and effective, but elsewhere, Holyoak holds the bar impossibly high for rhyme in contemporary English. In “St. George’s Rotunda, Sofia,” for example, with a rhyme scheme of abbaabba cdcdcd, the rhymes are sometimes monosyllabic, without the interest and variation of slant, light or half rhymes. Contrast the felicitous rhyme in Holyoak’s poem “Malibu Evening, where a “serpent’s hiss” draws the poet’s eyes to the hills, where he sees “snakes devouring paradise.”
Holyoak’s rhymes and meter surprise, enlighten and gratify us; but he sometimes encloses experience in what is to my mind too fixed a frame of meter and rhyme. Used to the translator’s role, perhaps, he translates his thought into an earlier English tradition. The results can be slightly flat and archaic.
Holyoak recovers here in a finely controlled second stanza––
The final, longest poem of the book, ‘”Descent,” which reprises as contemporary 9/11 style apocalypse Dante’s descent into hell, led by a shaved-head black boot named Virgil. Other poems move away from pentameter toward a meter that’s lighter, quicker, as in “In the Gulf Stream,”
“In the Gulf Stream’s” debt to Yeats is evident. On his poetry website, Hokyoak mentions this debt, along with his debt to Frost. But Frost is the poet who hovers over the most powerful of these poems; with Frost, Holyoak shares the gift of finding the moral veins in the surface and activity of nature. The wonderful poem, “Wolves’ Song,” celebrates the wolf’s purification of their prey, leaving bright bones to gleam like jewels. . In “The Wildlife Tree”:
My Minotaur is an ambitious first book. But if, As Frost said, in a book of 24 poems, the 25th poem is the entire collection, then Holyoak ‘poem,’ is impressive, if somewhat flawed expressively. Like a translation from a classical ideal, Holyoak echoes other poems from an earlier tradition of English language poetry. His impressive gifts give him a place among our poets. If his professional commitments to the science have excluded him from a certain creative friction and entanglement with other poets and writers inside and outside of academia, this is most unfortunate, and a loss both for Holyoak, and for the free verse poets who have much to learn from him.
Zara Raab’s most recent book is The Book of Gretel. Swimming the Eel is due out this year. Her work appears in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, with literary reviews in Poetry Flash, Rattle on-line, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Berkeley, California.
Inquisatorial Verse 2008-2010 by Raoul A. Leblanc
Inquisatorial Verse by Raoul A. Leblanc is poetry written between 2008 and 1010, but is the culmination of a full lifetime of experiences. These are poems reflecting observations on life spiced with philosophy and rare insights not often considered or published. This is not poetry for the faint of heart who may be shocked by life’s realities. It is poetry that comes from the soul of a good man who believes life should be lived with a live and let live attitude. His god, like that of Thomas Paine, is found in nature from which we came and shall return.
Reviewed by Zara Raab
Observing Our World
Nowadays many people publish poems in one or two books that capture something of their lives in this millennial turning point. I think of these books as dwellings where the poets live and express their emotional and intellectual lives. As readers, thanks to the relative ease of publishing, we can tour the different neighborhoods that have grown up and see how people are thinking and feeling.
[“Martin’s Children,” 25]
He understands his strengths and limitations as a poet. Rather than playing with language, indulging in complicated metaphysics, or erupting, like so much modern and post-modern poetry, from an subconscious dream world, these short poems take a clear moral view.
Zara Raab’s poems appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She has literary reviews in numerous journals, including Poetry Flash, Rattle on-line, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Colorado Review. Her Book of Gretel came out in 2010 from Finishing Line Press. Her first full-length collection, Swimming the Eel, is due out this year. She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Fables of Contemporary Life
Among the hundreds of poets publishing each year, some are most at ease in the Zen master’s or rabbi’s chair, slyly considering and distilling a fresh urban folklore, suitable to the 21st Century, or offering hymns of praise or comfort in grief. The thematic patterning of these books, and of Jacqueline Berger’s The Gift That Arrives Broken, invoke family—parents, children, spouses, ex-spouses—and their entailments—desire, disappointment, reconciliation, loss, grief in domestic settings––kitchens, bedrooms, parks, patios, cars, restaurants, sometimes in the classroom, often in the past. You can sometimes tell them by their titles, like Chana Bloch’s Mrs. Dumpty, which chronicles in keenly perceptive ways the breakdown of a husband and a marriage.
Years later, I’ll still think of things I want to tell her
She warns us, early on in the book, of the limitations of language. Using a concrete narrative in a classroom, she asks us to think about an abstract idea—and suggests that language will fail us if by success we mean reprieve from the inevitable [5-6]. She uses a similar device—concrete situations described in sensory terms––to set the reader thinking about the philosophical idea of a random universe, and observes, “it’s good to treasure the gift, but good/to see that it wasn’t really meant for you./The feeling that it couldn’t have been otherwise/is just a feeling.” [“Why I’m Here,” 17]
Giving costs less than receiving,
Even when she’s slyly giving a moral directive, Berger’s language is smart and original: “It’s good to have a great love of your life,” she writes, “but marry someone else./Good to keep this great love/in the weedy outfield of the mind/to alternately worship and despise.”  French women have been saying this for centuries, but when have American wives been given this kind of sensible advice? Using recurrent canine metaphors, she writes, we are each “like a dog/straining at the end of a leash.”
...desire is a dog
In these sophisticated poems, details of a story or incident are hewn away to emphasize a blend of moral, psychological, philosophical and spiritual truth. Moderate and sensible where love and marriage are concerned, Berger shares a willingness to acknowledge the eddies and flurries the mind inevitably undergoes in its zen-like way while the body is being faithful. Berger goes into a Proustian interlude with her hometown, where
. . . there’s the modesty of trees
Berger avoids the rarified verbal strata of John Ashbery or Milton, an atmosphere only a few can abide. The rest of us take in the quips, allusions, metaphors and slogans around us the way we breathe––naturally, almost without effort. Some of this verbal culture entertains, some of it influences behavior—and changes the culture. The moral nature of the material delicately shapes the contours, the line and stanza breaks as the poem scrolls down the page––reflecting and confirming certain aspects of American culture––individual, tolerant, skeptical, organically shaped and evolving.
Zara Raab writes about the fault lines between city dwellers and the poor, rural towns, people to the north. Her poems and articles has appeared in Arts & Letters, White Ink, West Branch, Nimrod International Journal, Poetry Flash and elsewhere. Her book, Swimming the Eel, will be out next year from David Robert Books. She lives and writes in San Francisco.
When the murdered peddler who appears in “Maggie Fox Speaks”  started rapping from his grave under the floorboards on the Fox family house, “the Spiritualist movement that swept nineteenth century America” began, Shipers’ note to the poem tells us. Ordinary Mourning, which takes its title from a Victorian stage of grief, is much taken with 19th Century Spiritualism and with ghosts, particularly ghosts as they appear on the lonely stretches of prairie in the middle of America. Chosen by the poet Mark Halliday for the First Book Prize from ABZ Press, Ordinary Mourning owes to the poet Ted Kooser (whom Shipers thanks for “feedback”) its plainspoken, folksy diction, a diction that does not vary much whether the poem’s persona is a Victorian housewife or a 911 responder, but owes to Frost its touches of darkness.
Husband, you must eat the bread
Shipers’ strong poems concern grief more than ghosts. In “The Logic of Grief” , “Grief moves, like fire/with a logic all its own, fingering what we think/is out of reach, ignoring our dry tinder.” In “The Amateur Resurrectionist”:
“You aren’t keeping me alive, he said,
Shipers’ talents are by no means ghostly.
Zara Raab writes about the fault lines between city dwellers and the poor, rural towns, people to the north. Her poems and articles has appeared in Arts & Letters, White Ink, West Branch, Nimrod International Journal, Poetry Flash and elsewhere. Her book, Swimming the Eel, will be out next year from David Robert Books. She lives and writes in San Francisco.
Review by M. L. McCarthy, Candelabrum Poetry Magazine, October 2010, p. 40
This collection of his original poetry, by the translator of the shorter poems of Du Fu and Li Bai, is highly to be recommended, not only for the general high standard of the work, but for the variety of style and skill displayed in it throughout, from the twelve pages in terza rima bringing life to a nightmare the poet had suffered, about the collapse of society into violent anarchy, to such pithy, effective short pieces as The Happy Trout, ten couplets describing the enjoyment of a fish in the last moments of life, caught by the angler but still in the water, not aware of impending death by suffocation. One especially notices, along the way, the terrifying but artistically seductive Bubble’s Burst, presenting the end of the world with such scary conviction that one hovers on the verge of believing it’s really just going to happen; and the powerfully pathetic The Private Loves of Mr. and Mrs. Chen, presenting the death of an elderly woman and her husband weeping for her, with two cleverly-inserted six-line stanzas expressing how, as very young adults, they first realized that they loved each other.
Swerve to Hit
In this period of intimate, personal American poems, tending toward dramatic monologues or dream reenactments, it is a relief to discover a poet who uses rhetoric as unabashedly and skillfully as Bruce Cohen. At its best, Cohen’s satire––with it erratic and subversive narration, appealingly dopey scenarios, and inventive, playful, vivid language––belongs very much to the poetic style of the moment. In one of my favorites, “An Honest Man’s Profile for Internet Dating,” for example,
I like my chicks . . . . talking on their cells while speeding over the limit, the radio cranked up, doughnut crumbs multiplying in their laps. . . . I like women who say word like ditto to amplify a retort, or back at cha’ to definitely end an argument that’s going nowhere. . . . I appreciate a gal who knows the difference between lay and lie but keeps it to herself, confident enough to pick up hitchhikers, order a beer and a bump at a dive that smells like sour urine and sawdust, who is way too good at pool and has no qualms about asking for a fist full of quarters and shaking her moneymaker over to the juke box. Do you like Tony Bennett? she coos. 
In a more darkly satiric piece entitled “Spam Scam,” the narrator maintains his altitude above the plot, supervising the story of how he imagines he would abet a scammer, a high ranking diplomat’s widow, confined by house arrest/In an obscure African village, heir to a privileged and ancient aristocracy, who has sent her pleas for cash to his in-box. Curious how lonely the lonely have to be to respond, the narrator wonders,
Would you be content in just knowing that someone completely trusted you?
Cohen is adept at capturing lightning fast shifts of mood, from fragile appearance of normalcy to outright mania in such pieces as “Top Banana.” Here hyperbole, excess, and flagrant exaggeration demonstrate our culture’s particular forms of madness, in the tradition of Swift’s admonition to imperialist Englishmen to go ahead and flay the Irish alive, as their skins would be useful for sail-making, and while you’re at it, why not eat the Irish babies orphaned by famine?
In certain poems, Cohen is skittish about delving too deeply into a story or committing himself to a narrative. “Still Life,” for example, cobbles disjunctive experiences, as
Your phone ringing in the middle of night might be your imagination
And some poems seem to cohere mainly as lists of absurdities around an abstract theme:
But for the most part, the poems, full of vivid, absurd, self-mocking characters––men whose wives won’t go shopping with them anymore; boys who stay up around the clock watching Jerry Lewis telethons; panhandlers trying to sell their idea for a time machine to kids in Starbucks; crude one-time Leather Necks dining on sushi at the Japanese buffet—all rendered in up-to-the-minute Americanisms.
I wouldn’t swerve to miss them, nor should you.
by Mun Dok-su
Although Mun Dok-su is a poet in his eighties, he is still writing fearlessly, as evidenced by his latest epic, one that is reminiscent of other epics: Wasteland (in particular), Ulysses, etc. The poet is not afraid to experiment with poetic form as commented on by other literary critics and poets. Mun Dok-su’s epic, The Postman, was written at the peak of the poet’s maturity as he reflects on life and the horrors of modern warfare. By bearing the burden of the disorders and conflicts in life, he is able to rescue meaning from those experiences. And that is the achievement of his life as reflected in the writing of the poem.
In seeking meaning from those experiences, the poet must explore the appropriate form in language and poetry to give expression to the subject. Like the visual artist who begins his painting with an idea or concept, the poet and the artist must make a decision about the medium that will best develop the idea. It must have been quite a challenge but Mun Dok-su assumed the task. His references to other works, to other writers and to other realities can be viewed as a great adventure. The adventurer, whether in life or in literature, will encounter despair, death and uncertainties before he can make a new beginning that is hopeful and humanistic.
The poem can be enjoyed on various levels. Its montage of historical, mythological and spiritual elements gives it the dimensions of the epic. Its unstructured form is so like modern life itself. We are given roles or expected to take actions that may be antithetical to the values we hold dear.
The figure of the postman taken from van Gogh’s renowned painting of Joseph Roulin provides the connecting link with reality and with all of humankind. He is the one who goes from generation to generation, fulfilling his daily task of delivering the mail, allowing us to communicate with each other. As a member of our communities, our postman lives by the mores of the community. In one sense, our postman has no real identity. He is nameless but he goes about his job delivering the mail, regardless of rain or shine. He is mostly passive, just as we are, but then events beyond his control force him to confront evil and death. By giving his postman the identity of the kind and loving Joseph Roulin, Mun Dok-su brings the postman to life in a narrative that we trust.
Only a poet of maturity could write such a transformative work in which one’s life experiences allow the insights so manifest in this poem. He does this with clear images of the effects of war on the human body and the human spirit.
Streams of history and mythology weave themselves throughout the poem. The images of war are both historical and contemporary. The poet’s personal experiences in the Korean War 1950-1953 give the poem an authenticity and a keen sense of reality unlike that derived from one’s imagination. Although his war experiences are a pivotal part of the narrative, the poet approaches it in an historical context.
The narrative also reminds us of the irrational division of countries that leads to further conflict. These divisions are often made by the so-called victors, as the US, USSR, UK, and France. As Korea was divided by the US and the USSR after World War II, this division of countries has happened again and again in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Germany, Vietnam, Yemen, Yugoslavia, Palestine. Even cities have been divided, as Berlin was. It is significant that Korea figures large in the poem as it points up what happens to those countries caught in the vice of larger forces and their lust for power. Korea to this day is still divided by a no-man’s land, the DMZ.
The poet leaves the blood in the language, unlike our current military and political leaders who use abstract and obfuscating language and euphemisms to describe modern warfare (collateral damage, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, etc.). The images in Part 2 Oarsmen with scenes from the 16th century battle against the attempted Japanese invasion to the 20th century Korean War are graphic.
Delicate hands that once grasped pens
And the poem continues:
The descriptions of war continue in Part 3: Token of Fire with the mortars screaming as they ride across the sky and soldiers dive into trenches. Death is there to greet them from submachine guns, bayonets, grenades. To Death, South and North are no different. … Corpses lay scattered across the heights, / craniums went rolling about like footballs.
In Part 4: the poet revisits the DMZ:
In Part 5: Moderato, the pain from his war injuries leaves him in a state of suspension. Like the soldier, badly injured but who has survived, he may ask “What was it all about? What was it all for?”
In Part 6: Now, Here, the narrator, or the poet, speaks for all mankind. He sees generations of robots as the future mechanism for war. We are seeing technological weapons, including drones, being used today in the Middle East with tragic results. The late Howard Zinn warned us against the technological fanaticism that we are witnessing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, and we can expect to see in Iran. On another level we acknowledge that soldiers themselves are used as robots in our modern and post-modern wars. And it is the civilian population and the civilian infrastructure that are targeted in modern warfare, whether by robotic devices or the heavily armed soldier wading though the dust with his two feet or breaking down doors to invade the home of a terrified family.
The poet’s multiple references to other poets, the use of metaphors, the meanderings through literary history, Buddhism and the Bible mingle with modern culture and this seemingly disjointed structure reflects our modern dilemma. How do we recover and keep our humanity in the face of dysfunctional society and modern warfare? The poet’s message is that the only way to recover from the wars in our lifetime, the only way to escape the dehumanization of modern warfare, or the modern technologies that are themselves dehumanizing, is through humanistic communication and love (agape). His free use of imagery in the conscious and the subconscious supports his cognizance of the impact of technology for good or bad. It is the poet who bears witness to the horrors of modern warfare and that witness takes us a small step closer to our redemption. Mun Dok-su is the postman delivering a message to us.
His recreation of a wasteland demonstrates just how destructive is modern warfare and how dehumanizing modern technology can be. Mister Driver, let’s go around that way a bit. But he doesn’t leave us in the wasteland. Even with all our PCs, TVs, air-conditioning, cell phones, and robots, there is salvation in life itself. The poet acknowledges the gift of life by the recurrent references to the egg and the postman’s satchel. The egg is the beginning of life in the womb. The satchel contains the letters with messages for us so that we can communicate with each other, regardless of distance. The poet reinforces the gift of life in water, as in rivers. Rivers can divide us and unite us. We can love each other and our children. In the end the poet returns us to where it all begins. Life itself.
Mun Dok-su’s epic, The Postman, was translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and the book includes a forward written by Yearn Hong Choi, endnotes, commentaries, biographies of the poet, translators and contributors.
Seeded Light by Edward Byrne
. . .this entire peninsula sky
Rich, shaded, and subtle in texture, with second lines often bleeding into the next couplet, these open couplets expand meaning, encouraging the reader to follow. Spurning end rhymes in favor of inventive rhymes and off-rhymes within the lines–– a stark road // wound round the edge of town, coiling toward / some distant hint of massing light just beginning / to glint up ahead. . . [29: “Thanksgiving’]––Byrne makes expressive use of alliteration, assonance, consonantal rhyme, and repetition of vowel sounds.
“Revision by Lamplight,” describes his creative process: late at night /. . . when reading aloud // what lines I have written, I listen for their / lessons I still seem incapable of learning—//. . . another language present[s] its sentence // with something as simple as the rhythm / of rainfall or a whisper of wind.... This “other language” is voiced––almost without exception in the first four sections––by the “we” of poet and wife, a couple enclosed and protected by Byrne’s unhurried and rolling couplets. The rhythm and movement of the lines, the stately, loose-limbed rhythms of the pentameter, mime a strolling gait.
Byrne’s couplets celebrate coupling. In one poem, the couple, pretending to be years younger, revisit an inn [“Anniversary Visit”], in another, his wife’s childhood home [“Returning to Your Father’s Farm”], a locale explored in an earlier volume, in others they seek sanctuary in a church, following the slow toll / of cathedral bells calling parishioners [25: “After the Miscarriage”], cottage or motel room.
This poem’s dissonance echoes elsewhere in the sense of unease and the heightened awareness of nature’s deceptions. After visiting a wild canyon gorge, each day we return to the safety / at home—in any weather, no matter what changes // occur. Falsely, we arrive; like deceptive images/of distant fixed stars; we seem to stay the same [68: “Canyon Tributary,”]. In “Waiting at a Bus Station” , stranded by a winter storm, the poet notes the “false warmth” of the neon window displays in the closed shops—meaningless displays, like old photographs that once meant something.
In Seeded Light, elegy and illness balance the pleasures of memory, without trauma, war, or 9/11, unlike much poetry of the past half-century. Though his aesthetic shares more akin with Wallace Stevens than Mary Oliver, Byrne has Oliver’s sensitivity to nature, without her need to draw obvious lessons from it.
As the day retracts its light, invites
Such sap-filled sighs are likely to escape the reader of these wonderful poems, just warm and heartening enough for one well attuned to winter.
This review originally appeared in Poemeleon: a journal of poetry, winter/spring 2010 issue.
The Signature of All Things
Fables of Contemporary Life
Among the countless poets, some at ease in the Zen master’s chair, slyly distilling contemporary folklore, or offering odes of wry praise or comfort in grief. The thematic patterning of these books, and Christopher Goodrich’s first book Nevertheless, hello is one such, invokes family and community—and their entailments—desire, disappointment, reconciliation, loss, grief in domestic settings––and invites us to think about the scenarios that unfold there. Spontaneous, ironic and tender, richly colloquial, Goodrich’s wry poems do this much as a parable might, inculcating a kind of virtue without insistence.
There’s something, too, of the country and western song in these poems. In ”Fidelity,” Goodrich writes, We have both lived a little too long / in rooms a little too small for our furniture. . . .
And I have swallowed your cheap California charm
Is late or sad, the other is inches away,
By bitching by braying even a little
Sensible about marriage, the poet-narrator dryly acknowledges the eddies and flurries the mind undergoes while the body is being faithful. Divided like a novel into chapters, Nevertheless, hello takes on these themes of first love and first marriage, and the chaos, pain and comedy that may accompany them. The poet-narrator writes for my first wife, while married to my second,
Steering through the wreckage of romance in turn of the century America, the poet records the turns and the toll relationships can take, “how a thing like weather changes everything,” . Even when he’s slyly asking us to reconsider old adages, like “never go to bed angry with your spouse,” Goodrich cleaves to the rhythms and pitches of American speech.
Let us lie with anger
Until it knows the way we walk. . .
The way, finally, we return
How we knock on the door
In this age when we can so rarely rely on conventional societal precepts to guide our thinking, Goodrich offers a fresh possibility.
“Love Letter to a Woman Who Refuses to Recognize my Existence” is really an ode to a beautiful woman he sees on a train, with all the ode’s flatteries, exaggerations, and lyric excess, but full, also, of Goodrich’s characteristic spontaneity, finely attuned ear from natural rhythms and sounds, and wry humor.
You step into my life
By lifting your right foot, then your left.
In peace. . . .
We are here to ignore each other.
I open my mouth because you are stunning
and gray. How are you living, I say,
I’ll call you my Isabelle.
So, I’ll start the conversation.
And why they chose to read alone.
What about Charley if it’s a boy?
This poet-narrator may be a wife’s dream: a liberated, amiable all-American boy-man, who sings of “nothing …sweeter than sparkling porcelain, scrubbed dishes,/ bleached sinks,” and “four loads of laundry later,” of polishing his image “into the stovetop.”
His poems are insightful, humorous, occasionally tender, occasionally sentimental, instructing us to kiss something./ If the reason you wake is to give / and take, please kiss something. . How many women poets (I can think of several) express falling in love as a kind of drowning? Goodrich, naturally enough, stands that image on its head.
The way a river drowns what it loves.
Goodrich’s poems are far from the rarified verbal strata of John Ashbery or Milton, an atmosphere only some can abide. The rest of us take in the quips, allusions, metaphors, and slogans around us the way we breathe––naturally, almost without effort. Some of this verbal culture entertains, some of it influences behavior—and changes the culture. Reading these poems, I came away with the sense of listening to a thoughtful young person who lives with intention and purpose, who has (not without struggle) attained insight and maturity. The moral nature of the material slyly shapes the contours, the line and stanza breaks as the poem scrolls down the page––reflecting and confirming certain aspects of American culture––individual, tolerant, skeptical, organically shaped and evolving.
Zara Raab often writes about the fault lines between city dwellers and the poor, rural towns people to the north. Her poems and articles has appeared in Arts & Letters, White Ink, West Branch, Nimrod International Journal, Poetry Flash and elsewhere. Her book Swimming the Eel is coming out next year from David Robert Books. She lives and writes in San Francisco. Check her web site www.zararaab.com or contact email@example.com.
Songs from a Small Universe
“We take too much credit for our deeds. These poems, like all things, are gifts. I hope the joy they have given me spills over to you.”
Thus begins the preface to Raphael Block’s collection. His poems re-imagine the formation of small universes: the cells of the body, the galaxies of the spirit, the verses that touch us all; the oneness of the universe we share.
I remember when I was in the fifth grade at St. Mary’s grammar school, looking for the first time at a drop of water through a microscope and seeing not what I expected, not simply water that came from an eyedropper onto a glass slide but rather an entire world of organisms, a world teeming with life and movement. Later I learned about the divisions of cancer and then about the invisible things that unite: prayers, the soul, pain. These are some of Raphael Block’s universes; his realization of the infinite divisibility of the infinite, that the human race is one part of many parts. No one thing being greater or smaller than any other. This universe of limitless configurations.
The poems in Songs from a Small Universe are divided into seven sections; together they form a chorus of subjects: songs of the natural, the human experience and songs of remorse and joy. Block’s compositions have many strengths, among them his fine-tuned ear for the music of language. Here are two excerpts from “Calling.” (Page 9) He sings:
…I let myself be torn,
…Everything is calling
And in the appropriately titled poem, “Small Universe,” (page 13) he concludes with:
I sweep my porch, while
On a clear night I get lost
There’s a kind of tenderness in his poems that are insistent in their honesty and constant in their emotional resonance. In the section titled Tears, the images are about ritual and loss, the tears are quiet songs. From “Spell of Being.” The poem answers the unanswerable: (page 33)
Alone, I’ve learned how to climb
into that warm, rounded tree-hole,
filled with woody pine smells,
and entering that den, catch ringing from the trees,
Raphael Block has the gift of precision and rhythm, like a fine-tuned piano, his voice has beauty and texture. He is the beholder of great sadness, the holder of the mouthpiece of a recorder to the lips. Block’s musical skills shine throughout this collection but no more so than in the final section, “Songs for Singing,” where he invites us to sing along with him. His lyrics are accompanied by chord sequences. Here’s “Angel Of Clouds” in its entirety:
Songs from a Small Universe is an intensely moving book of poetry, it is indeed a small universe of beautiful words, and it is vast.
Raphael Block was born on a Kibbutz in Israel to pioneering parents and spent his boyhood playing on the hills of Haifa. Just before he turned nine, his family moved to England. Learning English shaped his ear for sounds, and the British climate and temperament fashioned his life over the next 25 years, until he met and married an American living in London, reviving the long submerged, fiery Israeli. Raphael and Deborah moved to Northern California with their daughter in 1993, and after Deborah’s death from cancer in 2002, he raised their daughter. Raphael has worked with children of all ages for almost 30 years. He currently lives in an old apple orchard outside of Sebastopol, and considers himself richly blessed. www.raphaelblock.com
Joseph Zaccardi is editor of the Marin Poetry Center Anthology. His second collection of poetry, Render, was published by Poetic Matrix Press in 2009. www.josephzaccardi.com.
Storytelling – A Collection of Poems
Charles Portolano’s latest book Storytelling – A Collection of Poems is a feast of reading. What he does in the short lines of a poem is superb. In language and in stories accessible to us all, this book becomes what you want to give to that certain someone in your family or to a friend. We all like to hear stories and to tell stories. As Portolano tells us Since before time, / when fire first / illuminated the night / when man stood up / and fought to survive, / the elders gathered / all the young ones / around the campfire, / speaking words / of hidden wisdom / for the young ones / to learn from.
Many poets writing today remain steadfast in their view that poets should not write about history or politics. Self-absorbed in their “garrets” they remain isolated from the “outside” world as they rhapsodize about the green tree, the blue heron, the golden sun, the red sunset, or the purple flower. Portolano is acutely aware of what is going on in our world today and his “stories” become the personal experience that is universal in meaning.
Portolano also reflects on our history in lines that are short but impact us with the clarity of their images, as in his poem “December 29, 1890” commemorating Wounded Knee:
Another piece of history, “Good Friday, 1865”:
Portolano is a poet of witness as he brings us forward to the current conflicts as in “The Dead Have No Say”:
And he commemorates the shy American protestor who finally has had enough in his poem “Taking a Stand”:
Storytelling is philosophy in poetry that creates a mirror so that we take a look at ourselves. His reflections on life take a look backward as we all do in private moments. These vignettes are glimpses of a life lived with joy and sadness in thoughts that are chiseled in marble.
Just as he did in his previous collection, All Eyes on US, Portolano exhibits the ability to write with a passion and sensitivity about real people and real events. I like poetry that has an edge to it and this collection has that sharpness that reveals a keen eye and mind. In reviewing any book, I want to consider what is negative as well as the positive in order to give a balanced report, but with Storytelling, I could not find anything negative, except to wish there was more storytelling. Even after 90 pages, Portolano’s book leaves you wanting more.
Bruce Dethlefsen doesn’t write many books of poetry. It’s been six years since he came out with his second book, Something Near the Dance Floor by Marsh River Editions. And one doesn’t see much of his poetry in and around the small press, but my-oh-my, when he decides to show us his good stuff, he comes out swinging. In this, his third and largest collection of poetry, Dethlefsen does most everything right. He is a master of drawing word pictures that are at once narrative stories, melodies, and free association free-for-alls.
The book is broken into five sections that broadly define the thematic mood of Dethlefsen’s mind: migrant, knots, poet warrior, secrets, and autopsy. There is great kindness here, and a mind with a very wide reach.
Here are two poems from Breather. “Playing the Field”: “you hover / you say I’m not your first flower / your first lover // you lower yourself / how hoverly / how loverly / then leave // oh bee / my honey boy / oh baby mine / come back to me”. And “When Somebody Calls after Ten P.M.”: “when somebody calls after ten p.m. / and you live in wisconsin / and you’re snug in your bed // then all’s I can tell you / somebody better be missing / somebody better had a baby / or somebody better be dead”.
In Breather, Dethlefsen flows from the concrete to ethereal. He orbits around the collective unconscious like a Jungian astronaut - his interior radar big enough to find meaning in both the great moments and the small nuances of life. This is the blessing of the mature poet – one who has lived hundreds of lives and can bring this diversity of experience to us as a numinous pool of images to soak in. Breather is an exceptional collection of poetry.
David D. Horowitz's Stars Beyond the Battlesmoke is filled with memorable lines, keen observations, and acute wit. These precisely crafted poems touch on contemporary urban life and politics, as well as historical events. Though Horowitz decries the tragedy of war and violence, as in the pithy and poignant poem "Rising Prices," he also celebrates beauty and calm, as in this line from "Holy Man": "Dusk's rosy quiet breathes the deepest psalm." This newest collection delights, educates, and inspires, demonstrating yet again formal poetry is vital and vigorous. Horowitz has indeed achieved the very "Mastery" he writes about--"To raise a garden from one seed," the seed being his gift for language.-- Lana Hechtman Ayers
Reading David Horowitz's poetry, I am refreshed by his trust in the continuing ability of established form to speak to contemporary readers. The shorter poems remind us of the power of the epigram to deliver a moment of quiet illumination. The ambitious, longer poems remind us that our moments of bewilderment--at cultural conflict, at political violence, even at love--have been anticipated by the experiences of those who have come before us: a thirteenth-century Baghdad librarian, a citizen of Constantinople during its siege, a medieval bricklayer. "Still we risk/Just living," observes the speaker of "The Way," whose epiphany could serve as the subtitle for Stars Beyond the Battlesmoke: "Keep conscience quick." -- William Kupinse
Selected Poems 1972-2005
For more than thirty years, Eric Greinke has been crafting poetry with colorful quality and provocative texture. This collection attempts to capture the unique evolution of a poet, and, I'm sure, only begins to paint a picture of Greinke's true merit.
From the beginning, Greinke sets a mood of dedication. The first poem, "Postcard," is a message sent to someone far away. Short and simple, he writes:
The sky is grey here. My room is quiet & near. Thinking of you in my little cocoon.
From there, this collection becomes a series of poems as postcards, dedicated to family and friends and poets near and far. It's like stumbling upon a box of old letters, in a desk, in an antique shop, inviting a stranger into the warmth and intimacy of Greinke's life.
Much of Greinke's collection consists of short poems, packing power nonetheless. He writes as an avid nature-lover. Each poem creates landscapes of mountains and fields, flowers and birds, stars and snow, especially in pieces like "April," "Painting," and "The Tree." Greinke goes on to take his readers on walks with him through forests, through rainstorms, through the dead of night. Even poems like "In the Library" and "The Nun" evoke natural illustrations. Consider a nun:
Her eyes are Chinese Jade. Her wings are maple leaves. Her mouth is a blue window.
About halfway through, Greinke's style shifts toward psychedelia. There is a set of three-part poems that transform the landscapes of this collection into acres of peculiarity. Just when you come to expect roses and rain, you'll find the unexpected in the "Seasons" part of the poem "Ice Feathers."
A stray nose appears at the door. "You're just in time." I said. Jeweled hornets buzz around The home of the Clown. April is a vegetable month. February tastes like lilacs. Meanwhile, down by the smiling pond, An Angel cleans her sooted wings. March is a time of abandoned zebras. January causes frogs to how in desperation.
Greinke follows this up with another three-parter called "The White Trees," which in some ways resembles the Anthony Burgess novel The Wanting Seed. There is a sense of a post-apocalyptic return to savagery. The world collapses at the hands of humanity and what have we to do but succumb to bacchanal regression.
Although never yielding his strong grip on vivid imagery and clever sonic devices, Greinke continues the excursion into the bizarre with poems like "The Door" and "The Clown Choir." His attention to alliteration and assonance creates gratifying rhythms to his work. In the poem "The Forest," you catch glimpses of these techniques in lines like
In spring the seedlings pop, pushing through the birth-wet dirt, thirsting for the life of light, straining thin arms toward rain. Many never make it through the membrane of leaves.
At the collection's close, Greinke returns his readers to poems short and simple, like those at the beginning, but not without a curious residue:
SOME TREES Three little trees all in a row: You, & me, & Marcel Marceau.
Greinke seamlessly weaves together the vibrance of the naturalist with the unsettling images of dream worlds and mimes. His collection of work from more than three decades establishes Eric Greinke as an accomplished poet, seeing both worlds seen and unseen.
Children of Gravity
There's always an image around us, something profound we choose to see for what it is or ignore. Bees. Sparrows. Moon. Smoke. Gravity. Light. These are some of the images used as a bass line beating along to the beauty of imagination, dreams, words, and objects. The poems in Children of Gravity show that we are all unique yet interlaced in a web of conquest and meaning, diverse beings and words broken down into the raw unadulterated questions of philosophy and nature.
Children of Gravity is broken into three parts:
These along with the title of the book Children of Gravity, are also titles to individual poems. "The Conquest of Air" introduces the backbone of imagery in poems such as, "A Bee Discovers Gravity" and "A Day in the Life of a Sparrow."
"Tendencies of Unfamiliar Objects" transcends the images, blowing them into many different words and unexpected connections. Space and single words become negative poems opposite the written ones. They glare into our soul and haunt our natural phonetic inebriation. In the second half of "The Contortionist's Wife" this is exemplified.
I believe in you and the anatomy of the invisible, the language of flies quieting in the approaching darkness. In between this geometry of bones and the oak trees across the street is a riddle of light, degrees of weather, time. I hear the mumbo jumbo of your heart pressed to your calves thinking of the discipline of snow in filling only the empty spaces, shapes in the shadows of houses or the moon held by thick branches. And I hear the breath of words escape from below your arms, pale birds breaking flight in every word you cannot say.
"The Art of Translation" makes use of images to try and interpret this imperfect world for what it is, even if there isn't an answer. From "In One Version of the Shape of Things to Come,"
...In my movie the ordinary shapes of things become unrecognizable, a child's white ball is an angel under a pillow of light. A dog becomes the cloud that costumed the top of an evergreen yesterday...
Translation is an art and journey on its own and can prove to be just as inviting as what is actually there.
Children of Gravity does something that is to be greatly appreciated. It's as if the book itself rises in the air and blows a cool stream of images and thoughts that scatter to the floor. But in the most unexpected places, they'll be lifted up, directly in front of your eyes.
An Empty House: Korean American Poetry
With its eye-catching cover, An Empty House: Korean American Poetry is a beautiful book. And a random perusal gives the reader the immediate feel that the poems in this 133-page collection are for all of us. The poems by twelve Korean American poets are very accessible to an American audience and especially to the modern ear. The language of these poets is direct and simple and their poems are typically short. There is a sensitivity expressed in these poems of exile that speaks to the love of family and home, and love of naturethemes that appeal to all of us. The memory of the homeland and the yearning for those connections to family are strong elements throughout this collection. The family is present in many of these poems as in "Father" by Chong Cha Lee. The memory of the comfort and love between father and child is awakened in the lines. After listening to the dull adult talks, / I fell asleep on my father's lap.
Yearn Choi's poem "From the Idaho Potato Field" evokes a special tenderness for all our grandmothers:
Looking over the green field with small white flowers,
And again in Yearn Choi's poem "An Empty House", the images are so vivid and the memories so heart wrenching, I must ask "Is the house still empty?" Yearn's poem "Prayer in the Summer Woods" is a prayer for Gaia, and for us, too, because we are a part of its nature. His poem "Retiree's Last Words" has a kind of uneasiness mixed with resignation, feelings that we all can relate to when faced with a career change or retirement. And we love the connection back through the ages to Li Po, the 8th century Chinese poet in his poem "To Koh Choong-suk."
Current events enter into the moving lines of a number of these poems. The poets shared their anguish and grief at the loss of life at the Virginia Tech massacre—the grief expressed at the losses suffered by the families of the victims and their anguish that the perpetrator was Korean. There also is sadness for what war and occupation do to a people and the desire to see Korea be a whole nation again. The sorrow and pain suffered by families with daughters assaulted and killed by our armies of occupation, as in "Candlelight Demonstration" by Chun U Yi is a matter of grave concern for Americans and for our policy-makers.
These poets, too, are very aware of the social problems faced by many in our society: the homelessness of the Vietnam veteran on the side of the road unnoticed or ignored by passing motorists by Haeng Ja Kim in "The Homeless", or the nameless woman / Who froze to death at a bus terminal / Last night... in "Wailing" by Anne Park. Considering the current crises in families facing foreclosure, we can appreciate the wistful humor in "Mortgage Payments" by Yung Whi Chung. Or the acute numbness of loss suffered by the man in "Elderly Couple" by Sook Young Lim. Or the terrible anguish and hardships suffered by the family in "The Immigrants" by Chun U Yi.
That these poets share an awareness of the small things we encounter in our daily lives was exemplified in "A Stream of Light". In this small poem by Yung Whi Chung, a smoke detector is given real meaning.
And in "I Want to Be a Tree" also by Yung Whi Chung, elements of nature are personified, a style that is seen in quite a number of other poems in this collection. "In the Forest" by Sook Young Lim, there is a tree standing on one foot after giving away a branch to pouring rain. This handling of elements in nature gives the trees and flowers a palpable presence not often realized by writers. A spring rain knocks against a ceiling glass and A weeping cherry in the front yard / Sprouts a new bud, / Reporting the beginning of a new life;... in "A Spring Rain" by Soon Paik. The dandelions in Monica Sohn's poem, usually treated as weeds, take on a very different meaning when they are happy to be together with the weeds, as an expression of democracy. Wow! Looking out the car window this spring and seeing dandelions in profusion, Monica's lines came immediately to mind. In "Daffodil" by Anne Park, The cries followed, going between the steps. / As if saddened by the premature cut stems being sold, / Even the light green stems looked up to the blossoms, / Seeming to whimper. In these lines from "Sunflower" by Se Woong Ro, there is an acceptance of what nature gives us:
I planted sunflower seeds again,
And again in "A Neighbor" by Chun U Yi: The dandelion and clover don't respect the fence, / Which separates us from the neighbor, / They secretly invade our territory / Without declaration of war ...
As so much of American culture rushes headlong over the precipice, I found the celebration by these poets with the beautiful things that are beautiful so refreshing, as in the awareness that what the dawn brings is so vivid and palpable to the senses in "A Day of Awakening" by Haeng Ja Kim. The sun rises. / With the day's portion of hope on its head, ... And how the season and the self merge into light and time in "Winter, the River of Dawn" by Yang Ja Park is deeply moving to any reader who ponders life. The joy of observing nature is given a light touch in "A Pocketful of Spring Rain" by Chong Cha Lee.
Look at them
Unable to close their beaks in utter happiness
There are periods of quietness in some of these poems that is spiritual. They compel us, as poetry should, to 'stop and listen.' A number of these poems are meditations on the pleasures of getting by from day to day, by observing those small things around us or the small things that we can do each day for ourselves and for others that give solace. In "In the Autumn" Insuk Kang asks us to stop and listen, go out into the forest and retrieve our memories from the fallen leaves. When we can reconnect to nature, we replenish our spirit.
Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu
All Eyes on US: A Trilogy of Poetry
If one of poetry's purposes is to provoke thought, then Portolano has accomplished that purpose with this compendium of work from three previous books. Today, we live in a dangerous, dysfunctional, unpredictable world and Charles Portolano dares to write about it. Politicians squander this country's financial resources on overt and covert projects around the globe, yet can't find the money necessary to balance the national budget or repair a crumbling infrastructure. Politicians whine that we are a country with our hands out, demanding entitlements, while granting themselves the grandest entitlements imaginable. Portolano grieves but refuses to remain silent. His outrage and sorrow are palpable.
Route 66 once epitomized the naive, adventuresome, hopeful heart of America. That America has changed, as reflected in this excerpt from "Route 66":
But what was, isn't anymore
Have we as citizens been herded like dumb cattle through a chute of our own making? Has our silence allowed "The Neo Cons" to flourish?
Long before they even
History will deal with the "swerving, swaggering cowboy" whose powerful persona has failed. "The Living Lies" have weakened him:
In his latest book, Portolano names the unnameable and zeroes in on the chinks in our national armor. He clearly states what most citizens feel, but cannot articulate. All Eyes on US is a book of surprising insights and uncomfortable poetic truths.
Merge With The River
In the poem "Source," James Downs writes: Words are in the river, and it is here in this volume of poetry that the poet plumbs the depths of nature; the changing sounds, shapes and movements of water. The concomitant awareness of the living body and the living spirit reside here, inhabit the same space. Downs uses a light hand in his art, reaching out to the reader with lucid images to find out just what draws him, time and time again, to the river, and in so doing shares this experience; lets it open out.
Merge With The River is divided into five sections. Each starts with an epigraph; the one that tantalized me the most is a quote by Sy Syfransky, editor of the Sun, that starts: To which god shall I pray today? and James Downs answers in his well-wrought voice. Here's the start of the poem "String."
I have come to this water's edge
Then he surprises and encapsulates, distills if you will, with a scattering of haiku throughout this volume. These are not simple haiku that meet the forms criteria, though they do that too, but rather poems that illuminate and exalt. Each one, perfect as a whole and perfect in their shapes, can be taken apart and still work, because they are not built upon an anchoring phrase but because they are buoyant. Here's one in its entirety: Thousand leaves in breeze / Buddhist bells ringing silence / that follows deafens. Songs and silences in each line; this is a masterful achievement.
Wonderful as all these poems are in this collection, the poet allows that he's unable to devote every waking and sleeping moment to his craft; after all he has to make a living, but he is so close, and the fact that he lives and works in Yosemite National Park certainly enables him to focus and create. He writes everyday, and that in the end is what it takes to live a poetic life and to compose what swirls and eddies, what merges with the river. He has become a part of this grand place where he can return and return, as he aptly wrote in the poem "Weather," In the wind there is a world / in the world there is a wind / let 'er ring!
This is a fine collection of poems by a fine poet, and a fine read.
Winds of Change/Vientos de Cambio
"My Blood Runs Deep" reminded me of some of my favorite Caribbean poets: Dennis Scott, Lorna Goodison, John Agard, Victor Questel, Mikey Smith, David Dabydeen, and Kamu Brathwaite. Do you know the great work of Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), who died recently (in Toronto, where she'd moved from London?). Also, if you haven't read Olive Senior, I highly recommend her. Her poetry is fine, but her stories are exquisite, especially "Summer Lightning and Other Stories". She moved from Jamaica to Toronto some years ago, and I hosted her on PEI in the late 90s. And what about Dionne Brand, from Trinidad, and living in Toronto and teaching at the University of Guelph? She's a first-rate poet, novelist, essayist, and memoirist. I recommend her novel At the Full and Change of Moon, her poetry collection no language is neutral, and her non-fiction book The Map of No Return.
"Death Comes Too Soon" is moving, of course, because of your mother's role in my own life. "Bonfires of Belfast" is a powerful political vision. The Bobby Sands reference flashed me back to a good friend in Nova Scotia, who was a "communications officer" for the IRA (and a fine musician/singer), and who had to flee Ireland...and was prevented by friends from returning during Sands' hunger fast. Bicycling in Ireland in 1975, I met a Ph.D. student from India, studying in London, who'd just hitch-hiked through Northern Ireland, and was beautifully treated by everyone. That was the year of some serious IRA bombings in London and Birmingham. This student, who was from southern India and dark-skinned, said that the Irish (unlike the English) didn't care about his colour, only that he was neither Protestant or Catholic, therefore welcome everywhere!
"Isla Negra" is a gorgeous poem. I absolutely love the opening three stanzas and stanza six of "Valparaiso" -- some of the finest writing in the book. I very much like the rest of the poem, too, especially the lines When they sing their spirituals / they seem like sad angels / singing with sweet voices. Your writing is sublime, too, in section ii of "Cabo Virgenes," the opening stanza of "Iguazu," and stanzas one, six, and seven of "Havana" (May Day 1995). These are lovely poems, Tomás, throughout, and I'm just highlighting my favourite passages.
Among my very favourites are "Havana Heat," "Cuba Libra" (section ii is amazing), the "Pinar Del Rio" section of "Cubop," and "Killing Hope." The Cuban section is very strong.
If I had the chance to anthologize a few poems, I'd definitely choose "San Felipe." And I also love "The Frontier." The Chilean, Cuban, and Mexico-California borderlands poems are right up there with your ancestral Yazoo County poems. Perhaps even richer, as your descriptive language, imagery and metaphors, command of rhythms, and narrative lines have grown. The emotional resonance is as deep and lingering as in the Yazoo poems. The weaving of politics gains even more intricacy, and finesse, and strength.
Thank you for this moving, evocative, admirable gift...the gift of your newest poems.
Well-regarded small press editor, publisher and poet, Charles Potts doesn't publish just anyone. So, why did he publish a guy named Klyd Watkins from Nashville, Tennessee? He told me, "I published Klyd Watkins' 5 Speed because it is poetry that deserves a wider audience and more attention than his work has hitherto received. It has some things in common with the work of other poets I've published. For instance the absence of formal requirements other than musicality and pertinence allows the poet to focus on the substance and a style will innately be established. I promote poetry that has intellectual rigor, emotional resonance, and high artistic intent." Over half the poems in this collection are either about or mention Watkins favorite place for poetic reflection, Radnor Lake, Tennessee. About this Potts notes, "More particularly I have learned the value of re-considering the same location, scene, or set of circumstances, under different or slightly altered conditions, from Klyd Watkins. Different time of day, different season of the year, different frame of mind, yield mutually supporting but distinguishable results, completing the view or poet's vision."
Here are two examples of Watkins reflections at Radnor Lake. This a concluding excerpt from his poem, "Radnor Lake, Second Observation Deck January 9 2000": I think I am thinking this to justify / a description of the maple on the water / because reflection rules / here again today like it did / the time the waves flipped my image and showed me / to the clouds. / Again my horizontal maple's / gone aggressive - leafless / this time - bobbing on the water. Its folded / wave whipped shape bounces hard as if / the waves are trying to throw form off the water / into flight / like some kind giant last cousin / to a water spider thrashing to spring free / of maple mambo on the water and rise / into dissipation's multiplication of light.
And this poem entitled, "Radnor Lake, Otter Creek Road February 6 2000":
I asked Watkins to tell me about his writing process, in particular his reason for spreading copy. He told me, "I like to be free to try any notion that enters my mind. In doing that, I destroy the previous draft, and since a lot of my impulses toward change turn out to be wrong, I need to be able to backtrack. Since word processing files take so little space, virtually none, I save, or "save as," all the drafts. I'm one of those poets that fights with punctuation. If I'm going for momentum, and often I am, a comma (in verse, not in prose) seems a conflict of interest, but you can't get rid of all of them. Despite all my revision, I agree that, when the muse is generous, the first thought is the best thought. I definitely write long segments that I know better than to change." About his spreading copy he says, "Pace is important to me. And when I get to rolling I tend to use complex syntax. I find that with complex syntax I can use very simple diction that works, and plays, really hard. I use lines, partial lines, the sweep of the eye, multiple margins, to control pace, and use pace (or attempt to) to help the reader thru the complex syntax. If the reader is hearing the words inside her mind at the right speed, the sentences may be involved but they are not hard to understand, I hope." This technique is used well in his exceptional eight-page poem entitled, "December 31, 1999". Here is an excerpt from that poem:
Oh indeed there shall be / dramatic / discoveries Sure not because / it's the millennium because awe / at nature yielding her secret's / part of what's / always there but / should scientists / find / soon perhaps among / the winking of coincidence / herself / which / I hear / fascinates some of the now but / somehow / the acrobatic mimes in scientists minds / will detect / something new let's say / a force or effect / counter to entropy which indicates / the universe may be not winding down after all that maybe / the big bang was a big sneeze clearing a breath way.
There is a wise, whimsical center to these well-crafted poems. It is apparent that Watkins not only has a natural grace for words, but is also well schooled in their use. He told me he received a BA and MA from Vanderbilt in English in the late '60's. I wondered whether he felt his schooling helped or hindered his progress as a writer. "I don't know for sure. I suppose if I had been completely independent I should have dropped out of college to read and write full time on my own, supporting myself with simple, part time work. I had two sons by the time I was twenty-two and prepared myself to support them. I not only studied, I taught. A decade at a community college in Kentucky. The classroom can be a wonderful place to read poetry. When you have three, five, a dozen, good readers going over a text together-John Dunne or William Carlos Williams or Chaucer-and they all get to putting their insights on the table, and the jocks or whoever may be there only for credit begin to glean that there is really something there of a value so energetic it goes beyond getting a grade, what's wrong with that? I had to turn down a fellowship to Iowa Writer's Workshop when I was twenty-four and had three sons. If I had been able to go to Iowa, would I now be even better or even worse?"
These poems exude kindness and compassion - wisdom. I noted that many of his poems are reflections, meditations on life - the moments before our gaze. I suggested that he sounded a bit like a southern philosopher, and he told me, "I am not particularly well read in philosophy (or anything else, except perhaps poetry). It is kind of you to pose that as a neutral statement, even a bit of a compliment possibly. When my friend Hugh Fox states a similar opinion it sounds like an accusation; he says I "turn into a combination of Richard Morris, Kant and St. Thomas Aquinas," and most of my poet friends hold the aesthetic position that it is incorrect for a poet to be philosophical, a position that is itself either philosophical or unconscious. Since I became aware, as a teenager I guess, that we have the freedom and the duty to craft our own lifestyle, not take it ready made from anyone, I have wanted to be both free and responsible. Perhaps the tension between freedom and responsibility forced me to become somewhat systematically thoughtful."
This depth of thought and rigor of thought is evident in each poem in 5 Speed. Here is a wonderful example of his ability to take a common moment and raise it to philosophical reflections. It is entitled, "June day at the Y": All the tanning young mommies // and that's not even the same / lifeguard / lord there are too many goddesses // and I myself tho I am most surely / a mortal man // that is not all I am, that is not even / what I am. My eyes squint / to climb / sun splashes over the red bathing suit / and phenomenal legs and arms of the lifeguard / knowing in my head there is / something higher something / we climb /inward into something whose / unending beauty / we / in our doomed flesh reflect.
I want to thank Charles Potts and editors like him who bring us voices like Klyd Watkins. He's a wonderful writer and southern gentleman whose poetry is precise, lyrical and luminous.
Of One and Many Worlds
RaynRoberts is a poet of many worlds, as revealed in his latest collection of poetry. His wide range of interests-from the natural world to the nature of humankind, is evident of an intellect graced with warmth and humor. He looks unflinchingly at these worlds with a clear-eyed honesty and a hefty dose of sympathy for our failures as human beings. Even as the world, as we know it or perceive it, crumbles beneath our feet, RaynRoberts pulls us up and reminds us to have faith in our fellow humans:
Social justice is a recurrent concern for RaynRoberts and he gives voice to that concern in his poetry. We may feel a sense of despair with the course of human events but the poet offers us a way of looking at the world. Rather than putting the issue at the level of governments or government agencies, however, he brings the issue down to a personal level in how we treat each other and how kindness to each other can restore our sense of humanity.
Yes, it all begins with small acts of kindness [from Acorns]. What a beautiful thought! We tend to feel so helpless to change the course of events but a small act of kindness is something each and every one of us can do to help make the world a little kinder and to ease the pain of daily living for those who are less fortunate. When we do these small acts of kindness, we allow love to flow, as the poet suggests, through the door that has been opened. More than a moral act; they can be the means of transforming the self. In effect, these small acts of kindness also become transformed into a stand against the cruelty of rogue leaders and oppressive governments.
Though RaynRoberts gives us his insights into the human condition, he makes no claim for having the answers for how we achieve a more just and less violent society. He lets us know that ordinary life offers possibilities, that we can give meaning to our lives and those of others by meditation, by those small acts of kindness and by discarding what is false in our lives. He acknowledges the gulf between man's aspirations and the world in which we live. Those who would make a stand for justice and who try to cut through the ambiguities of society and religion risk defeat by the contradictions in the political universe. Truth lies between people / who are afraid to exchange views of it; so sometime / the greater vision they might have given one another is lost. [from Seers.]
Perhaps the core of his belief system is best exemplified in the mid-section of the book. Titled "One World Twelve Poems," these short and snappy pieces, most of them no more than ten or twelve lines, sharpen one's perception with their humor. These are everyday images, everyday sounds but now refracted and magnified. It's magic.
The old monk said he'd been at war
One of the unexpected pleasures of reading this collection is the wry humor that RaynRoberts brings to his view of the world, as in his "Meditation on a Clock." Aware of the pull and wishing I was a bug. Life is so simple for a bug. In a number of his poems he reflects on our connectedness to other living creatures, such as the tadpole in "Sameness" or the pheasant taking flight at the movement of the poet's head in "Why Do You Fear Me?" or the raucous cries of crows in "Crow Wisdom." He feels their presence with an acute understanding of our relationship to these creatures. In his communion with other creatures, they become personified and he reconciles his individual awareness with the world around him.
While I sat on a bench
The poet's keen observations of nature, its small creatures, and those small happenings all around us that we don't notice echo his sensibilities to the dual nature of man and his place in the universe. He exults in the beauty and harmony of the natural world and it is during these moments that he loses the sense of individual consciousness to become part of the greater whole. If we think about it, we all long for something outside of ourselves: a oneness with our world, its mountains, its streams and other forms of nature. This is a mystical urge to which one cannot be indifferent even though the poet may have no explanation for it.
One of the poet's tasks is to find a way of setting down what he has learned. Each of RaynRoberts' poems has a rhythm of its own. In these poems there is an economy of phrasing yet they reveal a warm and varied humanity. His poems are an affirmation of his connection to many worlds and in this sense they speak for us as well. The poet's ideals are spiritual and his poems are spiritual critiques of man's progress (or lack of) in the modern world.
It's not the known that holds the secret to knowing more.
One salient thought or conclusion to reading this collection is this: Many of us are experiencing deep despair at events and crises affecting our lives, our society and our planet. We look for answers. The poet too looks for guidance in the philosophy of the great teachers of both the East and the West, like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. (And we recall that the greatest leaders for social justice and non-violent resistance in the twentieth century have been men of color.) RaynRoberts became a convert to Buddhism after living and working for several years in Asia. We all benefit from the poet's shared interpretation of East and West philosophy. Fully aware of the conflicts and problems on the home front as well as regional conflicts around the globe, he confronts the contradictions of our universe. He doesn't give us the answers but his clear-eyed existential philosophy gives us guidance on the road each of us must take. The poet takes the age-old questions of who we are and what we are about, but he does not flinch from those questions for which there are no answers. When we only dream of achieving some sense of unity with our worlds, we can have the kind of guidance that is no further than the small price of a book.
Driven into the Shade
Everything has music. Yes, we talk about "music of the spheres", "the music in daily living", "music hath charms to tame the savage breast." And often the phrase "the music of poetry" is tossed about during explications of poetic works.
This last one has a certain truth. There is music in poetry. A poem has beats and measures, breath and breath pauses. There is repetition of sounds and bars from one passage to another, transitions from section A to B back to A and on to C, similar to music. Poetry volumes take the same kind of journey as individual poems. The poet works to create a rhythm, there may be repetition of themes, melodies that run throughout, color and tone, and harmony between the words, within the pieces, the sections, the book, and ultimately between the poet and the reader. The poetry flows to synthesis in its conclusion. When a reader reads poetry, performance happens within the encounter between the poet and the reader. The poet, like the musical composer, has his own musical style. You recognize a poet's signature throughout his works, like you recognize Mozart's or Beethoven's or Debussy's.
Brandon Cesmat's new work Driven into the Shade has a certain rough music. No, I don't mean rough as in unfinished or imprecise or less than refined, for Cesmat's poetry is sharp as a diamond in its images. The rough music is of nerve endings open and alive, of veins open and pulsing blood, of wood hewn from long-lived trees to become a sturdy home.
Cesmat has written a volume showing the interplay of various periods of his life, like a musical symphony. And, as in a symphony, this volume of poetry ends up totaling more than the sum of the parts. His work is divided into sections: At Home, Leaving the House, Collisions, Roots and Limbs and ending full circle but much larger and deeper with Through Windows. In Brandon's first section, the memory poem "Gracious Sabas" gives the flavor of a Southern California childhood such that
today I look at flour tortillas as topographical maps,
In biographical poem after biographical poem in this section, Cesmat takes us on a journey of the child growing up, living the life dealt him. Later in this section, the title poem, "Driven into the Shade", explicates his rough encounters with a family pulling apart and his attempt as a child to keep it together.
She held out her arms and asked me to open the door
His images pull and release, giving an almost operatic voice to the family dynamic: "Like a princess she could feel the .22 pistol under her mattress." "Bad Dad, Bad Mom, Bad Boy."
The second section Leaving Home presents the musical notes of new encounters with the outside world: musicians, football, lovers, railing against television, experimental encounters; "men and women clustered like a DNA strand" (Lonely Boys). The section ends with an angry encounter with father out in the world. (Where Was Fidel When I Needed Him?)
When I turned 16, I met him. He took me / to a Baja bar where I listened to his voice / as I tunneled beneath our wasteland of memory,...
Now, firmly out in the world, Cesmat has "collisions" to add to his music; conflicts with actions he strongly does not believe in. As a listener to this poetry, this section was the roughest for me but it could be the strongest as well. The poems are of subjects I have had little connection with: Central American politics, U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Brandon's collisions with these events and people bring to the fore his own personal beliefs. But Cesmat is taking us on a journey of discovery as well, discovery through words and music. We learn new things from his music. His acts are sleep promises made, never touched / like fingertips tracing the hawk's helix (God Acts). His smile dissolves like adobe brick (Fingertip Elegy). If enough sticks to his fingers when he pulls them from cages, / everyone is happy: he gets votes, they get minimum wages (The Texas Teacher's Cola). Streams of rhetoric careened through the blood (Silent Hours 1983-1990). would shotgun the facts except for one hour that / my closed mouth held the breath of peace (Silent Hours 1983-1990).
Politics can alienate. But holding political subjects to the light, pulling them out from under a bushel can get at the meat of the problem. That is why I believe this section is so strong. It is a gutsy move. From the opening to "Guatemalan Fires", a poem of Central American history that has lessons for today:
Bishop Juan Gerardi,
In this section, Mr. Cesmat's music is not just in the words but is the words themselves.
Other poems in this section are about the crumbling of the West, the horrible losses in huge wildfires, and children of his own. A wonderful warm collision in this section Sons, discusses whether he really wants children; in the end he decides:
The Roots & Limbs section is about writing and the poet's art, its musical sources and the poets seeking personal roots and limbs: so I try to be a raven to follow your sound / east to Tempe and Albuquerque (Dreaming American). A wonderful nature poem follows: pomegranates brush against the coyote's fur (Sliding from Seeds). From the sky over my desk, / the paragraphs are lakes; (Comments On A Stack Of First Drafts) touched me as a writer myself, but can affect everyone who has worked through any task. Because the writer's life is initially a solitary one, poets share their frustrations and hopes, like others in their chosen field. You have set whatever fire consumes this page. / These letters sway and arc from your hair (River Murmur).
When I first surrender to a half moon
In this section, some of the most satisfying poems for me are poems to musicians, as the poems are written with jazz music to the fore and of course here the music is out front. You are given access through musical allusions, the musician noted and the musicianship that Brandon brings to the writing: With your horn-bell's glisten, / blind me. (So What? to Miles Davis)
until / he / lays / a / walking / line / down / Dixie Highway, / not just straight-ahead, / but with a shuffle for / anticipation, / with a slur in the pattern, / --fretless--
Throughout this section Brandon continues seeking personal roots and limbs. "The Emptying" is about a dispute over poetry and over two people's ability to be around each other... ready to forego food or / breathing for a moment together. The chapter ends with the poem "Beneath the Covers" presenting children as proof, children as a mother's music. See, on this planet all lines intersect if we follow / them far enough. Our poor mother bets all on her children.
The final section Through Windows really does go out into the universe that the whole book has been journeying towards. This section's rough music reveals the tender heart that has underlined all of the volume. The music of words is back to the very personal of the first childhood section, but now the subjects are his children, his family. But like a logging road cut through the forest, / there is a way between us, though it isn't the only way (The Way Between Us). Now with three sons lined up between us, / my orbit has taken me to the opposite end of the dining table / from you (Farsighted Husband Speaks). I've been up since dawn, / ...playing along / to that God song (God Song). My favorite poem in the volume is magnificently the concluding poem of the volume, "Ice Drum." In it a father and son share an icy pond and yet much more of each other:
Surfaces change and we say nothing as
This magical poem is of two humans sharing deep meaning in life with the earth and with each other and they recognize the music between them.
Driven into the Shade has a music that is alive! Brandon Cesmat's composition takes us on a journey of both identification and discovery, eventually digging deep into the mantle of the earth, to that certain rough music that brings poetry and ourselves alive and together.
d.a. levy & the mimeograph revolution
Review By: Charles P. Ries
A few months ago I asked Chris Harter, Editor/Publisher of Bathtub Gin who are some of the pioneers in the small press movement. He said without a doubt one of them had to be the late d.a. levy of Cleveland, Ohio. This was the first time I had heard of d.a. levy. When levy shot himself in November of 1968, I was fourteen years old. With five older siblings who were all politically active, I was well aware of the Cultural Revolution that was unfolding around me: civil rights, the Viet Nam war, Woodstock..., the counter culture. This moment in time was vividly brought back to life for me in the mimeo graph revolution. In his Editor's Notes in the May-June 2007 Small Press Review, Len Fulton says that the mimeo graph revolution "is almost overwhelming in its reach and passion for its subject. It is sobering to think that one young person could accomplish to much in so short a time, while confronting torment from within - and genuine torments from without." While I enjoyed reading levy's poetry and seeing his visual art, what I found most compelling were the numerous interviews with him from this time period. They reminded me how ground breaking the free speech movement of the 1960's was, and what a wonderful, diverse and passionate group of poets were at the forefront of this effort. If you love the small press, poetry, and the freedom of expression we all hold so dear, you must read this book.
Near Occasions of Sin
Review By Charles P. Ries
Louis McKee exemplifies the 'philosopher poet.' From the title of his lasted collection of poetry, Near Occasions of Sin, to the content of his poetry we see a writer who is not just good with word, or good with image, or selective about the moments in time he chooses to inspect, but a poet who is capable using his well-honed skill with word, image and observation and elevating all of them with a philosopher's mind. McKee is rich and textured in his yearning observations, nimble in his rich insights and wise in his conclusions. I felt I was not only being entertained, but learning. I was growing larger because of his clarity and counsel. It is not surprising that McKee has led an examined life as suggested in his poem, "After The Sixth Visit": That's that one / when you lie / back and say no- / thing, everything / having been said / at least five times / already, and she / says well, what / are you thinking / right now? And you / tell her that / you're thinking you / want to fuck her / and she says why / do you think that / is? but it is / too late, time is / gone, fifty minute / hours, seventy / dollars, and you / know when you leave / that you won't be / back, you are better / then you have / any right to expect.
McKee is a man who wants love, who loves love; a man who adores women but has had more then his share of challenges getting them, keeping them, and loving them. He, like all lovers (and writers), is a work in progress. This is illustrated in his poem, "Failed Haiku": This evening I took a moment / to indulge a fantasy - you, / walking naked along a Jersey beach, / the sunlight on your lovely ass. / An ancient Japanese master / could work miracles with as much. / I am content with this. And again from his poem, "The Reason I Write": I like to think she gets naked / and looks at herself in the full-length mirror; / as she does, and with a smile, slips / into soft bliss of soapy comfort, / the almost-too-hot water uncomfortable / for just a moment but then just right. / With her wondrous hair pulled up, / she uses it as a pillow, pours a glass / of wine, then picks up a book of poems. / This is the reason they were written. / The rest of you, get your muses where you can. / I write for this woman, naked in a hot bath / under a modesty of bubbles. This is our / moment. Our poem. You find your own.
As I read this, McKee's thirteenth collection of poetry, I could not help but think of the late great small press poet Albert Huffstickler (who passed away in 2002) who, like McKee, had the ability to yearn and observe so purposefully. When I read poets of McKee or Huffstickler's emotional depth, I wish they wrote novels. I wish these short, rich, textured scenes and their meaning could be extended 300 more pages. Many poets write well, but few poets give us work as rich and profoundly meaningful as Louis McKee.
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over 150 print and electronic publications. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and most recently read his poetry on NPR's Theme and Variations. He is the author of The Fathers We Find, a novel based on memory, and five books of poetry - the most recent entitled, The Last Time (The Moon Press in Tucson, AZ). Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to http://www.literarti.net/Ries/.
The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax: Poet, Peacemaker, Sage
Review by Renee Branigan, O.S.B.
Only occasionally does a book come along that is so totally refreshing and energizing that, when you reluctantly arrive at the end, your first inclination is to simply start again at the beginning. A serendipitous encounter in 1993 while on the isle of Patmos led the author to Robert Lax, a great American minimalist poet, a sage, a man who lived slowly and gently with the whole of life. To most, his name is recognized as the lifelong best friend Thomas Merton, but after reading The Way of the Dreamcatcher, I came away certain Merton was as much blessed as blessing in their relationship.
This book is an invitation to sit close and listen even more closely as the author deftly plies this gentle, holy man with the great questions of life: From where did we come? To where are we going? How shall we get there? The questions are huge, but the answers are savory and doable. This book is dense with insights that cultivate living slowly, quietly, surely: waiting on God, staying on track, learning with pleasure, praying the dream true, turning jungle into garden.
The dialogue format works well for this book because the author does not intrude: the focus is always on Lax who is mesmerizing in his wisdom and simplicity. The reader is drawn into this liturgy of encounter which is further peopled by artists, poets, musicians, philosophers, and spiritual writers who have touched the lives of the two in dialogue.
This is precisely a book to give a friend. It is utterly exquisite in its external attractiveness, but even that pales in the face of the great light within the pages. It's a book to keep and to share, to savor and to digest, to begin and ... to begin again. (A sequel to be released August 2007.)
Voices in Wartime: The Anthology - A Collection of Narratives and Poems
Review by Barbara Evans, editor for PoetsWest
We listen to the generals speak about troop movements, a mission, a precision strike, collateral damage, the military objective or action, or an enemy pacified. All abstract terms. No images. Nothing palpable. No longer do the media provide us with images of the war, not even the coffins being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base in Maryland. Voices in Wartime: The Anthology, a robust collection of stories and poems you don't get in daily news reports, sheds the abstract treatment of war. It is must reading for anyone who thinks about the consequences of war. The narratives and poems in this printed collection are an extension of the interviews with the soldiers, journalists, doctors, teachers, refugees, ordinary citizens, as well as poets, who appear in the film by the same title.
The various narrators have given a human face to those caught in the horror of war and its aftermath, as in the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War. In "Everything that Was Beautiful is Gone" Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon recounts the devastating and cruel effects of the sanctions?even "pencils for school kids because of the lead inside them, all kinds of medicines, antibiotics. You had the systematic destruction of a whole society." The sanctions affected the most vulnerable population (women and children) and decimated the intellectual life and stability of that society.
War increasingly becomes an impersonal conflict. War correspondent Chris Hedges points to the exhilarating and addictive effects of war in which technological advances in modern weaponry ever increase the distance between opposing forces. Monstrous machines increase the casualties, especially among the civilian population. Those who fly the planes and work the machines never see the faces, the blown-up bodies.
NBC cameraman Craig White embedded with the Third Infantry Division likened the beginning of the war in Iraq to a video game. The "special cameras could show things a mile away. You'd see a tank, a little poof! You'd see another object go poof." Then as the war progressed, he saw the horror of itnot as depicted in the movies but in the savage reality of bodies being blown apart, heads flying off, arms and legs severed. "Burning trucks full of ammunition popping off. . . . depleted uranium, and radiation going up into the air everywhere."
Poets and writers articulate the personal emotions and experiences of both soldiers and civilians. Craig White addresses the raw fears of soldiers under direct fire, the horrible risks from depleted uranium, the men, women and children trying to flee the carnage but caught in the crossfire. "They always lost." Jittery and exhausted soldiers shoot first. Was that moving figure friend or foe? Soldiers at a checkpoint order civilians to halt. Almost no one in the Army speaks Arabic and there are few translators. The civilians don't understand and their immediate reaction is to run. What happens next? They get shot. There is the anguish of the woman whose husband and son were killed in the front seat of their car: "Why? Why did you shoot? Why did you kill them?" (She spoke English.) Whether the killing of one of their own (friendly fire) or that of innocent Iraqi civilians, the soldiers are doomed to "having nightmares over and over and over again."
"Poetry is a very potent thing in the Arab world," says Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon. In his poem "Wrinkles on the Wind's Forehead" the wind is a blind mother / stumbling / over the corpses / no shrouds / save the clouds / but the dogs / are much faster.
US Army Lt. Paul Mysliwiec who served in Iraq in 2003 gives the viewpoint of an officer who feels deeply his primary responsibility for the safety of his men. First and foremost, he is a soldier and his goal is to get his men home. He acknowledges the important role that poetry has played in his commitment to his mission. Two poems, A.E. Houseman's "A Shropshire Lad" and Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" intensely reflect his feelings toward that kind of commitment to duty.
In "The Trauma of War" Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay describes how soldiers form these intense bonds with their comrades in combat and when one or another comrade in their unit is killed or maimed, they become "mothers" to each other. This is deep stuff. The deep emotional conflicts created by the war experience linger long after actual combat ends. What happens to a soldier trained to kill when he or she returns home? What are family members going to do when the soldier returns home and emotionally shuts down?
John Akins's incisive three-part poem "The Order of War" wraps up Part 1. From Boot Camp to Vietnam and the Vietnam Memorial, only a soldier who is a poet would notice the significance of the line. In boot camp Akins and the other little guys at the back of the line in formation,...Four lines across. Then the line falls apart in a random strung-out column in the jungle. When Akins returns to the U.S., he visits the Vietnam Memorial. He looks for names / in the gleam / of chiseled granite. He sees that the line has reformed itself tight, every line spaced even ...in chronological order.
In Part 2 the voices provide an immediacy of impact, as in Emily Warn's poignant narrative about her father who was a paratrooper in World War II. The psychic trauma he suffered caused this war hero to be lost to her and to the family. She underscores the emotional impact in two poems "Skeet Shooting" and "California Poppy."
There's always another war. The writings in the anthology offer insights into the conflicts whether in Iraq, the Sudan, Nigeria, or Columbia. Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon again points out that children can't go to school and "women cannot go to work to support their families." Nothing but smoke, / and depleted uranium. Children, always the most vulnerable and the most victimized in war, suffer also from the effects on health from poverty, polluted water, insufficient diet, insufficient medicines including vaccines?things we take for granted. It is devastating for the child who loses an arm or a leg. When Rumsfield was asked about the chaos that is a daily feature of Iraq today, his simplistic response was that democracy is messy.
For those who think poetry has no relevance to society, Chris Abani recounts the experiences of his fellow countrymen. Christopher Okigbo, who died during the Biafran War, had seen it coming and "lost faith when the war happened anyway." Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka spent three years in prison for speaking out against his government's policies which caused the death of thousands of children from starvation. The activist writer Chinua Achebe, embracing the idea that art is at the service of man, barely escaped the soldiers who believed his novel, A Man of the People, implicated him in the country's first military coup.
In "He Went Out One Day and Never Came Back," award-winning poet Antonieta Villamil gives voice to the stark effects of the perpetual civil wars that come out of Central and South America. These are wars in which generations of people simply disappear. Villamil lost her brother Pedro and uses poetry to connect with his memory. She reiterates the role of the poet in society: "to be the conscience of a community or a culture."
In Part 3: "Looking Back" the window opens and allows us to see what we've experienced in history and in myth. Jon Stallworthy of Oxford University gives us an historical perspective on poetry in wartime beginning with the Old Testament to Homer and Virgil and the Iliad to Chaucer down through the ages to more contemporary times. Walt Whitman served as a nurse in the American Civil War. Rudyard Kipling was a correspondent. Especially meaningful is the shift of historical narrative from the aristocracy to ordinary people as in the poetry of Houseman and Thomas Hardy and flowing into the work of poets like Randall Jarrell who writes so movingly on the death of ball turret gunner who is "washed out of the turret with a hose."
Dominic Hibberd from the U.K. recounts the well-known story of the renowned World War I poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who are featured both in the film and book. Sassoon protested the hypocrisy of old men who send young men into war pretending it's a great adventure. To keep him quiet, Sassoon was hidden away in a hospital, the same hospital where Wilfred Owen was being treated for shell shock. Luckily the two men met before Owen was discharged and sent back to the front lines. Tragically Owen was killed just one week before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. After the war Sassoon salvaged Owen's poetry and arranged for its publication. As another poet of that war, Charles Hamilton Sorley, wrote in "When you see millions of the mouthless dead" Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto, / 'Yet many a better one has died before....
Jonathan Schell, the respected writer on disarmament, relates the shock he encountered in Vietnam where the military might of the U.S. contrasted so vividly with that of the North Vietnamese. Vietnam, as Schell points out, was a people's war and in rejecting the lessons not learned in Vietnam, the U.S. is repeating its destructive war in Iraq. Schell points to the fallacy of war as a tool of national policy and shifts the focus to how major changes in a society have been effected without resorting to war. This kind of "people action" has best been exemplified by the experiences in India when Gandhi fought for his country's independence from England, in South Africa under Nelson Mandela, and in the U.S. under Martin Luther King Jr.
Andy Himes, the executive producer of the film, interviewed John Henry Parker, a Marine veteran and father of a soldier serving in Afghanistan. Parker's own father was a Marine who served in Korea. This narrative leads into a discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When we wage war, we create hells not only for the innocent victims, but also for the perpetrators. That hell goes home with the soldier yet we expect the soldier returning from war to adjust to home life without a glitch. If he recognizes that he needs help in adjusting from killing or "being shot at to fixing toast and eggs with the kids" he risks being stigmatized. Sometimes the help is not available either because of cutbacks in veteran benefits or by requirements in which the veteran must promise to stay in the military. The current quagmire in Iraq forces these veterans into untenable situations. Parker estimates that, lacking a support network, probably 60 percent of those who need counseling will not get the help they need.
This particular narrative is given emphasis by the experiences of Sheila Sebron, a disabled Air Force veteran who endured twenty years of misery before embarking on a treatment program for PTSD. After rehabilitation she now teaches and counsels veterans and others on its effects. Her personal experiences allow her to relate to others suffering from similar disorders.
Himes follows up Parker's interview with that of an Iraqi physician, Dr. Enas Mohamed, now living in Seattle. She is deeply involved in research on the effects of depleted uranium on cancer and other diseases. She recounts the effects during the first Gulf War of forty-two days of steady bombing: no power, no hospitals, no work, no factories, no light, no heat, no schools, no x-ray machines, no doctors, no help. Dr. Mohamed describes the cumulative effects of exposure to this radioactive material dumped on Iraq's citizens by the U.S. We fool ourselves if we think American soldiers will escape similar effects of exposure to depleted uranium.
Terrible things happen in war and war does terrible things to us. No one escapes. Nigerian poet Chris Abani recalls the daily humiliations he witnessed at checkpoints in Nigeria and he reminds us that it's the same as "what's happening in the West Bank now. Israel humiliating the Palestinians" or Americans humiliating the Iraqis. In war's aftermath, the survivors internalize its trauma. As a child Abani played "in burnt-out tanks, picked up bullets and found skulls in abandoned hamlets." He recalls the horror of "women who cut off parts of their body to cook and feed their children." Or "women who killed . . . their children because . . . they would not have survived the war." American soldiers wore "garlands of ears" taken from the corpses of dead Vietnamese. Abani also points out how "Never again" can be a dangerous sentiment when used as a shield to cut off discussion against current oppression as in the case of Israel. Keeping silent is always easier and those in power make it even easier by keeping the people in ignorance. These comments by Abani have relevance today: The Bush administration uses fear and an evangelical vision to justify its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its detainment and torture of citizens from Iraq and other nations in prison camps both here and abroad.
One of the most revelatory sections of the book is the personal narrative by Andy Himes, the executive producer of the film. He listened to his grandfather, a "fundamentalist and fire-and-brimstone country preacher from Texas," preach hundreds of sermons "full of heart and soul." Andy shares with us his journey of personal growth from the stark world of black and white in which moral choices are severely limited to the amorphous world of the peace movement. But his grandfather knew how to tell a story, how to bring joy and grief to the storytelling and it is this kind of influence that finds its way into the film and the anthology.
Another significant feature of the writing in the anthology is the commentary by some of the contributors on the use of language. Chris Hedges reminds us that we need to recognize that the first casualty of war is truth and "the first thing that is hijacked is language." This is especially apparent to those who appreciate the use of language and its nuances. But the true horror of war is given stark reality in the poetry of our soldier-poets, both living and dead. Brian Turner, an Army veteran of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, is the modern-day equivalent of the World War I poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Turner writes poems in a language made of blood. In "2000 lbs" The civil affairs officer, Lt. Jackson, stares / at his missing hands, which makes / no sense to him, no sense at all, to have / these absurd stumps held up in the air / where just a moment before he'd blown bubbles / out the humvee window, his left hand holding the bottle, / his right hand dipping the plastic ring in soap, / filling the air behind them with floating spheres,...
The living accounts by poets, journalists and others evoke images that impose themselves like stones on the brain. And we realize that in the midst of unimagined horror, the birds still sing and the golden light of the sun still shines on the minaret, the makeshift shack, the 50-caliber gun. We realize then how important it is to listen to the human who resides in each of us, as Brian Turner beckons to us in "Sadiq." It should break your heart to kill. / It should make you shake and sweat, / nightmare you, strand you out in a desert / of irrevocable desolation, the consequences / seared into the vein, ... no matter / what god shines down on you, no matter / what crackling pain and anger / you carry in your fists, my friend,...
Driving around AnyCityUSA we see cars and trucks sporting "ribbon" bumper stickers with the heartwarming message "Support our troops." But do the drivers of those cars and trucks give any thought to what that slogan really means? Where is the civic discourse that Americans need to engage in when our leaders use war as a tool of foreign policy? I believe the anthology offers the basis for a discourse that the bumper stickers lack. There are books that stand up to time, and a book like this anthology has lessons that will continue to be relevant to our lives. It joins other books on the subject, including: Fallen Soldiers by George L. Mosse, Blood and Belonging by Michael Ignatieff, What the Hell am I doing here? by Paul Moorcraft, Blood Lines by Vamik Volkan, Smedley Butler's War Is a Racket, Frederick Su's An American Sin, and John Akins's Vietnam memoir Nam Au Go Go. I think most Americans will find the insights and perspectives provided in Voices in Wartime to always be relevant and I would encourage ordinary citizens to exercise their intellectual curiosity to view the film or read the book. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Jonathan and Rick King and Andy Himes for their passion and courage in making the film, to Andy Himes and Jan Bultmann, Executive Director of the Voices in Wartime Network (www.voicesinwartime.org) for their work on editing the book, to Claudio Mauro, Executive Director of Whit Press, for publishing the book, and to the participants who by their testimony present persuasive arguments that war is harmful for all living creatures.
The most moving lines written by a fourth-grader, Cameron Penny, of Michigan wrap up this extraordinary collection of essays, interviews, and poems. If you are lucky in this life/ A window will appear on a battlefield between two armies. / And when the soldiers look into the window / They don't see their enemies / They see themselves as children. / And they stop fighting / And go home and go to sleep. / When they wake up, the land is well again.
Baby Beat Generation & the 2nd San Francisco Renaissance edited and translated by Mathias de Breyne
If you want to taste the Beat Poets and sample the writers who followed them, Baby Beat Generation & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance is about as good as it will get. The work in this collection is of high quality. I'm not sure why this surprised me. I have read many anthologies and usually come away with a 50% sense of satisfaction, but not this time so I asked Thomas Rain Crowe whose work is featured in the collection and whose preface helped to established historic context. He told me, "Looking back, now I think the poetry that came out of the 2nd San Francisco renaissance is still some of the best, and most interesting, poetry of the last thirty years. These were talented, dedicated, and extremely literate poets, some of whom were 'well educated', but all of whom were very well read and had been writing for quite a long time, even though many of us were only in our mid-late twenties. This was a very diverse group of poets, who wrote in uniquely different styles from one another and from their beat friends and mentors." The book includes poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Jack Micheline, Jack Hirschman, Harold Norse, Diane Di Prima, Nanos Valaoritis, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman and David Meltzer on the beat side, and poetry by Thomas Rain Crowe, Ken Wainio, Neeli Cherkovski, David Moe, Janice Blue, Paul Wear, Luck Breit, Kaye McDonough, Philip Daughtry, Kristen Wetterhahn, Jerry Estrin, and Roderick Iverson, as well as pictures and an attached CD which includes readings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane Di Prima, Bob Kaufman, Jack Hirschman, Jack Micheline, Thomas Rain Crowe, Michael Lorraine, Cole Swenson and Ken Wainio.
I sensed Crowe's significant presence in this publication and asked if he was the driving force behind it and how the hell did a French Press become the publisher for an anthology focused on American poets? He told me, "While it's true that I was the main contact and the supplier of much of the raw material that made its way into the anthology, this isn't a "Thomas Rain Crowe" production. Mathias de Breyne was the catalyst and initiator of the project. This anthology was his idea. He contacted me and asked for material--which he then chose from and translated into French. He was familiar with the publisher of La Main Courante, Pierre Courtaud, and it was Mathias de Breyne who contacted Monsieur Courtaud and proposed the idea of such an anthology. M. Courtaud's press, La Main Courante is primarily a press that publishes contemporary French poets. It's a relatively small literary press, and so this project was the largest project that he had undertaken to date. I did write a preface for the book, since M.de Breyne wanted something that would allow readers to get a glimpse into the whole scene in San Francisco during the 70s. And I did assist with problem areas of the translations. But this book was generated in France by a French poet and a French publisher--which is ironic in one sense and appropriate in another."
All the content in this collection appears in English and in French. As I counted up the contributors to the anthology I totaled 29 men and 7 women. So where were the women? It was the 70's and feminism was coming of age, yet an anthology focused on the 70's features mainly male poets. I asked Kaye McDonough whose work is featured in this collection to comment on the state of women's poetry in the 70's, "I think the North Beach lifestyle itself was hard on women. You had to be able to live poor and like it -- handle yourself in a bar, walk alone on the street at any hour, and rely on no one. You had to take care that you weren't an alcohol or drug casualty -- and that you could keep up with all those poets and what they read, and they read plenty. You had to be able to read your poetry to rooms full of mostly men who were not shy about giving you feedback. The womanizing was a definite minus. Where I came from, women did not go about unescorted at night, let alone into a bar, so North Beach wasn't exactly a place to settle down and start a family-- I'm not sure I knew what in the heck I was after - alcohol certainly played a role. I think I wanted to live like a man - a man who was a poet." (An extended quote from Kaye McDonough can be found at the conclusion of this review.) This excerpt from her poem, "Talk To Robert Creely About It" is telling, "Breast are your bonbons / You suck a lemon fondant / spit out a chocolate-covered cherry / You try on vaginas like finger rings / The pearl cluster is too loose perhaps / the gold band too tight / You collect hearts like paintings / They are nailed to your walls / Skulls ring your house / They are the ivory necklace / fallen from the throat of your latest lady // Women lie around you like mirrors / You pick up one, then another / comb your hair, adjust your features in their glass / Do you see, you grow thin / from wanting some love on your bones?" (Beatitude #24, 1975)
I wanted to hear a male's take on this gender imbalance and asked Thomas Rain Crowe if he would comment. "No one was counting in those days. There were a lot of women writing and involved in the 70s scene. Not all of whom got into the anthology, just as not all of the male writers in the bay area got into the book. It always felt like there was an equal balance of men and women (masculine and feminine energy) involved in everything we did. There certainly was a very strong feminine voice in North Beach and in the issues of Beatitude during those years. As I say, who was counting? If you look at the posters for Beatitude events and at the issues of Beatitude during those years, you'll see that there were always a healthy, if not equal, number of women represented. It didn't feel like anyone was fighting for position, etc. those that were on the scene and who wanted to take part publicly were the ones that ended up on the reading posters and in the many bay area publications during those years." I am sure the answer lies somewhere between McDonough and Crowe's perception of the time, but it presented an interesting back story and sent my mind rambling to today's small press scene where I often sense a lack of female poets and editors, yet realizing women write more poetry. So why aren't they publishing? Why aren't they fighting for an audience?
I needed to find out about Beatitude. The small press magazine started in the 1950's and picked up in the 1970s which became the glue for these new post-beat poets. Again here is Thomas Rain Crowe, "Beatitude was the glue as you put it, for our group, and also for this anthology. Since Beatitude was at the center, the core, of the 70's renaissance, and a catalyst for the renaissance, the editor and publisher of Baby Beat Generation & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance decided that this anthology would hinge on the Beatitude poets--since we were in closest proximity to the Beats and were working and playing with them constantly during those years, and since Beatitude was the first beat publication during the 1950s. It was us babies that resurrected the magazine. The publisher and editor wanted to cite and establish a viable tradition, with the passing down of the Beat heritage and the Beat "torch" as it were, to the next generation. This book establishes that tradition and documents the history of this "rite of passage." We published usually 500 copies of each issue of Beatitude. It was done in the mimeograph format of the former 50s Beatitude, and was distributed to bookstores all over the bay area, as well as to select bookstores all over the country--including LA, the Northwest Coast, Chicago, New York, Canada, and England. I was in charge of the distribution during those years, and the emphasis was not to make money, but to get the magazine out and as far-reaching as possible. We usually sold enough copies to pay for the next issue. But mainly it was about the poetry and showing others in the states and in other countries what we were doing. The magazine came out as often as was possible. There was no concrete publication schedule, as there is in most literary journals these days. In other words, it wasn't biannual, quarterly, etc. since we used a rotating editorship policy; it came out as quickly as each different editor could accrue text and get it through production."
"Finally, I asked Crowe to tell me what he viewed as the key style and content distinctives between the Beats and Baby Beats? "While there would be some inevitable similarities, there are also some very distinct differences between us (the baby beats) and the beats. I think that, in general, our writing is much more imaginative and experimental--reflecting the values and cultural politics of the 1960s. I also think that the general oeuvre of the Baby Beats has a much wider arc. Our major influences tend to be more international--since there were more translations of foreign poets available in the 60s and 70s than there had been in the 40s and 50s. Also, we were more politically active, I think, than the beats. Our generation had a history of taking the issues of the time to the streets. We continued that during the 70s in San Francisco, and afterwards. Much of what we did, publicly, was usually for some cultural or political cause outside of the purely literary. I also think that we tended, and still tend, to be more inclusive. Inclusive of women. Inclusive of foreigners, inclusive of different literary styles and persuasions, inclusive of class and race, etc."
As a reader of poetry, I can often say, I enjoyed that, but not as often say, I enjoyed that and I learned a lot along the way. This is a great collection for many reasons and on many levels. The poetry is outstanding, the bio's, photos, preface and CD provide wonderful historic context. It also made me reflect on women's role in poetry in the 1950-1970s in a wider framework. $20 plus shipping is not too much to pay for this very good, very enlightening read.
Bone Strings by Anne Coray
Anne Coray's poems in Bone Strings emanate with an intuitive sense of the Alaskan wilderness where she grew up. As one who is intimate with landscape, she is able to bypass the tendency to conceive wilderness as a pristine, magical presence. Instead, through her poems, she meanders the fractured line between harshness and beauty. She readily confronts the odds of survival and exposes the reader to a certain reality not only about the wilderness of nature, but also about the wilderness of self.
Her poems are attentive to the plight of wildlife as civilization encroaches. The walrus, the moose, the ptarmigan, the wolves are just some of the presences with which she interrelates in her poems, and even if they fail in their individual struggle to survive, she draws on the continuity of nature as an active setting to death's inevitable presence. In the poem "Elegy for Four Wolves Killed by a Neighbor Last December," the opening line, which lends the book its title, reverberates with this sense of a cosmic presence lending continuity to a harsh reality: The north wind strums its bone strings. / Ravens too make their music, plucking / the last fish scraps from the ice.
Coray's attention to nature goes beyond a sense of place. Her most genuine lines reveal how nature transforms the self. In the same poem, she continues, And I am still worrying transitions, / stuck in a brutal month of blood and skins. This sense of transition permeates her poems. Another example is found in "The Unexalted," where she leads us again to the interaction of landscape with self, The land / only collects our grief; the stars release it, untraceable, anonymous.
Throughout her poems, her treatment of the human presence is as fragile as that of wildlife. She writes of a father who died in flight, of a mother waiting. In the poem "Alaskan" she opens with the line, Here, death is common by air, acknowledging in her steady voice what one accepts from living on the edge of wilderness. Yet, even in this knowledge, she doesn't give over to the finality of death, but instead she gives the reader a sense of its place in the cosmic world: So they are given over: / flying a Cook Inlet's coast / or a mountain pass, / there are little puffs / that make the airplane shudder, / breaths of the invisible / reclaiming their position / in the sun-washed sky.
Even though these poems are anchored in the Alaskan landscapes, they have a tendency to appeal to the universal meandering in each of us. In the same poem, she draws up images as universal as Penelope waiting for the return of Ulysses, only here the women do not wait for return from the sea, but from the sky: Flights in fog and overloaded planes / take many, and widows lie / in star-laced beds, / the names of the unburied / soft upon their lips.
In her seamless transitions, Corey's references to language infiltrate the imagery of external and internal landscapes. In the poem "Kinships," she gives us, in her own words, the landscape of tongue. Here again, she underscores that fine line between beauty and harshness by giving wilderness its own voice, the river's throat learning / its earliest course leading us to the world awash with voice, which is as good a description as any for her book-a world awash with voice.
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot
Ed Harkness grew up in Seattle and studied poetry with Northwest writers Richard Hugo and Madeline DeFrees. His poems evoke a familiar territory, from the Umatilla river to Aurora Avenue, from Yakima to the San Juans, filled with friends, travel, and colloquies with family and memory. The title of this book from a small, fine Bainbridge Island publisher reflects the tone and pace of its contents - - easygoing meditation opening into insights that crackle and sting.
Harkness is most interesting when puzzling over the thinness of the wall between peaceful domesticity and massive political bloodshed. "History always comes home," he says, and war invites itself right into his book. He recalls the bayonets hung above the mantel with its "Christmas cards, candles &ldots; and two ceramic squirrels" at Grandma's house. "That's the blood gutter, this gray-eyed / lover of dahlias explained." Indeed, women are equal players in the century's conflicts, like the fighter Hannah, who "tripped on a German mine and became a rose / opening forever in her father's palm," and the Spanish women herded against a wall, who laughed and lifted their dresses in defiance of the firing squad. A few of the poems veer into sentimentality or flatness, but usually they're fresh and satisfying. The author can be funny, too, as when he opens his rain-soaked journal and finds that "the only legible word / is rapture. / It might be / rupture."
Occasional birds trill in this collection, but there's little music in its voice. Nor is there much of music's counterpart in poetry - - the palpable tension that comes from speech pushing at the envelope of form. Harkness works with a trowel instead of a blade or brush. It's a good trowel. His materials are mostly gray and rough, like the Great Wall of China that snakes its granite way through the book. Along uneven ground the poet has mortared a line of ordinary stones, then a line upon that one, and then another. The lines may not sing, but they're solid, and they stand.
Above review published in Seattle Weekly, July 20, 2000.
More from Judy Lightfoot: The following was excerpted from a longer piece, "Seattle poets take you on a journey of words," and published in The Seattle Times, Pacific Books August 27, 2000.
Seattle poet Edward Harkness' first book, published by Bainbridge Island's Pleasure Boat Studio, brings the reader home again to narratives set in familiar Northwest locales along with poems of memory and travel. The title of Saying the Necessary reflects its blunt, plainspoken approach, and Harkness' economy of style works especially well in poems about his children, where transparency of language is a window on a complex sensibility.
In the lovely "My Son's Drawing of a Smiling Deer," the father sees the child add to his sketch of a doe the "long smile . . . of a boy who has seen / something wild return his gaze." With the stroke of a pencil, the son has revealed his "secret self," his father muses, "a boydeer from the other world."
It's harder to locate the emotional center or purpose when the point of view isn't Harkness' own. The title poem, for example, is based on a heartrending journal kept by a Montana motorist stranded in snowy mountains who died of starvation. Harkness quotes from the man's notebook and outlines what he might have seen and heard but gives him almost no interior life. So while the events are powerful enough to evoke tears in a reader, it's not because they present the death of a developed consciousness or allegorize the fate of lonely, unheard writers. Perhaps it's because the reader can fill the blank in the poem's main character with her own unarticulated woes.
Blue Willow by Molly Tenenbaum (Floating Bridge Press, $7.00)
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot
Seattle poet Molly Tenenbaum's world is a wonderfully messy, capricious one, where the steeping of a couple of teabags initiates a passionate encounter with a stranger, and a defunct appliance conjures up lost loves. Among the bread-pans 'The One You Need Is at the Bottom, in the Back,' certain to "rattle and zag" the pile until it collapses, you "hunched / for the crash" but still bravely fumbling sticky tins for the right one to bake that loaf of good whole-wheat.
Forget your sorrow that Nothing happened " No marriage" and that you walk "single always" ('Honor Thy Livelong Toaster'). Ignore the unrelenting need for "always something, one / more thing" ('Filling the Cart'). Because this morning you can see 'The First Place Sun Lands' and then the next, can taste kiwi marmalade, can hear the whisper of a knife buttering toast and a "news-page turning" where the freshly wiped table has a "streaky shine" and "bee-comb bones, a lemon light" ('Tea and Toast Syndrome').
It's no surprise to learn that Tenenbaum is a musician - the exuberant riffs and liltings of her poems sing us right back to those loved-and-lost pieces of red wool and Blue Willow, and to the first clear syllables of our own lost language.
Review published in Seattle Weekly, August 27, 1998.
By a Thread by Molly Tenenbaum (Van West & Co., $14)
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot
Van West & Company, a publisher of fine books and broadsheets recently established in Ballard, has just released its first trade book, Seattle poet Molly Tenenbaum's By a Thread. Two years ago Tenenbaum's chapbook Blue Willow delighted readers with its lyrical meditations on ordinary subjects like eating breakfast, browsing books, buying produce, and making tea. In By a Thread, her first full-length collection, the musical fluency of her language still works a liberating magic as she awakens us to everyday surprises and comforts. Tenenbaum notices "a spark when it cools black / and lands, a dot of dark"; she imagines that barnacles "curled in their salty houses" under the sun must feel a rising tide to be "like a cool basement / on a hot day"; she convinces us that "The World Is the Shape of a Cat."
The subtle jolts and sharp edges in many of these poems lend a bracing quality to the poet's characteristic effusions of appositives and sibilants, though the diction is often too precious for my taste - - Tenenbaum gravitates to choices like "twinkle," "nestle," "tucked," "snug," "caboodle," even "cavortle." I wanted more passages like the book's fine creepy bit on slug anatomy, and I missed Blue Willow 's troubling astringencies, broken appliances, and brassy hungers. But the poet's apparent intention in her new book is not, as in earlier work, to ground its pleasures in loss or loneliness. By a Thread is a praise-song of gratitude for a full life, which many readers will find inspiring. Tenenbaum's exuberant, accessible poems about nature and domesticity are well orchestrated in this beautiful first volume from Seattle's new poetry press.
Review published in Seattle Weekly, March 2, 2000.
More from Judy Lightfoot: The following was excerpted from a longer piece, "Seattle poets take you on a journey of words," and published in The Seattle Times, Pacific Books August 27, 2000.
A more fully realized sensibility inhabits Molly Tenenbaum's work throughout, and it seems right to end this poetry roundup where it began, with a lover of produce and all its possibilities. Tenenbaum's By a Thread, presents lyrical meditations on ordinary events like taking walks and weeding the garden. On this everyday material, the poet's art works a liberating magic: she notices "a spark when it cools black / and lands, a dot of dark"; she imagines that barnacles "curled in their salty houses" under the sun must feel a rising tide to be "like a cool basement / on a hot day"; she persuades us that "The World Is the Shape of a Cat." A few sharp edges and turns of thought give these poems bracing qualities, though the words are often too precious for this reader's taste.
Tenenbaum gravitates to choices like "twinkle," "nestle," "tucked," "snug," "caboodle," even "cavortle" - the book could use more passages like its nice, creepy bit on slug anatomy. But the poet's intention is to sing a praise-song of gratitude for a bountiful life, and audiences crowd the rooms whenever she reads from By a Thread.
Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker's Journal by Alan Chong Lau (University of Hawaii Press, $17.95)
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot. Excerpted from a longer piece, "Seattle poets take you on a journey of words," and published in The Seattle Times, Pacific Books August 27, 2000.
Twenty years ago, Alan Chong Lau was laid off by Boeing and began working for a greengrocer in Seattle's International District. This, he says in the preface to Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker's Journal, is where he started writing poetry. But his book is no portrait of the artist as a young grocery drudge.
Lau throws himself joyously into his work and sends his radiant attention outward to find health and laughter nearly everywhere. In short lyrics, prose poems and some ebullient, twitchy drawings, he records the sights and sounds around him - and the smells, whether from "an alleyway / of crushed flowers /soaking in yesterday's piss" or a whiff of restaurant barbecue.
To him, it's all amazing. With unsentimental fellow-feeling the poet notices the "callused feet and cracked heels" of passersby, the techniques of a woman scavenging vegetables in a dumpster, and a long black hair, in a new crate of Mexican peas, from the head of a picker who's surely underpaid. He observes shoppers as they prod mangoes, sample grapes and swap stories, treating the produce market as "their own private kitchen" where clerks are "uninvited guests."
Beyond it all he notes "The charcoal squawk of crows" and "This sky / the ribs of / a blue clam shell" above Elliott Bay. Though Lau's publisher apparently couldn't resist printing some of the book's weaker stanzas on its cover because they mention China, water chestnuts and ancestors, Lau himself doesn't emphasize his Chinese-American origins. He speaks above all as a person and a poet, large-hearted and tireless, filling his pages with fresh wonder at the ever-changing same old workaday world just south of downtown.
Reprinted by permission of Judy Lightfoot.
The Cartographer's Tongue by Susan Rich (White Pine Press, $14)
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot. Excerpted from a longer piece,
"Seattle poets take you on a journey of words." Published in
The Seattle Times,
Pacific Books August 27, 2000
Susan Rich has traveled far from Seattle and around the globe for the Peace Corps, Amnesty International and various writing projects of her own. The poems in her first book-length collection, The Cartographer's Tongue, weave these journeys with narratives from her Boston childhood and many love poems.
Throughout, Rich is drawn to life's injustices and dangers as if wanting to master them by meeting them head-on, and of the poets reviewed here, she works with the riskiest, most difficult material. Her poems juxtapose ordinary images - conversing, drinking tea, picking plums - with scenes of abject poverty, war-scarred streets and torture's aftermath that lead to painful self-questioning: "Do I leave to take a stand?" "Is memory a chain of alibis?" But though questions are sometimes the only possible reply to horror, Rich's multiply until they grow tiresome, even awkward. Watching a noseless leper she wonders, "what / does she miss the most?" About the ordeal of gathering shattered bodies after a Tel Aviv bombing she asks, "Whatever happened to the elbows, kneecaps, teeth?"
To Rich's credit, she seems aware of the difficulty of writing well at life's jagged edges, especially when the writer is visiting an edge where others must live. Her best work is closer to emotional home. A fine understated lyric honors the journalists of war-torn Sarajevo who kept on publishing: "There was just bread and paper, / and there were many days without bread." "Men At Work" perfectly balances humor with generous appreciation of the weirdness of others, and "1959" is an unpredictable, affectionate meditation on the peculiarities of the author's parents.
Reprinted by permission of Judy Lightfoot.
Equipoise by Kathleen Halme (Sarabande, $12.95)
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot
In the work of Bellingham poet Halme a solitary spirit addresses a world not always in the mood for conversation. And even when events seem more responsive to human wishes, a perfect communion proves impossible - words that go between also stand between. But the poems keep pushing against the nature of things, pressing toward pure, unmediated experience, a union of self and surroundings that words can't achieve.
In Halme's prizewinning first book, Every Substance Clothed (U. Georgia), the pursuit of a fusion admitted to be impossible is tragic, cryptic, antic, athletic - is interesting in the vexed and prickly erotics of its moves. The speakers of the poems accost experience and language, survive their stoniness, and swing the reader between vision and question, pother and calm. Equipoise shares the concerns of the earlier book but feels a bit lighter in weight and less piercing in intelligence, its metaphors tending toward the fluid and flowery instead of edges and iron. One wishes the new poems had harder work to do, and more art in lines that feel either thin or clotted. Still, there are many sharply observed moments: "pelicans / like folding chairs" ('Betwixt the Flames and Waves'), "the next table of men / who snap the news from page to page" ('In Mérida, Capital of Yucatán'), "love / alive astride lighthouse and gray scarf of horizon" ('Knots'), and the sexy, childfree woman sassing mothers who nag her to reproduce ('Autotomy'). Equipoise is most admirable when precariously achieved in the midst of trouble.
Review published in Seattle Weekly, March 4, 1999.
Gratitude by Sam Hamill (BOA Editions, $12.50)
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot
In his latest collection Port Townsend poet Sam Hamill speaks as Obaka-san, or "big fool" - an honorific that Japanese friends gave him, recalling the nickname of the early writer Ryokan. Like Shakespeare's wise fools and Nietzsche's Wise Child, Obaka-san surrenders to life instead of trying to manipulate, buy, or sell it. And like the Zen and Ch'an poet-calligrapher-monks of old, he makes his home everywhere and noplace, with a community of artists spanning the centuries. In Gratitude we meet these friends - in letters and elegies the poet sends them, in his translations of their writings, and in epithalamia celebrating their children's marriages.
More precisely, Hamill, his friends, and the reader meet in the sociable situation his pages provide. Creating spaces where readers and poets living and dead can gather has been his life work as Editor of Copper Canyon Press, Director of the Port Townsend Writers' Conference, author of over thirty books, and translator of Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese poetry. Gratitude can be read as Hamill's gift of thankfulness for being able to devote himself to these labors.
But if we open it to find a certain something for ourselves - a newly carved insight for our mental treasury, a voice that will set our deeper beliefs to music, a self-enhancing mirror of our life or a soothing escape from it - we'll miss the poems. The painting on the cover of Hamill's book, Morris Graves' "Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye," suggests another approach. This creature's feathers blend so imperceptibly into surrounding cloud, and its slender features are such fleeting glimpses in the whiteness, that we realize the bird not by looking for it in the painting but by letting it meet our alert yet unexpectant regard, like the selfless gaze we rest lightly, wholeheartedly, on a friend in close conversation.
Indeed, speaking these poems aloud as if in quiet talk with a friend is the way to know them; for the poetry communicates "The heart by way of the ear" and asks the reader, in turn, "What's that you wanted to say?" ('Preface: Ars Poetica') - as in this excerpt:
This world is neither
What, finally, is love?
—"Lives of a Poet"
Hamill's loose and easy Chinese-style couplets, Japanese-derived tanka, and free verse let the poems unfold as spontaneously as good conversation. Still, there is rhyme (so subtle we may have dreamed the sound preceding the echo) through which the words can enact, instead of merely declaring, the connectedness of everything. In being the speaker of the poems, we merge with their life and move with their changes. We grasp the poetry by letting go.
The best poems in Gratitude slow us and quiet us down for themselves, each one becoming (as Basho put it) the only poem in the world. How good the only poem in the world is! And the next one, and the next.
Review published in Seattle Weekly, August 20, 1998.
The Essential Basho, translated by Sam Hamill (Shambhala, $25)
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot
No wonder dreams of journeys are so often associated with death. We travel to leave our lives behind - the familiar workaday parts, anyway - hoping to arrive in a Paradise where our eyes, ears, tongues, maybe even our hearts, will be startled awake. What we really want is a new self, but what we often get is more stuff -samples of a regional cuisine, eyefuls of great art, tidbits about Kafka's life in Prague, opinions, trinkets. Traveling becomes grazing on a global scale.
A different pathway opens up in Sam Hamill's newest collection of translations, The Essential Basho. Here for the first time in a single volume is the essence of Basho's work: four travel narratives, including the best-known "Narrow Road to the Interior," and 250 haiku returning us home to a dailiness transformed by awareness and attention. Whether the poet is on the road or behind his own brushwood gate he seeks, instead of new acquisitions or excitements, an honest encounter between world and mind. These two entities were never separate to begin with. So although Basho's travelogues seem to record his treks on foot through 17th-century Japan, they're actually journeys into his own true nature, the heartland within, where self and circumstances are one.
Very early on the twenty-seventh morning of the third moon, under a predawn haze, transparent moon barely visible, Mount Fuji just a shadow, I set out under the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka. When would I see them again? A few old friends had gathered in the night and followed along far enough to see me off from the boat&ldots; I felt three thousand miles rushing through my heart, the whole world only a dream. I saw it through farewell tears.
With these first words from my brush, I started. Those who remain behind watch the shadow of a traveler's back disappear.
Carrying just a few necessities along with friends' farewell presents, which he can't bear to part with, Basho lets each event on the way speak the language of its particular life. At a farm he asks directions, but they're so complicated the farmer just lends Basho his horse ("'He knows the road. When he stops, get off, and he'll come back alone.'") The horse takes Basho to a village and then turns around, a gift from the poet tied to his saddle. Farther on, Basho observes peasants wearing black formal hats for ancient rites, speaks with prostitutes on a pilgrimage, sadly leaves to his fate a child abandoned by his parents, retreats from a three-day storm into a shack:
Eaten alive by
At a mountain temple "I crawled among boulders to make my bows at shrines. The silence was profound. I sat, feeling my heart begin to open." Elsewhere, hearing distant villagers clap wooden noisemakers to scare deer from their fields, he feels "the utter aloneness of autumn." A stranger asks for a poem ("'Something beautiful, please'") and Basho writes a verse about the cuckoo's cry that arrives, just then, from across a field.
Basho's words flow spontaneously out of each moment lived. Instead of giving us tours or mementos of the world, he helps us open to its presences and discover who we are. Through his haiku we sense the wholeness and sufficiency of an early frost, an eggplant seed, a hangover, "Mr. Seagull," a nest of mice, a bean-floured rice ball, tears in the eyes of fishes, and ourselves, awake and alive again.
Hamill frames The Essential Basho with essays on Basho's life and work that are scholarly enough to educate a student of haiku or Japanese culture and lively enough to engage any reader. Their depth and ease testify to the virtuosity Hamill has achieved as Editor of Copper Canyon Press, Director of the Port Townsend Writers' Conference, author of over thirty books, and translator of poetry in several languages. Travelers like me have carried around the world his pocket-size Basho (Narrow Road to the Interior, now out of print) until it's tattered. We'll treasure the fine new volume silkily sleeved in Hokusai's portrait of the poet on the road again.
Review published in Seattle Weekly, July 22, 1999.
The Homeless One: A Poem in Many Voices by Esther Altshul Helfgott
Reviewed by Ruth Fox
The needs of mentally ill homeless are important, though widely over-looked. They are needs that will persist until the cause of mental illness is faced and dealt with collectively. The Homeless One, by Seattle writer Esther Altshul Helfgott, is a book-length poem for voices that portrays how these issues affect us all. The strength of Helfgott's work rests upon the truths of those she knows and with whom she interacts. The use of the direct voice personalizes the issues, allowing us to hear the thoughts and feelings of some very real people.
Crysta (a formerly homeless schizophrenic) and Genevieve (an elderly woman besieged for handouts by Ellen — the homeless one) struggle to cope with the deep emotions that are evoked when trying to really confront the homeless one's situation. The Homeless One tackles complex issues, most notably the lack of effective long-term solutions to truly rebuild the losses that have created what Ms. Helfgott aptly terms society's disease ÓÑ the forgotten and ignored mentally ill and homeless people that we try to shut out of our communities.
Genevieve and Ellen represent the heart of the dilemma. Genevieve reflects the housed who feel frightened and helpless, and would rather not look at Society's disease. Yet as a show of compassion, she gives small handouts to ease its symptoms. Ellen represents the nagging symptoms that just won't let up, no matter how many handouts are given.
There is no way you could read this work and not identify and respond to what the characters are feeling, given the range of viewpoints and emotional expression that have been woven together.
Esther Helfgott has surfaced the unheard voices in our society, going beyond sentiment to human emotions that require response. This book is not only written words: it is a living action, asking for action in return.
The homeless one's needs will persist until the cause of mental illness is faced. Only then will there be a lasting change in our society. Helfgott's poem is a most welcome step in this process.
Published in Real Change, Seattle's Homeless Newspaper
Storm by Judith Skillman (Blue Begonia), $12
Reviewed by Judy Lightfoot
Poetry explodes our old habits of experience to make the world (and thus ourselves) new again. Some poems take us apart while putting us back together, enfolding our perceptions in the act of smashing them, and this is one of literature's great mitigations - the work of art that can possess its own chaos tells us we, too, may be able to hold ourselves steady. Look for no such mitigations in Skillman's new collection. Her poems tug us into the maelstrom of being alive and strand us there, dust-devils and curses blowing by, the ground buckling under our feet. Attention twitches, like tic douloureux, from Styrofoam replicas of molecules to memories of palsied Uncle Jake in the kitchen where the dog humped your red-faced mother's shin. A schoolgirl's briefcase holds "the stink / of instruments and limbs"; vision darkens in the "sackcloth of winter"; somewhere "between sewer and hedge" a turtle stalls. The nervous system is a scraped and shaken web on which moments crazily stitch themselves as "the earth gallop[s] closer."
If we opened up, we'd feel this storm under the skin of even the sunniest picnic afternoon, but survival seems to require closing off most of our perceptions. Shall we open Skillman's book, then? Pricked and prodded by her restless, strenuous interrogations of the world we thought we knew, we'll shift uncomfortably, failing to find a place where the heart can rest. That's the point.
Review published in Seattle Weekly, January 28, 1999.
Window in the Sky by J. Glenn Evans.
Plain Speaking, a review by Michael Magee
J. Glenn Evans is a storyteller who happens to be a poet. His CD, Window in the Sky, begins literally twenty stories up where he surveys the city from his Seattle apartment and ends on a remote road where he meets a hitchhiker with an uncanny resemblance.
In between, Evans, along with poets Martin Marriott and Caron McCloud, reads from Evans' work beginning with his mining experiences in Montana and other lost loves and epiphanies. They are joined by Phil and Vivian Williams, two fiddlers who know how to set the mood but never get in the way of the words themselves. It is, after all, the words that count.
To hear Evans' voice is like listening to old radio when people on the air had to sound right for the part. His resonant voice with a slight Oklahoma drawl makes you feel like an invited guest. Marriott has a sonorous English accent that blends in perfectly and adds drama in a lilting way. Caron McCloud provides a female timbre that complements the plain-speaking quality of Evans' work.
Whether it is the story of Professor Jim who mined both sides of the mountains in "The Geologist", or "Rebecca T. Brown", "Beautiful Brown-Eyed Daughter", "My Neighbor's Home", or "Mignonne's", Evans' work is people with characters, ghosts and places that speak to us.
He divides it into sections: Daily Life, Commerce, Mystical, Nostalgia, Seattle Poems: each one with a musical interlude by the Williams'. It is rare to listen to a CD that draws you in like a book but this is paced and edited so beautifully that your ear never tires.
By the time he reaches "My Neighbor's Home", you will feel his own sense of outrage at urbanization, and "Who's Bleeding Now" is a cry for empathy without being in the least cloying. J.Glenn Evans' collection lives where the heart and voice join to make music so it's altogether fitting that he also selected the "tunes."
In asking Martin Marriott and Caron McCloud to share in this project and by including the Williams', he is secure enough to invite others to give their interpretations of his work. This CD is a collective gift. It would do anyone good to dwell upon and within it.
With chisel of words and hammer of thought
From "Lucy B. Sitton"
From Bart Baxter, award-winning poet: "J. Glenn Evans' collection of poems is like an old friendship, the kind of verse you remember liking so much, but haven't been able to see lately. It begins with such small things, the comedy in a car phone, and the illusion of the man inside the car, the desperate pleasures of sleep, the banalities of growing old. As Evans says, "None of us knows who is bleeding." I think this is the way poetry should be, the way you remember it; subtle, intelligent, evocative in its simplicities, pleasurable in the remembered sounds of rhyme and rhythm, and old friend in poetry, the one you thought was out of town. It is a great store of insight and intelligence. Great fun...a winner."
William Armour Murdoch says: "Throughout his [J. Glenn Evans] verse, you glimpse the mind of a man who has lived as an observer of people, gaining wisdom from chance meetings now speaking out through illuminating verse."
Poetry Reviews from Past Issues of PoetsWest
Streetlamp, Treetop, Star by David D. Horowitz, Rose Alley Press, 90 pp., $9.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Michael Magee (reprinted from PoetsWest Literary Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, Sept. 1999).
David Horowitz's new collection of poems, Streetlamp, Treetop, Star, is a mixed blessing: at times academic, wooden and pedantic; other times achingly lyrical and full of beauty in its outrage at the world and its disorder. It has the mixture of a lecturing schoolteacher and the tender lyricism of the poet. Ultimately, I feel it's an attempt to reach "a still calm, center," as he says in his poem "A Gift," but it can also be searing and uncompromising in its moral indignation:
FOR A TIBETAN BUDDHIST MONK, IMPRISONED FOR THIRTY-SIX YEARS FOR A SINGLE EXPRESSION OF DISSENT
Electric cattle prods searing your teeth
"To An Excellent Young Woman" and "To A Working Poet" are examples of the sermonizing characteristic of W.B.Yeats, the poet speaking from his pulpit using the grand voice. In many of Horowitz's poems, the tight rhyme scheme defeats him instead of providing a loom for his craft. An example is "Stars."
The day has gone to bed. It rests
The sentiment is fine; the language, however, antiquated and reads more like "The Sun Has Got Its Hat On" from the British musical "Me And My Gal." This lyric sounds dated and Victorian to a modern ear and thin poetically. Yet, he can do a turnabout to "1994" in which he creates an Orwellian nightmare about the power of surveillance by the state or the omnipotence of God that is frightening. What's best about David's writing is his ability to show how naked and vulnerable we are under a human microscope. He does this with great force and tenderness in the following poem:
TO A JEWISH WOMAN PRAYING IN A SYNAGOGUE
You pray in thoughtful silence. Rich and deep
This is simple, elegant, and direct language, full of empathy, and it doesn't tell you how to feel; instead the poem is a transparency for you to observe. In two poems about a police officer, Horowitz doesn't let us off the hook but makes us examine the effects of cruelty. Here is the first:
FOR A POLICE OFFICER WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE AFTER BEING HARASSED FOR A DECADE BY HIS PEERSTen years ago your partner beat
A handcuffed prisoner, so you
Reported it. Back on the street
You walked your beat alone--pariah. True
To principle (your partner cleared),
Your steady work excelled
As "snitch," "rat," and worse were smeared
Across your locker door; compelled
To act on principle, but hurt,
Your hell stayed hidden ten full years
Before you blasted bullets through your heart
And earned, at funeral, the praise of peers.
The second poem completes the circle or cycle in this case. Taken together, they are about people who stand up and the price it exacts. With this kind of spare, hard-hitting language, David leaves no slipknot through which to escape. The poet walks his talk. In tone this lyric reminds me of Dylan Thomas's haunting "A Refusal To Mourn The Death By Fire Of A Child In London." At times, David Horowitz's collection can be too grand for its own good, but at best it is also full of the delicate joy and sorrow of being alive. With its unevenness, I feel it could have benefited from another editor, but it is always full of heart. This poem (I think) serves as a metaphor for his own work.
CAFÉ AUTHENTICTheir pastries hum honey, not shout sugar;
Their flour glows maple, not linoleum;
A band--guitar and fiddle and aching tenor--
Relax, the center of the window-fronted room,
So, when you enter,
The blend of dialogue and tune
So warms your blood
You feel like honey spread
On fresh banana bread,
Sweet but not sugary.
The Truth in Rented Rooms by Koon Woon
Kaya Press, New York, NY, 97 pp., $8.95 paperback Reviewed by Michael Magee (reprinted from PoetsWest Literary Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1999)
Koon Woon's The Truth in Rented Rooms is a book full of prophecy and the omens of everyday life where images spring up like birds' nests. They are the images of an untidy urban existence: life's little messes. People never seem to quite fit into the cubicles they're forced to live in, both physically and culturally. From "An Old Hotel Dweller":Smoke detectors page me down the halls.
Cooking pork snouts no doubt, my arthritic bones
Rickshaw me down scented rugs to the toilet stall.
Old San likes to read old papers and fart alone.
From "Egg Tarts"It's a trick to feel Chinese even in Chinatown
Where tour buses inch along, the driver pointing out
Its exotic features while winos slump,
Slap-dash, Slap-dash go the windshield wipers of Koon Woon's poetry, first wiping away the images on the windshield; then smearing it with new truths from the prose of our lives.
From "Psychoanalysis of a Room"Its only window is the eye of the
Cyclops on the world.
Lamplight of honey, a dusty guitar on the wall.
Many rivers merge behind the bookshelf.
A premature cry gushes like steam in the radiator.
The family screams but the typewriter clicks on.
Koon Woon's poetry makes much of the miniscule, his strength. In his seeing-eye world Koon's like a blind man tapping it out for us with his cane. Life's always bumpy, full of unexpected surprises but at least you feel where you walk. As the sign in the Chinese bakery says: "Watch your steps" Do the carp on the cover symbolize what a fish bowl we're in, tell us that we're all in this together to sink or swim or just remind us of its teeming nature?I used to chop at Whitman's block of wood, he said, but I cannot gallop
Like Robert Frost, even walking in the woods you would pick up some dirt,
And since no woman would, himself he caressed and said, it's all I've got
from "It's All I've Got, He Said"
I love the poems Koon writes about Aberdeen, Washington where he grew up. "The Relish in the mundane" is his "Leaves of Grass." There's nothing academic or affected about his writing. It's first-hand and ingrained as a speck in the eye, a grain of sand magnified. The Truth in Rented Rooms isn't pretty, like old newspaper print, but its truths are celebrations of what makes up our lives as well as making them difficult. Koon's poetry is transparent for all of us who have lived in those rented rooms and are still hoping to find a home or be at home in the world. Simple and complex.
Michael Magee is a free lance art reviewer whose work appears in the Queen Anne News, Magnolia News, and Capitol Hill Times. He is also a lyric poet and playwright whose plays, A Night In Reading Gaol With OscarWilde and Shank's Mare, have been produced in Derby, England and America. His poetry collection, A Trip To Jerusalem, was published in Nottingham, England where he lived for two years. In London he worked with Billy Smart's Circus. He won the 1998 Poetry Eisteddfod competition in Seattle where he claims his Welsh roots.
Something Wild Feeds From My Hand by Betty Fukuyama
Published by Washington Poets Association, 40 pp., $5 paperback. Between Uneasy Things: A review by Bart Baxter (reprinted from PoetsWest Literary Journal,Vol. 2, No. 1, March 1999).
In 1971 Betty Marie Adkins Fukuyama, with three close friends, established the Washington Poets Association. Her passion, patience, and organizational skills helped meld a wildly individualistic group of writers into a cohesive (if still a bit wild) organization that continues to nourish a growing membership of poetry advocates. She was born in Hepner, Oregon, raised in Cottage Grove, educated in the East, and took her master's degree in Creative Writing at the University of Washington. For many years she was an enthusiastic poet and member of the WPA. It was because of this history that President Emeritus Margo Reinsch, Darlene Carson, Karen Jones, and Anne Sweet were asked to edit and publish a collection of Betty Fukuyama's poetry. What resulted is a forty page paperback edition of selected poetry entitled Something Wild Feeds From My Hand. Betty Fukuyama died in 1992. Poetry had long been her way of expressing fascination with the new role of women in the world and the precarious balance between an emerging awareness of potential and the inability to always understand or cope with some of these newly found freedoms. While her poetry shows the reluctance of any novitiate to a new order, Betty Fukuyama was clearly an avid student. She relished this newly found license, and reading her poetry makes one wish that a younger generation of women could appreciate what adversities led to the advances women made during Betty's lifetime. For Betty, every encounter was a possible confrontation between the old vocabulary and the feminist lexicon, some tic sure to annoy or amuse or incite to poetry. Every encounter is a surprise, every liaison, whether with men, women, or nature a cause for celebration or misgiving. In "One Spring Afternoon":
The stationery counter of the five-and-ten
In "Please, One Daisy" she anguishes over a lover too well courted. In "Belonging" she apologizes, more or less, for her ineptitude, clearly speaking about more than sex. These were respect issues, communication issues for her. Betty Fukuyama's poetic range was as broad as her enthusiasm: from simple, elegant free verse notes to herself, to long, formal pieces with meticulous meter and rhyme schemes. The most sophisticated might be the lovely "Return of the Muse," which not only uses a complex rhyme scheme and accentual iambic tetrameter and alternating trimeter, but she slyly sprinkles internal rhymes as if she were spreading wildflower seeds in a formal garden.
The book is lovingly put together and thoughtfully edited. I often wondered if placing such poems as "Please, One Daisy" and "Belonging" together was an extraordinary piece of editing or a fortuitous happenstance. I suspect the former, although other editing and layout decisions seemed more quirky (such as center aligning the Table of Contents and including folios on the title and acknowledgment pages). The cover art by Anne Sweet in sumi ink and wash is a strong selling point for the volume. The paper and printing quality are comparable with other limited edition small press books and serve fans of Betty Fukuyama fairly well.
In these lines for Robert Frost, Betty Fukuyama writes:
The fence says I believe in pattern
its order is a kind of balance
I should think, after reading this amiable book, you will want to be on Betty's side.
Bart Baxter is a graduate of University of Texas and completed postgraduate studies at Boise State University and UW. Recipient of the Hart Crane Award for Poetry, Charles Proctor Award for Poetry, MTV Poetry Grand Slam, Carlin Aden Award for Poetry, and William Stafford Award. Has two volumes of poetry: Driving Wrong by Seattle Around Press and Washington Peace for the Arsonist by Bacchae Press, Ohio. Published in many reviews, including Formalist, Red Cedar Review, The Raven Chronicles, Kansas Quarterly, Icon, Ohio Poetry Review, A Fine Madness, and The Seattle Review.
Impulse To Love, by Jim Bodeen from Blue Begonia Press,Yakima, WA, 124 pp., $13 paperback.
Reviewed by Pamela Moore Dionne (reprinted from PoetsWest Literary Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4, Dec. 1998).
The Impulse to Love Is Strong
The Blue Begonia Press catalog states that Impulse To Love is a volume filled with extreme and isolated places. While this is true, it is also true that these are compelling places where the poet finds himself not only physically but emotionally as well. Again and again we experience Mr. Bodeen encountering himself. In the poem "The Preacher In His Living Room" we watch as Jim deals with himself as a man in recovery. Here is the self who recently experienced a seizure which left him blind in one eye and less sure of himself than he might have been before this experience. We meet a real human being caught in two realities. One occurs in real time while the other occurs simultaneously on an internal level. While he observes himself as a man sitting in a living room listening "like an athlete in top form" his courage becomes boundless as he readily admits to his own inflation, saying:
You will still be proud of yourself for being here.
Which, of course, is an impossibility, and as he points this out to us we are given one of those invaluable lessons in life. We cannot will away what has been done. We can only pretend, and pretense is just that, a flimsy piece of escapism that serves no one but ourselves. Later in the same poem we hold our collective breath as Bodeen tells us:
You will be like this when your friend asks,
about la tortura, the torture. Now you will be afraid.
You will try to get out of this story.
The way Mr. Bodeen gives us this information is with great humility and without judgment. It is an internal recognition that is not self-accusatory in any way. This is revelation. What Bodeen gives us is a gift. His is a guru-ship that, having met him, I'm sure he would deny. But this work is one that takes us through a life. That the life in question is one in recovery, willingly examined and presented, gives us all a chance at the same thing in our own lives. I found the poems in Impulse To Love to be a roadmap into the self created by a naturally gifted teacher.
Because of space limitations, I cannot go into the kind of detail that this volume of poetry deserves. To say that I was moved is to understate in extremis. This is a volume of poetry that easily crosses boundaries of all kinds. Yes, you experience the isolation of a Vietnam veteran and a man in recovery - but this is not a book that is gender biased. In fact this book is a profound account of personhood - not manhood alone. It is an embracing of self that crosses through isolation into a connection with the world at large. It leaves us believing that a home exists everywhere in the world for each of us at any given moment in time and at any place. The truth in these poems is that we carry our home within us no matter where we go.
Pamela Moore Dionne received a 1998 Centrum Poetry Residency and Artist Trust GAP Grant for her manuscript A BODY OF WORDS: THE POETRY OF GRAY'S ANATOMY. Her work appears in Raven Chronicles, Shenandoah, PoetsWest, and Synapse.
Storm, by Judith Skillman from Blue Begonia Press, 1998, Yakima, WA, 81 pp., $12.
Reviewed by Sharon Carter (reprinted from PoetsWest Literary Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, Sept. 1998).
This is Judith Skillman's second book from Blue Begonia Press. (See also Beethoven and the Birds 1996). Her subject matter is diverse: family, myth, physics, natural history, desire ---all skillfully portrayed, often delivered with wry humor. Mundane events, examined by the poet generate new understandings. Her metaphors are original: Lot's wife as a caterpillar, Aphrodite on the bluff (at Fort Worden?). This is a very enjoyable book on the first reading, returning further pleasure after study.
In the first section "Thunderheads," a family chatters in the opening poem "Rookery." Here, references to nuclear physics mix with amusing observations "Mother would cackle and look away / as the wire-haired terrier humped her leg // never neutered, she'd whisper later." Skillman also writes lovely understated lines as in "Complications," "It is after all, only afternoon. / A curve can be beautiful, / but not in the same way as a woman." or commenting on a relationship in "Ranunculas," "Their scent is like cheap perfume, / and no woman could be fooled / into thinking them roses."
The second portion: "The Spoils," begins with "Lot's Wife," where "The caterpillar walks the streets / in its orange and brown tuxedo. / Blood turns to salt / as the earth comes into autumn again." In "Equinoctial Meditation," the scene of "a man and a woman / spreading a blanket in an open field," slowly evolves into a final stanza in which "the sackcloth of winter / transferred to the genitals on the ceiling / by a censor." "Tic Doloreux" is a wonderful stream of thoughts and observations on a disorder best described as "Lightning finds a way to enter the earth." The poem becomes very personal in its experience of pain, triggered here by playing the violin.
"Want" is the title of the third section. Here in "The Indoor Garden" a morning with poet and daughter develops an undercurrent --the threat of illness, ending with "There are charts of anomalies / at the back of the weather, behind the arms of an orderly in white." Skillman's treatment of the natural world can be satisfyingly unusual as in "Mole," or in "Midwinter," where the moon is washed by the Milky Way: ".the dish / turning under a stream of water / so its other face / can become clean." "hiding animals who live in the sky."
In the final section, "The Robin," the title poem advises, "Don't shoot the messenger," moves on to "Black August," a wonderfully sinister piece where the speaker is politely distanced from a child's punishment, then recognizes "I'm the one / who sees no evil, hears no evil, / and now you know the rest." "Daughterhood" takes us through the poet's sympathetic understanding of her father's vision problems, concretely and metaphorically, ending with a nod to heredity: "Each new form blooming like curse."
The volume concludes with the lyrical poem, "Ornamental Plum" in which a disagreement between two lovers is compared to seasons of the tree: "To the wind moving coldly / between branches" and the perfect last two lines, "Because to be beautiful is the same, / but not quite, as forgiven."
Judith Skillman's poems have appeared in PoetsWest, Southern Review, Iowa Review, Northwest Review, and Fine Madness. Her other books are Worship of the Visible Spectrum (Breitenbush, 1988) and Beethoven and the Birds (also by Blue Begonia Press, 1996).
Sharon Carter was educated in England as a psychiatrist. She has had poems published in PoetsWest, Exhibition, Beyond Parallax, and Signals.
Klondike Gold Rush Centennial Anthology 1897
(Reprinted from PoetsWest Literary Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, June 1998.)
An old story has been brought alive with new pens. The 1897 Klondike Gold Rush put Seattle on the map and set her on the way to becoming the world-class city that she is today. The Stampeders, as they were called, came through Seattle on their way north and filled the empty pockets of Seattleites and put people to work. They made some locals rich and some even richer when the miners came back loaded with gold.
The Klondike Gold Rush Centennial Committee of Washington State sponsored an international literary contest as part of its 1997 celebration. Entries came from as far away as Australia, the East Coast and from the North Pole (Alaska). Their mandate was to recapture the spirit of the Klondike with the zest that took place a century ago by portraying a character, an event that was, or could have been at that time or place, or on the way to the Klondike in the Canadian Yukon Territory.
The winning entries in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction were assembled into an anthology and published. These stories and poems truly capture the spirit of that outrageous time. The Klondike experiences range from the woman who lugged her washing machine over the Chilkoot Trail in "Anna, washing", a top-winning poem by Lincoln, Nebraska poet, Ted Genoways, to the nun prosecuted for murder in a story by Alaskan Bill Miles.
In "Untangling a Wilderness" Joan Rawlins Biggar of Marysville, Washington has given an account of William Abercrombie, "an early-day Indiana Jones" and the struggles and the agonies that went into the development of an all-American trail to the gold fields. John Washburn of New York, in "The Mayor of Dawson", tells the story of Joe Ladue, who, rejected by his lady love's family, goes to Dawson and comes back a wealthy man. Other titles in the anthology are "Views of the Klondike Route", "Klondike Woman", "Single Jack", "A Poem For John Renshaw", "Why the Malaspina?", "The Ship With The Golden Whistle", "Gold Diggers", and "To Find Yukon Gold."
Riverside Reflections: Poetic Moods from "The Valley of the Moon" by Harley Brumbaugh, Tusco Press, $9.95 paperback
Reviewed by Jack R. Evans. (Reprinted from PoetsWest Literary Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1998.)
Riverside Reflections, though a book of poetry, is also a form of history. Its inspiration and setting is a village that no longer exists. Snoqualmie Falls was a company town. When Weyerhaeuser closed it down in the Fifties, its residents could buy their homes and move them to the other side of the river. Some of the townspeople did so, but many others moved away, and that village of long ago now lives only in their hearts. Brumbaugh's poetry is a haunting recall of that "Sweet Auburn loveliest Village of the plain" from Oliver Goldsmith's That Deserted Village.
Harley Brumbaugh was born in Renton, but grew up in the former mill town of Snoqualmie Falls, Washington. The smooth rhythms of his poetry recall the 'Tom Sawyer' boyhood spent on the banks of the gently flowing Snoqualmie River but then gather force as the river swelled with the spring run-off. From the rhythm and tone of his poetry, you also sense the influence of his musical background. He began playing the trumpet professionally at the age of fourteen. Brumbaugh then worked his way through college "choker setting" during summer vacations and playing the trumpet for dances in the evenings and on weekends. He was a musician with both the Seattle Opera and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. He is listed in Who's Who In Music, was named a National Outstanding Educator by the NEA, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Music Educators in the state of Washington. He served as music director of Bellevue Community College until he retired in 1992. His poetry has appeared in regional publications, but Riverside Reflections is his first published volume of poetry.The lines from "Children of the Mill" capture his childhood along the Snoqualmie River.
I come to sit in dappled shade
Gone the cresting voices
Mr. Brumbaugh remembers the summer of 1944 in "A Meadowbrook Morning."
Rudy, the blacksmith, solitary resident
Soon, trafficking mill workers rumble the bridge,
This poetry collection belongs in the hands of history buffs as well as poetry lovers. Its melodious lines sing like a rippling stream and bring back memories of a way of life now gone. It captures a place and time that we call history. Riverside Reflections is available at your bookstore or you can order it directly from the publisher: Tusko Press, 2533 Ferndale Avenue NE, Renton WA 98056, 425.255.9309.