2003

 

WINTER / SPRING / SUMMER / FALL

 


From Winter 2003

ASHES, JADE, MIRRORS
by Patricia Corbus
Volcanic Ash Books (2002) 102 pgs.
ISBN 0-9700980-2-2, $14
Poetry

Corbus has divided her poems in Ashes, Jade, Mirrors into four sections and each section opens with a quote. The first is from Hildegaard of Bingen, but it could just have easily opened with a quote from St. Benedict, something about the importance of place and relationships. The poems are full of personal names that add an intimacy to the collection. Myrtle Belle, Bill, Carmen Miranda, Tom, and Gloriana are but a sampling of the persons who make up the relational landscape of the poems here.

Corbus uses geographic images and human anatomy to add to the people mentioned. A fine example of this is the first poem of the bunch, “What She Wanted,” which includes the black dots of frigate birds, a lacy pink murex, jingle/shells, and olive shells, heart, cochlea/ of the inner ear, ovaries, and scatological and eschatological storms. In “Natural History”, the earth’s molten rock, bacteria, and monarchs—to name a few things mentioned—are juxtaposed against the speaker’s eyes, teeth, and legs. The net effect is to place the reader on a terrain that is personal and metaphorical at the same time.

Another real strength of the collection is its energy. Some of the poems, such as “The Crux Of It”, keep the lines and the words short, maximizing the intensity of the poem. Other pieces, such as “Miranda At The Mirror”, stretch sentences over several lines with plush images that keep the poem vigorous. Either way, the pieces are energetic and clean.

Perhaps the zenith of the poems is the musicality of the language. The review on the back cover states that these are the poems that Wallace Stevens didn’t have time to write. Such a comment, while complementary in comparing Corbus to Stevens, doesn’t give Corbus her due. Stevens’ lines had a melody to them, to be sure; one needs only to think of the opening line to “The Idea Of Order At Key West” to remember Stevens’ gift with words. But these are Corbus’ lines, and they have a music all their own. A healthy sampling from “Coda: The Fourteenth Waltz” (conveniently on music) will prove me right: And though/ It breathes: I am not dying, I am not, I am, I/ Hear him lost in his own music, while crystal notes/ On cut glass stems crash and break, chords loosen/ And fly upward, the angel slides, and black notes,/ Their stems cracking, fall and rise, silent as snow,/ Back into the overarching long line of sky.

Corbus’ music risks being both boon and bane. At times, she gets carried away and leaves the poem sounding and feeling a bit gimmicky, such as in “Belle Dame” where the playfulness of the language — blue of bluets, morn of morning, bee of bee balm, June of junipers — is repeated enough to lose its color and draw too much attention to itself. The same problem arises with some of the images. Stars are invoked so much in this work that they begin getting in the way when they are used in latter pieces like “Words To A Dying Star” and the title poem.

The missteps, though, don’t slow the momentum of the collection. Ashes, Jade, Mirror is a well-hewn collection of poetry which synthesizes energy, composition, and a keen sense of place and relationships. I doubt Wallace Stevens would have written these poems if he did have the time. He didn’t need to. Patricia Corbus did, and she did it well.
Reviewed by Todd Hester


AFTERIMAGES
By Kathryn Bright Gurkin
Kindred Spirit Press (2002) 63 pgs.
ISBN 0-943795-52-4, $6
Poetry

Every now and then, you run across a poet who reminds you that poetry is as much craft as it is anything. Either the poet reminds you of this because of a dreadful lack of attention to detail or because of a careful expression of it. Kathryn Bright Gurkin is the latter. Afterimages is a collection of finely tuned poems that balance power and precision.

Gurkin has managed to address themes that are potent while conjuring images that are striking through the deft media of poetic tools. For instance, Gurkin breaks her lines in places that leave you on a strong word and then give you a taste of the unexpected with the next line. A good example is the first four lines of “The Man Who Owned This House Before Me”: The man who owned this house before me/ died, drowning in air-hunger, tired/ of trying, tethered to too many miracles/ and wanting only sleep.

Gurkin also writes lines that stand on their own horizontally, while strengthening the poem vertically. In the first stanza of “Time Traveler”, we read Her eyes are sapphires burning blue/ against a cosmos into which she’s disappearing/ backward. The right hand trembles in perpetual motion/ while the left is tied to bed rails with a length of gauze./ The feeding tube is permanent, the shunt sewn in. Such attention to the individual line and the line break gives the poems an incredible amount of verve.

Gurkin’s occasional manipulation of form doesn’t hurt, either. Richard Wilbur once remarked that the strictness of a form adds intensity to the piece, and Gurkin proves him right with “Madhouse, 1988: Portrait At Evening Meds”, which is a variation of the villanelle, and “Even The Towers Of Ilium”, which is a variation of a sonnet. Do not fear, keen-eyed reader—all this dexterity is not lost on trivial themes. While Gurkin does deal with the usual poetic material—death, insanity, love (is there a difference between the three?)—she does so from refreshing angles. The speakers of Gurkin’s poems actually have close relationships with the insane; love is often a rumination which is neither wholly good nor wholly bad; and in “Ron Bayes, Remembering Heart Surgery,” death is an almost finality. The net effect is a newness applied to what could otherwise be tired themes.

An almost overlooked aspect of the work is the cadence of the lines. The poems are strong enough that the cadence need not be just right in order to add to the effect. Nonetheless, the attention paid to line breaks and images doesn’t seem to be paid to inflection and rhythm. This is the worst that can be said about the collection, and that should tell you something. The attention to skill, the freshness of the themes, the clever juxtaposition of words, the punch of the images all converge to make Gurkin’s work well worth reading. Whether you’re looking for a collection to use in a poetry workshop or just looking for strong poems to compel you, Afterimages is your book.
Reviewed by Todd Hester


RED SHIPS
By Rod Farmer
Finishing Line Press (2002) 32 pgs.
ISBN 0-9718922-4-5, $12
Poetry

You remember all those times at work on a cool Monday or a rainy Wednesday when you told a co-worker this is the perfect day to curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee, a warm quilt, and a good book? Red Ships is one of those books. At the risk of pushing the image too far, Red Ships does indeed take you on a bit of a journey—through Rod Farmer’s intellect, his trips to the Orient, his enjoyment of the small details that often get overlooked. But the pieces are not overbearing; we are (re)introduced to Thoreau, Li Po, the Green Man, Whitman, Lao Tsu and Zen existentialism, but it carries the right amount of weight.

Farmer isn’t trying to allusion us to death or to prove his intelligence. Perhaps the right balance is struck because the pieces tend to covertly be about relationships that change the way we live. In the title poem, raspberries—the “red ships” in question—change the speaker: I go from one small red ship/ to another as I transform/ from a passenger into/ a great storm sweeping/. . . evidence/ of the storm’s fury/ evidence I’ve been with/ the world in a good way . . .
In “Dinner With Korean Mystic”, a relationship with one mystic quickly becomes a relationship with a whole set of religions, cultures, and peoples. In “Matador”, the speaker has a—can I say stormy?—relationship with the weather. The snowdrift is a white bull and the speaker is the matador. In a particular twist of coyness, the “aging bullfighter” finds my chance/ to play Hemingway; it is my strength/ and stamina powering my shovel-sword. Is this Hemingway’s zenith or his suicide? The ambiguity only strengthens the piece.

If there is a criticism about this collection, it is that Farmer sometimes doesn’t stay with a metaphor long enough or deeply enough. “Driving Fast In The Dark” gives a decent sense of the speaker’s own struggles about life and death, and it has strong, terse lines that have some punch; however, the poem doesn’t really work the metaphor, and the poem remains with the speaker, failing to open up and connect to the reader.

The same is true of “Walt Whitman’s Metaphysics.” Farmer introduces the idea of a manuscript of Leaves of Grass being Whitman’s presence. It’s a good idea with a lot of potential, but no sooner has the speaker mentioned it then it’s dropped, leaving the reader with a sense that there’s more out there unexplored. Poems that are enjoyable, as a result, remain only enjoyable, instead of being both enjoyable and compelling.

This is only a minor detraction from the work. Overall, the poems represent a poet who is learned, passionate, and careful. Amidst an inundation of poems that are therapeutic catharsis on one pole or political rant on the other, Red Ships is a welcome collection and a worthwhile read.
Reviewed by Todd Hester


FROM THE SCENIC OUTLOOK THE BATTLEFIELD CHURNS BEAUTIFULLYby Thomas M. CassidyGreen Bean Press (2002) 88 pgs.
ISBN: 1891408283 $10
Poetry

From first glance at the title and poem titles such as “One Stormy Petrol With Cheese Hold the Mayo,” I thought this to be a collection of Dada-pop beautifully churning the language in chaotic, acrobatic fits. I was wrong, though not on the acrobatics, just on the style. 

Cassidy is the traditional acrobat who has built a small town circus tent and performs in plain language with simple imagery that all the more reveals us for who we truly are. His complex message simply delivered:  there is a battlefield, America.

This is the art of cultural recycling, pulling back the mask where something like the idyllic suburban community of Love Canal becomes synonymous with everything horrific. 

Cassidy (a performance poet) knows how to work crowds and is a master at getting just beneath the surface of things, which he does well in this collection of quietly screaming Middle American angst.  You could say he is rebel and doomsayer clown in one.  He makes us laugh while understanding the need to cry.

In “How I’m Destroying America,” the advertising wasteland has arrived with its drowning flood of commercials, fliers, and products.  So he quietly rebels by ceasing to participate.  He rejects driving, golfing, shopping, etc., in a pages-long diatribe against products, promotions, and activities.  It is a “scream aloud in the middle of Wal-Mart,” symbolic of a nation teetering on the edge of commercial apocalypse.

All is not well in America.  This is a strong book that makes hard, yet poignant statements.  There is palpable nostalgia for a simpler childhood, a slower, kinder, less expensive age of laughter and innocence—the irony of giddy boys reading comic books sharing a soda on the porch of the neighborhood store.  In one bookstore full of coverless comics and other cheap, used items, I realize that the Old Lady is so miserable / because she has to sell us kids all her incredible stuff / watch it all go out the door for good.  This older America is disappearing for good, as we watch it being sold into the modern machine.

The quiet subversive adds this indictment of artistic poverty and commercial excess in America, in the final and title poem: I could open up a coffee shop/ do it half-assed with dirty mugs and dirty thoughts/open it right next to a thriving Starbucks.../and this sad sucker punching mismanaged afterthought/ unnecessary detail pothole/ would make more during its first day of doing business/ than I make in a year of carefully writing poetry.

Which highlights exquisitely the tragedy of a starving writer reviewing another writer starving.
Reviewed by Thomas Fortenberry

LIVING ROOM, EARTH
by Carmen Germain
Pathwise Press (2002)
ISBN: 0-9675226-4-1. $5.95
Poetry

This collection is full of keen imagery, compact and evocative of motion and emotion. Germain gives us tightly focused, unromantic images of Nature (and human nature), demystified. Take this excerpt from “Chinese Box”: …if you live long enough, / you, too, will live alone, your love / like a Chinese box…

With “All Night the Migraine Digs,” Ms. Germain has written the definitive headache poem. I won’t embroider any further than to say she picked the right instrument.

On a less painful note, I especially enjoyed the abrupt, percussive enjambments in “Then, suddenly,” an account of a winter accident on black ice: the family in the blue / truck watching slow motion skid, blue / steel, how in this instant, all turns ice.

“Ano Nuevo Island, California Coast” foils the brute mating competition of elephant seals with a superb grace note: The dolphins, I’m greedy for them / Slipping through the sea as we crossed, / they were like beautiful women / drawing on their gloves.

The author teaches writing and literature at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington, where she is also co-director of the Foothills Writers Series.
Reviewed by Bill Wesse

HUMAN & PUNY
by Deno Trakas
watercolors by Irene Trakas
Holocene Press (2001)
ISBN: 1-891885-27-8
Poetry

It was my pleasure to be in the audience at a recent MSR open mic, where Deno Trakas was the featured reader. During his prefatory remarks, he advised us the artwork in this collection was created by Irene Trakas to specifically complement each poem.

In this they succeed, and succeed very well; human & puny is full of affinities, each pairing a precise reflection. Holocene Publishing of Spartanburg, S.C. has here produced a quality product; the print is crisp and flawless, on a watercolor-textured paper.

For personal reasons “The Smaller House” resonated the most for me: We’ve moved into a smaller house, / mother, father, daughter, son and dog, far from convenience but close / to claustrophobia. The accompanying image is a small house, set in a toneless fog, half in shadow, one window winking beside the thin, angular front door.

My favorite watercolor is paired with “Requiem.” It is of a barren tree, backlit at dusk, perhaps whipsawed by a cold wind, as seen through floor-length glass doors at the far end of an empty room. On the wall to the left is a painting of a three family members, eyes downcast, shoulders held close, as if anticipating a burden, soon to lift: “Well, I’m not going to die tomorrow,” / he said as he signed the form: Do Not Resuscitate.

Astutely done.

Deno Trakas is Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Wofford College. Irene Trakas received her MFA in Painting from American University.
Reviewed by Bill Wesse


THE MAGIC FISH
Poems on an Edward Boccia Sketchbook
by Jennifer Bosveld
Pudding House Publications (2002), 133 pgs.

Ekphrasis is the process of writing poetry that reacts to a visual medium. So when I learned that Jennifer Bosveld’s collection of poetry employed this time-tested methodology, I was immediately drawn to it, as it seemed to blend two very credible forms of art: the written word with visual art.

Ekphrasis works under the unction of observation and personal interpretation. The visual art form is no longer straitjacketed to the artist’s creative cynosure. Quite frankly, I was unaware that this method had a name. I know that it is used successfully in the classroom but had little knowledge that what I once thought to be nothing more than a mental exercise to introduce poetry to new poets was, as stated in the collection’s foreword, “…growing in popularity” and hence could be considered a certifiable movement.

Even more puzzling to me was the basis of Bosveld’s ambitious attempts at ekphrasis: the drawings of artist Edward Boccia. Nothing has a way of embittering the soul more than poring over sketches that look like they were drawn by a child and knowing full well that the artist behind this feint is making either a killing in publicity or a fortune in greenbacks.

Then along comes ekphrasis…the psychological safety net is cast, and the quality of the art (for good or bad) suddenly finds itself playing second fiddle to the poet’s words. The sketchbook once paltry and thin with scribbles now foments multiple interpretations, and a sort of phenomenology of the pen occurs, so to speak. Perhaps, even a cult following emerges. Without a paladin to champion the cause, the sketches might have gone unnoticed in certain circles. Such historical cases are plentiful: Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac, Friedrich Nietzsche to Arthur Schopenhauer, etc. And as such, these overlooked men were vindicated before the eyes of the whole world!

For our purposes, Bosveld is the vindicator. She’s no Ginsberg or Nietzsche, but she succeeds quite nicely. She brings the artist’s obscure sketches to a vanilla audience, one who might not have otherwise experienced them, and into a forum where dialogue about what is and is not art will certainly be lively. Just the subject matter alone is rife with controversy, never mind the poems that come from it.

Pleasantly, Bosveld is not unskilled in her delivery. What stands out most in The Magic Fish is the veritable ease through which the characters in her poems are revealed. With no slight-of-hand introductions to be pondered, you are simply thrust into the action of the poem. Strong examples are the poems, “Common Couple” and “Fine Dining.”

In ekphrastic writing, the poems become the oracles that reveal unexplained meaning to the audience, and to convince your readers that what the poem reports is precisely what the visual image communicates takes a trained hand. Yet, where Bosveld really scores is in her use of dialogue. Poems that tower over the collection are “The Omniscient Poet Answers the Pool Technician’s Questions About the Battle at Sea,” “Ruins,” and “Medical Chart” to name a few.

Yet the trap of such writing is the possibility of alienating your readers from your own interpretations, and at times Bosveld’s writing feels cathartic, if not solipsistic. As she fearlessly juggles her word craft between the obvious and obscure, the reader could have trouble making a lasting connection. Many of the poems begin prima facie: if we see a man’s face in the sketch, we get a man’s face in her words. If we can make out an apple, an apple is recorded in her words “front and center.” Then, where the reader is grounded in the tangible details, we are thrown for a loop and catapulted into a place where associations are hard to come by, where stretches of the imagination become ligament tears.

Overall, Bosveld’s writing will appeal to those who are exploring the connections between visual and written art forms. For students of the written word, it will provide a strong roadmap to ekphrastic writing. Clearly, such writing does deserve an audience and we are lucky that a writer as poised as Bosveld has answered the casting call.
Reviewed by Frank S. Palmisano III


HEIST! THE $17 MILLION LOOMIS FARGO THEFT
by Jeff Diamant. 
John F. Blair Publisher (2002) $24.95
History
 
  John Dillinger. Bonnie and Clyde. D.B. Cooper. David Ghantt? These infamous names in the annals of American crime conjure up romantic ideals of gangsters. Except David Ghantt neither has the viciousness of Dillinger nor the debonair sophistication of Cooper. What Ghantt does have is the distinction of pulling off one of the biggest robberies of all time and nearly getting away with it. Former Charlotte Observer writer Jeff Diamant chronicles the details behind the robbery and its aftermath in his new book, Heist: The $17 Million Loomis Fargo Theft. 

Diamant interviews in painstaking detail all the participants from the thieves themselves to all members of law enforcement. He sets up the players—Ghantt, Kelly Campbell, and Steve Chambers, the “mastermind” behind the shenanigans.

It seems that Ghantt falls for his former coworker Campbell and they decide one day to pay back Loomis Fargo for whatever ails struck them in life. Campbell brought in Chambers who “knew people” to help get the job done. Diamant shows that contrary to popular belief, David Ghantt is not as dumb as the media made him out to be and it took guts to do what he did. Ghantt comes off as a sympathetic character who puts his faith in too many people who turn against him in the end.

Diamant’s reporting showcases some humorous moments that made this case such a national joke. Kelly Campbell, left in the middle, nervously awaits law enforcement interviews after the robbery. She admits to FBI agents that she smokes pot and even shows them her stash. Michele Chambers, Steve’s wife, makes the first deposit into her bank account with $9,500 in twenties banded together.  Chambers declares to he teller,  “Don’t worry, it’s not drug money.” The teller says nothing but does fill out a Suspicious Activity Report. In typical Keystone Cop fashion, law enforcement does not receive this paperwork until three months later, thus slowing down the investigation.

FBI agents are stymied in the beginning; they know Ghantt has researched the Bureau by reading and watching TV and Ghantt knows their methods. In an interesting twist, Steve Chambers has actually been an informant for law enforcement and hides under the radar months until the FBI receives the bank report. Readers will think about how Ghantt and company could have gotten away and may even secretly cheer on the thieves for taking on big business. As Ghantt notes, he worked hard, did everything he was supposed to do, and look where that got him. The money was just there for the taking. Unfortunately for the thieves, their mistakes catch up with them and all good things must come to an end. 

Diamant picks apart the investigation and trials but gets bogged down with the sometimes mind numbing details. Fans of Perry Mason will appreciate this endeavor but it does make for some tedious reading. To his credit, Diamant does dispel some of the myths surrounding the heist—Michele Chambers had her breast augmentation a year prior to the theft and the now famous Velvet Elvis in the Chambers’ Cramer Mountain mansion had been left by the previous owner.  Still, one can’t help but wonder why Diamant writes his account in 2002 when the robbery took place in October 1997.  The lag time between the heist, trials, and the publication of this book takes away from some of its punch.  Diehard true crime fans will enjoy this account but because of the time difference, the majority of readers will relegate Diamant’s book to a regional blip in crime instead of the national impact the Loomis Fargo theft actually had in the American psyche at the time.
Reviewed by Sherri Smith


SKINS
by Adrian C. Louis
Ellis Press (2002)
ISBN: 0-944024-44-0 $19
Novel

Welcome to the poorest area in the United States: Pine Ridge Reservation in scenic South Dakota. Depending on the season, somewhere between 18,000 and 30,000 Oglala Sioux live here, near Wounded Knee Creek. Yes, that Wounded Knee, where in 1890, over 300 American Indians were slaughtered during (perhaps) the most shameful military atrocity ever committed on this continent.

Skins is an episodic peregrination through the story of two brothers, Mogie and Rudy Yellow Shirt. The younger, Rudy “was twelve when the black widow danced up from the depths of the outhouse and bit him on his gonads.” Iktomi, the trickster, who often takes the form of a spider, tangles the strands of his web throughout the whole narrative.

Mogie carries his brother like a sack of grain for over a mile, risks being run down on the road, and ultimately brings him to the safety of a public health services hospital. Knowing his brother would never let him down, Rudy inwardly vows to be there for Mogie. Always. And right there you have it, the soundly beating heart of this story: fidelity and devotion.

Of course, since this is an account of life as it is, rather than how we would like it to be, the unfolding events orbit around infidelity and neglect. To find out whose infidelity, and precisely what is being neglected, you will have to read the book yourself, because I am not going to tell you. That would spoil the (multiple) surprises.

I will tell you that Skins is not a politically correct rhetoric about the oppressive plight of the Oglala Sioux – even though it is a plight, and it is oppressive. Although the chilly shadows of both Wounded Knee and the Mount Rushmore Memorial cast themselves across the landscape, the focus is on the essential human story, forthright, unvarnished, and unreserved. Louis has chosen his words carefully, with good economy, and has left proper room for the readers to fit themselves to the characters: Skins is full of people I think that I would truly benefit to meet.

I found the rhythms of language to be sometimes unexpected (but consistently appealing nonetheless), rooted as they are in a sensibility and a culture different from my own:
Mogie took three large glugs from the quart of whiskey and burped. The quart of Jim Beam was a gift from one of his best friends. His friend had given it to him because Mogie had recently been in the hospital. What his best friend did not say, but what Mogie deeply suspected, was that his friend had stolen the whiskey. No matter. It tasted good and fiery when it went down.

The story arc is of Rudy’s vow, which is the source of much trouble; each time he leaves the reservation, it seems that Iktomi takes charge. The results are raucous and often raunchy.

Louis rightly rounds the finish with an act of sublime desecration: showing us precisely where the myth and the reality meet, and trade places.
Reviewed by Bill Wesse


DOGWALKER
by Arthur Bradford
Knopf (2002) 176 pgs.
Short Stories

Lust is in the air, and the gene pool has been affected in Arthur Bradford’s debut collection, Dogwalker. Taken as a whole, these stories concern the troubled and surreal lives of slackers (the epigraph is taken from Richard Linklater’s movie, “Slacker”) and animals, mostly dogs (sometimes talking), and even a giant mollusk. Originally appearing in magazines such as Esquire, Bomb and McSweeney’s, these stories are comically disturbing, sad and bizarre.

Essentially, they’re about the relationships between men and women, and men and dogs, and sometimes about their genetic possibilities. Its surreal qualities and the author’s vision are the collection’s wonder. The narrators have tragically elegant voices that grace these stories with contemplation and want, even though the characters seldom feel the weight of their troubled existence.

It just seems to go with the way they live their lives, as slackers. They live on the fringe of society. They’re the neighbors you seldom talk to, but always talk about. They’re hungry for acceptance, usually in the form of love. They’re regretful and want to change, or at least look for a change. And because they want to love so badly, love takes on the possibilities of wherever they can find it, like in the story “Roslyn’s Dog,” an eerie twist on the princess who kisses the frog fable. This is the story: A man lets a dog out of his neighbor’s yard, the dog bites him, the man begins to grow hair, dog hair, and soon he turns into a dog, and is subsequently locked up in the yard he had freed the dog from.

Getting locked up and getting freed is a common theme in these stories, from dogs being caged, or a guy trying to escape out of a drug dealer’s basement, as in the “House of Alan Matthews,” to the narrator in “South For The Winter” who wants to escape the north and head south, taking advantage of his blind friend on the way. (Blindness shows up in a few stories as well).

These stories will sound familiar, if you’ve read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son. The similarities are easily recognizable, but it’s not copied, just influenced. For the most part, the stories are a cross between vignettes and slice of life tales, and perhaps that just might be the single weakness of the collection. You get the feeling that some of these stories might have been better coupled together than pulled apart, because there’s a definite feel that each story is like a jigsaw puzzle piece, and once viewed completely, the focus sharpens and the oddity clarifies into a curious world where anything is possible because sometimes “anything is possible” is the only choice you have left.

Note to reader: If you read the hardcover, the paperback edition has two new stories.
Reviewed by Max Ruback

BACK TO TOP


From Spring 2003

 

A NEW FILM ABOUT
A WOMAN IN LOVE WITH THE DEAD

by Lyn Lifshin
March Street Press (2002) 109 pgs.
ISBN 1-882983-83-1 $20
Poetry

One of my English professors once remarked, rather tongue-in-cheek, I thought, that poetry was about two things; sex and death. While it’s true that a lot of poets are quite taken by these two conditions, I had thought that it was too broad a generalization.

In Lyn Lifshin’s latest collection of poems, A New Film About a Woman In Love with the Dead, sex and death are just incidentals within the larger dirge of grief and loss for a departed loved one. But there is more beyond that.

“The Dead,” within the universe of this book, is both dead and not dead. There was an intense and passionate feeling, for someone who seemed either unwilling or incapable of returning this passion. It is a puzzle why the love for this man was so intense, so consuming. He did not give of himself, was absent either in person or in essence; he was uninterested, disconnected, incapable of loving as he had been loved. And he dies. Even when you were living it was like talking to a corpse/ You didn’t hear/ Now you can sleep without nightmares.

The poet keeps the love alive by sheer psychic force, and even by what looks like delusion. As I read these poems, it seemed that the object of all this largesse of devotion was quite unworthy of it; a lot of psychic energy was wasted on him. Love was made from nothing at all.

From what we can make out within the words of these poems, little is known about this man, other than that he was a Viet Nam veteran who had lost a leg in jungle warfare. He was a radio announcer. He was handsome and charming – but only on the air. With his lover, he was not “on.” In fact, he seemed even to be dead-in-life.

While the man was alive, the poet had been sustained by hope and delusion that he might really return her love, willing herself to believe it. And yet she is realist enough to accept that, once the loved one has died, she will be free of self-deluding hope, and be able to put the grief to rest.
But the grief dissipates, and the “Dead” remains as much alive in death as he was dead in life. And so the salvation in the end is that the poet becomes anaesthetized to the grief of loss, thereby extending the anesthesia backward into the past when the living dead was, though dead-in-spirit, alive in the flesh.

Either way, she does not entirely become “free” of love. Only the poetic genius of Lyn Lifshin could pull this off.

reviewed by John Birkbeck


MERRY CHRISTMAS, JEWBOY
by Dayvid Figler and
Pete Sickman-Garner
Kapow! (2002) 20 pgs.
No ISBN. $4.
Poetry chapbook

Christmas is the season to spread holiday cheer. But Dayvid Figler isn’t having any of it. In fact, he’s spreading dissent, especially given the recent release of his exceptionally fine chapbook, Merry Christmas, Jewboy.

What sets Figler apart from other, lesser slamsters is his encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture and his ability to locate poignant meanings within what is, for all intents and purposes, prefabricated brain-rot. I mean, who else in contemporary letters can deconstruct the conformist message in the Rankin-Bass puppetronic TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” in less than 10 lines of poetry?

Figler pulls no punches in illuminating the dark heart of our white Christmases:

The only other representation / of a mammal with a red light bulb for a / nose is the patient in the / game Operation, which is / made by the unholy / makers of Ouija boards. / This alleged “game” / encourages children to vivisect a living / human specimen without / the benefit of even a local anesthetic. / (Pulling a funny bone from a live man? / That isn’t funny.)

Sickman-Garner’s solid, forlorn drawings are the perfect foil for Figler’s frenetic metaphors and analogies. The image of children gleefully ripping the bones and vital organs from the Operation patient’s body—his red light bulb nose blinking and buzzing in alarm—will stick with you well into the New Year.

The speaker in Jewboy is left to contemplate his sense of alienation toward the consumerist propaganda of a Christian-dominated holiday season. But Figler always finds a way to brighten his blues. As his chapbook’s closing “Jew Poem” attests, To get along in this world,/ my identity has become as slippery as/ the jelly on gelfite fish. Shucks, who wants to be stuck with only one identity or label?

Mr. Figler, may you keep on slippin’ and slidin’.

reviewed by Jarret Keene


sifting through the madness for the word, the line, the way
by Charles Bukowski
Ecco Press (2003) 416 pgs.
$27.50

It may strike you as strange that Ecco Press is releasing a new collection of poetry by Charles Bukowski, given that he died in 1994, but Bukowski was nothing if not prolific and so the editors have managed to put together unpublished poems that will delight his fans and most likely garner new admirers for his plain-spoken, often pain-filled observations.

For most of the last half of the 20th century, Bukowski was the hard-boiled poet who wrote poetry with the same sardonic anti-heroic edge that Raymond Chandler wrote detective stories. He also wrote stories and novels, but the poems are what really captured our collective imagination. In spite of his misogyny and misanthropy, his alcoholism and his predilection for gambling, Bukowski’s version of “the way things are” rings true for many readers, and his unorthodox behavior sometimes seems the only sane response to a culture as ravenous and merciless as ours can be.

Bukowski writes out of the anguish of living in a world of myriad and petty cruelties. Most of us turn away from the senseless inanities that surround us, but Bukowski never closes his eyes. He relentlessly reminds us of daily hypocrisies. And he’s not averse to addressing his own shortcomings as he loses women, loses bar brawls, loses money at the track, loses jobs, suffers repeated rejections and misunderstandings and then inexplicably finds himself successful and comfortable. What’s an aging anarchist to do?

Bukowski’s early cult status eventually grew to worldwide attention. His poems reflect a certain irony when dealing with the subject of his fame: I’m just going to have to die to get away and even that/ might not work:/ the ghouls will come running toward me, arms outstretched,/ saying, “Hey, Chinaski, we’ve been waiting for you!/ we wanna drink beer with you and talk!

Hank Chinaski is Bukowski’s alter-ego. Like Bukowski, Chinaski lived a rough childhood, took odd jobs, worked at the post office and wrote poems and stories until the two of them died at the age of seventy-three.

Bukowski’s poems are also odes to the particular joys of life that he knew: going to see the movies as a child during the Depression, a day at the race track, or even getting out of the hospital alive and feeling recharged. In the poem “out of the sickroom and into the white blazing sun,” he writes: now let everybody get/ out of the way,/ you’re thundering down the track again/ like a locomotive/ hauling 90 thousand/ unwritten poems .

When we read Bukowski, we are lead to suspect that the happiness found in the American dream is a sham. He shows us that happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway and that bliss can be found in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected times but only by those who are willing to look unflinchingly at the world in all its horror and beauty.

reviewed by Pat MacEnulty


THE GOSPEL
ACCORDING TO FRANK

By David Lloyd
New American Press, 2003, 57 pgs.
$12.00, paperback
ISBN 1-930-907-19-2
Poetry

In the movie Heist, written by David Mamet, the lead thief Joe (played by Gene Hackman) comments to his wife (played by Rebecca Pidgeon) that, “Nobody lives forever.” She coolly replies, “Frank Sinatra gave it a shot.” That he did, and nobody gives ‘Ol Blue Eyes a better turn at immortality than David Lloyd. Lloyd takes passages from the Christian Bible, stories from mythology, lyrics from Sinatra’s tunes, and excerpts from a Sinatra biography, and recasts them with his own poetic verve into a powerful saga.

Gospel is really one long poem in thirty-nine parts (which may be a very clever turn on the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican church). While a host of good things can be written about the details of the poems—line breaks, cadence, et cetera—the genius is in the structure and the use of religious/biographical metaphor. That is, the real beauty of this work is the way Lloyd uses Sinatra’s life and prior religious imagery to create a mythopoeic tale about Sinatra, to make Sinatra immortal on a grander scale than he already is (no small feat, mind you).

As for structure, the piece starts with creation, and, as with any good religion, has multiple creations to choose from; the piece ends with an eschatology, with Sinatra on the decline and a young, blue-jeaned redneck from Mississippi annunciating his arrival. The overarching form isn’t the only use of religious structure, however. Lloyd takes a number of stories from faith and myth and retells them with Sinatra as one of the characters (often the god); but Lloyd also conforms the poems to the structures of the originals.

In the thirty-fifth section, “Six Truths About Money,” each stanza begins with “In truth”, the same way Christ begins his admonitions about money and prayer in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. In the thirty-sixth section, “Seven Proverbs”, Lloyd uses diptychs and triptychs for the stanzas—the same way much of Proverbs is written in the Hebrew Scriptures.

As for metaphor, there’s no end of it here. Sinatra roams a terrain full of mythic people we already know: Father Abraham, Salome, Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Albert Einstein, Adam and Eve.

In the second piece, “Some Say…,” Lloyd borrows the myth of Aphrodite’s birth in having Sinatra spring from his father’s head. At various points throughout the book, Sinatra is the creator god, Irish myth hero Cuchullain, the (un)Prodigal Son, and the father in the Parable of the House Built on Sand: But the father had spent his fortune in secret/ building on sand a house as unmanageable/ as a city. The house proved strong and dry./ It bore fruit and multiplied into a mirage of/ houses that disappeared and reappeared with/ each hot breeze.

The strength of the work lies in the extended mythopoeism being grounded in Sinatra’s biography. We see Sinatra imploding the universe in “a reverse big bang”, and then visiting Humphrey Bogart in the hospital. At once Frank is uncreating a starling, then he’s reading Dickinson in the living room of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. The Rat Pack, too, is never far away.

The biographical details, and the way they are conscripted into the service of the myth, is the punch. The result is that when we read the truly original Sinatra myths, such as “Yes, yes, yes, yes” where Sinatra hits human-head-balls with human-leg-bats into a window on the one hundred twelfth floor of a skyscraper, it seems a seamless part of the epic into which we are already invited.

The net effect is a grand tale in which the reader enters and gets to walk around with the man himself. You will remember the movie critic on Saturday Night Live always gushing, “I laughed! I cried! It became a part of me! It’s better than Cats!” Lloyd’s skill with the tools of language, myth, and biography in The Gospel According to Frank have resulted in one of the most potent powers of poetry: It doesn’t become a part of you—you become a part of it.

reviewed by Todd Hester


LOST JOY
by Camden Joy
TNI Books (2002) 271 pgs.
ISBN 0-9678703-2-1 $14
Multi-genre

Rock and roll writers—how does one begin to define this savvy sub-breed of cultural critics? The good ones do more than slap starred evaluations onto the latest hype from the music industry—they attempt to capture the fleeting essence of what rock music embodies. Camden Joy’s hybrid collection Lost Joy is delightfully boundless in its references to and commentaries on rock and roll, be it underground or mainstream. The good fans at TNI books were wise to encourage Joy to collect his random writings into this landmark commentary.

First, let it be known that Joy has published six other books since his book debut in 1998—three of them last year. He also writes for a host of weeklies, such as the Village Voice and The Boston Phoenix, and he maintains his lot online at www.camdenjoy.com, so he’s not exactly a new writer, but his chosen form of publication—often street posters and weekly columns—has rendered him obscure to those of us not tromping around major cities.

What’s culturally valuable about Lost Joy is that in addition to short stories and commentaries, it collects black and white photographs of Joy’s manifesto posters which were plastered around New York City in the mid-90’s. The title is meant to clarify that what’s contained between these covers is the rediscovered “lost” writings of Camden Joy. Simultaneously, the title refers to the joy lost with the fleetingness of rock songs, the one-hit wonders, and all the great bands who never rose to the stardom they deserved.

Some of the poster texts read like editorials; others are vignettes of fiction. Some where written by a collective—the CMJoy Gang, who formed in a politically active moment against the packaged money-making efforts of the College Music Journal’s summer music fest.

His knowledge is broad and his allusions are tight and smart. Readers won’t catch all the inside commentary, and it certainly appeals most highly to a limited audience. That would be the audience that, like Joy, was into the alternative scene before it became Alternative with a capital-A. Joy doesn’t dumb-down anything—the pieces read like a speeding cargo van full of stoned musicians who have a vague idea of where to go next, if only everyone else would get out of the way.

There’s no easy way to summarize this collection. Some parts are straight-up short stories involving music and musicians. Other parts are schizoid, one moment fiction, the next moment like essays fit for Rolling Stone. An excellent part is “My Life in Eighteen Songs,” notable for its clever form that cuts to the core of pop culture writing.

There’s also no easy way to enjoy all of Lost Joy, because some parts are too obscure or too out-of-the-moment. For example, some of the street posters were obviously more powerful and relevant when plastered around NYC in 1996, and my reaction was more quizzical than understanding. But that, of course, is the allure and downfall of rock music. It struggles to be timeless, but in the end relies on crucial moments that arrive and depart as fast as sound itself.

reviewed by Jen Hirt


RUNNING WITH SCISSORS
By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin’s Press (2002) 304 pgs.
ISBN 0-312-28370-9 $23.95
Memoir

Yet another dysfunctional childhood sets the framework for Augusten Burrough’s darkly comic memoir, Running With Scissors. His recollections of his erratic, semi-closeted lesbian mother and her unusual therapist, Dr. Finch (who has a private room called the masturbatorium) have already earned laudable blurbs. Although the memoir certainly stands out in terms of sheer bizarreness, Burrough’s style falls short of the standards set by others in the Dysfunctional Family League, leaving Running With Scissors a step behind the ever-evolving memoir craze.

The memoir starts in first person, with a very young Burroughs feeling content with the state of things. It then shifts to past tense, with no convincing reason why the first chapter was in present tense, and Burroughs begins to elaborate on his early obsession with doctors. This links to the introduction of the pivotal psychiatrist, Dr. Finch.

When Mom goes haywire (the eating of wax is alluded to), Dad leaves, and Mom starts to attend daily sessions with the Dr. Finch, connoisseur of raw hot dogs. Burroughs is a precocious twelve-year-old at this point, and he realizes he’s gay.

Burroughs ends up spending great stretches of time in the Finch household while his mom talks through her troubles with Dr. Finch. Burroughs meets the Finch’s two younger daughters, Hope and Natalie, as well as the hunchbacked mother, Agnes, and the gay adopted brother, Neil. They get along so well that when Burrough’s mother cracks for real, the Finches legally adopt the boy.

The Finch family’s principles are indefinable and fascinating. On one hand, they welcome the young gay Burroughs into their domestic routines; on the other hand, they all snack on dry dog food. They are versed in the psychiatrics of family life, but then they engage in a fortune-telling game called Bible Dipping, where random words in the Bible take on the prophetic powers of a Magic 8 Ball. They introduce Burroughs to Neil with good intentions, since both are gay, but they neglect to warn Burroughs that Neil, twice as old, is a pedophile.

With material like that, a memoir might write itself. Burroughs relies on the disbelief factor as a driving force in the narrative. His nonfiction mimics fiction in dialogue and scene and the punchline set-ups are artificial. Nonfiction, purporting to be real, cannot tolerate artifice.

At the same time, nonfiction need not limit itself to plot-heavy scenes, which is what happens here. A stronger memoir would have taken more liberty with the narrator’s voice – namely, weaving in moments of the adult Burroughs reflecting on this oddest of odd childhoods. For example, it would have been worthwhile to drop the sarcasm in favor of a candid chapter about the sexual abuse he suffered under the guise of a “relationship” with Neil.

Running With Scissors ends with Burroughs and Natalie living together while attending Holyoke Community College. The finale is startling; Mom returns and reveals that Dr. Finch had drugged and raped her during the vulnerable moments of her therapy. Natalie refuses to believe her father would do such a thing; Burroughs sides with his mom, moves out, and severs his ties with the Finches.

The epilogue clarifies the unusual fates of the Finches, which is a nice way to conclude. Running With Scissors is certainly an engaging read, but it fails to add anything substantial to the shelves of memoirs about children who survived dysfunctional families. Instead, it just takes part in, and arguably takes advantage of, the “truth is stranger than fiction” adage.

reviewed by Jen Hirt


A PUNK IN GALLOWS
AMERICA

by P.W. Fox
Birch Brook Press (2001) 231 pgs.
ISBN: 0-913559-68-7 $24
Fiction

This first novel from P.W. Fox is an account of Eddie Ways’ search for salvation and pleasure in one drug-addled neighborhood of Chicago. Recently divorced and left with a large house in the suburbs, alcoholic Eddie finds solace at seedy bars, where he observes people who are worse off than he. With charisma and a never-ending supply of cash, Eddie befriends Lisa, a fierce and homeless heroin addict who insists she’s not a prostitute. Various adventures ensue, with Eddie always drunk and Lisa enigmatically appearing and disappearing as her habit dictates. Interwoven are chapters about Eddie’s father and Eddie’s ex-wife, a wealthy saleswoman.

The novel builds in treachery and substance abuse until another homeless heroin addict, Kate, is found dismembered, a moment which serves as a wake-up call for Eddie and Lisa, who must evaluate their high-risk lifestyles. Soon after, Eddie learns that Lisa has been double-timing him with a sugar daddy. Eddie’s father dies of a stroke, and Eddie witnesses a homeless man’s suicide. The conflagration of these events convinces Eddie to sober up and leave Lisa.

What’s interesting about this novel is the peculiar way Eddie romanticizes the life of homeless addicts. Routinely, Eddie hooks up with an addict/prostitute, drives her to the fancy house in the suburbs, offers dinner, a shower, clean clothes, and eventually indulges in sex. With Lisa, however, he falls in love. Her failure to reciprocate that love, and her flat-out (and correct) accusations that Eddie is romanticizing a terrible way of life are the twin events that spell their demise.

Fox chose to write A Punk in Gallows America in first person, a risky move that limits the reader to one viewpoint and one tone of voice for over 200 pages. Very few novels are in first person. The advantage of first person is authenticity and the chance to fully develop one character. The disadvantage is that the author is required to make the narrator incredibly complex and memorable, and the antagonist’s ability to drive the narrative must complement, without fail, the first-person narrator.

Eddie is not as complex as he could have been. Fox developed him almost as a stock character alcoholic—always pounding the hard liquor, always at the bar, never visibly sick or hung over, always quick with the half-witty line about how hot the prostitutes are. He is, apparently, a very functional alcoholic, which seems like it would be difficult to depict. There are often passages that tell us Eddie is drunk, but not much creative description to show us he’s trashed. It’s a similar case with Lisa—we knows she’s shooting up, but we’re limited to Eddie’s awareness of her state of mind, which is limited because Eddie is blitzed. This makes Liza a flat character at times.

A Punk in Gallows America is a standard first novel. It avoids the traps of being too political and too melodramatic. The characters go through believable but safe changes as they develop. The language is interesting, but not particularly stylistic. The first-person viewpoint was not the best choice, but I give Fox credit for creating a consistent, down-to-earth voice in an unpretentious style.

reviewed by Jen Hirt


SILVER ROSE ANTHOLOGY
edited by Kevin Watson
and Alexandra York
Silver Rose Press (2002) 164 pgs.
$14.50
Fiction

During the thirty years I taught freshman English, certain questions arose repeatedly: “Why is all the literature we read so gloomy? Doesn’t anyone write happy stories?”

Reviewing my syllabus, I had to admit they had a point. For drama, Greek tragedies, Death of a Salesman, Glass Menagerie, none of them a barrel or even a quart of laughs. Short fiction: “I Stand Here Ironing,” “That Evening Sun,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and that horror of horrors, Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Often one of Poe’s tales, thrown in not for chuckles. And the more recent the publication, the less likely a happy story.

My usual halting response: Writers write about what troubles them. I would quote the late poet, Guy Owen, “I write a poem when I have an itch I can’t scratch any other way.” I’m sure my students considered my explanation lame at best.

So when I heard of an anthology published by a foundation (American Renaissance for the Twentieth Century) whose stated mission is “to promote a rebirth of beauty and life-affirming values in all of the fine arts,” I was understandably skeptical. Happy endings? All problems resolved, tied up neatly in blue ribbons? Smiles abounding?

I needn’t have worried. Silver Rose Anthology is a first-rate collection of commendable stories. The endings aren’t all “happy,” whatever that means. The plots aren’t designed for roll-in-the-aisles guffaws. But indeed, these stories fit the foundation’s mission. As editor Kevin Watson, who lives and teaches in Winston-Salem, says in his preface, these are stories “about fictional characters who are living their lives with meaning and purpose, stories that would make us laugh, encourage us to think, and maybe even cause us to reevaluate our own values.”

Take, for instance, Bill Roorbach’s “Big Bend,” first published in Atlantic Monthly. It centers on Dennis Hunter, a retired seventy-ish widower who signs on for a work crew at Big Bend National Park. He desperately needs diversion from grief and empty hours. Doing substantial physical labor with a crew that “was motley all right” and quoting Socrates during rambling discussions on sex is a welcome respite from the life he has known for the three years since his beloved wife died.

Even more welcome is Martha Kolodny, an arts administrator on a bird-watching tour, a large woman with a large laugh and a large spirit, ensnared in a mutually unsatisfactory marriage. The two experience an almost immediate bond. Don’t be surprised if this ends up on film.

Doug Frelke’s short-short, “Waking Up,” is equally affirming. A Gulf War veteran awakes from a nap at a highway rest area just as a policeman orders him out of the car, obviously on the lookout for DUIs. The cop invites him to breakfast and talks about his favorite uncle who died in Vietnam. The conversation over steak and waffles lasts just two pages, but again a human bond is forged. And it’s real.

All the stories are real, except perhaps the last one, a knee-slapper by George Singleton. You start smiling when you read the title, “Richard Petty Accepts the National Book Award,” and you won’t stop through the last sentence. No, you don’t have to know anything about NASCAR or the National Book Award to get the broad humor or the sly wit.

These three samples demonstrate the variety. What holds them all together is the mission of the anthology, the editor’s principles. These stories indeed affirm human values; even when tears are brimming in your eyes, you’ll feel that life is worth living and decency is not dead after all.

I’d like to teach freshman English again. No question which anthology I’d choose.

reviewed by Sally Buckner

 

BACK TO TOP


From Summer 2003

 

CHRISTENING THE DANCER
by John Amen.
Uccelli Press (2003) 66 pgs.
ISBN: 0-9723231-0-4 $11.95
Poetry

It didn’t take long to realize that Christening the Dancer was more than a plot to drown me in a dangerous whirlpool of intense, syncretic imagery. Right off, the blunt force trauma of “Berlin” knocked my wind out: Paintings are dragged from museums,/ stoned like ancient prostitutes,/ books drawn and quartered like traitors.

Then I caught up with the oxygen, and began to appreciate what John Amen has achieved: a rake that pulls the weeds while combing grass like delicate hair. The collection pivots on an item titled “Original Sin”: Albino bulls groan in a bloody field / as deacons bury the cheerleader’s ruptured hymen. Apocrypha, in the fullest sense: deeply inspired but still rejected by most authority. Good. Let ‘em figure out the truth the hard way, by the canons.

This stuff is right up my alley (the one where I tripped and fell as a kid, when that German Shepard bitch tried to eat her way through the fence to get at me; the gravel and cinders made permanent dents in my knees). The author’s lean and hungry lines turn and turn against each other like gears in well-worn clockwork. The precisely figurative treatments of place and time should easily evoke personal responses. Like Amen says: My story is ripening like tomatoes in August.

Thumbs up. Spare the fallen gladiators.

Bill Wesse

 

WHAT CALLS US
by David Bengston
Dacotah Territory (2003) 42 pgs.
ISBN 0-941127-25-7 $5
Poetry Chapbook

David Bengston creates memorable imagery that serves as an exercise in successful concretion, with verse that coagulates in poignant portrayals brimming with apple trees, miasmic swamps, and cornfields.

“My Right Hand is Gone” is a light-hearted scene that attempts to trace the course of the poet’s missing hand. His obsession with hands spans the chasm of humor and rests in a much more serious poem, “My Father’s Hands.” Here, truly inescapable lines foster Bengston’s style as a whole: Years and years of hammers and saws/ formed my father’s hands/ hands rubbed smooth by cement and wood,/ hands smoothed as sanded maple,/ hands without fingerprints.

Besides brushes with hands, there are poems for photographs, emplacing the past in Bengston’s stewardship. Poems that depict photographs can be perhaps as trite as poems depicting poetry as an act of giving birth. Both require incredible acumen to say something original, and I’m glad to report that Bengston accomplishes this task. And while he faithfully interprets the forensic details, his true poetic ability lies beyond the visible borders of the photograph, as he clues us in on the origin of the event in question.

Other poems of note are “Big Swamp,” a gorgeous catalog of associations that illumines the swamp cycle, and an episodic piece entitled “Camouflage.”

The cohesive, serpentine quality of this chapbook wraps itself around the entire poetic program. To use one of Bengston’s own lines, the importance of each small flame rising from its dark wick, is not merely to show us that light is possible, but to show us that it is necessary as well. The same can be said of Bengston’s contribution: a light in the guise of poetry through which we can all lucubrate.

Frank S. Palmisano III

ARROW POINTING NORTH
by David Dodd Lee
Four Way Books 50 pgs.
$13.95
Poetry

With so many poets content to repeat themselves, it is refreshing to find one who appears interested in varying the tone of his writing. David Dodd Lee still mentions fish a lot, as he did in Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues Press), but this time around there are more ventures into a dreamy, surreal atmosphere.

Perhaps fishing is a metaphor for the subconscious, that pond from which poems invariably need to be hauled, but it is clearly a passion for Lee. Where he occasionally tended toward startling his reader in the earlier book, Lee has more surprises in Arrow Pointing North. The opening poem in the New Issues Press collection asks us to imagine stabbing a fork in a hand; this time, “Window Drive-In” brings armored fish chasing one another around his bedroom. Lee’s images float from observations of his surroundings, taking on their poetic life as seen in “Vanishing Point”: Beautiful scallops of painted metal drip in the rain.

Such moments encourage the reader to be more alert when gazing around. We never know what we may see, perhaps the noisy parade of cars/ trailing streamers of cans, the huge hook­lipped fish from the title poem, or the bones of our ancestors twirling like Calders from the torched/branches of elms from “Quarter Notes.”

Yes, there is still a fishy smell rising from the pages of the new book, but often in a jarring context as your lake­full-of-fish self from “Inside/Outside.” Lee cross-breeds the natural and personal intuitively, bringing about some fine moments, such as The electrocardiogram/ Bobbing once again/ Like a tem floating on rough seas from “Out at Sea.” The senses are rewarded whenever the author casts his net into the depths.

David Chorlton

 

MUSEUM MUNDANE
by E.V. Noechel.
The Argonne House Press (2002)
64 pgs.
ISBN: 1-887641-73-4
Poetry Chapbook

Museum Mundane is filled with persistent textures, exhibits a refreshing lack of sentimentality, and is pocked with images — the gritty feel of bones under skin — that usually flicker past our busy eyes only to vanish in the exhaust.

There are forty-one poems, divided into five named parts, each one titled with a phrase lifted discreetly from its encapsulating poem. For example, “Juliet Trauma” is my favorite section title, and “That Rosebud Thing’s a Load of Crap, Too” is my favorite poem title.

“Damn You, Dryer Sheet” achieves a kind of inexorable universality (for me, at least), condemning by proxy things pretending to be what they are not, showing how unnecessary improvements degrade life’s essentials (laundry, in this example; being safely clothed by extension). I think Noechel has hit on something vital.

The collection speaks almost exclusively in the first person, but draws us more into conspiracy than confessional. “Tonic,” for instance, recounts an Afternoon cat torpor where the rich smell of sweat/ pulls at something primal. “Sour Sugar Lemon Drop” invokes memories insistent at the boundaries of sense (slow motion pushed doubletime), and maps a personal accounting of places in the head I daresay most would not admit to having toured: while sipping sticky sweet/ toxins and inhaling candy smoke./ It smells like ice and wool with a shadow / of old books.

There are plenty of ticks here to lie down in the grass at dusk with, plenty of concrete chunks to scrape your elbows against. From “Eve,” for example: hard crack candy apply syrup, plunging fruit quick while it’s fluid / burns skin dark brown, gripping like napalm or the tight lunged feeling / that rises from the drowning, sucking cold sharp air around an apple / pierced by half-moon teeth dripping thin water, rich pink juice, and / the coming blood of All Souls.

I rest my case.

Bill Wesse

HARD
by Nancy Henry
MuscleHead Press Chapbooks
a division of BoneWorld Publishing (2003) 30 pgs.
Poetry Chapbook

I’ve never picked up a book of poetry and felt the impulse to cry. The opportunity to experience the emotive power of words outside the majesty of cinema or theatre was unknown to me. This is not to say that I don’t think poetry has a core emotional value, but for every poem I’ve read in which I’ve detected a tremor of profound emotion, I can name twenty tear-jerking movies.

That’s why this latest chapbook by Nancy Henry is so extraordinary. Her poetry’s touch upon this private emotion restores my faith in the written word. Thanks to Henry, I’ve realized that art can work toward an agreeable end, and in her poems that end is dramatically recorded in wonderfully touching poems, without risking treacly overtones.

The theme centers on the poet’s experiences with autistic and brain-damaged teens. The title-poem “Hard,” as well as “St. Valentine’s Day Dance at the Neuro Rehab Center” and a few others are handsome autobiographical peeks into Henry’s work with these detached souls. Henry captures in stunning detail the lives of these anonymous children.

“Touch” is representative of the kind of heart that goes into this labor of love. Henry explains how the line between personal and professional commitment is blurred by the horrible reality of these childrens’ lives: We don’t hug, though we watch them cry/ from a sympathetic stance,/ help them line up their stuffed animals/ go to bed without their mothers/ we don’t tuck them in with kisses/ these broken children big and small.

Finally, Henry’s poems are too big to be squeezed into a chapbook. In the future, I’ll be excited to see what comes off the presses bearing her name. This is a highly recommended read that promises to soften even the hardest hearts or provide eye-opening revelation into the lives of those forced to live with mental disabilities.

Frank S. Palmisano III


EMERGENCES AND SPINNER FALLS
by Robert Haight
New Issues (Fall 2002) 51 pgs.
ISBN: 1-930974-20-5 $14
Poetry

The water motif of Robert Haight’s debut collection makes sense, since water can be found in much more than rivers or pools. For example, hearts pump a liquid that is comprised, mostly, of water. This approach to metaphor, however, doesn’t speak for the rest of the book.

Emergences and Spinner Falls opens with the landscape poem “This River,” where the waterway surges by/ it’s unmistakable clarity. Of course, Haight fills the rest of the poem with flora and fauna surrounding the banks of the river, but the sense of meandering flow is important. It sets the stage for the rest of the collection.

“The Desire to Farm” depicts a domestic “she” gardening; the poem shifts into the second person, trying hard to convey the smell of fresh baked bread. In a sense, the speaker tries to convince the reader to renounce everything for rural married life. You decide, Haight writes, to live/ out your life with her, leaving your/ briefcase to rot in the back seat. There is also a poem where the speaker, talking for his wife and children, describes buying apples from an orchard farmer. Another poem depicts cars hitting unleashed dogs.
These tend to be the minority, which is for the best. While Haight probably added them for texture, they don’t represent the book’s stronger aspects, which are poems focused on natural imagery. “When You Have Lived with a River” provides the best example. The poem is sectioned, and the title functions as a refrain, which serves as the connective tissue between each section: When you have lived with a river/ you stand in its embrace, feeling the river move/ around you and pull through the pilings/ of your legs, then downstream.
The intersection between humankind and nature and the interesting vantage point of standing in a current helps ground the reader, much like the opening poem of the collection, in the natural scenery along the banks.

Rich Ristow

 

THE PALACE OF ASHES
by Sherry Fairchok
CavanKerry Press Ltd. (2002) 67 pgs.
ISBN: 0-9707186-3-2
Poetry

Having read and reviewed Fairchok’s 1999 Ledge Chapbook Prize winner A Stone That Burns for a past issue of MSR , I’m pleased to provide repeat service for her latest collection.

The Palace of Ashes begins with an “Ode to Coal”: In a place erased by snow/ ashes scratch the glass of frozen roads. Readers with firsthand experience of the ozone and grit of an industrial winter in the rust and coal belt will undoubtedly respond as I did on first read: indeed!

“A White Lampshade” reflects on youthful ignorance of why household furnishings are so often in extreme contrast to the outside world: coal dust imbedded itself into every/ chip and crack of their daily lives. Imagery of cleanliness brackets, and ultimately subsumes, the dark pains chronicled here in a lasting and authentic way.

“In the Kitchen” provides a literal taste of the central mystery of belonging, of a child in attendance at grown-up table talk: I had to be watched,/ or else I’d lick the bottom of the ashtrays. I guarantee that Fairchok brings it all the way home in the final couplet.

“Stoning the Breaker” is nominally about children breaking the windows of a defunct coal-crushing tower – with lumps of coal, of course. Late in the poem, Fairchok somewhat surprisingly (and effectively) refers us to Marie Antoinette, delineating a precise parallel between the vandalism against this blackened palace and flies that once pinged/ against mirrors in her Versailles drawing room.

But there are other rooms in Fairchok’s Palace; the sweetness and horror of puberty get their fair treatment, in ways that should serve as a good reminder to readers of any gender. “Brushing,” for example: Over the summer, boys had become strangers/ with skin easier to spark than matches. / If we bumped elbows in the hallway, we’d both jump.

This is a good read, loaded with well-struck alliteration that succeeded in drawing me into life’s episodes.

Bill Wesse


THE FIFTH RAMONE
by Kevin Zepper
Dacotah Territory (2003) 21 pgs.
ISBN 0-941127-24-9, $4
Poetry Chapbook

Agreeing that there is a strategy to choosing poems to form a book, I must note that the poems that make up the first half of this chapbook emphasize Zepper’s talent. However, as the chapbook progresses, the poems (which communicate interesting scenarios) fall short on language. The rhythmic flow of the prose poems is dissembled by the subject matter.

“Little Universes” is the best example of a poem that starts with an interesting subject but whose language fails to carry it through. The prose poetry dilemma is that, within the imagery, there is too much “telling” to allow any guesswork or participation on the part of the reader. In a perfect world, a skilled poet must resolve these fundamental problems before he can even hope to tap into this form of poetics. Such problems run throughout the chapbook, lessening the reader’s powers of observation.

“Used Poem” is an example of a “poem about a poem” that would benefit from a lesson in economy. The comparisons to an old, faithful, and, at times, tetchy car starts out fun, but the allegory quickly becomes trite and superficial. No real associative energy emerges from the metaphors.

To be fair, the poem “Sorrys,” is an enchanting romp into the nature of guilt and charity. Perched on fairytale metrics, the “sorrys” take on lives of their own, and the flow of the poem opens up a moral dimension that both children and adults can appreciate.

Zepper’s poems seem to have a professional skin hiding a journeyman’s wine. We have relatively few examples of bad poetry here, but there is nothing stellar. They are not quite the work of a seasoned professional; however, their mobility rests in the fact that they touch on a wide variety of experiences and touch off a host of internalizations that a reader can easily follow, but perhaps in the end, too easily.

Frank S. Palmisano III

 

MAN IN A SUITCASE
by David Plumb
Smoking Mirror Press (2003) 66 pgs.ISBN 0-9723308-0-1 $11
Poetry

In “North Beach Letter,” Plumb’s affection for the late Bob Kaufman is evidenced in his clear identification of Kaufman’s writing style: Here’s a man of internal hieroglyphics…his words swept the streets on secret scrolls.

What makes this statement ironic and not merely a congenial platitude honoring a fallen poet is that Plumb’s writing style seems to be informed by a similar technique of obfuscation and clandestine virtue that makes it difficult for the average reader to find any tactile associations. While this is not always the rule, it is certainly not the exception.

More than a few of the poems are unnecessarily obscure and self-referential. One gets the sense of subtitles secretly running between the lines that only the most overworked, poetically minded code breakers can seize upon. Poems like “God the Turkey’s Burning” and “Yellow” fall into this category, and unfortunately do not recover.

“The Bishop” is a sort of panegyric couched upon personal reflections on the poet’s late friend. While the poem is rife with sincerity, this is one more variation on the theme of inclusive experience, which runs rampant throughout the book. And although the poem is sufficiently accessible, it’s a wonder why the reader shouldn’t feel alienated in this heart-to-heart remembrance as well.

Aside from my bias for audience-engaging material, Plumb really is at his best when he commits to saying little. A series of short poems are among my favorites and make use of little space, yet go forth making big statements.

While a fierce sense of location is limned throughout much of his poetry, this sense gradually becomes abstracted in the people that Plumb presents for reflection. The settings occupying the most beautiful lines are at times upstaged by shadowy vicissitudes calling us from an even more shadowy and self-indulgent world, but are all too fleeting in the impressions they leave.

Plumb’s poetry works best where these characters orient themselves to his settings rather than overpower them, allowing each to blend intimately and without fuss and become one with the poetic effort.

Frank S. Palmisano III

 

MRS. KIMBLE
by Jennifer Haigh
Harper Collins Publishers (2003) $24.95
Fiction

It isn’t often a first time novelist delivers a gem, but Jennifer Haigh accomplishes this feat in her debut, Mrs. Kimble. This is the story of not one but three Mrs. Kimbles—Birdie, Joan, and Dinah—whose lives intertwine through the enigmatic opportunist Ken Kimble.

Sheltered Birdie falls prey to choirmaster Ken’s charms in Bible college. Haigh’s description of their meeting and subsequent courtship borders on religious ecstasy. Ken later abandons Birdie and their two children, Charlie and Jody, hurtling Birdie into a downward spiral of depression and alcohol. Birdie remembers she’d been embarrassed before… in twenty-six years she’d accumulated a whole basketful of shame, a repository of palpitating memories she could dip into at any moment, each with the power to turn her hot and cold and sick with self-loathing. She tries to extract herself from her predicament in order to save her children from the sins of their father (and later, their mother) only to succumb in the end.

Next, Ken courts the lovelorn Joan, who welcomes Ken into her lonely existence. He, in turn, becomes her entire world. But Joan discovers a crack in Ken’s veneer and Charlie and Jody reenter his life. Ken always has an answer, which Joan always accepts. However, her fatalistic view on life returns and when her lump returns she wasn’t surprised, she’d been waiting for it all along. Ken sees a new opportunity and moves on, snaring Dinah in the process.

Of the three women, Dinah closely resembles Ken. He uses his money to erase her facial birthmark, only to suit his needs. She knows some of Ken’s past and accepts him for the opportunity he gives her­-: a big home and the social prestige of Washington DC. But behind this veneer lurks the past and present, setting up a collision course brought on by both Dinah and Ken. Charlie steps in to preserve the family created by the three Mrs. Kimbles and destroyed by Ken.

Charlie’s redemption in the closing chapters gives a fitting coda to Haigh’s novel. Haigh’s storytelling skills are evident; the characters create the action rather than reacting to an event and the narrative segues effortlessly.

Sherri Smith

SWEET FIRE
by Pat MacEnulty
Serpent’s Tail Press (2002) 312 pgs.
ISBN 1-85242-455-9 $14
Fiction

This debut novel chronicles five years in the life of Trish Lenox, heroin addict. First-person novels about addicts seem to be saturating the shelves, but there are a few highlights in MacEnulty’s prose that make this novel a fair read.

Trish’s husband is sentenced to prison for theft and for bailing out of rehab. This is the impetus for a destructive binge cycle for 18-year old Trish.

The bulk of Sweet Fire is episodic, moving from getting high to a day or two of withdrawal to getting sick, followed by a risky theft or scam to score more drugs, punctuated by a few feeble attempts to come clean, then getting high and starting the cycle all over again.

These antics don’t so much catch up with Trish as they do her cohorts. Suicides, legal problems, bad parenting, and prison time befall her cronies on one page or the next. Trish is the perpetual witness, wondering how her own addiction makes her complicit. One social side effect she doesn’t witness from the sidelines is her own dependence on abusive men.

Subplots, stylized by well-done shifts in tense, include Trish’s search for her father, derailed by her brother’s revelation that Trish was conceived when her mother was raped. This underscores Trish’s confusing attraction to danger and violence.

Many of the chapter titles borrow lyrics from 70’s songs that give a nod to the heyday of the drug culture, before the danger of sharing needles made the scene. I would have rather seen these pop music feelings conveyed in MacEnulty’s own prose. Too much rides on chapter titles.

The novel ends on a note of consequence, with Trish reconnecting with a druggie who returns from California with a mysterious illness (quite obviously AIDS) that the doctors can’t control. Trish has her own scars, and she’s only cautiously redeemed, which is a smart way to avoid a preachy ending.

Jen Hirt

 

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From Fall 2003

THE MUTABLE WHEEL
Okla Elliott (poetry), Brian Zegeer (art)
Bulldog Printing of Greensboro (2003) 40 pgs. Perfectbound.
ISBN 0-9729679-0-7, $28.00.
Poetry.

In songs like “Born To Run” and “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen manages to take the ordinary and use it to talk about the extraordinary, the metaphorical, the real. In doing so, The Boss uses tools we already have—cars, dreams, and everyday lusts—to address those core concerns we all struggle with. What is the meaning of life, anyway?

The Mutable Wheel does much the same. The title refers to a quote from Malorey, who echoes the Heraclitan conviction that everything changes and nothing is constant. The poetry and art in this volume don’t so much strive to help us manage the ebb and flow as they do give us a narrative option through which we can make the journey.

The first poem is entitled “Entrances and Exits” and the last is entitled “After Too Much Wine I Inspect My Naked Self In The Mirror.” The first is the feeling of youth and exploration, while the latter brims with introspection and retrospection. The poems are apt bookends for the book, as the book welcomes the reader into the overarching narrative of humanness. Images as mundane as washing machine doors, manholes, tomatoes, whiskey, bacon, and wisteria are juxtaposed with the more metaphysical God, moon, death, memory, soul, and cosmos to help the reader use what the reader has to survey the landscape of being human.

But Elliott’s poetry isn’t trying to recreate Pope’s “Essay On Man” here. Elliott's work is admittedly metaphorical, as poems like “Poet Vacations in the House of Myth” and “Contours of Mythology” will testify. The metaphors are narrative, not meta-narrative, and Elliott won’t let the reader force it into the latter.

Also noteworthy is the tension between and synergy of the art and poetry. I am no art critic, but the real power here is that the two art forms add to one another without explaining one another. A good example is the poem “Fresh Start” which is opposite the art piece “Lazarus, Awake.” The poem does not explain the picture and the art does not represent the writing; nonetheless, the harmony and disharmony of the two really provoke the reader to explore both.

The art and poetry simultaneously limit and unlimit one another. This is true not only of each page, but of the book as a whole. There is a progression in the narrative of both poetry and art as the two, for lack of a better word, grow together. While each sketch/painting and each poem move the reader to explore each piece further, the constant poetic references to mythology, the recurring Lazaruses in the art work, and the movements the poetry and art make together also urge the reader to revisit the whole manuscript again.

While we still may not know the meaning of life, The Mutable Wheel, as the introduction says, gives us one of the best defenses out there against the inconstancy—art. Good art. Not art that explains or dumbs down (see: Thomas Kinkade), but art that meets us where we are and gives us another lens through which to view where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

Todd Hester


GOODNIGHT ARCHITECTURE
Gretchen Mattox
New Issues (Fall, 2002), 71 pgs.
ISBN 1-930974-21-3 $14
Poetry

In Goodnight Architecture, Gretchen Mattox surreal internal landscapes. She writes, in “Larger Sea,” In a dream, I am beholden to a light as if entering the same / doorway over and over. Later, the poem shifts into: My throat was slit but I went on talking to the silence / interrogating myself, forcing myself to / believe one idea after the next . . .

These lines are suggestive for rest of the collection because the poems are interrogations of inner self, and the specter of failed relationships looms large here. Towards the beginning of the book, a considerable amount of time is devoted to a father figure. We wish he would come back to us, Mattox writes in “The Father,” maybe a little broken. This isn’t possible, if a reader takes the “The Field,” the opening poem of this collection in which the father hung himself, at face value.

While this sounds like a defining issue in Goodnight Architecture, the book mostly avoids a descent into unrestrained pathos. Other poems display bee imagery, which suggests a dominant influence. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was haunted by a father figure in poems like “Daddy.” Plath also devoted a large number of lines to bee boxes.

Still, similarities to Plath move far beyond a few mentions of bees, or even how a dead father still exerts influence. Sylvia Plath, in Ariel, shows a penchant to shock with a surreal turn of phrase. After all, her poem “Edge” contains dead infants, each at a pitcher of milk, now empty. Gtetchen Mattox has the same penchant to disturb.

Her poem “The Babies” leads off with The aborted babies are happy. / If they had faces they would smile / but their skins are slick as blisters. Later in the poem, Mattox writes The small heads of aborted babies / are silent as cherry tomatoes. This imagery is sick, gross, and it lacks Plath’s music for phrasing.

This suggests serious detractions. Sometimes, the emotions supersede the need for well-crafted metaphor. Goodnight Architecture succeeds when the book clouds itself in language, in word groupings suggesting surreality. At the same time, the collection fails, in poems like the “The Babies” or “The Father,” when it leaves internal dreamscapes for blunt declarations.

Rich Ristow


LIVES OF WATER
By John Hoppenthaler
Carnigie Mellon University Press (2003) 74pgs ISBN 0-88748-385-2
Poetry

In “Shannon’s Watch,” John Hoppenthaler writes But we have weight & memory. People / who feel familiar & might be one day. These two lines speak for the rest of Lives of Water, Hoppenthaler’s first book of poems, where the first-person “I” confronts the weight of memory in interpersonal relationships. While this suggests morose confessionalism, the voice stays causal.

For example, in “How to Leave a Small Town Like Yours,” Hoppenthaler writes The third time we made love / the magic was already gone. / We should have stopped right / there, but instead we moved / into an apartment, adopted / a cat you named Pharaoh... While these words lack the eloquence of Sylvia Plath, they’re akin to William Carlos Williams, where art, if a reader excludes a collage like Paterson, is image-based simplicity. Hoppenthaler’s poetry, in this regard, is infused with everyday life and the nearly mundane.

“Calling” provides further evidence: Kelly remembers the only time / her favorite uncle's hand opened / to reveal nothing, not the expected / quarter, not a Hershey's Kiss... The poem talks, later, of how the uncle has terminal cancer, and every attempt to track him down is met with failure. The uncle's absence adds to the bluntness—all the reader sees is everybody else dealing with his disease.

While most of the book works in ways described above, there are two anomalies. “Ghirardelli: San Francisco” depicts a speaker facing Valentine’s Day, thinking of how pious Mexican women sipped hot chocolate in church. The bishop who forbade this, eventually, died from poisoned cocoa. “Mirage” tells the story of Ibn Batuta, the first Muslim world traveler. The chocolate poem fits the book because the historical facts serve only as a backdrop for the speaker’s romance. Ibn Batuta, however, is out of place.

It’s not that “Mirage” is a bad poem; it just doesn’t fit Lives of Water. Remember the operative two lines: But we have weight & memory. People / who feel familiar & might be one day. Batuta doesn’t seem familiar, but most everybody else in Lives of Water, through rereading Hoppenthaler’s simple language, might be one day.

Rich Ristow


NEW CENTURY NORTH AMERICA POETS
edited by John Carmon, Donna Biffar, and Wayne Lanter, River King Poetry Press (2002), 225 pgs.
ISBN 0-9650764-1-5, $15

The poems are arranged in chronological order by date of the poet’s birth, with the earliest born coming first (except toward the end where, for some unknown reason, this logic abruptly fails). Representatives run the gamut from 1916 through 1993. This brings up an important though not entirely essential question, i.e., whether those from 1916 to 1940 can technically be called the poetic vanguards of the new century. After all, most in this aforementioned era are already leaning toward the grave if they don’t have one foot in it already.

While I have the greatest respect for older poets and do not mean to put forth a crude approximation based on someone’s age, there are implications that an important generation has been “gapped” in this collection. From 1965 to1978 is what popular culture has coined Generation X, a diverse demographic that has received much attention in the media, yet is almost completely ignored in this anthology save for three poets.

Thus, I have trouble accepting that the new century poets, a composite of Old Timers, Baby Boomers, Hippies, and one Generation Y snuck in between the pages speaks toward a collective experience that in the course of the work seems more provincial or pastoral than anything else. As a Generation Xer myself, our insights are of crucial importance, given the golden cash cow mentality of materialism and the collapse of much of the world cementing American globalism in the late 1980s, which we grew up in, and in it carved out our identities. I would argue that now more than ever, our opinions matter as inheritors of the new millennium. That maybe neither here nor there, but it’s certainly not in here, and that in a nutshell is my major complaint with this anthology.

I’m not exactly sure why these poets or poems were culled together expect to honor the late Paul Dilsaver who is purported to have published some of Yusef Komunyakaa’s first work. I would have liked to have seen some of Komunyakaa’s poetry in these pages as a tribute to someone who believed in him early on in his career.

These are some initial observations that a publisher might make when determining a market for the project. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. As in any anthology, some poems must work double time to carry the efforts of the weaker, less fortunate ones. Wayne Lanter’s “Counseling the Children” is an example of a drool advisory (an exercise in casuistry) that forgot itself along the way. The only poetic justice served is that the instructive overtones in the poem are in keeping with the poem’s title. And while there are a few more leafs better used for kindling than read, the anthology still holds its own on many levels.

Chuck Miller’s sensitive yet edgy poem on retardation rests on a philosophical assumption by Primo Levi and causes us to wonder how Levi, who saw himself as the incapable custodian of history’s ephemera, could somehow be compared with the mentally challenged. His description of the retarded man is unsettling in its truth.

I’m glad the anthology is not only dedicated to but features the work of the late Paul Dilsaver. As one who has never read Dilsaver, I was pleased by his engaging metaphoric landscapes, along with the occasional verbal acrobatics reminding me of the early work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In “Corwin Psychiatric Ward,” he writes

So you/ lie in your white room/ burning eyes/ on white ceiling,/ listening to/ white vibrations,/ spine freezing/ on white sheets,/ while all the time/ your hue-thirsty mind,/ dwelling on your/ nurse-possessed razor/ and itchy wrist,/ spawns an unmistakable/ lust for red.

There are a lot of diamonds in the rough like this one. And although you won’t be traipsing your fingers over a jewelry counter, you just have to know where to look. Dana Gioia’s poems (some of my favorite in the book, which remind me of Linda Pastan’s poems) are thoughtfully astute and gorgeously attentive to their subject through crisp imagery. Gioia shows respect for a tradition that sometimes suffers from stream-of-consciousness/adjectivally phrased epic catalogue writing. In “New Year’s” he writes:

The new year always brings us what we want/ Simply by bringing us along—to see/ A calendar with every day uncrossed,/ A field of snow without a single footprint.

Despite limited access to the urban sprawl, age demographics, and a few marginal selections, much of the poetry included in the anthology could be termed as an honest attempt at blending some of the more accomplished voices in North American letters and could be used as an example of decent, well-meaning verse in any Poetry 101 class.

Frank S. Palmisano, III

BACK TO CHOICES
John Kennedy
Picadilly Press, (2002), 20 pages, $12.
Poetry.
While John Kennedy eschews rhyme and meter in Back to Choices, he is fastidious about form, creating free-verse nonce stanzas that on the page look as various and formal as those of Donne, until one tries to scan them. Wedded to this formal stringency is a terse style, with an occasional arresting conceit. Here, for example, is the opening sentence of “Seeing Trout Flies”: Nothing prepared me for the squints/ of recognition coming up from that rusty box,/ unlidded as carefully as Jesus/ raising the roof on a gleaming congregation. (P. 9)

The simile of the box being unlidded as carefully as Jesus // raising the roof … the play on the phrase “raising the roof,” the contrast between the “rusty box” and the gleaming congregation, and the use of tercets suggest a contemporary version of Metaphysical poetry.

Trout fishing, here and in “Returning to Farm River,” recalls Yeats, probably another of Kennedy’s influences. But this collection turns to nature more steadily than Yeats, as about half the titles here, including “False Spring,” “Mayflies,” and “To a Flicker Lying Roadside,” testify.

A third influence is Frost, who shows up in the language and tone of “Throwing in with the Tangible.” If Back to Choices recalls predecessors, they are good ones, and Kennedy has learned his lessons well. Still, he knows that he must find his own voice, and he succeeds in doing so in much of the book. Thus “Storm Windows,” the first poem, begins with the speaker’s memory of how his parents worked against winter’s / imminent drafts, moves on to his awareness that he does the same . . . and lift[s] / a storm window into place, then concludes by addressing his love and whimsically suggesting that they leave this one / window unfinished this year: / the seasons can change us. He prefers the possibility of change to the inevitable disappointment / with weather, perhaps alluding to the domestic weather that the barometer of his intuition measures here.
This poem exemplifies Kennedy’s method: the observation of some action or natural occurrence, a reflection upon it, and a conclusion either in accord with or divergent from it. His strong endings often combine Kennedy’s accurate observations of nature with the ample resources of his diction. They let Back to Choices give one the sort of satisfaction that comes from reading a poet before the rest of the world knows his name.

George Held

 

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