Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal

FALL 2009 FOOD Issue
"Tongue and taste"

All the Right Moves

I Have Walked Through Many Lives: Young Voices— Scarborough edited by Bruce Spang, (Westbrook, ME: Moon Pie Press, 2009), 56 Pages. Paper. ISBN 978-1-61539-448-7 $8

This anthology is a collection of poems by the students from Bruce Spang's Sophomore American Literature classes at Scarborough High School. The poems were written after reading poems by Mark Doty, Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice and others. The students were instructed to listen carefully to the poems and take note of "the moves" the poet made in crafting the poem. Students employed the poet's techniques while crafting their own poems.

This volume of poetry could stand as a model of how young writers learn the craft of poetry. These students are doing the hard work of learning how to write and invite the reader to glimpse their world on their terms, like Matthew Eaton in "What Lessons I Really Learned When I was Five," I must tell you:/ I did not learn my lessons from alphabet soup, or, "Where I'm From" by Jack Clark:

I am from a computer using too many applications.
From cookie dough Ben and Jerry's ice cream
And Road Runner High Speed Internet Service

In these poems we see many first encounters, which is as it should be as young people become young writers. There is the delightful "Why I Have a Crush on You Doctor" by Laura Flewelling, I shuffle into your office and leap out later/ oh, doctor, let's hop into your black SUV and elope!

And a mature and hopeful outlook while serving food at a soup kitchen by Hannah Freeman in "Help:" Help will come. Together, / as a nation, help will come. Many of the poems end well; these young poets know the value of strong beginnings and endings as in "Approaching Sunrise," by Harim Park:

red, yellow rays splash over me
…vivid these rags like a car's headlights
in the rearview mirror at night.

The ability of these young poets to manage their material speaks well of their dedication to the craft of poetry. It also serves as a lesson of what can be accomplished when poets teach poetry. Bruce Spang is an accomplished poet and the Reviews Editor of Café Review and an Associate Editor at Hunger Mountain.

There are popular programs like Poetry Out Loud which bring poetry into the classroom and teach students how to recite poems, but that is second hand experience. Learning how to write a poem is a different thing altogether. As evidenced by this anthology, Spang has found a way to teach poetry that brings students from readers to writers. This anthology also speaks well for Alice Persons at Moon Pie Press for putting their work into print.

—Valerie Lawson

Back to top

The Profligate and the Reverent

Facing the Moon/ poems of Li Bai and Du Fu translated by Keith Holyoak. (Durham, NH: Oyster River Press, 2007) 127 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-1-882291-04-5 $ 17.00

In his foreword to this collection of poetry by two of the most highly regarded poets in Chinese history, Holyoak gives a good frame of the times in which these poets lived as well as informative biographies of each. This collection takes translation as a project aiming between the very literal and the very liberal. Holyoak explains that he increases the length of the shorter poems especially to achieve a rhythmic effect in the work, letting the number of characters in a line correspond to the number of stressed syllables to achieve a loose iambic.

These are translations informed by a certain consistency and in the final analysis where the needle should lie between the literal and the liberal is up to the reader. Chinese presents its own unique challenges to the translator, and in ancient verse these challenges are more acute. The poems are meant to be chanted or sung, and once you learn to recite something such as Li Bai's "Quiet Night Thoughts," you may sense the distance the translator has to go and the grieving he/she must do in letting go the sound, that which is impossible to carry from language to language.

Holyoak's translation, twice the length of the original text, has a discursive quality not present in the original. Ancient Chinese poems juxtapose characters such that the space between the characters is a river of resonance. Holyoak mimics the rhyme in the first two lines of the original by making them inexact end rhymes in the second and fourth lines in his translation:

In front of my bed
moonlight is shining down--
I thought it was frost
shimmering on the ground.

It seems clear to me that Holyoak places great value on the sound aspect of translation, and when the translations have the most success, the translated poem moves me.

In the section of poems by Du Fu, I am most moved by Holyoak's work, and I wonder if he is not partial to the master who died in poverty and relative anonymity. In his introduction, Holyoak notes that, during their lifetimes, Du Fu was thought to be a minor poet, and he lived his life with more strict adherence to Confucian precepts than his more famous friend Li Bai. Du Fu's compassion for all things comes out in poems like "Bound Chickens," but I am also moved by "Thoughts Written While Traveling at Night" where Du Fu bemoans what he sees as an unsuccessful life:

Drifting, drifting,
what do I resemble?
A lone gull
lost between earth and heaven.

We know now he was not lost but filling the page with poems we still love.

This is a neat collection with thoughtful touches, such as the Chinese characters in large type, something those of us with challenged eyesight appreciate. It would be helpful to students in undergraduate workshops or any entry level that includes translation.

—Afaa Michael Weaver 蔚雅風

Back to top

Sartor Resartus

Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems edited by Vasiliki Katsarou, Ruth O'Toole and Ellen Foos (Princeton, NJ: Ragged Sky Press, 2009) 145 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-1-933974-06-4 $15

Based on the number (about 100) and credentials of contributors to this anthology of "clothing poems," I'd say raiment continues to be a popular poetic topic.

Among the poems I studied in high school more than 40 years ago, "Upon Julia's Clothes" by Robert Herrick and "Patterns" by Amy Lowell stand out in memory. Herrick describes the "…liquifaction of her clothes!" which would surely have helped Eileen Malone get down the title poem. But the poet's imagination suffices to create a deliciously absurd metaphor for an older spinster sister.

A touch of humor or irony, perhaps hot sauce on ice cream, keeps many of the book's potentially glum poems more lively than museum garments. But even the saddest poems in this book recall life.

Lowell's protagonist walking up and down patterned garden paths in her "stiff brocaded gown" hides no humor, but uses the clothing to describe a woman receiving a tragic message.

Looking through clothing poems in other old books, I found Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Plaid Dress" recycled as the lining of a formal gown. She, who is known for wild times, could not take off the dress for fear someone would see its "violent plaid."

Maxine Kumin's "How It Is" uses no leavening humor but tells about putting on the jacket of a recently dead friend, " …leaning my ribs against this durable cloth…" Perhaps some bit of skin or body oil remains in the fabric for inspiration.In the clothing poem collection, a number of poems personify the dress or other garment. In the final poem, "The White Dress," Lynn Emanuel first describes the severity of an itchy shroud but ends with sympathy for the lonely dress in the closet, "rehearsing its lines."

Organized into sections titled "Presentation," "Alteration," "Selvage," and "Sheer" the contents resemble silk necktie crazy work quilting for those of us who like to read poems out of order. And the pieces have tempting names like "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" by Billy Collins and "Why I Cross-Dress" by Gregory Hagan.

The list of contributors to the anthology includes many familiar names: Charles Simic, Jorie Graham, Paul Muldoon, Margaret Atwood, Michael Brown, Valerie Lawson.

The concept behind the book extends from shoes to hats and gloves. Most poems focus on specific garments, but some are more about how we wear or even collect items of clothing.

The introduction by editor Vasiliki Katsarou could be a complete lecture or a review if not written by one too close to the product. Her pride is well taken. The editors selected a topic that drew forth especially readable offerings from a variety poets whose works fit together like pieces of a pricey Vogue dress pattern.

—Sharon Bray

Back to top

Two New from Moon Pie

Ordinary Time poems by Kevin Sweeney (Westbrook, Me.: Moon Pie Press, 2009) 30 pages. Paper.
ISBN: 978-1-60643-190-0 $8
A House of Bottles poems by Robin Merrill (Westbrook, Me.: Moon Pie Press, 2009) 29 pages. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-61539-449-4 $8

Poets and particularly Maine poets owe gratitude to Moon Pie Press run by Alice Persons in Westbrook, Maine, whose next book after the two above will be, by my count in her catalog, the fiftieth. That's a lot of poetry. And though in length Moon Pie's publications tend to be chapbooks, there's nothing "chap" about the ones I have seen. The two above have coated, color covers and ample space inside for nicely printed poems, which makes them attractive to read.

Taking a traditional view of poetry, I would call what Ms. Merrill writes in A House of Bottles vignettes. Of the twenty-seven short pieces, at least a dozen seem short-short-stories. Another half-dozen character studies, including monologues. And two or three essays. All of these pieces read like prose, broken into lines for no clear purpose. Apart from an occasional simile or metaphor, they eschew figurative language. And they seem not particularly rhythmic. Only a couple employ regular meter and rhyme—a conceptually impressive sonnet in rough pentameter lines with near-rhymes such as "what" and "quit," and a poem making interesting use of the blues stanza:

Got thrown off a silo eighty feet high
Brother done thrown me off a silo eighty feet high
Said he wanted to see if I would die.

Concerning the others, Ms. Merrill, who has a Master of Fine Arts, knows what she is doing, which is asserting a broader definition of poetry than the traditional. More important, her pieces are well-constructed, clear, sprightly, and witty, and they range from delightful wordplay to serious subject matter. You don't have to call them poetry to find reading them worthwhile.

A general feeling of sardonic distress permeates Kevin Sweeney's Ordinary Time. He prefaces his work with a line he attributes to Kafka: "In the fight between you and the world, back the world." A community college teacher for twenty-five years, he lists in his biographical sketch numerous things he did not do.

The poems make clear that he is bored with faculty committees and not much impressed with students. He says of himself and a fellow teacher, "Each May we go home, too old for this shit." He regards himself as "a raconteur of the dissolute" and "a penitent of failed causes." In a poem that begins, "Saturday my shorts feel wet," he tells us about his hemorrhoids.

As a poet, has he any saving grace? Well, he writes ordinary free verse in a colloquial, slangy, style, which sometimes grates but also can be lively. He employs concrete images and vivid detail. He has a sharp, sometimes satirical sense of humor, as in his poem making fun of common clichés. And sometimes, to readers as old as I, his disgust with things seems warranted.

—Gerald George

Back to top

The Poet and Her Source

Blood Soaked Dresses by Gloria Mindock (Somerville, MA: Ibbetson Street Press, 2007), 62 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-1-4303-1034-1 $13.50

When Yevtushenko's Babi Yar was published, I heard one Russian question another: "What is this Babi Yar? I don't know it."

The other replied, "Oh, it's just a place where a lot of Jews were killed." Lest we forget is one use for protest poetry.

Another value of protest art is that creation which rises above its immediate cause and evokes the terror, such as Picasso's Guernica. Or it may be one that sets a standard for resistance, as Winston Churchill used Claude McKay's resounding final couplet in "If We Must Die":

Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.

What then to make of a slim book of poems dedicated to a woman recently dead, whose terror occurred 25 years earlier, and who spoke out about it for the subsequent years of her life? Why did the poet wait? There is no clue in the book. Credits for previous publication of individual poems are not dated. The answer can be as much humility as timidity.

So what we have here are striking images of horror in El Salvador, a haunting time that those who survived carry with them forever. From "Life Mourns"

Parents, you carry your children's coffins well…
Children, you gather the bones of your parents quickly…
Husband, body parts hang in trees…

Or this about collecting bones in the poem "El Mozote"

I could have the skull of my Mother, arm of a friend,
leg of my Father, and ribs of an unknown…

Inevitably, the survivor's way leads out of that time that place, and the poetry achieves some distance, and that perspective populates the poetic landscape with others: campesinos, el jefe, el commandante, wolf, until the last poem "Hope," which begins: Everything means something to me.

It is hard for me to feel comfortable with these poems because I do not know to whom they belong—the poet or the woman whose experience is the basis for them? Our own need to agree with the validation of the experience often overrides the sticky question: Are you trading on that experience?

The man who is helping me stock wood for the winter asks, "Have you ever written a poem from someone else's experience?" I'm fairly sure nearly all poets would answer yes. But what are the safeguards? What are the limits which, when passed, say I have traded on it?

I settle for some amalgam of the poet and her precursor, like a shattered bone is strengthened by an implant. I have a difficult time letting go the terrible past, even though the survivor and the poet urge me forward. Someone must pay. Everyone must know. Never again.

—Michael Brown

Back to top