"Mouth Full of Hornets"
Beyond the Commonplace
Only this Room by Kerry Hardie (Oldcastle, Ireland: Gallery Press, 2009), 62 pages, paper. ISBN 978 1 85235 480 0. $22.72 from Amazon.
How does a good poet do it?
Take Kerry Hardie, a prominent Irish poet who, with her husband, the writer Seán Hardie, lives in County Kilkenny. She has published at least five books of poetry and two novels, won major Irish prizes, and been elected to a prestigious Irish cultural society. Her latest book, which I bought after hearing her read from it at a recent arts festival, contains short lyrics of subtle beauty that certainly sustain her reputation.
Part of the attractiveness of her poetry is the music in it, achieved through rhythms and echoes of sounds. She writes in free verse, but with assonance, alliteration, off-rhyme, and, sometimes, temporarily regular meters. Anapestic and iambic lines may pop up in the middle of a poem but she won't let them dominate.
Her achievement comes also from effective description. She finds images, similes, and metaphors that are apt and telling, as in this description of German expressionist painting—"black Weimar glitter"—and in her depiction of this mundane scene:
A lame bike is clamped
to a chain's looping sag
like an old dog nobody wants.
Still another attribute is Hardie's ability to express much in a short space. Her book's final poem, "Thirty Years," encapsulates a long relationship in just five lines:
These days there is only a silence between us.
All the shoving and pushing, the sound and the fury,
have stilled. I wake in your arms with the silence.
We lie there inside it, not sleeping, not speaking.
Outside, a racket of birdsong, vibrating the air.
The "racket of birdsong" outside only heightens the metaphoric silence that encapsulates the couple within, while also, like a choral commentary, it exalts the joy of mating.
That attempt at elucidation is about as close as this poet lets one get to a paraphrase of one of her poems—another impressive characteristic. Her endings often come with a jolt as one finds oneself confronted with something compelling but unexpected, unfamiliar, difficult to explain. Take for example the poem that opens with a description of the "swagger and strut" of those familiar poetic subjects, seagulls, and then ends with this:
I love their cold eyes
and their harsh, headstrong ways.
They call out to something inside me
that is empty and fearless and fierce.
"Empty" is the jolting word; it speaks of more than a physical hunger. Combined with "fearless and fierce," it becomes unsettling, making one wonder anew about the "cold eyes" and "harsh, headstrong ways." What is this force that she finds herself sharing with the gulls?
In other poems as well, Kerry Hardie succeeds most of all because, with skill and feeling, she creates experiences beyond the commonplace, outside the ruts of ordinary expectation and accustomed understanding.
The Joy of Farming
Red Hen's Daughters by Patricia Jean Lapidus, 34 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1442172920. Amazon $12.00
Red Hen's Daughters has on its cover the photograph of an enormous green tomato—too big to fit into the hands of the child holding the fruit as it clings to its plant. Surely the best kind of advertisement for the joys of the farming, gardening life, a life in which
…farm childhood is good. Crows
caw from the long line of tall pines at Penley's pasture,
frogs splash in the bulldozed pond, fireflies enchant
at dusk, and creamy peony petals are new as our
… hope-laden cheeks
But this poetry is not all about idyll. Lapidus shows the family side of living off the American earth during and after World War II. Farmers stayed home, plowed the land and helped feed the nation, did not volunteer as soldiers:
When other men found
French soil a good place to die (to die,
that is, a meaningful death)
or win the red badge of courage,
a noble injury, Dad was barred.
I loved the word play Lapidus uses to generate an "Old MacDonald had a Farm" mood in the prose poem describing the day a little girl was minded by her Uncle Granville while her mother gave birth to a baby brother, "helping me forget a little the drought I was in."
…He carried a pail of mash into the top pen,
wooden door thucking behind us with the sproing of
the spring, chickens rushing up buk buk buk. An-
other pail into the bottom pen with its door around
back, sproing thuck buk buk buk…
"Swive" acknowledges the Lithuanians, Germans, French, Nordics and Anglo-Saxons who form a significant sector of the US farming community. Here the poet uses language and sound (swifan/swivel …geswogen/swoon … sweip/swing) to evoke a riotous folk-dance celebration:
Where men hoveren, women whisperen,
whoopen, and sichen ahhhhh!
Swifan, geswogen, sweep, and gremb-.
Poems about grandparents, aunts and feuding siblings prove the adage of blood being thicker than water, for even Edward who hates his brother…
…would side with Tim
against the neighbors, and would defend
Tim Junior, even after the kid stole
three gallons of hard cider off his back porch
and wrecked his, Edward's motorcycle.
Kid was family, wasn't he?
But mostly, while the collection writes the endless work, work, work of a farmer's life, "In the Lap of the Forest" imagines a restful life, incarnated as a skunk, basking in the sun after a morning of feasting on grubs and mushrooms and partridge eggs and answering her mother skunk:
Mother, shouldn't we be busy?
Don't we have floors to sweep?
Pipes to run from the brook
so we can scrub down our log?
She will say, Daughter, the forest
is self cleaning…
Let's Imagine Fifteen Sunflowers
Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. (Grosse Point Farms, MI: Marick Press), 78 pp. Softbound. ISBN 978-1-934851-12-8. $14.95
In her debut collection of poems, Fiona Sze-Lorrain draws on a range of cultural materials to shape her verse, which is mostly free, although at times quite formal. The book's three sections offer, respectively, vignettes related to family dynamics (including Mao and Chinese heritage); life in Paris; and tributes to authors and artists that include a few ekphrastic exercises, including a riff on a Man Ray photograph.
Among the most remarkable poems, "The Unrecorded Days" is a richly conceived (pun intended) vision of a child in utero, before, during and after birth. Sze-Lorrain recounts the nifty manner of delivery:
Because you did not
cry like an alarm, eyes warped on you like
dealers scrutinising Beauty during a vernissage.
The Parisian poems include celebrations of the gustatory pleasures. "L'Assiette des Trois Amis" describes a classic French dish that features foie gras. The poem pays tribute to Monsieur Boetsch and his presentation skills. "Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne," "Privileged," "Eating Grilled Langoustines," and "Snapshots from a Siamese Banquet" are all memorable repasts of words.
Edith Piaf, Dora Maar, Gertrude Stein, Chopin, Paul Celan, and Samuel Beckett are among the agents of inspiration in the final section of the book. "Van Gogh Is Smiling" is especially fine, six of its seven four-line stanzas beginning with "Let's": "Let's imagine fifteen sunflowers," "Let's admit you fascinate doctors," etc.
Sze-Lorrain displays certain tics that can please or annoy depending on context and finesse. She sometimes overuses italics for emphasis. She can be creative with her verbs:
When the envelope arrived with a shriveled
brown shroud, it confessed
a vulnerable hand.
The poem from which the book gets its title, "My Grandmother Waters the Moon," is a series of honed two-line stanzas with some nice turns: "War strategy?" asks the poet near mid-way, contemplating the making of bean paste moons.
Sometimes the personal obscures meaning, but re-reading often clears up those opaque spots, or else you accept the mystery, which is part of this poet's sophisticated and sometimes clever sensibility. And then there are spot-on poems like "A Course in Subtlety," which starts out with a bit of explication—of the meaning of the French word vérité—and ends with a mother pulling the silent treatment on a new son-in-law.
Singapore-born Sze-Lorrain maintains a busy life in the arts. She performs around the world on the zheng, an ancient Chinese harp; is an editor and founder of Cerise Press, an international online journal; co-directs Vif Editions, an independent publishing house in Paris; and is co-author of Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (Gao won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature). We are lucky she has found time for poetry.
A Toadlily Quartet
By Way Of, poems by Matthew Nienow, Emily Carr, Diana Woodcock, and Diana Alvarez. Foreword by Sean Nevin. (Chappaqua, NY: Toadlily Press, 2009). 69 pages, paper. ISBN 978-0-9766405-4-7. $15.00
The Toadlily Press "Quartet Series" features four poets in each book. This attractive volume contains a foreword describing the poets. "Matthew Nienow's poems are at once sideways, delayed and ironic"; "Emily Carr's poetry is of a heightening sense of love's body"; Diana Woocock's work "grows ghostly and marginal"; and in the poems of Diana Alvarez, "life depends upon a noun, a verb, a consonant." Such pretentious gibberish helps neither the reader nor the poets, who deserve better.
Matthew Nienow writes about an array of subjects such as parents, birds, blackberries, autumn, and "how to tie a noose." He achieves some striking lines, describing his mountain-climbing father, for example, as "knowing how it felt to be / as high as the ground could take him." But overall in his poems, I often fail to grasp what may be going on beyond the exercise of descriptive cleverness, and some unaffecting endings:
I'm interested to know what happens
When earth is burning and we can't see beyond the smoke.
I think we know what happens.
Emily Carr has a larger vision. Her poems are like spatter paintings intended to illustrate what she describes as "truth's immense disorder." She distributes her lines, eschews capital letters, and delights in ampersands, slashes, inverted brackets, dashes, colons, parentheses, wordplay, and juxtapositions of unexpected images. These lines could be self-descriptive:
she stands there letting the words
fall over her, splash—
She is more, however, than an imitator of e. e. cummings and W. C. Williams; she creates (or concocts!) mélanges (or melees!) in which the wondering reader begins to think that the images may be connected after all. These poems are lively, vigorous, even fun.
We enter a quieter realm with Diana Woodcock. She is a refreshingly modest grown-up, writing in clear, lovely language about people and experiences that matter to her. Her subjects come from years of living in Asia, and what she has absorbed from Asian poetry is evident in such lines as these:
The withes of river willows waver
between yellow and green. I offer one
to the skein of parting geese passing over.
Diana Alvarez presents a radically different kind of exoticism. Born, "the first time," as she says of herself, in Corpus Christi, Texas, she writes of "love bombs," anacondas, spirits, refried beans, and much else in a dark mix that discards conventions of typography and punctuation to the point of sometimes becoming concrete poetry. Included are poems that feel like chants. One such ends a series of lines beginning "I am not" with the following:
I am not your rebel, wizard, siren
not your troubadour, not your luck.
I am not kind.
One is not expected to "like" this poetry. But the feel of it is worth experiencing.
Young Voices: An Anthology of Poetry by Nassau County Students, presented by Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr., Nassau County Poet Laureate, edited by Judy Turek (Selden, NY: Allbook, 2009), 191 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9818661-3-0. $10.00
This is a collection by students ranging from Grade 12 to kindergarten and selected from entries to a county-wide schools poetry contest. I was struck immediately by the exuberance with which poems sprawl over its pages. Many, center-aligned, use repetition. In "She Walks," by Sara Pepkin, the title phrase appears at the end of each of the five stanzas as a means of building the poem's climax.
Even though she knows
she's got nowhere to go,
but she doesn't care and
Christina Pi creates her three-part poem, "Nature's Sorrows," wherein the first two, left-aligned stanzas introduce a petulant child who "Show[s] his anger and happiness / With the crashing waves or calming ripples." Then, in a centered stanza, a young maiden distraught, "As she finds out joy will only last for a moment. / She dances in anguish, her arms swirling around her." And last, in three right-aligned stanzas, there is an old spirit who, whilehis tears, his leaves, slowly trickle down.
…ponders when will it finally end
As he watches life's never ending cycle.
The collection includes an acrostic, a limerick, haiku and some clever, carefully thought-out, concrete poems: Prager's untitled piece about an elusive, shadowy, "Nobody," the invisible yet ever-present "daemon of my mind" is laid spookily out on the page in the very recognisable form of a human being; Sarah Taormino's wittily titled "Ourglass;" William Vandewater writes about his cat, Oreo, who by day is out and about getting up to all kinds of greedy and busy mischief but at night returns home to reappear
These young poets also had great fun with rhyme and rhythm, as in 4th Grader Paul Schell's "The Lizard."
The lizard is a timid thing
That cannot dance or fly or sing;
He hunts for bugs beneath the floor
And longs to be a dinosaur
The students of Nassau County proved themselves more than capable of addressing serious matters in poetry, too, as evidenced by 5th Grader Courtney Capobianco. Below is the middle third of her poem which uses repetitions of "crashing" and "flowers" in the preceding and following sections respectively.
I said don't go
My heart was beating as fast as a cheetah
Next morning he's dead
Tears coming out like waterfalls
I go to my nana's house every September 11
Landscapes of Longing by Bruce Lader (Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2009), 67 pages. Paper. ISBN 13: 978-1-59948-203-3 $12.
Bruce Lader has published in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, New York Quarterly, The Humanist, International Poetry Review, Harpur Palate, New Millennium Writings, Margie, Poet Lore, and Asheville Poetry Review. Of those, only the second-mentioned is acknowledged in this volume. Second books are notoriously difficult achievements. His first was a finalist in a competition; his next is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press.
Certainly, as the academics might say, the poet does not lack for ambition. The title poem of the second of three sections, "Interviews Following the Sentence of Sisyphus," is followed by a dozen poems from ancient Greek deities, demi-gods, and prominent humans. Each begins with a question which quick-starts a poem of 13-21 lines, some of which are tightly formed, closely reasoned. Mostly they are resolved in commonplaces, as in "Cassandra."
Even complaining cynics and the devious
rhetoric of Sophists couldn't outweigh
solid evidence, proper morals.
The final section, "Vicissitudes of Romance," follows the rise and fall of a relationship, with "Gravity" the rainbow's apex.
Wordlessness betrays them
at the apogee of centrifugal flight,
as they ransom the desperate
anodyne of sex.
Lader is a New York city teacher and founder of Bridges Tutoring. The book's title section, the fruit of his experience, lacks the separation of personae the poems indicate. Trading on the experience of others is always risky business, falling short on one side or investing too much of oneself on the other. Here, diction betrays Lader's view from inside the personae he attempts to depict, trading off others' experience in unconvincingly wordy lines.
…but find myself more alone than the Gulf War veteran
wearing camouflage fatigues in the desert.
The few good poems come closest to Lader's own experience: "Breaks," about a one-off game of pool with his father; and "Quandary," about his son's school fight. The curse of Billy Collins, represented in the Notes, exposes the flaws: an imaginary "Letter to William Stafford" that was never sent. "Jazz Funeral" paraphrases quotes by Louis Armstrong. Ultimately, the wordy weaknesses found in many "of" phrases undermine a rise to metaphor and subvert the poetic urge.