FALL 2012: "Hung Them Gently, Neatly"
In Cold Blood
Blood Red Dawn by Jon Shutt ( Crawfordville, FL: Kitsune Books, 2012) 109 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9827409-9-6. $12.00
Jon Shutt, a foot soldier, joins that long list of poets like Wilfred Owen in World War I, Louis Simpson in World War II, and Yusef Komunyakaa in Viet Nam, to tells us how the average GI deals with combat experience. He writes about Iraq and Afghanistan wars going on now for more than a decade, and is up front with the kind of sacrifices soldiers of these wars face: sudden death, separation from home and loved ones, guilt for killing, survivor guilt, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How he steels himself for the terrible acts of war he recalls in "Cast Iron Heart":
I've replaced the arteries
and the veins
with iron conduit.
Allowing my blood
to flow without feeling
(Such grammar dots this book.) And here's how the soldier comes to this psychological defense:
…from the sharp crack of haunting explosions.
You suddenly take death seriously
Training sessions help too. In "Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)" Shutt reports:
Take a look at these videos:
Humvee's blow to pieces…
Bodies fly —
The effect of this Shutt describes in an ode to a bullet:
With this bullet –
I could shatter lives.
I could take my own.
Brains splattered behind
my crumbling corpse.
This is tough, even gross, but believable talk he must sanitize and keep from the folks back home to the point of not telling them he is out on missions so they won't worry. And Shutt goes so far as to report the soldier's response to the enemy soldier's death and his near death experiences as "Laughing" in at least one case:
Amped up and screaming, everyone is reveling in
the thrill of life.
In the thrill of having cheated death – Again.
These close calls build confidence in the soldier extending toward a "superman" feeling. But how can a soldier justifiably delight in the death of an enemy? It can be argued that we humans may have evolved through more than a million year history of waging war with groups outside our own tribes. Primatologist John Mitani describes the battle techniques of our closest genetic relatives in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees. Biologist Jane Goodall has documented deadly raids between opposing groups of chimpanzees. War is, unfortunately, quite natural for us. It's in our genes, as is the soldier's reaction, well stated by Clint Eastwood with "Go ahead, make my day!"
Shutt graphically describes a soldier killing an enemy and witnessing this haunting image in this telescopic gun sight:
A pink mist erupts
before a gingered sunset
Showering the horizon.
If we didn't know the horror these lines actually described we could delight in their lyricism, rising to the level of Yusef Komunyakaa's witness to the death of an enemy soldier on a battle field in Viet Nam in his poem "We Never Know":
He danced with the tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
When we got to him, a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him.
The soldier experiencing the suspension of civil behavior and the manic/depressive experiences of war, finds he or she has difficulty returning to the safe routine of normal life in the U.S.A. and has to learn how to tolerate normality. Fortunately, the soldier's work is not always so brutal. The present wars are relatively low scale and politically charged. There are humanitarian services to perform:
In the span of an hour
we had laid down
a generator and a
Soon they would have
more than lights.
But the media reporting on the work of the solder ignores this:
They won't tell you about
any sort of happiness in Iraq
because the statistics and ratings
say you don't want to hear it.
In a third world country like Afghanistan the soldier is shocked that village people don't have the accouterments of modern society: electricity, air conditioning, cars, abundant food. Soldiers on humanitarian missions are strangers. We hear stories of Afghan soldiers, working with the western soldiers, who turn on them and shoot them. It is easy to form a distorted negative view. Shutt captures this dilemma in "The "Medic, the Wolves and the Hero" in which an Afghan medic reports an enemy, but because he cried wolf before he is ignored. However in this case the cry was real and the Afghan fought off the enemy heroically, taking injuries in the process. These are the kinds of balancing stories that get short shrift in the media.
John Shutt is not a reluctant draftee complaining about a situation he was forced into. He served 10 years on multiple deployments: a volunteer, a professional. There are many dangerous jobs stateside farming in which workers are injured or killed: mining, building construction, truck driving. Military recruiters allay the fears of candidates by reminding them that more people their age die in motor vehicle accidents than in the recent wars in the Middle East. The crucial difference is that the soldier's job is to kill other human beings as innocent as they are themselves, and potentially violate basic moral law. So the injuries to the soldier extend beyond broken limbs and damaged brains, which in Shutt's case was PTSD.
Among the worst outcomes of this disease is suicide. There has been a dramatic increase of this act of desperation in the Army during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, increasing by 300 percent from the relative peace time of 2001 to 2011, as reported in our local newspaper. Army culture, however unintentionally, discourages a soldier from seeking treatment for PTSD, including Shutt who
said in the first poem in his book:
They say I should seek therapy ─
Well here it is.
I'll put it down on paper myself
And skip the middle man.
I can formulate my own diagnosis─
I'll prescribe my own treatment ─
We hope this worked for him and advise him to seek professional help to make sure it did. These lines, as poetry, could benefit from compaction. But Shutt's voice is that of an ordinary soldier, heroic, as volunteer soldiers are, putting themselves in harm's way for their nation. As a poet bravely coming out with his message, he can reach the stylistic level of Komunyakaa, and has talent and youth to learn more from him. I look forward to his next book.
Dancing Bear and other new poems by Diane H. Schetky (Xlibris, 2012) 71 pages; paper. ISBN: 978-1-4691-6152-5. price not listed.
I was attracted to Diane Schetky's book after reading biographical notes including her retirement from a career in forensic psychiatry and where she spends her time.
Her life in Maine with summers on Prince Edward Island would seem to lay the foundation for my kind of poetry. When I read poems about familiar places, I ask first if it shows me something I did not notice before. The poem also succeeds if it evokes a friendly sense of place. Or the poem could tell a story graced with metaphor and poetic structure.
A few of Schetky's poems come close to excellence but tend to read more like forensic reports or scientific reports with line breaks added for appearance. Although much of our current perception of the discipline of forensics is tied to crimes investigation, ever the debater, I tie forensics to posing theories for argument.
The Dancing Bear poems do present multiple angles for looking at Schetky's subjects. Several of her descriptions of great blue herons are mildly melodic and enticing. But when she slips into anthropomorphizing—assigning human attributes to the non-human world—she turns me away.
The second stanza of her poem "What I Stand to Learn from the Great Blue Heron" features this picture of the bird: "His plume blows in the westerly wind / like an old man's beard…"
In a more active section:
His reflection wobbles,
silver booty rises in his bill
then slithers down his slippery gullet.
But she also makes the bird into "a Buddhist at heart," which limits my appreciation of her ability to watch and record.
Nothing in the book is intensely trite, but her metaphors and poems lack intensity in general. Couldn't she find words more creative than "thrum," "preening" and "furled"? Though those are considered appropriate poetic vocabulary to describe "Morning in Maine," they seem dull for a poem reportedly written "Aboard the S.V. Stephen Tabor."
I went back to some of Mary Oliver's older poems for reminders of what a poem could do with a few short lines on simple observations. The comparison may be unfair, but it re-educated me.
Others in my house really liked Schetky's poems that focus on PEI. So we should encourage her to continue to observe, write and rewrite.
I take from her work inspiration to revise and revise again my own poems with similar themes lest I slide down the gullet of the too familiar.
The book is attractive and the poems well-presented. According to Wikipedia and several on-line reviewers, the printer, Xlibris, is an "on-demand" company that describes itself as a non-selective service with the author being the publisher.
"A Great No Coming"
The Right No poems by William Hathaway (Shepherd stown, W.Va.: Somondoco Press, 2012), 103 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9853898-0-2. $15.
Poets, take off your fragile masks, put away the lacquer you use to overlay life, and follow me into this cornucopia of vivid negativity. This book refuses to gild lilies, pretend to profundity, or accept comfort. It protests all banal sentiment—what the poet calls "happy horseshit." First, you will find unexpected descriptions of beloved poetic subjects: "the clammy moon," a "sunsetbloodied bay," the "yellow smear of primroses," and "sullen snow." You will see fishers savage porcupines, hawk mates fight each other, a "pewter-black mouse" feast "on smashed frog guts," and other kinds of "insensate malice out there."
You will cringe as this poet underscores his vision with syntactical roughness, "thinking unordered thoughts," obscuring pronoun references, and employing run-on sentences, double negatives, and annoying word repetitions:
meaning any meaning we
might mean it to mean.
In each poem he becomes a kind of wind-up curmudgeon, setting himself off through twists and turns of observation about unexpected subjects until eventually he feels "like a worn-out second-hand machine hissing down at the end of a mindless cycle."
You will feel how he fulminates against "the rich" as "an ever-recurring curse," disdains "summer people" who "come in "bright clothes bringing money," and scorns "do-gooders" who drive "capacious cars" to "feel safe from everyone else." He resents the "poets of prizes and laurels" who "get paid to prate to school kids." He quotes famous poets in mocking contexts, calling Dante "Beatrice's to hell- and-back-ghoully stalker." He thinks little of humanity in general: even if immortal, men would "stay as scared and mean as they've always been."
You will wonder as he challenges poetry itself for metaphoric pettifoggery and "that mellow woebegone way poetry now sings without singing." On the edge of a metaphor about birds, he catches himself: "No. Crows are crows." About to call a brightly colored snake "a primeval goddess," he stops again: "Why dull the sudden thrill of this ancient animal with a precious poetic murmur?" His own "little poems," he says, "give nothing back or make any difference at all . . . they don't seem to rhyme or help people feel good about themselves."
You also will ponder the ambiguity of his religious references. He feels "sure there's an answer I'll never know," loves Jesus, and expresses "gratitude to God for giving me this terrifying life." Nonetheless he finds life "precisely of no purpose" and suspects "we're just nothing in death." He seems to defend the "sincere confusion" of "honest doubt," offering only "my gentle message of unequivocal ambiguity."
Why would anyone read such poetry? Because it describes magnificently the horrors of the way things are. Because it stands free of pussyfooting epiphanies and emotional enervation. And because it recoils from resolution. In this book's first poem the author declares, "For a long time within me a Great No has been coming . . . ." You are not alone, Mr. Hathaway.
Playing with a Net
Passing through the Woods by David Gwilym Anthony (Leicestershire, UK: Troubador Publishing Ltd, 2012), 90 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1780882741. $15.95.
David Gwilym Anthony tells us "I'm drawn to the creative tension between form and content so mostly write in rhyme and metre." This collection is full of traditional forms with contemporary sensibilities. The poems are divided into six named sections. Many are actually from previously published books along with some new ones. However, the named sections give no indication as to which poems appeared in which earlier volumes, nor which poems are the new ones. We are told, though, in the Foreword, that this book contains Anthony's "most memorable poems from his previous books."
The use of metrical form purposely restricts the movement of content, and when done well, will make unexpected movement in the sense. An unfair comparison for any poet writing villanelles is to think of Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"and Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," both of which exemplify how to move the sense forward in unexpected ways. A result for the reader is that the form feels natural: form follows function.
Robert Bridges (former British Poet Laureate, 1914- 1930) introduced the medieval French form, the triolet, into modern English. The form emphasizes repetition and two rhymes in a stanza of eight lines. Like the villanelle, also a French form, the mastery is in the progress of the refrain. Anthony's volume opens with a triolet, which is also the title poem, "Passing through the Woods." A change is achieved by the shifting of periods, allowing two adjacent words to serve two different sentences as the poem moves ever so slightly toward its lonely end:
It's hard to see my way because
the leaves have fallen. Now
they're drifting where a path once was —
… It's hard to see my way because
the leaves have fallen now.
Anthony has several triolets in this volume. Each one's refrain is like a shifting echo, and many throb like heartache—a friend's funeral, the memory of a deceased mother, 9/11's Flight 93.
Some subject matter, constrained by form, may not produce a new result for the reader. Reading about the death of child or suicide, can give any reader pause before proceeding. In "On the Suicide of a Friend," the narrator is remembering the comments of neighbors, who were "quick to judge," seeing "the coward's selfish way" while the narrator claims to have seen the despair, though questions what the desperation could have been.
The narrator goes on to acknowledge the "you" was not selfish, and even identifies with the internal "darkness." Yet, the poem ends in judgment, just as it began, but it's the narrator doing the judging: "you failed," though saving the mediation on this loss by way of God, who "will grant you rest" and the narrator: "we all [fail], but you did your best."
There are surprising hymn structures with weathervanes ("English Weathercock") and the seasons ("Older the Worse"), and artful sonnets, where the form serves the narrative well. In "Talking to Lord Newborough," the sonnet's turning point occurs in the 9th line, as expected in a Petrarchan sonnet. It shifts from narrator remembering the times, as a young boy, visiting the grave of the 4th Lord Newborough, to "These days the past is nearer, so I came / to our remembered refuge on the hill."
Another Italian sonnet, "Bloodlines," in which the narrator turns the depiction of his Celtic ancestors by unnamed others as "worthless" to proclaiming that "their mysteries live on," such as in Stonehenge. Then he challenges the critics to think on how the ancestors would judge our modern life: "awed by all our gains—/ or stricken, seeing everything we've lost?"
The emotional tenure of the volume is mostly reverent but also playful. There's a sonnet, "Gatekeepers," that depicts someone refusing entry to Heaven because dogs aren't allowed, and a tercet ("Walking the Dog") turning an observation on the lameness of a dog into a self-deprecating joke on the dog walker narrator. The winner, though, is the sonnet "Slush Pile," literally having won a sonnet competition despite the judge's initial intent to "exclude any poem about poetry from the finalists."
The villanelle "I Thought You Were a Friend" just doesn't seem to go anywhere in its use of its refrains: "I knew you well and thought you were a friend," and "Is this the proper way for it to end." The poem leaves one wondering what the failure was that caused the split in friendship, such that the narrator received no "goodbye"and claims "I would have stood beside you to defend / against the fear." But perhaps this is one of those insider poems, where the person represented by the initialed dedication would get the meaning. But that's just it with sense, isn't it—the reader's (or critic's) moral and aesthetic attitudes are brought to bear on the poem's content, and we are moved accordingly. David Anthony's language is simple and direct, and the ease with which the words flow through each form is evident throughout this slim collection. He makes good use of the vehicle of traditional form to say something about the human condition, even if that condition is a mirrored view of the poet's own sensibilities.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Glamor and Disillusion
American Rhapsody by Carole Stone (Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry Press, 2012), 72 pages, softbound. ISBN 978-1-933880-28-0. $16
In her third collection of poems, Carole Stone blends personal history with bits and pieces of vintage materials related to the heyday of New Jersey gin-running and gangsters, the Jazz Age, Prohibition and after. The 48 poems represent an American rhapsody, but a rather dispirited one—a rhapsody in blue, considering the often disheartening pictures the poet paints of the era.
America's fascination with Prohibition is constant: the television show "Boardwalk Empire" is just the latest in a line of recreations of a time of glamour and disillusion. Stone adds her own family narrative to that history as she seeks to make sense of her parents' high-living existence— chauffeurs, trips to Europe—that ended in their untimely deaths. The poems read like a memoir—and one wonders if prose might have worked better as a vehicle for portraying this particular past.
Many poems feature epigraphs and make use of period materials. In this regard, the verse brings to mind John Dos Passos's U.S.A. in its use of fragments of song lyrics and newspaper clips (notes in the back provide helpful background). Stone relies so much on snippets of historical materials that her voice frequently seems secondary to the archival elements and the mise-en-scene. The poem "Marathon Dancing," for instance, reads like a plot summary for They Shoot Horses, Don't They while "FDR" is a period piece, the president portrayed as missing father.
The endings are sometimes melodramatic: "Miles away, the windshield splintered, / the radio stopped like his heart." The final stanza of "History" reads like an op-ed:
My dream of America
where no one would be poor
slipping away into history.
Here and there a bit of the contemporary world turns up— Kenneth Lay of Enron fame, the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska—to provide a kind of complement or foil to earlier times.
In some ways, the whole of this book is greater than its parts. While certain poems work on their own—"Incantation," "So I've Been Told," "Goodbye, Kate Smith," "Beauty Parlor"—the book is more or less a sequence in which the poems form an interwoven tale of a broken family and lost decades.
The past wears away
until nothing is left
reads the end of "The Past." While Stone's tales of eras long gone and now painfully resurrected intrigue and, to a certain extent, entertain, they could have used more tension and revelation—and more of that self.