FALL 2013: "This Metonymic Chain"
"Here lies at last and out of work,
The syllabubble wordsmith Turk"
Epitaphs for the Poets by Wesli Court (Baltimore, MD: BrickHouse Books, 2012) 86 pages, softbound. ISBN: 978-1-938144-1. $15.
Reading this collection of epitaphs by Wesli Court (the nom d'anagram of poet Lewis "Turk" Turco), one quickly realizes this memorial form is an excellent vehicle for light verse. Nothing like death to bring out the wicked wit! Court, a master wordsmith, generously provides 150 or so British and American poets (and a few lyricists), most of them dead but some still kicking, with pithy hail and farewells to inscribe upon their tombstones.
As with the clerihew or one of Bill Cole's terse verse inventions, the epitaph challenges the poet to sum up a lifetime in a handful of lines. Court offers mostly quatrains, almost universally witty/clever, with rhymes that may, from time to time, make you Nash your teeth. Working chronologically by year of birth, he begins with John Gower in the 14th century and ends with Annie Finch (b. 1956), the latter one of a number of poets who have yet to meet their maker, but who, courtesy of this courtly poet, already have a possible marker.
"Writing humorous poetry is technical work," D. Marbach has noted,* and epigraphing is no exception. The pressure's on: assuming these words will be etched in granite one day, better make each word count. Some of Court's epigraphs are more inspired than others. Indeed, at times the versifying seems perfunctory, even torturous, as he systematically, shall we say, knocks off the pantheon.
This book works best picked up from time to time—read a couple of sic transit Gloria Swansons and then go back to your business. Another way to approach the collection is to turn to one's favorite poets, as this reviewer did. How, for example, did Elizabeth Bishop fair? Well, so-so:
She did not wish upon a star,
But wrote about things as they are
Except, of course, when she would dish up
The visions of a roaming Bishop. …
While a few of the featured poets (Morton Marcus, Rhina Espaillot, Joseph Salemi) were new to this reader, most are familiar: Longfellow, Dickinson, Bogan, Booth, Olds. A few of the epigraphs would require research: "May Swenson/Sang the hen song"? Others border on the objectionable. Adrienne Rich's "lesbofeministic pitch," Court writes, "became her lifelong niche," while Leroi Jones "took a Muslim name to spite/Every goddam Southun cracka/And wound up Amiri Baraka." Cleverly composed, yes, but not very funny.
Indeed, few of these epitaphs are LOL, but more of the admire- the-wordplay sort. That said, Edwin Markham's two-liner did prompt a smile: "'Man with a Hoe,' his greatest lay,/Means something different today."
An epilogue, "The Mews of Poetry or Chasing Erato," offers epitaphs to beloved cats—Bozo, Reggie, Scooter and other feline friends get their due. "R.I.P. Crazy" is a favorite, with its touch of Edward Gorey: "Yes, he was well and truly named,/Our craziest by far./Cross-eyed and manic till one day/He ran beneath a car." Here, curt Court is at his Wesli best.
*D. Marbach, "Humor in Poetic Form," Trellis Magazine, 2007, www.trellismagazine.com/files/Trellis_Issue_2.pdf
The Cat's Raw Smell
Triage, Tam Lin Neville (Somerville, MA: Červena Barva Press, 2010), 51 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9844732-3-6. $15.
A woman on lithium sits in a psych ward under a blanket, picking polish from her nails. A man with a grocery cart of cans and bottles sings under the influence of the little beer and wine he has found still in them. A one-legged vet lights a fire after the speeches and parade. A drunken family celebrates next door. A woman throws up on the street. A drugged epileptic dozes in front of television news. Through twenty poems in the first section of this book they go on and on.
All this comes without moral condemnation or pious hope. The purpose is to depict, and it is done with powerful language: "That's the way the light enters, one inch at a time" . . . "bottles knocking as I hit the potholes" . . . "the daughter brought the broom, the mother did not move" . . . "the ground sends up the cat's raw smell—he's arched against a box" . . . "where you are now I see nothing but dust" . . . "those bloodstains on the street have already bloomed in the wombs of your daughters."
Throughout the book, the poet is "stripped of that mask, that lure—human possibility, even perfection." Beauty may come sometimes from a deranged person's hallucinations, or it may not come at all, even when ostensibly there: "Like a wave of nausea, a darkness descends, though it's springtime and the sky's pure blue."
I found the poetry in the second part of the book not as good— the nineteen poems that tend to describe the author's own experiences including her travel. These poems spoke to me in less intense language, and seem to have been written with less urgency. But still, some have power. And the author knows the value of being able to turn away from stark horror to ordinary comfort:
Though apparitions roam the streets
I keep on, thinking of my warm house, glad my future
is no longer a cloud, opaque, unreadable,
but a tangle of human affection I'm ready to lie down in.
Unguarded Crossing by Bob Brooks (Simsbury, CT: Antrim House, 2011), 82 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-936482-00-9. $17.
If a poem should make you feel something, Bob Brooks succeeds at my house. Unguarded Crossing makes me smile or laugh. Even his duller verses have humor and humanity. I can feel how they should sound with pauses and obvious line endings. "Her Body Delectable" reads like Ferlinghetti the way we read him at coffee houses in the 1960s. Brooks uses short lines, irregular spacing and evokes a sense of taste to bring out the old hippie in me.
I can't become chocolate,…
even coated with it
I'd still be me underneath…
A couple bring to mind Sharon Creech's "novels" in verse: Love That Dog and Hate That Cat. Her Newbery Medal Walk Two Moons gave no hint of Creech's delightful poetry for kids who think they hate poetry. One by Brooks is "So Many Clothes on."
…I said to my dog,
How come in the winter
I have to put so many clothes on
and you don't?
The poem is enjoyable, but its inconsistent use of initial caps and some punctuation oddities rankle the editor in me. So I make blue pencil notes in its margins.
The book cover and title could fool potential readers into anticipation of dread, wrecks, blood and gore—a long, paved road beside wooden poles and their wires leading across the railroad track. But Brooks lives part time in Stockton Springs, Maine, where real trains carry dangerous chemicals and inert, but nasty, clay to coat Mainemade paper. On his side of the Penobscot River, people ought to know locations of all railroad crossings and guard themselves appropriately. Likewise, Brooks' readers should remain guarded, for many of these poems carry loaded messages that stick beyond laughter.
Piano Notes on Pavement by Hannah Wirth (Rockland, ME: Maine Authors Publishing, 2011), 33 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1- 936447-33. $12.95.
Page 9's poem is a delightfully jaded look at history lessons and all the long-dead people dredged up for memorization by hapless students:
You talk to them
They don't talk to you
Till they are stored away
Forgotten once again.
Thankfully though, lessons are history throughout this cheerful little book starts with a celebration of a long summer holiday: No more school forever and ever—/Just a life that gets better and better.
Most poets embark on their poetic journeys with rhyming couplets, and many poets never move away from that form. Miss Wirth, however, does. She's just 13 years old and her first chapbook charms with its exuberance. The title listing runs on through odes to summer necessities such as sunscreen and sunglasses and, sometimes, pauses for an up-close look at say, a pesky fly ("Eek! It's in my food!") or flock of seagulls ("Careless silly birds").
The poetry chronicles holiday activities including ten-pin bowling and the heavy ball that, as:
It rolls with my hopes
You could hear a pin drop
Time slows slowly
There's a poem about swimming, another about biking ("as long as I keep in line / My bike slices the atmosphere") and, naturally, a piece devoted to "The Art of Eating Ice Cream."
With a wordsmith's love of language and sounds, the poet savours the fun of internal rhyme in "Lemonade Stand" ("At our stand, the lemonade is canned") and explores the power of repetition in a poem about gardening, my own favorite way to spend time not spent with words:
Watering, weeding, and whacking
Digging dirty dirt
Stomping, seeding, and sowing
Harvesting, hoeing, and hacking
There are two poems in which almost every line ends with an exclamation mark. Can that work? Yes! Look . . .
No crispy French fries!
No phone signal!
Cold grimy water!
Soggy baked beans!
Ah, what a joy it is to camp!
Hannah's experiments with form result in a trio of haiku, each dedicated to a different flower, that successfully negotiate the bipartite nature and use of metaphor that contribute to the success of these tiny poems. Here, the hydrangea:
A puffy blue cloud
Pulled from the sky and pinned
Sent by an angel
She successfully develops an extended metaphor with fresh imagery in the book's last poem in which a range of plants change their clothing to mark the end of summer and the start of the new season: "Mums transition into their fluffy mauve dresses/Grass blades jump into new bronzed pantsuits"
A great debut, and I look forward to reading the next; the same deft and light touch applied, perhaps, to pop stars, dating, and high school proms would be a treat indeed.
The Same the Whole World Over
Alter Mundus by Lucia Gazzino translated by Michael Daley (New York, NY: Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, 2013), 76 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-929355-94-5 $15.95.
Mandi! That's "hello" in Friulian, the minority dialect/language spoken in Friuli in northeast Italy where Lucia Gazzino lives, teaches and translates history and poetry. Friuli is a border region tucked away among the Alps and the Venetian plains, the Dolomites and the Adriatic beaches and thus rich in cultural contacts and conflicts throughout its history. It boasts culture and traditions of its own and a language with a long convoluted history, and has been described as a "small compendium of universe." All of this background leads to the meaning of the book's title, Alter Mundus or "Other World."
These poems were not written in Gazzino's native Friulian dialect, but in Italian and translated by poet Michael Daley with Italian on the left page, English on the right.
I found poem after poem, whether writing of love, sex, politics or social injustice, to be full of utter despair and angst. For example, from her title poem, "The Other World," the poet rails against the greed of the rich:
The other world
you don't want to see
scars your sense of the aesthetic
keeps you wide awake through the night
disparages your treasures.
It is filth, foul, sick,
and can't hide your depravity…
And from "The World's Diseased":
The world's diseased
with slick insanity:
and leave untouched
the perverse tumor.
Because the Friuli region is fairly isolated, life there is apparently quite hermetic. It seems "The Other World" is represented both linguistically (the Friulian dialect versus Italian) and socially (a "rustic life" versus outside the hermetic seal). Which to me explains the stark simplicity of the poet's poems. For the most part her words are simple, the lines spare. In "Planisphere" love has been found:
A celestial map,
One by one
I kiss sweet moles
on white skin, one by one
every heavenly star.
But then love turns into interiorized longings, fears of being alone, love that never seems to be fulfilled:
Your skin twitches
under a fingertip
surfing these waves
that come and go.
`Dormant inside you,
tucked within your scent,
shrouded in pleasure,
ticks the hour I fear
that will separate us.
And from "Looking for Goodby":
For all those times
you can't return,
I put my face
on your reflection
in the pane of time.
There is another meaning of the Friulian word "mandi." When you meet someone and say "ManDi" it also means "I put you in the hands of God." On leaving it can also mean "I let you go in the hands of God." A lovely optimistic view of life! This, and one of their lovely bottles of Friuli Pinot Grigio.
—Sheila Mullen Twyman
The Music of Recovered Life
My Funeral Gondola, by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Honolulu, Berkeley: Manoa Books, El Leon Literary Arts, 2013), 72 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0983391982. $18.
Sze-Lorrain, also a guzheng (a Chinese zither) player, makes it clear in the title poem that her funeral gondola "has nothing to do // with Liszt / with Wagner / with Tranströmer," all of whom take part in "La lugubre gondola," Liszt's work in memory Wagner and an inspiration for the poet Transtrōmer. This anti-work is one among several as Sze-Lorrain sets about composing a book that, like Ravel's "Boléro," passes references from poem to poem of composers (e.g., Bartók, Debussy, Fauré, Vivaldi), poets (e.g., Rimbaud, Dickinson), and Chinese traditions like the moon and ghost festivals and the lighting of lanterns.
Whatever brought her to write about her death, with poems like "Notes from My Funeral" and "My Death," is not clearly evident, though we sense how close it has come—"This autumn, death gets even smaller"—as the speaker of the poem (from "Sixteen Lines, Autumn 2010," which is a prequel to the book) moves from the precision of graceful white swans and crows with their "black cries" to the ambiguity of a "long sundown" and a world no longer "black and white."
A sense of displacement runs through these poems, and not just Sze-Lorrain's look at her own death ("Tibetan / chants end a virtual / sky burial"). In "Not Thinking About the Past," which also serves as the subtitle of the final section, the four parts of the poem are of the different locations connected with the poet: NYC ("I know—this town // holds no sentiment") to Edmonton ("I live slowly here") to Singapore ("but voices stay tender in my head") to Paris ("And / you carry me, without nostalgia").
A prose poem titled "Refusing Lyricism," opens: "This sadness in me isn't mine. An earthern (sic) jar, Emily Dickinson, a bed." No sweet lyric, the poem goes on to say that it's the wait, that it's time itself, that is the sadness. What is "this wait?" The poem's ending hints at it: "My American friends write poems on war—political and spiritual. Is their imprisonment a subject, a word, or an example. I've lived through both, childless and don't need lies." This refusal to coddle is strong, and Sze-Lorrain's poems can feel like a cold, hard rain, but one scented by orchids. The language has essence ("Pain washes one or two moons down my back"—from "Now, Meditate").
Prose poems and list poems of prose sentences dominate the volume, with the latter used in the last poem, "Return to Self," which enumerates (in no particular order, the poet tells us in the epigraph) release and acceptance: "The whiteness of this page can't appease my hurt," and "Some of my friends write from a prison in their minds. I am happy and complete sentences. They ask me why."
Sze-Lorrain's My Funeral Gondola is like Liszt's plaintive melody: "This is a low-key departure. Observe the rites, but don't mourn. By tints and degrees, consider this death a ghost poem."
—Ellen Jane Powers
Death, Tradition, and Joy
Sanctuary by Patricia Monaghan (Cliffs of Moher, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2013), 88 Pages. ISBN: 978-1-908836-51-9. €12.
Patricia Monaghan, poet, activist, and scholar of women's spirituality, passed away in November of 2012 after living for two years with cancer. Sanctuary, published posthumously, brings together poems from two places dear to her: the West of Ireland and the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. In plain language and direct diction that zeroes in on shared human aspiration and experience, her poems take the reader deeply into places and traditions on both continents.
In the opening poem, the familiar Keatsian desire to freeze the moment before consummation seems to track with the process of observing place:
I want to be walking forever, always on the way
. . .
always to have one foot lifted into the next step,
This spare diction is typical of the collection, and on first reading, I found Monaghan's reliance on monosyllables a little tedious. Subsequent readings have convinced me to appreciate the simplicity as emblematic of her themes. In poem after poem, spiritual truths are revealed as simple truths, the a-ha moments revealed as the moment of recognition when we say "Of course!"
Monosyllables take on resonance in "Things Worth Praising," which runs through a list of prosaic objects from a landscape, and then Blood. Flesh. Bones. Hearts. Breath. On first reading this line, I thought "Breath—hasn't she already mentioned that?" But no—it was the confluence of the sounds in "blood" and "flesh" that made me think so, a confluence and confusion leading effortlessly into the final line of the poem, "Everything that connects and is connected. Everything."
Some of the wisdom offered by the poems may seem self-evident or superficial, like "gardening is hope in action. So I dig." Monaghan is no stranger to the greater complexities of paradox, though. From "Grace at Table," set during a meal of lamb and fish:
We break bread together and eat the season:
Death sits at our table. We are filled with unspeakable joy.
While embracing paradox, the book also makes room for elegies for a passing tradition or a lost wisdom. Grounded in Wisconsin as well as Ireland, Monaghan spends some time exploring spiritual traditions in both places, sometimes drawing parallels between pre-Christian Native American traditions and pre-Christian Celtic traditions. In "Forgetting Gobnait," she imagines a transcultural pantheon of forgotten goddesses. She doesn't appropriate Native American traditions as her own, but writes about traditions and divinities as still inhabiting the land.
In "Connemara Autumn," she writes:
. . . Minute
by minute, mystery removes itself from us.
Without knowledge of the traditions rooted in our places, she wonders, how do we honor earth's "specific endless beauty?" In poem after poem, she observes or hints that gratitude toward the earth forms the bedrock of all faith. Sanctuary offers that wisdom to the reader willing to spend time with its poems:
(Let us pray: for a time when we recall
the basis of wisdom in the earth.)
Boy Singing to Cattle by Mark D. Hart (Long Beach, CA: Pearl Editions, 2013), 81 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-888219-41-8. $14.95.
Clearly his father meant much to him. Most of the first eighteen pages of this book tell how he grew vegetables along with wheat on his farm, blasted thieving magpies with a shotgun, taught his son the ethics of drinking, a tractor accident nearly split him, how he will put in his father's grave what will make him comfortable, and how he wants to bury his father, not as a fixed stone, but as a vibrant being whose decomposing body supports other life. Then in "the Vanishing Point" about seeing his father for the last time in a nursing home, the boy suddenly blurts out—"I feel a lifetime of wishing you would reach for me."
Where did that self-revelation come from? In the poem, it ends section II; another hint comes at the end of section III when his father says, "Mark'll make a good wife someday." Mark wonders, "Were you ashamed of me?" At the end of section IV, Mark says—
I love you, Dad
and say I love you too.
The son asks himself, "Had you / come from your own vanishing / to reach for me?"
Did the father, who made the boy feel unworthy, unmanly, inadequate, come out of his shell to say he loved the son?
In one of two other poems referring to his father, Mark says,
Your gaze fixes me in time and space
sees me as deficient—too sensitive,
awkward with tools, afraid of you
Angry? In the other he writes of himself,
unathletic, quick to tears,
girled on the schoolyard, teased
for a temper I could not contain,
and sees a father's "red faced at his awkward son / and the bruises and welts of words" But this is all he says about being angry, and one of these poems ends not angrily but calmly: "particles out of phase / we perturb each other."
I would like to know more of this son's relation to his father. But the rest of the poems in the book are about the farm and other things. Not that the poems are bad—they say things well, they even have eloquence; they are clever. One about apples is descriptively good; so is one about "Pissing Under Pressure." Most of them seem gently wrapped, nice, often eloquent. But they hide real emotion in "poetic" feeling. Like the poems about his father, real feeling breaks out briefly.