FALL 2014: "Charged With Anticipation"
The Best Funny Poems Make You Cry
Walking in on People by Melissa Balmain (San Jose: Able Muse, 2013). Paper, 80 pages. ISBN: 978-1-927409-29-9. $18.95
Well-done humorous poetry contains an underlying note of pathos, insight, or fear that echoes after the poem is done, and In Walking in on People, Melissa Balmain hits that note with craft, imaginative word choice, and the ability to find humor and wisdom in the most ordinary situations and objects.
Balmain's forms prime the ear to expect something lighthearted. In "Shopper's Life List," she uses the ballad stanza, wraps the lines to look like a shopping list, and leads us lightly right into the grave.
In "Thoughts During a Quiet Car Ride," using the meter of a limerick, she decries the fact that she and her husband don't have much to talk about these days. Her reason makes us cringe in recognition:
So we're left to just sit, yawn and sigh, hum a tune,
like the bulk of paired women and men.
But don't worry: senility's bound to hit soon,
Then we'll say it all over again.
In "Hard-shelled," Balmain has fun with clever rhymes and comparisons:
A noble urge to liberate the lobsters
came over me in Wal-Mart yesterday.
Like stoolies left for dead by Jersey mobsters,
they lay, bound up, inside their little bay.
The last couplet, "One lobster waved a feeler—I ignored it/I'll be a hero when I can afford it."
Balmain also handles serious poetry well. In "Two Julys," a poem about a child at seven months and then at seven years, iambic pentameter create a calmer mood, and the rhymes link the lines together without chiming:
Now as the insects loop-the-loop and blink,
you race with friends, too far away for me
to see the game or know if you're unharmed.
Some bugs, though, separated, fire in sync—
like us, I tell myself, like family.
I wait beside the cornfield, empty-armed.
This book is a rare find in today's poetry world. It will make you laugh and cry, and then laugh again.
Alternative Medicine by Rafael Campo (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2014), paper, 90 pages. ISBN: 978-082235-587-8. $10.00
The ancient Greek belief held that Apollo was the god of both healing and poetry/ It continues today with the Institute for Poetic Medicine having the goal of "opening the creative voice in the human spirit" by encouraging the use of word play, the search for roots, and the reading and writing of prayer poems for health care. Harvard Medical School Professor Campo's book is an excellent guide to these goals. He recognizes that the attitude that all our ailments can cured by popping a pill needs to be moderated by one realizing that scientific medicine has consequences, sometimes unintended and negative. In his title poem he writes:
I wish all medicines came from the earth
and not some toxic lab where they kill rats
with chemicals they claim "treat" HIV.
I exercise six times a week, and pray
to my own God...
As a physician, Campo realizes that all the chemical processes in the body, indeed in a single cell, are not perfectly described, and so there is fundamental uncertainty about the efficacy of any specific medicine. Hence his holistic approach to health care drives him to recommend the ancient remedy of work by the patient and prayer. His prolific literary output, including six books of poetry, attests to his confidence of and proficiency in writing both prose and poetry. In "Why Doctors Write" he explains:
A doctor writes because he can't prevent
a heart attack, because he can't stop death
The patient is also encouraged to write, as soldier Jon Shutt did in his book, Blood Red Dawn (reviewed in fall 2012) to help himself deal with post traumatic stress disorder. But poetry is an alternative and an addition to specific treatments, rather than a replacement of scientific medicine itself. Consider for example the palliative effect for a hospice patient:
Let us ponder the quiet before birth,
let us wonder what the dead see back on earth.
In much of his work Campo describes the way he looks at people, much as retired physician-poet Peter Nash's superb descriptions of animal's appearances in his book, Coyote Bush: Poems from the lost coast, reviewed in this magazine (summer 2012). In "On The Wards," Campo deftly uses meter and rhyme to observe:
Yet you look at me desperate
for just another human being to
look kindly back at you…
Campo's father introduced him to memorizing facts, as physicians must, and to theological concepts and Campo honors his father with elegiac poems.
This book raises questions: How does poetry help humanity avoid the unintended consequence of medicine? What is the process by which doctors need to let, indeed help, patients die? What specific poems have the palliative effect of the two-thousand-five- hundred-year-old Twenty Third Psalm?
Mend & Hone by Elizabeth Howort, Dawn Gorman, Leslie LaChance, Janlori Goldman (Chappaqua, New York: Toadlily Press, 2013), 69 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9766405-8-5 US$16.00
Toadlily's Quartet Series selects four individual chapbooks every year for publication as a single, dialogic collection clothed in original artwork sourced through the press's annual book cover contest. The almost tactile earthy moodiness of Liz Hawkes DeNiord's cover, Middle Pathem>, continues through these poems and their overriding sense of sad—and of a sometimes emerging through that sadness.
Mend & Honeem> opens its conversing of voices with Elizabeth Howart's "Turning the Forest Fertile," nature poetry crafted around longing for respite from the city's din; for chance of quietude and consequent regeneration. The 14 untitled poems read as a continuous parallel world—always there, always welcoming for whenever the narrator is able (and really willing) to escape into its refuge:
Behind the door is the breath of silence—a lifetime of listening.
Do we wish to enter, with our wet hearts?
Do we know how to cradle the cry?
And hold silence like a book of matches?
Dawn Gorman responds in "This Meeting of Tracks," with poems of lovemaking, regret and the ages-old outcast loneliness that attends the role of "the other woman"—another type of separated-away world and its sadly addictive captivation that the poet conveys with imagery of a falconer and his falcon.
It is clear that in the sending awayIn markedly different mood, Leslie LaChance is upbeat and energetic, her words riffing each off the last to, maybe, explain "How She Got That Way"...
there is the inevitability of return,
and the man, after checking for more pigeons,
reels in his falcon with a gesture.
She lets herself fall through the air—
Look. I found the souvenir picture of my hangoverJanlori Goldman, with "Akhmatova's Egg," draws the last lines of the books into imageries of grief and burden, loss, bravery and, at last, promise of that wished-for rebirth:
made the day after we declared our love and drank to it—
one of everything Irish in the Irish bar, Remember? No?
You took it the day after you'd proved your love with one hand
holding my hair back, and the other tilting the ice bucket
to my chin while everything Irish emigrated...
rosemary-soaked olives and sea salt, my mouth
in licked delirium from this warm bread.
yeast swells, opens the well of yearn and ache
for the grain at its start. dark under cheekbones,
darker from the navel straight down, this rise
a sign of life inside, my acre swollen to the brim.
The four poets' separate four chapbooks read well as individual collections but, I found, resonate particularly well together in a, greater than the sum of its parts, whole. Testimony, I think, to an adept editorial eye that selects a set of works that both complement one another and also confer added nuance to each individual one through its echoing off the others.
Wrestling in the Garden
Migrations , by Phyllis Beck Katz (Simsbury, Connecticut: Antrim House, 2013), 78 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-936482-56-6 US$17.00
I am reaching the age when addressing mortality becomes more and more difficult to write off as something that happens only to other people—not an easy time, as the narrator of Katz's poetry shows, but one in which the garden and growing things can provide understanding and comfort in this discomforting space of wrestling with angels of stark truths that haunt the dark:
At dawn I wake, sheets wrinkled, drenched,
mind bruised, bloodied, angel gone. To ignore
the echo of my angel's beating drum, I rise
and go outside to tend my garden, turn
those seeds of torment hard under the earth.
Employing the images of nature—not nature on its flamboyant grand scale, but the garden variety found just outside the back door—the poetry of the first of this five-part collection confronts death, its inevitability, and the forms it may take. Uneasy reading made easier with the entwinement of our small lives with the minutiae of our universe. Analogies that show it possible that, despite all, one can determinedly become and remain:
. . . a woman who
will cultivate her garden
till her world ends.
The second section delves deeper into nature and into the consequences of its extreme moods. One particularly droll (and insightful) poem describes a cloudburst that drenched, flooded, and swept away an entire field of ripe pumpkins:
You could see lines
of liberated pumpkins
stretching for miles,
moving to the river's
pull. . .
. . . Free, they sailed
on unharmed, nodding gently
on the moving current,
as if consenting to its will,
and as they passed,
I longed to join them,
to leave the vines that bind me
Sections III and IV explore those unique perspectives of aging: looking back to see our younger selves with the benefit of wry hindsight; looking back at parents who then, were younger than we are now. The wise, despite human tendency to repeat them, learn from the errors of others' pasts and Section IV ends with one of the collection's many sonnet-like, bipartite-with-volta poems that transform pictures of the outdoor world (here, stagnant air and the sounds of it in motion) into rallying cries for the personal:
As our years accumulate, our time
to share them growing shorter, threatening
to disappear for good, let's find again
the voices we once knew, still present
but so difficult to hear, let's have them roar
drown out the silence that deafens us
And the collection closes with more poems of death written in tones of acceptance, not resignation—written in mood of perception that embracing the inevitability of death does not diminish life; that embracing the inevitability of death exalts life:
I will open to the dawns I have left,
the cool morning air, the phoebe's distant call,
robin's chirrup, chirrup in the elm,
house wren's rising falling trill, will rejoice
"Angels of a new aesthetic/or cavepainters calling up the beast?"
Graffiti Calculus, A Poem by Mary-Sherman Willis (Cincinnati, OH: CW Books, 2013), softbound, 92 pages. ISBN 978-1-62549-056-8. $16.20.
For her first book, Virginia-based Mary-Sherman Willis offers an ambitious project: a six-part poem in 60 sections, each section consisting of seven two-line stanzas, the first line long, the second line shorter. With such disciplined prosody, you might expect awkward or forced transitions, but Willis treats each 14-line unit of free verse with the care of a sonneteer even as she maintains a narrative continuum that carries us along through the streets of Washington, D.C., the battlements of the Great War, and Paleolithic caves.
The overarching premise of the poem's plot, if you will, is straightforward: the narrator's son has left home and she sets out to find him, using his graffiti tag "CONE" as the principal means for ascertaining his whereabouts. Willis displays her gift for word play from the start, calling the tag "a graff writer's nom de paint stick,/nom de Krylon, de Rusto Fat Cap." The name itself inspires this riff: "ice cream's cornucopia, woman's breast, traffic barrier, dunce hat,/a spray nozzle, the bowl of a bong."
Willis follows the graffiti theme down various paths, drawing on myth and history to deepen the sense of her search. There are the pebbles that Hansel left behind—and we learn that the word calculus is Latin for pebble (hence the intriguing title of the book). She brings in Kilroy, the famous World War II "Super GI," that "peeping imp" who "kept a step ahead of American troops/from Europe to the Pacific," documenting his visit wherever he found a wall.
And then Willis makes the leap to the Paleolithic, describing the life of Boy, a teenaged "cave-tagger," who, following the earliest artistic instinct, paints animals on walls. The poet employs a little Heaney-esque language here—"twiggy forbs," "woad-inked fingers"—in her recreation of prehistory. (The section "Paleoboy" was published separately as a chapbook, Caveboy, in 2012, with artwork by the author's son, Collin Willis.)
The anxiety of estrangement lies at the beating heart of this book; the sense of loss is visceral, the need to find the wandering son intense. Willis is a brilliant weaver; she is "Penelope bent/to her loom to stop time and defer//the unthinkable." It is as much a search for the self as it is for a "boy earning his manhood making/his display of risk. Making his name." The poet quotes a fitting bit of Freud: "The finding of an object…is a re-finding of it."
On the evidence of the robust notes at the back, Willis has studied graffiti, that fascinating urban code at once reviled as vandalism and esteemed as cultural statement and sometimes artistic achievement (Banksy, the graffiti artist who has been shaking up the art world of late, is referenced). This research enriches the verse. In the end, Willis tags us all with her odyssey of mark-making.