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FALL 2015: "The False Linearity of Seeing"

Connecting Waves

Salty Liquor, by Gary Rainford (Unity, ME: North Country Press, 2014), 66 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-945980-86-5. $12.95.

Don't let the title fool you into thinking this book features some new drink. As poet Gary Rainford shows us in the first poem, "Low Tide," a muscle shell is finally opened by a seagull that will then be able to "suck out the sweet meat, / the salty liquor." The taste and juices of the ocean have been concentrated within the common blue muscle of the northeast and are what the seagull on the cover will soon savor.

Rainford's collection of poems draws from his personal life as well as his natural surroundings on an island six miles off the coast of Maine in the Acadia region. I was most struck by how many poems (over a third) feature his young daughter Meri.

In "Magnetic North," Meri is both engrossed by watching a herd of deer outside and also counting them, causing the narrator to recount his "watchfulness" as a boy traveling out from a "subdivision" toward the natural world along the Canadian border. Meri's "look of awe" evokes the recollection. The poem concludes that she too has "a compass, magnetic north to help find her way." For Rainford, Meri and nature seem to be his magnetic north.

I think many of us would like to get out of the real world, the world of demands and environmental and ecological stressors, to name just a few. In these poems Rainford gives us stories that de-stress because they convey an ordinariness of living amid waves and salt air, fog and lobstermen. The real world washes these away from us in wave after gentle wave of noticing the rhythms of the natural world amid an integral family and community.

Some poems have syncopation by way of short phrases followed by periods, thus emulating ocean waves with their roll and pause and pull. In "Fists, Charm, Humanity," on a coastal morning, eagles fishing appear as if they are swimming in salt air: "They see me. I am bigger, / but they are gods." In "Clover," eagles appear again, but first we focus, or rather "unfocus" our eyes:

White cottonheads of clover. Swarming.
Supply nectar, bees with pollen.

Lobster boat engines rumble the seashore.
Speak to granite.

Aches and pains and sunshine serenade July.
The wind. Buoyant. Warms your lips.

A few lines later, we see that whether in bright light or in a (implied) fog that the place is so familiar that the way back to shore is rote, even if merely "lit with honey."

The storied landscape appears over and over again, and it is full of the sea and shore, but also a life lived and thought over, like waves rolling in across sand or against rock:

…Seagulls, like lobster
buoys, drift and rise over calm, bantam
swells, and the air, a saltwater stew, is ebullient: dead sea
urchins, disemboweled crabs and scattered parts,
abandoned periwinkle shells, muscles cracked open and picked
clean, seaweed teeming with fleas and life, sponge-bed
mosses, barnacles, rich musty mud ancient
as God…
… Walking home you turn them
over in your hands like rosary beads, sacred
and blessed, but when you get to Atlantic Road, they are dull
and ordinary; they are so transformed you shrug and
toss them over your shoulder.
           —from "Artifice"

— Ellen Jane Powers

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Not Much There

Strata by Helena Eriksson, translated by Jan Teeland and Wendy Klein (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2014), 104 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-84861-274-7. £9.99

As a poet, much as I hate to admit it, covers sell books. This one evokes the contents as well as any. The photo shows a dark-haired woman in white face looking away from the camera. She has flesh-colored underwear and holds the supporting frame of a hoop skirt. "Krinolin" is the 2014 copyright by Annika von Hausswolff. So here we have layers of less than full dress and spaces that invite the eye in. (Thank you, Marshall McLuhan.) Would that words did the same.

As an editor who pays for pages and works typefaces to the minimum, the contents of Strata are sketchier than the cover photo. Subtract the empty space from the text and the 104 pages boil down to less than a decent-sized chapbook. Reading the text is like jumping from rock to rock across a wide stream where stepping from one stone to another is always a leap too far. Would that there were some guidance, even a petroglyph now and then to suggest depth, meaning, or connection. But the rocks are ephemeral and the way seems pointless.

The blurbs on the back cover assert depth, but I find it neither in solidity of rocks or meaning of the stream. "As noted in one of the poems in Strata, with its many references to Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I and their portraits: 'Everything is costume.'" Perhaps, but what then of not costume? I have never liked the term "negative space," but this book is replete with it. How else to separate the photo and black background on the cover, the elusive meaning of the text and the wide spaces on the pages?

Perhaps I am just too old, too traditional, to find meaning in the emptiness, the space, the formlessness. I have little tolerance for those who seem to resist form and meaning. For me it started with William Burroughs' nightmares and constructions. They captured me as I read, but ultimately left me hollow, as they are. I can be ruthless in separating Bukowsky's meaning and meaninglessness. Anne Waldman sounds good, but her pages leave me empty. Today I can accept what Claudia Rankine says, but I reject the lack of construction in how it is thrown at me.

Here is typical "content" in Strata:

Along the canal's flat sides. It is said that there are cannibals
under the bridges. One jumps from the bridge at the
boulevard. (p. 71)
They pass in the forest of figures, discover places once again,
now without intensity. The sharpness of salinity of these
discoveries, and even the radiance itself, has diminished.
Neverthelss they send thin rays out over their hands. My
body has begun to admit darkness. (p.72)
It's said that they eat people, waiting under the bridges. (p.73)
She is identified by her cousin. (p. 74)
He stayed three days in the city, took in provisions, bought
two suits, left. (p. 75)

Except for the page numbers, that is the entire content of those five pages. Sorry, dear reader, but that's not Biblical, allegorical, or metaphorical. Despite my mention of stones earlier, it is not even lapidary because nothing holds the stones together over those distances and nothing does not justify nothing.

I really wanted to like this book. I am accustomed to dining on small meals and being satisfied, but not this. At dinner once a friend said, "I can tell you are an English major. You get off on the menu." But we ordered food, albeit modest, that satisfied.

— Michael Brown

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Figments and Drolls by a Salt Coast Sage

Figments by Gerald George (Portsmouth, NH: Piscataqua press, 2014) 98 pages, softbound. ISBN: 978-1-939739-52-0. $12.

The poems in this collection were started in the fall of 2011 and continued into February of 2013. They were written around the time of several deaths close to George. The poems opened a way into the questions we all face at times like this.

In the preface George states that, according to the dictionary, figments are something made up, fabricated or contrived,. In conversation George has said the poems were modeled after drolls, short comic scenes or farces adapted from well-known plays of the Elizabethan theater by actors when London theaters were closed down by Puritans. These shorter means of entertainment were performed on improvised stages that could be put up and taken down quickly to circumvent restrictions.

This book is divided into eight sections with 10 poems in each section. The poems generally range between 20 and 25 lines. Each one is written as a single long sentence. The poems are titled with the opening phrase of the poem, a fragment from the first line which lends an echo to the reading. Like the original drolls, this bit of wit offers an opportunity to quickly form our own thoughts before being carried along in the juggernaut that propels the reader to the end of the poem, leaving them breathless.

The poems use no rhyme, rhythm or conventional line breaks except in short set-off segments that "take on arguments that are no longer tenable in the twenty-first century." Most of the line breaks are a cascade of enjambments that break mid-phrase and push the poems forward at breakneck speed. The momentum is relentless as the reader is propelled toward a conclusion, which at first may seem like sense inside nonsense:

He tried to
cover his ears because so loud the
sound became as if all the shining
everywhere vibrated all at once, and the
least weed, the weakest thistle, the lowliest
stalk all joined in a vastness of voices:
O hope for me!

All of the poems search for meaning in a world of juxtapositions and contradictions. The nature of these poems invites a second, third, or more readings to unveil their mysteries. This is particularly evident in the final poem, aptly titled "Goodbye now" which opens with: "Goodbye now, she cannot/ say exactly…." The poem is a lullaby, set on its head in which the woman "hears herself singing." Time has come unhinged, "can it be morning… can it be evening." The poem closes with:

and so she sits, waits, waits, waits, sits, she
knows how it cannot last, it cannot
wait until—and then, sleep, come heavily
down, crashing coming down.

Gerald George is a poet of considerable skill. He is the poet laureate for the Maine Senior College Network and won the Donn Goodwin Prize for poetry. His work has appeared in many periodicals and anthologies including A Rump Sprung Chair and a One Eyed Cat, Poems by Down East Maine's Salt Coast Sages and Take Heart, Poems From Maine published under the aegis of Maine's current Poet Laureate, Wesley McNair.

— Valerie Lawson

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