SPRING 2009 International/Translation Issue
"Poetry Is My Language"
To Catch Life Anew: 10 Swedish Women Poets, translated by Eva Claeson (Durham, NH: Oyster River Press, 2006) 168 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-1-882291-02-1 $17.95
When I find pleasure reading a poetry book, I wander from room to room. I lie down on my bed, sit by the kitchen table, make some coffee, and I read with my voice. Sometimes quiet inside myself, listening to the sound of the poem, sometimes aloud, tasting the syllables, vowels and consonants. At the same time the poems glide into my own life. I apply them to my own weaving. I take them to me, and reflect myself in them.
These ten represent different genres, and have been important, influential, female poets in Sweden from the 1950's until today. Sonja Åkesson's new simplicity has a raw blackness that is near to giving up. Katarina Frostenson's poetry is thought difficult by many, but even in her long poems, she puts down only necessary words. The selection is well balanced.
Maybe I had expected Bodil Malmsten to be one of the ten. Maybe Lina Ekdal representing the young stage poetry. But the ten here give a covering picture of contemporary Swedish poetry, written by women as strong, ironic, fragile, humorous, thoughtful, sensual, so beautiful it hurts, engaged, describing as a painting, and shivering on the edge of eternity. Maybe it is the same picture as the picture of a woman.
I taste the translation. Eva Claeson has for the most avoided trying to translate the play with words and sounds. Maybe she doesn't want to take focus away from the poem's core. And when she does it, the tone feels real, as in Margareta Ekström's: "randig trasmattsnö/tisteldiken", "rag-rug striped snow/thistle ditches".
These translations hold the poet's rhythm and voice. I can hear Kristina Lugn, on the surface her lean words' slow ambiguity. I hear Elisabeth Rynell's dark, sensitive, little hoarse voice that lets us perceive her power.
Whatever I do, I do it everywhere. So, I took "To Catch Life Anew" to my school. At once one of my colleagues wrote down the title and ISBN-number for her poetry-interested daughter. Then I realized this is a treasure. Here we have ten artists, their poetry in a new poetic costume, and the Swedish landscape and its light as a new experience. The introduction by Ia Dübois also gives the book a necessary fundament.
Poetry is to touch. I let myself get touched. I dive into one poet's work after another. Then I wander from room to room, reciting loudly. I lie back on my bed. The book has marks from my thumbs, it has stains of coffee, and the back has wrinkles. The poems get up from the pages, the words, understandable and those that cannot be understood, the Swedish ones, their rhythm, the English ones, undulating, have leapt off the paper and float just beneath the ceiling.
Her Place in These Designs by Rhina P. Espaillat (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2008), 91 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-1-931112-89-5 $15.95.
If formalism is making a comeback against free verse in contemporary poetry, Ms. Espaillat's collection, packaged in an attractive quality paperback, should greatly help it happen. All but a few of her poems have regular rhyme, meter, or both. More than half are sonnets, usually Shakespearean. A couple of villanelles appear, and in one poem, lines in different stanzas end with the same words in a different order. Her use of forms does not seem showy; it seems astonishing.
Seldom if ever are her meters rigid, her rhymes forced, her lines unnaturally designed to fit a form. She can rhyme beak with République in a way that makes both words seem right in context. Her metaphors are credible, her similes delightful, her descriptions vibrant, her meanings accessible, her endings pointed. She exemplifies what Coleridge meant by calling poetry "the best words in their best order." You may say that nobody's technical facility is that good. Hers is that good.
Consider this from a poem about her mother's house after painters have left:
their absence ghostlike on the spackled wall—
my mother's porcelain dishes, packed away
in boxes, bubble-papered down the hall
like scruples, like those prayers we seldom say
but learned for good, once only. How the new
seduces with its newness . . . .
In fact, poems such as a sonnet called "Find Work" seem perfect. The title comes from her twice-widowed grandmother's admonition about how to face loss, a grandmother who—
spoke so little it was hard to bear
so much composure, such a truce with time
spent in the lifelong practice of despair.
But I recall her floors, scrubbed white as bone,
Her dishes, and how painfully they shone.
Why, then, am I uncomfortable with several other poems in this book? Because in what they say I sense something atmospherically antique. When I read an ending such as "good is good forever / untouched by when it goes or how it ends," I feel I'm back in Godey's Lady's Book. When I encounter a line such as "A deeper shade / gathers them homeward now at eventide," I feel I've returned to Thomas Gray's country churchyard.
When poems even about bleak subjects seem too contentedly rounded off with a kind of cobwebbed wisdom, charming, gentle, warm, they become cloying. At such moments I wonder whether smooth-edged observations are the price of polished technique? But plenty of skilled poets have given form to sharp tongues. No, I think only that Ms. Espaillat's world view differs from mine, the sonnet complements hers well, and I remain in awe of what she has achieved.
Glad Wilderness by Geraldine Cannon (Austin, TX: Plain View Press, 2008), paper. ISBN 978-1-891386-45-9
With the preservation of sacred ground in Glad Wilderness, Geraldine Cannon's newest book is an exciting find. Hers is a poetry of radical directness, intense intellect, and deep emotional clarity:
My fear had been released-He took it up,
searching the trees for something- someone who might
see. I undid my bodice to regain his wild eyes.
The undergrowth held mystery. I held more.
We also find a poet in control of her fears and consequences with language so economical that the biographical, sensuous, musical human presence of the narrator emerges before our eyes, or as she wishes:
I want to end it all and rise anew.
My stage is back-lit by a falling sun.
Burned, scared, and full of fear I turn to you.
Cannon realizes that her dialogue is incomplete without a reader. Poetry is a means of exchange, a form of reciprocity, a magic to be shared that can come in the narrator's ability to start her life as a sheet, then a dress, then a hand-me-down, and finally, a repair for a quilt while this personification constantly is in fear of/for her life because:
Crazy quilts are too popular to be tucked away.
Why, I've even heard that some people frame them and hang them
like fine art these days.
Wilderness means uncontrolled land with, as Thoreau noted in his Maine journals, a force not bound to be kind to man. The Israelites upon being lured out of their wilderness by the promise of husbandry realized the necessity for preserving the wilderness and parched land as that is where their revrerence originated. The awe instilled as desert blooms with new rain even appealed to Jesus as that is where he spent 40 days and 40 nights in retrospect. Wilderness is where the poet constantly returns because:
Excitement builds on the edge of the world.
where I saw the Northern Lights for the first time
and I was afraid to admit my fear- all the way
out here in the strange wilderness of Northern Maine.
Strange place, indeed, for a Gal from Georgia who constantly asks herself, who are we, where are we? Do I have access to Free Will, as that is definitely incumbent in wilderness? Am I unafraid to be divulgent as I am being universal?
Woman to woman,
was there anything we missed?
when we were as close as two bodies
can get, when we had left nothing else
undone and were not completely fulfilled-
…boundaries that minds
like ours could do so well without-
of our soothing, ever soothing, wounded skin.
Sappho wrestled similarly with this in her Grecian evenings and perhaps it is this immutability of wilderness that forces some to search for a brave pen:
to share the winter looking to the sky
for more than the sun, looking through
leafless branches with the careful gaze
to start the dialogue over and over, making certain of preserving sacred ground.
Balance: A Late Pastoral, by Russell Libby (Nobleboro, ME: Blackberry Books, 2007) 80 pages. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-615-15951-5 $10
American poetry includes a long and distinguished line of verse devoted to the land. From Walt Whitman to Wendell Berry, poets have celebrated the landscape of farm and field. New England literature has its own rich lineage of such writers, from Robert Frost to Kate Barnes, who have helped us reconnect to a life often sacrificed to the distractions of modern times.
With Balance: A Late Pastoral, Russell Libby adds an eloquent voice to that line. The 70 or so poems in this collection offer the thoughts of an individual dedicated to living on, off, by and from the land. His vision encompasses rock walls and kinglets, cathedral barns and seed catalogues, maple syrup production and the patterns of frost on cold frames.
Libby's verse has a pleasing simplicity. He invites us to join him in his circumambulations of a Maine farm, to listen to a catbird's jazz or the sound of lake water freezing. He explains a New England farming tradition ("Rogation Day"); reflects on the origin of his passion for gardening ("When the Garden Started"); and describes baling day ("A Landscape Shaped by Vermeer").
"Obligations" pays homage to one George Washington Gordon, a hardworking farmer who once maintained the farm where Libby lives. Considering everything this five-foot-six man accomplished in his years, the poet writes, "it seems the very least I should do/is keep the stone walls in clear view."
The collection includes a number of haiku-like poems. Here's one that pleasingly explains the origin of the cliché "whispering pines":
Pine needles grab wind
as it passes, turning it
to quiet murmur.
Occasionally the long-time director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association inserts agricultural politics into his verse. In "Full Day," he takes a jab: "Afternoon, lobbyists line up,/emphasizing costs to their clients of telling us what we eat." At the end of "I Missed the Peace March," he proclaims,
patience and slow progress must be the banner
for today, and tomorrow,
and the next.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser selected Libby's poem "Applied Geometry" for one of his "American Life in Poetry" columns last year. "Father and child doing a little math homework together; it's an everyday occurrence," Kooser wrote in his introduction, "but here, Russell Libby, a poet who writes from Three Sisters Farm in central Maine, presents it in a way that makes it feel deep and magical." Deep and magical indeed: in the poem's final lines, father and daughter consider a pine's capacity:
That one tree might make
three thousand feet of boards
if our hearts could stand
the sound of its fall.
Balance: A Pastoral reads like the diary of a man exploring a variety of edges—of a farm, of his emotions, of a way of life. "At the edges,/where money isn't all," Libby writes in "By the Horse Barn," "the stories,/the talking,/continue." Attentively, we listen.
A Darker, Sweeter String by Lee Sharkey (Weld, Maine: Off the Grid Press, 2007), 94 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-0-9778429-1-9. $15,
Lee Sharkey is a member of Women in Black…a world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice, and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence. Ms. Sharkey writes from this perspective of global awareness, a woman conversant with human rights and the helplessness of "common" people in the face of overwhelming odds. A Darker, Sweeter String gives a human face to those we only read about in the daily news.
In "Transitory," she shares her dismay, no, her anger that we humans have claimed dominion over this earth of ours and then, in the rest of this remarkable book of poetry, proceeds to say, "Look what we are doing".
In "Petition," the author provides the reader with twenty-three, one line images corresponding to visual images by Israeli artists in protest against the 2006 Lebanon War:
When their homes were exploded they lay down to sleep in a leaf: God, we have done with your cooking
A "Partition" is erected in Gaza separating families, a farmer from his fields. A bewildering Kafkaesque surrealism ensues:
They gave me a permit that was good for yesterday…
You may go there to plant; your children may not.
You may go there to plant but not to harvest
Ms. Sharkey presents her poetry in fragmented phrases and pregnant spaces. She startles, then comforts us; plays music, then bruises our ears with shouts of protesters. And always, there are long silences for our contemplation. We both drink the water: neither can describe its taste, relates a cleansing ritual used by Somali refugee women: Left hand wets a cloth and runs it over the rip in the stitched vagina
As snow falls on Teheran in "Living as a Wild Thing":
a student plays Brahms through the crescendo/decrescendo of sirens…
The violin bow is a strand of mercury drawn down ever so slowly
until the last of it rests on the string. I hold my breath while the
aftertone condenses to a silver bead
The poet transitions to the beautiful and touching "Unscripted," written in the voice of a mother who laments the death of her son, not from cluster bombs or sniper fire, but a congenital deformity:
at the base of the skull
a tangled flow
The script promised
You won't see him suffer
you won't see him die---
he'll lose you
This book of poetry will not let the reader forget the world we have wrought and the people caught in its turnings. It nudges us to speak up, act for change.
Ms. Sharkey scolds the dead in "Forgotten":
if you had known would you have done things differently
you turning and turning in your oblivion
The only thing this reader wishes had been done differently is enlarge the front cover font. Without a magnifying glass, the author's name is all but invisible.
—Sheila Mullen Twyman
Recall, New and Collected Poems, 1967-2008, by H. R. Coursen (Topsham, Maine: Just Write Books, 2008), 284 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-0-9722839-6-0. $24.95.
To the author: Here is how to pare this 284-page paperback into a better collection.
First, reduce the up-front list of the seventy-two books you have already published, including the thirty books of poetry. Those numbers, themselves, make critics suspicious; just list your best.
Second, eliminate your two-page introduction, which makes a case for form in poetry that seems surprising in light of your own use, albeit occasional, of free verse. Instead, just briefly tell us how you chose the poems for this compendium. Are they the ones published in the sixty-eight periodicals you list in your acknowledgements?
Third, get rid of most if not all of the cocky fighter-pilot poems, which seem to trivialize your experience, poems full of crashes and close calls involving "86-Ds," "84-Fs," "F-51s," "JP-4,""angels 40," "runway three-six-zero," "Tippy in the tower," "lights over Laredo," "buying the farm," and how good your next beer is going to be.
Fourth, reevaluate the baseball poems. For example, it's fun to check the nicknames of legendary stars in your poem-list against their real names, revealed in your long footnote, but this isn't poetry. A good poem doubtless can be made out of the colorful monikers of the old ballplayers, but such a poem must do more than confirm Honus Wagner as the all-time greatest shortstop.
However, leave in the book the poem about your dad's hitting a homer through a church window, an event that brought to view "a gothic sprinkle of stained dust, a saint, frozen in leaden webs, epiphanized, unexpectedly shedding light"—that one can stay!
Concerning your many sonnets, remove the ones in which the meter runs amuck, or the rhymes tank ("spread" rhymed with "kindred"?), or the diction deteriorates ("the dark of night and freeze of zero"?), or the ending unravels ("So, of course, / he said (no joke), Let there be a Green Zone!"). But keep the ones with verve and good images, like those in the poem describing how the sky
its crystals loose in wind to touch the blood
inside the rings of waiting trees and make
the warrior oak turn bronze to face the cold.
Also, please keep the engrossing dramatic monologues in which historical, mythical, or literary characters speak or are spoken to. Especially keep the vividly scary poem about witchcraft with its seventeen fascinating lines of names of things that Elizabethan children were taught to fear, including their own shadows. And the blues poems—keep them, especially "Blues for John Donne," an impressive melding of blues rhythm with bell-tolling religion. Use of the blues stanza in written poetry is relatively rare; your poems are doubly interesting because you use the stanza well.
I know—and want readers of this to know—that others have praised your poetry without my reservations. The poet Grace Cavalieri, to name but one, says on your book's back cover, that you "should be America's most famous poet." I, too, would be more enthusiastic if you had restricted this thick compendium of forty years' poetry writing to poems that are truly your best.
An Uncommon Accord by George Kraus, Marcia Arrieta, Pat Landreth Keller, Michael Carman (Chappaqua, NY: toadlilly press, 2008), 70 pages. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-9766405-3-0. $14.00.
An Uncommon Accord is the fourth book in the Quartet series from toadlilly press. Each book gathers four chapbooks into one volume, giving poets "an opportunity to 'converse' with each other." As the title suggests, the poets here have achieved a remarkable harmony despite distinctly different voices and styles. Woven throughout, we find common themes laid down by one poet and picked up by another, sometimes mirroring, sometimes in opposition, but always moving the conversation forward.
Rendition, by George Kraus, lays the groundwork. Rendition has become a charged word, but Kraus brings us back to earlier meanings, to render or translate. He writes of a social landscape where we come together, as in "Dawn,"
to float a moment, suspended
between breath and death
In "The Magician" he lays down a string of paper dolls:
he cuts patterns
And links generations of paper dolls.
They dance in long accordion rows,
In the strikingly different poems in the second section, The Curve Against the Linear, Marcia Arrieta builds mostly on single images and brief declaratives, attempting to make meaning of everything at once. The world as it is. In "suspended in midair," we find:
how little we really know about one another…
parallel environments parallel dreams
The poems in this section often seem like a collection of keywords in a search engine, forcing readers to make their own connections. The images are like stepping stones across a river we are given no reason to cross. That said, Arrieta's poems are in the correct place in the book, the place where questions and doubts arise. We have lines "in the waves" that could have been spoken by the string of paper dolls in Kraus' "The Magician,"
I would like you to acknowledge me…
I am attempting to construct a bubble…
In the title and first poem in the next section, "Draglines," by Pat Landreth Keller the style is similar but more focused,
twins the ones she told us were murdered
floated through the telling many times
The twins were twelve year old girls who had been murdered and thrown in the river tied together with barbed wire. The girls reappear throughout the poem as another young girl tells the story of being molested,
she said the twins never quit turning in her mind
washing into the river out of the river
This section propels the book forward and in "Bon Voyage" we have a sea captain, not knowing what awaits him,
The ocean unrolls before him like a bolt of silk
That the journey will end in a bar fight in a distant port where a woman he does not know
will hold him and weep when his head fills with blood…
and because he cannot know this, he looks out over the waves.
Michael Carman's section You In Translation begins a new journey. In "I Met Two Horses,"
they stop… This
is all they can do. This is
as far as they can come.
The closing poem of the book, "You In Translation" begins,
Bent to the lamplight, you raise the dead from the page,
It is a fitting close, bringing us back to the moment when we discover the words and worlds.
Songs of Seasoned Women, edited by Patti Tana (Long Island City, NY: Quadrasoul, 2007, 171 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-0-9787298-3-7.
It's not easy when the editor is the best poet of an anthology. It gets tougher when so many of the poets are from the same geographic area, with similar backgrounds, occupations, ethnicity and age. The first half reads like they have all been to the same workshops. We find the same voice and experience, not discovering but recording what they know, their poems not beyond, but up to where they begin. Every beginning leads to one of two endings. Every voice is an I who tells. Reason and insight abound, but there is little ecstasy.
The 119 poems are arranged in short, themed sections, and the 63 poets are mixed throughout. Midway the voices take on greater individuality as the poets and their subjects mature into the seasoned views of middle age, grandmothers with children surviving life's indignities.
In such an anthology, it is good to give a good poet her due, as with Barbara Barnard's exuberance:
I will give you a broad grin, a wink,
tilt back my head, spreading my lips wide
and lower your swords of torment one by one into my
commodious throat. One two, twenty-two,
there—you see? All gone, vanished, devoured.
"Commodious", "devoured", what perfect words in the right places! Consider also the quiet sureness of tone modulated by Linda Opyr:
And I remembered the cranes
their steps—long-legged sure
until the question marks of their bodies
fold in upon themselves and
sleek white sails fill the sky.
And of course, the sensuous joy of the editor's ashes in her garden:
Pluck a bright red globe,
let juice run down your chin
and the seeds stick to your cheek.
When I'm dead I want folks to smile
And say, "That Patti, she sure is
Since I'm a sucker for exuberance, here's from "On My Eightieth Birthday" by Muriel Harris Weinstein:
I want a flowery dress of slinky silk
Bursting with tropical blossoms,
Purple and fuchsia hibiscus cascading
Over breasts in such abundance everyone will say,
"Ahhh, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon!"
Paddy Noble has an earned wisdom like Ezra Pound's:
I can cope with the garden
it's people I can't weed out of my life
Again, the apt word. These are seasoned women—like good food, fine wine, family stories, and poems written on good paper.