SPRING 2010 Issue
"A Desire Unswaddled"
Planned, by Sarah Trott (Oakland, CA: There Press, 2009), 63 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9823772-0-8 $14.00
Planned arrives wrapped in a map of the edges of a town. A precise brown grid of blocked streets smears to the edges of a canal—curved, as if trying to hold the town back, prevent it from overrunning the countryside on its far bank. Perhaps the few squared lines of road, cut into the green, hint at the futility of this attempt. A closer look shows a broken line tracing a path along the streets, around a small green field, past a mass of urbanity labelled, Willows, up and down and back up the banks of the canal, over the bridge again and on to the railway line and the far side of the town. The image of the narrator—walking this route, observing, musing, retrieving memories—informs my reading of the three-part poem beneath the book's cover.
Sarah Trott writes in spare, unpunctuated fragments, often just three lines to a page—no titles, no beginnings, no endings, nothing but the three section headers: around memory, sites, last. All are bits, images, explorations of home as place, home as people, home as memory of how a place became past.
Here you will find no narrative thread, no easy reading map to follow, and I found it best to approach the work with my right brain at the fore; absorbing, rather than understanding and "fixing" the writing; listening to the flow of images as to a piece of music; enjoying it over and over again, noticing how different bits and combinations of bits emerge during different readings. So, just one thread pulled from the intricately woven shawl.
First, memories, perhaps, of a happy childhood home in the country;
there's a line of soft eyed cows walking the same path down
there's a bell in the ocean
Then, in the second section, a sense of dystopia,
because when we walk on cement our feet all break eventually
this is the way towns end
face down in swamps tidy-dead empty of response
Was that when the narrator walked around and through the cemetery sandwiched between the town's edge and the canal's bank?
Then the third section… idyll, or not?
she made a gesture with an arm moving it across the landscape slowly
her elbow caught a yellow house a hill one old horse
dragged a mile of wooden fence twelve acres of almond trees
her arm moved back towards her side
More hints that all may not be as it seems
… even underwater the shaking upsets the surface
he threw her cat off the porch just tossed it
And dreams unravelling…
the sidewalk moves aside for the roots
moves into the way of the air above and into the way
of the resale value of the house
leaving, only, memory of
how a place became past
Poems on Loss, Hope and Healing by Diane H. Schetky. Self-published (Lulu), 81 pages. Softbound. ISBN 978-0-557-07328-3 $12
A distinguished forensic psychiatrist who lives on the coast of Maine, Diane Schetky came to poetry by a somewhat circuitous route. As explained in an introduction to this, her first collection, Schetky avoided poetry in college (Sarah Lawrence) and rarely considered the art form as she pursued her career (she has written and/or edited five books on child forensic psychiatry). Then as a hospice volunteer facilitating a bereavement group at the Maine State Prison, she began to use poetry as a means to help prisoners deal with family traumas. Inspired by the therapeutic power of verse, Schetky took up the pen to explore her own world.
The poet draws on personal experience to write her heartfelt and sometimes somber verse. She writes about inmates, hospice patients, a coffee pot, a compost pile, mud, elephant seals and the tundra. The voice ranges from empathetic to editorial.
In Loss, the book's first section, Schetky describes a man rebelling against "catheter prison" and her mother remembering nursery rhymes in the depths of dementia. Estrangement is a series of fragments related to grief: "No cards, casseroles or calls/of condolence." By contrast, the longer White Nights, about visiting a friend in St. Petersburg, Russia, offers a story of survival that might be the beginning of a memoir.
In "Still Life with Shaving Brush" (which first appeared in this journal), the speaker confronts the ghost of her father while searching for a nail file in a mirrored vanity. The detail is resonant, from the "doe colored" brush to the fact that the dead man's beard "has ceased to grow."
The ending offers a moment of personal revelation:
I have forgotten what I came for
but found my father
in an almost empty wooden bowl.
The poems in the second section, Illness, might be taken from a journal of maladies: "Appendectomy," "Blighted Ovum," "Metastases" and "Beyond Radiation." As elsewhere in the collection, Schetky can be brutally straightforward, but also humorous. In "I131 (Radioactive Iodine)," she likens the nuclear material charging through her body to
a Sunday outing of Hell's Angels
roughing up salivary glands
punching out some taste buds
and leaving rubber along the way.
A number of poems in the book's final section, Nature and Healing, have a quality reminiscent of Chinese poetry. The natural world is considered with a quiet appreciation. "Megunticook in the Fall," for example, celebrates the stillness that follows the departure of loons and summer people; paddling her kayak, the poet rejoices "in the absence of outboards." In a similar manner, reading these poems, we relish the absence of pretense and pose.
[Part of the proceeds from the sale of this book goes to Coastal Family Hospice Volunteers of Midcoast Maine.]
Constellations, Collected Story Poems, 1970-2003, by Robert M. Chute (Brunswick, Maine: Just Write Books, 2009), 190 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-934949-15-3. $19.95.
First let me get through some minor irritations. (1) This nice looking, quality paperback is marred by inadequate proofreading. I encountered at least twenty typos involving capitalization, punctuation, unintentional word repetition, spaces left out between words, and nine misspelled words. (2) In several places I ran up against tense inconsistencies, sometimes within stanzas, which I thought might be intentional imitations of actual speech until an inexplicable tense change popped up in one of the author's notes. (3) I found it hard to determine whether the author is directly quoting or has made up some material, such as letters attributed to his characters but not put in quotation marks or italicized. (4) In one poem, succeeding stanzas refer to "first life," "third life," and "fourth life" but without a reference to "second life." And (5) two of the poems, "One Down" and "Night Bomber Pilots Relax Between Flights," have almost identical endings about Russian women sweeping Red Square.
That said, we can get to what matters more: the poetry. This book collects "story poems" previously published in chapbooks and literary magazines by a native of Naples, Maine, who has taught biology for many years at Bates College. He has published some interesting science poems (which I praised in a previous review), but this book's poems deal with historical characters, most of them early settlers in Maine and the native Americans they encountered. Apparently Chute traces his ancestry to both groups, and with impressive empathy he gives historical persons dramatic monologues that reveal character and worldview as well as what they experienced. Chute provides context in notes in the back of the book for which, he says, he has been criticized, but I find the notes appropriately helpful.
This book includes eighteen sonnets from a chapbook that won a Maine contest judged by the prominent poet Charles Simic, who praised Chute for, among other things, "the mastery of his craftsmanship." I don't see it. Okay, sonnets don't always have to be in iambic pentameter, but the problem is not Chute's unorthodox meters. The problem is that some of the sonnets and other poems in which Chute attempts rhyme and meter don't flow; they seem choppy, clunky, because of forced rhymes, irregular lines in poems that begin with regular meters, one-word enjambments, and stretches to keep within forms.
All this is distracting to the point that I finally started ignoring rhyme, meter, and line breaks and tried reading the poems as prose. In fact the best poems in the book are the least "poetic" in that they don't use rhyme and meter. And what a difference! If you read everything in the book as if it were in paragraphs, you will learn about some fascinating people, well portrayed, with meaningful stories, well told. And you will discover sections with the atmosphere of legends, cadences (rather than meters), and vivid descriptive passages; in short—poetry!
The Mind-Body Problem by Katha Pollitt (New York: Random House, 2009), 82 pages, hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6333-8 $23
Katha Pollitt's essays and her columns for The Nation cover a variety of feminist and socio-cultural topics, but her poetry is painted with a finer, more introspective and personal brush. Nevertheless, The Mind-Body Problem presents with rather more gravitas than one usually encounters in books of poems. It is published by, in their own words, "the world's largest general trade book publisher," Random House, hardcover in an arresting shade of red with back-cover blurbs by Billy Collins, Kay Ryan and Richard Howard. My mind and my eyes were immediately engaged.
The poems are interesting enough poems. What makes them sing to me, though, is the way in which they have been collected: the book comprises three sections and, the poems of the first are poems of disjunctions.
In the title poem of both the book and this section, the narrator muses on the irony that in youth, her mind held tight control over the desires of her body—made her
tyrannize and patronize it
like … an ambitious
English-professor husband ashamed of his wife—
yet now, in later years, the same probably frailer body
plunges ahead, not stopping for anything,
as though it knows exactly where we are going.
Later, we find generations of people with questions, more questions that
We have no one to ask but each other.
But we do not ask each other.
And there is the lilac bush, split and blackened by a hurricane, that flowers, unseasonably, as if to say,
What will unleash
itself in you
when your storm comes?
Then, the poems in the third, Lunaria (Honesty), section seem to speak answers to the puzzlements of the first, and narrators discover a woman
… coming out of the subway
carrying an immense bouquet of white lilac
wrapped in white tissue paper, like a torch.
… Even the demons
hardly came round anymore
with their childish bribes of money and sex
We've lost our moment of grandeur, but come on, admit it:
aren't we happier?
Last, provocatively, a group of nine poems headed After the Bible are placed between those two sections—comprising tantalizing slant readings of Bible stories. Arrivals in heaven, far from the wars and disasters below, find that although
It is just as they knew it would be:
The angels are kind, like waiters…
God, it appears, is elsewhere, even here.
And readers are told that after The Fall,
… God was secretly pleased: Let
Leaving as problem, intriguingly, to us to decide—is there a connection between the book's sections? what is the connection? is it a lesson? none of the above?
A Slice of Water by Prabakar T. Rajan (2009), 100 pages, paper. Available from email@example.com.
Dr. Rajan, a physician practicing in Boston, MA and Madras, India, begins with lengthy acknowledgements. "A capacity for gratitude is the blazon of a poet," he writes, then thanks people for "peeling bare for me the sublime in daily life," for the "pouncing possibilities" found in their own "vaulting work," for being "swift" friends who give "pampering love," and for standing as "Pillars of Hercules who fence the horizon of poetry's pasture." One sees in this a generous soul, appreciative of his friends. One also sees a penchant for hyperbole.
Unfortunately, this penchant extends to the poems. In the opening poem, "Lethewards," we encounter "bugles of sky" that "squeal among the leaves" and a door that is "shy from the torrid embrace" of the sun. A poem called "Sniffles" begins, "My head is a turgid comb that hums / like a keening keel awash / in brine." The poem "Urvashi" speaks of "the salt of echoes, the splinters in teeth, the bile of snapped fingers." Asking readers to stretch mentally to grasp a poet's intent is one thing; descriptive overreaching is another. Dr. Rajan tries to be a poet way too hard.
A defender might argue that his poems also contain effective images that are not puzzles, as in lines such as "the sheer dead white / of winter" which "seduces with the soft seep / of her pale light." I like even the following lines: "There is something glad and botched / about the evening, something stilted." But how can an evening be both glad and botched? I found myself answering, well, one can be glad that a botched day is over, or a sunset can gladden even while appearing aesthetically imperfect. Alas, such games are what these poems provoke.
The defender may counter that "provoke" is the poet's intention, compelling us with strange word choices and unexpected juxtapositions to think about the familiar in new ways. In a sequence entitled "Untied Shoelaces," an insomniac adventures into a surreal world in which, as in Alice's Wonderland, the extraordinary is taken as natural. That may be how one should read these poems. Dr. Rajan may deliberately indulge his rabid descriptive imagination as a counter to our limited outlooks, our mental ruts. Such would be a plausible, sympathetic view. But to me, the diction too often resists analysis, and the poems as a whole achieve too little besides a kind of showiness. Perhaps the best insight comes in the following lines (again from "Sniffles") in which the poet, in terms both engaging and exasperating, seems to describe himself:
On stilts of wax I wobble
about plugging the draining hours. Sitting
with poets today I feel
like a troll among nymphs. Or more like
some meticulous gnome flapping
about in soles too big for him. Something sags
like a fatting lip or sodden underpants. How
could effeminate sniffles belong
where dragons sob?
where mountains wail
muffling their faces in milky crooks?
Vivaldi for Breakfast by John-Michael Albert (Westbrook, ME: Moon Pie Press, 2009), 81 pages, paper.ISBN 978-1-61539-451-7 $10
I believe in concrete images, objective correlatives, and specific details. I also believe the iceberg principle, less is more, and economy is a hallmark of good poetry. Choice is a good way to avoid delaying an ending. A short poem is better than a repetitive one. One that puts us inside the experience has a better chance of succeeding than one that hesitates to reveal. As poets mature, most of them come to accept these guidelines. That seems to be the case with John-Michael Albert. Vive la poesie!
It's always easy to pick on what a poet does not do, how a poem does not mean, why it is unfulfilling. Theodore Sturgeon's axiom that 90% of the universe is crud applies to art also. So let us celebrate those poems of Mr. Albert's work that really succeed. As he has grown and allowed his poems to become more deeply meaningful, more centered in his music, they become greater.
crazy bird outside fills in Vivaldi's pauses
with mad roulades and melismas that seem
improvised especially for this moment.
But much more important than the definitions are the associations. The title itself suggests early morning light on the fruit juice (or mimosas), linen table cloths, sparkling tableware, translucent eggs, and golden toast, perhaps the "gold finch" playing in the background. Indeed, what may be surmised in Mr. Albert's poetry is more interesting than what is delineated. The reticence—and when they appear—the intimations of homoerotic relationships are the revelations of the play of light and music. They make me long for more, just as those memories of lost opportunity bring forth a wistful sigh.
I had no idea what was going on, of course,
but he was trying to seduce me, bless him:
I must have been nicer then, and more handsome.
At the same time, the reticence speaks to just how dangerous such openness has been for so long. It could never have been easy to be so open, and for one who lived in the third quarter of the 20th century, always a wise reluctance.
But there is music, always music, a refuge, an expression, a myriad of windows through which one may see the ecstatic that one dare not exhibit.
My arrangement begins with a surprise:
however many men in the chorus, singing
in unison, singing "we." Fred Small says
the "we" is a mother speaking to her child
...until Nature makes her entry
in the guise of the moon—and the chorus breaks
into sweet, two-part harmony.
I think of Duke Ellington's composition on a line of Shakespeare: "Such Sweet Thunder."
The Unfold Pinnacle, by Basanta Kumar Kar. Unpublished manuscript, 71 pages, paper.
I first read this thinking it an advance review copy, but later realised it is an unpublished manuscript. Which explains, and allows me to overlook, its need for some careful copy editing and proof reading. The notes describe it as a collection of poems that meditate upon the real life stories of extremely disadvantaged women, and they are written mostly in the first person; persona poems or, perhaps, biographic pieces because every one is followed with explanation about the narrator.
For example, "Unique" is narrated by a thirty five year old OBC (Other Backward Caste) woman… a BPL (Below Poverty Line) woman and married to a physically challenged person. "Middle Leaf" is narrated by a thirty year old HIV widow; "Icon" by a 22 year old scheduled caste woman residing in a communal conflict hit relief camp and "Canvas" by a seventeen year old Scheduled Caste girl … in sex work.
The litany of mini-biographies, even without knowing some of the terms, give chilling insight into the circumstance of these women of India (and surely, in most other countries around the world). In that aspect, the preface's assertion that the book is a bouquet of feelings that has the power to touch and change hearts is certainly true.
Kar works in a development organization. He concludes his preface: This effort has truly heralded the dawn of finding poetic expression for the myriad of emotions, which engulfs the development activists with each passing heartbeat. Such daily experience surely needs outlet.
It's difficult to write from inside the mind of another—the lines between empathy and appropriation, understanding and patronization are muddy—and perhaps it's as well the poems read more as stylised chants or laments than as personalized expression. Kar's work is flecked through with colorful and vivid images and has a charming sense of archaism—not because the poet's usage is archaic but because, probably since he lives in India, his writing is devoid of US colloquialisms.
This "culture gap" may also be why I'm unable to "get" bits of the poems and it'd have been easier for me, as an "other-cultured" reader if the poet worked with an editor to trim and rework his pieces for wider accessibility.
Below, the entire poem, "Carpet", from a fourty year old Oraon tribal spinster … tortured, branded as Tohni (witch) to illustrate my points.
When he wanted to unfold the carpet
mutilate the knitting discoloring the thread
keep the fold undamaged
colours of the skin standing by birth
I get a punitive sanction
branded in mother's trade name;
the witch – to kill and ill the child
mercy petition quashed before hearing.
This trial is perpetual
a narrow escape from attempt to life
I bid an adieu;
to the belongings – my village, the life
motherhood, the gift divine
myths and misconceptions dominate
my youth remains old fashioned to the age.
Something to Exchange by Celia Gilbert (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX, 2009), 86 pages, paper. ISBN-13: 978-1935402343 $16
This is Celia Gilbert's fourth book of poetry, and many of its poems have appeared in prestigious journals, such as The New Yorker and Poetry. It is an easy collection to read, though that doesn't mean it lacks depth. "Poore Intricated Soule! Perplexed, Labyrinthical Soule!"—the book's opening epigraph—is from a John Donne sermon. The closing poem, "Dialogue," includes this epigraph from Yehuda Amichai: "The soul inside me is the last foreign language I'm learning." What occurs between is a kind of reconciliation (Tikkun), a coming to terms with loss, grief, and reparation before one's own death. Gilbert says of her own art, "[it] is concerned with the possibility of transformation: in portraits, nature, and abstracts I look for the transcendent, the place where the real merges with the ideal." This is also true of her poems.
The four unnamed sections move between questions and remembrances—the death of a child, the loss of a husband, the loss of a mother still present in body, the loss of family members, and a recurring allusion to the Holocaust and accompanied losses: identity, community, and a religion. "How to explain what no longer exists?" she asks in "A Day For Breathing". The poems express sorrow but are not depressing, and their questioning is more like discourses of a rabbi or Zen monk than of God directly:
What does it mean when he motions
the halos of light
towards his face?
Does he shield himself from it,
or bathe himself in it?
Anger and regret are transformative, as in "The Masseuse," where tenderizing the flesh initiates tenderness of the mind:
The dry bones crave flesh, the flesh
turns to a remembered caress,
turns to a comforting myth,
that something could reach our pain
to cradle then draw out
the anger, self-murderous.
The poem ends with everyone's desire: "to be known and not judged—"
There are a variety of religious references without the poems being religious—from Tibetan ("the brightest realm of non-being, unattainable") to a Catholic mourner ("wouldn't I have wanted to believe as she does— / …that pain has a purpose, that it isn't wasted?"), to the Jewish Sabbath in an eight-part poem ("the challah yellow as yolk. / Gold is cold. / Salt bestows crystals. / Teach the mouth, bitter, to praise.")
Gilbert's narratives recount stories, such as a pinhole photograph Marnie Cardoza and the powerful one of the Lodz ghetto from an accountant: "500 brassieres, 400 shoes, 600 suits" and "furs and hides, 8,130 kilos; / used shoes, 69,350 kilos; / used neckties, 12 kilos."
The loss that has informed Gilbert's life is freed from regret. Like the flight of birds whose "point enters / spilling its message", she engages the reader in her sense that
there is no possibility
of loss, the community
knows where it must go.
—Ellen Jane Powers