SPRING 2011: Reviews
"To Trap the Sun"
The Mirror's Merry Pranks
Alice Ages and Ages, by Sarah White (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX, 2010), 71 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-60964-028-6. $16.
Disenchanted with its trickery (even portraying her kitten as a bad-tempered Red Queen!), Alice throws out her looking glass, its promise of adventure, and determines to grow up—trusting only what she can see with her own eyes. Too soon, she discovers she has become septuagenarian and an inexplicable and ominous mass of purpled spider veins has made sudden appearance on her inner thigh:
you are an omen
and I, a mortal woman.
Tell my fortune.
The moment you realise with no permissible doubt, no way of looking away, that your body will crumble from within and take you with it, that is the moment explored in this collection. Alice's mirror returns with yet more surreal mysteries and morphings to tease her. Seven (mystical tarot number for inner truths) times seven, forty-nine times, with forty-nine different types of poems, prose poems, voices, word artistries, White replays that panic/disbelief.
She plays the moment backwards, in spoonerism, ad absurdum and song; in languages from Guadeloupean Creole through German and clumsy French/English to cell phone text; she plays it with virtuosity in styles Chaucerian,
She cryed out harrow! and allas!
For that hir skyn hadde changed colour.
Moore blewe, moore purpre than it was.
Quoth she: May nothing be my socour?
This is as merveyllous as the mirour
Of knightes, quenes, and Humptie Dumpties alle
I saugh whan that I was a mayden smale
Master Spider spins them
At Night—with Flesh—and Blue—
Then takes the Doilies upstairs
And Ravels them—anew—
…the countryside darkens with innumerable blue streams. I have often followed these purplish rivulets until, one by one, they plunge underground. In the depths to which they flow lies the City I seek. One day I will reach it, and on that day, my tale will end.
One telling, "Vocabulary Test," begins with the injunction: Use the following terms in a brief, coherent narrative: motorcycle, codicil, mayor, plethora, Rushmore, lozenge, detective.
Delightfully, the story is told with that impossible combination of words seamlessly included, and in that sequence! Another, "Grid of Secrets," invites you to take up a pencil and, against all your best upbringing, find and circle letters on the grid to discover a message from Alice. The message? Revise repeatedly.
Alice Ages and Ages engages with intelligence and wit. I revelled in the fun of each new page's new presentation of the book's "moment" and, every time, turned eagerly to discover the next. But, virtuosity aside, these pieces evoke the "million different thoughts jostling for attention in your head," an effect that accompanies grave news; they mimic the surrealism that descends at these times; they subvert any illusion we may nurture of the pin downable-ness of truth and reality.
Kitchen Smells and Dirt
The Bolt-Cutters by Thomas R. Moore (Brooksville, ME: Fort Hemlock Press, 2010), 80 pages, paper. ISBN 978-0-9826680-8-5. $10.
Here we have fifty-eight short poems that "Imagists" of the early twentieth century might well have admired. Written in free verse, these poems eschew the sentimental, the didactic, and the abstract, depending for their effects on the selection of concrete, evocative detail. In Moore's work, one could almost say "detailed detail," so much does he love to fill his poems with descriptions of things you can see, hear, touch, smell, and do, and so aptly does he find images that create an experience, an atmosphere, an emotion.
Apart from what Moore has seen in Turkey and Greece, his subjects come from ostensibly mundane things in his own life such as tools, a porcupine, an outhouse, farm work, construction work, teaching (and his flight from teaching!). He also writes about how an old woman kept her kitchen, and how his father, with whom he seems to have had an ambiguous relationship, shoveled snow. But Moore's imagery makes the ordinary interesting. He describes some college students, for example, as "wispwhiskered men and bright-feathered women," and he ends a series of images from the Bosphorus by observing, in a line full of possible connotations, "ripe figs that thumbs have split apart."
Vividness of description accounts for much of the exceptional clarity of Moore's poetry, which comes also from his use of normal syntax in complete sentences. But occasionally he makes poems of accumulated images in unpunctuated phrases. The last section of his book describes paintings in eight imagistic poems, written more or less in the Japanese tanka form.
In general, Moore's poems appear unpretentious, engaging, and easy to appreciate. If they have a fault, it would be the one that Conrad Aiken around 1915 charged in general against that era's practitioners of Imagism: They created, he said,
pictures pleasant and suggestive enough. But seldom
is any of them more than a nice description . . .
Of organic movement there is practically none.
Thoughts, insights, feelings do not grow much within or among Moore's short pieces. A poem that he wrote about writing a poem seems telling: "I have," he says, "some evocative lines" like "A gypsy girl sells flowers, her fingers curled around yellow calendulas and Darkbrowed Anatolian faces fill the tea stalls, but the poem isn't going anywhere." He cares most about the images themselves and grounds his poems in the reality around him. What he is after as a poet is the same as what he was after when he left classroom teaching, as explained in a poem that ends:
i want kitchen smells
No Ordinary Sense
Night of Pure Breathing by Gerald Fleming (Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2011), 70 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1934909157. $18.
This is a volume of prose poems by a prize-winning poet and former editor (Barnabe Mountain Review), and Fleming's second book of poetry. Though some may shy away, (we've all heard the arguments—prose poems are not poetry but prose), these poems would best be thought of as poetic micro-stories, and Fleming does a nice job of crossing narrative with a tight yet rhythmic delivery.
The book is neatly divided into three numbered sections. The first section opens with "Casa de Ambivalence," a poem that is fantastic in the literary sense. This entire section seems more fantastic than real, with the voices not quite making ordinary sense. Yet they are compelling reads.
In "Dressing Room" a boy "walks into the abandoned school" and comes across a woman and man, "tall, his face dusted thickly with charcoal—the charcoal sheened no longer fresh, as if his head & close-cropped hair have become charcoal, his great height & silence giving him more the aspect of a burnt post than of a man." A strange exchange takes place, with the boy engaging in their actions so that "[h]e, too, has become of service." As the boy notices the woman and man changing in their gestures and postures, the woman turns to him: "A hundred stripes are on her face, and as her hands begin moving over his arms she asks him, Am I becoming too familiar?" To which the boy replies, "Continue", and "her arms become liquid" and the boy "becomes liquid, becomes liquid again."
The second section has a strong sense of place: Mexico, Indonesia, Italy, and California. The micro-stories continue, and the language remains compelling in its descriptions and narratives, including a too-perfect place in Mexico in which "neither I nor anyone I know could live" (perhaps suggesting that without chaos there really is no creativity or pleasure); a place in Bali where a cheap pen becomes the obsession of an aging man who believes he can be transformed by it; and a shocking (but can't-stopreading- it) description of decaying bodies.
The last section more closely resembles reality than the others despite opening with the anthropomorphism of money (there are a few such poems in the volume, another being about the life of a smile). And the stories seem more personal. One such poem is "Opportunity," whether a real or imagined overheard conversation in which a father tells his 6-year old son: "Adam, because of that you've lost an opportunity. If you do it again you'll lose another opportunity." Fleming uses it as an opportunity to imagine the child working off opportunities only to "stay home in that repository of lost opportunities" and then alludes to an older version of the child not taking an opportunity to knockoff his father because he knows "well his ledger."
Though an oxymoron, these poems really are of everyman, just out of common experience. Perhaps in reading them real-life might be refreshed so that the ordinary no longer seems so.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Those Who Hail Semis
Living Must Bury by Josie Sigler (Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2010), 72 pages, paper. ISBN: 078-1-934200-36-0. $16.
Let's start with the table of contents, a rather unusual place to begin a book review. After epigraphs from Borges and Plath (which help frame the vision to follow— the former's "secret dictionary of God," the latter's "I shall count and bury the dead"), the reader encounters five pages of titles, which turn out to be the italicized portions of the 27 poems that follow. Like the epigraphs, these run-on listings serve as overture and heads-up: we're in for a wild ride, of language and experience.
Nearly every poem opens with a kind of biblical cataloging related to "those," as in "<em>those who hail semis, those seers, those canaries / blinded by lightning, those who start singing at midnight."
The lines that follow consist of an assemblage, a mix of remembrance, history and revelation. In the just-cited verse, for example, there are references to the Corn People, American soldiers, and God, as well as personal statement: "I have no prayers except my barter with the next life."
The first piece opens, "those who curse horses, who repeatedly fail to tithe," the italics jump-starting the flow, creating a kind of stream of energy that courses through the book. The words intrigue: who are those people "who curse horses, who repeatedly fail to tithe"? The imagery that follows only deepens the mystery, as the "I" in the poem is called further to "transmigrate / with no remembrance of the largess on the map of Jupiter" and stands before "the row of headstones, each the size of a dictionary." Where? What? How?
The poetry is accented with snapshots—a carnival, a shipwreck, the South, Appalachia—some of which recur. Leonardo, Galileo, and Jesus, among others, make cameo appearances (one poem features the Khmer Rouge, Kaspar Hauser Syndrome, Djuma, Psammetichus and Emperor Frederick II). As with Pound's Cantos, one needs footnotes, and Sigler provides a few at the end, identifying citations from Whitman, Jorie Graham, Carson McCullers, and Sappho, among others, and explaining that Degesch was the German chemical company that developed Zyklon B, the pesticide used in the gas chambers.
There are imagist fragments—"Rock fissure or red sneaker, / Daffodil petals on cement"—surrealist commingling—" O Buttercup, Poodle, Giraffe, Cuttlefish"—and bits of narrative: "And my aunt's neck when her braid caught in the auger, / wound like the woman trapped in a tower." A variety of devices—incomplete brackets and parentheses, numbers (as found in dictionary definition entries), self-instructions ("Refer to Art. 3 / of the Geneva Convention")—add to the crazy-quilt quality of the writing.
Sigler's verse is intensely shape-shifting; it can turn on a dime, from couplet to couplet, line to line. The verse is demanding in this respect, presenting an assortment of clues to some mystery that remains elusive. We tumble around as if in a flood, bumping up against objects and images, trying to make sense of what is going on, but in the end giving into the rush. And despite the occasional frustration and obscurity, it is a rush.
Tragedy Never Tiring
Nostalgic Waves from Soweto: Poetic Memories of the June 16th Uprising by Sol (Solrha) Rachilo (Grant Park, South Africa: African Perspectives Publishing, 2009), 85 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9814398-0-8. $19.45.
Sam Nzima's 1976 photograph of Antoinette Pieterson running alongside Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying the body of her 12-year-old brother, Hector; this is the world-renown image of South African shame in which policemen obeyed orders to shoot at thousands of peaceful protestors —most of them school children. A tragedy that seems never to tire, returning even this year in Libya.
Sol Rachilo drew from his personal memories, as well as from months of research into the charged political environment of Soweto during 1976 and 1977, to create this collection of poems to commemorate the day
Of "young guns" without guns
Pitted against the weight of the incumbent
The tanks and rifles of oppression.
– to commemorate times when scenes like this were common occurrence:
The bin that stands against the door
Clatters and spews its garbage
Boots stomping and kicking,
Boots levelled at sleeping heads
Rifling through our lives
Snatching our literature
Stealing our poems
But, asks the poet, what change has democracy really brought to the country, to our umZansi? His poems look hard at typical scenes in Soweto today; like the macabre witnessing of a vehicle hijacking, armed robbery, driver shot and left for dead. This, however, with a not-so-typical outcome: The man staggered towards his car
Slumped in the mud
Then, bleeding, looked up at me
And said: pointing at his skull
With an incongruous grin:
"That's number two,
The last bullet hole
Is right here
Under this steel plate.
This time I was lucky,
You could say it was a bull's eye!"
How long, cries Rachilo, will it take for our nation to cure itself, to rise above the inhumanity of its past? Here again his grim lines lament dead children; those newborn babies found, too frequently, discarded in a plastic bag on the trash heap:
Can a miracle emerge?
And curb our sick society
From this inhuman behaviour
So that once again umZansi
Can gain respect from the world at large
So we no longer need to hear ourselves called
The Rape Capital
Thirty-five years on from the death of young Hector Pieterson, seventeen years on from the country's liberation and reclamation of its literature and poems, Rachilo's poetry pulls no punches:
The freedom that rang from far
Is now at the doorstep
But what of it?