SPRING 2012: "Green"
Moving House by Angela Alaimo O'Donnell (Cincinnati, OH: Word Press, 2009), 95 pages, paper. ISBN 978-1934999721. $18.00
Saint Sinatra by Angela Alaimo O'Donnell (Cincinnati, OH: Word Press, 2011), 94 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1936370337. $19.00
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's poetry is about good and bad, saints and sinners, the stuff of daily news which emphasizes the edges of life, taking for granted safe middle ground. It's about her roots, such as are available to an American family one or two generations removed from the old country. Because they are about family, her poems yield clues to her own essence, something she must objectify in order to know herself as she makes her way in American culture? In "Lies" she begins
Our favorite set, the operating room
Our favorite plot, death by folly
Death lurks in the coalminer's company house:
The floor sloped sharp
in the cavernous dark…
as if the weight of our play
would cause subsidence and collapse
plunge us straight to Hell's own doorstop
This echo of Jay Parini's Anthracite Country is expected, as he grew up just a few miles from O'Donnell in the Wyoming Valley along the Susquehanna River. For her, poetry has a sacramental quality. A ramshackle dwelling mutates into a tabernacle for the Antichrist. Folly follows:
Other girl's mothers sold Avon, Bee-line, Tupperware
My mother took lovers, Young ones,
Dark ones, True ones.
These are quality guys who can sing and woo with style. The "Blues Man," unfortunately by folly, ending up killed in an alcohol-related automobile accident. Her mother, a main character, is fraught with contradictions; she loves men in the neighborhood and also loves traditional Christian saints. O'Donnell transfers mother's love for the "Blues Man" to Frank Sinatra. She leaves pop and a house in coal town for a church where the saints are understood as artists: Melville, Van Gogh, Milosz, Merton, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Heaney, and Christians: Peter, Thomas, Lazarus, Mary, and members of religious orders: Brothers and Sisters who "speak in tongues" and see "not with the eye." These traditional heroes and heroines are often honored in sonnets, as O'Donnell moves toward new formalism. The artists redeem her mother with Keatsian beauty and the Christians with truth.
Every poem speaks a sacrament,
blood of blessing, bread of the word,
feeding me full in language ancient
as Aran's rock and St. Kevin's birds. "St. Seamus"
The saxophonist "St. Clarence" intones:
Take us with you
Saint of Sax,
as you palm each rung,
climb the ladder of passion,
forgetful as noon,
far as the midnight
the human doomed & tragic romance.
As you would expect from a Catholic poet, O'Donnell benefits from G. M. Hopkins. Part of her motivation in revealing family secrets may be to invoke the redemptive quality of confession. The poet gives her wayward, dead mother to the care of the artist-saints.
A Backlit Leaf
God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World by Rebecca Foust and Lorna Stevens (Philadelphia: Many Mountains Moving Press, 2010), paper, 80 pages. ISBN: 13: 978-1-886976- 24-5. $15.95.
All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song by Rebecca Foust (Philadelphia: Many Mountains Moving Press, 2010), paper, 80 pages. ISBN: 13: 978-1-886976- 24-5. $15.95.
What are today's nature poets finding in the woods? Rebecca Foust is among those to whom we may look for an answer. In God, Seed, she has joined with artist Lorna Stevens to produce a handsome, quality paperback about the natural world. Paintings and drawings, many in color, are coequal contributions, impressive in their vitality, complementing the poems without necessarily illustrating them. But my question is addressed to the poet.
In Part I, Foust finds in nature a luxuriant sensuality, a rich profusion of natural sights, sounds, and smells. She writes in free verse of "the cricket-sung, grass-sweet dark," a persimmon's "rich river pudding, plush and pulp," and a garden's "sweet mulch, sorrel and sunlight churned by the bees into curds of thick, thyme-scented honey."
In Part II she finds nature under attack and protests the pesticides that kill song birds, chemical spills that have "sickened the groundwater," and whatever it is that deranges honeybees. She fears extinction of species, nuclear proliferation, and our own self-betraying, destructive genes.
We walk a land that's charted. Even as some war
ends somewhere, somewhere a war has started.
The book's third and last part seems a miscellany, less focused, as if after first finding Eden in the woods and then the threats to it, she has wandered haphazardly back. She mixes free verse with a villanelle and a prose poem. She ponders human deaths but also the joy of eating oysters. She sees a winter sky as "a wound,"
. . . vivid and gashed, each day
bound to the last with dark thread.
But toward the end (where the artist gives us bright flowers), she retreats into cliché—"Despite the pain . . . spring will come." Nonetheless, one finds skill, imaginativeness, and thoughtfulness in poems in all three parts of the book.
The second book Ms. Foust published in 2010 (containing a few of the same poems) has much more to tell us. Its poetry describes the part of Pennsylvania in which she grew up, where mines are "mined out and the Railroad dead, engines rusted to tracks." Nature here is reduced to "sludge, what once was a river," and means of survival:
a hundred-year oak is two weeks' cordwood,
a doe is meat roped to the hood of your car.
The people live in "soot-soaked" quarters. Suffering from alcoholism, disabilities, domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies, lung sickness, inbreeding, mental disintegration, aging, poverty, they "long just for anything not broken." But amid the pain and sadness, she still finds irrepressible beauty: "Have you seen the trees' fierce diadems after the ice storms?" She also finds that "the mind is adept at shoring things up," that hope lives "in the nucleus of anything," and that one can still delight in "birdsong, watersong, and slanting light." In an apt summation, the book's last poem says this of the coming of autumn:
The whole falls apart, but still
each bit glitters, glitters, brown diamonds on water.
Look outside and you'll see it, the barest nuance
of season, one backlit leaf against a dark bough.
Wildness within Walking Distance by Robert M. Chute (Topsham, ME: Just Write Books, 2011) 34 poems with introduction and color photographs, 80 pages, paper. ISBN 978-934949-37-5. $19.95
Robert Chute takes the reader into living landscapes close to his present home and enriches the experience with reference to history, geography and philosophy. The poet writes that he is more interested in careful observation of what is "wild" and nearby than in glorification of famous wilderness already adequately protected and extensively described in the work of others.
Chute's several references to Henry David Thoreau include quotations at the opening of three sections of poems: "Earth," "Water" and "Stone." He compares Thoreau's detailed accounts of Massachusetts "woodlots and farmlands" to his own "undeveloped pocket environments of south-central Maine." In the book's introduction he laments the "natural resource inexorably shrinking as woodlots turn to house lots, as those who move in to enjoy the country consume it."
While the quality of Chute's poems is variable, placed together with his pictures, they evoke awareness of familiar territory. No matter that a reader from elsewhere never heard of "The Chillman Place," a poem of that title invites exploration of local history and how a family name survives in an old cellar hole now filled with "one fallen tree, a cast-off bed spring, / rusted cans and pots…." Those of us who have volunteered to help more recent Maine residents build trails in the woods might relate to Chute's account of a path admired for its curves that is actually the practical result of getting around "a rock too big to move" and a large pine tree.
The book gives a few hints that Chute is highly educated, kind of old, and interested in a wide world of thinking, bringing it all down to the earth he walks on. In "Rosh Ha-Shanah at Upper Range Pond," Chute mingles religious language with a very ordinary act of feeding bread crumbs to sunfish:
Their eyes, like the eyes of God,
never close. One by one I cast
my sins away. Wide eyed,
fishes rise to take them in.
In a poem titled "Don't you see the trouble of the day, the Dharma asked?" Chute turns to the Buddha for image and inspiration. He bounces to German philosopher Martin Heidegger in a poem that explores the concept of "Die Seinfrage" in the context of a split boulder, quoting, "Being just happens to happen…"
The poet's family, he writes, moved to Maine in 1738. Chute's Maine authenticity binds together the book's 34 poems and his place-specific photos.
Dew Like Beads
Making a Clean Space in the Sky by Paula Yup (Dublin, OH: Evening Street, 2011), 70 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-937347-01-7.
Paula Yup has long been a contributor and subscriber to Off the Coast, and, evident in her first published book of poetry, she has also been a good many things to others and in a lot of places. I am reminded of my old college professor who waxed poetically about the "net of words," a metaphor to explain how we catch some of the meaning, but not all of it. Paula Yup's meaning-catcher also has something of the spider web about it. One filament connects to Hawaii, another to Vermont, then Occidental College, Cape Cod, Baja, California, and most recently the Marshall Islands. The interstices, the poetic connections keep turning up some of the same fish, for instance, her nearly being choked to death by her father. In Las Vegas, her sister-in-law of the beautiful breasts who is dying of cancer prompts the question for all of us: "what do you call this story / of somebody's life?"
But there also run skeins of delight in people and nature. Places seen and lovingly remembered:
Making love in the Painted Desert…
The pastel buildings of Macau…
Getting an all-body tan on Wreck Beach in Vancouver…
Kawabata's house in Kamakura with all his things
Taking a walk with a Finnish friend
and seeing a spider web with dew like beads on it
on a trip to Mt. Fuji…
Much of her experience is captured in passing, or as she says, "Out of the Corner of My Eye:"
or maybe it's something beside the outrigger canoe
or an Oceanside next to the coconut crab
crawling on the steps in front of a yellow house
or maybe it's in the eyes of that guy over there
But always, it is her in nature, in place, in love:
so swiftly the years of my life a dream
and so often when I wake up to see blue
walls and face another day my island
is a place where I think of love
next to palm trees and the lagoon.
A Hose, a Gutter, a Glass
Dissolves. Terra Lucida IV-VIII by Joseph Donahue (Greenfield, MA: Talisman House, 2012), 160 pp. paper. ISBN 978-1-58498-078-0$ 17.95
Joseph Donahue's poetry emulates this limber verb "dissolve," offering fade-ins and -outs, vanishing points and breakdowns, a blurring of one place or vision even as another is clarified. Working in short two-lined stanzas, he offers a wide world view that mixes dream and vision with the tangibles of the personal.
Dissolves opens with an image of the first tide of light washing over the Earth and a gardener startling a snake among the ivy. In the second, a girl in turquoise stands before the Torah singing of "impurity and betrayal." Donahue draws on other cultural phenomena, be it the artist Dan Flavin, known for his fluorescent light sculpture, or film-making, as in this reference to a great Russian cinematographer:
During down time on the set
wherever he was filming
a hose, a gutter, a glass
a sluice or stream or creek—
the slip of silver
Donahue uses various tools, such as alliteration and ellipses, to shape the flow of his verse. He also employs repetition to create a litany, using phrases like "must be" to energize his narrative. His lines and thoughts can turn on a dime; and if you don't always know where he is leading you, the journey is engaging—from a Manhattan hospital to a "pit / of first light" to a vacant beach house in a matter of a couple of pages. You move from temple music to a pageant at the mall, from spiritual physics to a librarian arriving for his evening shift.
Vignettes and extended riffs offer an intriguing montage: Cape Cod in 1963 when Jackie Kennedy loses her child; Jimi Hendrix's "Hear My Train"; burning trash while listening to a guard at Walpole Prison give updates on the Boston Strangler. Especially rich are his explorations of autobiography: life in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts (he now teaches at Duke), and memories of his mother, a coloratura singer who drew his attention to the breaths between notes sung by Beverly Sills and Roberta Peters.
The "Terra Lucida" series is a cycle of poems Donahue embarked on around 1995. In an essay on his work in the Chicago Review last year, Peter O'Leary called the poetry apocalyptic as well as "dazzling, literary and esoteric." Donahue is a poet of end times, and you will need to look up various references along the way. Yet in acknowledging final days the poet is apt to feature a couple of junkies drenched by a post-Katrina tidal surge climbing into a kiddy pool floating by. That's what dazzles: the extra in the ordinary.
Fumbling in the Light by Sidney Hall Jr. (Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2008), 100 pages, hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-9801672-2-1. $21.95.
Nicolas Jenson, a typographer in 15th century Venice, broke away from the gothic script of his day and composed what we know as roman type, which gives white space a greater role. Sidney Hall typeset his own book, and chose Adobe Jenson Pro as the typeface. Given the theme of his book—multiple kinds of light and darkness and their relationship to poetry—it is an appropriate font that has space within its dark letters.
One of the darkest periods in recent American history is that of 9/11. In Hall's book, divided into four sections, a section-long poem, "The Great North Woods," explores the writing of poems between the light and dark of that aftermath. It begins, "
This is the Great North Woods,
the land of cemeteries without fences,
where dead spill out almost into the road.
Then it shifts midway, in the thirteenth section
Perhaps there is room here
to mention the full moon
that came up swiftly behind a cloud
and gives way to sleep for the narrator, a relief from hearing about "falling bombs." Fluctuations between ruminations of war and of the act of staying in a cabin with his dog run throughout this nine-page poem.
Another section, devoted to a series of subtitled poems under the heading "The Marginal Way," a footpath along the coast of Maine in Ogunquit, asserts judgments upon the encounters the narrator experiences along the Way:
I count the families as pairs unless
the man or the woman is pale and scornful,
then they count as singles.
And as if to remind us that the art of poem-making is not merely the poet's beatific descriptions of "rivers and birds and tides and trucks / and you have seen yourself in them", you, reader, should "Stop again, lest you think / such poems are poems about boats and rivers / and birds and tides and trucks." This echoes Hall's assertion on the overleaf: "poems, like all of our lives, are part of our search for meaning."
As a design, Hall's book has a pleasing sense of spacing. A simple flourish surrounds the page numbers, and apostrophes float between the two letters, not seeming to belong to either one—a visual balance of light and dark. The gray scale section numbers above the black lettered section names also have a play of light and dark. Clearly, Hall's book encompasses on multiple levels the shifting shadows of living in the world.
The imagistic style of early William Carlos Williams appears an influence on "Cherries": "The cherries from / a roadside stand // sit in a wooden bowl / on a wide table" and in "Strawberries": "The strawberries are as / delicious as fire." And, more directly, Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," in "Some Things are Impossible": "Try pushing the red wheelbarrow / across your green lawn." Other poems in the collection also have a picturesque feel to them, an objective description in the spirit of Williams, and these poems are like stepping stones among the light and dark of poem-making, of being along the shore or in the woods within a world gone crazy.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Granite State I and II
From the Box Marked Some Are Missing by Charles W. Pratt, 96 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9801672-8-3
Earth Listening by Becky Sakellariou, 72 pages, paper, and CD. ISBN: 978-0-9801672-9-0
These are, respectively, volumes I and II of The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series (Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2010) $15 each.
Charles Pratt is a retired English teacher who has owned and farmed an apple orchard with his wife.
What's he doing, you'd wonder, here in the very
Middle of the woods, shouldering logs from a stack
Someone cut and left so long ago
How could it promise any significant heat
Across two hundred branch-littered, bouldery
Yards to drop them onto a raggeder heap?...
He's on Frost's territory in subject, form and method, using a perfectly ordinary task of moving a woodpile to speak metaphorically about his work as a poet. The loosely rhymed sonnet admits he's doing a job that's been done before, even using someone's wood from long ago for his own ends. However, the poet's work has its own reward:
Going. And when a log slips from his shoulder
At last, like guilt or a cherished injury,
For a moment he's almost light enough to fly.
Fair enough, but where the book picks up for me is in the previously uncollected poems. These tell us something important about our lives. Pratt is working with his own material here, not someone else's. I especially want to mention "The Merger," an epithalamion celebrating marriage by comparing it to a memory he has of himself, much younger, driving a "tinny pink / Renault Dauphine, my Little Toot." Driving along, he "tried to get by a tanktruck on / A bendy road too briefly straight." Of course, as he's gunning the engine to try to pass, an oncoming car approaches, and "the blue / Of ice I hadn't seen." The little pink car goes out of control, briefly, and Pratt feels "Only the sweet certainty of / Submission, call it love." He spins off the road, unharmed except for a dented roof and flat tire. I won't give away the poem by explaining how this all becomes an extended metaphor for marriage and married love, but this poem is worth the price of the book and deserves to be anthologized.
Becky D. Sakellariou's Earth Listening is a first full-length collection. Sakellariou, who spent most of her adult life in Greece, now divides her time between Greece and New Hampshire, and the poems reflect this. We get plenty of poems set in both places, and the theme of distance and the desire distance can awake play out through the book.
The poems in the opening and ending sections are weaker than the middle sections, which are chock full of good stuff. When Sakellariou focuses on the present moment and place, rather than giving in to a semi-nostalgic yearning for the "not here, not now," the poems become powerhouses. Take the start of "Intermittent Observations":
The tangle of the autumn moon
licks the lines of the Contoocook River
as I drive home in the dark,
and Monica tells me that apple-picking
has lasted barely a month—
deer have eaten most of the blossoms.
My friend Tandy took a shotgun,
emptied it into her stepfather's grave.
Who would not weep?
The shock in those lines does not feel forced nor gratuitous. These are our lives, this is what we do to survive. Later, the poet is in church, where "the first gay Episcopalian Bishop in the history of anything / gave a sermon." She gives in her parents' names to be read in the Commemoration Service for the Faithful Departed, as she tells us:
I hoped it might help my father
who cannot seem to leave
my living room filled with his chairs,
send him off to that still blue home.
These are our ghosts. This is how we live with them.
There are many, many poems in this book that wrestle with hard questions, admitting to love and to the tangled and uneasy truths of human love. Sakellariou writes without much recourse to rhyme and meter, but her language falls naturally. The lines feel unforced, but strong as stones. She thinks about how to say what she wants to say and there's authority here.
Overall, the first two volumes in this series are strong and varied enough that it will be a series to watch. I wonder how many other presses around the country are focusing in on one state or another, and what we could learn from each other.