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SPRING 2016: "The Strong Indifferent Wind"

Through the Window

Somewhere Piano by Sarah Busse (Woodstock, NY: Mayapple Press, 2012), 56 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-936419-13-5 US$14.95

This collection crept into me slowly: a gathering of poems threaded with images of birds, music, and the often mundane, often solitary and constraining world of mothering young children—much like that of a caged bird in which there is time and (lack) of space enough to focus on the minutia that surround you. Sarah Busse's poems describe life from within the confines of her home, her kitchen, her daily forays for domestic neccesities—and spin these experiences into the orphic.

The long poem at the centre of the book and entitled, Orphic, distills the poet's skill:

                  A thud, heard
from the kitchen. Some what?—a fledgling robin smack
                                into the picture
                 window—brought me running,
swooped the parent in . . .

Succeeding stanzas narrate the parent robin's reluctant return to its nest and remaining nestlings after futile attempts to revive the chick; narrate two cardinals and a finch who then took turns to sing to the downed fledging—hour after hour through the heat of the day the fledgling remained motionless as those little birds sang

                 until

                 a woozy feather, stirring. The redbirds
turned back and whistled a signal cheer.
                              Back roared the finch (where
                                              did he come from?), in flew
the parent robin—

And after the fledging has recovered enough to fly away with its parent, and after the other birds have flown off too, Busse returns into her poem and concludes with the lines:

And there I perched, at that window by the stairs.
                 It was tossing light, and leaves, and nothing more
and nothing else until my daughter woke and off I flew
                                  to my own affairs.

Her reminder, with this lovely parable to the African proverb—that it takes a whole village to raise a child—means that it is not nothing more and nothing else with which we, her readers, are left.

Other poems here also dwell on life not lived, so much as observed through a window: watching the children at their swimming lesson; watching four crows raid a rabbit's nest of its young while the narrator boils eggs to feed to her own kids for their breakfast; and, in a sonnet musing on the demise of libraries and books and their replacement by computer tecnologies, the stark conclusion:

And we've let the sunshine in from floor to ceiling
with our improved technologies of glass.
The view is stunning. The windows cannot open.

That last line is indeed something like what parenthood feels like—wonderment within the cage of responsibility for the new life you've brought forth—and Sarah Busse mulls that paradox in other poems too. Drinking Song begins:

They both briefly dream of deserting
their spouses, kids, and careers,
but they're mostly just fond of the flirting,
being too well acquainted with tears.

And on the opposite page, Blossom is an Impossible Word, a poem in which "the lawn is a wide green stretch / wade-able, maybe, but no bridges" ends with the stanza:

It's all trembling and fertility, choices made and
here is a life. We can only try to open a little
wider than the umbrellas tumbled to dry,
blossomed and blossoming under the generous eaves.

— Moira Richards, George, South Africa

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"Let us talk of tides / and the slow smooth / wash of weathers"

Plumb Line by Steve Luttrell (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015), 90 pages, paper, ISBN 978-1-58394-894-1. $12.95

Portland-based Steve Luttrell's sixth full-length collection of poetry carries an epigraph from Robert Creeley's poem "The Dishonest Mailmen":

The poem supreme, addressed to emptiness—
this is the courage
necessary.

Creeley (1926-2005), who lived in Waldoboro and taught for a time at the University of Maine, was known for what critic and poet Albert Mobilio has described as "diluted minimalism, the compression of emotion into verse in which scarcely a syllable is wasted."

Luttrell is squarely in the Creeley school, a deft composer of spare poems—nothing superfluous, nothing lacking. Of the 87 poems here, only a few stretch to a second page, and even fewer feature lines that contain more than four words. Here's a small gem titled "New Poems":

     My wife asks
"any new poems?"
     and I wonder
          are there

any new poems?

In a brief foreword to the collection, Luttrell states, "The poem should stand as testament to its own immediate impulse." Here is the crux of his work: verse that testifies to the immediacy of the inspiration.

Luttrell often finds his inspirations in quotidian events and simple loves—the "constant company" of dogs, a becoming sunset, loons performing "their evening song," watching a woman dress for the day. The distance traveled between the beginning of a poem and its conclusion is sometimes profound, considering the brevity of the verse. The 18-line "Tides," for example, opens with these lovely alliterative lines:

Let us talk of tides
and the slow smooth
wash of weathers,

and ends, rather abruptly, at another place:

and the people
go to memories
and to silence.

Aside from dashes, Luttrell eschews punctuation pretty much entirely, which makes for increased engagement in the meaning and flow of the individual poem (not unlike what one finds in W. S. Merwin). Here is the ending of "K." (from Kafka?):

everyone
stands accused

at some point
in the future

a knock comes
at the door.

There are few misfires here. "September 11th" seems overstated—which might seem like a strange way to criticize a poem about that tragic day. In a similar manner a poem like "Landscape with Machines" with its incantatory "machines are our companions" comes off as commentary. At the other end of the spectrum, Luttrell offers "light" verse, as in "Perspectives," a series of three-liners:

to the dung beetle
it's all a
bunch of crap.

Some of my favorite poems include a kind of punch line—a twist at the end that you didn't see coming. In the wonderfully erotic "Desire is," Luttrell describes a woman naked "in the light / of a late winter sun" and his longing to touch "that place / that makes you shine." In the end, he messes with our anticipation of a roll in the sheets: "

while you show me
what new muscle
you have made

working every morning
at the gym.

As founder and "publishing editor" of The Café Review, which marked its 25th anniversary last year, and former Poet Laureate of Portland, Luttrell has played a vital role in the New England poetry scene—and beyond: the review has published translations of the work of poets from around the world. Lucky for us he has kept his pen to the paper.

— Carl Little, Mount Desert, Maine

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Church of Needles by Sarah Sousa (Santa Fe, NM: Red Mountain Press, 2014), 82 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9855031-8-5. US$17.95

First, poems of extraordinary and ordinary heroisms: a man leaps onto railway tracks to pin another man safely down as a train rumbles over the two of them; a handyman swabs endless floor, his voice accompanying—not singing—songs on the radio ("he knows / it's the safest / way to scream"); an elderly woman with her husband in a park, he responding falteringly to her efforts to help him retrieve fading memories, remembering everything—except who she is.

Unforgiving, uncomfortable reading until Section I closes with advice of sorts: how to be a hero, how to fly up and above the scarinesses of life—after reaching a place to jump from,

Invest not in flight, but falling.
The most you can do is believe
air is measured in fathoms
and bottomless, that earth is a myth
created by birds who would kill for a rest.

Section II opens with yet more stark imagery, and a question:

Sunk to its knees in the field,
broken-backed, past raiding;
the chicken coop contains the field.

What is it that loves disorder,
leading the eye to crave breakage
and fulfills that idea?

The section continues with poetry of broken birds, broken men, women and children, a broken world. Its word pictures are vivid, bleak. "Feathers fall away from bone / as if alien to the bone." A soldier describes how

At Gettysburg, at Spotsylvania,

bones from the last campaign crunched
beneath our feet. Skulls caved in and fed the soil.

Two decades later, his wife writes that her husband "threatened to split my head open again." Photographs record (their?) ghost children,

bruised and stained or perpetually youthful;
dead children posed to look asleep:
a last photograph to remember.

Landscapes shatter like a flock of birds,

like something whole
shot apart, like buckshot
spattering the sky.

And perhaps this brokenness, this craving for disorder cannot but be our all, our deserts, our enough—

the-flock-flown-to-pieces,
resolving in what we settle for:
pointillist composition.

The poems and the birds in Section III bring dark augery of death: compelling, calamitous death as when

superstition says the dead may appear
as nighthawk or horned lark: the spirit's
last guise before it leaves this world for good.
What if birds turn up by the dozens, turn up dead?

So much destruction, so much loss; so many burdens, so many might-have-beens in this poetry in which "God lingers in places, / halfheartedly."

But then, lights of understanding—"One thing / is always digesting another"—and reprieve: our "new garden not yet / overrun with thorns." And last, together with imagery of the inevitability of soul and body separating "like milk from cream," there is beauty and defiance:

O honey, dear zest.
I can't relinquish
my issued robe
and trenchant dreams
with the butter still melting
on my tongue, with the soft
white cap of the egg
just lifted off.

And perhaps this is true heroism: living a life in full cognizance of its death—and seeing beyond the ghastly into the grace.

— Moira Richards, George, South Africa

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