Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal

Summer 2010:
"Something New To Say To The Sea"
Reviews

Subversive Potential

Third Body by Michel Delville, translated by Gian Lombardo (Conway, MA: Quale Press, 2009), 70 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0979299971 $13.00.

If you believe poetry has no boundaries, then you'll find stimulating this fusion of ideology mixed with social commentary and surrealism (in the tradition of André Breton and the expression of thought rather than from the strangeness of the painter Salvador Dali). Delville's mostly prose poems are mind-bending, and no doubt meant to challenge the tradition of prose poetry but also social thought itself.

A 41-year-old Belgian writer, poet, and musician, Delville is the author of numerous essays from the vein of comparative poetics and has contributed to numerous jazzrock recordings as a guitarist, clearly already working in the intersection of interdisciplinary action and thought. This work begins with an epigraph from the Selected Writings of Paul Valéry: Therefore there's a Third Body. But it only achieves unity in our consciousness since you can only know it by having it sundered and smashed into bits. Valéry's Third Body belongs to the scientists because "it is made of what they know nothing about." With that as preparation, a poem prior to the first section orients us to the place where there is no monopoly on free thought and within dream's uninhibited language.

The majority of poem titles serve as the first line, which makes some of the titles themselves provocative: "When the thirteenth"; "For some embarrassing situations"; "You readily"; and "But social thought." Keeping in mind these are translations, the language of the poems is Latinate and of the mind rather than bodily and of images. These poems are meant to be slow and ponderous, thought provoking:

You readily

admit that
fascism is very much the synthesis
of mysticism and bestialism
—i.e., the paradoxical coincidence
of pleasure and inhibition —
but you are most reticent
to consider the consequences
of recent transformations
of the everyday sensation
of fear into an egalitarian
speech…

The juxtaposition of things with objects occurs several times. We speak about things without bothering to consider them as objects. We forget to examine the image that reflects our deeds and our statements. Yet, However, each // of our affections questions the relation between thought and thing. And just when you think you're only in the mind, flesh appears, usually as an object of thought:

when an afflux of blood disperses these thoughts
finally
despite all attempts to maintain
the harmony of tender bodily
extremities with their surrounding objects

Is there a call to convert//our ideas into material things, or perhaps to abolish death//by accumulating things equivalent to the objective immensity of capital in place of the perception of eternity? I am one who would like to know: Will you tell me the meaning of // this beautiful disorder? Delville's passion for challenging conventional thought and form is clear. His influences from the French surrealists are also evident, which makes this work all the more compelling in that challenge.


—Ellen Jane Powers


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"O Love Every Minute!"

Heart at the Edge of the Sea, poems by J. Stiles Askew, with photographs by Bob Alexander, Kate Armstrong, Austin Holdner, Paul Rifkin, and Paul W. Stiles (West Yarmouth, MA: ARTSHIPpublishing, 2008), 57 pages, paper. ISBN 0-9765975-5-1 $22.95
O love every minute of your childhood here The air is damp and misty on your eyelids and your brown cheeks glow

If you like fantasies of childhood, these poems are for you. Such sunny memories Ms. Askew has of growing up on Cape Cod. There the waves sing "lullaby upon lullaby," the sea washes her "clean in merriment," and, while watched over by her loving mother, she plays with a beach ball that draws her "forward with open arms." She goes clamming with her father just before dawn, joins in family picnics at the beach, builds sand castles, and searches for such "wonders" as little rocks and shells. She gets "drunk" on "salty air," gazes at clouds "tinged with rising rose and gold," and spots a fox who, yes, winks at her.

O, but something more makes this idyll entrancing— boys! "A beach girl knows" that her "peeping teenage bathing suit flesh tantalizes." Some hunk teasingly threatens to toss her in the waves—"how strong his holding arms!" She might play footsie with him when they go for a sail. And walking on the shore, she might "receive her first kiss," or even "a marriage proposal"!

Of course it's not all just fun in the sun. Grey days occasionally interfere. But even they are beautifully "opalescent," and the singing of birds can be enjoyed even in fog. If weather ever does get harsh, night will "tuck the storm in" and kiss it "goodnight." Beach denizens may include a self-hating old woman, but even she can be enticed to "laugh and chatter."

Amid all this golden glow, "a beach girl" also has a contemplative moment or two. She "learns to hear the ocean's roar, grows thoughtful at the tumult." She may even have "a dream of the drowning," which "could be the worst death"—but hey, it might instead be "the best life, rolling in the embrace of emotion . . ."! At the edge of the sea, she will "seek an abundance of joy . . . ."

Even the forms of these poems are uninhibited by stricture. They rollick in mildly cadenced free verse, varying in lengths of lines and stanzas. All the photos in the book seem sunny, even those of flowers in the rain and a cat in the snow. The book as a whole is a confection, as airy and frothy and mindless as the surf itself, celebrating a rosily remembered place where little could go wrong.

Alas, the world that most of us know is not quite like that. Even the best of our beach experiences likely included a stubbed toe, the sting of a jellyfish, sunburn, beach-grit in the sandwiches, or some lout kicking sand in our face before going off with our girlfriend. And oh, dear poet, what is that dark ooze in the water, gumming up the beaches and marshes, suffocating fish, immobilizing birds, spreading inexorably over our southern coasts? Maybe it won't reach Cape Cod. Maybe it won't blot out your gilded images.


—Gerald George


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Past, Present and Place

Ledger of Crossroads. Poems by James Brasfield. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2009). 56 pp. Softbound. ISBN 978-0-8071-3520-4 $16.95

An English professor at Pennsylvania State University, poet James Brasfield is a son of the South (Savannah, Georgia), but also closely tied to the Ukraine through a pair of Senior Fulbright Fellowships and award-winning translations of the poetry of Oleh Lysheya. Both settings play central roles in this, his first collection of poems, which captures the essence of the respective landscapes through resonant images and a deft mining of memory.

The opening poem, "Identities," carries an epigraph from Franz Kafka. The writer, aboard a tram, finds himself in a moment of existential doubt, which he confronts, as it were, by focusing on the ear of a nearby woman. In a similar manner, the speaker in the poem finds himself on a packed trolley somewhere in Eastern Europe, traveling through a gray world, the gloom relieved, so to speak, by ekphrastic riffs on two Matisse paintings, which provide a kind of grounding.

In the Ukraine-set poems, Brasfield references specific places and historical events (a few helpful notes at the back of the book explain more obscure citations). In the title poem, "Ledger of Crossroads," Kyiv (Kiev) is represented by its "static of centuries": "Black Death, famine, / broadsword and pike, sten-gun and bayonet." The poet, a resident of the modern-day city, witnesses a kind of eternal recurrence of the same: coffins hurriedly nailed shut and stray dogs "forming packs again." The city appears doomed to repeat its tragic past while the Dnieper flows on.

Brasfield's evocations of the South are also about time and change. Woodlands cleared for cabins or cut down for pasture; a "charred cross/in a field" recalls a time when "it was dark and no one could see." In "The Illness, 1960," a boy finds escape from a childhood fever in an illustrated copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Like a stowaway I inhabit / the boxwood engravings by Doré."

The presiding spirit for much of the book is Paul Celan, the Holocaust-haunted poet and translator from Bukovina, Romania (now part of Ukraine). The final section of the book, "The Relief," consists of a sequence of 14 poems of 14 lines each evoking Celan's birthplace, Czernowitz. Brasfield knows how to deploy the telling twist:

In the amusement park,
cavalry of the First World War trained
as children on the carousel.

He is a master composer too, weaving leitmotifs—poplars, masks, plaster and cast—to great effect.

Other memorable pieces are prompted by paintings by van Gogh and Robert Motherwell, tributes to Joseph Brodsky and the poet's father, and several pitch-perfect lyrics, including "Passage" and "Perigee." Brasfield summons the past and present with equal power, and his verse is built on a keen sense of place. Ledger of Crossroads is a haunting introduction to a sensibility and aesthetic worthy of our notice.


—Carl Little


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A Ritual Cycle

Ceremony for the Choking Ghost by Karen Finneyfrock, (Long Beach, CA: Write Bloody Publishing), 84 pages. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-9842515-4-4. $15.

This is Finneyfrock's second collection of poetry, written after her sister's death from heart failure left her unable to write poetry for three years. The poems twine around love and death, exploring the heart, that instrument of both in this case.

Finneyfrock is a veteran of the Slam Poetry scene. Her writing reflects some of the best of what slam poetry can do. The poems sing with subtle rhythms and are meant to be heard, as I had the pleasure of hearing them at the legendary Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, MA, home of the Boston Poetry Slam.

The book begins and ends with overture and coda, poems of spring and love. In the opening poem, "Back Around," the protagonist imagines her body as a carousel animal without control over the spin from season to season. Spring happens, as these lines from the first stanza spell out:


Spring
cut palm fronds
and snuck them
up my skirt...
Now my dress makes shushing noises
when I walk.

These poems balance delicately against each other; in love and death we are equally possessed. It is as if the whole book were arranged in sets of brackets, creating a loose narrative that digs deep, and then carries the reader out. In the second poem, Lot's wife says:

when we were young and blushed with youth
like bruised fruit. Did we care then
what our neighbors did in the dark?

The turn in the book comes, literally, in "The Right Screwdriver." The carousel, here a turntable, spins awkwardly carrying a misshapen thing: Half a heart is like half a vinyl record... followed by a litany of phrases Half a heart… and ending with: I don't feel so good, heartsick and understated.

She questions what will fix it. In the final stanza:

I sit in my room and listen to the needle fall
onto the turntable and thud
and thud and thud.

In the penultimate poem, "Rebecca And Her Lover Ate Oysters," a new way begins to open:

They were lesbians in love (eating oysters) in velvet over cocktails.

Rebecca finds a pearl in one of the oysters and:

Waiters danced around their table like they were a bonfire...
everyone offered to pay,
saying (but never loudly enough to be heard),
Here is enough reason, for one more day,
to keep vainly believing God loves us.

In the closing poem, "Like You Said It Would," we find resolution and love again as spring rolls around, mysterious and adolescent, as the protagonist opens to possibility:

The kids at school claim fevers,
hand their laughs to spring, new
and generous...

—Valerie Lawson


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Birds, Not Birds

Birds in Words: the Twitchers' Guide to South African Poetry compiled by Gus Ferguson and Tony Morphet (Roggebaai, South Africa: Umuzi (an imprint of Random House), 2006), 79 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-4152-0024-7 ZAR220.00

Birds in Words collects not only poems and illustrations of South African birds but also a good cross-section of South African poets, some of whom give slant insight into the starker aspects of life in this country and its history.

Even hadedahs cry
Snipping the sky into grief
For the child a chicknapper snatched
—Moira Lovell

and

Now as the streets are lit,
I feel the lurking thieves
Who seek their prey like hunters.

Here there is no river
To shelter lurking frogs
And harbour waterfront
– BW Vilakazi

Two poems from Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali were first published in 1971, during the depths of the Apartheid era and in both, the poet employs birds as means of critique of the social system and crazy laws of the time.

I wish
I was not a bird
red and tender of body
with the mark of the tribe
branded on me as a fledgeling
hatched in the Zulu grass hut.
Every day I see these insolent birds perched
on 'Whites Only' benches, defying all authority.
Don't they know of the Separate Amenities Act?

and later,


Oh! Holy Ideology! Look at those two at the crest
of the jumping impala, they are making love in full
view of madams, hobos, giggling office girls.
What is the world coming to?
Where's the sacred Immorality Act? Sies!

But the Khoikhoi people inhabited southern Africa centuries before the European colonisations and the intimate, more comfortable, relationship between them and the natural world around them is evident in the translations of traditional songs/poems included in the collection.

Dusty-sided ostrich,
Big bird that runs swinging your wings,
Belly that says chou-chou,
Man-ostrich that runs and seems to walk,
Give me a tail-feather!

from the Khoikhoi translated by Theophilu Hahn

and

the berries are up here upon my shoulder
rrrú are up here
the berries are up here
rrrú are up here
are up here
the berries are put away here on my shoulder

Kabbo selected and adapted by Antjie Krog

—Moira Richards


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Light Touch, Heavy Subjects

100 Papers: a collection of prose poems and flash fiction by Liesl Jobson (South Africa: Botsotso Publishing, 2008), 179 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-981406817 botsotso.org.za

Liesl Jobson's forte, flash fiction and prose poetry, are often two forms difficult to distinguish. In these one hundred short pieces Jobson covers a broad spectrum of subjects ranging from life as a police officer in the South African Police Service, through another life as bassoonist in an orchestra, to (not) living in an abusive relationship.

At Diepkloof's Aliens Investigation Unit a kindly captain recovered my heart from the defunct fountain. Alerted by an uncommon rustling while she filed a repatriation report she knew immediately whose heart it was. So pale, so under-developed it could only be a white girl's heart. And she knows hearts, that full-breasted captain.
She told me she often finds lost ones on the train to Mozambique.
Illegal aliens lose them all the time at Johannesburg station.

"Under my SAPS Star"

I remind my musician how he found the slivers of my betrayed heart, picked them up, held them tenderly while I buried old roles: scapegoat, scarlet woman, parish pariah.
Custody-cheated I mourned my children, while, with meticulous care, my best boy pieced the fragments of my heart back together. I tell him again how he seamed them, sang them—slowly, beautifully back in place.

"Mr Fixit's Lament"

Her style is understated, subtle, light of touch—even when her pen touches the heaviest of subjects. The poem, "One Hundred Babies," begins

Madiba invites me to enter the well at dusk. He gives me a lily, a cross and a drum; and his good wishes. He takes my hands in his and says, "Be strong. Our country needs your work." If I complete one hundred quilts before dawn, all the orphans with AIDS will be well.
The well is an ammonite, curling into the dark; a tunnelling of fabrics, and I am eager to serve. But a single quilt can take a year, can take twenty-seven.

For the next few paragraphs the narrator whirls desperately with her lily and cross and drum, through chamber after chamber of pastel coloured fabric, half-sewn quilts, tools, templates, and

When the clock strikes midnight, I rush through a room where beads and buttons and sequins become freckles and eyes and tears.

And soon, much too soon…

One hundred quilts or they will all die. The sky, a long way up is turning orange. The ibis shrieks to greet the sun. No good fairies appear, nor wizened crones. The quilts don't piece themselves together and I can't silence that first bird.
The lily, the cross and the drum were never meant for the quilts. In the middle of the ammonite is the old man's pick and shovel. Earth and lime, waiting for one hundred tiny caskets.

—Moira Richards



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A Thoughtful Craftsman

Steerage by Bert Stern (Somerville, MA: Ibbetson Street, 2009), 94 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9795313-8-5 $15

We are born into the middle of things. Our consciousness and ultimately our art impose order on our experience. Those who are rich in family and culture extend their understanding in conventional ways, for instance, a time line. But the good poet always retains the immediacy of direct experience. Although the poems in Steerage have a roughly chronological line, we are always face against what happened. From the smells and sounds of immigrant transport to dirt and disorientation of death's days, these poems carry us from one experience to another. While the composite poems of the first section and the long poem of the last each have a unity of point of view, the poems in the broad middle come at us from varied characters. The unifying principle is a culture that yields spare expression akin to the familiar story that can be elaborated by a one-page poem or told in a single line. But oh, what lines!

The wind sounds like your voice,
furious, indifferent
(Spring and Fall)

Inside the open stove
a bustling city glows.
Who knows how to live there?
(Sal's Pups)

Like everyone, I'm made of stars
And birds, the leaves of trees.
(Wings)

and even
modest stones remember: Long
before glacier we were fire
(Blackberries)

just out the window, where the cars
lie dreaming like black cats.
(Men)


White-Throated Sparrow
Always a white-throated sparrow
singing on a mountain top, and somebody
there listening to it for the first time.
That's what you need to believe,
at least, as your eyes stroke the ruffled
nap of the peak across the valley
and you hear the sweet call again,
as final as it ever was, leaving nothing
to say beyond the five notes of its saying.

Thus the concise beauty of art hammered out by a thoughtful craftsman.


—Michael Brown


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________________________________________________

Editor's Note

Snow Chairs by George V. Van Deventer (Snow Drift Press, 2009), 38 pages. $6.

George V. Van Deventer, founding editor of Off the Coast, sent us a copy of his new chapbook. We wish to recommend it to all who know George and to anyone else who might be interested in the poetry of our forebear or just good poetry.

Contact:
Snow Drift Press
PO Box 205
Bristol, ME 04539


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