SUMMER 2012: "Sparkler Circles"
Coyote Bush: Poems from the lost coast by Peter Nash (Somerville, MA: Off the Grid Press, 2012), paper, 69 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9778429-5-7. $15.
Like Robinson Jeffers, who had medical training, Peter Nash writes from his hermitage on the Pacific coast. The scenes change not because you travel along it, but due to subtle changes, day to day, in the activities on a gentleman's farm. Like Jeffers, Nash writes about a hawk:
Then a terrible squawk, a flutter of feathers,
And the hawk struggled back into the sky
his braided feet clutching a hen, its neck broken.
…… But the hawk could not hold.
But Nash doesn't mourn this death as did Jeffers in "Hurt Hawks," where he notoriously wrote that he would rather kill a man than a hawk. Nash was only disappointed that the hawk muddled a play.
Descriptions follow of gopher, coyote, buzzard, grasshopper, dog, sparrow, mouse and horses. In "Buzzard" he expresses an ironic indifference to death:
Flapping to the smeared ground
you waddle into the bloody conference
of black-robbed brethren. A few hisses
to divvy the dead.
Any body will do.
He echoes Samuel Beckett in expressing indifference to time without the irony, as in "Sepia Print":
I was shoveling horseshit
It seemed to me this day
could stand for any of my days
A main character in this book, his wife is described in "The Garden":
She put the garden in by herself,
mixed peat moss and fertilizer in the wheelbarrow
then eased dozens of roses
into chocolate earth.
Falling into prose, he redeems himself in the same poem by an exquisite emulation of Robert Frost:
She loves the feel of dirt between her palms,
the shovel against her boot,
the pull of the hose against her hip,
the heft of buckets dragging her shoulders.
Again, he would have given us an iambic pentameter if in his line:
who pulled a fish wagon through the neighborhood
he had used "cart" instead of "wagon."
Nash does not directly discuss cases from his medical practice, as does physician-poet Rafael Campo. Indeed this poet presents his hermitage as a happy one with his energetic, loving wife, visits from children and animals on a gentleman's farm with only hints of troubles. His voice is that of a master-physician, empathetic, sensitive to nuance, and content to wind down an effective, prestigious career. If you are thinking yourself about retirement, you might do well to consult with him.
A Long Struggle
Azanian Love Song by Don Mattera (Grant Park, South Africa: African Perspectives Publishing, 2007), 116 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-620394864. ZAR145 or $22.95 USD.
Azanian Love Song is a revised edition of Donato Francisco Mattera's collection published first in 1983, and therefore written during the last decades of apartheid South Africa, and during the years the poet was banned by the government of the time. A banning order meant a person was effectively silenced; not allowed to meet with, or communicate with compatriots. A banned poet's poetry could not have been published or disseminated in any way. The effect of this isolation is conveyed in Contamination, a lament dedicated to the many other activists also banned or placed under house arrest…
But now you look away
For fear of contamination
Who can tell what the morrow brings
For the leper who walks alone
Mattera sets the tone of the book with the first poem, Blood River which makes reference to the 1838 battle between a small group of Voortrekkers (pioneers) and a large army of Zulu warriors. The battle that December 16th claimed some 3 000 lives, all Zulu. At the time of Mattera's writing, the Afrikaaner victory was celebrated every year as a public holiday. His last three lines sum up the enormous extent of the defeat.
… the setting sun was not redder
Than the River of Blood
Which drowned the black man's liberty
The poems continue with commemorations of some of the most shaming happenings of the apartheid era. There was, for example, the infamous John Foster Square prison, security police headquarters where people were frequently tortured and sometimes "fell" from its 10th story windows. The poet addresses here the mother of one such son.
Weep mother Hawa
For the fruit of your womb
Fallen from a tree of stone
At the mortuary is poem-reference to the day in 1976 when hundreds of protesting schoolchildren were shot by government forces. Now June 16 is marked in South Africa as Youth Day, but then Mattera could only write this lullaby of sorts.
sweet and low, sweet and low
deathwind blow, blow
june is ablaze with bodies that glow
where will the black fireflies go
ask Jesus he might know
One anti-apartheid initiative was the Black Consciousness movement of which Mattera was a founder member, and which probably led to his being banned. It is interesting to trace, in lines from Kumbaya: A victory song and Azanian Love Song respectively, strands of the subversive resistance that informed those activists:
Were this frightened pen a barrel
And these fiery phrases bullets,
You would have long buried my song
The child has risen
and walks defiantly
towards the lion's lair
When yet more protesters are shot and killed by the police, the poetry is relentless; the poem's rallying calls
I know you're sad
it is the same with me
but we must not let them bruise us down
they must not bruise us down
Mattera's poetry continues through the collection to mobilize the oppressed, to rail against the continuance of oppression…
I have discovered, yes
The fault not in the god nor in the pain
But in the sufferer
Who makes virtue of his anguish
Waiting meekly on the god for deliverance
Though white scavengers rip life
From battered black bones
Many poems are loving addresses to the poet's children and other family members and friends. One gentle, long, piece addressed to a young daughter explains the history and difficulties of the homeland into which the child has been born and urges her to understand rather than hate all white people—with lines that probably shame the most of us.
Those who did not conform were broken
those who refused to break
were imprisoned or killed
others persecuted to self-exile
but many millions remain silent
enjoying the ill-gotten harvest
And lest we miss it, that same uncomfortable point is rammed starkly home in other poems such as Heat of our chains
Life is a flower
in a white garden
Though they steal our petals
They keep the plant
Don Mattera survived fifty-seven years of apartheid rule, ten years of banning, three years of house arrest, and detention and torture. He is one of the lucky who did live to enjoy freedom and a democratic South Africa. These lines not only convey some sense of what it was like to expect not to survive servitude, but also remember the many men, women and children who died trying.
Remember to call at my grave
When freedom finally
Walks the land
That I may rise
To tread familiar paths
To see broken chains
Migraine catwalks draw bridges in midair
Four-Alarm House by Carolyn Gelland (Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2012), 52 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-59948-357-3. $8.00
Carolyn Gelland's first poetry collection is slim and compact—39 poems, many of them quite short and packed with language. Working out of a range of sources that includes myth and modern art, she embraces the enigmatic and elusive, and one is apt to end up consulting a dictionary or Wikipedia to find the definition of "gravamina" (a legal term for grievance) or for a refresher on the German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin.
Gelland conjures a range of figures, from Louis Armstrong to Willem de Kooning. In her tribute to Satchmo, she references his famous line, "When I go to the Gate, I'll play a duet with Gabriel" and the words he spoke at a command performance for King George V: "This one's for you, Rex." She describes his playing with eloquence: "Each note gets rich / on the next."
The poem "DeKooning: In his Studio" represents the aesthetic of the abstract expressionist painter through metaphysical means. Here are the last lines: "Migraine catwalks draw / bridges in midair." Whether this is descriptive of a certain de Kooning painting I can't say, but it astonishes by its visual leap. (The poem is dedicated to Diane Kruchkow of New Sharon, Maine, who famously told Maine Governor Paul LePage to "grow up" after he dismissed the protests over the removal of Judy Taylor's mural in the Department of Labor.)
Gelland enjoys deploying unusual figures of speech that stretch one's imagination. A thunderbolt has "athletic eyes," the notes of a zither float "in life belts / of lemon rinds." Sometimes the imagery takes a surreal turn, as in the ending of "Coyote Attack":
Strange wounds suffered
on deserted walls;
walked at midnight,
gathering up her face.
We're in the same realm as the Comte de Lautréamont's famous description of a young boy as "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella."
In the three-part "The Fire in the Woodstove," dedicated to the nuns at Transfiguration Hermitage in Windsor, Maine, the poet appears to be responding to the shapes found in ashes and embers—as one riffs on the shape of clouds. Thus, the opening line of part one might have been inspired by the play of flames.
The blue dragon
of the north wind
snaps at his
Gelland and her husband and fellow poet Kenneth Frost moved from New York City to Avon, Maine, in the late 1990s to write. When their house burned down in the 1998 ice storm (a generator was to blame), they moved to East Wilton. That devastating fire is evoked in the title poem, "Four-Alarm House": "Inside are fumes. / Outside is fury." Despite this setback and the death of Frost last year, Gelland continues to write and has been reading from her work, and his, across Maine.
Road Ghosts by John Roche (Palmyra, NY: theenk Books, 2010), 89 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0964734296. $14.
Embodying a time period, an experience, a poetic style, and their influences, John Roche's Road Ghosts links together poems in the first three sections about his hitchhiking as a 17-year old during the metamorphosis of the America of the early 1970's, with additional memories in the section "On the Road Again," and a section of evoking tributes to poets and activists, some known to Roche, in "On the Bardic Road."
The book opens with a prologue and ends with a coda, reflecting a poetry of revolution, or its desire for it:
I was a suicide bomber at seventeen
taking my holy mission on the road
planning to detonate on Nixon's front porch
—from "Prologue—Suicide Bomber"
On the jukebox Bob Seger's
still leaving Mackinaw City:
Next time / Next time / We'll get it right
—from "Coda: Not the Arizona Biltmore"
In between are story poems, though stronger on story than on the use of poetic devices. Not that the poetry is lacking, just that story takes precedence, certainly more true in the autobiographical story telling of the first sections.
Influences of Jack Kerouac's rambling style, Robert Creeley's minimalism and compression of language (substituting "yr" for "your"), an absence of articles, and references to song lyrics from bands and singers of the 60's are felt throughout the volume. By the end of the work, it is obvious the effect that time period had and continues to have on the poet, as later poems still call forth the beatitudes of "Charlie" Olson, Charles Bukowski, Janis Joplin, and Sam Cooke among others. Roche studied with Robert Creeley, who seems to have provided for him that link to the Beats, the style of the Black Mountain Poets, and the music of the Hippie generation that Roche's work blends together.
In "Departure from El Dorado," which begins the short section "California Dreamin'", which is itself a reference to a song by The Mamas & The Papas, Roche moves his hitchhiking journey forcefully on: "Wake up in friend's sleeping bag to see cop boots" and ends setting across the desert in a pick-up echoing a Woody Guthrie song "to get to the Golden Shore / without that Do-re-mi." As this section draws to a close, the experience of it all, not quite the On the Road experience of the Beats, wears off in "Berkeley Days": "a couple weeks crashing with rich liberals / growing weary of hip selfishness/mercenary ways," which echoes a finality of experience to come in its alliterative f's:
collecting for Free Clinic
frequenting free meals and free dope
avoiding "flirty fishing" wiles
of scantily clad Jesus Freaks.
The song of final defeat, ending the linked autobiographical poems, comes in "Homecoming 1971":
Tired of evading police and my parents' detectives /
Tired of hunger /
Tired of panhandling
Tired of rip-offs
Tired of adulterated drugs
Tired of revolution infinitely postponed
... No jacket no hat
Ready to come home.
There are some poems with a smattering of internal rhyme and assonance, and some with refrains, and a few list-like and prose poems. In "Here's for All," a prose poem serving as a list-tribute to "all those poets who never publish" and "here's for the poet who gives up poetry to follow the false gods of Deconstruction" and "here's for the poet who got his life back at 50," and ends with "And here's for the poets who wish their chants could really STOP THE WAR instantly. And here's for all the poets. And here comes / everybody," which seems a not-so-subtle comment that everyone's a poet. Yet it's the prior line to the "all" that sneaks in subtle attention to the political undercurrent of this book, bookended by the opening and closing call for social reform:
This is not the hunt nor the huntress
not Shiva destroying the Three Towns
Perhaps it's only the music of May come early
or synaesthesia attending the poet's lyre
perchance the death of tyranny
long long read
in the cups of the Rebel Cafe
—from "The Ace of Swords (After Hearing Ed Sanders)"
There's an insider feel to this volume, where name-dropping and references to locations, people, songs, the use of slang are used to evoke experience with little metaphor or imagery. The discovery is in the memory and progress of the journey, which could be seen as a search for enlightenment from one's past experiences, where the poet comes to realize that there's still more work to be done, but not by him:
Might be Josephine the Poet we're waiting for
might be Crazy Jane
might be someone whose name we don't yet know
… but we're still awaiting, and a singing.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Bare & Breaking by Karin Schimke (Athlone, South Africa: Modjaji Books, 2012), 80 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-920397-97-5 ZAR145 or $22.95 USD.
Reading this poetry sung for the repose of the soul of love feels as if I were hearing Mozart's Requiem Mass—powerful, controlled, anguished, yet at the same time celebrating what once was. The poems break into four numbered sections—less as any subject or theme grouping, more as a pausing in the torrent of words that the narrator (and reader, too) might catch breath.
The collection tells the story of love and of the betrayal of that love. Most intriguing is a sense that the love is so strong that it survives its own destruction; this love is a love lost, but not a love destroyed. Does the narrator not acknowledge that in the closing poem?
Peace be with you, my breast could intone,
and from deep inside, inside me, into me,
a rosary would bead back your emphatic reply:
and also with you.
It's a hard-won quietude. This is a love that consumes the narrator as she would consume it, in a no-logic, tactile, mouth-filling way—as when she fantasizes appropriating the beloved's body to cover with doodled drawings:
I will chart vines down your sides
and, around your navel, a loud flower.
Down your spine script words I love,
like "insouciance" and "belligerent",
like "emulate" and "obviate".
They will mean nothing,
but I could sound them for you.
The love suffuses the entire being of the narrator. Its intensity, and the narrator's abandonment of self to it, is bared in many witty, erotic portrayals of love-making. Here, "The Geometry of Orgasm" when,
In this matter, the square on the hypotenuse is not equal
to its usual thing.
I mount the tubular trajectory wary or reluctant or breathless,
and wait for the skittering sands of geomancy to show the edge.
There is always an edge.
However gentle the rise.
There is always a fall.
I am the Pythagorean fire
or, sometimes, I am splayed
on the violence of an isosceles.
So complete a surrender of self… No wonder betrayal, when it comes, is beyond assimilation: Vertiginous…
she tilted dived swanning spinning
tip-toed ink air
broke finders first
she spangled spaghetti-like
street lights crashed her
So aposite that treachery and its aftermath are conveyed through understated, bleak, images of butchery:
Last night you scalpelled out heartliverspleen
took a paring knife to fingers and toes
peeled my nails
skewered my tongue between two eyeballs.
This morning I got up.
I stirred bits of skin into tea cups.
I put my ham on sandwiches,
mucous membranes for butter.
Against the odds, narrator survives the flaying:
…My love –I thought I'd die. How livid
I lived that vice that grip
that terrible, that ship
that rocked alone
far-from-shore in water drought…
Also against the odds, it seems the love too, survives its death—is freed from the betraying beloved like an ardent soul from its diseased body. Its passing over to another side is both mourned and celebrated in this book of requiem song, breaking, bare:
No more words, my love, no more.
If we are to return to anything
let it be to the silence of a cathedral
larger and lighter than the thought
of a flower when a dream is the earth of a garden.
The Autocrat at the Desktop
My Suffolk Downs by Melissa Shook (Boston & Cambridge, MA: Pressed Wafer & Kat Ran Press, 2012), 64 pp, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9753237-6-2.$30.
The Maze Beyond the Garden by Janusz Czubakowski (Xlibris, 2011), 154 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-4628-8907-5. $19.99
…it is the theatre especially which will exhibit the men of the English Renaissance. Forty poets, amongst them ten of superior rank, as well as one, the greatest of all artists who have represented the soul in words; many hundreds of pieces, and nearly fifty master pieces; the drama extended over all the provinces of history, imagination, and fancy—expanded so as to embrace comedy, tragedy, pastoral, and fanciful literature—to represent all degrees of human condition, and all the caprices of human invention—to express all the perceptible details of actual truth, and all the philosophic grandeur of general reflection…History of English Literature by H.A. Taine (Philadelphia: Gebbie, 1897), I, 359.
When I was a lad, the most common popular culture representation of a poet was Ernie Kovacs' Percy Dovetonsils. Hair parted in the middle and slicked down, thick lens glasses, mustache, brocade smoking jacket and cigarette holder, he spoke with a heavy lisp and recited his most memorable poem:
I have a cat;
His name is Stanley.
The neighbors think him a sissy;
I find him quite manly.
My hometown had been residence to Lloyd Mifflin, once known as "America's Greatest Sonneteer," but no one ever spoke of him. It was only many years later that I was told about house builder Indiana Miller who left a poem about the construction inscribed inside the walls of each home. Like my elders then, my poetic outlet was song lyrics, a locally sanctioned manifestation of the poetic urge.
Performance poetry in America stretched back to the invasion in toasts, recitations, and narrative verse, but the 1950's were a fairly barren period for poetry in the US. In 1991, I knew things had changed when I was stopped for speeding late one night on I-81 in central Pennsylvania. Of course she asked me where I was coming from, and I said Chicago. Where was I going? Boston.
"What are you, a salesman?"
"No, I'm a poet."
And we spent 20 minutes in the dark by the side of the interstate talking about poetry. Oh, she still gave me the ticket, but the conversation was a culturally significant act. At that time my wife and I were carrying poetry slam from its Chicago birthplace to our venue in Cambridge. The slam was an acceleration of performance poetry.
In the 1970s and 80s, Laurie Anderson, Henry Rollins, Elaine Equi, Brother Blue and others brought poetry to theatrical stages, recordings, small clubs, and street corners respectively. W.D. Ehrhart invited me to join him in a featured reading at Chicago's MoMing Dance Company. The burgeoning cultural wave of poetry appreciation, both on the page and on the stage, has reached its current high water mark in national slams that take place throughout Europe and North America, and in the 854 institutionalized creative writing programs listed by Associated Writing Programs. We at Off the Coast see as many as 1500 poetry submissions every four months. We receive many more books than we can review for publication. That much of this self-generated poetry speaks in a common voice on ordinary subjects does not concern me at all. To reach the empyrean, the pyramid of art benefits from a broad, solid base. If it were all base, we would not be publishing any poetry, although we still might be reviewing. Which brings me to the task at hand.
A significant wave of self-publishing began with a technological advance, the copying machine. "If I'm going to stand here all day copying the boss's blather," the 20th century Ms. Browning averred, "I might as well spend a little extra time after work and print my own art." Today the six-by-nine printed book with the four-color laminated cover is within the means of anyone who can afford to engage in a regular program of submitting small bunches of poems to other people's magazines. All of us who are serious about writing know that until we have a big name or a demonstrated audience, Harper Collins is not going to publish us. Even if that first book finds a publisher, it's even harder to find a second. And we've got to be damned good—or at least well-liked—to have a third. To be sure, some good small presses loyal to the art publish good poetry in both journal and book formats. Main Street Rag comes immediately to mind.
We have nothing bad to say about those, like us, who strive to give the best we can to those who send us the best they have. No longer does the "vanity press" suffer wholesale condemnation. We assume that those who are willing to put their money where their poetic mouth is are entitled to show things as they want them to be. If the lady from the Rye can afford to put out a tome on cream paper with lavender print and a different font on every page and pictures of her Pomeranian and have enough leftovers for many Christmases to come, that's her business. It is the opportunistic middlemen, the quantity-serving writing programs, and the editors who do not edit against whom we here wish to take up arms. Once or twice in the pages of our reviews we have railed against the publisher who takes the money and does none of the work.
Let me hasten to say first that we do not ordinarily suggest changes in poems for publication. We have a basic rule: we print them as is or not at all. This also means we do not do footnotes, definitions, or explanations. When publishing translations, unlike some prominent journals, we ask for both original and the translation without commentary. On those rare occasions when we see a clear opportunity for a poem to be improved by light editing, we suggest something to the poet, but always with the avowal that if the poet does not agree, we will publish the poem as it came to us. We do have a first-class proofreader and a back up. If we published books, we would be more stringent.
What then to say about so-called self-publishing or vanity presses? Do they proofread? Do they engage in conversation? Will they acknowledge an ugly book? If the answers are "No," we suggest you keep shopping. If an editor has nothing to say about the varying quality in your manuscript, or if she will take whatever you send her unchallenged, keep looking. Among the books on our desk awaiting review, there are two which have been "cooperatively published" as the euphemism goes today. Each shows positive signs of good editorial work for good poets.
Melissa Shook's My Suffolk Downs is memoir, poetry, and photography. The memoir covers but a few years at the old race track in Boston. The poetry is mostly prose poetry. The photos are good, but not art. Yet this book is 64 pages and all of a piece. Her love for her subjects—the men, the women, and the horses—suffuses the entire project. The decisions about the product are apt. Paper, type, and print are clear. "Set in Hoefler & Frere-Jones's Sentinel types with Cyrus Highsmith's Relay Wide Bold. Five hundred copies printed at Capital Offset of which forty-five were hand-bound….Design and typography by Michael Russem." Landscape format rather than portrait feels appropriate. Several people spent some time thinking about this project. It is not the sort of handmade craft book you would find coming from Adastra or, say, the University of Maine at Machias, but $30 fits the feeling for subject and the care in photography. Ms. Shook and those who produced it may sell it or give it to others with pride.
We have dreams of our own book press here at Off the Coast. If ever we can achieve financial liquidity to support that, Janusz Czubakowski's The Maze Beyond the Garden is a model for where we would like to begin. It is probably the only book this poet will ever have published in his lifetime, and knowing this, he has collected the poetry of his lifetime. Not all of it, perhaps. This book runs 154 pages and the poems are continuous from page to page. The one drawback is a lack of acknowledgements. Maybe costs had to be cut, but the layout works because it reads well consecutively and there are no sections or divisions. Xlibris did right by this man. While the poems grow as one goes along, that may result from our increasing appreciation of the man as much as the poet's maturity. It seems not to arise from a foolish consistency forcing strict chronological order. The variety of voices amazes, although to be truthful, I liked the "Old King" and Lear and their age-mates best. Taste these lines from "Biography":
To tap the flames for music…
He built his prison smaller every day,
Who learned that hell is one man's dream
Inflicted on another
Sometimes he sang from fear of thought.
This is a book to keep. It carries one forward, yet rewards occasional reading. Take a short dip or swim the best part of an afternoon, experience a quick hit of wonder or stream through similes that abound and as the book progresses are subsumed by metaphor.
We support the broad endeavor of the collective production of our time as a positive cultural, social, and educational enterprise. Our contribution is to review good books that are not printed by William Morrow or reviewed by The New York Times. Yet, we will not shirk from calling badly made or poorly written books for their faults. We do not hesitate to separate poems and the books which are well-crafted from those that are manufactured.