SUMMER 2013: "Calling Down Lightning"
Take a Break
Sweet Spot by Kenneth Lee (Simsbury, Conn.: Antrim House, 2012). 78 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-936482-22-1. $17.
Take it easy. You don't have to tackle the Big Questions of Life. Feel the sharp chill of a dry martini, listen to the birds chirp, let yourself into a reverie about childhood, watch the two-year-old toddler chase the Doberman.
That's what these poems are like. They seem easy. That's because you worked hard to get the easy words—precise, convivial, no more words than you really need, a bit of rhyme now and then, a hint of pentameter, all leading up to that amusing, sometimes wistful, ending.
You don't have to leave discomfiting things out. Sure there were wars—get in about the "blackness beside a pile of coffins." But follow it with your pop banging a pot on the front porch when the war ended. Write about disasters, but how they seem to come when you're dreaming. Tell about the museum with the names of the three downed pilots. Let the unspoken point be that their helmets are like the hoplite helmets in the case of Greek vases: war goes on. The key is to keep it all—uppers as well as downers—subtle. Not too heavy on anything, relaxed, a bit of wit at the end. Perhaps invite the reader to ponder a little:
The priest peeks in. Tom weighs this life, this chance.
He has his other lung; he has his friends.
Don't make the reader really sad or mad, and don't go for a phenomenal realization, a glorious insight. There's enough hyperbole in the world. What you're portraying is the poignant moment in the ordinary world. Why dig deep? Laugh it off. Keep it subtle. Keep it easy.
They'll say you're writing light poetry, simple, unsophisticated, even shallow. You call it unpretentious. They can read Pound and Eliot elsewhere. They can fight elsewhere over "word" poetry, structuralism, postmodernism, and the like. This is for people who don't want to learn a bunch of isms before they can make sense of a poem. This is for people who want poetry to give pleasure. As you say,
A heron, southing, rested on a hemlock top,
heard the intermittent clucking humans make
and knew it would soon be gone.
It never lasted long.
Mothers' Trails by Holly Guran (Norwood, MA: Noctiluca, 2012), 35 pages of poems and pictures plus end papers and notes. ISBN: 978-0-615-67801-6. $12.
Whenever we talk about memory, writers agree our aging mindspaces are getting full, packed with so much experience that we are surprised to discover how many details are too deeply stored to retrieve on command—things we were sure we would always remember. Holly Guran shuffles the stacks and applies wisps of sensation to bring back pieces of time and to recall action, focusing on woman as mother, daughter, grandmother. Some poems include boys and men, but the female sense reigns throughout. Each poem tells its story; each becomes stronger in sequence.
She writes about the smell "At the Gas Pump" followed by "Lake water smells of childhood vacations." In a horrifying poem about "grooming" a child for sexual abuse, Guran wraps up with a rotting orange and river scum. Though without specific descriptions of odor, a reader can associate the smells with misery.
Her ungendered poem "Home" recalls hippie travel days when we relied on friends of friends or their parents for places to stay. The poem's conclusion will feel true for many readers, "…soul is the only home…" though not for me or other back-to-the-landers tied to family roots tighter than apron strings.
With my inevitable mental-blue pencil, I could find few words worth deleting. Her careful mix of verb forms and tenses keeps her poems active. Many first lines are so strong I could not skip a page.
Have I read some of her metaphors elsewhere? If so, I don't remember, and the poem doesn't tell me. But I was hooked on the book with the opening of her poem "Window": "As darkness was tucking in the railroad bed/… the room/ began to write its story…."
The Last Book of Summer
Brief Term by Lois Marie Harrod (Austin, TX: Black Buzzard, 2011), 94 pages, paper. ISBN: 0-938872-44-3. $15.95.
These poems resonate whether you are a teacher, coach, parent, mentor or friend. The compassion Harrod has for her students rings as loud as the school bell between classes, and as a writer, I wish to have known her as one of my high school English teachers.
All the poems speak of (and to) youth and Harrod's life as an educator—in the classroom and beyond. Anyone who works with young people will appreciate how she employs black humor and irony as often as she lays down the learning...her student's and her own.
The book is divided into three sections. Most of the poems vividly deal with the joy and the contradictions of teaching in a high school (any high school). In the first section, Harrod pays tribute to the untimely deaths of some of her students, along with the unlikely paths of others. She writes of their lives with a tender, honest pen, allowing her readers to find light and release amid the tragedy.
In my favorite section Harrod employs an alter ego: "Alice Ann Reads Student Imitations of Chaucer while Sitting by Her Mother's Hip" and "Alice Ann Recounts the End of Another School Year". We laugh in incredulity, but also in recognition. In "Alice Ann Loses Her Faith in Poetry" she writes:
But still she wrote, like a person who continues
going to church long after he has lost
his belief in God, not for any assurance
but for the familiarity of the psalms.
Her poem "At the Reading of Young Poets" uncovers a place in all lovers of poetry:
a slit along the throat where
within the jugular,
I wish I had written those lines.
In "Teaching the Difference between Truth and Fiction in Hunterdon County" Harrod writes about Ernie Zwendler—his nose rings, his worn-out women, metaphorical whippings and "because Ernie is Ernie" his late into the night desperate poetry. Part of me recognized Ernie and laughed out loud. Another part of me recognized Ernie and cried. In the same poem she writes,
And what am I doing?
I am trying to teach
to high school students
giving a little extra credit
for a poem or two,
as if it would cure everything.
Wit and Humor
A Little in Love A Lot by Paul Hostovsky (Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2011), 96 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-59948-303-0. $14.
The poet John Lee Clark said he noticed the phrase a little in love came up frequently in Hostovsky's poems— an "aha" moment for the title of this fascinating and quirky book of narrative poetry divided into four sections: Unlikely Loves, Agonies and Orgasms (some of which must be read with a glass of ice cold water close at hand), Heaven and Earth, and Letting Go. Hostovsky is a sign language interpreter for the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf. I imagine that he strives for quick, accessible translations to and from American Sign Language. His poetry is plain and approachable; it wants to be understood. He makes constant use of repetition, toying with words, or changing phrases much like a pianist playing C Major chord inversions up and down the keyboard, loving the sounds, the rhythms, seeking the perfect ending chord, perhaps in a different key.
His play on words can be fun, as in "Little Things"
Me and Beth Jeannette had a little thing.
This was a long time ago when my
thing was little and I didn't know anything
about such things,
Writing about an affair between two married people in an office sounds as though it issued from Genesis:
And when it got out
in whispers around the water cooler
we all drank from it,
we drank it in, and in this way
it refreshed us, and amazed us
and it belonged to us…
Not all love is physical. Hostovsky tells of mother love in the 1960s when cars had no seatbelts, and
when they braked the long right arms of the mothers
automatically extended themselves
across the chests
of the children riding up front
turnstiles, those gates of love…
Having breakfast with his Czechoslovakian father whose name is Egon (pronounced egg-on), the poet tries to help with the idiosyncrasies of English and jokes with an old expression egg on your face. With humor, his father retorts
Egon on your face—you have my nose
and mouth and chin. Egon on your face
and you can't wipe him off.
Hostovsky writes about kids and dinosaurs, cocaine, spaghetti, vaginas and boobs, dogs, doctors who can't perform miracles, Michael Jackson, concentration camps, his son playing Pop Warner football in the end zone adjusting his protective cup, and death and God.
I think the dying say of course
just before they die, as though
they saw something that explained
But then again, he never takes himself too seriously,
She left everything open—
while he, on the other hand
was a firm believer in twisties…
you could say
she trusted while he trussed.
—Sheila Mullen Twyman
Halloo and Farewell
Next to Last Words by Daniel Hoffman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 84 pages, softbound. ISBN 978-0-8071-5022-1. $16.95
In Daniel Hoffman's obituary in the New York Times—he died in Haverford, Pa., on March 30, 2013—the poet Dana Gioia noted that while admired among poets, Hoffman didn't gain "broader recognition because he was unpredictable." In this reviewer's humble opinion, not knowing a poet's next move should be considered a merit. The ability to make it fresh—and new—over time makes Hoffman a pleasing anomaly in the poetry scene.
That said, the 43 poems in Next to Last Words further prosodic and thematic tacks taken by Hoffman over a rich lifetime of verse-making (13 books, starting with An Armada of Thirty Whales, chosen by W. H. Auden as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1954). He continues his mastery of subtle rhyme, moving poems along by way of a finely-crafted built-in music. He also explores history again. His book-length poem Brotherly Love (1981) offered a remarkable chronicle of Pennsylvania. And he ranges comfortably between the stilted language of a courtier ("For Whom I Make This Song") and the lyric grace of Robert Penn Warren ("The Day").
Hoffman's subject matter ranges from a tribute to Philip Freneau ("the first poet of the Republic") to a warm reminiscence of a dart game in a poor Irish town in 1965. "In Memory of Lewis Corey," one of the longer poems, recounts the life of a founding member of the American Communist Party who taught economics at Antioch and fell victim to Joseph McCarthy. In "History, 1989," Hoffman pays tribute to the young man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square:
the skinny guy,
in a white tee-shirt on the road,
arms outstretched, stopping traffic
as though to let a mother safely cross
Hoffman renews his long-time ties to Maine. Brought up in New York, he first came to the state as a child, on family trips and to go to summer camp. In 1954 he made Cape Rosier his seasonal residence, a setting that inspired some of his finest poems, among them, "Lines for Scott Nearing," "Moving Among the Creatures," "The Hermit of Cape Rosier," and "The Seals in Penobscot Bay." As he noted in his author's note for the anthology Maine Speaks (1996), "The Maine wilderness and the sea have all my life been invitations to the imaginative enlargement of life."
This collection includes several Maine-inspired poems that belong among Hoffman's greatest hits: "First Coyote," "Mishap off Seal Rock," and "The Hill." Most notable, perhaps, is "Life-Lines," written in honor of another seasonal poet visitor to Maine, Richard Eberhart. In a chiseled manner reminiscent of Philip Booth, Hoffman describes the morning "halloo" of an isolated islander, Fred Carver, and the answering hale from a nearby lighthouse keeper, Mr. Beal, a call through the fog that testifies that the whole world's
Hoffman lost his wife, the poet Elizabeth McFarland, in 2005. Her death haunts the final sections,, provoking several stunning eulogies, including "Last Words," "Bands" and this four-line gem, "Today":
Today the sun rose, as it used to do When its mission was to shine on you.
Since in unforgiving dark you're gone,
What purpose has the sun?
Finding fault in what turns out to be the poet's final book published in his lifetime is an awkward task. The quibbles are minor. The collection's opening poem, "To Undisclosed Recipient—," is an attempt at humor that falls flat. Readers will find luck within this book where they didn't replying to a Nigerian millionaire "whose widow can't/get his money out of the country unless/you accept a 20% commission." "Autumn" plays with the clichéd contrast of seacoast summer people and the inland poor who "divine the promise of their future/From frayed configurations in the entrails/Of aged automobiles."
Hoffman repeats words at the ends of a poem. Sometimes this seems utilitarian, as if to fill out the cadence. At other times, it is a powerful device. The final line of the tour-de-force dream poem "The Key" seems perfectly placed: "you're gone, you're gone, you're gone."
This former consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress will live on through the generations of students he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore and Columbia. His critical writings, including the wonderfully titled collection Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, will represent a lasting monument to a brilliant interpreter of literature. And his verse will go on rewarding his readers by its passion, poise and unpredictability.