Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal

SUMMER 2014: "Tunneling Toward the Sun"

Intimate Distance

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust by Yu Xiang (Brookline, MA Zephyr Press, 2013), 151 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9832970-3. $15.00. Bilingual text translated from the Chinese and with an introduction by Fiona Sze-Lorrain.

Translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain begins with an epigram by Anna Akhmatova, offering us a hint of what's to come: "I cannot tell if the day/is ending, or the world. Or if/the secret of secrets is inside me again." There are secrets—and many revelations—in these poems, and Yu Xiang is deliberate and profound in her delivery. She warns us right away about entering her world; not too fast and not too close. In "My House" she writes:

This is my house. If
you happen to walk in, it's certainly not
for my rambling notes.
You and my house
are unrelated, you're simply

chez moi.

Nevertheless, as voyeur and foreign guest, we long to enter this world of intimate distance. Her local scenes tantalize us and occasionally cause us to look away. Streets and inner landscapes unfold, all described with the careful eye of this poet-painter: urban scenes of bloated strawberries, illegal books, sexual diseases, and the "improvised quotes/and undefined anger…" of her politically charged environment. Lists range from objects and people in her immediate surroundings to the herd of cattle stirring up the dust in the title poem.

"Moon," one of the many shorter poems, gives us a respite from the urban scene, but this is far from the cliff and stream idyll of the T'ang poets:

moon blanket the night sky
only one moon is bright
my moon is not the bright one
my moon is changing that moon's shape
let it turn from round to crescent then crescent to round
sometimes it hides it
its surroundings exude a furry light
like a ring of helpless baby hands

Many of the longer poems pile up verb upon verb and noun upon noun. Repeated phrases create a driving incantatory effect. Yu Xiang experiments playfully with colloquial usage and punctuation. In "Like Humans," the following one-sentence stanza is a whirlwind of urban images:

such as trees desk clock toilet bowl broom empty chair chipped wall and stone
and an unlocked window a big pile of books a pool of blood or a urine stain
and one or two humans staying in the dark

In an ambitious ten-page poem entitled "To the One Who Writes Poetry Tonight," Yu Xiang juxtaposes hundreds of concrete and abstract images. She immediately warns us: "I do not mean to hurt you" yet conjures up images both disturbing and fascinating. Her work is one of longing and examination, angst and passion, mixed with politics and personal struggle. She invites us into her China with truths we may not want to be true, yet each poem offers the reader glimpses into the mind and world of this wonderful poet.

—David A. Rachlin

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"Dinner assuages/a multitude of griefs."

Same Old Story by Dawn Potter (Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry Press, 2014) 94 pages, softbound. ISBN: 978-1-9338800-40-2. $16.

The 27 poems in Dawn Potter's third collection expand upon subjects and experiences she has explored before, from the back roads of Maine where she has lived (in Harmony, the town of) for going on 25 years to an ever qualified sense of existence marked by what one might call a lively world-weary eye.

Potter is still living in "Boy Land" (title of her first book). In the poem "Spring on the Ripley Road," her young sons Paul and James carry on an amusing and sometimes profound back and forth as the car passes ice-clogged culverts, squat trailers and jeering crows. Their fraternal banter about planets "ordering" the sun is a relief from the "angry tar" and "last autumn's Marlboro packs" that "shimmer in the ditch."

"Ugly Town" starts with trying to accept beneficent rays of sun falling on the "ugliest town in Maine." The poem traces the struggle of a writer who must be wary of the good while acknowledging the bad. Here, to pay for something in spades does not "connote cognac and midnight whist parties," but rather "plain old digging."

Potter has a profound connection to the literary past. The spirit and verse of several old masters—Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, among them—inspire and guide.

The latter's sonnets find a worthy contemporary match in a handsome clutch of 14-liners. "Cover Song" is a favorite, about an earnest suitor who "slowly decanted Motown" in a yellow-brick alley, wooing the speaker with a rendition of "My Girl," a performance at once thrilling and the source of "a queasy embarrassment." A mix of half and full rhymes carries the lines along in this account of "how unreal it feels to play at romance."

Although its title is borrowed from Sylvia Plath, one may hear a bit of Elizabeth Bishop in "No Day Is Safe from News of You." The lines "The stovepipe ticks/but Nothing, nothing, nothing says the clock" conjure Bishop's "Sestina," but it's a distant echo. Potter builds her own curious universe, filled with wondrous "h" words, including the zany verb that accents this line: "The speckled rooster hoicks his brag to heaven."

Running 20 or so pages in length, "The White Bear" was triggered by "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," a Scandinavian fairy tale with all the ingredients of a northern fantasy—icy climes, a girl of meager circumstances, an ursine lover, deep woods and a castle built into a mountain where "dinner assuages/a multitude of griefs."

In a curious way this saga fits Potter's rural Maine milieu where she is disappointed when the snowplow driver doesn't offer her a toke off the joint he holds in his hand ("Valentine's Day"). Many more gems are here, and don't miss "Bargain Shopper," a splendid elegy to Jilline whose "beau-idée of taste was a dollar sale."

—Carl Little

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If There's One Thing I'm Sick Of"

In Someone Else's House by Christian Barter (Kansas City, MO: BkMk Press, 2013), 72 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-886157-85-9. $13.95.

At first, one feels irritated by this book's rambling lines, the repetitive "I" of its subject matter, the innumerable references to "women I slept with," and its mid-life malaise. But then you catch on. These poems aren't meant for what Barter calls disdainfully the "successful withering writers," the high-minded poets. They're for the regular Joes who've got an hour or two to kill hanging out at the bar after "digging holes and moving rocks" at work, missing Miranda, Marcelle, Beth, and Ellie, and commiserating about being "sick of the world." He blames

the same old feeling that something
has been irredeemably lost.
If there's one thing I'm sick of,
it's that.

It doesn't matter much what he means. What matters is that you relax with him, listen to his chatter, not worry about the sense of it, don't ask too much. He tells how the other night he slept a little, got back up, ate some cheese, "set up a chair between the house and the driveway," and smoked "a cigarette under the stars." And as he sat, he began "to consider if he's just an asshole." You tell him that you like poems he has written, such as one called "Jansson" about a ferocious fire, how it was "curling back" life's thin "veneer," or another called "Where Sullivan Met Franklin," a bitter diatribe against his absentee ex-father—both about something besides himself. But again, too much high-mindedness:

Fuck all that.

Just the same, you slum around with him as he rambles on, maybe because he is clever, maybe because in his middle-aged soul-searching you like being his intimate. Never mind that he describes "houses as empty as cellos" and declares "all love springs from the same soil." These phrases at least sound profound. He can write fourteen-line sonnets like those to Elise that rhyme, sort-of. Here again he won't do the high-poet thing. But you can see the appeal to him of poets he mentions— O'Hara, Berryman, Lowell, Larkin, and of course, Bukowski. And you wonder about this "bald man with certain anti-social characteristics" who is "sick of feeling sorry for myself," who can say in the same poem, "God I hate America," and "it would be nice to be loved again."

"I could just go on and on like this," he says, "one thought becoming the next by music or dream." And so he could. There were times when I drifted along with him, bobbing on his self-imposed surface, a surface reflecting chiefly his own face. And there were times when I wanted to get back to the "successful withering poets."

—Gerald George

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Show Me The World

Tracing the Lines, by Susanna Lang (Columbus, GA: Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013), 138 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9835304-6-6. $15.95.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye summarizes Susanna Lang's book in a blurb: "[t]hese poems [are] huge in their urgency, massive in their tender care and embrace…" An undercurrent shows the small stories that exemplify world events and human tragedy.

In the first section "More To Remember," a man returns from the Georgia-Russian "a year after the five-day war / in which his house was burned" and finds a photo of his wife, her hair worn in way he had forgotten but thought he would never forget, and the sound of her sweeping her hair off her face, like:

the sound of a cicada spinning to its death on the sidewalk,
a papery sound, like someone thumbing through a book.

Memories are layered: a sound, a smell, a sight. Lang brings these to the fore as a means of telling the Iraqi wars, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Arab Spring, and suicide bombers – all without naming them. It is this heartache with which I think Nye resonates.

In the second section, "Out the Window," with more world affairs. She uses epigraphs and lifted lines from other poems, a kind of remembering, a witnessing. In "Glosa: Orchard," lines from recently deceased (c. 2000) Persian poet Ahmad Shamlou occur as the last line of each stanza in a Renaissance form known as glosa. He writes: "These are strange times, my darling. / The butchers are stationed at each crossroad", and Lang uses these lines to bracket the story of soldiers, who come to an orchard, and "smell your breath" and "smell your heart:"

Last week they sat in the green light of my apples
and their camouflage was colored bark and skin.

The last section, "Last Days," evokes a feeling of the end of the world. Also included are tributes to poets Lucille Clifton and Deborah Diggs. The seven-sectioned, linked poem "Walking Paths," echoes the tragic story of Diggs fatal fall from the height of a stadium as the poet walks through woods, noticing shadows, birds, bugs—things that are not containable, trying to make sense of the tragedy, and presumably lifting lines from Diggs' poems:

At night, the dark moths clinging
to the curtains that move in and out
with the breeze as fireflies drift in,
their green light coming and going, a rhythm
I can't quite catch.

The poem "Large Enough," has couplets with the same end word, and opens with prayers needing separate rooms. Why would prayers need to be segregated? The poem links the rising oceans to Bangladesh, to Kenyan floods and its lost villages and internment camps, to Missouri and its rivers, like the Black and the James. But, are all "our rooms large enough to hold all of us as we pray", because we must "hold the names of all that [have] washed downriver…"

—Ellen Jane Powers

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Heath Insurance

A Little Patch of Shepherd's-Thyme: Prose Passages of Thomas Hardy Arranged as Verse by Jonathan Bracker (San Francisco, CA: Moving Finger Press, 2013), paper, 202 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9774214-2-8. $15.

James Britton, a British academic expert on writing, has posited a transactional continuum between writer and reader. On one end we find the definitive text-maker who leaves nothing to chance. This is the writing of recipe books and car repair manuals. At the opposite end we find the artist struggling to say what he or she can hardly capture and leaving the reader to tackle it as best he or she can. This is poetry at its most demanding. In the mid-range we have the prose writer who hopes to meet the reader half-way. So how does the prose writer who wants to be accepted as a poet write any differently from the poet who assays a novel?

The specific case we are asked to examine and judge in this case is Thomas Hardy who wrote four popular and readily identifiable novels. Hardy also published eight volumes of poetry. Name one. And that seems to be the problem with this book. Hardy's poetic prose hardly scales the heights. Many passages—beginnings especially—lend themselves to a descriptive, poetic tone, but in the 202 pages here, I never felt an "Oh, Wow!" moment. Not one hair stood up on the back of my neck. And, after all, if one must write novels, one must sooner or later get on with the story.

I am reminded of a Chicago Tribune editor who, faced with a manuscript of a novel wherein the chapters were connected with poems, said quite blithely, "Oh, I skipped those." Hardy knew enough to stick his poetic craft, but not to flaunt it. He used his poetic skills in prose, but no verse mars his highly successful prose. His poetic turns, conceits, and lyrical passages are subdued, as if to say, "Look, nothing up my sleeve. You see, this really is a novel." The following example in Far From The Madding Crowd is typical:

On Receiving A Valentine

Since the receipt of the missive in the morning
Boldwood had felt the symmetry of his existence
To be slowly getting distorted
In the direction of ideal passion.

The disturbance was as the first floating weed to Columbus—
The contemptibly little suggesting possibilities of the infinitely great.

Hardy has his tricks and tropes, but no more than any other good novelist. It may be enjoyable to comb the texts and set forth where the poetic passages occur and how they operate in fictional contexts. Jonathan Bracker has done this, although not so much how as where.

This is a little bit less than the average labor of the average laborer in the academic vineyard. No Nobel prize; no magna cum laude. Both versify far from the Madding Crowd, natives returned to their native ground. Stains of the writer's trade mark them as workmen's employment, no matter how much they aspire as all of us do, and few—poets or prose-makers alike—dream of a place among the Pleiades.

—Michael Brown

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"I don't need a calendar anymore."

What You Should Know: A Field Guide to Three Sisters Farm by Russell Libby (Nobleboro, ME: Blackberry Books, 2013) 80 pages, softbound. ISBN: 978-0-982438978. $15.

Russell Libby knew his neck of the Maine woods, Three Sisters Farm in Mount Vernon, where he and his wife moved in 1983. His free verse tour starts with the dooryard, then moves out to orchard and woods, down to soil and water, and back in time to history— a portrait of a special parcel made by an intimate of its contours, springs, cellar holes and stone walls.

In 44 poems, Libby walks us around, pausing here and there to highlight a planting, a vein of clay, a chain of ponds that lead to the Kennebec River and the sea. He celebrates a perennial vegetable ("and I feel that here/is the one sure thing:/rhubarb"); gently admonishes us to care for the dwindling brown ash; honors mowing by hand ("One advantage of the scythe is what it leaves alive"); and hopes that sturgeon may one day regain their "ancient home" in Cobbosseecontee Stream.

Libby's verse is casual, but carefully carpentered. He might be describing his craft in "The Beetle." The over-sized mallet of the title is used "to pound girts and joists level/with their carrying beams,/to make the puzzle/of the frame/come together."

Channeling William Carlos Williams, he ends "Mock Orange" with simple facts: "it smells good,/it tastes good,/it is good." Elsewhere, he echos James Wright in "The Yard Maple": "It feels so good to step outside/into the world."

This reader leaned a new old word: coolth. Spell-check wants "colt" or "couth" or "cloth," but Libby has the perfect word for the change in temperature that enters the house at the time of the harvest moon.

As longtime executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Libby helped build MOFGA into the largest state-level organic organization in the U.S. It makes sense that he should reference climate change, but less as an advocate for combating it than someone witnessing it firsthand: "If it becomes warmer still," he states in "Changing Weather," "then that May frost/may not quite be." And he acknowledges our collective responsibility: "This is the uncertainty we have caused" ("Early Spring").

On the second read-through certain poems caught a hold for good. The section "The Woods" is especially strong as Libby limns the pine, oak, cedar, ash and poplars, the latter's ice storm broken trunks forming "a giant set of pick-up sticks that/I can't play."

Libby, who died in December 2012 and acknowledges his impending death in a manner that accepts the way life unfolds:

I don't need a calendar anymore.
I just open my eyes, walk out the door.
Hairy woodpecker, feathers puffed with air?
It's winter, near zero, bring in more wood.

That's what you should know: bring in more wood.

—Carl Little

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Not All We See or Seem

The Lobsterman's Dream by Larry D. Thomas with woodcuts by Clarence Wolfshobl (Fulton, MO: El Grito del Lobo Press, 2014), 50 pages, paper. No ISBN. $20.
You may send a message around the world in one-seventh of a second, yet it may take years to force a simple idea through a quarter inch of human skull.
—Charles F. Kettering

I am often intrigued by odd connections between a means of transmission and the meaning of the message. My first e-mail, sent from one Boston suburb to another, was routed through London! What strange or wonderful illuminations might be yielded by the poems of a former Texas poet laureate illustrated by woodcuts and concerning a Maine lobsterman's dreams? So I accepted the offer of a copy, which was published by El Grito del Lobo Press in Fulton, Missouri. Ah, what irony! The labor of delivery unmatched by the offspring. Or, more charitably, I suppose, an appreciation by the vacationer.

In this 50-page, handset letterpress edition, the sea and ice are generally black-green. The gulls are black-backed, and only a few man-made objects show a bit of pastel brightness. The sky is leaden, and the deep is "Davy Jones" locker. This world of unrelieved gray is not the Maine I know. Here we joke about our seasons, but while spring has been reduced to a few weeks, summer does last four months. Winter moreso, but often bright with sparkling off the ice and glittering crust on the diamond snow.

From "Painter's Studio": "producing huge swells / which…send little tremors through the painter's body / to his brush…crashing against his canvas with the passion / and precision of a master." What's missing here? The product. The four woodcuts that accompany the section headings are thick-handed and by the publisher. And they actually print the $20 cost on the cover.

It's a good idea, but add this all up and it's cloudy days on a rocky shore with a few lobsters and hardly any dreams.

—George Magoon

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