Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal

WINTER 2009 Reviews

Dos escritoras del sur y del norte

Lugar de Origen/Place of Origin by Elena Lafert and Melina Draper (Durham, NH: Oyster River, 2008), 80 pages. Paper
ISBN: 978-1-882291-06-9 $18

Here we have a collaboration simplicidad, muy claro, con sentimientoes. Mother and daughter (who is also a mother) write across the hemispheres. Each shares her poetic expression; both do the translations. It is an attractive volume that is different without calling attention to itself, beautifully voiced and softly said. Its small size and landscape format suit the short poems, only a few of which carry over to a second page. Some are haiku, more nearly so. All are finely honed poems.

A sea breeze
entered my window
with its own landscape
in hand

One of their admirers noted in the book invokes Neruda's "Palabra," as

quedo preñada y se llenó de vidas—
hereditaria copa que recibe
las communicaciones de la sangre.

I'd rather suggest the grandfather of Hispanic-American poetry, José Martí. Soy una persona sincilla. Though beyond that context we find perhaps more magic than is ordinarily seen in Neruda. The collaborators have written:

mientras dormías puse
mágicas palabras
bajo tu almohada

While you slept
I placed magic words
Under your pillow

When these poems approach Neruda

En aldas galas
caigo
a un laberinto
de paredes
transparentes.

In winged garments
I fall
into a labyrinth
of translucent
walls

the lines hang in the mundane service of a poem titled, "I should have planted tomatoes." More often satisfying are the humor and passion.

se abre la niebla
me descubre
la noche de tu cuerpo
húmeda

the mist parts
the night of your body
discovers me
humid

—Michael Brown


Back to top


The Transparency of Windows

Watering the Dead by Jason Irwin (Montpelier, OH: Pavement Saw Press, 2008), 72 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-1-886350-42-7 $14.

Watering the Dead is Jason Irwin's first book and winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Award from Pavement Saw Press. Essentially about discovery, the book opens with "Nothing I Thought I Knew," when John Lennon was shot and the nine year old narrator becomes aware of himself in a much larger world. Irwin carefully draws the line between what was to what is now and invites us to step across.

nothing I thought I knew before mattered
that somehow I was saved.

If "Nothing I Thought I Knew" catches the child up to the past, "First Communion" prepares the child for the future, ready to be let into the world in a borrowed suit the color of grandfather's Pontiac:

I knew it was only a matter of time
before I walked on water, healed the sick,
died the hero's death.

In "Main Street," we glimpse the sharp edged transparency of windows, where we see the faces of the children moved on, but still trapped.

I can still see them: faces and fists pressed against the glass.

This section closes with "Watching My Mother Sleep."

I wonder
if she still dreams
the dreams of childhood:
of ballerinas and tea parties

The poems in the second section are more distant from their subjects. "With My Father" precisely maps the distance between father and son in a string of declarative sentences:

Three blocks away, a place
called McNab's. We sit
near the neon window. He
orders a LaBatt's Blue and I a Black
and Tan.

The son explores their differences, searches for whatever they might have in common, and comes to reconciliation in childhood memory, father and son walking to the beach:

I rode atop his shoulders…
like a living totem pole.

A more mature voice in the third section ends the book with "Going Home." Despite change, faces stay much the same. People talk of leaving but don't:

Maybe it's the view of the hills to the south,
…that keeps us here,
or maybe it's the sound of my own voice,
reciting the streets named for birds and fish
as if they were the names of the saints.

In Watering the Dead, Jason Irwin joins the ranks of some of the finest contemporary narrative poets like David Surrette, Matt Oldsman, Jack McCarthy, and Philip Levine. This book makes your heart ache, makes you wish you could have another go at childhood and this time get it right, but in the end we realize we are the product of our childhoods and the cities and towns where we were raised.

—Valerie Lawson


Back to top


Quiet Continuity

Container Gardening by Ellen Steinbaum (Cincinnati: Custom Words, 2008), 86 pages. Paper.
ISBN: 978-19349 99301. $18.

This book would not make a loud sound even if you dropped it on the kitchen floor. No matter the emotions, their range is even and measured. These are not the poems of wildwoods or abandoned gardens, but the sort grown on urban balconies and in small kitchens.

For years the birdcage
rested on my kitchen counter,
philodendron threading through the bars.

A great range of subjects come to the poet's hand—war, culture, history, family, children, death, the agony of things left by loved ones.

I am heir of
books and vases,
the samovar brought
by my great-grandmother
who died as I was being born…

These poems look back and forward; but not too high or low. Even the punctuation is not pervasive or insistent, but occasional. We find no rage or guffaws, sobs or swoons. Yet all have grown under the tender, mostly watchful poet's eye. Some grew when she was not paying attention, others, as in "The Boat from Irian Jaya," which tells the story that did happen when the boat never came, and he flew away.

Ellen Steinbaum's previous book, Afterwords, was written as a consequence of her husband's death. Because second books often do not have the emotional need of the first book, they can be much more difficult. To be successful, they must show the sure hand of a true poet. That we have here.

Lemmings, we run
to what destroys us,
condemned to give our hearts
to what is mortal.

Anyone who has produced two good books should continue. We can't wait for more.

—George Magoon


Back to top


Celtic Pride

Drowning: A Poetic Memoir by Claire Hersom (Westbrook, ME: Moon Pie Press, 2008), 47 pages. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-9796947-9-0 $9.

Stand fast Criagellachie is a Gaelic call to arms that runs in the blood of Celtic peoples much like the battle of Thermopylae for the Spartan/Greeks. For me a more appropriate title to Hersom's book would be Swimming because she keeps going in spite of enormous setbacks. What gives her the power to keep going is her need to help her family through hellish times. This is not a "Beans of Egypt" by Chute wallowing in poverty. This is a woman exorcising the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" with lyrics that beguile one into thinking she is having a good time.

How many times have we walked by someone less fortunate and pretended to be in a hurry, a big bustle, so that we could avoid eye contact. Not once did we surmise that the person we were so scrupulously avoiding was a human being of equal character, maybe even a stronger, more loveable person than ourselves. Maybe, even a person with a sharp wit and lyrical pen who is able to withstand life's vicissitudes and ironies and can stand alone and outside the situation, as any good writer must. Claire Hersom certainly fits this bill, creating song for our pleasure.

In "Griswold" we find a vehicle beyond our wishing for, and a gas guzzler to boot:

If they hit a tree, no dent, no death
Can't leave town - no gas
Chevy Chase could drive it under an 18 wheeler
And live.

It was perfect.

A joy and a pleasure for a woman who had to tell her three children "On the Sixth Day" that daddy is not coming home, and in her Whitmanesque poem "When We Needed Food" that their heritage, such as it was, and necessities have been sold, and they were not enough.

Yet, Hersom can also echo her Celtic heritage with sureness only the beleaguered Celts can give to any real or imagined slight. She mauls a fancy lawyer who wanted her to act like us now that she had closed on a home. Instead of spitting in that lawyer's face:

I resisted—spent my life
writing poetry and essay
about his sorry ass.

There is joy, spirit, and compassion in all our poverties, and this book will go a long way helping us to find it.

—Russell Buker


Back to top


A Laureate's Work

Scattered Chapters, New and Selected Poems by Baron Wormser (Louisville, KY.: Sarabande Books, 2008), 247 pages. Paper. ISBN-13: 978-1-932511-61-1 $16.95.

Any new book by Baron Wormser, a former poet laureate of Maine and a veteran teacher of poetry, deserves respectful attention, but especially this one combining new poems with selections from his seven previous poetry books. Here we have the opportunity to review in one volume his work over the past quarter century. His publisher has given us a quality paperback edition both affordable and attractive, presenting the poems chronologically and providing ample space for each.

Structurally, Wormser writes throughout in the conventional free verse of his era. Of the 130-plus poems in this compilation, only eight seem formally rhymed or metered, usually loosely, and none seeks effects from structural or typographical novelty. Wormser is a contemplative, conversational poet with a penchant for metaphor who seems satisfied to express himself in (to use his own phrase from another context) "the lulling rhythm that was talk." In content, his poems, relatively short, are accessible; they repay repeated readings but generally convey something most readers will understand at some level from the start.

Not everything is clear, however. Now and then Wormser indulges in bloodless figures of speech that seem stretched and leave one puzzled: "The pungence of brevity was our false pride," he writes in one poem, and in another: "Contempt is the price of poignancy." In an early poem, he defines poetry as "the logic beyond reason," which seems more "poetic" than illuminating. However, these are but lapses in poems otherwise containing many arresting images, apt metaphors, and thoughtful phrases. In a poem about admiring intricately embroidered handkerchiefs, for example, he gives us these poignant lines:

They are someone's
precious time . . .
This quiet work that did not have to be done.

What of the content of Wormser's poetry as a whole? Many things might be said but two stand out for this reader. The first is empathy. Many of his poems, particularly after the early ones, are about people besides himself, including people whose selves he seems able to enter. Mostly these are obscure people of what he tellingly calls "passing significance"—relatives, friends, students, professors, waiters, immigrants, cancer victims, a bank clerk, a trucker, a haberdasher, a mowing crew, a released ballplayer, a woman almost hit by a car, people who smoke cigarettes outside the buildings in which they work. He can credibly imagine and express their thoughts, feelings, attitudes in ways meaningful to the rest of us. Even when he describes someone famous, as in his series "Carthage," a clearly generalized President George W. Bush comes through as a pathetically ordinary character. And one of his best portrayals is the Laura Bush-like wife of Carthage:

For years she has kept
Her desires to herself.
Maybe they drowned
And will wash up on the shores of history
Decades from now. Long after her death,
Small defiant cries will be heard
Echoing in a dark archive.

What also stands out for me is the sense of perplexity that underlies these poems. They express no profound vision or passionate sensibility beyond a view of the world as (in Wormser's words) "a cold sublimity." I take the sublimity to be the sheer, amazing existence of things, of puny life in a hugely inhospitable universe, and of the persistence of humans in the face of dehumanizing difficulties. In short, I hear in Wormser's voice a kind of admiring astonishment, a kind of accepting bewilderment.

Whether you share this outlook or not, Wormser's culminating new book is well worth reading. Let us hope it will not be his last.

—Gerald George


Back to top


Hope, Memory, Meaning

The Ur-Word by Jim Glen Thatcher (Westbrook, ME: Moon Pie Press, 2008), 35 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-1-60643-189-4 $9.

Many people in this age of entitlement fail to see beyond their wants, and so, truly need a strong poetic voice such as Thatcher's to register reality checks on who they were, are, and will be: life as it is, not as we wish it.

Thatcher is also keenly aware that life as we know it is not causal, so he begins with a pertinent image: "Full moon," he murmurs, "stealing its light from the unseen sun," which is clear evidence that our conscious minds can register a little capriciousness concerning an every day event as the audacious moon slips back over the horizon and returns with a little light. Thus, our imaginations enable us to create a better self examination, plus comforting nature more than just what a glance at reality allows us to perceive.

The title itself may be a little off-putting for some, but Thatcher was a historian of note and chose to mingle the city of Ur into his poetics. Ur was the land of the Chaldees and the original band of brothers, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who escapaded around pretending to be heroes. Their problem was that they were conditionally human and in spite of their exploits were mortal like the rest of us.

The plain of Ur itself emerged from the Arabian Gulf as silt deposits from the Korun River ran thousands of years before King Tut's time. However, the Euphrates River eventually proved fickle and changed its riverbed, leaving the fertile plain high and dry. Now our first civilization remains buried and lost: "Ur blooms quietly in desolation, in emptiness, Ur sleeps in ruins" until Charles Leonard Wooley uncovered this biblically famous city and its Ziggurat.

Also, the Black shirts of Europe, with their distrust of the intellectual world, adapted the word Ur for their motto "that life is lived for struggle."

We-Ur are the "mutatis mutandis" and "the closer we come to it the grander the metaphor" becomes the poetic voice of Thatcher. He spends his time pointing out the images he has found for us to digest/sift through our own make up in an "endless epiphany of existence." At times he talks of himself in the third person "closing the I and opening the eye" as he remembers a previous girlfriend with "The pain of memory accentuated in the mystery of her body" as she swam naked in a sandy bottomed river. Taking nothing for granted, Thatcher is even capable of finding a fellow poet in a semi-rotted piece of hemlock stump or in the notebooks of a mysterious, old man which were "histories of a self become other".

Finally, implicit in poetry is the notion that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by our refusal to vanish—to to not let others vanish—without leaving a verbal record:

I scrawl, & image wells through word
from the brilliant darkness…

and for leaving a good question in a prosaic world Thatcher stands incredulous as three crows interrupt his walk noisily rising:

this bright morning
with all hope,
all memory,
all meaning.

—Russell Buker


Back to top