Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal

WINTER 2010
"Wind Into Lyrics"
Reviews

The Problem of Endings

Floating, poems by Ellen M. Taylor Westbrooke, Maine: Moon Pie Press, 2009), 92 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-61539-450-0 $10

A little poem called "Hen" illustrates a lot. I quote it in full:

How does she do it, create such perfect
spheres within her feathered body? Every
twenty-four hours she leaves us, still warm,
an umber shell, inside it a yolk ochre
and richer than butter, nested in white clear
as rainwater. She coos and clucks with content.

Taylor constructs her poems out of closely observed detail, which is the most impressive aspect of her work. Like the poem above, much of her work is light, domestic, conversational, good-humored, and warm-hearted. Though one wonders sometimes about the felicity of her line breaks (and about her rare attempts at rhyme), she has a feel for rhythm and an ear for sound repetitions.

But also like the poem above, many have endings that leave this reader feeling let down. "She coos and clucks with content" is not wrong, exactly, but seems conventional, cartoonish, diminishing the striking images preceding it and the poem's opening question. Often after passages of fascinating description, Taylor adds something unnecessary, platitudinous, moralistic, obvious, sentimental, banal, or a combination of the above.

One poem ends with this flat-out, prosaic declaration: "Perhaps our life is a basic formula of debits and credits, / a necessary balance between responsibility and joy." A poem about how Noah's wife took off, once the ship on which she had slaved to take care of everybody found land, ends lamely with the obvious: "Can you blame her?" Another poem ends sentimentally with "O house of memory, house of childhood, / you will always be the dwelling of my dreams." Another, after a wonderful description of oppressed people cleaning up after a demonstration, adds sententiously: "Even this grey world tries to shine, tries to remember, / and forget."

Taylor is not inept. I counted some dozen impressive poems with effective endings neither forced nor reductive. A good example is a poem about a festive gathering of families on a riverbank in Argentina. Without a word about oppression in that country's history, it ends with this telling image:

[They] laugh as though someone had said
something too funny to be true.
Their laughter rises, becoming
almost hysterical, and then
they are silent.
Across the river bank, a bloated body
stalls at a fallen tree,
shirt sleeves catch on a branch
then release.

Particularly in the sections about Latin America, this and similar poems make the book worth reading.

I regret to add one picky point. This book's inconsistency in dash forms—some are em dashes, some en dashes, some hyphens, some free-standing, some not—will irritate readers. However, in overall design, this quality paperback is readable and attractive.

—Gerald George


Back to top


A Fine Synchronicity

Anxious Music. Poems by April Ossmann (New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2007), 52 pages, paper. ISBN: 1-884800-81-5 $15.95.

In her debut collection, April Ossmann offers various investigations of life and language, desire and fear, often with first-person immediacy. Her lines are neat, her stanzas often clipped, matching her musings—that fine synchronicity between subject and style we look for in the best poetry, form following feeling and vice-versa.

"Anxious music" is a fitting description for many of the poems: a bit agitated in their inquiries and deftly cadenced. Ossmann finds her subjects in dreams, in a name, in nature, and in the day-to-day: a lost glove by the roadside, a glass broken in the sink, a lover asking to see a tan-line. Some conceits work better than others, but even lesser poems, like "Edelweiss" or "Fusion," have their moments.

There's a quality of an aphoristic philosopher in a number of poems as Ossmann considers a conundrum. "Out is never content to stay there," opens the poem "Living Without," sounding like the beginning of a riddle (or a Simic poem), but the verse goes on to describe the arrival of an exultant March wind in cold country where the "white-knuckled hands" of snow have guarded secrets all winter.

"The Music We Travel By," inspired by accordion-connected double-length buses found in Swiss cities, recalls a John Donne metaphysical poem. The distance between two travelers increases and decreases as the gangly vehicle turns corners,

as the two halves strain
toward each other,
then away, playing the tune

we travel by, music
I almost hear.

In the poem "The Name of the Mold," Ossmann conjoins a gardener's battles against the blights of summer with paradise lost. "Am I fallen because I've failed the garden" asks the narrator, "or does the garden fail because I'm fallen." Such nifty word play is a part of this poet's aesthetic.

Some poems have a slightly neurotic feel; others explore emotional edges. The wholly engaging voice in "Dinner Party," describing the contents of an apartment while making all manner of asides, might be Saturday Night Live's Kristin Wiig going off on one of her monologues that is funny, but makes one laugh nervously.

Formerly executive director of Alice James Books, Ossmann is a freelance editor and publishing consultant based in Post Mills, Vermont. She teaches workshops at the Writer's Center in White River Junction as well as the Stonecoast MFA writing program in Freeport, Maine. Workshops and readings are listed at www.aprilossmann.com
The site also features a video of Ossmann reading from Anxious Music at Bookshop Santa Cruz. It's a swell presentation, in which she provides short preambles to several pieces, explaining, for example, that the poem "Fog" began by imagining what having Alzheimer's might be like. Hearing her read this poem is to truly appreciate the musicality of her writing and the engaging anxiety of her voice and vision.

—Carl Little


Back to top


Island Landscape & Voice

Where Light Answers Light: Poems from Prince Edward Island by Rosamond Rosenmeier Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2007), 56 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-4343-3555-5 $8.00

Calling on the Muse enables the storyteller to weave tales. Rosenmeier opens with a call to the "scraps of voice, scrambled tones" to "come forth," so that she can "tap into it" to tell the story of the landscape of Prince Edward Island, her summer home for the last 40 years. The book delivers that tale of the landscape, as in "Arriving in June":

A far lapis lazuli splinter
thickens into bay; dunes arch their
grassy backs and fish docks crowd
the river's edge, heavy with traps.

My breath stops as I notice that
all things in the field and woods live
again: wild strawberries in flower
hug the ground. The white clover
and lavender mouse pea bloom.

In rituals of scent, color, sound
our life is recomposed.

The best poems remain in that landscape and life on this small maritime province. Golden grain, greens fields and spruce, red earth and stones provide a layer from which the reader senses the intensity of the short summer season lived fully. That fullness is more evident in such lines as "the earth's page turns, stenciled with rain" (from "The Island Planter's Round"), "across the bay / silver scales down the dragon's / spine—a full moon / washes its way up the river" (from "The Moon Nourishes the Oysters"), and "breathe the impossible air / of two landscapes at once" (from "A Dedication").

Only a few poems have evident poetic device, such as rhyme and alliteration. Most successful is "The Island Planter's Round", with its repeating phrase, "June's pale green", and internal and end rhymes, describing the transformation of the landscape from late summer into autumn and how "Last spring the red of these same fields foretold / potatoes."

Where the volume falters is in its need to explain, as in "A Dedication" for the inhabitants, "for you / who think with two minds. / I do not mean think two / thoughts at once." In "On Painting Harold's Cows", the poet tells us, in an aside, that in creating an oil painting in which a fence blocked "the panorama of fields and hills beyond," "the unprettiest part of the scene / turned out to be its focal point."

Despite the poet's interjections, the language of the landscape comes through strongly, even making its way into non-island winter life, as when jam is made "ready for the long trip home towards winter," where some January morning "will pour its summer day out onto our saucers and toast" (from "Jam's Ritual Plenty"). In capturing the landscape, Rosenmeier is preserving it for the future. The land, once spoken of

… as shore
or woods or field,
sometimes adding "north" or "spruce"
or "lighthouse"…

is now being parceled out and spoken of in numbers. And "even the gulf is 'farmed'." Which makes the fiddler's "plaintive sound" from the island's history more urgent as "it wails the bad times out" (from "Pain, Wind, Song").

—Ellen Jane Powers


Back to top


Big Things Briefly

Wee Hour Martyrdom, by Jason Tandon Buffalo, NY: sunnyoutside, 2008), 76 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-934513-05-7 $13

Mr. Tandon's book can be an easy read; the poems are short, spaces on the pages loom large, and his words are everyday words. But look again. A brief poem can say a lot, much like a priest's two minute Sunday homily that pleases his congregation for both its brevity and its life's lesson.

Tandon lives in Hadley, MA with his wife and their dog Fergus. Anyone who would name a dog Fergus has to have a bizzare sense of humor. He doesn't disappoint. Take for example, "Cribbage."

I ask my love if she would still love me if I only had half a face.
No, she says. … I wouldn't love you if your fingers
had no knuckles; if you'd been born with one foot
backwards…How shallow you are! I cry…Fatty,
she says, shuffling the deck, I wouldn't even be your friend.

And then there is the young boy in "The Gods Just Appeared."

I built my Aztec temple without stairs
and Mrs. Glover flunked me……..Mrs. Glover must have wondered,
How at noon precisely
Thirty books hit the floor with a thunderous clap,
How the tacks on her chair
punctured that heavy dress
.

This book, though, encompasses more than humor. Many poems challenge us to think about people and places in a different light, with a renewed attitude. In "Accident" two men are in a car crash in the middle of nowhere, one appears to be dead, the other seriously injured and still tethered by his seatbelt. Suddenly…

Out of nowhere the rubbery bluster
of a motorcycle gang
Blinded me with their headlights,
Left me deaf and coughing dust…..And I held on tighter,
His forearms thick as hams
And circled with barbed wire.

He writes of a man facing death from some unnamed disease…

I see my death waiting in line at the post office
Watching an old woman count pennies,
When I'm reading "Goodnight Moon" to my nephew
Or a sweat-soaked stranger asks me the time.
When I see it, it is not grand…

Tandon searches for stories from his personal history, from people he has known, kids on a beach, strangers in the marketplace, and reinterprets events with an easy-to-read emotional energy. He writes of ordinary lives, seeks to make conscious the unconscious.

Chekhov said his writing goal was to "talk briefly about big things." One of the "big" things we often find ourselves thinking about is found in "Back Home" where…

My father sits in the dining room
Drinking his tea titrated
with skim milk and sweetner.
Above his sisters' sorrowful chant of holy book Ramayan
I hear him say,
"How rapidly the leaves are falling,
So many all at once,"…And think for the first time
I am my father's son.

—Sheila Mullin Twyman


Back to top


Never Too Late

Blow Out the Moon by Philip Hasouris,(Scituate, MA: Beachcomber Press, 2009), 100 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9840679-0-9. $15.

Philip Hasouris is a tireless supporter and organizer of the poetry community in the city of Brockton, Massachusetts, one of the poorest communities in the state. The city is famous for boarded-up shoe factories and for being the home of the boxer, Rocky Marciano. Brockton is the kind of place where you learn how to take a hit and get back up again. That spirit is embodied in Blow Out the Moon, where Hasouris shares the story of his wife's illness after an anoxic event during a routine surgical procedure left her with a devastating brain injury.

The book is divided into five sections: Life Before,Beginning Trauma, Remembrance, Reality, and Reflection, each prefaced by a statement from a poet or psychological practitioner serving as an extended epigraph to the poems. The poems allow us a glimpse into the workings of a shared life that suffers a catastrophic blow, yet somehow memory maintains the relationship.

"Life Expectancy," a set of call and response meditations from the Life Before section, is a premonition.

If you blow into the trunk of an elephant
it will never forget your scent.

Then Are you there? drifts to, Yes, I was just thinking.

In "Ape4 You," the everyday world collides with new reality. When Hasouris buys a Valentine's Day gift for his stricken wife, the sarcastic clerk asks, "Isn't it a little late?" She is totally unprepared for Hasouris' "summary of these last months,"

this nightmare that happens
only to other people.

Then Hasouris reminds himself:

it's never too late. Walking back into every day.

From the final section, Reflection, the poem "Cross the Double Line" sums up the experience:

you just can't
fold that map back,
to the way it was.

It is not an unusual subject for poetry, the illness and death of a loved one; this book is noteworthy for the poet's connection with his audience. Hasouris appears at conferences and workshops that support caregivers, sufferers and survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). A Resource page of poetry and TBI organizations is at the back of the book.

Other poets bring their work to non-traditional poetry audiences. Richard Cambridge's The Tobacco Papers were incorporated into programs through the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program and at the yearly conference of the American Academy of Addiction Medicine. Michael Mack's Hearing Voices, Speaking In Tongues, about a schizophrenic parent, developed into a one-man show for general audiences and psychology organizations.

With Blow Out the Moon, Hasouris joins the ranks who reach beyond readers of poetry. As Whitman said, "To have great poets, there must be great audiences." Hasouris should be applauded for opening doors for all of us.

—Valerie Lawson


Back to top


Put the Knife Away

Patricia Ranzoni Greatest Hits, 1982-2008(Columbus, Ohio: Puddinghouse Publications, 2009), 34 pages, paper. ISBN: 1-58998-725-1 $10

Though a chapbook, this publication warrants attention for its over-the-top title, unorthodox concept, and summary of the life and work of one of Maine's leading poets.

The title and concept come from Jennifer Bosveld, founder and editor of a series of chapbooks called "Poets Greatest Hits." Bosveld is a poetry impresario in Columbus, Ohio, and runs multiple operations that constitute Pudding House Publications. As explained on the book's cover:

Music lovers have purchased Greatest Hits from the music industry for decades and now Pudding House brings you hits from some of the hottest poets across the contemporary American literary landscape. The poems most often requested for reprint or performance, pieces remembered by fans and groupies.

Inclusion in the series is by invitation only, and if you send so much as a query about how to get invited, you will be banned from consideration for at least three years (as if you were going to be considered anyway). Poets who mysteriously get chosen are asked to select a dozen of their most publicly popular poems and relate those poems to their lives in an introductory essay. Bosveld is thus disengaged from the old "New Criticism" with its focus on the poem rather than the poet.

But in Ranzoni's case, how can one focus only on the poem? What she has given us is, first, a rambling autobiographical essay that makes a critic shudder at the thought of even attempting an "objectively" critical review of the poems. Faced with this "Outback Woman" whose experiences since birth (literally) have been as harrowing as Ranzoni's—experiences that might have debilitated a lesser spirit—the critic simply applauds.

Sometimes her syntax is disjointed, her diction abrasive, and her punctuation forgotten, but does it matter? Isn't she just adapting means of expression to what she wants to say, or emotionally accelerating, or both? One of her earliest poems says:

I know I
am supposed to be writing our women
digging their greens, tres-
passing in another class,
but this ground is composed of my people

and I am on my knees

and this is a knife.

If you are tired of clever little poems about nothing much, Ranzoni, in such works as "Another Long," about people with hard lives, will shake you awake. At the same time, her "Spider Women" poem shows that she can spin a metaphor as well as any professor. And I don't know what to say about her "Cultural Guide" poem, or prose poem, or whatever it is, because I haven't recovered my equilibrium yet from that one, nor from her extraordinary love poem "Husband Cut My Hair."

Of Maine fishermen and women (not fisherpersons), she warns, "Don't block their road / when it's time to go home." And I see no critical reason to block hers. Pat, put the knife away. I'm praising this book.

—Gerald George


Back to top


Hummingbirds & Bones

Eating Totem: The Mossbeard Poems by Padma Jared Thornlyre (Lafayette, CO: Turkey Buzzard Press, 2008), 52 pages, paper. ISBN: 0-945884-23-0 $10.00.

Padma Jared Thornlyre's Eating Totem offers poems of raw energy—blocks of mind and earth that form a physicality of being. Throughout the slim volume there is a strong sense of place, not just location but also the body. The book's first section deals with the natural state and the second, facing the body's slow decay.

In the aboriginal concept of a clan, where a selection of humans, plants, and animals are all members, the humans refrain from consuming their own totem (a non-human representation of the clan), because it would ultimately create distrust in the totem for its human counter- parts, and the clan's power would diminish.

The title poem, "Eating Totem," though not the strongest poem offered, picks up the desire of the poet to be fully of the land (the pleasures of eating trout: "green back / cutthroat, rainbow, / brown and brookie"), yet mindful of its spirit (self-questioning what his totem might be: "Let it be hummingbird, for / eating hummingbird has never / occurred to me").

Hummingbirds make several appearances in part one. In "Strawbale," they are among the rugged mountain landscape: "hummingbirds & Sangres, / reckless sage, salmon & banjo." This poem, with its recurring opening line "we do this work," brings together living integrated with the land, fully alive within the aging body that informs the volume:

… We do this work for our
olding bones, that our ashes
might rest in the Wet Mountain

Hardscrabble starry-starry
wind. And we do this work

for what we've scattered already,
every drop of sake we've spilt,
every seed we've sown into woman.

"Rattlesnakes, meadowlarks, banquets & bones," begins the poem "Banquets & Bones" in the second part of the book, and those images recur in several poems. This section also includes a number of successful haiku:

In cold mountain rain
eating Nepalese, 'scuse me
while I lick the sky.
( "Kathmanudu")

Common sense heads south;
my hairline north for the long,
receding winter.
( "Aging Haiku")

The language in this second part is just as bodily as the first, with its "placental heat" and "wake / to the last stars, to piss." Though not political poems, they offer political commentary sewn into the living matter, as in reflecting on becoming "food for the hungry" rather than of being "preserved in an expensive, airtight box / (in America, even death is Big Business)."

Yawps, cawks, howls, chirps, trills, and a "bull elk's bugling" permeate these poems. Rhyme and form (a single villanelle) accompany their sense. Eating Totem is a personal collection that isn't confessional. It eats away at the "crazy clouds", "lichens," and "bones" that inform the poet and a man growing into his landscape and age.

—Ellen Jane Powers


Back to top


Regrettably

More Scents Please by Peter Felsenthal (Nobleboro, ME: Blackberry Books, 2009), 90 pages, paper. ISBN: 10: 0982438907. $13.95

This is the first collection of poems by Peter Felsenthal, who lives on Barters Island in mid-coast Maine and has been writing poetry in spare time through a long life. I am glad for him, as I am for anyone who achieves self expression and who shares the results with family and friends.

I regret that I can't recommend these poems to others. They contain too many prosaic pronouncements, non-sequiturs, questionable metaphors, banal observations, attempts at cleverness, and lines such as "nose in wild rose." Others may find more in this physically attractive book than I do. So let me provide below a poem of Felsenthal's that may help readers judge for themselves.

—Gerald George

Dam Sure

Something is there that loves a dam
The beavers for one
The fish back of it
Or the person who turns on an electric light
Or runs the computer to edit a poem
Something is there that loves a dam better than the nuclear plant's waste
Better than the burnt coal mercury poison
Something there is that
Feels a dam is ugly or changes nature
And it is right, but
Electricity does not grow on trees
But by burning trees or
Wind turning turbines
Or by burning fuels that give Maine the highest asthma rate in the nation
We humans are supernatural, we build
Bigger and stronger than beavers, we
Breed we consume, we use electricity
We damn well construct our lives to need our damn dams.

—Peter Felsenthal


Back to top