WINTER 2014: "Ice Fishing"
Dark and Dust
All That Remains by Brian Fanelli (Englewood NJ: Unbound Contact, 2013), 75 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-936373-46-8. $15.00.
My first encounter with this collection drew me to read it in one sitting.
Indeed the clarity, reason, and continuity of a professional writer are made evident in this work. The poems are about people: Fanelli himself, father, mother, friends and those observed from a distance. Father is a factory worker, grandfather a coal miner; and this writer is an upwardly mobile graduate from good colleges with a Master's degree and deep into a doctoral program in language and literature, having several years of college teaching experience. The illustration on the cover reminds us that this family comes out of the dark and dust of the coal mines, now lit by a bright compact florescent light.
Dad is introduced as a domestic father helping with the household chores including cooking. Son watches TV horror and likes to strum a guitar. No nerd, this student gets socially involved attending parties and donning the activist role to express his natural sympathy for the working stiff. He articulates this for an unemployed veteran of the foreign wars and a wannabe teacher used and abused by colleges. In how "I Remember Her," a woman on the way down, he comments:
She's not yet the wife of a factory worker
whose knuckles are scraped and bruised
who stumbles to bed too drunk to please his wife.
His use of the euphemism here to avoid "fuck," a vulgarity (think Vulgate), but not a curse, seems unnecessary, as he says "move your ass" in "After Working Hours," establishing the language level.
His personification of the city of Scranton in "Mr. Scranton" seems to hint of future work in the tradition of William Carlos William's who inserts a lot of historic prose in his classic work. Certainly the history, story and folklore of the coal miner needs to be told by the coal miners' sons, daughters, and grandkids as that contains the root of the Wilkes- Barre/Scranton, Pennsylvania, area idiosyncrasies, attitudes and values. Fanelli starts with this nicely in "Advice from Grandfather":
I want to pop open his beers,
watch him take long, hard swigs,
I'd thank him for his time and labor,
for loving his wife, tending to his kids,
for waking up early, dressing in blue-back cold
just to survive.
I'd look at his palms, swollen and steeled, soot
crusted under his fingernails and know
my generation will also survive.
In this passage alluding to his numerous poems about the poet's struggling contemporaries perhaps the word "soot" could be changed to "coal dust."
The death scene regarding his father in "The Stroke," "Speaking From a Sick Bed," and "Possessions" honors him in elegiac poetry, something poets can do like no others, save perhaps the clergy. I would like to hear more about the details of this man's work. What were these machines he fed? How do they replace craftsman and artisans who verge on the artist, expressing deep truths about human beings? Also we need to know more about his mother.
All That Remains works as a maturing of Fanelli's previously published chapbook Front Man. Now he is in a position to branch out to the larger community beyond his personal experience, both in terms of personal story and time line; that which follows from the kind of study and scholarly research that will make him an excellent teacher and writer. The future may bring modifications in form, both of the line and the work itself. Whether the future form he uses is formalist or experimentimental, a doff to poetic traditions of rhyme and meter is in order.
A World-Wide Commitment
Calendars of Fire by Lee Sharkey (North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2013), 64 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-936797-26-4. $16.95.
About the time I sat down to review Lee Sharkey's newest book of poetry, the New England Poetry Club announced its 2013 contest winners. Calendars of Fire won a Sheila Margaret Motton Book Award Honorable Mention; a well deserved honor for Ms. Sharkey's life-long love of writing and commitment to justice around the world.
Ms. Sharkey relishes doing exhaustive research on issues of war and peace, on why we humans do violence to each other. Poems here are inspired by the Spanish Inquisition (she even traveled to Spain to see for herself the documents from the Inquisition, all tied in large bundles with string), Tehran's Evin prison, and people lost in the Nazi Holocaust and the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
In an interview for the Kenyon Review she explains, "I have been writing sequences for the last five years, sets of discrete poems loosely held together by an overarching theme they explore, each poem becoming a facet of the exploration." From "Sequestered:"
The prison's name is almost a perfume
It flowers with apricot blossoms, enfolded in vaginal hills
Knives are sharpened. Women go walking among them
The prison is filthy. The prison is sterile
Women in flowered abayas stand for inspection
The prison abides. Speak quietly
Reo—the work is so lonely
Many figures lurk in the background of "Possession," including a young Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas, Palestinian women detained in Israeli prisons, dolls left in a street when the Gestapo rounded up Jewish residents, memories of the poet's mother. But they are incidental, severed from their original context, fused into new images:
The plate was whole until I remembered it had broken. Then the plate disappeared from my hand (I was going to serve you a meal when it vanished)
Under the poor man's lamp, a thin man drags himself through a grove of olive trees and buries his face in leaves.
A raven lands in an apple tree and tugs off a small gold apple. He flies to a nearby maple, where he props the apple in a crotch and stabs it repeatedly with his beak
The briefest plea - how long do the eyes need - before the penitent bows his head to the script the inquisitors rehearsed him in. Dunce cap gesturing toward death face
White space is an important element to the poet. It is equivalent to intervals of silence:
You are the teacher standing in the aftermath who insists, Kill us all, kill us all right now
I am the witness who forgets the prayer and where it was made but swears, there was a prayer there, there is a prayer
You are the nurse who spoons egg yolk into the prisoner's mouth
You cannot read Calendars of Fire just once. There is much too much to absorb. There are a few reference notes in the back of the book, but her publisher, Tupelo Press, has a wonderful Reader's Companion online at www.tupelopress.org. I can imagine that Ms. Sharkey might have been torn between allowing the reader to simply explore her poetry without explanation, or including some of the sources as found in the Reader's Companion. While I thoroughly enjoy her style and use of words, I found I appreciated the book even more with additional background information. A very worthwhile read.
—Sheila Mullen Twyman
Windmills stuttered mantras at the Himalayas"
Familiar Ghosts by Henry Hart (Alexandria, VA: Orchises Press, 2013) 96 pages, softbound. ISBN: 978-1-932535-29-7. $14.95.
The 50 or so poems in Henry Hart's fourth collection present a wide range of subjects and conceits. At turns, the poet is haunted by ancestors and family history, or he is living in the moment: engaging with a self-help cell-phone huckster or channeling the angst to a BP oil rig. Hart moves freely between a straightforward lyric impulse and another, more hallucinatory aesthetic. In a poem dedicated to poet and essayist George Garrett, he conjures the end of an era at a Maine fishing camp. In another poem, he renders the troubling visions of a Lyme Disease sufferer.
Two longer poems highlight the contrast of visions. The ambitious six-part "The Way to Shangri-Lai" revolves around a journey to the Gobi Desert to explore the legacy of a great-grandfather who "handed out Bibles/to nomads in Mongolia." This collage-like piece features historical context—lines adapted from a missionary's diary— and personal response: the trials of travel in a remote part of the world where "fuming dust" is as "white as Cipro." Hart shows off his skills as an action verb man: "Windmills stuttered mantras at the Himalayas."
"Why Am I Not Here?" exemplifies Hart's sense of the absurd, opening with a line straight out of Nathaniel West's The Dream Life of Balso Snell: "Looking up from her book on the utopian nature of honeybees,/ Cleopatra waved me over." What follows is a wonderfully surreal collection of somewhat random observations, some of them one-liners: "I've wasted my life trying to tie and untie the Tibetan knot of eternity."
While appreciating Hart's more fanciful conceits (poems like "The Museum of Unnatural History," "Frog Prince: The Sequel," and "The Island of Misfit Toys") and his edgy and often dark wit, this reader gravitated towards those poems offering a narrative or portrait: "The Battle of the Crater," recounting a visit to a Civil War park; "Applejack," a story of stolen apples and busted wine bottles; "Late Planting," a Frostian portrayal of a Christmas tree farmer; and "The Way She Was," a memorable limning of a local antiques dealer and lush, Mrs. Winthrop, who believes in aliens.
Hart, who teaches at the College of William and Mary, has published books on the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, and Robert Lowell, as well as a biography of James Dickey. It is the last whose spirit seems most to hover here and there. For example, the poem "Pieta on Whitethorn Mountain," an account of a member of a ski patrol out on a rescue, brings to mind Dickey's "The Lifeguard." The prosody is mostly formal: neatly shaped and sized stanzas. Hart likes to stretch his figures of speech: "hay genuflects in waves," "licesized bubbles shinny up a beer," and "sleet plays a last tattoo on the glazed window." From time to time, such imagistic gymnastics seem a bit much: When minnows stitch a woman's face or the sea lisps a narcotic refrain—well, the willing suspension of disbelief is challenged. However Hart goes about his verse business, he knows how to craft a line, build a poem and, most importantly, take you for some interesting rides. Familiar Ghosts is a keeper.
"The Vitamins in the Crust"
Brightness Falls by Ellen Steinbaum (Cincinnati: CW Books, 2013), 85 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-62549-042-1. $18.
A poem in this book describes how the poet "never liked the crusts" on bread. "'But that's where all the vitamins are,' they told her." She thinks about that as she bakes:
I stir, let yeast
grow light in salted water, knead in flour, flattening
with my palm and folding
over, over until smooth.
I shape it—braid or boule,
baguette or loaf,
bake till it taps hollow
at the bottom. I slide it,
from the oven, realize
I've neglected once again
to put the vitamins
in the crust.
This poem is entitled "The Meaning of Poems." It is Ms. Steinbaum's answer to those who protest the lack in her poems of heavy dollops of meaning. The poem is a metaphor for the argument that poetry comes in how you make it and what you see in the making, not in how much significance its subjects have and how earth-shaking its conclusion. Lost wallets, for example, or a hurt toe, a chicken bone, or "the bright pleasure of fresh butter on toast"—each is a subject in a short poem. And each poem subtly elevates its subject, as when you realize the poem above is not about baking at all.
Many of these poems are about lovers, husbands—you're seldom sure which, but it doesn't much matter. That's because they're not about lovers or husbands but about risk in love, dangerous delight, and the emotional uncertainty that comes from giving oneself. Throughout, the language is fresh, the free verse is varied, and the poems have been pared to the essence.
That's the trouble for me. At times these poems seem too much written for a sophisticated critic, one who says, "Cut it back, watch your words, keep it subtle," not for someone who wants to come away with amazed emotion. I offer frustrated admiration. It's a matter of temperament. Me, I need more vitamins.
Exploring haibun, and a sense of belonging
Memory Won't Save Me: a haibun by Mimi White (Cumberland, ME: Deerbrook Editions, 2012), 44 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0- 9828100-4-0. $12.
There's a story that Bashō, the 17th century Japanese poet, despite early success, became dispirited, so set off on a journey. At that time, highway robbers were prevalent and Bashō expected to be killed. Instead, his journey heartened him, and we have his travel journals, prose interlaced with haiku, which we call haibun.
Mimi White's Memory Won't Save Me, a book-length haibun, travels in time and emotional space as she contemplates, then faces, the last weeks of her father's life. Like Bashō's travel journals, she combines prose and haiku, but rather than observations on the changing landscape, she observes the relationship she has had with her father.
The book begins with White actively writing "to the end of what [she] think[s] is the story of [her] father's last days, [her] rush home to see him before he dies," while her father's presence is felt. Once she stops writing, "[her] father disappears." Her husband suggests he's no longer needed for the re-creation of the story, but White counters: "He never needed me."
This short opening begins and ends with a haiku, announcing that it is a haibun. It also sets the tone, hinting at a simmering psychological trauma yet to unfold: once upon a time / then a branch snaps, breaks / in every story.
Japanese forms, introduced into English about a hundred years ago, are still a bit fuzzy, even shifty in their "rules." Jane Reichhold, a fairly well-known teacher of haiku, now in her 70's, calls out the "doit- yourselfers" and the Internet as a source of a contentious difference in the craft of Japanese forms. What's at stake, traditionalist might say, is preserving their original intention of content, aesthetic, and technique. There have been and are numerous journals devoted to haiku and other Japanese forms, including the haibun. In fact Red Moon Press recently published its 14th haibun anthology. Mainstream journals occasionally include Japanese forms, but the practice varies widely. To its credit, Off the Coast has featured haiku in many of its issues. It may be, that despite their brevity, haiku are difficult to do well. By well I mean you're left pondering the insightful experience or feeling. Take, for instance, Bashō's farewell haiku, written shortly before his death: falling sick on a journey / my dream goes wandering / over a field of dried grass.
Mimi White's haiku build on and contrast the accompanying prose, adding mood to her story. An example: in prose she and her husband are hurriedly driving home: "…dying knows no boundaries. It crosses state lines as easily as I do." Followed by: early March snow / small white flakes / add up, disappear. And another, after seeing her father minutes after his death, she "wants to be a witness to [her] father's passing" so lingers by his bedside: your horse returned / breathless, at a gallop, / kicking up dust clouds. The emotion is palpable.
And she does this over and over—the prose suspends its narrative, a haiku appears as if to pause the story's emotion or serve as a container for it. Some lighten the emotional load: remember road trips / all of us singing / you on harmony. These require a closer read of the prose to better sense White's underlying emotional journey.
The real power of haibun is in the relationship of the prose to the haiku. Is the prose transformative or descriptive? Does the haiku change the mood, the direction, the tone? If a haibun is long, are there multiple haiku? If so, do they serve as links between or as shapeshifters of emotion to the prose sections?
About a year ago, Haibun Today appointed Glenn Coats as haibun editor. When asked about trends in haibun, particularly about the prose portion of the form, Coats indicates that much of it "is more poetic, more succinct than what was being written ten years ago." White's Memory Won't Save Me exemplifies this point. Her haibun uses storytelling techniques in its prose sections, shifting among description, dialog, self-reflection, backstory, and inner dialog. Her prose is poetic, her language, rich in description, alliteration, and repetition that captures emotion, a technique that is at once expansive yet sparse. One of the more poetic prose paragraphs builds up its scene by repetitively adding detail: "I don't fly back. I don't fly back because I am afraid to fly. I don't fly back because I am afraid of being alone…". The culmination is "I fear I will not know whom I belong to when my father is dead and my family will be both strangers and people I have known all my life."
And that's the heart of this journey that White is retelling. It's not merely about the seismic emotion of being at a physical distance as death moves closer to her father (she's on vacation in North Carolina, her father in Boston) but also about her sense of belonging—knowing she'll become parentless, then adrift in reclaiming a spot in the family from which she came.
Although the story jumps back and forth between the present drama of being away—checking on her father's declining state, speaking with him and her family by phone, then the frantic drive back interjected with recollections of recent and past visits with him and of her childhood—it reads like a short story with little turnstiles (the haiku) you have to pass through. A good read.
Bashō was a wanderer who wrote to balance his mind against his experience. It seems to me that Mimi White has done the same. Even as her haibun ends, her story continues past her broken heart and dead father: river, my heart, break / over cold stones, release / my green wilderness.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Itching for Combat by Gary Hicks (Venice, CA: Vagabond, 2013),
paper, 55 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9885023-2-1. $12.
The Dirt of Despair / Herrumbre de la Desesperanza by Mark Lipman,
translated by Antonieta Villamil (Los Angeles, CA: Casa de
Poesia, 2010), paper, 60 pages. ISBN: 978-1-936293-23-0.
"All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare." –Spinoza.
Marc Smith, one of founders of slam, stated that if there were a true contribution to the art of poetry it lay in developing group presentations. But many slam poets have learned that adding performance to poetry presentations doubled the difficulty. Those who thought they could cadge the judges learned that in the long run the collective wisdom was superior to individual ego. Adding music to performance or searching out arcane or repetitive forms merely demonstrated that repeated elements had a negative effect. So it is refreshing to read the work of political poets who not only understand the economy of poetry but are (so to speak) well-versed also in the economics of politics.
According to Gary Hicks:
a spectre is haunting communism
the arrival of the new communism
awaiting the shaping both by the
young who shape the clay and by
those of us who know at what
temperature to heat the kiln
No competition among generations there. Not since the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) on the far left and the centrist coalition of the US Civil Rights leadership has there been such humanist collaboration. A cadre of politically astute politicals with a thorough understanding of the codes and contrasts of the two hundred years of world history stands ready to teach and organize those who have no insight into the capitalist mess.
In the 1960's and 70's a whole middleclass had to learn that cops are not our friends, businesses are not organized for our benefit, and the generation of hope is led by the hopeless. Those lessons were blotted out by imprisoning poets, putting African American and American Indian Movement leaders in solitary, sacking real teachers, and demeaning women in general. How long will it take till the general populace listens to those released after thirty years in prison?
They are here again, and their brief, incisive verses recall, update, and urge forward movement. It may seem fashionable to point to political poetry as plain or merely polemic. But reading the best, like the best haiku, should make us think. Again from Hicks:
came with the founding fathers
has been with us since
Mark Lipman's dual-language book, like many political books of the last half century, entwines the dirt-poor lives of Hispanic people with the world-wide political economic philosophy of the last two centuries:
At a hundred degrees they burn
Like the children of the poor.
Trapped in the fires of neglect
In the smoke of bureaucracy.
Again, there is the simplicity of the sparse language and the political truth:
Total Debt Forgiveness
Zero homelessness in one day.
The Power of Pardon
It is difficult for many of us to read such lines without hearing echoes of the imprisoned voices of Black Panthers, Leonard Peltier, or Chilean activists lost since 1972. We honor the dead and deplore the Gulags of all the national powers. For us, Edward Snowden's revelations are only the latest in a long succession of Palmer subpoenas, HUAC hearings, illegal wiretaps, commission cover-ups, and Pentagon Papers. Our pantheon consists of actors, singers, and poets. As someone once remarked, Gamble Rogers spent his spare time polishing words. Utah Phillips carried his IWW card till the day he died. Rosalie Sorrels learned everything the hard way, so she never forgot. Studs Terkel captured the ordinary language of extraordinary people and made us feel special. They all learned from each other and we all learned from them. It takes listening and reading to get that, but those are possible for all of us.