WINTER 2015: "Get You Some Wings"
From Argentina to Darwin
Later The House Stood Empty by Melina Draper (borealbooks 2014), 87 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-59709-973-8.
Melina Draper treats the reader to a richly textured history of her early years in South America. She enhances the experience with all the senses, and everything crackles, gleams, shimmers, hums, and explodes with life. The first stanza of "Mouth of the River" opens the book with a hint of what's to come:
Crackle and spit of fat on grills,
asado,chorizo in eucalyptus shade,
Fanta naranja, invasive foxtails waving.
I was a visitor in his country, too.
There are poems of adolescence and natural landscape. Each venue opens up a world for us, allowing us to peek into wanderings and experimentations. At times, the two come together in cityscapes, as in "Spitshine," a poem inspired by a line by Sapho and translated by Ann Carson, paraphrased here in the italicized third line:
Moths and beetles court the street lamp on the corner.
I sit there into the wee hours writing.
I am his sweet bitter unmanageable creature,
jasmine-scented apparition who steals into his loft late.
He kisses me hard, he pinches me.
At other times, the landscapes mesh in a mélange of sensuous details. Bitter tea and forsythia, graffiti and tart oranges, caves and cannonballs, fossils and creatures of the deep, two men dancing cheek to cheek and a night blooming cereus all heighten the adventures.
There are political poems too. In "The Protest, 35 Years", Few mothers still march/around the Plaza de Mayo obelisk/seeking who was taken from them,/who was disappeared. But these few are in the background. Nevertheless, the title poem is a quick look at the AIDS crisis; clearly a tender observation of a personal experience: Someone said AIDS./his sweet house,/his mother gaunt and diminished, at the door/mistook me for another.
What truly gives this volume a unique touch is the thread of quotations and remarks from the early voyages of Charles Darwin, whose words are scattered about the poems in italics. Draper acknowledges these lines from The Voyage of the Beagle and from the Darwin Correspondence Project He is like a second poet—a silent mentor—occasionally looking over Draper's shoulder as she ruminates on her life. In some of the Darwin-inspired poems, Draper discusses many of his discoveries. In "Bier," he noted/a breccia of bones, gigantic osseous armor,/toxodon and mastodon teeth, and one of a horse… Or perhaps a bit less expected lines in "Don Carlos on Spanish Women": Tell me, have you ever seen women//more beautiful than in Buenos Ayres?
Mixing in Spanish words does not hinder the comprehension, and many readers of poetry will look up their meanings or simply skip over them.
"In Later The House Stood Empty" we see the poet looking back, not necessarily in the voice of a young girl, but instead in the mature voice of the learned poet.
To Be or Not to Be
For the Living Dead: New and Selected Poems by Eric Greinke (Rockford, MI: Presa Press, 2014), 156 pages, paper. ISBN 978-0-9888279-2-9, $4.00.
The living dead concept in this book's title, common in religious literature, but an oxymoron to some, appears in science at sub-atomic dimensions where quantum mechanical effects are measurable, as popularized by Schrödinger's Cat. Before he stopped publishing poetry to practice as a social worker for a couple of decades, Greinke described death as:
A person's death hits you
when you ....
see someone you both knew.
It's an insight that deepens an otherwise lucid, simple, descriptive poem. His words predominately less than three syllables, yield an over-all iambic meter, but more often with assonance than end-rhymed, more with alliteration than a marching beat. After his recent death encounters is presented in his book-title poem, unusually long for him, personified in zombies who build robots put in charge of a post- apocalyptic world:
Obviously to your howls of pain
Ungrateful for your sacrifices
I hear the call of light
Through the mechanical darkness
Our myriad electro-mechanical devices suggest that machines may be a vehicle of our own Darwinian evolution.
Other early-late comparisons show the influence of his long professional practice on his poetry, as for example in his 1972 Christian poem "Triad" in which:
that water mixed with blood
splashed on the earth.
This is contrasted with the common place 2006 "Cape May Storm":
When the soaked house
Dries in the sun
Clouds of steam rise up
& naive strangers alert the firehouse.
His skepticism is consistent as is his love of capturing the moment, haiku-style, freed of a rigid five-seven-five syllable structure: "Triad" (1972), "Burning" and "April" (1973), then "Lunar Fog", "Japanese Bones", and "Hearts of Light" (2008).
In "Burning" he sounds theoretical:
Getting there You find yourself
Where you always were.
In "Lunar Fog":
A drunk woman
At her own reflection in a shop window
A poem, more in the style of co-author Hugh Fox, which Greinke contributed to, "Out of Control" brings a focus on a recurring theme symbolized by the robot, which humans at the current state of technology control absolutely, but which potentially could replace us as an intellectual presence in the universe, given our recent realization of the possibility of our species' extinction.
currents flowing through the body electric,
the mind expanding out of cybernetic screens into the warbling,
warping net of omnipotent time....
Greinke's father's need for such robotic certainty as told in "My Father's Job" caused him to stop his work as a piano player to become almost imprisoned as a factory hand who, unlike his son leaving poetry for a professional job, did not find his way back to art.
Vibrant Layers of Recollection
Tea in Heliopolis by Hedy Habra (Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53, 2013), 100 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-935708-76-6. $14.95.
Past and present live simultaneously in Hedy Hebra's Tea in Heliopolis, a living poetry in which mother and daughter are the same age and the sepia-toned photographs from a childhood in Egypt are both relics of a past and today's semblance. "I loved that silk nightgown/you folded under me, Nonna," begins "The White Brass Bed" which shone like "a boat with a silver prow," pushes the initial memory of being tucked in to her grandmother's bed to the memory of her grandmother's disabling accident. She fell and was struck by a train in the Heliopolis metro, and Habra remembers her grandmother in a wheelchair and sleeping on the couch because her bed was now "empty, useless." The poem's closing blurs past and present: "I sleep in your bed, Nonna./In my warm flannel, I feel/the softness of your silk nightgown."
Raised in Heliopolis, Egypt, Habra also lived in Beirut (she is Lebanese), and her poems are flush with the imagery, sights, and sounds of both locations, but so too with loss, all of which pile up as lists within her poems that she repeats throughout the book:
…Snow muffled voices
freezing the wind brushing the Lebanese Cedar hills, concealing
old carcasses, broken bones, ruins, the palace of Beit el Habib,
the central square's Martyrs' monuments, bazaars, flakes shrouding
laced arcades, façades riddled with lead graffiti, abandoned rubble.
—from "Telling Her Story to Stray Dogs"
The decades' occupation by the French, along with the changing regional economics and politics after the world wars, made the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975. With Beirut divided between Muslim in the west and Christian in the east, many fled to safer areas, including Hebra's family. The poet's 5-page poem, Raoucheh, walks through the changed Beirut with its rocky shore "now crowded / only by male bathers / and fishermen" and its harbor's famed horseshoe-like rock formation, Pigeons' Rock (Raoucheh), "no longer a good omen/after so many years/of fallen,/dismantled bodies/blown up theaters." The descriptive language makes the past conflict palpable, with exhaust from today's cars reminiscent of the "acrid taste" of gunpowder and fear. Habra recounts both a dreamy memory of an earlier Beirut: "a laced balcony,/delicate mosaics, unfaded,/patina adding its final touch/to pink facades," and an olfactory one: "wafts of orange blossoms/mixed with effluvia/of salty breeze". The poem ends with a list of songs from the "voices/we cannot silence", including "an entire school bus emasculated because they were Maronites/the song of mothers and children blown up because they were not Maronites." The poet includes a line of a "town torn apart," with body parts of children hanging from trees, their song an indirect way of viewing this violent transformation.
The book ends with a lament, "Salawat," of a shared loss, where the prayer for Muhammad (Salawat) and that of the rosary do not appear to be different: the prayer beads "the same size/as my neighbor Yasmine's/who lost/two sons," and despite their repetitive use that erodes "our lips, our soul," they still can soothe.
—Ellen Jane Powers
To Turn and Return
The Next Unknown by Leonore Hildebrandt (San Antonio: Pecan Grove Press, 2014). Paper. 72 pages. ISBN: 978-1-937302-12-2. $15.
Leonore Hildebrandt's second book, opens with a triptych of quotes from Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf ranging from light to dark, followed by this gem from Adrienne Rich: "But poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know." She sets herself a high bar. The book continues in four numbered sections, the precision of the numbers balanced by their anonymity as the reader is invited on a journey through unfolding encounters with the unknown that resolve with barely a chance to draw breath. In lyric moments, Hildebrandt brings us to the quivering edge between unknowing and knowing, with elusive lines followed by sharply etched truths reminiscent of Anna Akhmatova. What seems at first a slow walk quickly builds in urgency and intensity.
The first section seesaws back and forth, tender and frightening. Images grounded in breath and heart along with great loss. In "Realities on Which the Word Hinges," there are tangled "transactions." The speaker "write[s] to seduce my neighbor," then "slip[s] notes to my room mate," a curious, a split connection lacking explanation. The reader must cross over with the poet, not perhaps to knowing yet, but at least attempting to understand. The poem continues with:
crowd the harbor, and under a feverish sun
the last fish stinks to heaven.
Closing the poem, the speaker,
bought a trinket from a boy
who had them pinned to his chest
counting the coins and expresses a wish, to "fumbl[e] for a different gesture." They exchange a look, "…and the aching flared up, / but not for each of us alone." Just at the poem's end, the walls of this hastily built marketplace come down and the reader is revealed as part of the circle.
Hildebrandt is a master of deconstruction, breaking down large concepts, as in "Tremor," where the poem begins in "breath," and "water, empathy's narrow friction," then goes large with:
proudly reported in the news
and stops to include—
The curvature of the spine—
the precision of legs—all of
Hildebrandt confronts "inclusiveness" here as a generic term, a media toss-off, and makes us question what it "includes," bringing us down to fundamental human images of the body in the midst of a devastated town where the women "…string together…cadences…from the shattered houses." "Unknowingly they are known." The hard work of going forward must be done as their grief becomes the new home where they will live until
the women's breath expires—
for every house, in every song
in every street.
The seesaw of the first section builds to a whipsaw by the end. The final poem, "Plowing the Canvas," is five couplets, and begins with "Considering narcotics or a cliff/ to jump from…" then on to "…life's spasms, its stench…"in the first two couplets and into the ground itself in the third where "…we dig ourselves…still warm…" In the second line of the third couplet, we are pulled up and out with "…the question of how to make it// from one margin to the other, / to traverse the canvas …leaving spaces, at the end, for air."
This is not as a quick read, but a book to return to again and again, to savor the images and prepare for our own next unknowns.
Listen to Wesley
The Lost Child—Ozark Poems by Wesley McNair. (Boston: David R. Godine, 2014), 80 pages, softbound. ISBN 978-1-56792-519-7. $17.95
Wesley McNair's poems about the denizens of back-roads Maine are treasured for their evocations of lives often overlooked and unacknowledged. Like the novelist Carolyn Chute, he renders the locals with affection and humor, honoring them as more than simply survivors.
In this new collection, his tenth, McNair continues his explorations of the human condition, turning his sights on his family in the "poverty of the Ozarks." He enters the world of southern Missouri kin, including his mother Ruth, who is the only relative to retain her real name in these poems and who is on her last feet.
The book's overture, "When She Wouldn't," is an account, admirably wrought in alternating two- and three-line stanzas, of a visit to Ruth's hospital room by relatives, including the poet. Their mission: to convince the stricken yet stubborn woman that she should move to a nursing home. What starts as a genial visit turns into a confrontation—and reveals some of the family dynamics we will encounter elsewhere in the book. "Listen to Wesley," they implore Ruth.
From there we proceed to tales of assorted family members, presented in an unvarnished yet mostly empathetic manner. McNair channels their attitudes, dreams and delusions: Ruth thinking her family "needed to become experts in minding their own damned/business" ("The Abduction"); Leroy finding a companion on a Christian Personals site ("The Four-Point Crown"); Sherwood reinventing himself through cross-dressing and funhouse mirrors ("Tears"); a pastor chastising a woman for imagining a husband, "whom you have pledged to honor, lying//in his underpants, dead the day before your fortieth/anniversary" ("Her Secret"); or a second husband using scissors to cut out his wife's first from photos in the family album ("The Lost Child").
McNair works with stereotype—the culture of Bud Light, American flag cakes, Dr. Phil and crushes on the UPS guy—without slipping into condescension. He takes the microcosm of his family and turns it into a portrait of America. These men and women communicate via Facebook; they are veterans of terrible wars; they covet his-and-her leather recliners; they believe in aliens and the End Times.
Whether recounting a trip to Graceland, a nursing home outing or a long-distance trucker run, McNair uses the elements of a simple but carefully syncopated prosody to produce engaging narratives. It's exceptional storytelling by way of line and stanza breaks that lead you along. As always, he is felicitous in his language and turns of phrase. A man is "bestroked"; a family is made up of "blended and reblended/offspring"; a woman has breasts that "weigh on" a veteran's "outcast heart."
The Lost Child ends with a kind of postscript, "Why I Carried My Mother's Ashes," in which the poet explains why he has returned to the Ozarks to spread her dust. As they stand graveside listening to Wesley read Walt Whitman, the aunts and uncles, prompted by the bard to "look for him/under their bootsoles," bow their heads and look "respectfully down/at their shoes." It's a beautiful, sad and funny moment, one among many in another memorable offering by this master poet.
The Door Has Closed Quietly
The Wall & Beyond by Joanna Kurowska (Little Elm, TX: eLectio Publishing, LLC, 2013), 55 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1482371178. $9.99.
Joanna Kurowska, living in the United States since 1988, shares with us her deep connection to her Polish homeland. Trains travel through emotionally ravaged landscapes, and both angels and political prisoners meet the reader at many stations. Walls loom ahead, appearing and disappearing, each instilled with metaphors of longing, fear, and religious devotion to her Catholic faith that does not waiver.
In "Prayer," she states she believes
in the silence of the invisible God
creator of the universe
and in the quiet after prayer.
One of the walls in a[nother] poem
decorates itself with a cross,
all the saints, a mother of god
it knows well gospel's tender love
There is profound angst skulking in many corners and traveling across the broad landscapes:
In a train, a man is sitting near me
his face sunburned but gray
a scar on his forehead
I see clearly—he is near
near a house's door left ajar
near a streak of light on the snow
near a meadow and a forest
near laughter and crying
The whole train in which we are sitting together
is near—and it will ride past
it will go by
The most moving and thought-provoking poem for this reader is "In Poland, 1993." Again fear hides in the shadows on a return visit:
Again I climb these stairs,
grasping the splinters of the balustrade.
At the turn of the stairs, through an open window, falls
Providence's blue-eyed gaze
bruised on the roofs of townhouses.
When I get to the top, a strange face
jumps out from behind the door, like a mean dog,
to bite me with a polite
They don't live here any more.
Kurowska wrote the poems in Polish and translated them into her newly adopted English. She acknowledges the assistance of friends and family who helped her to find the best English words. Perhaps less loving associates should have acted as her language mentors, who could have been more critical of certain word combinations that come across as trite or awkward. Expressions such as "the bugs' evening music," or "The devil rubbed his hairy hands," or "white ribs of death" all seem a bit hackneyed among the simpler and straight forward word choices elsewhere. Nevertheless, there are some interesting combinations, including: "a freight-arc of Hebraic names/under the fingergreased sails of the Bible," and "fat fish, argument-leeches, the weight of feet/sinking deeper and deeper in slime."
Most readers can barely imagine what it must be like to leave one's homeland unless we have a personal relationship to such an ordeal. Joanna Kurowska has clearly demonstrated the difficult spiritual and physical journey she underwent in leaving behind a dark existence. Her faith in God may have sustained her but the fears of the world unrelentingly lurked where "the bus stops at the cemetery" in her dream and "where the door has closed so quietly/where the earth is nailed to heaven."