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WINTER 2016: "Auguries of Peace"

Colloquial Struggles

The Lost Child: Ozark Poems by Wesley McNair (New York, NY: David R. Godine, 2015) , pages, paper. ISBN 978-1567925197. $17.95

The flawed love that leads to intense and authentic familial bonds forms the core of Wesley McNair's new poetry collection, The Lost Child. McNair portrays the ties of the predominantly poor, semi-fictionalized Sykes family living in the Ozark Mountains by entering their minds and showing his compassion in the face of their suffering. Through respect for his characters and narration that spares no detail, McNair expands our understanding of how frustration and love often come intertwined.

McNair has a gift for creating a complex tension that shows respect for the characters while including realistic detail. In order to balance that tension, McNair uses the colloquial language of the family members to portray financial and emotional troubles without demeaning them. We read the story of the Sykes in their own language. For example, he describes a character named Aunt Mae as "A farm woman who only had all-day chores and big-bellied Lyle" ("Graceland"). His imagery also elevates the characters in their daily, rural lives. In "The Four Point Crown," the speaker describes a young hunter "with a large bird over her shoulder, / its wings fanning out behind her back," giving us the image of an angel.

While contemporary poets may not often write about poor, rural families like the Sykes, McNair finds much to examine. In a 2011 interview with Brian Brodeur, McNair recalls that "Whitman once advised us to 'stand up for the stupid and the crazy,' but to this day the underprivileged or unacculturated haven't found their way into our poetry." McNair's portraits, while frank, reveal empathy for the invented characters and find deep love among "the stupid and the crazy."

The intimate, complex relationships between the family members appear most powerfully in McNair's bond with his mother, Ruth. We enter Ruth's home and thoughts to witness her disintegrating life first hand. Scenes of Ruth surrounded by filth, sitting on a toilet, and crying alone may shock the reader. In "When She Wouldn't" McNair describes disturbing medical problems:

When she drew a soapy rag across the agonizing
ache of her foot trying over and over to wash
the black from her big toe and could not
because it was gangrene.

However, these harrowing depictions also illustrate the love of a son who comes to accept all parts of his mother. The book ends with moving interactions between Ruth and McNair, such as in the poem "Dancing in Tennessee." Here, Ruth and her son appear in a nursing home, where he holds her hand and sings, calling her "back from this moment / in the small, dim room where she lay dying." In the character of his mother, McNair presents a family member, flawed and struggling, and he balances description and compassion.

The book will resonate with anyone interested in a realistic representation of families and emotional bonds. The Lost Child shows humans as loving and flawed, bringing the impoverished Sykes into poetry with authenticity and kindness. Thus McNair succeeds in creating the kind of poetry that Whitman would have wanted.

— Mary Siobhan Brier, State College, PA

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Not Prose Poetry Poetry

A Wolf Stands Alone in Water by Joseph Zaccardi (Cincinnati, OH: CW Books, 2015), 103 pages, paper). ISBN: 978-1625-4915-96.

I have been accused of "detesting" prose poetry. "Not so," my partner and co-editor replied. "He doesn't like bad prose poetry." So let me use the occasion of this review to explain.

If we think of prose poetry and poetry proper as lying on a continuum, Joseph Zaccardi's book is just a small step on the mid-line between the two. Certainly he stands on the poetry side of that line, but his poetry is very prosey. For example, "Loss" on page 96.

There is knowledge and knowing,
there is order and there is giving
and taking. The flower obeys the laws
of nature, whether opening in full season
or the wilting in abandonment.
There is reason and choice.
What grieves is the knowledge.
It is what separates.

If Zaccardi has a style, this is it, the plain statement of Yoda explaining something to Grasshopper. Or perhaps it is translation missing the many beauties of language while successfully, though flatly, setting forth truths. Clarity abounds, but music does not. It is like Moses holding up the terse lines of the Ten Commandments with no musical score supporting the drama of the moment. Or to be harsh, it may be cognitively definitive, denotative Wittgenstein would say, but stripped of the elevating figures of speech many of us seem to have forgotten are in the Greek. We learn half a dozen and deplore them for their limited applicability. I think of the film "My Dinner with Andre" where two mediocre minds try to impress us with their conversation.

If this poetry is at the middle ground of the continuum, and all that is missing is beyond, then what of prose poetry on the other side of the line? First of all, if Zaccardi's poetry lacks music, feeling, and form, are those characteristics sufficient to raise prose to the level of being considered poetic? I would also like to see prose set forth more poetically, that is, being unconstrained by sense in the old ways of that term in the school book titled Sound and Sense. Yes, for good prose poetry I want to sacrifice sense to sound. For those of us who write poetry, that is a hard sacrifice to make. It's not exactly opening ourselves to "Jabberwocky" but…well yes, it might be. Can we go far enough into the prose poetry side of the continuum to lose our cognitive sense and let the others run free to play?

In a way, a prose poet is like a circus performer who frees him or herself from gravity. It generates the "Oh" after the explosion of the fireworks. That's not a rational thing, but we do it, and because we do, it is accepted, even communal in much the same way we share poetry at the ritual meetings of our lives—weddings, funerals, major historical events. That is why we have poets laureate and not prose poets laureate.

Probably the best prose poet I have ever known is Maxine Chernoff who was a creative writer at the University of Illinois—Chicago, and whom I now think is in San Francisco. Her use of language sings. The words and their possibilities dance around each other. Although she approaches meaning in the same way Proust's writing entangles itself like a symphony, her work is not so much thought as felt. Good prose poetry is art, as simply seen and felt as a lone wolf standing in water.

— Michael Brown

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Wisdom and Joy

This Summer and That Summer by Sanjeev Sethi (New Delhi, India: Bloomsbury, 2015), 56 pages, hardbound. ISBN: 978-93-85436-70-3. $12.

This Summer and That Summer by Mumbai poet Sanjeev Sethi is a lovely book of mostly short free verse poems. The book features a sometimes delicate, sometimes harsh approach to subject matter, while exhibiting a robust use of language. On the Daily O blog Sethi writes: The way forward is to write and seek completion in it. In this book we see the poet in action as he grapples with experience and seeks to make sense and find completion in the work.

The second poem in the book, "Soul Scan" is remarkable. With expectations torn down, the subject comes to self-realization, a very ambitious place to begin a book. Many poets would pile poems in front of this one and consider it a good ending, but Sethi lays down the challenge in the first stanza with a bold declaration: I soldier on like an infantryman/ bulwarking his nation's border … then delivers in the third stanza: I sing sweetest for myself. Farther on is "Holograph," where there is a sense of ineffable longing, balanced with a mature acceptance, and all of it laid out with humble honesty:

I like clichés. They remind me
of childhood and the lessons I never learnt.
Like first love.

The coupling of first love and cliché, as if first love is not a singular event but may possibly drift into the banal, is overturned in the next stanza. When, musing thirty six years later, we are treated to the lush description of the object of that first love, with "nectarine skin" and:

eyes holding the harmonies we never caught on.
Energized, I get back to the drill of daily existence
happy you chose a summer home in my dream.

The sound quality in many of the poems, with frequent alliteration and assonance, and a tendency toward precise polysyllabic words alternately speeds the reading and weighs it down. One should never read without a dictionary close at hand, but when it needs to be called on too frequently it impinges on the pleasure of reading.

That said, the poet also does a fine job using plainer language. In the opening line of the first stanza of "After Reading a Young Poet" we see again the challenge laid out early; You're writing what I could have written. In the ensuing stanzas, the poet comes to grips with the experience, slowly realizing, accepting, When I read you, / I read myself… I know your trick, I know your trade… then moving to a choice point: Should I embrace or exile you…

Poet Sanjeev Sethi has previously written two books of poetry, Suddenly for Someone and Nine Summers Later. He has written for newspapers, magazines, and journals and produced radio and TV programs. In the blog post mentioned earlier, Sethi also wrote, There's no greater joy than writing a poem. There is also great wisdom to be found. In This Summer and That Summer, Sethi has succeeded in both.

— Valerie Lawson

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Four Styles

The Ruined Elegance by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 60 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-691-16769-5.

While it is common to find books of poetry divided into separate sections based on content, one rarely finds them grouped by style. However, that is the case in this latest book from Fiona Sze-Lorrain, a tri-lingual translator and editor who lives in Paris.

The first section contains brief and imagistic poems such as "Few Days Before Christmas":

Kim Jong-il was dead when I woke up and surfed
the net before my husband repeated
his curse that pigeons defecating on the balcony

should be cooked to no one's sorrow, even
if mourning was authentic, and
wet butterflies stopped their wings to muse over strange flowers
I saw as hysteria.

The second section is more prose-like and political. Typical is "Beginning":

Between invocation and action, one must not let spirit surrender. Speak properly, if they ask. Repeat for comfort,
there is a body outside the body. In this village, someone chants
a mantra, reads into the past without sacrifice. On horseback,
follow its time. Observe the feather, a revolution in the draft.
A dance, a struggle in each direction. As slow as possible. Year
by year, the altar burns. After burnt, they shut their blinds.

The poems in the third section are surreal with some repeated images across separate poems, such as the snakes that are mentioned in "Against Prologue":

In the middle of the night, the heroine woke up realizing
       She left the gods
in the dark
wet and naked, cloth over the eyes. Under her bed two snakes
       glowered
holding back their thirst

[Stories are stolen even in sleep]

The final section drops the politics but continues the surreal imagism, as in "Transparent":

At first I'd forgotten its color.
An umbrella that wouldn't open
The aftermath of tears.
God's mask:
a mangosteen with worms.
To turn this ruined thought
into a poem,
I took out four words.

Certainly there are those of us who, as editors, revel in the variety. Yet the unevenness can be annoying. Then we read a book almost entirely in the same form, diction, and values (see the following review), and sooner or later that may be boring for most of us. One writes with constant variety, and the other too much the same. More than two roads can perplex; and the endless single lane soon lacks interest. It takes true genius to lean forward, point out the train window, and say, as Turgenev did to Henry James, "How would you render that?"

— Michael Brown

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