‘as scars attach and ride the skin’

Lucille Clifton VoicesYes. Strong. Bare-bones simple. Open-hearted. Wide-hearted. Highly recommended. I liked all of this collection, particularly a series at the end called a meditation on ten oxherding pictures. The images she refers to are here (in the far left column, the ones by Kuoan Shiyuan, 101 explication here).

I love how she interpreted these pictures, how her work is so quiet and understated, yet so forceful.

‘Home’ – Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison HomeSadly, not the experience I had hoped for in this post. Here are two diametrically opposed online reviews of Toni Morrison’s Home: one is headlined ‘Home': Toni Morrison’s Taut, Triumphant New Novel, and the other, Toni Morrison’s ‘Home’ finds her fumbling, and their titles say it all.

Although not fully as negative as the latter, I’m afraid my assessment is much closer to the latter than to the former.

The first half – the build-up to the central ‘rescue’ of the story – struck me as much richer, more seamless and more emotionally weighty, than the second half. I felt the second half – the denouement and the start of the healing process – was sketchier, thinner, and somewhat self-consciously constructed. If the whole were a quilt, in the second half you would be able to see the seams and traces of the design pencil, I thought. Nothing, nothing like the punch of Beloved and Song of Solomon, in my view.

Many memorable moments, though, including a wonderful description of a group of rural women who rally around to help with the healing – awesome ladies!!

‘sistering the moon’ and ‘bars of rage’

Lucille Clifton MercyMaya Angelou Collected Poems

I’m writing about these two collections together (Maya Angelou’s Complete Collected Poems and Lucille Clifton’s Mercy), although they couldn’t be more different from each other.

This is really the first time I’ve read work from either author in any concentrated way, beyond simply skimming the odd piece found in anthologies and in random places.

The Clifton gets a big thumbs up from me. Excellent tradecraft, and her spare, concentrated and understated style showcases the substance of her poems beautifully. This collection is divided into four parts: last words and stories are the first two and september song and the message from The Ones the last two. Unfortunately, the last two did not work so well for me – one is a series of poems about September 11 and its immediate aftermath, and the other seems to be a series of other-worldly communications (received by a psychic?) commenting on the human condition. I felt the themes in these two sections were too large for the poems, leading the latter to attempt too much and end up with too much abstraction and a loss of connection with the reader (or at least with this reader). On the other hand, the first two sections, which dealt with families, individuals, specific individual scenarios and events, packed some serious poetic punch and everyone should read them! One beautiful example online: dying.

As for Angelou’s poems, they did not work at all well on the page for me. The tradecraft was less noteworthy and I found her work lacked subtlety – was indeed often fairly raw, heavy-handed and sometimes even clunky. It’s easy to see where her considerable reputation comes from, though, if you do an internet search for her reciting her own work (see The Mask and Still I Rise, for example). She has a great, super-sensitive relationship with her words, a terrific voice and amazing delivery, which make her poems-as-voice much more formidable than her poems-as-text (as we might put it at Voice Alpha.)

Beyond those technical differences between the two, however (and this is why I decided to write about them together), is the big difference between the emotional places from which I felt each was writing. Angelou, it seems to me, writes from a tight, angry, bitter and sometimes rather triumphalist place. Her world feels divided into the good and the bad and in it, she robustly defends the side of the good and faces down the bad. ‘Committed’ poetry, in other words. Which has of course been important and necessary in every age, and always will be.

But, right now, other things, not these, resonate for me in poetry. Like Clifton’s more subtle, wider, and more ‘humane’ approach, with its signature underpinning of universal compassion. I like that in Clifton. Must go and find some more of her work…

‘a small irritating purple thing’

Louise Gluck Meadowlands Well, call me a Philistine but I found Meadowlands by Louise Gluck disappointing. I liked the concept – weaving the story and characters of The Odyssey into the story of a deteriorated contemporary marriage – but never felt sucked in by the treatment.

The language is quiet and prose-y, and the whole has much the air of a meditation. Plenty of interesting insights and well-observed commentary, but it was the sort of stuff I found myself reading and appreciating with my head – not much about the language that hooked me emotionally or spiritually. There were some pieces I did enjoy though, including The Parable of the Gift (which I can’t find online) and Purple Bathing Suit.

‘it leaps like a bike with a wild boy riding it’

Grace Paley Begin Again I just read this Grace Paley collection again. A search on this very blog reveals I have already mentioned it three times – once in 2010 and twice in 2008. At some level, I must like it even more than I think I do.

I wrote the first time: “Rather mad and hectic in a great Stevie Smith ee cummings deadpan cartwheel razorblade sort of way. I feel I know what she means and am interested in it and like how she says it most of the time, which I realize is not such a frequent happy coincidence with me.”

And later: “Dainty white bird bones and little chameleon’s feet that pick-pick their way all the way up you then whoa your stomach parachutes out at 13,000 feet.”

The third time, I just copied out one of my favorite poems from the collection: Come back, you fucking sea.

This time I’ll just add that, although I have no idea how old she was when she wrote these poems, to me she writes like one of those cool old people who have become properly young again without losing the good things about their oldness. And she’s funny too.

‘Town for the Trees’ by Justin Evans

The poems in Justin Evans‘ collection Town for the Trees (Foothills Publishing 2011) are poems of connection and transition. They raise key questions and, by the time we are through reading the poems, the lines between these two phenomena feel blurred. Are they really separate experiences? Isn’t connection transition and transition, connection?

The poems examine the connections between the poet and the natural environment in which he operates, the connections between a community and the natural environment surrounding it and the human connections between individual members of that community.

On a clear night I could read
the stars like Braille, each point
of light piercing the tips of my fingers,
splitting them like cord wood.
(What I Knew As A Child)

The town gathered like a chorus
to sing the flood waters back, keep the world
from escaping.
(Singing Back the River)

Evans’ language is plain and direct, yet suffused with emotion and the voice of memory. These poems are accessible in the best sense of the word – friendly to the grasp on the surface, but with an underlying complexity of thought and feeling. These poems ask where we belong.

I look for a space where I can fit
the perfect constellation of your eyes
into the vast cupboard of night.
(A Season Apart)

They also examine transitions – those places in space and time where lines become blurred. The moments of ambiguity between night and day; between ground and sky; animal and vegetable, between humanity and the raw earth itself. There is often a struggle associated with the moment of transition, with the old reluctant to leave the stage, as if attempting to arrest time itself; and the new pushing to take it over, as if actively reaching for the future.

Low to the East, the crescent moon
is a fracture of sky, outpaced
by the morning star’s rise

It struggles to stay ahead of the sun
as morning light grows, eating away
at its pale circumference.

The movement of time is of particular interest in these poems. The speed at which time moves. The fluidity of the moment when the present becomes the past, or the future becomes the present.

The past is a thief
escaping on the wings of blackbirds.
(Nevada Wildlife)

The collection holds a clock pulse, a heartbeat, a sense of that unchanging cycle of life which is nonetheless always changing. Oscillating between birth and growth, innocence and age, decay and death – and sometimes violent death. Running steadily through the collection, the river becomes a metaphor for continuity and spiritual nourishment:

In the morning when I rise with daylight
the trees will no longer be animal
But the water, this small river, will be the same.
(Lower Sheep Creek)

The Utah town of Springville is very specifically depicted in this collection, its topography carefully named, and its inhabitants and customs closely described. Yet – as we hope for in all art – the particular points to the general and, in all its specificity, Springville, UT becomes to us Anytown, The World – a particular place on this earth where people we recognize are born, live, despair, love and die.

Check it out!

‘Watermark’ by Clayton Michaels

Untitled #19

by Clayton Michaels

We never truly fill
the holes –
We just
learn to live around them,
while the empty
resonates like jade.
Clear and cold.

Strike it right
it almost rings forever.

The poems in Clayton Michaels’ Watermark are so many black-and-white etchings – sparely-drawn and starkly-observed. A multi-faceted examination of existential angst, they comment widely — on the isolation and instability inherent in the human condition; on the unreliability of ‘communication'; on the roles we give to dream and illusion. Underpinned by references and cross-references from music and film, from the Bible and the natural world, the mood of the collection plays in a minor key, providing an effective backdrop for Michaels’ many strong and unexpected uses of language, which make the kind of bold connections that jolt a reader into thought, such as this:

Now hemlock’s coming back
in a big way –

hemlock and purple nightshade,

tainting the groundwater, swelling
our tongues

and changing our accents.

(from ‘anodyne’)

or this:

When I was in the loam, an unkindness of ravens
plucked white tulip bulbs

from my throat; forgiveness doesn’t
grow here.

(from ‘eleemosynary’)

You can also hear a Whale Sound group reading of one of the poems from the chapbook here.

Check it out!

‘Temptation by Water’ – Diane Lockward

I thought I’d start this review with readings of two of the poems in it, because Diane Lockward’s collection Temptation by Water is definitely the sort of collection you want to read aloud. So here we go:  

(poem text) “The Temptation of Mirage”
(poem text)

I’m someone who spends a fair amount of time reading poetry aloud and I know very well by now that there is poetry that leaps willingly into your voice, and other poetry that, well – has to be coaxed. And as I noted in this post, writing well for voice has emotional and intellectual imperatives as well as the pure sound/voice imperative – it’s not just a matter of dutifully sounding things out as you write. Diane’s poems are definitely in the ‘leaping to voice’ category, which of course makes me happy that I picked her collection as one of my April review options.

So. These poems are cohesive and convincing, they make sense on all three levels (voice, emotional, intellectual). Also, if you’re a person who prefers ‘accessible’ poems, these are for you – although that does not mean that there is any lack of sophistication or complexity about them. On the contrary. The narrator is wise and empathetic and subtle, and has a wicked sense of humor. And a talent for making odd and unexpected connections that totally work . Potatoes, exotic fruit, a condemned building, an essay, language itself — all appear as reifications of some pretty complex emotional and spiritual geography. The collection is hugely varied in theme and subject matter and approach; it’s dark and funny and wise and heartbreaking, all about people, food, the earth and her plants and animals, and haunted by many ghosts and familiars. As mother of my own two boys, I notice one haunting in particular, by a sweet boy baby who morphs into a troubled son, darkly roiling a steadfast mother’s heart.

This fine collection is definitely worth your time – go read it!

Update: You can hear Diane talking to Dave Bonta and Kristin Berkey-Abott about the collection and poetry in general here. Another reason to go and take a listen is that they say nice things about me in there too (thanks, guys!)


A review of Forever Will End On Thursday!

Note that Dave Bonta is reviewing a book a day for April. Those of you who have written thoughtful poetry book reviews know how much intellectual and emotional energy it takes to put together just one review, let alone one a day.

And those of you who have had reviews written about your collections know how much it means to have someone focus on, weigh, and carefully articulate their thoughts on your poems – whether they like them or have doubts about them, whether they are seasoned critics or not.

We’re in a lonely business, us poets, and although we do much general cheering on of each other, much of it is inevitably on principal, in the team spirit, driven by the conviction that putting in to the community is as important as taking from it.

We don’t often stop and stare at each other’s work, really look at it. So it’s wonderful, it feels tender and respectful – and nourishing – when someone pauses in their life to make a moment of stillness and focus centered on your poems, gathers their thoughts on the poems, and writes them down. And it seems to generate a particular kind of affirmative energy in the recipient, an energy that is thoughtful and reproductive, qualitatively different from run-of-the-mill self-promotion energy and from general rah-rah-team energy and more useful, I would argue, to poetry.

So huge kudos to Dave Bonta for his heroic undertaking this month! And while you’re giving those, do us all a favor and write a poetry review!

Those of you who are on Goodreads might enjoy the Poetry Readers Challenge, masterminded by Sarah Sloat, which challenges members to a) Read at least 20 poetry books a year and b) Review the books. Without sarcasm. Re-read, recommend, try a poet you’ve never heard of.

‘Manaquest’ by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick

Earlier this year I read a poem on Whale Sound called Book of Gaigemon III by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick. I asked her ‘Who is Gaigemon?’ She said, “Gaigemon is a dark force. The Book of Gaigemon is a series. Sort of in chapters. Like a gospel.” I liked that response as much as I liked the poem, so when I was looking for poetry books to review during April this year, I made a point of looking for anything by Shannon.

And I’m glad I did, for I found Manaquest. Here is another whole mythology from Shannon, this time built around the sky-dwelling wolf Manaquest and his relationship with three laughing girls in Utah.

The 20 poems in this chapbook form a tight self-referential conversation that nonetheless morphs continually – to the next step, while bouncing off the previous step; one step back, three steps forward. Repeated key words bind the girls and Manaquest to each other and to the action. Stars, cedar, maps, language, letters, sugar, towers, twine and trust are thrown back and forth between the players, inserted and re-inserted into always-differing places in the dialogue, in a 20-piece long ‘unpacking’ process. The laughing girls are puckish and irreverent, flirting with language and the wolf, with danger, with blood, nets and snakes, as girls everywhere deal according to their personalities with foreboding and hopes linked to the concepts of sexuality, vulnerability, communication, and the ties that bind.

This is a wacky and charming tale with strong and delightful illustrations by Goodloe Byron.

Go read it!

‘Mercy Island’ by Ren Powell

The narrator in this fine collection is explorer and cartographer of a multitude of emotional, spiritual and international landscapes. Whether ruthlessly illuminating even the darkest corners in the rooms of herself, or putting on the lives of other women like so many beautiful garments, with tenderness and respect, Ren Powell’s narrator holds our attention and enriches our thinking.

The themes of death, sexuality and violent change – for humans and animals alike – run close to the surface throughout the collection. The earlier sections are fraught with pain and lack of trust in others and in the mechanisms of life and emphasize self-reliance:

There are
no permanent bridges,
So I carry a continent
on my back.

while the later poems expand geographically and thematically and become more open-hearted, empathetic and confident, while still retaining their fine awareness of the existence and impact of random pain in the world.

Something is lost
leaving the heather:

The craggy beauty
of an old woman’s throat
the mellow man’s joy -

Something is lost
to the morning’s mackerel
as they slap Halleluiah

There is a deep and moving empathy with other women across the globe in these poems. I particularly commend three beautifully tender portraits of women – Gulah; On Karl Johan; and A Strange Woman. I wish more of Ren’s poems were available online so I could link to the ones I really love in this collection! My ultimate favorite is A Request for Sound from a Televised Report from Afghanistan, which is stunning in its musicality, delicacy and empathy. The ghazal that she has known runs a close second, as does Spinster’s Shroud – a lyrical description of a dress made from “hollowed egg shells / and white thread” – that contains entire universes of longing and expectation and pending pain.

There is a lot to absorb both in terms of content and perspective in this collection, but it’s well worth your time. Go read it!

Update: Ren added some links to poems from the collection that are online in the comments at the Goodreads version of this review.

Galatea Resurrects

Is all new with feast upon feast of poetry reviews and other delectations. I have a review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s amazing collection Harlot up, and don’t miss Tom Beckett’s interview with featured poet Reb Livingston.

This is my first published review and it took me on all sorts of adventures. Jill’s poems are rewarding material in that sense — they remind you deeply of things you didn’t even know you knew and send you scurrying off after connections and make you want to work out and connect with the ideas inherent in them. It was a lot of work but thoroughly rewarding on many levels.

Many thanks to Galatea editor Eileen Tabois for the opportunity and for the riches on offer once again.

In the Voice of a Minor Saint

Full disclosure: I’m already a huge fan of Sarah J. Sloat’s work and I’m afraid In the Voice of a Minor Saint, her new chapbook from Tilt Press, has only confirmed every one of my existing prejudices. There’s an elegant luminosity about her poems. I think of fine lace and bone china when I read them. Lace and china run through with near-invisible threads of toughness and durability. I also think witty, delightful, quirky, intelligent. Dainty. Fastidious, too, in the best sense of the word. A successful poet must either be a master story-teller or consistently delight the reader by asserting bold unexpected connections with complete confidence. Sarah falls into the latter category, and reading In the Voice of a Minor Saint is an all-too-short poetry-rush of page by page anticipation – what will she come up with next?

The poem Pursuit, for example, starts out addressing the morning -“Bird-wrought dawn, bed’s edge” – and leads us along a bright chain of morning-things that could only show up in a Sarah Sloat poem (“narco smell of gasoline/ at the Esso”!), to end with this unexpected but wholly perfect affirmation:

Oh dumpy man whistling like happiness itself
Past my car window –
Keep it up, buddy
I follow.

Self-awareness and self-deprecating humor are taken to new heights in The Silent Treatment, a brilliant analysis of the (non-) activity of the tongue in such a phase:

Eat your heart out, it might say. Eat
your pilaf, your side vegetable
and the pox upon your crops.
It might say anything, were it not
lounging around a lower hemisphere.
Laid back at some southern spa, mud-
bathing, overdosing on motionlessness.

Similarly, in High Heeled – another gorgeously funny sketch which I won’t excerpt here. Go buy the book and read it!

The world in these poems is often an endearing, manageable place – “Little world, your afternoons/ are losing their edge” (Humidity) – but it has its edges and the emotional connections to it are real, whether painful — “It’s always the same. Everything so/beautiful and falling apart. Everything/too mulish to collapse entirely” (The Problem with Everything) – or joyful: “I dream joy’s a cheetah on a highway. / I pull off, ditch my keys and run with it” (Ghazal of the Bright Body).

The last poem in the book, Vestment, is also available here. It’s a complete gem, and not just because it has bees in it.

Check it out and congrats to Sarah!

Midnight Voices

A wide range of themes and settings in Deborah Ager’s finely-observed poetry collection, Midnight Voices from Cherry Grove Collections. Introspection tinged with melancholy, the decay of a stale relationship, credibly- and multiply-rendered spirit of place, shocking acts of domestic violence, the tragedy of miscarriage or stillbirth, kinetic childhood memories, the fanciful laments of shower water and a telephone, and more. Deborah’s poems have a signature lyricism, a discernment, and a precision in description that makes you want more. My personal favorite is The Hours, a captivatingly witty and lyrical meditation on dying that combines a modern hospital setting with the ancient symbolism of Charon’s coins, so we go from an opening line of “O, there will be water wrinkled/ In a plastic cup, there will be night” to: “On my tongue, the coins will be heavy,/ the coins will be sweet. O lord, // I will say. “ Many other poems also stood out for me – for example, Magnolia, a dynamic and disturbing account of domestic violence that begins: “He chased her with a knife . There were the whites of his eyes. There was the door slamming behind/her”; and Love Poem, a moving account of a miscarriage: “Used every towel twice,/ woke up to more, the warmth of it, / the dread of it, moving down my calf.”

Check it out and congrats to Deborah!

Stealing Dust

Enjoyable interlude going through Karen Weyant’s chapbook, Stealing Dust from Finishing Line Press. As I noted in my Goodreads review, the words in this collection mean what you think they mean (a positive thing, in my book). Each piece is a mini-story in a unified slice-of-life narrative that presents a gritty, matter-of-fact, yet tender, portrait of a blue-collar American milieu.

Check it out and congrats to Karen!