‘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!