FALL 2011: Reviews
Don't Touch This Book
Turn of a Phrase: Pivotal Positions in Poetic Prose, by Branch Isole (Hampton, VA: Manao Publishing, 2010), unpaginated, paper. ISBN 978-09826585-05 $9.95 e-book $4.95
Here is what passes for poetry by people who are not poets. It's the smooth-sounding platitudes and superficial palaver of faith-healers and the psycho-babble of people who want you to engage, but who are mostly hit-and-run with their own wordy avoidance of depth. The author has tagged himself "The Voyeuristic Poet," because he says, "Many write of things known or experienced, I comment on those seen and heard." No depth there. His "Voyeurism Poetry casts identity and reflection against the shadow of personal responsibility choice or avoidance." It is "looking out and seeing in." He says we will find stories, adult themes, "observations that brandish an edge," and unexpected truths. Nothing that Branch Isole says about his poems is true.
All the poems in this volume are centered on the page. When a poem ends on one page, the overleaf is blank. Random punctuation and occasional rhymes are common. All the metaphors, images, and similes are often inappropriate clichés.
you are drawn
as the moth to the flame
life giving rain
Waters that stream
from your vaporous demise…
When we speak about the best that poetry has to offer, none of it applies here. This raises hackles, but not the hairs on the back of your neck. Any thoughts so often thought have always been better expressed. Truths are commonplaces. These are the once-over journal entries of a tenth grade boy written down quickly and giving the lie to "first thought, best thought." Here is the first stanza of "Forgotten"
Their service illustrious
for what they went through
Their sacrifice immense
bathed in red white and blue
The promised erotic material appears in a preacher wondering idly about bedding a parishioner; lust is just a word to contrast with love; and a brief tercet ends with "cock sucked?" Perhaps the whole dreadful exercise is a Buddhist pursuit
For when we are empty
We are once again pure
The entire book runs 140 pages, and in my emptiness, I weep for the trees that died for it.
Still my soul feels heavily bound
The Battlefield Guide, by Rodger Martin (Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2010), 56 pages, paper/illustrated. ISBN: 978-0-9801672-4-5. $16.95 (includes CD).
No reenactment of the Civil War, instead The Battlefield Guide conjoins storied episodes from two of the bloodiest battles, Antietam and Gettysburg, with the event John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry States, then overlays them with the sensibilities of the present day.
This slim volume explodes with multimedia experience: poems, several black & white reproductions of watercolors by Chad Gowey, and a CD featuring original music performed by The Battlefield Guide Trio along with Martin reading his poems.
Martin, a member of The Monadnock Writers' Group, is also managing editor of The Worcester Review, teaches journalism at Keene State College, and grew up near Gettysburg. Adult trips to the area reengaged him, and given the flush of our current times, poetry poured out of him. The result is a series of postage-stamp renderings of little known stories and details drawn from original source material and mainly from the turning point of the war, with an eye-witness from today, the poet himself.
Martin expanded an earlier collection by reworking poems written to "navigate the emotional and psychological wilderness" of the events that began at Harper's Ferry, connecting them to the two battles by means of foreshadowing: if one cannot grow wheat / one can grow angry.
The poems are not lessons in history, though in some small way, they are that too. As William Carlos Williams put it: it is difficult to get news from poems, / yet men die miserably everyday / for lack of what is found there. These poems convey the sights, smells, and feel of the struggle for survival. From the section on Gettysburg, an excerpt from "I. Visitors' Center":
Once, on a Friday afternoon before
the holiday, its picket fences enclosed
the sliced chunks of a Meade orderly carved
in two by a Whitworth's line. Wait
instead until rain from a muffled sky drips
slowly off the underside of sycamores,
their mottled bark peeling like flesh
sloughing off the bloated carcasses of horse
scattered silent in Leister's lanes, ditches,
Without the inclusion of End Notes, there are some phrases and words that will either be read over or carry little weight to the uninitiated, but with them, a more impactful read of that time can be conceived, though only after first surrendering to the poem as poem.
By way of example, the volume ends with a powerful rendering of the battle on Seminary Ridge, the Confederate line at Gettysburg, and includes allusions to General Lee's horse, General Lee, Pickett's charge, the Confederate flag, and the house within which the final surrender by Lee would be forged. From "IX. Seminary Ridge":
I must learn to soften and labor like Traveller,
who sensed in that great simpleness of horse
there are some weights worth bearing.
Three times in three days his men had breached
those shores and found themselves too human for more.
… I will carry this man
who understood his state traded wrongs
into Stars and Bars, rednecks and lynching but still
kept and dressed in linen for tea…
carry this man because in the end I have
no choice but to bronze myself to some planet—
bronze myself to a home.
—Ellen Jane Powers
All these years I've wondered
The Bodies Beneath the Table. Poems by W. D. Ehrhart (Easthampton, MA: Adastra Press, 2010) 84 pages, softbound. $18 ISBN 978-0-9822495-7-4
In W.D. Ehrhart's poem "Music Lessons," a young girl tells her father that the creek they are walking past is "singing." The man acknowledges to himself that his daughter's image "isn't fresh," but knows better than to turn a special moment into a lesson in the "art of words." In fact, as we are told at the end of the poem, "only the dead / at heart would ever argue that what we're hearing isn't / just exactly / what my daughter says it is." With its echoes of the father-daughter poems of Kunitz and Coleridge, "Music Lessons" does its own singing.
A Vietnam veteran who lives and teaches in Philadelphia, Ehrhart drew on memories, surroundings, and family and friendships to produce the 42 poems in his eighth collection (the fourth from Adastra Press). There is an edge to his verse that includes bitterness and rage—and regrets. His father's despair at not having served his country in World War II comes up in several poems, including "What Makes a Man," in which the son, who called the Vietnam War he fought in "bullshit," realizes how this open scorn must have been a rebuke to a man who yearned to be a part of "Ike's Great Crusade."
At the same time, Ehrhart can deploy a cutting wit, as in "Meditations on Pedagogy." The poem is a send-up of the jargon ("cognitive academic effectiveness") of so-called learning experts accented with bits of word play: "Syntax, bees' wax, speckled axe, and sales tax, / brass tacks, false facts; I could use some Ex-Lax."
Ehrhart can also write a love poem. "The Bombing of Afghanistan" is a message from the poet, who is on the road, to his wife who has stayed home to take care of their daughter. "Here it's midnight on a rare and / cloudless night in Wales," he writes, while elsewhere "bombs are falling" and his family sits down to eat. His yearning to be with them is real.
Whether it's the thoughts of a track coach watching his boys run "suicides" in a time of war—"it's thirty degrees, but they sweat / like it's summer in Baghdad"—or the Ignatow-esque absurdity of dealing with a pink rhinoceros in a neighbor's yard, Ehrhart brings a special spirit to his subjects, with empathy often a part of the mix. The title poem, about a couple discovered dead in the corner of a room in Hue City in 1968, ends with questions that lack question marks and therefore answers: "All these years I've wondered / how they died. Who were they. / Who remembers."
Occasionally Ehrhart resorts to cliché and/or a prosy style to make his point; and once in a while the promise of a title or a first line goes unfulfilled. Yet the more these poems are read, the more you forget about the flaws—or maybe you simply recognize that they are a part of what makes this poetry memorable.
It's All Right
Within Reach by M.J. Iuppa (Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2010), 88 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-193499875
Here at Off the Coast we are seeing for review a fair number of attractive, well-made books by good poets from apparently book-loving, independent publishers. Recent books include Bolt Cutters by Tom Moore, Night Flight by Ken Frost, and Vanitas by Jane McKinley. In all of these, our reviewers have tempered praise with some criticism. It is difficult for living poets to fill 86 pages with unvarying high quality. M.J. Iuppa's book does not suffer that defect.
I am particularly fond of shadow boxes—not the small ones for holding lead type, but those a bit larger, say minimally two by three inches, which may be used to create a meaningful, artistic scene in each space. M.J. Iuppa's book is like that—each of its pages a space filled by an admirably crafted poem. No duds, nothing unattractive, all of them striking or meaningful in their own ways. She lives on a farm in Upstate New York near Lake Ontario and apparently near the Erie Canal and that grounds her poems, but also gives counterpoint to her travels. She insists on her middle age and has an eager curiosity about youth and death. And her lines hum, like high tension wires in the wind. No wasted words here.
…heat that's lasted
through the barefoot night,
rippling over cornfields,
a shimmering green that undulates
and rools, continually changing
in the crystal blue air where
a shock of blackbirds bursts
forth—scattering in all
directions, in the dark
rumble of the land cannon's
thunder, like the curtains' flutter—
thrown into a moment's confusion—
settles back into the shape of
folds, and like the fields are slightly
ruffled, showing another
side that's only seen when one
gets up to look.
Most of the poems end with some sort of revelation or at least an Aha! but never forced. I would not swear that every one is arresting, but nearly every poem is built on strong verbs, clear and striking images, and a voice that advances line by line in strong diction, all of which makes every ending a notable completion.
Here, one stray voice burns feverishly
in the ear's cul-de-sac, making it
impossible to resist the contest
where one proves in breath and reach
the pitfalls of ascent.
We have published a few of M.J. Iuppa's poems, and we hope she will soon write reviews for us. She's got the right stuff, and she knows it when she sees it.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
Maine in Four Seasons: 20 Poets Celebrate the Turning Year, edited by Wesley McNair, Illustrated by Jan Owen (Down East Books, 2010), 55 pages, hardcover. $12.95
Poet and editor Wesley McNair must have had fun selecting 20 poems, five for each of Maine's four official seasons. He concocted a mix of dead and living poets to fit the portable volume. Each of Jan Owen's woodcut-style illustrations tells its own story. Although the book is really small, each poem is worth reading more than once. Carry it along for comfort or inspiration, especially when traveling out of state.
Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Philip Booth, May Sarton and several other deceased poets are well-suited to the seasons assigned by McNair, but he easily could have filled the book's pages with work by others currently writing in Maine. Perhaps the publisher found it easier to secure permission to print poems from shelves of our Maine inheritance than to seek out living poets.
McNair is known to prefer solid examples in poetic metaphor and description, and his choices reflect his taste and style. The Spring poems deal with building a chicken house, yard clean-up, returnable bottles in roadside ditches and manure for the garden.
"Spring Peepers" by Robert Siegel is one of the longest, most lyrical poems in the collection, comparing the perennial spring night music to
…ghostly minnows/…through/ naked woods, /moonfish seeking their home.
Summer brings on fishing, a dragonfly, pine saplings, the water spout of a whale, and Kate Barnes'
…three does pausing… in the watcher's headlights.
Fall leads off with Pat Ranzoni's goodbye to summer folk expressed in insect and bird sounds and movements. The third season poems also touch on fog behind Maine islands, cold weather coming in, and similar themes.
In the final section, among snow flakes, icicles, and woodstove warmth, McNair tucks in a couple of poems about driving Maine's winter roads, including his own view of the north and its
… vastness by nothing/ but trusting/ inattention….
The book is portably small, a good traveling companion any time of year.