SUMMER 2011: Reviews
"Taming the Tides"
The Passion of Opera
Vanitas, by Jane McKinley (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2011), 95 pages, cloth. ISBN: 978-0-89672-684-0. $21.95.
How does a poet survive tragedy? Teenaged sister dead in car smash… This poet, at the open graveside, listens carefully and discovers that "In seven notes of Bach, she has enough / to live. The boxwood sings." She stops writing poems; learns instead, how to play the oboe. Then, after "Thirty years of silence, of images clutched / wordless in darkened corners of her mind" she lays aside the instrument to write once more.
Her collection opens with a poem that hints at the fragility of life, the ephemerality of joy. Word imagery summons that of the shattered glass bulb on the book's front cover.
… We didn't know then
how perfect it was, like a drop of water
before it plummets—poised, still whole.
Jane McKinley continues with poetry of childhood idyll, with subtle suggestion of life's malice but to which she seems impervious… During tornado season, Father, instead of bundling everyone into the cellar as he usually does, takes the family to the outskirts of the town. There, with binoculars, they watch the twisting trail of destruction head towards their home, and then
For a moment it hovered, indecisive,
then grew pale as it skimmed the river and pivoted,
assaulting virgin timber as it left our town unscathed.
But, unavoidably, that motor car accident—in the middle of an ordinary day; in the midst of family preparations for some celebration. Later, much later, the narrator, with years of musical knowledge now at her disposal, invokes the passion of opera to write of that moment. This is one of many poems here that had me trawling for youTube performances to enhance the wordly experience:
When I was eighteen I heard Orfeo
for the first time, heard joy thrown
off balance by rhythm, heard loss
mirrored in music the moment
a plucked string shifted mode to minor.
McKinley weaves a number of leitmotifs through the poetry; needlework recurs as do water, birds, and most of all, music, composers and Bach. With words she writes the music of her sorrow; she threads memories through with Mozart, with opera and with Johann Sebastian Bach who lost a young wife and ten young children to death. Like her,
He cannot stop his hands from singing, stop
the flow that sweeps him on, transports him
to a land so strange he hears nothing
Throughout Vanitas the poet, as in this pantoum which circles refrains about a waiter who offers the narrator pastries with her tea while a strange man "sings, then waltzes [with a chair] on / to twelve-tone fragments in his mind," gives nod to the master musician who showed her a way through loss and grief:
I gather up small pearls of Bach
to ornament the tea-leaf plaints—
an oboe's dying phrases echo pain.
I linger at his Stammtisch, sipping tea.
She Moved to Medford!
The Immaculate Conception Mothers' Club by David R. Surrette (Hamilton, MA: Koenisha Publications, 2010), 90 pages, paper. ISBN 978-0-9800098-6-6. $14.95.
If one were mean-spirited, one might call David R. Surette's verse punch-line poetry. Indeed, with a little finessing, some of the poems in his new collection could be performed as stand-up. Which is meant as a compliment: poetry is about timing, and this poet from southeastern Massachusetts has a knack for leading the reader on and then, with a twist, revealing a truth, perhaps, or the key to a character (many of the poems are portraits). Even where the delivery is flat or a bit telegraphed, the work engages.
The Immaculate Conception Mothers' Club offers many vignettes of family and acquaintances: bookmaker father, Judy Garland-aspiring mother, boxer uncle, tattooed juror, Vietnam vet. The titles of the book's five sections underscore a sense of place and time passing: "Malden," "More Malden," "South Easton," "Turning Fifty" and "These Days." Surette touches on many subjects, from yard sales and caring for horses to hoarding musical instruments, the Boston Bruins and Classmates.com.
The poem "High School" pays tribute to a late teacher whose kindnesses were never returned, in part because the speaker of the poem was too busy chasing girls. His lingering regret is sharpened by the obliviousness of the kids in his own classroom: "These days, my students walk / right into me, surprised I'm//not a desk or chair. I am old./ They are busy falling in love."
A certain enthusiasm marks these poems, both in their general upbeat attitude but also in the exclamation points Surette frequently deploys ("There's a case to be made that the exclamation point is the adverb of punctuation; if you have to put it in, then maybe the sentence didn't do its job," writer Meg Wolitzer said recently, but she wasn't talking about poetry). A reminiscence of a first kiss in a neighbor's backyard field ends with the line "She moved to Medford!" One doesn't need to know the significance of this geographical detail to enjoy the author's astonishment at the idea.
In the title poem a wife who converted to Catholicism and raised her kids in the church nonetheless refuses to join the Immaculate Conception Women's Club. The husband realizes that certain battles are not worth fighting—like arguing for The Beatles over The Rolling Stones—so he puts on Some Girls and takes his lady in his arms.
Many poems are marked by an endearing matter-of-factness. Watching an industrious muskrat that has just finished building a new burrow being carried away by a hawk elicits this response: "I'm still surprised by such things." From the way the poet describes the creature in the rest of the poem ("Dawn to Dusk"), we know that his feelings go beyond mere surprise, but violin music isn't necessary. Indeed, all one needs to enjoy Surette's third collection is an appreciation for open-hearted poetry.
Night Flight by Kenneth Frost (Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2010), 54 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-159948-278-1. $7.
From his bio on the back cover, Kenneth Frost indicates that "[h]e is stalking words in orbit", a ponderable statement until, at least, this volume of verse is completely read. Frost could be described as a word logician, a poet who uses indirection to arrive at the "thing." Although, in some cases, the "thing" may remain only a feeling of its essence, a metaphysical substance in the tradition of the Imagists.
In "Stray" the wings of angels "torch / the / dry / trees", and as the poem tumbles along in its short one-word lines, we arrive at "lightening", that the trees have become "thickets / of / lightning." A vivid image that is almost haiku-like in its rendering.
Most titles offer a clue of what the poem describes, as in "Burned," which seems to be about someone burning raked leaves. It opens stunningly with: "When the forest had burned down / to a cathedral // smoke / evensong"; and then closes with "raking / smoke," in between appears "an arm", which gives the hint of what is described, but it's the essence of what is described that illuminates.
Wittgenstein, a philosopher of ordinary language; Gödel, logician, philosopher and mathematician; and Nietzsche, appear in poem titles and are cherry-picked instances or descriptions of them or their work, and from these few poems, the poet Frost comes into closer view. Of course a poet is never just one thing, and Frost certainly is more than an Imagist and word logician in this volume.
In "Coring the Moon", through "a long tunnel" in the center of a full moon, "if you look closely", you can see "dark creatures / traveling through it." But then they "drop out of sight". Coyotes and owls, creatures of the night, are shown to be moon-crazed by virtue of language choices, "mad" and "raucous". And that hole in the moon "passes with a long howl, / and men and raccoons and deer / come out of the woods, / moonstruck."
And another poem, "Whispering Night," in which spirits of the dead are trapped in wells, keeping their heads above water, "complain of lost ills." The constellations "shift positions" to hear them. And the philosopher-poet asks, "what do they hear, / these deep / exiles of grief?"
Phrases such as "around the lullaby / of his heart" and "bend midnight / to a breeze" and "mountain peak of sleep" fill this volume, a mixture of imagery and feeling, thought and experience.
Sadly, Ken Frost passed away in February at the age of 82. After living in and around New York City, with a degree from Princeton and teaching at Columbia and The New School, he came to Maine "in order to read and write in a solitude that [he and his wife] could only dream about." In that quietude, the influences from the arts and the dark nights merged into a poet who "rides meteors / bareback, // hugging them, / urging them on." In Night Flight he lives on.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Does a Poet's State Matter?
Under the Legislation of Stars: 62 New Hampshire Poets edited by Rick Agran, Hildred Crill, and Mark DeCarteret (Durham, NH: Oyster River Press, 1999), 96 pages, paper. ISBN: 1-882291-59x. $15.
Some people condemn anthologies, thinking that poets are inadequately represented by small samples of each one's oeuvre. Asked to participate in a compendium, a Dutch poet named Lehmann once thundered back, "Thou shalt not anthologize!" He would feel appalled by this anthology of contemporary poets, in which each gets only one poem, and most of the poems run only one page. This seems especially limiting since at least three of the poets have national reputations: Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and Charles Simic.
So what are this volume's compilers trying to achieve?
They believe that New Hampshire has, for it's population size, "a literary legacy as distinct and superlative as anyone's," and assert rhetorically, "What better whereabouts to gauge the state of poetry as we enter a new century . . . ." More credibly they add:
We aimed for a variety of voices that shared in a sense of daring and uniqueness as well as a demonstration that the poets took their discipline seriously. Quality, in the end (though God knows a little humor didn't hurt), was our final criterion . . . .
They certainly achieved the variety part. Their anthology contains free verse, metered poems, a sonnet, other rhymed poems, internally rhymed poems, prose poems, a concrete poem, and poems with parallel constructions. Their subjects deal with much of ordinary life and a fair amount of New Hampshire but also with dreams, nightmares, Cortez, Georgia Brown, a witch, a Celtic spirit, a returning soldier, a woman in the Philippines, and places in the game of Monopoly. The poets themselves range in accomplishments from the celebrated Simic, author of at least fourteen books (his bio sketch says), to three former poets laureate of Portsmouth, to a person whose poem in this book is her first ever published.
What, then, about the quality? Are there really sixty-two publication-worthy poets in the "Granite State"?
Critics often find much to dislike in any anthology. Reviewing The New American Poetry, James Dickey declared that "few of those who fill up" its 454 pages "can write a lick." And Randall Jarrell, though hoping that anthologies would be inspired by good taste, complained that "zeal and a publisher seem the irreducible, and, usually, unexceeded minimum." However, I think both critics would have liked quite a bit of this one, as I do. I found a high proportion of these poems engrossing.
Does New Hampshire have anything to do with that? Are all these poets in some way inspired by it? Or have they merely lived there? One thinks of Robert Frost's famously fruitful association with the state. He even wrote a long poem entitled "New Hampshire," calling it a place in which "there are more poems produced than any other thing." But lest we infer too much, he concluded that poem by declaring, "At present I am living in Vermont."
Rebuke and Consolation
Young of the Year by Sydney Lea (New York: Four Way Books, 2011), softbound, 84 pp. ISBN: 978-1-935536-10-9. $15.95.
With his first book, Searching the Drowned Man, published in 1980, Vermont-based poet Sydney Lea established himself as one of the finest limners of New England. As an intimate of the natural world, Lea knows how to read signs of wildlife, but he is also an empathetic portraitist, especially of individuals who live hard lives. Like Philip Booth, Wesley McNair and Maxine Kumin, he turns local knowledge into bigger picture verse, defying the regionalist label in the process.
Lea's latest book is part memoir, part portrait gallery, and part a wrestling with old age. The book's opening section features past exploits and encounters filtered through the lens of time. "The 1950s" is something of a confession: members of the high school hockey team took advantage of a homely girl nicknamed Rink-Rat. Here, the ugly braggadocio of youth becomes shame. "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" resurrects a Philadelphia nightclub, Pep's Musical Bar, in 1965 where a young white man, there to hear the Adderly sextet, comes to understand underlying racial divides by way of Wilt Chamberlain, who owned the place.
The second section offers portraits of neighbors in the author's neck of the Vermont countryside. The opening poem, "Recession," exemplifies Lea's prosodic mastery: a seamless sonnet with nuanced half-rhymes about a local Quik-Stop. "Dandelion Pickers" is van Gogh and Richard Hugo, an homage to figures seen in a passing field. Empathy runs strong here, be it for an elderly pastor losing his grip or for Stump, hauler of refuse, who sports a hideous hernia and mystifies everyone with his cheerful "hail-fellow-well-met" attitude.
Part III, "Birds, A Farrago," is a remarkable 14-section medley of musings of an older man dealing with post-viral arthropathy, a debilitating condition that all but shuts him off from his family—wife, children, grandchildren—and the feathered creatures that are his familiars: tern, loon, crow, jay, grackle, junco, kite. Each bit of progress toward recovery is accompanied by these birds, "future and memory both, / rebuke and consolation."
Lea wraps it all up in the final section with five poems of differing formats that reflect on family, nature, home, time passing. "Dispute with Thomas Hardy" and the title poem, "Young of the Year," are considerations of the poet's life and world, alternately angry—"the cretin / politicians rattling swords, / as if, by counter-logic, war / transmuted the earth into something saintly"—and loving: making a granddaughter smile with the waggle of a tongue.
Don't let the cover of this book misguide. While the photograph of a white snowshoe hare relates to what lies within, its Hallmark cuteness may lead you to believe you're in for a group of nature poems. No, no, no. Beyond the bunny lies a stunning collection by an old(er) master who continues to bring us resonant visions of the north.
Clamoring to Be Heard
When Performers Swim, the Dice Are Cast by Judy Katz-Levine (Burlington, Ontario: Ahadaba Books, 2009), 35 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9811704-3-5. $14.95.
I can't hear beat for the counting, wouldn't recognise a flat note had I myself stepped on it. I've come to terms with not being musical but regret that ignorance when I'm reminded of what I miss or might have been a part of. As when Judy Katz-Levine has an off-day but is cheered by a musical performance—as I am sometimes too—but tells the incident with imagery I could not summon yet find so evocative. And she uses non-sequitur in her poetry to convey an indefinable 'something' about jazz music that I've sensed but never before managed to understand.
…The drummer was playing a fast marimba beat to a slow sad ballad and I got off, got in a good solo. There's a wet snow today as I remember. It's almost stopped. So many yellow leaves, & the stars. I've had a revelation. Seagulls float. The sax was smooth, delicious as a chilli with wine. The guitarist did tasty licks from his days on the road. This was at the party. The drummer, a woman, said "Sometimes you just have to shake your money-maker" and did a little shimmy behind her drums and grinned. I loosened up. Laughed.
Co-incidentally, the other poetry collection I read for this issue of Off the Coast is also from a poet musician and both that classical oboist and this jazz flutist seem to weave their music into their words to create poems that clamour to be heard, to be performed out loud. Or perhaps it's that musicians, practised in creating art from dots on lines on a page, are particularly attuned to ways in which words can connect, other than via the left-brain logical?
Many of the poems in When Performers Swim, the Dice Are Cast are prose poetry; most of them use punctuation more as a musical pianissimo/forte type injunction than in accordance with traditional grammar conventions; all collude in some way, to hold our darknesses at bay. In the opening piece the poet rallies a challenge to mortality
you could be anywhere. but you're here in the room. don't turn your back. wait. there are possibilities still with us. and possibilities estranged. not rainfall & ravens. instead, a current of electricity…
…mortality whispers in the night rain. the will to survive emerges. our car with dim headlights still runs…
That oddly "right" grammar; the flow of prose poetry unchecked by mid-page line breaks, the satisfyingly off-key imagery. As the poet performer asserts in the title poem:
when performers swim, the dice are cast. sounds like a piano doing ragtime, echo of the voice of a clown across the sea.
Also, the undertaking later in the poem that for me, music novice, she honours in this collection,
when performers teach, a taut drum vibrates. a Native American flute holds its breath, then come the long notes haunting an audience.