"Souls at the Gates of Paradise"
Poems of Resilience
The Body Alters,by Janine Roberts (Northfield, MA: Slate Roof Press, 2009), 40 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9760643-5-0 $11.00
Janine Roberts presents her poetry in a beautifully constructed chapbook with heavy paper pages, waxy end papers, and a satiny violet card cover. The cover photograph turned just so reveals head and shoulder of a girl, perhaps drowned, perhaps washed up onto the sands of a beach—all echoing the strength of the words that confront deaths and people who escape them and those who do not…
Cassie's dark eyes, fear wide,
backlit with hope,
turn and survey me,
a seven-year survivor,
years she wants for herself.
Unafraid of death, the poems observe rituals that mark losses, that remember and celebrate those others who have been lost to death—friends, mothers, ancient Mexican premature and miscarried bebés recreated by their mothers into clay look-alikes for ritual returnings:
Singing in Náhuatl, they
opened the earth and placed
ceramics and ash of infants.
I enjoyed especially the vivid imagery, her command of unusual, evocative combinations of words. There's the osprey, high above lovers rowing a small boat on a lake that first calls our eyes up and then…
… swoops, dives,
rises with talons still open,
and from its body shimmies
water onto our skin.
There is the surreal play of a verb become noun become sound that turns into visual image then wistful remembrance of a morphing of that initial sound…
Pluck of rain on the pond
as if the water had strings,
reminder of miss of my daughter,
the daily playing of her violin
… and spooky shape-shiftings that haunt the physical and psychic places once frequented by a someone who was close but is no longer here:
At dusk, tatters of rising mist,
like women walking,
cleave into a band
that hovers over the ice.
Roberts' poems light on many different instances of theme and allow for no slough of misery. Even when looking back on a bald year of tumors and
... the cloy of chemo
that leaks from my skin,
… the neon cling of chemicals
careening through my blood
there remains resilience, a capacity for the spirit to leave if only momentarily the trials of the body behind, and to catch and hold some surprising, irrefutable gift of joy.
Why, after months of animal grief,
this fling of happiness
as I come upon
white quartz atop the ridge
aligned by others so long ago?
Help for Haiti
Poets for Haiti: An Anthology of Poetry and Art edited by Kim Triedman (Vineland, NJ: Yileen Press). 68 pages, Paper. ISBN 9780615393018. $20 from www.yileenpress.com
The anthology gives insight to a country that has always known struggle. The first poem, "Intersection," by Danielle Legros Georges speaks of this in a litany of repeated phrases: The earth shook. A portal opened./ I walked through it, ending with a shift to the present. The people of Haiti have known this before, will know it again, but they will rise again, and again…
In "Port-Au-Prince," Afaa Michael Weaver tells it differently: The seam of the spirit tears in earthquakes/ ripping the cloth of breath, a kaleidoscope of images follows, jammed and tumbled together as the city itself that day, and ends with: reporters walking by with microphones/ selling news as if it were cheese and bread.
Tom Daley's poem, "After a Stroke, My Mother Addresses Children in a Photograph of a Sidewalk in Port-Au-Prince" speaks of how we on the outside come to grips with this tragedy, how the bodies of shrouded children could be mistaken for children napping incongrouously on the sidewalk: It is honorable to be stunned/ and then revealed.
The empathetic response is inevitable as succeeding waves of people come to terms with this disaster. Lucille Clifton's "cruelty" plays the flipside of empathy: don't talk to me about cruelty/ or what I'm capable of…I took a broom to their country… now I watch myself whenever I enter a room.
The book begins to turn with "I'm Writing a Poem" …that can never end.// For all the people by Togiram (Emile Célestin-Mégie). Seeds of hope are planted in Gail Mazur's "Young Apple Tree, December." Kim Triedman writes in "Toil," spring will come. The collection ends with "This Evening, I Will Not Cry for My Dead:"
I'll instead launch their names into the sky…
I'll not write a single word of dead
I'll call instead for a powerful earthquake of life…
On the cover and in a collection of color plates, this handsome book features the work of artists with roots in Haiti. Images often spiritual and sometimes filled with fantastic figures, all speak of mystery grounded in the earth which shook last January.
The poems are drawn from a benefit reading for the people of Haiti at Harvard University on February 23, 2010 by a stellar group that also included Barbara Helfgott Hyatt, Wendy Mnookin, Frannie Lindsay, Rosanna Warren, Robert Pinsky, Jericho Brown and others.
All proceeds from the sale of this anthology will go to Partners in Health, which has been working since 1987 to help the people of Haiti, delivering healthcare, education, clean water and housing. As of this writing, more than a million people in Haiti are still living in tent cities and much of the promised aid from government and other sources has not been delivered. For more information, visit Partners in Health's website: www.pih.org.
Reviving Ruth Moore
Time's Web, poems by Ruth Moore (Nobleboro, Maine:Blackberry Books, 2010 reprint from 1972), 81 pages, paper. ISBN 13 9780982438916 $13.95
Maine author Ruth Moore achieved national prominence in the mid-twentieth century, but in four anthologies I possess that might be expected to contain her work, I find only two stories and one poem. Nonetheless, devotees within the state gathered last July in Tremont for the "second annual Ruth Moore Days." And Maine poet and publisher Gary Lawless, "trying slowly" to reprint all her work, issued Time's Web.
Ms. Moore came from tiny Gott Island near Mount Desert Island in a region that her ancestors had settled. She went off to college in Albany, New York; subsequently found work in New York City; and eventually became an editor for Reader's Digest. She published poetry in the Saturday Review of Literature, fiction in The New Yorker, and a novel that made The New York Times best-seller list and became a film.
The money enabled her to return to Maine for the rest of her life. Because she set much of her eleven fiction books and three poetry collections in Maine, she has sometimes been dismissed as a "regionalist." But Time's Web speaks of Manhattan as well as of Gott Island, and while her poems speak nostalgically of her ancestral home, she also wrote—caustically—of the wars, politics, and hypocrisy of the wider world.
A long lead poem, "The Ghost of Phebe [sic] Bunker," begins with a troubled lament in cadenced verse about ancestors who lived in what became a "lost town," where now "wind blows through empty parlors, rotten with rain." The rest of the poem sometimes shifts into rhymed and metered verse about the ghost of an ancestor who gets home by escaping a boring heaven created by "real good old men / but tired—they must have been, to want to rest forever." The last part of the poem seems less impressive, full of overly folksy ("it's a far piece up through the stars and planets") and topical comments. Yet toward the end come powerful lines like these:
Who is not without defense against the dead coon
full of 12-gauge double-ought buckshot
Flung on the town dump;
Who, beside the deer's gutted carcass swung from
the tree in the wet November air,
Sets out a bird feeder.
Her main themes are mostly the forgotten past and the malignant present, The poems sometimes contain prosaic passages, predictable "wisdom," and folksy conversations. But more often one finds beautiful descriptions, well-crafted structures (including some fine sonnets), and strong poetic statements about things that matter. Ms. Moore deserves better treatment than she has had from the anthologists.
Science and Nature
The Curvature of Blue by Lucille Lang Day (Cervená Barva Press, Somerville, MA, 2009) 90 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-692-00181-3 $15
Lucille Lang Day's poetry reveals her scientific side through its precision and sometimes confusing density. The arrangement of words and lines gives equal evidence of her fine arts background.
The Curvature of Blue presents a range of styles from unrhymed lyrics to nice prose with line breaks. Her variety yields a somewhat uneven quality that to another reader may be just a good mix of styles.
Day's specific observations about Florida in "Aunt Gert Says at Ninety-Three" parallel the texture and story of "Two Afternoons in Alaska"
A caribou with a patchy back
turns his head from side
to side, leaning forward
to scrape long, slender antlers….
Not that Gert had antlers, but she surely had texture. In "Bath" Day keeps her distance from family when she mixes scientific terms—One hundred billion neutrinos… the flavor of quarks… neurons send out dentrites— while she shares the action of giving her grandson a bath a soap bar disappears,/ I find it.
"The Dream of Mangoes" is full of vivid color but uncertain of location …it might be Haiti where …death squads roam the city. Real people in real places add emotional impact to her comments on international politics. In "The Liberation of Baghdad," she hops from the point of view of a doctor treating an injured baby to that of a dictator selecting a necktie.
Day's series on the Stations of the Cross brings together imagination, religion, and detailed description of Robert Wilson's religious art, which she saw in North Adams, Massachusetts.
Her own theological perspectives are much more broadly shown in two jellyfish poems. "God of the Jellyfish" appears with streamers and oral arms,/ ruffled and lacy while "In Praise of the Jellyfish" zig-zags the line between modern art and scientific observation:
the egg-yolk jelly,
its long tentacles swaying
around sticky orange….
The book's four sections encourage repeat readings, both in her selected sequence and by random selection wherever it falls open.
Choosing a Domestic Life
Making Love to the Same Man for Fifteen Years by Leah
Browning (Big Table Publishing Company Chapbook Series,
2009), 32 pages. ISBN 978-0-9824955-0-6 $10.00.
Picking Cherries on the Española Valley by Leah Browning
(Chicago: Dancing Girl Press, 2010), 32 pages. $7.00.
Leah Browning's chapbooks focus on domestic landscapes, renderings of time and place—scenes of courtship to marriage to divorce—which allow her subject matter to take on dramatic shape. Her tone runs the gamut from tenderness to melancholy; understanding how the cherished incidents in one's life can dwindle away in the grind of day-to-day living. Yet, it's the recall of those incidents (both good and not-so-good) that ignites the furnace of one's heart to keep the domestic alive.
Couplets form the title poem of Making Love to the Same Man for Fifteen Years, revealing two sides of this relationship's longevity. Even in separation or divorce, the first relationship runs parallel to the new one. The memory of who was loved first lingers in the presence of the "fresh start." This memory is carried in the image of "ink": "He has a tattoo of your name on his left bicep / a relic from his time in the Navy." This image evokes the permanence of the love declared—how the speaker knows everything about him—his weight, his smell, his touch—which makes their separation difficult, and becomes more pronounced in memory's comparison to her new love:
Thinking of your ex-husband, his tattoo and all those
freckles, and the memories flicker back
each time the body doesn't look or feel
like the body you've known for so long
The way they turn back on themselves, these haunting lyrical lines reveal that what is "under the skin" isn't easily denied. Browning's argument resides with what is and isn't permanent—what is and isn't faithful to dreams that begin in childhood.
The title poem of Picking Cherries on the Española Valley recreates a scene from childhood which begins in an orchard, picking cherries, savoring them one by one, and daydreaming. Browning's gathering isn't as dutiful as her sister's. The daydreaming becomes an extended metaphor of the imagined perfect pet monkey (precursor to an actual perfect child). When Browning shares this domestic fantasy with her mother's friend who owns the orchard, the woman tells her the truth about owning a pet monkey: "In her story, the monkey chases the little girl/ pelting her with oranges." Once again, it's a double dose of reality.
In both chapbooks, Browning wrestles with time, creating a landscape that doesn't follow a linear progression, but moves like a gyroscope (always circling back onto itself), making memory a mirror, a place where she can reflect on the choices she's made, the losses she's endured, and the love she's created.
—M. J. Iuppa
The Unpredictability of Light by Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard (Cincinnati, OH: Word Press, 2009), 128 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1934999400. $19.00.
An active current moves through the landscapes of wars, illnesses and suffering, and imaginings of the future. Bouvard is widely traveled and a former professor of political science at Regis College. Her political and worldly backgrounds are thoughtfully laid out in the word choices and observations.
"Praise" gives an overall sense of the work: it praises newborns and children and the times when a church is silent, for "thoughts [are] not drowned out," then throws in a desire to "bulldoze rectories" and "edifices where the powerful / listen to themselves in airless rooms," finally praising "speaking out of turn," welcoming "outcasts," and honoring the wisdom of "the fragile body" and "the unpredictability of light."
Divided into three sections, their titles from poems, the thematic movements from globetrotting the past and its lack of human rights ("The World that Flames Around Us"), suffering and illnesses of the known and unknown ("The Hymn Beginning and Ending with Our Naked Flesh"), and the transitions during our present times ("View from the Future") are like reading three books in one. Unity comes from the poems about the poet's granddaughters. Although not dedicated to them, the collection does show the world they've inherited as well as hints of their own heritage.
Margarita Anna Earnesta Frederika Cornelia,
Maria, that's my whole name"
my grandmother could
explain, but she's at home, waiting for me with her
stories of wars and empires and I'm in the country of
people with no yesterdays.
Within the hotbed of activism and advocacy of human rights, even flowers are a "way of remembering / how the world devours its children," in the poem "In Praise of Flowers," which gives little pause between those children "torn from / their houses by flying mortar," and "rich nations" who "turn away / from the children withering / in their mother's arms in Niger." Even beauty becomes a reminder of the repressed, the helpless, the injustices, and the sufferings of so many.
But lest you think the poems are depressing, there is air "braided by swallows" and "rustling silk" among the "music thudding" and "airless rooms." And there is light that swims, spills, and rinses, even as it is the earth itself that "inhales me" and "will finally embrace me." That unpredictable light moving through this volume highlights more often than not the faces of children, providing a comment that
the important thing
is to give, randomly
and out of poverty, not knowing
whether the heart's pale shoots
will create leaves or perish.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Call and Response
In Two Minds by Amelia Fielden & Kathy Kituai (Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008), 134 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9817-6912-7 $15.00
The authors are both well-known English-language tanka poets. Fielden, who is fluent in both English and Japanese, explains elsewhere that tanka translates from Japanese to short song. She is also the award-winning translator of a number of collections of contemporary tanka into English from the original Japanese. As she explains in this book's preface, the exchange of tanka, the poetry of medieval aristocrats and samurai warriors as means of conversation or communication is a literary art form practiced in Japan for more than a thousand years and popular with modern people from all walks of life.
Whether composed in the better-known five line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form or, as here, interpreted more freely in a short/long/short/long/long line length format, tanka are something a poet can easily become hooked on— especially as poetry of response/shared composition.
the magnolia tree bore
just three blooms—
how few children grow
in our extended family A
out of season
on the bush I plant
in memory of my son K
for her first Mother's Day
her daughter and I
looking at them together A
I couldn't speak
of motherhood before
you held her
as close as I held you
the day you were born K
Also in age-old Japanese tradition, the two 21st century Australian poets give nod to older, revered poets who have inspired and informed their creativity. The following is dedicated to Yosano Akiki, contemporary poet and author of a classic tanka collection:
I comb through 'Tangled Hair'
each tanka glowing
from your pen to mine A
Last thoughts for poets anywhere, everywhere?
there seems to be
a kind of desperation
in those branches
waving outside our window,
but we have words, we have words A
on the table
the wick turned up high
your small circle of words
illuminates my mind K
Span of Intensities
How the Crimes Happened by Dawn Potter (Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry Press), 102 pages, softbound. ISBN 978-1- 933880-17-4 $16
Dawn Potter's first book, Boy Land (2004), introduced us to a poet of dark humor and rich language. The poems explored life, family (including two young sons), and small-town inland Maine where Potter has lived since the early '90s. The poems have inflections of Baron Wormser and Wesley McNair, but they stand on their own two feet, memorable and compelling.
Potter's second collection covers some of the same territory, but the poems display a greater ambition in their prosody—several terrific sonnets and other complex stanzaic schemes. Her vision is also greater—the "span of intensities" described in "Peter Walsh" or the "dark age" that prompts the four-part "Eclogues."
Speaking of ambition (and obsession), what do you get when you transcribe by hand all of Milton's Paradise Lost? Potter's remarkable memoir, Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton (2009) and section III of this book. The four poems that make up the latter are essentially riffs on the British bard's epic poem, channeling Satan, aka "The Fiend," and Eve. Potter uses Milton's language—" the marge," "earthly delight," "wanton ringlets," etc.—but happily mixes it with an "Ugh" or a nifty simile: each wave of a celestial sea is "as sluggish as polenta/on the boil."
In similar manner, several poems present a kind of dialogue between contemporary and classic. In "April," lines from Chaucer accent a vignette of college romance: passing a roach, listening to the Beatles' Revolver album, experiencing the angst of early love. The adolescent girl in "Why I Didn't Finish Reading David Copperfield" invokes Dickens characters as the "beautiful bad boys" for whom she yearns and who scrawl "Skynyrd" on the classroom chalkboard.
Two poems highlight her friendship with the late Jilline Ringle, to whom the book is dedicated. "Litany for J" is a lovely musing on what might have been. In "Protestant Cemetery" the two search for Keats' grave in Rome, the 24 six-line stanzas crafted into an entertaining and, at times, elegiac travelogue.
The title of the book leads one to believe that beyond its handsome cover (which features a photograph of an old repainted station wagon by the poet's husband, Tom Birtwistle) will be revealed how, in fact, "the crimes happened." And the poems do that, if one understands crimes to be accusations of witchcraft ("National Emergency"); a high school basketball blow-out ("First Game," which joins Ruth Moore's The Walk Down Main Street in the pantheon of Maine b-ball literature); or watching the Pope on television in "Christmas at the Ramada."
"The Master," which first appeared in this journal, describes a writing class in an elementary school where distracted students learn that
What matters in a poem
is you tell it like it happened
but you leave out the crap.
Potter's poems have their flourishes—and they're often stunning—but mostly they tell it like it is and we're the lucky beneficiaries.