WINTER 2012: "What Draws the Eye"
Just Beautiful, by Tim Suermondt (New York: NY Quarterly Books, 2010), 105 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-935520-28-3. $14.95.
Reading Suermondt's poetry collection, one discovers a world within a world that is both real and imagined. His voice is intimate and certain in his observations, revealing the daily busyness and goings on within his current Brooklyn neighborhood and his neighborhoods of the past. People populate these poems, which allows Suermondt to look at "just beautiful" as an extended metaphor—those peerless moments held in time as well as those ironic twists that shrug at events that can't be undone.
The title poem begins with a chance encounter with a beautiful young actress. She is everything chic and "wants to be in the sun." The speaker realizes her spotlight and knows he could almost touch her:
For an instant, I catch my reflection
blithe and orange in the tinted window
and a convincing voice in my head
says: "You could have been big
in Pictures. Look at this close-up,
just fine, just beautiful."
I love my anonymous life.
In many ways, this collection is an artist's journey, Künstlerroman, where the cumulative effect of the poems' narratives wrestle with the poet's ambition to create perfect and lasting poems within his life's desired anonymity; yet, fame "just beautiful" and in that naming everything changes. This is best expressed in the witty one line poem:
Simone Weil On The Ferris Wheel At Plaza
De La Concorde
It's a consolation, after all.
Of course, to truly appreciate Suermondt's wit, a reader needs to know who Simone Weil was– "activist, philosopher, religious searcher"—original creative thinker. To place her on a Ferris Wheel is the same as an artist's journey—how many turns does it take to be at the top of the wheel—how many moments is one held there—how quickly is one's descent? Lastly, who know more than the one who rode the Ferris Wheel?
Consolation is the under-telling of this collection. Taking on a Zen Buddhist approach, Suermondt meditates as he reconciles his past, present, future. He realizes "a grand design is emerging" and this surprises him in the way that he is absorbed into his culture.
Throughout the three sections, the trajectory of the poems move in a linear progression. Sermondt muses about his childhood, his adulthood, his gains and losses; some artfully posed in a game of baseball, that is a thinking game like his life. His dream of Neruda's blue forecasts his marriage late in life—how happy he is, residing behind a blue apartment door, keeping the brutal and beautiful world at bay.
There is enlightenment in the conclusion of the final poem "The Present and the Future," which illuminates and resonates all that is just beautiful:
Take all the time necessary,
over a million years
if you'd like. I'll be here.
I'll be here, waiting for you.
—M. J. Iuppa
Out of the West Comes—What?
New Poets of the American West, edited by Lowell Jaeger (Kalispell, MT: Many Voices Press, 2010), 519 pages, paper. ISBN 978-0-9795185-4-6. $24.
When this fat anthology hit my desk, featuring on its cover the (presumably) Rocky Mountains, I thought— "Oh, good, a powerful statement! It's going to assert that today's Western poets are up to something extraordinary and significant, proving that fine poets live in the West who deserve more attention than the snobbish, effete East has been giving them!" The native Kansan in me throbbed at this prospect. But alas, no such luck.
This book excludes Kansas. Also Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Poets in these pages represent only the eleven states in the continental U.S. that lie in whole or in part west of the Continental Divide. Editor and publisher Lowell Jaeger provides no answer, nor a reason for publishing a Western collection, "other than that, intuitively, this anthology seems like a worthy project, an opportunity to document who we are in this particular place at this particular time."
Second, many of the poets are hardly new: Jim Harrison, author of thirty books or more; Sam Hamill, distinguished translator, poet, and publisher; Dana Gioia, who has been chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; and two poet laureates of the United States, Kay Ryan and Philip Levine. Many others have published multiple books, won multiple prizes, and received multiple fellowships. Jaeger explains, "By 'new,' I'm simply meaning that these are new poets to readers who haven't read these poems," and "these are also new poets in that they are living now, and now is 'new' at least as often as now is pretty much the same as it's been all along."
How did Mr. Jaeger decide which poems of these "new" poets to include? In a 519-page book he gives us some 460 poems by 261 poets. His Editor's Note says he looked for "poems made from the stuff of this world, the nuts and bolts of our daily existence," rather than from "easy platitudes, armchair philosophies, or just pretty words . . . Yes, poems with an embedded narrative animated by fresh images of real world experience" in which the "seemingly petty details add up to matters of larger significance." There's plenty in these poems about things such as prairie dogs, ponderosas, and "when cowboys cry." But there's just as much about things that could be anywhere, such as Wonder Bread, Buddha, and "the little shits in daycare."
Attitude and manner don't seem that different either. The "west" is not really this book's focus. Indeed, we learn from an introduction by Professor Brady Harrison that no single, fixed West exists apart from "constantly fluctuating and reformulating identities." He asks, "Could a poet residing in say, Bangor, Maine . . . be a poet of the contemporary American Wests [sic]?" He answers, "Why not?"
Poets are not this book's primary focus either. True, Editor Jaeger gives them all photos and biographical sketches (placed vertically at the left edges of pages containing their poems so that the reader must constantly turn the book sideways). But the 261 poets get an average of less than 1.8 pages each—often just one poem—which is hardly enough to enable the reader to get acquainted. What this book basically presents is the taste of Mr. Jaeger. He argues that the book contains considerable variety. The poets include at least twenty-four Native Americans, ten or so each of poets of Asian and of Latin American ancestry, and a half-dozen African Americans.
Poems include translations, eight prose poems, a "concrete" poem, six sonnets, three villanelles, and a few other poems with rhymes and meters and a couple of "cowboy poems." Among the poets are a cattleman, a trona mine worker, and a software engineer. But most by far are of European descent, write in "free verse," and live by teaching, often in colleges, often in MFA programs, from which many have graduated. They have much in common with contemporary poets throughout the U.S.
Choosing from their works, Mr. Jaeger gives us what he likes—mostly short pieces, often related by an "I" or "we" that describe in "accessible," colloquial language a person, experience, or story, ending with at least a hint of significance. Any reader will find among these poems pieces to like. But you won't find here a body of poetry that's neglected, provocative, or significantly different.
Serving the Mystery
Wrestling Angels: Poetic Monologue, by Freddy Frankel (Somerville, MA: Ibbetson Street Press, 2011), 64 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9795313-7-8. $14.
When Jacob wrestled with an angel, he was transformed. Both Jacob and that angel are characters among a progression from Eve to Moses to Mohammed to Martin Luther to Hitler and ending with God. Each character presents a case or tells his or her story to the reader or another character in the book. And what do poet Freddy Frankel's characters, all bound by the God of Abraham, present, as they tell us one by one of their defining moments, struggles, and concerns for the future, which is our now? "The Garden was delight until I found / a serpent trailing me," tells Eve, recounting how she fled, fell, saw her own blood for the first time and thought her "life was leaking through" her skin, then how her flesh scabbed and "grew ugly as a walnut shell." She doesn't say it, but the question hangs there: why would God put a serpent in the Garden to begin with?
The monologues vary in form, and many include a note at the bottom of the page, which can be particularly helpful in identifying the historical character or a particular nuance of the character's history. Not all lesser known characters are identified, though. Their identities are revealed by their monologues, such as Harum-al-Rashid, who boasts of his achievements as lead caliph during the Arabian Golden Age.
Frankel's verse may sting with its cruel clarity, God's and one religion against another, but it does it singing with consonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme. As when Moses speaks of God's cruelty:
For coupling with a heathen, hoisted Through the rectum on a pointed pole—
Death quick if it pierce the heart
And Augustine against the Jews, whom he wishes "suffer well-earned misery / in rapture at the end of day":
I ride inside my guilt as if
it were a gilded coach, vilify
the Jews, the corrupt seed of Cain.
Some characters speak of regrets or confess to transgressions, or, like Mohammed, question the future as his life nears its end:
Who now will stifle Satan's whisp'rings
in the hearts of men, prune wild branches
from Sharia—temper learned mullahs…
Even collective identities are given a voice: the newly (and forcefully) converted in Spain during the Inquisition, in "Converso," and the gentiles during the Holocaust, in "The Righteous."
In "Buffer Zone," which is the land on either side of the wall separating Israel from the West Bank—and the next to last poem—the poet culminates the undertone running throughout the work:
Doubts. Hatred. Helplessness.
Don't you know it's God who builds
the settlements, teaches children
how to be a bomb.
This quasi-political statement puts into question that cry the three faiths of Abraham proclaim: "My custom calls out God is great—," (from "Akiba").
In the end, it is "God" who tells us that we are the ones who made up God, yet for that creation, we are no longer showing up to worship, preferring instead "a bar of gold, the spoils of war, / the lottery," and that even our "praise / is like bone china chipped to sentiment alone." For this, our "greatest blunder" (God), is "weeping, disappointed" in ourselves.
Frankel's characters march across our stage to defend, defy, lament, confess, and question what they, and we continue to do, to one another.
—Ellen Jane Powers
The Mad Girl Dances
Ballroomem> by Lyn Lifshin (Greensboro, NC: March Street Press, 2010), 286 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-59661-142-1. $9
Oooh! This book is hot! Its first hundred poems glide into the world of ballroom dance classes. There's the trot, foxy, a
into beds as easy as the
there's the samba;
a snake I think you'd
be almost afraid
and there's the Russian teacher's 'roombah;'
swirling. My body lifts
upward, my knees soften
like those parts that let
This section continues with tales of ballroom gigolos, prized for their prowess on the dance floor unlike
who can't lead
soggy, flaccid as a
penis that can't do
what it should
and tales of wealthy women who pay for the company of these
boy toys [who] can't afford to escape
with the young beauties they'd
A woman lures a dance partner with promises of poems that may or may not show him in good light. The 'Mad Girl' ("… afraid / of being asked / to dance, / afraid of not") makes her appearance. Later, she "breathes fantasy, / in the mint of his / lips and his hips / against her". In the section, "Madlove" her obsession with the dancer, like the poetry, intensifies until she
like a praying mantis
about to leap, bite
the neck of her prey,
put everything she has
into him. She is wild to
paralyse him, keep
him as her slave
Mad Girl spins out over page after page of poems and memories of the many men she's loved and lost, loved and left, not loved and escaped. All written with hypnotic returns and repeats, and off-balance rhythms that evoke fervid Latin dances until at last "The Mad Girl thinks of Millay:"
... it's Vincent's
last terrible lover, the
one she turned into
sonnets that tear out
your heart the mad girl
shivers at, painting a
last brush stroke to
finish the one she longed
for too long…
Ballroom has no contents listing or index; it is 286 intense, densely packed pages of poetry, divided into five sections, that swirls forwards with its story and dips back into the compulsions of the Mad Girl and her loves and her poems. The fourth section, post-abandon abandonment, comprises eighty pages of exquisite desolation that ends with a sense of decay into nothingness:
The pale ink of the script
fading, crumbling like
those days, blurred as the
handwritten notes under
the powder, messy
as the past
The fifth section is one twenty-page rambunctious poem, "The Hotel Lifshin is Closing its Doors"
Enough, the guests aren't
what they used to be
expect food on the hour
That details the hotel's last disastrous season and the behavior of those exigent guests—or are they faithless lovers? Capricious poetry audiences and critics perhaps? I hope to be opening soon the covers of another Lifshin collection.
"Van Gogh/till I beg for darkness"
Brushstrokes and glances by Djelloul Marbrook (Cumberland, ME: Deerbrook Editions, 2010), 84 pages, softbound. ISBN 978-0-9828100-1-9. $16.95.
The opening poem of Djelloul Marbrook's second book is emblematic of what fills the ensuing pages: a lively bit of verse with connections to art. In "Shabtis (The Brooklyn Museum)," the speaker expresses a desire to be one of the ancient Egyptian funerary figurines on display, to "worry/about Ra and Apophis/but not Ponzi schemes," to be awakened at night to prepare Nefertiti's bath and anoint her with oil, to be "a cylinder resting/between Isis's breasts." It's delightful escapist fantasy.
With a few exceptions, Marbrook's poems are not ekphrastic. Rather, he interacts with art and artists, sometimes offering out-of-the-ordinary hypotheticals: "If government painted a canvas/as exuberantly as Caravaggio, . . . it would be accidentally civil."
Some of the best poems arise from relating aesthetic experiences to personal matters. "Art my mother never saw saddens me," reads the opening line of "Giorgio Morandi (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)." Viewing an exhibition of the master still-life painter, the narrator feels like a thief and an impostor left to rub "an ancient sob" in his chest.
The roster of artists includes many that have prompted writers before: van Gogh, Goya, Cézanne, Picasso. They are often considered in museum settings— viewing a Vermeer at the Frick, for example. Sometimes the poems serve as critiques, recalling some of Farnham Blair's art-inspired pieces. "A good museum should harrow us," the speaker in "Manhattan reef" states. In the next stanza the poet explains:
I can Brueghel one Sunday afternoon,Marbrook can be cryptic like Charles Simic, although his poems are less surreal narratives than riffs. A number of these verses provoke that sound audiences make when a poem comes to an end: a murmur that says they have been stirred by the words but may not quite understand them.
El Greco for a moment, Van Gogh
till I beg for darkness, but museums
suggest we're from different stars
and have only a short time to visit.
"I am seventy-two percent water/and grimly aware of vessels," is the way the six-line poem "A naming spree" begins, then it leaps:
So were the Greeks and alchemists
who went on a naming spree
hoping by design and euphony
to lift the curse of containment.
This poem's meaning escapes me, even after looking up "euphony" (pleasing or sweet sound or the harmonious succession of words), but it is engaging and built on fine prosody, including that handsome bit of alliteration in the final line. I starred a bunch of other poems, too: "A jar of marsala," "Miniaturist," "Among broken statues," "My mother dying," and "Francisco de Zurbarán."
Plenty here to make you murmur.
What Became of My Country
Voices From Exile by Tendai R. Mwanaka (Belfast, Ireland: Lapwing Publications, 2010), 88 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-907276-48-4. $10.
Tendai R. Mwanaka fled Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) in the 1980s when Robert Mugabe came into power and massacred an estimated 20,000 of his tribal and political enemies. Mugabe continues to this day to torture and kill tens of thousands. Once considered the breadbasket of Africa, farms were raided and burned, white farmers killed or forced to leave their country, and fertile land given to Mugabe's friends and left unattended.
number 3 on the list of failed states and a couple
we will beat Somalia to this proud mantle.
8 million need food aid before our next harvest,
which means everyone!
no fertilizers, no pesticides, no agricultural
no rains, no farming done, so it basically means
it's another 12 months of food aid.
While Mwanaka has written some lovely poetry, the poems in this book are not pretty. He writes in stream of consciousness, seemingly adding punctuation as an afterthought or omitting it altogether. Anger, helplessness, fear, sadness, hunger, loss and longing permeate the poems, which are powerful testaments to the corruption and brutality under which Zimbabweans have suffered for decades.
Too often news is suppressed …
No outside ear can hear the thundering guns
Sounds of henchmen
championing a killing!
A recurring theme in Zimbabwean art is the metamorphosis of man into beast. Here, man's inhumanity is exemplified all too well…
The arrest and slammed doors
in a cell in Harare
the beatings, gorging, chopping
in the throes of a shape-shift
the walls of my cell in Chikurubi
Slanting backwards with weights
of a cracked head, gorged flesh and chopped
limbs of my own body.
And my steady howling and gnashing cries…
In "Coming Home" Mwanaka's friend
developed anger inside his heart and that he ran and ran on roads
away from what he didn't know
in his heart, and that
he kept saying the demon's name
and paid the price of a broken will
and vanished into the depths.
His title poem expresses the sadness of everyone who is forced to leave country and family behind to escape sure death…
This poem is the soft call of one lonely raven that has lost her loved birth-ones
it is the voice of reason in times of pestilence
it is the voice of the spirit that left baggage
and bundles of bones in Limpopo River
it is the voice of flesh and blood that sustains
fish and crocodiles in Limpopo
year in and year out
it is the voice of the badger swallowing in grief
it is the voice of the raccoon choking in blame.…
and from another poem…
Our country is now a bleeding wound that cannot
…we stumble alone on this mad road
of becoming citizens in another country
and being fully human some day.
And with an uncontained longing …
I have got to be there
I can't stay away forever.
I have got to see
what became of my country.
A Leaf Called Socrates: A Poetry Memoir by Ann Holmes (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2011), paper, 81 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4502-8144-7. $9.95.
Someday soon there should be an iUniverse Chair of Poetry Writing at a major college. Expect also poetry prizes named for evermore obscure poets in your region. The Michael Brown Prize in Narrative Political Prose Poems covering the first half of the second decade of the second half of the 20th century in Southwest Central Ohio. With over 800 creative writing programs in the US, such are the inevitable ways of promoting graduates whose degrees are based on quantity and minimal quality.
Here at Off the Coast we first took note of this phenomenon in 2009 when we published an issue dedicated to translations and international themes. We received many that we came to call "postcard poems." Their fidelity of description to a particular place ended there. So many snapshots in words, so few with meaning beyond. Since then we have seen large numbers of such submissions for every issue. Hayden Carruth once bemoaned the sameness of voice in 20th century American poetry. Now we add to that a sameness of style, imagery, and limited intent.
One book by one author should not bear the entire weight of this state of affairs, but this one is typical. It is a well made, perfect-bound, interestingly titled book with an attractive cover photo. Credits for publishing and supportive friends, teachers, and family take up a page and a half. On the back cover there is a short promotional paragraph, a long blurb by a not-well-known poet, a short author bio, and an incredibly cute thumbnail author photo. But it's the poetry we come looking for, and no matter how clever the section headings and the poetic notions, they conclude flatly or with what must be intended as some epiphanic reversal.
Here, the last stanza of "Chicago Devil Wind":
The higher Devil Wind fliesOr this from the opening of "Hundred Geese":
she spies clouds still higher
Only with a digital telescope
can you see, east of the Milky Way
the smear of her blue-black skirt
after the stroke
at a bus stop
fly by in a "V"
Without punctuation and capitalization to concern her, what did the credited editor do? We cannot believe the lack of correction to "brakes" was intentional. Was the formation of geese not really a V? What are teachers' responsibilities other than certifying course grades and graduations? True, we do not know how far this poet has come, but we can see clearly how far she has gone.
To be fair, this book of poems is no worse than many. It has sensible sections and consistent content. Certainly some of the methods reflect the teachers, especially those Billy Collins poems that begin in the everyday and enmove to speculation in the middle when the waters threaten with moderate depth.
Here is a poet who seems to have an unusual grasp of what did not happen, which is an interesting perspective. Who will challenge her to explore beyond what is ordinarily expressed in her poems? Take the 17-line poem, "If Only":
Eve didn't pick the apple from the tree
Oedipus took a detour at the crossroad
Helen was not so stunningly beautiful
… I could sleep the whole night through
As a really good poet has often said, "Sounds like a personal problem to me."
The first section of this book consists of childhood poems, and the inconclusiveness of the dramatic childhood experiences they render may be excused from a child's perspective. But here we have really good poetic material from which an adult can tease out meaning. A page and a half of notes at the end, while informative, are no more meaningful. Alas, the tease is in omission. What if…