WINTER 2013: "Let Me In"
Go to the Pine: Quoddy Journals, 2005-2010, by Mark Pawlak (Lowell, MA: Bootstrap Press, 2012), 47 pages, paper. ISBN: 13: 978-0-9821600-5-3. $15.
Of this book's forty-seven pages, seven are blank, and five more contain only short quotations. Add to these a title page, a copyright page, a four-word dedication page, a contents page, and a page of eight source notes, and you get seventeen pages without text, reducing the book's substance by more than one-third.
The remaining two-thirds contain two list poems, one naming twenty-some birds, and the other, a like number of wild plants. The book also contains overheard conversations, quotations from signs on restaurants, roads, a lawn, a church, a car wash, a convenience store, and a bumper sticker, and quotations from Basho, Coleridge, Ruskin, Count Billecocq, the Bangor Daily News, exhibition catalogs, and publications about Lubec, Maine. Titles of poems include "Watercolor" and "Postcard." Included are six lines of some editor's rejection note—crossed out—and a final poem using twenty slang variations and foreign words to say "goodbye."
Five poems are described as parts of a "Bold Coast Partita" ("Chaconne," "Allemande," "Sarabande," "Passacaille," and "Bourée"). Between these "movements" lie four sections of dated entries, in prose and poetry, from a "Quoddy Journal" kept in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2010.
This is a work by Mark Pawlak, a poet, publisher, and anthologist who lives in Massachusetts but has spent summer time in the picturesque region around the small town of Lubec on the far eastern coast of Maine. The region includes the "Bold Coast," so-called for rugged heights standing against the sea and a lighthouse on West Quoddy Head.
Publicity accompanying Pawlak's book calls it "a collection of journal poems" that owes allegiance to classic Japanese works including Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior." Basho, the celebrated haiku poet, described journeys in poetry combined with prose in a form called haibun. But this seems only one source of Pawlak's inspiration. The publicity goes on to say that by "combining aspects of poetry with . . . 'takes' of journal writing," Pawlak "furthers his exploration of the journal form . . . approaching the traditional haibun through a postmodern filter—post-Beat, New York School, and Objectivist poetries, among other influences." On the back of the book, poet Henry Braun describes it as "a wordsong to the Maine coast," and memoir writer Marie Harris calls it an example of "the collage approach to poetry."
To this reviewer, who lives a short drive from Lubec and has published haibun, the "collage" description seems most accurate. Pawlak apparently intends his assemblage of poems, descriptions, observations, quotations, "postcards," and lists to immerse us in his experience of the nature of a place—or of nature through a place—where one may become "a different person." But what I like best is some vivid imagery:
Fisherman in muck crusted waders
stacking traps on the wharf,
greasy-haired, unshaven, grimy with sweat,
stands stock-still, eyes fixed
on the candy-apple-red-painted toenails
of a woman in Bermuda shorts.
The Poetry of the Personal
The Raveling Braid by Toni Hanner (Huntington Beach: Tebot Bach, 2012), 82pages, paper. ISBN 13: 978-18993670-85-3 $16
Reading poetry and criticism in the early years of this century, I sometimes feared the personal narrative would be completely extinguished as a poetic mode. Then a book like The Raveling Braid comes along to convince me of the vitality and relevance of such narratives. Yes, we can still derive wisdom and meaning from another's stories, and yes, poetry can still extend our reach toward making sense of our own stories.
While Hanner's poems often seem grounded in her own experience and her own emotional history, these are rarely navel-gazing verses. Hanner uses a number of techniques to tie her circumstances and her imagination to others. The opening poem of the collection, aptly titled "First Choice," employs a rhetorical second-person address to evoke common experience before asking readers to accept the speaker's magical experience of the first choice:
Not long after the doctor's scrubbed hands
have coaxed you out of the warm hourglass
of your mother's body , as you lie in her arms,
still red and slick, your tiny heart a rattling hummingbird,
the angel comes, spears of light piercing your violet eyes . . .
The angel asks "will you live in the midst of your life" or "will you watch," and as we think about the choices we might make, the "you" suddenly becomes someone other than us, perhaps the infant poet, who watches and waits for words, for "some way to name everything."
As with others in this collection, the title poem holds words close and sacred enough to combine play with them. "In free-fall there's no fear, although/all the letters to form it are there." Similarly, she often plays with formal structures. "The Raveling Braid" is modeled on the crown of sonnets form in six fourteen-line stanzas, with the last line of each stanza echoed in the first line of the new stanza following it.
I've gotten used to poetry collections tied together with bright threads of theme or image or even rebellion against meaning. That is not the case with the poems in The Ravelling Braid, at least as far as I can tell, except a faint and interrupted arc from youthful memories to more mature experience. Some less memorable poems in the third section of the book, like "What Really Happened to Natalie Wood," and "Hitler's Daughter" seem deliberately, even artificially disconnected from that arc, and from the personal detail and emotion that dominates elsewhere. In the fifth and final section, however, Hanner returns to her forte, the first person:
….Ten years ago, sandbagged,
shrunken with grief, I believed it the worst luck
to be sent into exile, banished from home. I'm an atom
flung into space, a fractal held close in Shiva's dancing arms.
The Complex Darkness of Family
Moonlight in the Redemptive Forest by Michael Daley (New York, NY: Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, 2010), 100 pages, paper, with CD. ISBN: 978-1929355624. $16.
No compass is needed to walk through Michael Daley's forest. The way may be difficult, but only through the indirect light of the moon. Daley's quest in history proceeds almost in a straight line through history of family, people affected by history, and the poet. Its forest, a confessional of sorts, may indeed be a redemptive. Daley, an accomplished poet, with five books and chapbooks of poetry, combines narrative and lyric. A revealed detail or person becomes more fully realized or understandable only further into the poem, or in some cases, another poem. The connections are lyrical.
The book's curious subtitles ("Nightmares & Wet Dreams,""Wake," and "Meat") reveal their intent only after reading their respective poems. True, too, of William Gaddis' epigraph from The Recognitions, with betrayal and history in the light of the moon and fog.
Hopscotching across locations, both geographical and temporally, a long poem,"Teacup & Cookie," unfolds a history between two people: Cookie, a young woman from Maine, and Teacup, an older man she marries. Teacup has lived the history of eastern Europe, including WWII. The poem starts with the wedding in eastern Europe, but just nine lines later to Maine, where"[n]o more will weathered tongues on icy trams / quiver their disgust in agglutinative soups." The poem's epigraph quotes Kafka, born in Prague , and has one section set at his grave:
At the Jewish cemetery the puppet seller,
in Christmas sudden freeze her knuckles raw,
alarmed when young American women
cough in the street, called these headstones
the oldest chiseled rock in Europe.
"Why do they charge just to see? Who gets the money?
We can't pay back their dead. Ever."
She sneaked in when the porter wasn't looking,
had a smoke at Kafka's grave.
The difficulty Daley's poems, lies in the density of the tale, its elusive history, unhinged syntax, our uneasy connection among pronouns and characters, and its heady metaphors. Difficult, though, doesn't mean incomprehensible. This first long poem firmly establishes Daley's storytelling style.
Loosely connected tales, as Daley titles them, compose the second section of bad experiences (nightmares) and youth's development (wet dreams). "The Couple's Tale" suggests incidents seven poems earlier in "The Pariah's Tale." Relationships are constructed and deconstructed, with mothers, fathers, daughters, wives, sons, names from the book's dedication, but with room for a breath, an attempt to get beyond such times, just as the couple try to do:
Before the groceries and laundry,
the inarticulate nails and stubborn lumber
took the balance of Saturday, they wanted the moment to pass
as if a silk had been draped over their gaze
while morning was abandoning the long grass out the window,
pocketing the day's portion of light in the blackberry thicket
while she looked into the tiny pool of her teacup,
and his palm smoothed the shifting grain of the table.
A difficult yet revealing section, "Wake," recounts a family history from early 20th century Boston, and centered on waking of the poet's great grandfather whose story is told in a 14-page poem, "Frankie The Milkman's Song." In their Boston accents we hear about an unnamed family member: "Jaysus all that's holy molestation! She was voyolated, wasn't she." It was"[n]o dark man ever climbed a stair" and seduced her. She had lain with the husband of her sister. Within the poem's sea of pronouns and characters, and its indirections and withholdings, The child was raised not by her birth mother, but by the betrayed sister, the mother of the poet's mother.
The last section, "Meat," has important, meaty poems, that sing, like Whitman, of suffering brought about by wars and conflicts.
In "The Fire Storm," a multi-sectioned poem that ends the volume, we move through the fires of our history (Mai Lai. Fallujah. Tokyo. 9/11) personalized as Daley the story-teller does so effectively, because "When no one remembers, history ends." We sense redemption, at least for the poet, whose father was on a plane that took part in the firebombing of Tokyo.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Fun on the Chaises Longues
Interruptions, collaborative poems by Jessy Randall & Daniel M. Shapiro (San Antonio, Texas: Pecan Grove Press, 2011), 56 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-931247-90-0 $15
I have a particular interest in the centuries-old Japanese collaborative poetry genre renga/renku, a formal poetry comprised of alternating 17- and 14-syllable verses, with author attributions for every verse clearly marked. The individual authorships of the lines and verses in Randall and Shapiro's free-verse collection, however, are not in evidence and it's often difficult to know where one voice stops and the other starts—which is not at all a bad thing; these poems read less as repartee and more as works incorporating a mood of inner discussion. This very short prose poem, "Everything He Said", conveys what I'm trying to say:
Everything he said sounded like a lie. His mumbled stories left us numb, as if we'd just read a book of fabric samples.
The image of all those fabric samples works well as metaphor for this book— comprising, as it does, dozens of tantalizing snippets of "what can or could be," rather than poems more akin to fully realised drapes or upholstered chaises longues.
As with renga/renku, these collaborative poems carry with them, a sense of adventure, of fun; a sense of "let's see where the poets and poem will take us" rather than any sense of a planned, completed "something." The poetry in Interruptions often leaves the reader with puzzlement, with a this-doesn't-quite-fit disjuncture which invites right-brain type musings that has the poems "feel" satisfyingly right rather than "working" logically. "I'm With You" gives an idea of what I mean:
I'm with you when it comes to macaroni and cheese.
I want to pull it over me like a blanket.
I get a craving when you steal my covers.
Often, the poems are self-reflexive and seem to hint at the poets' approach to their art. "Praxis" reads:
Against math, the jaws clamp up.
We're supposed to look for the best answer
because there might not be a right one.
To make an educated guess,
we must cut our choices in half.
Wasn't that how I found you?
We practice and practice.
You're my mnemonic.
These poems grew on me more and more with every reading. Many seemed a tad puzzling at first but soon I, too, was having more than "Mandatory Fun":
We don't tell here; we only show.
Showing is our lampshade wearer,
our pantomimer who sells the joke.
We'll show you how to have fun.
Then we'll tell you you've had it.
Randall and Shapiro's poetry suggests that they had their fair share of fun working on this collection. Although I've only had space to share the shorter poems— it not being easy to paraphrase the longer pieces as introduction to an excerpt— it is in those longer poems where the surreal is yet more effectively teased out and realised.
Drive-Through Window, Poems by Barbara Bald (2nd edition, published by the poet in New Hampshire, 2012, printed in Portland, ME) 119 pages, paper. ISBN 978-0-9789345-2-9. $17.95 plus $# shipping.
Barbara Bald's narrative poems in Drive-Through Window are formed with fine skill for observation and illustration. Each one tells its story through concrete images of action and reaction—ideal examples of advice often given to writers to "show, don't tell." She takes a reader through days of her life with experiences that will draw out memories from many readers. The poems are written by an older person—her age evident even without illustrative photos that place Bald's stories in recent history. Although Bald's poetic attitude comes across as positive, sometimes even uplifting, her stories are heavy. Each of her poems either ends with or wraps around some loss or sadness.
The first poem sets a clear direction that includes great control of language and warning of what's ahead. "On Turning Twelve" starts with a girl "Standing at the field's edge…" moves gracefully into "… their white tails flash in sunlight" and ends with "bodies limp, just hours from our family stew." I could not read more than two or three of the 80 plus poems without feeling dragged into the poet's gloom, however cleverly she tucked it in. Many publications and teachers urge writers to sharpen poems with that edge of loss. Bald fits in well beside Maine's current Poet Laureate Wes McNair with her skill at storytelling and digging into her own life for knowledge of disappointment. Much as I admire McNair, I also have to limit reading time in his books, especially before sleep.
One of Bald's upbeat poems, "The Adaptive Skier," is full of positive action and good intention. Bald includes action and color—"Feeling the wind on her cheeks/she can anticipate the downhill rush." I am supposed to find the great good in helping physically different people enjoy winter sport, but I find bittersweet in a poem that includes the watcher wiping away tears. Not that Bald comes across as hopeless. Her "Neverland" is full of whimsical images of a child's pretending, running, and waving before she winds up under the weight of critical teachers and not being chosen for a softball team. Her "Cinderella" floats on childhood fantasy. Some readers may find poems set in a nursing home to be more realism than pessimism, but I find them hard to read. Perhaps Bald is writing too close to my own fears. She certainly elicits emotional response with almost every poem in the book, even when I don't like that response.
Chapter titles in Drive-Through Window indicarte the book's mood: Voices of Aging, Regret, From the Nursing Home, Letting Go. When she, in the final chapter, is "Growing Wiser," Bald offers flowers, music and nature—all pointing into the decline of life. Bald's biography lists her time at the Frost Place Poetry Festival and many excellent honors. Statements from prestigious poets support my conclusion that she is surely a gifted poet.
Before I reviewed Drive-Through Window, another reader commented on the book being self-published—as if that would make more or less of any book. Most poets these days cannot find enough "real" publishers for their work; so they publish their own either through a print-on-demand or other company that makes money by printing books not bought by Beacon, Copper Canyon or another long-standing publisher. Walt Whitman self-published. So do many poets whose work Garrison Keillor reads on the radio. They make up creative names like Slippery Seaweed, Brightberry or Narramissic Notebook Press.
Bald's Drive-Through Window book cover and its photos are a delight. I hope she will publish many more poems before she reaches her own predicted end.
"I didn't feel relevant, / so I enlarged my paranormal."
March & Mad Women by Linda Aldrich (Cincinnati, Ohio: Cherry Grove Collections, 2012) 88 pages, softbound. ISBN 978-1936370863. $18
There's an edge to many of the poems in this slim book, the first book-length collection by this New Hampshire-born, newly-minted Maine poet (it includes a few pieces from her 2008 chapbook Foothold). Whether dealing with a self-obsessed mother or making fun of a commune, Aldrich casts a knowing eye on the world around her. The title poem itself is a harsh look at this "month of no prisoners": the promise of winter's end is usurped by
witch throwing dark winds
against your house.
Aldrich's poems sometimes progress through associations. After reading "What's Going Around," for example, you realize the aptness of the title: the poem is built on circular images. There are the chalk circles "around women's bodies"; hula and sacred Hopi hoops; and the Siren Red lipstick "O" left on a tissue by a mother's mouth (she has saved her kisses "for blotting," not, the poem implies, for loved ones)
In "Enfoldment" the speaker gives advice for handling visitors to a commune, some of it tongue-in-cheek: "Give them free-range eggs for free." The point of the visit is to dispel fear of communal life. "For godsakes, keep them away from Norm. / You know how he can be," warns the speaker in this entertaining indictment.
"The Woman-without-Arms," parts I and II, are wonderfully real/surreal. Aldrich describes how this woman might have arrived at her condition—contributing one of her arms to a Yankee Swap, for example. The humor is captivating:
Much later you find out the other arm put out a thumb
and hitchhiked up the coast, is now working in an artist's studio,
These days many poetry collections include the token "formal" piece—a villanelle, a sestina—as if to prove the poet's prowess. Coming to Aldrich's "Pantoum to Heal," this reader expected such an exercise and instead found a gem, the kind of poem Donald Justice once wrote, exquisite in pattern and cadence. "Every cell of you is perfect and always has been," the poem begins and ends, and you find yourself wanting to declare something similar about the lines you've just read.
Aldrich also offers poems in the "field composition" style of Charles Olson and company. In "I've seen them kiss in Paris" and "To Hamlet," her spread-out caesuras serve a purpose: to simulate the syncopations of Parisians kissing and to capture Ophelia's searching words as she addresses the Danish Prince.
Other stand-outs include "My Composition Class Meets in the Psychology Lab"; "What the Water Does"; "Deranging Furniture"; "Epithalamion for the Single Woman"; "Chickering Bog, East Montpelier"; and "All I Know about Physics." In truth, every poem had something going for it—a striking image, a bit of clever word play.
The painting on the cover, Self in Kitchen by Martha Miller, seems a fitting visual overture to the collection: an aproned woman with worry in her eyes is seemingly overwhelmed by domestic duties. The portrait captures some of the rich angst found in this memorable debut gathering. Like the 45 poems that follow, the image is adroitly composed and haunting.