When you are ode and gray and full of sleep

The Winter holidays have again brought a sublime and blessed abundance. Three of my favorite journals have all arrived within weeks of each other to help me through the bleak and blurry embers of the year: Cave Wall (12), River Styx (90), and Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review (39).

One thing I love about these (and other) journals is the personal connection that the editor has to the poetry, and to the readers. This always comes through in the editor’s letter, which opens up each issue and sets the reader’s expectations. It also shows the connections among the journals, which probably should not come as a surprise, as they seem to favor a similar aesthetic. For example, Cave Wall opens with a poem by Nathaniel Perry. He’s the editor of Hampden-Sydney. The River Styx poetry competition in this issue was judged by Terrence Hayes; his work also appears in the latest Hampden-Sydney (I’ve never met him, though we shared the National Poetry Series honor in 2002). I also see that Renee Soto has joined the staff of Cave Wall. She was the editor of the short-lived magazine, roger (she’s also a fellow UNCG alum).

And speaking of UNC, I was pleased to find two poems by Michael McFee opening up River Styx. He hasn’t lost his gift for poignant yet whimsical nostalgia. It’s fitting that he open up an issue dedicated to the American ode. It’s remarkable how many poems have “ode” in the title, and I wonder whether they were written or renamed specifically for this themed issue, or whether they were composed independently. I particularly love Jim Tilley’s “Ode to a Martini,” a drink which does indeed merit a dry sonnet, smugly stirred. Another standout is Lee Upton’s “Love’s Ode,” and I love the device of taking a piece of each metaphor to craft a new metaphor (hard to illustrate without reprinting the entire poem). George Bilgere is certainly not the first to trawl for meaning in the preparation and consumption of a lobster, but he does so with a buttery richness, capping his ode with a description of “their red steaming vaults / ready to be plundered.” Niamh Corcoran gives us a different kind of love/hate ode in “A Love Affair.” The poem is a lush and exuberant indulgence in the patois of the English language, with its history of assimilating foreign words (in that way, the language becomes the synecdoche of empire). The turn comes in the last two lines, when the plundered language is Irish. It is probably no coincidence that some of our greatest English writers were in fact Irish, writing in what is essentially the language of the subjugator, and many if not most Irish writers have had a troubled relation to it. River Styx also includes a poem by Joan Murray in an obscure and intriguing form known as the cento—a poem composed entirely of lines from other poems. This is the sort of form that must appeal to poets who read and memorize great poems (and I’m somewhat surprised that I’ve never attempted one). One the one hand, it is severely constrained and contrived, but on the other hand, deliciously random. And as a reader, it’s fun to recognize the lines and the myriad associations they induce.

In a sense, several of the poems in Cave Wall can be considered odes, including several focused on the father figure. Bruce Bond’s “Ground Zero” is one such ode, juxtaposing the destruction of the Twin Towers with his father’s illness or operation in a hospital. And Perry’s “In Bloom, Where the Meadow Rises,” has some fabulous imagery. In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo presents some of his rules for writing poetry; one that has always stuck with me suggests that the word “so” should never be used as an adverb unless it sets up a larger subordinate clause. Perry applies that admonition to great effect in lines such as “a field so bleached with drought the giant cross / of shadows from the pines is friction enough / to set the day on fire.”

Robert Wrigley’s “Tinnitus” in Hampden-Sydney is at once a nostalgic ode to the pay phone, but on retrospect, speaks more generally to the alienation and lack of intimacy in a world where personal communication is ubiquitous, and in which the excess of connection spawns its opposite, where speech is reduced to a dull white noise. Though not a cento, the poem does lift a few lines verbatim from the past, notably Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse.” Appropriate, perhaps, considering those poets’ inability to connect with Margaret and Maude. I was also singularly impressed by Craig Challender’s “Alzheimer’s Cookout.” I had already read it three or four times before I even realized the poem is a sestina. And again, an appropriate form, given the subject matter, as the repetition (with variation) accentuates the struggle of the central figure to reconstruct a cohesive narrative of the past-into-the-present, or even to remember simple words and names. I love the way the poet actually leaves words out, and represents them simply by blanks, as in “with the _______________ sponging open her hand.” The reader becomes complicit in the process of creation, and I wonder whether the poet had specific words in mind or not.

Many more in this issue deserve more than a shout-out—Eamon Grennan’s “Camouflage,” Don Johnson’s “Hazard,” Hannah Craig’s “Turkeys”—but that’s all I’ve got time for today. The new year is pacing by the door, jiggling its keys in its hands, impatient to get on the road.

From My Past

I recently reconnected with a friend from college, Jeff Schwaner. We were both aspiring poets, and of course found ourselves in many of the same classes (including, if memory serves, a seminar with Archie Ammons). But he was living a decidedly more literary life—he edited one of the undergrad literary mags and lived in the “artsy” residence hall (Risley), where he convened a regular open mic for writerly types (a group that included housemate Matt Ruff). I, on the other hand, was living with a bunch of engineers above a bar in Collegetown. But Jeff was an inspiration for me, and though we lost touch after school, I was delighted to learn that he’s continued to write poetry throughout all these intervening years. He sent me a few of his books, including his latest, Artificial Horizon. I may, of course, be biased, but I find myself drawn in by the compelling and sympathetic voice. I’m also impressed by the deft turn of phrase and keen observation. Imagine e.e. cummings as a zen master.

The poem “What I Told the Shadow” is a fine example. It includes a line that has been stuck in my head since the moment I read it: “you are made of nothing yet you need / so much.” All poets run across lines that they wish they’d written; I wish I’d written that one. I detect a whiff of Ammons in the line (and line break) “you collect the / Rims of waves and marsh knobs / Into yourself…” And the lack of punctuation recalls Merwin, who famously eschewed such stuff in his poetry (the poem does in fact contain a colon or two—perhaps another artefact of Ammons?). The subject matter, though—the centrality of absence, the importance of not being—comes straight from Lao Tzu. The speaker asks a questions of a reflection on a pond’s surface, and in response, “the reflection shimmered / Saying nothing.” And here, of course, nothing is something, is the main thing. I’m again reminded of a zen koan in which silence becomes the only possible answer to any question. The poem concludes with the speaker noting, “So I stepped less heavily for a while / On my own absence.” Which is perhaps a way of saying, “I have made some peace, at least for now, with my own death.” And while it is hard to read of shadows and not contemplate Plato’s cave, it seems in this case that there is no world beyond the shadow, no ideal. There is only this reality, which often appears more than a bit surreal.

It’s interesting to compare this poem with the one that directly precedes it in the volume, “The Crickets.” Here, every line in the first part of the poem ends with a period, giving a flat tonality and sense of resignation. Moreover, the first three lines grow successively longer, building momentum, piling up anger and despair (though at this point, we may not recognize those as the underlying theme):

The crickets are never wrong.
When you go by them they stop tuning the night’s fiddle.
They don’t begin to play until there is no chance of winter coming back.

I am reminded of Babel’s famous dictum: There is nothing so devastating as a period in exactly the right place. This is especially true in the second part of the poem, which loses the terminal punctuation altogether, until the final line. The counterpoint is striking, as the poem lifts off from that first short deadpan assertion to a lush extended metaphor that carries the reader along on its trajectory. The crickets are not singing a dirge—only the mention of “each lost friend” makes it seem so. But ultimately, the crickets—that is uncaring nature—is what survives us and continues quite well without us. “The crickets will not leave you,” the speaker asserts. No, it is you who will leave the crickets. And when that happens, the final line tells us, “nothing will be disturbed.”

I feel privileged to discover Jeff’s work after all these years. And to think I thought I was too old to be surprised.

Cimarron, Spring 2013

The Cimarron Review has become in recent years one of my favorite journals. Physically, it is attractive and comfortable—the size, the fonts, the cover images all convey a refined aesthetic sensibility and a sense of seriousness. And as for the work, I usually find at least one poem (and usually several) that stick with me long after I’ve put the journal down. The Spring 2013 issue is no exception. Noteworthy items in this edition include “Wasp Nest,” by Robert Gibb, a poet whose name I know, but whose work is not familiar to me. This poem follows in the what might be called the Southern imagist tradition (that includes the likes of Robert Morgan and Michael McFee), which prods the reader to notice, appreciate, even extol the most ordinary items in the ordinary world. Collectively, such poems serve to accentuate the improbable and mysterious fact of existence, fixing in time the temporally fleeting (which includes not only the observed but the observer as well). There’s some wonderful wordplay at work here, as when Gibb alters a vowel to turn the wasps into “wisps” or a “bundle of battered duct tape” to a “bindle of stiff gray rags.” (And who could help but love a word such as “bindle?”) There’s also a curious attention to sound, with a number of true rhymes (“year” and “wear,” “shape” and “tape,” “zigzags” and “rags”) but no apparent rhyme scheme.

Also gripping is the poem “Losing Limbs,” by Ariana Nadia Nash. A recent review of my latest book notes that I “participate[] in what seems the current fashion of describing suffering in almost pornographic detail.” I wasn’t aware of any such fashion, but if there is one, then I confess that I am a slave to it. Nash’s poem also follows this fashion. It presents a visceral description of a leg amputation from the perspective of a military surgeon in the field. There is nothing in her bio to suggest that she has any experience in this area, but I must say, the perspective is convincing and the imagery is indeed haunting.

Which brings me to the next notable poem, “Haunted,” by Charles Harper Webb (an LA local like myself, though we’ve never met). I’ve never been a fan of “stand-up” poetry, but Webb at his best shows how effective the genre can be. It’s hard not to be charmed by the insouciance of the narrator—which seems to be one hallmark of the genre—as he relates a quasicomical anecdote while pretending to pretend not see the underlying tragedy and horror. This poem is a fine example; it describes a Halloween haunted house that was erected by a mother of two kids who died in a house fire. The pathos is real, if not exactly subtle, as we come to realize how the death of the boys still haunts the mother, and how the house of horrors forms an objective correlative for her internal psychic state. The details of the tragedy (“their heater— / bought to keep them snug—lit / the drapes she’d hung to help them sleep”) somehow escape being maudlin, perhaps because we accept them as the obsessive retrospection of the grieving mother and not the words of the poet (who should know better). But the fact is, people turn to poetry precisely because they believe they lack the skill to give proper expression to their difficult emotions. The challenge for the poet is to be true to those emotions without appearing facile (Yeats famously decried “easy sentiment,” but he was apparently OK with complicated sentiment). The final stanza of the poem hones in on the gravestones in the front yard, noting that “the actor in the giant-suit / takes care, in his stilt-high stumblings, not / to knock them down.” The actor, of course, is the poet’s doppleganger, stumbling around the mother’s inexpressible grief without belittling it with an attempt to do more than acknowledge it.

Flipping through this issue of Cimmaron Review, I’m struck by how different the poems appear—some lines extend nearly to the page margin, others are extremely spare—yet all achieve the single overriding criterion of being well worth the reading (and rereading).

Paradise

Months since my last post, I know (thanks, Mom, for noticing!). During that time, I had the pleasure of attending the AWP conference in Boston for the first time. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it—everybody who’s nobody is there. I got the chance to meet a few folks in the poetry world, some for the first time, some for the first time in person. And snow! I’d nearly forgotten the joy of walking down a deserted city street late at night with snow flakes swarming beneath the streetlights. Would’ve been even better if I’d had appropriate footwear.

Also in the recent months, I received a wonderful book called Paradise, Indiana by Bruce Snider, which won the Lena-miles Wever Todd Poetry prize from Pleiades Press. A remarkable work of deep emotion, delightful language, and disturbing obsession. In fact, a more appropriate name would’ve been something along the lines of “Homage to Nick.” This is one of those books that gains heft in its assemblage, as each poem comments on and contributes to the others. In some poems, we learn that Nick was a cousin and lover—perhaps the narrator’s first. We learn he died by suicide, apparently by shutting himself in the garage with the car engine running. And he was young, as the epitaph to another poem suggests (“for Nick, 1971–1988”). We also learn that, though gay, he put up a pretense of heterosexuality, having a girlfriend who shows up in various poems. Did this internal conflict lead him to his death? The narrator doesn’t speculate. He does, however, relive every detail of their time together. At times, the two seem like typical boys from the farmlands, whiling away their time with hunting, fishing, traipsing through the woods, dreaming about cars. But these episodes are always punctuated by the sexual interludes, the secretive kisses and undone zippers. This dichotomy really comes through to wonderful effect in the poem, “The Ambiguity of Stone.” It begins with the memory of the two fishing, but immediately moves to the memory of a kiss: “a dive lure flaring / like a tiny orange flame between rubber / night crawlers as a breath from / my mouth entered his.” Or consider these later lines:

Pounding out dents
in the shanty, we talked of smallmouth jigs
and where the bluegills might bed
in the spring. We cast our lines,
gutting a trout that spilled its clutch
of eggs…

These lines would not seem out of place in a poem by any number of southern or rural writers, but the particular sexual overtones really set them apart. This poem also includes the line, “In the woods / I’d find a bike so honeycombed / with hornet nests I could taste / their wings in my chest.” Where’d that come from?!?! Don’t know, but wow! But the truly obsessive nature of memory comes through in the fact that six separate poems all carry the same title, “Afterlife.” Interestingly, these all (except for the last one) employ the same form, arising as a series of paired couplets. As such, they can be read as a single long series. Perhaps they were designed that way. The poems are haunted by objects that recall the lost Nick: his knife, his socks, his hockey stick, his car. In one, the narrator sums up his obsession (and indeed, the theme of the book): “His memory, an endless window / I can’t get shut.” And I love the way the word “get” in that sentence conjures a visceral image of a repeatedly frustrated attempt; think of how different it would be if it simply read “an endless window / I can’t shut.” But in the final “Afterlife” poem, the one in quatrains, the narrator comes to accept the endlessly coming future and the receding past. He notes a field giving way to cluster of chain stores—Walmart and Pizza Hut. Nothing we hold dear is exempt from the ravages of time. He looks out over the silent field and concludes: “Dirt. Distance. It does not end.” No, it does not end, the pain, but it does diminish, it does recede. And life goes senselessly on.

The final poem, “Gutting the White-Tail,” continues the lush, visceral, palpable physical description that characterizes the entire collection. But perhaps more than any others, it presents a dense juxtaposition of bodies alive and dead, bodies recently or soon to be dead, the sex and gore, the irony of hindsight. Consider, collectively, this graphic—nearly pornographic—narrative: “we roll the carcass onto its back… I spread the hind legs… He slits around the anus, / drawing it up into the body… With a heave, / he splits the breast… We flip the body belly down… We high-five, passing a cigarette as the body cools…” The poem, and thus the book, ends with “We watch the windpipe steaming in the snow,” a line made more poignant by the revelation in an earlier poem that Nick died of asphyxiation. It also suggests, in a way, a body that cannot speak. Also significant, we find Nick cracking a joke in this poem, which renders his later suicide all the more shocking and unexpected, in retrospect.

One odd note: the cover of the book shows a photo of men bent down in prayer, and it looks like it could’ve been taken in Indiana 100 years ago. But the photo credit reveals that it was taken in Mexico (Zacatecas) less than 20 years ago. Well, I guess you can’t judge a cover by its book.

Everyone’s a critic

Finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced this week. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’ve only read one of them (Olives, by A.E. Stallings). I notice that all of the books were published relatively early in the year—February, April, May, June (the one outlier is David Ferry, with a pub date of early August). From a statistical perspective, that makes sense: the earlier a book is released, the more time it has to get noticed by reviewers and award panels. (Though I suppose, if you’ve already got a reputation, your book is likely to get noticed right away.) I’m curious to know (but too lazy to find out) whether this phenomenon holds true for earlier years. If so, perhaps poetry publishers would do well to release their books early in the year, or time their releases to take advantage of a lack of competition—much the way the film industry holds certain movies to coincide with the summer blockbuster season or the film festival season. Perhaps some publishers already do so (though I get the sense that poetry presents too small a market to even bother with such considerations). My prediction? Well, Ferry’s book has already received the National Book Award, and considering Ferry’s age, it’s probably the last book he’ll write, so I suspect the auguries are pointing toward him this time around. But my predictions about the future are usually as off-base as my predictions about the past, so don’t bet any money based on my tip.

Also, a quick thumbs-up for the latest issue of Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. A solid collection all around. Many of the middle poems share a wonderful ebullience, a penchant for echolalia, the is collectively invigorating. I was particularly taken with the work of Hannah Faith Notess, previously unknown to me. Her language and images evoke Richard Hugo, with his keen sense of dispair in dissolution (perhaps not surprising—she apparently lives in Seattle). Consider, for example, these lines from “To the Church Across the Bridge Who is Claiming the City for God”:

The barges dredge and dredge, but turn up
nothing, and the drawbridge gapes open

like the gulf between Man and God, but nobody
is waiting to cross over…

I adore the deadpan, epigrammatic line later in this poem: “It hurts to watch the world split down the middle.” Or this line from “To the Body Carried Out of the Apartment Across the Street”: “The crocuses next to the dumpster are opening / their fat purple mouths.” An intense image of Nature at its most uncaring. The cruelty is accentuated by the turn: the line that ends on “opening” is potentially a positive image of renewal, but quickly remakes itself into an image of greed and bloat and selfishness.

And it’s always refreshing to read work by a poet who still holds down a day job. From great adversity springs great art.

Of dirt and music

Let us continue wandering in these perishable machines
made of dirt and music

These lines are from the final poem in Traci Brimhall’s debut collection, Rookery. The poem, “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse,” is a fitting summation of the book that has preceded it. Many of the recurring tropes and images show up: prayer, faith, madness, father, whales, God, love, joy, death, destruction, and resurrection.

The book, as a whole, is more than the sum of its parts, and it’s clear that considerable thought was given to the arrangement (though its also possible, even probable, that many of the poems that are grouped together were also written in the same timeframe). The book begins with a prologue, “Prayer for Deeper Water,” and ends with the “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse,” quoted above. Within these bookends, the collection starts with a series of aubades and ends with a nocturne. It is divided into three sections. The first is the most personal, filled with poems about infidelity and betrayal. The second delves into formative childhood memories as well as the poet’s conflicted relationship with her parents. The third contains a mixture of personal and persona poems, with a greater fixation on death and rebirth.

Throughout, the language is surprising and delightful, gripping in its deft turn of phrase. You can pretty much turn to any page and find an image that will draw you in as it is extended to an unexpected conclusion. Take, for example, these lines from “Concerning Cuttlefish and Ugolino”:

You tell me you found
a coyote’s leg in a spring trap once. 

You knew that an animal, in its wildness,
would chew through its tendons, snap
its own bones. There are parts of ourselves

that we can learn to live without.

Or this, from “Possession,” which ends with a missionary in Brazil being attacked by an anaconda:

…the tribe waited, their raised
machetes cutting the light, trying to figure out
how to divide the human from the god.

Many of the poems in this book form a collective whole; individual poems may be marked by uncertainties that are resolved by others. Poems in the first section, for example, are individually evocative, but collectively intense. In addition to “Possession,” the middle section includes other poems about a pair of missionaries and their daughter in Brazil. After reading these poems and others in the section, I suspect that the child is the poet’s mother (though there is nothing to prove that theory). If so, that knowledge adds another layer of depth to the poems about her parents. The father apparently leaves the mother, who subsequently (or perhaps causally) descends into a state of psychosis that recreates a reality based on her fundamentalist upbringing. Some of these are truly wrenching, as when she the poet visits her in an institution and decides to “let them give your body enough electricity / to calm it.” The flat tone belies a well of conflicting emotions.

The father is also an intriguing figure. He seems to have a thing for guns—in one poem, he shoots and kills a snapping turtle, in another, he commands the poet to shoot a caged feral cat, and in another, he (if it is indeed the father) collects bullets and takes part in a Civil War reenactment. He takes the poet to a “torture museum” and takes a photo of her next to a collection of chastity belts. In another poem, he heart “is a jar of nails.” And yet, in another the poet holds the father’s hand as they “crossed the icefields / and looked into a glacier’s deepening blue.” And another poems relates how the father “came home and held my mother and pushed her / curls behind her ears and said, That kind of loneliness / is dangerous.

There is also something unequivocally American about this book. Partly, its the undercurrent of Southern biblical tradition—more than a third of the poems mention God with a capital “G,” and a good many mention angels or scripture. Partly, its the sense of place: different poems mention Appalachia, Kentucky, Ohio, Lake Superior, Ellis Island, the Triangle Waist Shirt Factory, the Empire State Building, Philadelphia, Charleston, Atlanta, Manassas, the Mississippi. Maybe something in the diction, too, embodies a distinctly American idiom.

Case and point, I leave you with the end of “American Pastoral”:

The angel wants more of this. More
generosity. More tenderness. It wants more
of everything on earth it cannot have.

Ditto that! And I am looking forward to seeing more from Traci Brimhall.

Light into the olive entered…

Text and subtext: everything in the work of A. E. Stallings seems to have at least two meanings, or layers of meanings. Her latest collection, Olives, is no exception. Even the title of the book is freighted. Stallings lives in Athens, Greece, named for the goddess Athena, who won the city’s allegiance in a contest with Poseidon. Each gave a gift to the city: Poseidon gave a wellspring (but the water was salty), and Athena gave… an olive tree. The olive, then becomes synonymous the whole Greek drive toward an enlightened civilization. Of course, the olive branch has also come to represent a gesture toward peace and conciliation—equally appropriate in a book that is woven through with scenes or hints of domestic tension.

The book is separated into four sections. The first is entitled “The Argument.” Double meaning again: it is the title of a poem in this section; but it is also an old term for an introduction or explanation of a work. Astute readers may recall Herrick’s “The Argument of His Book.” In any case, this first section contains more than a few actual arguments between people real and imagined. “Recitative” notes, “We cherished each our minor griefs / To keep them warm until the night / When it was time again to fight.” This is followed by “Sublunary,” which begins with a couple “Arguing home through our scant patch of park.” Similarly, “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia” begins, “To leave the city / Always takes a quarrel.” And then, of course, there is this section’s titular poem, “The Argument.” Given all this, it’s hard not detect a sense of domestic strife running through the other poems. “Burned,” which begins, “You cannot unburn what is burned,” becomes more than just a litany of life’s small failures, but a recasting of life’s major regrets—the words you wish you didn’t say, the decisions you wish you hadn’t made. “The Compost Heap” is at once suggestive of a new beginning, but also of buried sentiments that must someday rise again, perhaps in a new, more potent form. “The Dress of One Occasion” is an ode on a wedding dress; but within the context of this first section, it also becomes a requiem for lost innocence, optimism, and naive love. The following sonnet-like poem, “Deus Ex Machina,” also describes the loss of disillusionment, the existential angst of a couple that is past the honeymoon stage. The title refers to a contrived device whereby playwrights who could not compose a suitable denouement would simply cut the gordian knot and have a god descend from the rafters to settle the conflict on stage. In this poem, the two lovers have reached an impasse, a critical stage from which they see no exit, having assumed the roles that history and society have written for them. Intriguingly, the poem ends with no final punctuation, no period or exclamation point, suggesting, of course, that the requisite god is not forthcoming, and there will be no miraculous rescue.

The language in this section—indeed, throughout the book—is impeccably precise. Here’s a quatrain from “The Compost Heap”:

In winter it gave off a warmth
And held its ground against the snow,
The barrow of the buried year,
The swelling that spring stirred below.

Perhaps not everyone knows what a barrow is (but Tolkien fans might recall the barrow downs), but it’s a rich and apt description of the compost heap. I love the description in “Telephonophobia” (fear of the telephone) as well. To justify such a fear, the poem notes that “We keep it on a leash” (though I wonder: will such a reference soon become apocryphal, as we make the final leap to cordless technology?) Furthermore, when the speaker lifts up the receiver, “Old anger pours like poison in my ear,” a phrase that can’t help summon an image of Hamlet’s father—which is all the more appropriate, if the true fear of phones is the news they bring of the death of someone near.

The next section, “The Extinction of Silence,” is a bit more outwardly focused, and speaks to or about specific people (many of whom are deceased). The standout poem for me in this section is “The Cenotaph,” which describes a visit to the first cemetery in Greece (where Schliemann, archaeologist of windy Troy, is buried). The speaker encounters both the living and the dead, and—most movingly—a small child who is both, that is, a statue that seems alive and playful. I love the phrase, “the rude democracy of bone.” Ultimately, the speaker comes to realize, “It was the grave of nobody I sought,” which on the one hand is the everyman, not unlike the tomb of the unknown soldier, but on the other hand, the speaker’s own grave, which is of course not yet there. In such a statement, the speaker on some level acknowledges the nobody that everybody is destined to become. The speaker also notes “the token of undying love / Some twenty years ago” that has become “garish” over time. In the final couplet, the speaker remarks that she “Wandered between two dates,” the birth date and death date inscribed on every stone. That’s one of those lines that stops you in your tracks, subtle yet overwhelmingly potent.

The third section, “Three Poems for Psyche,” is brief but packed. The three poems in this section ease the reader into a central theme of the final section—that is, motherhood—while recasting themes of domestic strife and the impassivity of time introduced in the first two. The first poem is remarkable, formally. It is essentially a palindrome, with each line of the first stanza repeated in the second—in reverse. In this, it bears some similarity with Natasha Trethewey’s Orpheus poem (see earlier post). This sequence does not focus so much on the main part of the Psyche story (her encounters with Cupid), but rather, on what happens next. For the Psyche in these poems is pregnant (with sensual bliss, according to the allegory). And, to appease Venus, she must descend into the underworld to retrieve some beauty from Persephone. Of course, the only beauty the goddess knows is the ageless beauty of the grave. And Persephone is not the young naive girl who first entered Hades, but is notably wiser, perhaps jaded (though of course, no older).

The final section, “Fairy Tale Logic,” strikes a somewhat different tone—at times exasperated, at times effulgent—which is not surprising, given that many of these poems focus on childrearing. The title and poem of the same name reflect on the impossible but completely accepted premises of fairy tales and nursery rhymes (and calls to mind Nick Flynn’s “Cartoon Physics”). The title poem starts out on a whimsical note, “Gather the chin hairs form a man-eating goat,” but ends with a devastating imperative: “Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.” There is some genuine rage and despair underlying these lines, particularly in light of the book’s first section. The double-entendres in “Two Nursery Rhymes: Lullaby and Rebuttal” are amusing and incisive. I love the way a figure of expression (two figures, actually) take on practical significance in the first lines: “For crying out loud, / It’s only spilt milk.” Same thing for the second stanza, told from the baby’s perspective, which begins, “I have drunk all I can of you” (and I hear an echo of “Drink to me only with thine eyes” in that line). A few lines later, it’s “the sorrow you call teeth / That gnaws at me.” Again, fabulous turns of phrase and double meanings.

I am particularly interested in poetry that does things that prose simply cannot do. Partly that’s why I am drawn to form. But I’m even more intrigued when the form itself tells a story. Such is that case with a particularly masterful poem from this section, “Alice in the Looking Glass.” Looking at the line endings, the form is not immediately apparent. They begin and end on the same word, “time.” But in between, the end words are not rhymes but opposites. So, “there” in the second line becomes “here” in the penultimate, “left” in the third line becomes “right” in the third from the bottom. In this way, the form is physically recreating the experience of gazing in a mirror. Even without the form, the poem is a poignant reflection of the speaker’s state of mind in thinking, presumably, about her deceased mother—an event that is perhaps occasioned by looking in the mirror and seeing the mother’s face in her own.

I read a review somewhere that chided Stallings for including the poem “The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons” in this collection because the reviewer felt it was in someway derivative of Sylvia Plath. I can’t imagine, though, Plath weaving in a reference to Aeolus and his bag of winds that famously send Odysseus back to his misery even in sight of his homeland (though I suppose she might begin a poem with “I hate you”). What’s more, I’d venture to guess that Stallings is not well versed in Plath, who holds very little allure for formalist poets of a certain age (a group in which I’d place myself). Indeed, a reviewer of my first book faulted it because it failed some strained comparison with Plath, whom I had not read since I was sixteen. So, let me just spell it out for all future reviewers: serious poets don’t read Plath. At least not past adolescence.

One final thing for which I must commend A. E. Stallings: her apparent disdain for book blurbs. Her second book had an “antiblurb” poem on the back, and this one also includes a poem on the back cover instead of the requisite treacle, which, ultimately, only goes to show how well connected you are, or what sort of clout your publisher has. I think it’s a good idea. Personally, I am not swayed by blurbs from poets that I admire, but I am definitely dissuaded from buying a book that carries blurbs from poets that I don’t like.

A Simple Vision

I’ve recently been immersing myself in the latest book by an old friend and mentor, Michael McFee. Even if you didn’t know he hails from North Carolina, there’s something in his poetry that tells you so right off the bat. True, many of the poems in this collection, That Was Oasis, specifically mention a boyhood in Asheville. But there’s something in the diction and tone and bespeaks an unmistakable Southern gentility. And I’d say that goes for all his books, not just this latest one. The voice is quiet and reserved, the language plain and straightforward, deliberative and decorous. And yet, altogether engaging. McFee revels in language as much as any poet writing today, maybe more so. He excels at teasing out the subtle and forgotten meanings of commonplace words, and clearly appreciates the physical sensation of mouthing select syllables. One poem in the collection, “Bunk,” is in fact set in motion by a fascination with varying ways of calling out a lie. Similarly, in the poem “Tipsy,” the poet is intrigued by the appropriateness of the word to describe a certain condition of inebriation; the language remains surefooted yet fluid, perpetually catching itself from an imminent fall. The final couplet, which describes a “tilted story / with a beginning, a muddle, and no end,” paints as clear a picture as any of the poem’s protagonist.

The poem “Tipsy” is a bit unusual for one subtle reason: the title is not a noun (though one might argue that the title focuses on a word as a thing-in-itself, and thus a noun in its own right). McFee maintains a remarkable focus on the things of this world—and more specifically, those things that are so common as to be overlooked and unnoticed. In this way, he shares a connection with another NC native, Robert Morgan, who has composed a vast array of “thing poems.” But where Morgan looks with an eye that is suffused with loss and regret, McFee’s view is still buoyed by a an innocence and wonder (and in that way, perhaps he’s a bit closer to Ted Kooser). Closure is not the point—rather, it’s the act of capturing an aspect of the world, like an ancient fly caught in amber. The collection opens with a meditation on the letter “Q” and continues with paeons on or inspired by common items such as salt, saltine crackers, pork rinds, keys, a bald spot, mistletoe. Even the colon flashing on a digital clock—”this heartbeat punctuation between hour and minute”—is worthy, in McFee’s eyes, of being immortalized in verse.

That colon, of course, brings to mind NC’s most famous poet, A.R. Ammons, who used it more liberally than Dickinson used dashes. One would be hard-pressed to show how Ammons may have influenced McFee stylistically, but there is certainly a connection. Indeed, McFee pay tribute to Ammons alongside Thelonius Monk in the poem “Thelonius and Archie.” It seems like an incongruous pairing, but turns out to be rather astute. But McFee is often at his best when he is discovering and revealing unseen or forgotten connections among the disparate components of life. McFee adopts the long lines of Ammons’ later work for this poem, which is something of a departure for him.

The book is roughly divided up into sections clustered around a theme. My favorite section is perhaps the third, which looks back on the first stirrings of teenage desire. McFee manages to capture the sensations without lapsing into sentimentality or the sort of editorializing the might seem natural decades after the fact. In “Study Hall,” for example, a group of young boys gazes longingly at a girl’s “never-ending legs / measuring out the shortest hour, / the quietest period in the history of that school, / as she slowly uncrossed them…” And already, they have learned (or are simply programmed) to overlook her imperfections, to turn her into an object of fantasy. And in “Holding Hands,” the fall from innocence is presaged in the language used to describe the innocent gesture:

the two of us had begun
becoming one clasped flesh,
now we were happily coupled
from the supple wrists down,
we were carrying the pet
with two backs between us…

The same poems ends, achingly, with the (postcoital?) concern that “somebody passing by / mistook for love our resigned / inability to quite let go.”

The sixth and final section is an extended meditation ostensibly centered on a baseball field in Asheville, McCormick field. But it’s not about baseball, it’s about his boyhood memories of his father, who is glimpsed both in his prime and in decline, just like the stadium itself. There is a sadness and resignation in this long poem, as the poet seeks to relive the past, confirm its existence, and accept its disappearance. And that is, after all, one of the primal tropes of all great poetry.

I first met McFee back in the late ’80s. I was an undergrad at Cornell, and he was a visiting professor. (I always made a point of taking classes with visiting professors because they tended to give better grades.) That class turned out to be among the most memorable of my time in Ithaca. The interest that he showed in my work, the insight that he shared, the challenges he posed, the encouragement that he gave me was unlike anything I have ever encountered since. In fact, if I have any confidence at all in creative writing programs, it is largely because of him.

Tunnel Vision

A friend recently handed me a copy of Bridge and Tunnel by John Hennessy, whom he knew growing up in Rahway, NJ. A wonderful collection—though I’m sure that part of my enjoyment and appreciation came from revisiting some of the sites and sounds (and smells) of my boyhood home. The Merck factory, of course, the trains and neon, the rivers and gutters blooming trash (the ubiquity of iniquity?), the juxtaposition of cattails and oil slicks, the state pen (where I worked one summer)–they’re all here. The language, rhythm, and imagery, often jarring and disjointed, are intense and palpable, and Hennessy is clearly present in the moment when he reaches back into his formative past.

The book title is of course appropriate and evocative. The Rahway area is not far from New York, accessible from New Jersey only by bridge and tunnel. And even if NYC is not often mentioned directly, its specter haunts every poem, representing, as it does, the gateway to something bigger and better, beginnings and limitless vistas (at least from the perspective of a boy in urban/suburban New Jersey). But if New York is the promised land, the otherworld, a state of grace, the bridge and tunnel represent two ways of getting there, two world views and life circumstances. The bridge rises over and above, removed from the grit and desolation below. The tunnel requires a literal and metaphorical descent into the underworld, the base and worm-ridden bowels of the human psyche. The bridge and tunnel suggest an achievable heaven and hell—but while the bridge is always an option, most characters in this book choose the tunnel.

Both structures link two separate but nonexclusive places or states—and here again, the symbolism runs deep. Hennessy apparently grew up in the Irish catholic tradition, and the attendant symbols and references are plentiful. But this tradition (at least in my experience) focuses less on the desire to achieve a state of grace than on the need to repress basic human desires and emotions. Hennessy pairs that upbringing with the classical tradition, the Greek and Roman myths—though not surprisingly, he tends to focus on the myths that deal in some way with the underworld, a gestalt that admixes original sin and the baser elements of our nature. Persephone, the Minotaur, Orpheus, Polyphemus, and even Pan rub shoulders with Satan himself.

Hennessy’s Rahway is not just a figurative place, but a physical space with real inhabitants. Many of these are Hennessy’s boyhood cronies, but some are the neighborhood denizens, invariably damaged and cast off in some way. Of these, the most haunting is a character known as Dog-Star Freddy, an apparent sex offender or pedophile. He appears directly in at least four poems, emerging from his basement (underworld) only long enough to torment birds and lure away delinquent youths. Which brings up another salient feature of this book: it’s not just a collection, its a cohesive whole, and owes a debt to Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Many of the characters glimpsed in early poems return in later poems, often gaining depth and complexity in the interim. So the altarboy of one poem, Paul (whom I knew personally—the brother of the friend who handed me the book) is also seen delivering newspapers and ultimately retreating to a Buddhist monastery in South Korea. When the love/sex interest of an early poem (named Ball—and if that’s her real name, what a wonderful coincidence) returns in the final poem, we learn that his affections for her were much deeper and more complicated than the earlier poem would suggest. Taken collectively, then, the poems suggest a mind that is obsessed and fixated with the past as object, a puzzle that must be solved or a trauma that must be confronted before the poet can move on.

If I have any gripe about the book, it’s that it seems to be written for a small circle of friends, or readers with insider knowledge. But then again, I have to include myself in that group. Hennessy and I had friends in common, and I’d guess he remembers as well as I do the smell of burnt coffee in a certain house on Seminary Ave. I’ve lately been parsing through my memories, wondering whether we had met years ago. A moot point, I suppose: after reading Bridge and Tunnel, I get a sense that I know him.

Descent into the underworld

Abbiamo il papa! Or the closest thing we have in the American poetry scene. Natasha Trethewey has been named Poet Laureate of the United States (can I coin a new acronym? PLOTUS!)

All kidding aside, I applaud the selection. Despite her tender years (I say that because she’s a year older than I am), Trethewey is a formidable talent, a poet of uncommon wisdom, understanding, and insight. Her Native Guard, justly honored with the Pulitzer Prize, surprised me with its formal range and intensity of experience. In numerous recent interviews, Trethewey has cast herself as a poet of collective history, and the titular sequence of Native Guard certainly fits that bill; but I was far more taken with the poems of personal history—and more specifically, personal loss. The poems that examine the absence left by her mother’s untimely death are, to me at least, the defining poems of the book. These often exemplify her gift for presenting the most telling detail or selecting the word that will resonate on the most possible levels in a given context.

In “What is Evidence,” for example, I love the image of the mother “leaning / into a pot of bones on the stove.” At once, it portrays her as a sort of ogre or witch, Medea stirring the broth of her own dismembered sons. And in the same moment, it suggests a real physical and psychological poverty, a person fallen on lean times (as the mind seeks to reuse the “lean” sound of the previous line ending). But when the poem then moves to a description of

Only the landscape of her body—splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal—her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.

suddenly, it become the mother’s own bones in the pot, which puts the poet in the place of the cook—the ogre ready to consume the body, or the witch stirring up the bones of the past.

Similarly, in the next poem, “Letter,” the images, the metaphors, are perfect and precise (and I love how the word “settled” in the second line ties this poem with “What is Evidence” before it. In “Letter,” a simple slip of the pen (and where writers are concerned, is any typo anything less than a Freudian slip?) changes the word “errand” to “errant.” Trethewey then riffs on the image of the “t” as:

…a mark that crosses
like the flat line of your death, the symbol 

over the church house door, the ashes on your forehead

I love the way death and religion are commingled. The ramifications are intriguing—the cross as the symbol of resurrection, for example. But then the speaker tries to “cross the word out,” only to find that a word crossed out only draws attention to itself. She is no doubt “cross” about the whole thing. But taken overall, the poem is a wonderful demonstration of how grief, held in check, can suddenly overwhelm our defenses, incited by the most innocuous of circumstances.

I’ll wrap up with my two favorite poems in the volume, “Myth” and “Monument.” The first poem is among the most intriguing recastings of the Orpheus story I’ve ever encountered. That’s perhaps because the synthesis of the speaker as Trethewey and the speaker as Orpheus is so complete. Trethewey’s failure to rescue and revitalize her mother is superimposed on Orpheus’s failure to bring back Eurydice from Hades (or perhaps it’s the other way around?). It’s interesting that the speaker does not use the familiar name “Hades” to refer to the underworld, but the less common “Erebus.” The latter name is associated with a host of personifications of light and darkness, day and night, so “Erebus” might have additional connotations for Trethewey as a person of mixed racial heritage. But much though I love the Greek myths, what truly astonished me about this poem is the formal structure. I love poems that do things that simply can’t be done in any other medium, and this poem does exactly that. It consists of two sections of nine lines each arranged in terza rima stanzas (aba aba aba). The second half rewrites the first half—in reverse! The effect is to convey the experience of traveling down in the darkness of the underworld and then to return (empty handed) along the same path. I’ve seen similar formal tricks—Larkin, for example, mirrors the end words in his two-stanza poem “Wires”—but here, it’s more than just a play of formal acumen, it extends the central trope in a visceral manner. Truly remarkable.

“Monument” can be viewed as a companion piece in that it also delves into the underworld. In this case, it’s a colony of ants that are doing the digging, the excavating. I just love the description of how the ants

like everything I’ve forgotten—disappear
into the subterranean—a world
made by displacement.

And in the next line, “In the cemetery / last June, I circled, lost—” the power of the line break is formidable, forcing the word “lost” into double duty. On the literal level, the speaker is physically lost (in the adjectival sense); but because the word follows immediately upon the previous verb “circled,” it wants to be read as a verb, too, as in, the speaker has lost something. The image then focuses on the ants that are building a hill on top of the mother’s grave. In a sense, this is also an Orpheus poem, the speaker descending in the guise of the ants to reclaim the lost love, but ultimately unable to do so. But there’s also a whiff of Hamlet, as the speaker chides herself for not trying harder to avenge or bring peace to the lost parent. And of course, in the image of the ants piling the dirt before her, like vassals offering tribute to the pharaoh, is gripping. Indeed, one can even detect a bit of the Osiris story, with the attempt to piece the lost lover back together again.

I must confess that even before I started reading Native Guard I was inclined to like it. Trethewey was the one who selected my second book for publication, so she’ll always have a place in my heart. But even aside from that, I do believe her poetry warrants the attention and accolades that have been lavished upon it.