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.