Dianne Borsenik Age of Aquarius: Collected Poems 1991-2016 Crisis Chronicles Press 978-1-940996-34-9 http://ccpress.blogspot.com/2016/03/083Borsenik.html
Dianne Borsenik is a kind of Cleveland Poetry legend. She attends everyone’s readings, travels with her buddy John Burroughs to read at Cafes and Coffeehouses all over the Midwest, runs a small press herself, and performs with a rare kind of energy that echoes so many forms of populism. Often funny, her poems are a kind off mix of heartbreak and comedy. She uses language that is clear, accessible and often uses rhetorical shifts. She can be bluesy, she can tell stories, she can write small imagistic poems, and she can make you laugh out loud, something rare in a poet. She isn’t scared of risking sentimentality and she can be directly political at times. She is musical. She can be unapologetically Reto-Beat. And she is…. Well, she is a fun poet. In the best manner a poet can be. She is the kind of poet you could take your friend who had never been to a poetry reading, and they would have a blast hearing her perform. Perhaps she is who Lucille Ball would have been if Lucille Ball had been a poet and not a comedian.
In this book, put out by Burroughs fine small Cleveland press Crisis Chronicles, Borsenik collects her “Greatest hits” as she says. The author of numerous chapbooks, this is her first big book and it is a good one. Buy this and take these poems and read them on street corners, share these poems at work, at the hospital, at the bus stop. Here is a small lyrically prose poem, as much about sound and wit as anything:
Everybody Must Get Stoned
—Bob Dylan “Rainy Day Women”#12 & 35
It’s time to turn it on time to rock hard rock solid rock steady rock-a-bye baby time to rock out with your cock out rock and roll rock around the clock throw away the rocking chair and move it like you mean it time to rocket to the moon to mars to a comet to an asteroid they’re just bigger rocks anyway don’t take this time for granite
Christopher Bakken Eternity & Oranges University of Pittsburgh Press ISBN-13: 978-0822964049 https://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36608
Christopher Bakken has been writing a spare eloquent formalist poem for decades. His formalism presents a deft combination of image and rhetoric with precise metrical maneuvers. He has one of the quietest and most precise ears in American poetry. His poems often occur in rooms and the small intimate venues where people laugh, drink, love, and grieve. One of the interesting things about Bakken’s subject matter and landscape is his ongoing love affair with Greece, particularly with his half adopted home of Thessaloniki where he spends his summers. Like Gilbert, there is a sense off the expatriate in Bakken, as his heart even when home is over there, on a cobblestoned street, or walking with the goat herders on a Greek Isle. And because of this, to speak of Bakken’s work I often want to evoke Greek poets rather than American poets—particularly C.P Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos: Cavafy for his exploration and detail and use of the miasmic and labyrinthine Alexandrian streets he lived in; Ritsos for the politics and sense of time that informed his work. Bakken’s work arguably draws both from these two grand Greek rivers, and yet calligraphies an alphabet all his own, one that is both mythic and intimate in the same breath. Here he is at his best in the poem that draws the book’s title:
Night came to hurt us from across the island,
resurrecting crickets in the old well.
You’d removed both of your arms and your hair
had turned to ash by the time I touched it.
If you go, I asked, how will we speak to those dead?
I said this knowing we couldn’t ever.
Yet monks had put out a wooden table
and were waiting for the blood and bread.
All day, the mountain. Talking and falling apart.
I had to carry you most of the way.
All day: eternity and oranges,
stones and some fear I could and couldn’t see.
Now, a half moon and the stars were roaring.
The orchard behind us was roaring too.
I couldn’t bear their chanting anymore
and urged myself to disappear, like you.
Karen Craigo No More Milk Sundress Publications ISBN 978-1-939675-39-2 https://squareup.com/market/sundress-publications
I have known Karen Craigo for nearly 20 years now. She’s been slugging it out in the trenches of poetry for decades as an editor, an organizer, an English lecturer, a comrade. The author of two fine chapbooks this is her first full length collection. What is impressive about this book is it does not feel like a first collection, but like a third or fourth collection. There is a sure maturity to these poems. This book has received a number of positive reviews. In Cleaver magazine Shaun Turner wrote . “Craigo’s poems are not barriers, but rather structures from which she explores the female body in relation to itself and to other bodies, and to our collective body as a people.” Turner is dead on here in identifying Craigo’s poetic exploration as grounded in the body “I love how it sits roundly,/ a warm stone, when it is calm/ its waters stilled, (What I Love About My Body); or in unflinching motherhood, “My son wakes to tell me/ I terrify” (Hours After Anger, He Wakes Me). In her powerful death sequence, Craigo shows such a deep and varied approach to the poem and its capacity for real, true emotional range and complexity. In addition, there is—dare I say for use of a better word—a holiness to these poems that rises from the body into a kind of light:
Last night, a baby cried
outside my window and I knew
I should be holding it.
I was pretty sure
she was talking to me, my own baby
a thousand miles away,
grown hazy, not as clear
as the music from the courtyard.
I brought the hand pump
in my backpack and it took all day
to draw an ounce.
My baby and I are near the end.
It’s no one’s fault—each day
I have less to give,
less milk, I mean.
There’s a magnet in me—
it’s just a metaphor, so it’s OK
that the pull is stronger
over distance. Let me return
to that baby in the courtyard,
to its terrible music
and how I wanted to go
to her, give to her.
And I cried a little, the way
mothers cry, and catch it,
and place it in smallest mouths,
so this morning there was a glass of it,
of milk—what the body repels
as it pulls the other to us.
The world is dense with hunger.
Sometimes I have to pull his fist
from my baby’s mouth
just to feed him,
and I am mindful that hunger for some
is a fist that never stops
being a fist. What I’m trying to say
is I couldn’t dump that milk.
For the baby in the courtyard,
for my baby, for all
the babies, I drank it down.
Cheryl Dumesnil Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes University of Pittsburgh PressISBN-13: 978-0822964315 https://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36669
Cheryl Dumesnil is one of those writers who writes slowly, chiseling out a small body of exquisite poems over the decades. I went to graduate school at Syracuse University with her many years ago. She was a year ahead of me and she was by far the best writer in our program. This is Dumesnil’s second fine collection from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her first book received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. This is one of the books I blurbed and highly recommend:
“Dumesnil navigates the hallways of illness and childbirth with grit and grace. She offers us soaring birds, revolutions and plums. Odes to October, memoirs to tampons, sea snails and Tsunamis, air guitar with Eddie Van Halen, Ritalin and Pink Floyd and Facebook, a book hinged at the end of the last century and the beginning of this new bloody one. This is a book full of the love of women and sons, drag queens and last calls, and always the gospel of the body, and its constant prayer of falling. A kind of faith in falling, a performance against failure as a way to get us somewhere else, through words, or as Dumesnil urges us, ‘Say it again, say it again, as if your voice could rewrite the code.’”
You arrive at the lake, expecting
to meet grief on the trail.
Instead: a fleet of white pelicans
patrolling the shallows, steam
rising off the water glow.
Cormorants on the watchtower
moan and tick, indifferent
wings shrugged toward the sun.
Not even the day moon, having
dusted off last week’s rusty eclipse,
cares to hear your story
of a marriage slowly crumbling,
a young friend lost to cancer.
Then another. And another.
This whole forest depends
on that felled tree rotting into
home for salamander eggs,
centipedes, six varieties of moss.
Black phoebes rattle winter
thistles, swollen throats percussing:
this is, this is, this is . . .
Martin Espada Vivas to Those Who Failed W. W Norton & Company ISBN-13: 978-0393249033 http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Vivas-to-Those-Who-Have-Failed/
I love to read the work of an older poet at the height of his powers. Martin Espada reminds me of other great political poets such as Joy Harjo, Naomi Shahib Nye, Adrienne Rich and Philip Levine in that all were writing or wrote their best poems well after the age of 50. Espada’s powerful tomes have always directly engaged the social realities and interactions of the world. He is truly our North American Neruda. And like Neruda he shows a formal and investigative range that is unmatched. But in Vivas to Those Who Failed he has surpassed himself. The title comes from Walt Whitman and is the title for a cycle of sonnets on the Paterson Silk strike of 1913. Like Shahib Nye, who wrote some of her greatest poems about the death and life of her father, Espada offers some of his most moving poems in the ten poems on the death of his father Frank, who was a community organizer and a wonderful photographer. The book also includes some off Espada’s best poems about baseball and brotherhood. The micro detail and use of poetic image in this book is deft. In a 2016 review in the Progressive, Jeremy Shaffenberger wrote, “Hands have always been resonant poetic images for Espada, not least because they’re able to carry the weight of so much symbolic, metaphorical, and metonymic significance. In a 2010 interview, he said that in such working environments “you’re only seen for what your hands can do. The rest of you is rendered invisible.” Espada’s poetics involves advocating for these invisible people, bringing “the rest” of them out of the darkness.”
And I concur these are poems that reach a hand of verbs to lead us his readers and fellow citizens out of darkness and despair. Espada is one of our best storyteller poets and these book is full of powerful narratives, that when collaged side by side, offer us a quilt of grief and gunpowder, a tapestry of resistance to study and learn from, to teach us how to survive and fight, like all those who failed before us, whose legacy will lead us to victory, during these oppressive times.
The title poem of the collection can be found here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58738
Yao Glover Inheritance Aquarius Books , Detroit
Conversational and musical in the same breath, Yao Glover writes poems that engage the political and social realities of this nation, of his family, and his Inheritance and what that means in all the personal and cultural significance of the term. Mixing poems both lyrical and rhetorical he explores the intimate landscapes of who makes us who we are. In the poem “Buttoning my Shirt,” Yao remembers his father getting for work in the morning and then realizes/ “i’m staring /you in the eyes/ daddy, i got your back/ and your face/ in the mirror. /it’s morning/ i’m buttoning my shirt.” That moment when the grown son’s face becomes the father’s”. In the terrifically titled,” the art of war as fried fish in the house of my mother” Glover intones, “when the belly gets coated/ with the blues, feed on this.” Glover’s range blows from blues to small cantatas. He is a mix of many registers, with the politics say of a Baraka but even with the small strange surrealism say of someone like Serbian Vasko Popa who he reminds me of with his disjunctive repetition and cadence as in these syncopated lines from “Guitar”:
a box of strings
a wooden box
a box made of wood
with strings a
a walk with strings
walk these strings
walk with me talk
with these strings
A longtime book proprietor and former founder and owner of Karibu Books in DC, Yao is one of those cultural workers who has worked for decades too promoting others through his book space and online with his Afrocentric cultural blog Free Black Space. But more than anything Yao is a poet, giving us a kind of radical spiritualism, so necessary for these oppressive times:
i have tried
to be beautiful
i have sung
was brother to pain
i have run
with my arms stretched out
and it slowed me down
i have called you
ever and lasting
and done and begin
i have held you
in a lullaby
when there was no sunrise
when my beliefs became
dry and brittle like bread
in the sun
i have shed many songs
that the birds came and ate
is the only one
Les Kay At Whatever Front Sundress Publications ISBN-13: 978-1939675439 https://squareup.com/market/sundress-publications
Les Kay is another one who has been slugging it out in the trenches of poetry for decades. I met him first briefly when he was an undergraduate in Jim Daniel’s class when I was a visiting reader in the mid 1990s. Since then he has gone on to graduate degrees and years living a precarious economic existence as an underpaid cultural worker in the academy and as a freelance writer. He is the author of two excellent chapbooks, one I blurbed is a long narrative poem titled Bad Ass. At Whatever Front is his very first full length collection and one worthy of much notice. In many ways this a book about working class men, and an investigation into constructions of masculinity. Like the best poems of social engagement, Kay brings us into the lives we don’t read about in the news. This book is full of “war stories,” both literal and metaphorical, but where Kay impresses me most in some of the surest and most memorable lyric poems I have read in some time that are scattered throughout the collection like small measures of metaphysical pause. Perhaps to remind us as he says in his very 21st century poem “Google as Mememto Mori”: “I know this, at least:/our lives are beautiful/in their loss and/this is beauty.” But what Kay shares with so many writers on this list is that beauty is not enough. There is real engagement with the social and political realities of the world in this collection. One of my favorites is this powerful portrait that opens the book:
The warehouse heat seeped
through his shirt, pushed temperature
up like typhoid; pneumatics whirled
and presses clanked steel and wood
with enough force to slam razored
dies into cardboard or an errant hand.
On busy days, his ears hummed
like alarm clocks, his blue uniform
darkened with sweat, fresh paper cuts
remapped the calluses of forty years
with tributaries of blood, and his eyes
blurred with the repetition of movement,
but after each twelve-hour shift, my father
gathered the mistakes which were a fraction
of an inch off and folded the boxes himself,
so that he might have a memento of each
account to display along the shelves
of his trailer, so that he might cradle
baseball card boxes, glazed like enamel,
and hold them out to me saying:
Look, Son, look.
Jennifer Militello A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments Tupelo Press ISBN-13: 978-1936797752 https://www.tupelopress.org/product/camouflage-specimens-garments/
Jennifer Militello’s third book takes her lyric exploration to the next level, using a varied structure of epistolary poems and prose poems as well as anaphoric structures. But here she goes to places in tone and depth of emotional range that I rarely see in the prose poem, as if she turns the sentences inside out to become lyric. Her series of “Dictionary entries” shows her imaginative and exploratory range. This is very much a poet’s book, as Militello is a poet’s poet in the best sense of the word. With her surrealist leaps and bitterly ironic drenched lines, she seems more Eastern European than American. As I’ve written in a longer review elsewhere “This is a book of ecstatic revelations, griefs and betrayals. Relationships and narratives are implied within a lyric framework. It has been a long time since I read a book of poems that seems less about meaning and more about sound.” And yet that sound drives us towards elusive revelations and meanings, or perhaps more precise is to say pieces of meanings, which we fill in with our own lives, or the tatters of them.
A Dictionary at the Periphery
On the day I was born, the moon’s phase
was waning crescent. No death
to sweeten like a side dish. No infant
to ease from its roughhewn crib and lay
among the savage rushes. No soft words. No
mouth to feed. No rope to hang from. No barn
to raze. The shock of me was an utter root,
cruel in parts. Gone as a body, vacuous and
black. Left bankrupt by the witnessing
I’d done, I made a fist and shook it
toward the world. Often blighted. Often
cold. Jagged, late, matted with moons,
aping a gray aroma of flesh, eyeteeth
of a she-wolf, urn of human ash.
A torn god, sad as seasons. Burnt offerings,
poured libations: the remedies I invented
were scented with abyss. Tongues to mourn
wonder with. A flex like heaven’s wings
to lash me to the mast, unmask me,
cradle me to sleep. The day I was made,
I was made veiled. Knee-deep in eucalyptus.
I was made scarved. To understand my wax
and wane, the hint of a sword mood stitching
in my breath, give me a heart of wastelands
or dirt. Eyes mutiny, bland mysteries
of anisette, hunting the char lodged within me.
Things drop stinking into beasts.
One cannot wilt. One shall not want.
I was the last animal at the lamp the night
man was born. Record me in the morgue’s lost books.
Sean Singer Honey & Smoke Eyewear Publications ISBN-13: 978-1908998439 https://store.eyewearpublishing.com/products/honey-and-smoke
Nearly 20 years ago Sean Singer seemed destined to begin a vibrant and profitable literary career. He was publishing his miraculous and investigative poems in some of our finest journals. His poems, though they exhibited many of the so called elliptical facets of the time, and the exploratory moves, also showed a kind of street wise social awareness. His book Discography gathered together his first poems of music, jazz, and showed the promise of his deft ear. This book was awarded the 2001 Yale Younger Poet’s Prize and was widely reviewed. But Singer is a singular poet and somehow the tone of where he was going didn’t catch. It was like trying to explain later Coltrane to someone who only loved Kind of Blue. Singer’s poems are ambitious, and cut across aesthetic lines. There is something both archaic and futuristic in his poems at the same time. So his second collection, despite such an auspicious literary debut, proved difficult to place. When I first came upon his poems I felt a kinship immediately with this young gun. He seemed to fulfill perhaps the more exploratory notions in the long lined worked of later Lynda Hull. Perhaps Singer was writing the poems Hull might have written if she had lived, with her shared love of Jazz and urban landscape. And like an avant-garde Jazz musician, Singer often shows the seams of the making of the poem as a made-thing unfolding in real time. This is a part of Singer’s song, part of his making while unmaking a made-thing to show the seams. Singer is the anti-magician, giving us The Reveal in the act of pulling back the poem’s curtain. In an interview in the journal Memorius, Singer said of his process, “My subject is often the meaning of creativity, or the process of making a piece of writing, or a piece of art. The figures you mention are sometimes characters through whom I can talk about the project of writing, the project of making poems, and the questions of being a writer or an artist. I resist the first person singular and would like to make a poem where there almost is no speaker at all, or a minimal one. Perhaps these figures are masks or voices through which I can let the speaker come through.”
Living On Nothing But Honey And Smoke
for Albert Ayler (1936-70) & Cleveland
Evergreen leather winterwear and a honky-tonk, but salty glissando,
a man revealing his baby-life in the dark, when the dark was a scattered ambrosia,
but opening plaints with dynamite, and a grill and a tremolo and hard plastic reed.
What is self-evident, he said, was a colored disk, a sword, the cup of indignation.
I have seen the bright wall of the universe, magnified ten times, and eat only green
things. But when President Johnson was a spooky longhorn, the Pope got the message,
a clicking sound with his tongue, the spirit’s balafon hymnic, the freak bearing.
As the saxophone wends and balloons, so the vision. It wasn’t funny anymore.
Flowering in the very field, his legit sneers, he has sucked the air out of the room,
mesmerized hyena, and brought us back on a kind of ship, afloat & afflatus driftwood…
and the East River took us to the foot of Congress Street Pier where our lungs had dried.
Become Ashtabula, taxonomic, a burned running, a fur peeling, a pure feeling, an orange.
Become an admirer.
Become Olmstead, Parma, and Ashtabula, where translucent quays burn with fox-oil,
overweight drivers, gray mosquitoes, a wood flushed with the lashing waves of pine.
Her brunette radar zoned me, gathering buckeye, rucksack, and eyeglass cloth
we became river: Ashtabula was the orange wreck of bricks, boards, a nurse.
The mud slung me, part of the forest, to a new river. This isn’t tenderness, you know:—
it’s worn. The river, Little Cricket Neck, was burning mineral, iron filing, flies, and tires.
A marvel how rectangular fires make unearned past efforts, so we blazed, filthy nuggets,
to the utter gully, wherewith sky like Gethsemane, we sneaked into the guestroom, all cushiony.
At any rate, we were pierced. The clumps of soot hit the windows, all black now, & I exhaled.
Become a wizard, a ghost, a spirit, a saint, a bell, a Cleveland, the final cadence, two octaves up.
Become an admirer.
Become Ashtabula or become assiento, the darkness of river, aspergillic breaking into ashunch.
Become, yes, admirer.
Francine Witte Not All Fires Burn the Same. Slipstream Press Chapbook Winner http://www.slipstreampress.org/not_all_fires.html
Francine Witte is a long time school teacher who has been writing really engaged poems for decades so I was happy to hear when she won the Slipstream chapbook contest. Witte is deceptive. A poet who is domestic, but also very streetwise. Quiet and yet unflinching. This is the second of the books I blurbed: “Francine Witte narrates the lives of men and women searching through the losses, leaning towards one another through the flames. Brazen and beautiful, gritty and full of smart shifts, uppercuts and angles, or do I mean “angels flying south for the winter.” Or when, “A piece of the sky breaks off/ and falls into your coffee cup.” Lost girls, tired working class wives, wolfs and weather, divorces on mars, instructions on what to do when facing a bear, or unflinching remembrances of rapes rendered and not withheld, Witte’s range is imaginative or real when needed, precisely piercing, full of metaphorical moves and narrative epiphanies. This small book has enough punch to break the heart’s teeth, driving us down streets “woven with bones and ash and anything else leftover when a dream dies.” And yet what is left, after the dream is dead is perhaps these poems: with their deft directions for survival.”
Not All Fires Burn the Same
Take the ones on the evening news,
forest scorch, flames like wolf tongues.
You are watching, safe behind your TV tray,
feeling smug and oh so cool. Not at all
like those fires you started as a kid, stolen
matches, newspaper in the sink. Sparks
flying under the cabinets and you could have
burned the kitchen down. But that
was nothing like the fire of your husband
and his other woman, how you thought
he should be strong enough to reason
her away. You didn’t see his fingers
and how burnt they already were. Dark
and scarred as that TV forest you thought
was so far off, where the fire had to eat
its fill before it could go home. And when
your husband finally limped back to you,
hands full of dead smoke and regret,
you let him into your lukewarm
bed, and when he kissed you, you
could taste the ashes still in his mouth.
Patrick Rosal Brooklyn Antediluvian ISBN-13: 978-0892554744 http://www.perseabooks.com/detail.php?bookID=127
I first met Patrick Rosal exactly twenty years ago when he was a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College. I was invited to read at a small festival at Bloomfield College with Patricia Smith, Joe Weil, and someone I didn’t know that turned out to be Patrick. Even then, at such a young age, I knew Rosal was something special. The way he walked to the mic, the way he mixed languages and moved effortlessly from the chiseled and exquisitely formal to the colloquial. As someone who grew up in the very first wave of hip hop in the late 70s and early 80s, I was so amazed to hear finally a second generation poet who fully embraced hip hop too. You have to remember how rare it was to hear this 20 years ago. His ear was finely turned for the subtleties of syntax and his heart spun like two complementary turn-tables. Rosal was writing even then poems that unapologetically were exploring not just who he was, but were saving the lives of friends and family he had lost along the way, poems that sang both his native town of Edison, NJ and his Filipino heritege. He was really beginning to ask questions and become deeply exploratory about his Filipino heritage in a way that saw the links to broader colonial and indigenous struggles. In the books he wrote to follow, these threads were expanded and deepened with ever increasing complexity as he grew not only as an artist, but as a man, and a human being who asked questions of what that means. His line lengthened to a Whitmanesque-like line at times. A kind of mix of Larry Levis, Amira Baraka and Jessica Hagedorn. He blew longer, stronger, better.
In this, his fourth book Brooklyn Antediluvian, Rosal deepens and adds complexity to his themes of urban, ethnic, and ontological exploration. He uses a managed and meticulous attention to syntax and sound to create his odes, elegies and antiphonal progressions through various dictions and discourses. All told with a situated class awareness. Rather than individual lyrics, these are a kind of collective psalm. He gathers the raiment of his childhood and neighborhood and mixes them with influences from the world. There are echoes of Neruda in his odes such as the marvelously titled, “A Scavenger’s Ode to the Turntable (Or a Note to Thomas Alva Edison):
… Me and my boys—sons of cops, bookkeepers
and ex-priests—picked up gear other DJs didn’t want
no more. One prep-school kid, who just bought
a shiny new mixer, tossed out his two-month-old
Numark which we picked from the garbage and
Hoisted home. We harvested the slider from the rich
kid’s rig. I stripped the wires’ tips and soldered them
to pitch contacts. In a basement of a maple split
in Edison, NJ, we were learning to turn anything
into anything else, while our mothers played
mah jong in the sala, and our fathers bet
slow horses and the government bombed Iraqu.
The lines are revealing for so much. The re-appropriation of discarded gear is almost an Ars Poetica for Rosal’s poems themselves— able to rework any territory—that which another poet might discard— to make something beautiful and important. These lines show the class and cultural perspective of Rosal’s poems. People have jobs in his poems, live in specific places in his poems and are aware, even if obliquely of the larger politics of the world around them. In this poem we move deftly from boys rebuilding the detritus of turn tables, to mothers playing mah jobs to father’s betting on horses, and then the big move to the Iraq war.
The sixteen page phenomenal title poem can he found here. http://atlengthmag.com/poetry/brooklyn-antediluvian/