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In Christopher Morgan’s Fables with Fangs, (Ghost City Press, 2016) a micro chap of eight poems delivers us into the inner workings of the home, the symbolic place of safety, but there are no picket fences here. Morgan’s poems weave surrealism, fear, and humor into a classic tapestry that reveals how  unsafe we all really are. The definition of a fable is a concise tale that intends to reveal a moral lesson by the end. Morgan tips his hat, signs off a good luck in those dark woods, friend, and leaves it at that. The lesson learned is watch out.

In the poem, “The Bear,” A bear literally walks through the hallways of a home, pauses outside a sister’s room, her door ajar.  Morgan writes:

 

“I’m opening my door just a crack.

I’m looking down the hall. My sister’s door is open.

And nothing else. Of course nothing else. Then

I stop. Something in the dark. Large. A couch,

slowly moving toward me. Two reflections.

Looking straight at me. Now I’m already inside

my sister’s room locking her door. But what can

locks do against a bear?”

 

Morgan notes the speaker says “Of course nothing else.” Just a door is open. When a danger is present all we want to do is seek out our loved ones and make sure they are safe. He does not see his sister, just a gateway to a violent attack. There is also a potent surreal element with the “two reflections.” Morgan sees himself and the bear looking back—he sees the bear in himself . The lumbering imposter in a childhood home, a seeker of  trouble and blood.

Morgan’s  poems get to the point quickly. Common visuals that exist in our every day, like a furnace or items that you wouldn’t give a second glance too, become threatening and terrible. When I mean common, I mean things you ignore because they are everywhere: walls.

In Morgan’s poem “The Wall,” a woman’s husband is eaten by the wall and it is gruesome. It is not cartoonish but breathing and horrific. Morgan builds tension slowly though. The house exhales smoke but there is no fire. There is no warning. It’s like the woman senses something is wrong and goes to look for her husband who is already being eaten by the wall.

 

“His body’s upright, immersed high.

Like the kitchen wall’s eating him. A leg dangles.

His warped lips stretch like taffy. Eyes puff, bubble…

She tries tugging his body back

from wherever it’s going—it tears.”

Like people who are taken from family members suddenly and without explanation, Morgan’s prose poem is a terse example of this helplessness. There is pure trepidation on the page and the husband does not even get the chance to say good bye or scream. When there is a scream, it comes from the wall: angry and bottomless.

If we are unnerved by adults getting eaten by walls, adults who have a remote sense of control and power in the world, even if this is a delusion, it is even more unsettling to read about the shadows who run amok at a children’s playground.

In “Under Control” It is Morgan’s speaker who claims “ I set my shadow loose on the playground again.” Not only is he the boogey man or pulling the strings of the darkness like a marionette, but this isn’t even the first time he’s done it. We get a sense of a dark habit-like game almost like portraying an addiction.

He makes this humorous excuse:  “ I’m sorry—never been a winner.”

It is when we are at our most vulnerable, our most lowdown that base human emotions rear their ugly heads: the ability to hurt, to lost empathy.  The mothers and fathers try to grab their children up before they are eaten, but it is a losing battle.  Morgan softens the blow with this:

 

“But the children thought the whole thing was a hoot.

Can’t blame them.

Little monsters.”

This poem is a monster playing with other “little monsters.” This  “scary” is more tongue in cheek but also like a warning.

The poem “Omen” feels more like a traditional fable with birds falling from the sky, deer “shrieking” and even a  cast of mob mentality filled “villagers,” who hammer off granite from a mountain and carry it back home in suitcases, literally attacking the earth.

I’m not going to give away what happens in this poem but just be warned “It was a bad night for sunsets—that night it almost didn’t happen.”  There is humor in these lines as well a perceived uneasiness.

The last poem of the collection, “Georgia” is very lyrical and different than the others. It is almost a place personified.  If Morgan states that we cannot feel safe in traditionally safe places (the home, the playground, etc) the solution is: internalize the place you want to be. Let the wholeness reside in you. Safety, after all, is a state of mind.

Here is an example of Georgia’s transient soul and personhood:

 

“Georgia dabs its neck and wrists with sweet tea cologne, then enters a bar to find a friend.”

 

“Georgia sits in a Denny’s at three in the morning, weighing out good and evil.”

 

“Georgia has a coral snake on one shoulder and a king snake on the other.”

No one is going to mess with Georgia— yet Georgia also seems alone, mingling with snakes and rats, the rare friend.  There is a warning at the end of Georgia, however, sort of proclaiming Georgia was hurt once and learned the hard way. Georgia, Morgan promises to readers, “will never be that fellow.” Georgia holds the snakes but knows how to avoid a bite. We should all be so lucky.

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author of two full length poetry collections (Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press.) Her chapbook “Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or The Wrong Items,” is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017 and “She Came Out From Under the Bed, (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro)” is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work is at Lime Hawk, concis, and Inter/rupture. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

Dappled Sunshine in the Forest

 

These days of summer fading into autumn mark the perfect moment for readers to enjoy Ariana D. Den Bleyker’s chapbook The Peace of Wild Things (Porkbelly Press, 2015). These, natural, purposive poems feel as if Den Bleyker has briefly emerged from years living in a forest, to whisper to us about the subtle violence of nature, crafting an ethereal environmental exchange between a woman and deer, swans—even the wind—that will make eager readers out of many.

 

In “The Future is an Animal,” Den Bleyker’s speaker dreams of transforming into a wolf. The resulting epiphany at the end of the poem that is most unsettling:

 

“My legs push, muscles scream against my own

shifting imprints, stirring layers of ankle, flank,

shoulder bones, knuckles, each organ a world-

without, hovering above obliteration. My lips draw

sustenance  from viscera, glean from the silence…

and suddenly, I’m willing to be eaten.”

 

Along with becoming a new animal form, the predator wolf also gives birth to “steam and maggots,” her body becoming a savage thing from storybooks. But the wolf also gives birth to butterflies: what is savage lives in balance with the delicate, is vulnerable in its willingness to be consumed. It is this struggle between savage and beauty that haunts the lines of all of these poems.

 

The touch of death—literally—is ever-present in this collection: dead deer in the forest, dark imagery surrounding a swan, and hunting wild boars. We can never touch these symbols of exquisite wildness while they are living; they are wily, and their survival depends on quick, evasive motion. We come across them quietly, by accident. Bodies in the woods give us pause and create awe.  In the poem “Something Breathed on a Dead Deer and the Hair Inside Its Ears Waved at Your,” Den Bleyker tries to get close, captures a feeling of longing in writing about the last moments of the deer, mapping its steps:

 

“                                               From

the simple order of the tracks you knew,

without looking, what place in the wild

night the animals came from the through

which of our windows they have gazed

into…”

 

We feed these creatures, place them near our homes, track them, touch them in our mind’s eye as they breathe their last breath. Like them, we humans have one foot in the grave and one poised to flee. Like the quickness of death, the animal faces change in just seconds from living to dead, reminding us of the fragility of life at any given second. This change is underscored by Den Bleyker asking us directly, “What do you recognize?” a question to which she offers a possible answer in “What We Learn From Skies,” stating:

 

“Sometimes we want birds to just be birds,

the sky to remain intact,

all the right places beautiful and untouched.”

 

And yet sometimes even the birds in this book represent dark, transformative forces; the crow itself is a shapeshifter that changes by the minute. Is it a body, or just a group of falling feathers? From the poem “Hard Winter:”

 

“The crow…

hovers as the deer lays down

her bones, soft bellied on the edge

of stone, hooves etched across

the moss, fetal…all limbs

drawn beneath her throat,

breath refusing to come back,

time locking her jaw…we dream

practice our own deaths, remind

ourselves all flesh is grass.”
The crow, the deer, the humans: we all return to the earth but we also return inward to reflect. We hide indoors and huddle against each other for warmth on short winter days, taking comfort in the “caves of our own bodies.” The peace of wild things, as Den Bleyker seems to suggest later in the book, may be death; yet these poems are respectful and curious, creating an awe in the reader as we witness these beasts passing away. Den Bleyker sees, and brings to the page, the quiet peace that we might all hope for someday for ourselves—for, after all, our own bodies, our own shells, also provide but temporary homes for our perhaps–wild spirits.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author two full length poetry collections (forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press.) Her chapbook “Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or The Wrong Items,” is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017 and “She Came Out From Under the Bed, (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro)” is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at Lime Hawk and Inter/rupture. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

James Galvin – Everything We Always Knew Was True
Copper Canyon 2016
Page Length: 75
Retail: $16

 

How is it possible for the work of James Galvin, the face of the most famous poetry program in the world, to be so wildly underappreciated? One could spend a lot of time trying to understand this: is it because of his association with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that critics have largely ignored his work, especially over the last twenty or so years? Or is it because his style walks so boldly in the footsteps of the many celebrated American poets who have taken as their central subject the natural world, and have done so with a language we can loosely call “plainspoken”?

A combination of these theories would view Galvin as the inheritor of a tradition of Iowa faculty poets (Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, not to mention recurring faculty members like Galway Kinnell and Robert Hass) who represent some “old guard” of American Poetry. But if this is Galvin’s inheritance, where are his deserved awards? Of the four just mentioned, three won the Pulitzer Prize, and between them all four have won many of the most distinguished awards in American letters. This is not to downplay his CV, which includes a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellowship, but Galvin is one of America’s most important living poets, and his oeuvre is as impressive as anyone in his generation, yet critics continue to leave him on the periphery as though he hasn’t published anything of note since 1997’s Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. He has.

In fact, Galvin’s work has since blossomed in a manner that none of the aforementioned poets’ has. But the evolution didn’t come without struggle. 2001’s X was a clear departure from Galvin’s previous work, retaining his singular mastery of the Western landscape, but filtering it through a decidedly broken subjectivity demonstrably ravaged by a crushing divorce. X is wildly uneven. It is the work of a poet struggling to find a new frequency. It includes some of Galvin’s greatest poems—“Fire Season,” “Promises Are for Liars,” “Heat Waves in Winter Distance,” “Depending on the Wind,” and the collection’s finale: a Dantesque sequence that culminates with a Paradiso of parental love.

None of these poems could have appeared in Galvin’s earlier work, for they demonstrate a speaker who is as unsettled by life’s ruthlessness as he is certain of its beauty. This ambivalence is certainly present in Galvin’s earlier work, but in X we find a poet whose faith has been radically shaken: a self-effacing quiver begins to trouble the line; existential anguish seems the book’s undertow. On the whole, X is one of Galvin’s best collections, but its unevenness is evident in a poem like “Ought,” which foregrounds wordplay and wit, anticipating Galvin’s evolution over his next two collections to relatively underwhelming effect.

In 2009, Galvin published As Is, his weakest book. To be fair: Galvin at his worst is better than most at their best, but As Is will stand in Galvin’s oeuvre as a document of transition between what he perfected in his early work—a brutally beautiful naturalism with remarkable metaphysicality—and a new, decidedly postmodern idiom that balances his faith in the image with a disarming tonal looseness marked by charming self-deprecation. In early Galvin: either everything matters or nothing matters. In the new Galvin: everything matters and nothing matters, and the causal relationship between these facts is perfectly circular.

The growing pains of As Is can be found in poems like “The Music” and “The Red Telephone,” where Galvin’s courageous departure from the natural world is awkwardly met with a kind of un-tethered wit. What is clever in a poem must be rooted in something outside its own self-satisfaction. And Galvin’s cleverness, though clear, seemed forced: like he was trying to squeeze into hand-me-down shoes. This was troubling to see in a world-class dancer.

But whatever aesthetic hiccups were introduced in As Is have paid off handsomely in Galvin’s new collection, which is, remarkably and decidedly, his best. Everything We Always Knew Was True is a miraculous, self-performed open-heart surgery in which everything we always loved about James Galvin is exposed and made new by self-deprecating charm and dead black humor. Never has an American poet so seamlessly fused the superficially opposite impulses of the deep image and the talky self-awareness of a particular strain of the Western avant-garde. We certainly see the fingerprints of Robert Frost and W.S. Merwin, but not without the whimsy of Apollinaire and John Ashbery.

The few critics who have written on Galvin can only think of one thing to say: that he has a firm grasp on the American West. He certainly does: he is the single greatest writer about horses in American literature. But what makes Galvin great is the subterranean intensity beneath the scenes he paints. Consider the following poem from the new book, included here in its entirety:

A Ceremony

My father coughed up a few bats
And that was that.
With a smithy’s hammer,
I broke and flattened his gold heraldic ring.
“Hit it again,” my sister said,
And I did.
There were three of us.
We stashed the ashes with the ring
In a cairn of black rocks.
My niece piped up,
“Isn’t anybody going to say something?”
I looked at my sister,
Who shook her head.
“Nope,” I said,
And the three of us walked away. (65)

Galvin’s signature here is not the hammer or the “cairn of black rocks,” but rather the blunt force of the final five lines, when the human milieu is laid bare in an exposure equal parts revealing and concealed. The genius of the poem lies in what its silence says and the cleanliness of its annunciation.

Or consider the following pair of ekphrastic poems, a genre Galvin has certainly mastered. The first reads in Galvin’s oldest style: tonally demotic; image-driven; remarkably restrained.

I paint my own front yard. The big pole gate
Left open so the subject can become
The narrow two-track road, which turns away,
And vanishes. It could be coming home
Or going. I’m not telling. The open gate
Means someone left, and I am waiting for them

To come home. You have to tell the truth. (“Five Paintings by Clara Van Waning,” 22)

Much of the poem would fit nicely into Galvin’s first four books, but the explosive presence of “I’m not telling,” is something Galvin had to earn post-Resurrection Update. It takes an otherwise lovely poem and sets it ablaze with the complicated strike of a withholding, self-aware speaker, which then flickers against the surface of the haunted, “You have to tell the truth,” which, when it lands, feels inevitable.

One of the collection’s most dynamic poems, “The Newlywed Acrobats,” written after Marc Chagall, manages to capture an astounding amount of Chagall’s romantic abandon and dreamy hover.

He sports gold-sequined tights and
slippers.
The bride is decked out in a gold bikini.
Her breasts are
two miracles.
Her smile is, well, blinding.

On the steps,
an avalanche of confetti.
Clowns are shot from cannons to the
right and to the left.

They spring each other higher and
higher and scarily higher until he vaults into a fourth-floor window
and she follows like a comet’s tail.

They look deeply into each other’s eyes, his bleary, hers
fierce with determination.
She says, “You’re not gonna believe this
part.” (13-4)

The weightlessness here is astounding for its palpable joy. In it we find an exuberance missing almost entirely from Galvin’s early work, and here, combined with his singular grip on the image, we are taken into a slipstream of what feels like true love.

When considering twentieth-century comparisons, one must mention Frost, Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, and Charles Wright (as well as the “Iowa Poets” mentioned above). What none of these masters was able to do, however, was to successfully and truly transform, over time, their aesthetic. Galvin has done that. The exception may be James Wright, whose early formalism is nothing to sneeze at, but whose later deep imagism transformed a generation.

The closest comparison, I would argue, is James Merrill: perhaps the twentieth-century’s single greatest poet. Like Galvin, Merrill is inexplicably underappreciated, and he is very highly appreciated. Like Merrill, Galvin combines a deceptively smooth formalism with a postmodern playfulness that refuses to take itself too seriously, which is, of course, perfectly serious. Like Merrill, Galvin exudes a hopelessly charming, dead-serious romantic streak, a brutal self-awareness, and a potent metaphysics in which the visible and invisible exert upon each other enormous counter-pressure.

The critics who are content to call Galvin a “nature poet” fail to grasp how utterly metaphysical his nature is. Galvin’s natural world is not unlike Melville’s white whale: elusive; beautiful; deadly; metonymic. It is the closest thing to the divine that its author can hope to approach, and even trying to see it involves significant risk.

One of the collection’s highlights, and one of its most contemporary features, is a nonconsecutive series of short poems titled, “What It’s Like,” which refuse to identify the “it” of the simile, leaving it appropriately open for nothing less than just about anything. The following are presented in their entirety:

What It’s Like

Horseback in an old burn.
Deadfall everywhere.
No way forward.
No way to turn around. (25)

What It’s Like

A freight elevator in free fall.
A grand piano in it. (37)

The series is reminiscent of the opening sequence of Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press 2011). The openness is haunting; the vision unflinching.

 

It is a rare enough thing for a poet to write a breathtaking body of work. James Galvin had accomplished this by the mid-nineties, and were he a lesser artist, he’d have continued to write in that style forever. Of the poets who manage to cultivate a discernible voice, the ones who try to modify it often do so awkwardly and, too often, into courageous disaster. When considering Galvin’s oeuvre, there is a distinct new frequency that enters with X and then wobbles uncomfortably through As Is. The new voice, though, has blossomed fully in Everything We Always Knew Was True, which marks Galvin’s greatest collection to date and may one day stand as the defining book of his career. More importantly, it demonstrates that sometimes—although rarely, and never without struggle—a great poet can somehow become even greater.

Cup Your Body into Someone Else’s Longing

 

In Emily O’Neill’s Make a Fist and Tongue the Knuckles, (Nostrovia! Press, 2016) the boys are sweet even when they are leading you by the hand to the back of the bar and the girls always know better. These poems are intimacy laid out on a conveyor belt—all parts are deconstructed and rebuilt. The intimacy is cataloged from kissing a stranger on a porch, to admiring a lover’s freckle colony, to justifying one’s job when meeting a date’s parents for the first time. O’Neill’s imagery travels around the block a few times and doesn’t apologize for it: her poems are harsh, gritty beauty.

 

O’Neill begins her dark walk with the poem “World’s Smallest Woman.” Her words are almost like those of an instruction manual:

 

“You can’t explain surprise

to yourself. Somebody else has to.

In the mirror your hair gets longer but

your eyes remain the same depth. Keep that

gulf to yourself.”

 

How many faces do we have to show others? To ourselves? O’Neill’s speaker knows about crappy first jobs, sharing drugs at work, making out in cars, knowing more about her own exit from a relationship than the other person in it.  She isn’t afraid to expose skin or call it like it is. One of the first poems that displays this distance in connection is “Your Boy Came By.” In the third stanza, aloofness plays a part but people still strip down the ankles at the end of it.

 

“Didn’t buy you a drink because why bother

bartering. Your boy, for free of you

won’t risk it…”

 

O’Neill’s speaker can only “fly away from the fire before (she’s) finished.” (From the poem “No Flinching.”) The details in racking up relationship bodies are staggering. Knives are a repeated image. Some knives are imagined as being planted in dirt and then growing trees on top of them. Let something lovely grow from weapons meant to cut. One knife is placed in the speaker’s hand by a shirtless boy who recites Coleridge. There is also blood (“I’m sure I’ve bled on sadder men,” is one memorable line from the poem “How To Whistle.”) In contrast, there are also multiple images of shoulders. We carry burdens on our shoulders and each poem in this collection is fighting a fight. We don’t know who wins but that doesn’t seem to matter. The fight feels important.

 

O’Neill never writes about intimacy in a clichéd way. In the revealing and almost confessional “Need to Know,” we witness exquisiteness. We recognize the exchange here between two people:

 

“I took my dress off for you—an invitation

to keep seeing what you shouldn’t take.

You won’t just take and I like that.

 

You hesitate and I bite harder. I want you

stuck like river bending in a valley…

Here, my fingers. Little ghosts. Here,

your fingers troubling me like rain

haunts the freeway in a dream.”

 

In such a hunger driven, spiny collection, this subtle moment is beautiful and haunting and gives the reader a glimpse into O’Neill’s softer side.

 

Here are some of O’Neill’s knowledgeable lines that are written like a manifesto, like we should be taking notes:

 

“Can’t be poor when you’re a killer.”  (“Lucky Like That.”)

 

“Give me a choice better than razor or grave.” (“Always a Sinner.”)

 

“Leave marks or I won’t learn.”  (“Always a Sinner.”)

 

“You were falling asleep on camera as I was waking up on camera.” (“Orioles.”)

 

“Never liked men with guitars. How they need constant noise keeping them still.” (“Last Year’s Blues.”)

 

“Shoes make the man aware that he can leave at any moment.” (“How to Whistle.”)

 

O’Neill’s speaker instructs us on how to survive, but it’s tough.  In “Poem for Brunch with Your Family Where They Asked When We’d Be Married,” there is a whole world of characters revealed throughout the two page poem. Here is an example of the inner psyche of the speaker here:

 

“It wasn’t that they asked what I did for work and choked

at the utterance of waitress or your mother’s insistence

on grad school as unfortunate or your uncle demanding

a second glass for the beer in front of me…”

 

We witness O’Neill’s speaker as a prisoner at this uncomfortable table. We feel her skin

crawl at being judged by these people who do not know her and may never know her well. We empathize. We also want to run away.  The speaker confesses:

 

“Yes I have parents. No, you can’t meet them.

My father is dead and my mother needs coaching

on how not to kill what she loves.”

 

Then the poem takes another glorious turn with these lines:

 

“The disappointment I am for not dropping everything

to stand by my man…Part of womanhood is waiting for

your turn to speak and they wouldn’t give me one and that

tells me everything about weddings…”

 

This poem is a novel of voice and vigor and slaps us across the face, and we still want more. Whereas so many of these poems circle around the speaker’s relationships, there is a transience to the language and the actual fleetingness of the intimacy. Its breakneck pace is powerful and does not let up. (It is, “O’Neill writes “the dance nobody teaches:” (From “Need to Know.”) We cannot go to O’ Neill for answers though, even though she has already told us how to live. She reminds us in the last line of the very last poem “Not So Fast,”

 

“Don’t answer me. I won’t stand still long enough.”

 

Luckily we read her words, hold them, tread on them softly, because she deserves no less and we cannot stay away, even if we end up following her into the cold, dark night.

 

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of eight chapbooks and two full length poetry collections forthcoming from Yellow Chair Review and Stalking Horse Press. Her chapbook “Clown Machine” recently came out from Grey Book Press this summer.  Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, concis, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anand Prahlad – As Good As Mango

Stephen F. Austin University Press 2012

Page Length: 90

Retail: $15.95

Much of contemporary American poetry centers on expressions of “identity politics.” This mode of poetics, which has taken many diverse and brilliant forms, is most commonly articulated in assertions of identity: celebrations of self in its various guises against the dominant hegemony of the culture of the oppressor.

In Anand Prahlad’s brilliant collection, As Good As Mango, we encounter a poet who, while participating in the liberation from oppressive cultural forces so central to the poetics of identity, accomplishes this individuation by subverting the common relationship between poet and text. Prahlad is a poet less interested in expressing “self” than allowing self to be expressed by the very world in which the poet finds himself. His is a poetics of quasi-passive divination wherein the poet becomes the vehicle for larger aesthetic forces: voices, textures, and spirits that transcend the individual self of fixed human identity. The result is an incredible achievement: an articulation of radical liberation that doesn’t seek to merely assert self via poetry, but a world-driven poetics that gives itself fully to its vision and thereby transcends the limits of ego that so often encage the poetry of identity.

“I remembered scarlet

breaths like wind

through Japanese maples.

The giant windows

that never closed flush.

Hardwood squeaking and

an old, steam heater

clicking like a clock.

 

I remembered my father.

I would see him whenever

I went home, although,

he would hardly speak.

I hadn’t started seeing

his ghost yet blossoming

around my face.” (“Ghosts”)

“Ghosts” is one of the few poems in As Good As Mango that positions itself in the first person. As a matter of fact: it is one of the few poems in the collection to even use the first person “I,” which is virtually unheard of in contemporary poetry. And yet: the “I” we find is one whose very articulation is composed of memories of objects; a poetic self that is itself a kind of ghost: a spirit hovering over a series of memories—through which those memories pass and thereby assert something loosely resembling a self. The father, here, is a “blossom” that inhabits the speaker—a means by which the speaker can learn to see.

What is implicit throughout the poem is made explicit in its final three lines: “I could remember me / remembering things / without writing a poem.” In this gorgeous summation, the speaker asserts the poem as a means of self-identity—a vehicle through which the self can come to be. Memory, here, is less an assertion than an accumulation, and the self engendered by it is a coalescence of sensory experience.

Prahlad’s work is firmly rooted in an Afro-Caribbean animism that finds in the world of objects the primacy of the sacred. This is made explicit in the collection’s second half, titled, “Hoodoo,” after the West African syncretic religion of the same name. In the poem titled, “Hoodoo,” we get something of a credo. The poem begins:

“Knowing how silly it is,

still I chase the wind blown hair.

I run it down for blocks,

weaving through briefs and suits.

My heart fills like a rain bucket

with stories from the old people.” (“Hoodoo”)

Here the speaker begins with a self-deprecating concession, “Knowing how silly it is,” which is then followed by a series of declarations that manage to overcome the professed silliness. This ambivalence is markedly postmodern: even as the speaker remains suspicious of the religious system and its non-rational methods, he cannot help but “run it down for blocks.” There is something undeniable about the way his heart is filled with the tradition’s power, passed to him through “stories from the old people.” The poem ends with a powerful set of couplets, which finally overcome the initially “silly” talismans that make both the poem and its speaker:

“I chase it like I’d chase a black cat,

desperate for the bones.

This is who we are. This is everything.

Never being held by strange fingers.”

Prahlad’s poetics can be understood in the tradition of the African Diaspora, but there is also something present that is undeniably Keatsian. In the letter in which Keats coins what becomes one of the defining terms in English Romanticism, he distinguishes his own aesthetic from that of Wordsworth’s “Egotistical Sublime.” Whereas Wordsworth’s poetics engender a speaker who is capable of sensing and being, “a thing per se [that] stands alone,” Keats self-identifies as a “camelion Poet” (sic). The latter, “is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing… he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” Insofar as the poetry of identity politics is an assertion of ego, it participates in the Wordsworthian lineage, but Prahlad’s approach is distinct in that the self found in his work is ever-shifting and perpetually in tune with the pulse of the things and beings which inhabit the poems.

The opening half of the collection is a long sequence composed, “In Movements and Incantations:” a series of poems or demi-poems that float in and out of particulars in a roving voice that seeks to animate its subject matter: persons and objects; spirits and histories that trace the contours of black experience in West Africa and then the American South. The sequence is at times solemn and mournful, as in “the lynching:”

“at first

he just shook.

and then

he stayed still.

at first

there was

so much pain that

no one there

and no one

since

would ever be

without it.

but then

he felt

the garden.” (“As Good As Mango”)

At other moments, though, the sequence is ecstatic and overwhelmed with beauty:

“when the black

body

spreads out

among lotuses

and lilies,

when the woman

in the moon

descends

wearing sapphire

and animal tusks

with rivers and stars

gushing from

her navel,

and ginger and pepper

is burning you

and greens is rocking

you on the atlantic

you can swallow

rose and petunia

swallow

the flesh

of tulip bulb

like peaches

with salt, or a jar

of lilacs, opened

while a pine

wind blows

through windows.” (“As Good As Mango”)

Prahlad’s poetry is willfully haunted by the spirits that animate the very world in which the poet walks and sings. As Good As Mango is a shamanic celebration of the vital life force of the poem, and its articulations are devastatingly beautiful and wildly original. This collection transcends the lesser aims of identity politics insofar as it is not interested in a self, but in a transcendence of self—a coalescence of spirit that mends the very fractures that separate the poet from that in which he lives and moves and has being.

“I know and have always known my body was mine.”

(from the poem “The Difference.”)

 

Sarah Frances Moran’s Evergreen (Weasel Press, 2016) brings us a speaker whose vulnerability and strength resembles the beauty and transience of the tall Evergreen. Its branches may be chopped, its needles may burn—but the trunk, the soul, is strong. A girl can climb it, dangle her legs over the edge, and look out over the world.

Appropriately, in the collection’s first few poems, the Evergreen is a jailer for everyone who has hurt the speaker. Trees are such common place objects in our lives, always watching us move through our day, this makes sense to us. Moran’s Evergreen feels personal. Whether an abusive step father or a caregiver who looked in the other direction is caged here, the Evergreen holds the keys.  The people who caused harm to the speaker cannot, will not, be rescued. In “This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid a Finger on Me,” the language is surreal and gothic:

 

“These are the cages I keep where I harbor

all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.

 

If you reside among them it’s only because

you harbor abhorrence that can do nothing

but trickle through the blood stream of the root

of the tree you’d wish to cut down…”

 

Moran separates the sections of the second poem into cages much like humans who can compartmentalize pain—in order to function, to get through our day. In the first section, Cage 1, Moran writes:

 

“If you ever dreamed of being a patriarch, you failed.

You planted a tree

then doused it in gasoline and attempted to burn it.”

 

The idea of a tree acting as turnkey to our cages of people who have misused us is gorgeous and fairy-tale like. The tree is protector and punisher—especially since many people are never punished for their crimes. In Moran’s cages, the pain is kept sectioned off while the speaker of these poems heals and moved forward.

But this book does not limit itself to a compartmentalized kaleidoscope of suffering; as the reader navigates Evergreen’s gritty, dark, and beautiful terrain, they will find that Moran’s poems are multilayered. In the poem “Battle,” the reader not only deciphers an argument about “battling” one’s inner demons, but also a description of the writing process itself. In “Battle,” Moran writes:

“They don’t care about that stifled genius

or about how you’ve received 52 rejections letters to date.

What they do care about,

is the meat of you.

 

What’s deep down in your guts?

What makes them churn and what makes them ache?

 

…You redraft yourself, every day

for this battle.”

This poem uncovers the speaker’s vulnerabilities with lines like “Why do you sit at the bottom of the tub and just cry sometimes?” but also how writers need to reach deep inside of themselves to ask, How do I write this pain? How do I confess about this thing that happened to me and twist it into art?  How often do I cross out and start over— the words, my feelings, plunging a magnifying glass into the past and a knife into my heart again?

Moran has experience as a stellar spoken-word artist and it is thrilling to read “Battle” almost like an audience member at a performance. One can hear her voice create a moment to moment truth. We recognize the speaker’s manifesto of  “get up anyway,” find the strength somewhere, and write the poems.  We are ready to launch our own battle cry.

For example, take “Mama Makowski,” a poem about the speaker’s mother getting day-drunk and trying to compare herself to the poet Charles Bukowski—that icon of male bravado that continues to cling to its status in the literary canon. In this poem, the speaker asserts that her father is still alive, and that she hates a part of him but there is:

 

“…the longing for something not there.

 

We fantasize about holding their hands and

looking up at them with adulation…”

 

a piggy back ride

a stroll through the park…”

Moran shares that with her mother— an experience of fathers consumed by their own violence and drinking. Moran illustrates that what really makes a man is one who will hold a small hand, protect those he loves. The speaker commiserates with her mother over their “broken childhoods.” By this poem, positioned later in the book, Moran’s speaker is already reflective: she knows she was given the short end of the father straw and she still overcomes pain, chooses to honor her mother through cooking her recipes.

This speaker looks to the future. What will she, the speaker, leave behind? In the two poems “Frances’s Fingers” and “The First Time I made a Tortilla,” there is a joy in one’s roots, the peace in knowing who we are and where we came from:

 

“All the bolls of cotton you picked

and endless days in the sun

where your brown skin soaked up ray after ray..

 

Look at my hands and know the work they’ve done too.

 

…I got more than my middle name from you.”

Moran pays homage to an ancestor who picked cotton in Texas. The sun beating down on her skin, fingers arthritic by the end of her life, the speaker communes with this woman in these lines and helps her feel centered, blasts Johnny Cash on the way out of town, feels akin with this ghost. Likewise, in “The First Time I Made Tortillas,” Moran writes,

 

“As I knead the dough

 

the strength of all of my ancestors flow through into my fingertips

and I feel the struggles of feeding and caring for a multitude of children

….

my desire for perfection’s depth

is further than this rolling pin.

 

I simply want to honor my mother with this task

Say to her that the beauty of this creating will not die with her…”

 

Moran’s words vibrate and pull at us long after we close the book. We look down at our own bodies: what did we inherit?  With all of these poems, there is an overcoming of anguish. Flushed-out secrets explode from the tallest tree, find the warming sun, and the music, and always the words that seem to come down to or come back to “I rely on you,”  “I rely on you, “I rely on you.” This repetition is a magical litany: the words make themselves come true. We know what it means to find the ability to trust again, and to survive. Evergreen is legacy.

 

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” just came out from Grey Book Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. She also has poetry reviews at The Rumpus and Horseless Press. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

Solmaz Sharif – Look

Graywolf Press 2016

Page Length: 93

Retail: $16

 

 

The winner writes history; the loser writes poetry. Not that Solmaz Sharif’s debut from Graywolf Press, Look (2016) is anything short of extraordinary. It’s just that the cliché about the “winner” is too true for Sharif to resist subverting in her urgent, prophetic, and virtuosic invective against the Nation State in general, and the contemporary American Nation State in particular.

 

It is hardly new for poets to use poetry as a means of political resistance, but rarely have we seen the politics of language play such a prominent role in the resistance. Sharif uses a variety of avant-garde forms to put enormous pressure on language itself so as to exploit its materiality, and therefore its malleability—a process of weaponization that can be used to liberate as well as oppress. Given the enormous oppression brought forth by the militarization of language, which is itself a kind of violent occupation, Sharif seeks to re-contextualize weaponized words in a process that might exorcize the English language of its most demonic possessions.

 

Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:

All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:

American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness

Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.

I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.

I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness

by shocking dogs. Eventually, we things give up.

 

These opening lines of the poem “Desired Appreciation” present the reader with a credo that posits the “learned helplessness” of nonviolent poetry as a means of complicity. The speaker gestures to the death of her own complicity in a brilliant image that serves opposite agendas: “Eventually, we things give up.” The “learned helplessness” of human complicity—of poetic complicity—is the resting state of one exposed to prolonged torture (here represented by the shocking of dogs). The American public—and by extension American poetry—has been psychologically tortured by prolonged exposure to “shocking” horrors, such that we must learn to normalize brutality and unspeakable violence not only in our lives but in the very language that is the substance of our thoughts. This acquiescence to horror is a “learned helplessness,” such that we must write about flowers and falling in love lest we lose ourselves in the grip of despair. Poets too are things, and, “Eventually, we things give up.” But even as Sharif offers a potent metaphor for the “learned helplessness” of American poetry, she, with the exact same metaphor, offers us a means of resistance: to “give up” docility is to be shocked too many times—to, in an act of poetic desperation, use the very means of torture to subvert the captivity.

 

This is precisely what Sharif accomplishes in Look, which offers contemporary American poets a look into what a revolutionary resistance to Imperial co-option might look like. The most pronounced example of this is the many poems in the collection that re-appropriate terms taken from the United States Department of Defense’s “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.” This practice participates in the tradition of the American avant-garde, beginning perhaps with Gertrude Stein and extending through the Objectivists and then later the LANGUAGE poets, which seeks to subvert the Imperial occupation of the English language by calling attention to language’s materiality. This is accomplished largely by the process of re-contextualization in which words’ meanings are determined not by some kind of intrinsic semantic cargo but rather by the larger context into which words, like objects, are placed and misplaced.

 

Sharif uses familiar, stabilizing poetic forms such as anaphora, the litany, and parallel syntax to place tremendous pressure on the diction culled from the DOD’s lexicon, words marked in the poems as foreign by their appearance in small caps: terms like INTERTHEATER TRAFFIC, HUNG WEAPON, PENETRATION AIDS, and SAFE HOUSE. In this typographical designation, Sharif mimics the problematic us/them tribalism inherent to all ethnic and political identities. This presentation of language inherently “other” calls attention to it—our awareness is heightened by its dual-citizenship, and we instinctively wonder whether its presence disrupts an otherwise “safe” poetic experience. In this way, we come to distrust the words, for we know that whatever sense in which they belong to the poem, they also serve another, more sinister master. In doing this, Sharif indicts the “learned helplessness” of benign, supposedly-non-political poetry by calling attention to its inattention: by interrupting poems that might otherwise be pleasant to our palate with targeted phrases like DESIRED PERCEPTION and THRESHOLD OF ACCEPTABILITY, Sharif brilliantly and subtly incriminates the reader for a habit of CIVIL CENSORSHIP. In so doing she implies that much of American poetry is little more than a LOW VISIBILITY OPERATION.

 

Sharif’s is the ground of BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION, whereby the poem seeks to redeem language itself for its complicity in human atrocity. Hers can be described as a guerilla poetics, whereby the overwhelming force and hubris of the occupying force is used against it, and this is made possible only by the native’s intimacy with the nuances of the terrain. Here the “native” is the poet and the terrain is our language—violently taken and brutalized by a Nation State to which it does not belong. Many twentieth-century guerillas believed that a true revolution could only take place when the occupied population became sickened at the abuses of its occupier. By forcing readers (and poets) to LOOK at what is being done in our “homeland,” Sharif accomplishes extraordinary work toward our necessary revulsion.

 

The bad news is that language, as an object, can be weaponized as a means of oppression and terror. Worse yet, unlike steel and plutonium, language is the substance of thought and identity: it is only through language that we can understand ourselves and the world in which we live. It is what we use to make sense of our lives: to justify the things we have done and want to do. When a Nation State occupies the language of its people, it creates an “us” by engendering a “them”—it necessarily splits the world into a quasi-tribal dichotomy. By doing so, the State unifies its populace by the perpetual generation of an enemy—a something against which we can be together. It is language alone that makes this possible.

 

However, the good news is that a word, unlike steel and plutonium, can never only be one thing. A word is unique among objects in that it always exists multiply: it may mean one thing, but it always necessarily also means something else. The alchemy of this transubstantiation resides in the power of context, and Sharif is an extraordinary wizard. The context of the DoD manual is war; the context of the poem is supposed to be peacetime. Of all the binaries Sharif seeks to dismantle in this collection: East/West; Islam/Christianity; Brown/White; Terrorist/Soldier; Enemy Combatant/Civilian; none more pervasively haunts the pages than the dissolved line between Wartime and Peacetime. This dissolution, only possible in an Empire, is the collateral damage of the weaponization of language. Sharif masterfully undermines and contradicts this violence by exposing the inherent multiplicity of words; which is to say, she rages against the dull machine of war by turning its weapons against it—into poems with which she hopes to provoke a sleeping community out of its “learned helplessness.”

 

 

 

 

Malachi Black – Storm Toward Morning

Copper Canyon 2014

Page Length: 75

Retail: $15

 

Like the greatest formal poets, Malachi Black writes in shapes. Received forms sculpt the shape of a poem by the measure of their recursiveness: the manner in which the poem moves forward and back simultaneously. In a traditional sonnet, for example, as the speaker develops an idea, a scene, or a narrative (an argument), she also, at the end of each line, creates sonic consonance with that which precedes and/or follows. The result is the sensation of forward movement through recurring patterns and the modulation of poetic effects (in this example the effect in question is end-rhyme, though the same argument can be made for poetic features like anaphora, syntactic parallelism, and other features that can echo through a poem). This recursiveness of the sonnet is heightened and dramatized when the poem looks back on itself in its volta: the previous content is artfully repeated and thereby modified, and the result is something like epiphany. The extent to which a poem establishes and then resists its form can be understood as its poetic “shape.”

 

Malachi Black’s poetic shapes are both elegantly discursive and dizzyingly circular: spiritual yearning in swirling eddies of sonic clusters. Storm Toward Morning, Black’s first full-length collection, relies heavily on received forms (most notably the sonnet) to present an aesthetic argument that is equal parts familiar and strange, and the result is palpably beautiful tension: between the traditional and contemporary; between first-book energy and technical virtuosity; and, most importantly, between faith and doubt: a spiritual disquiet masterfully imbued into content and form.

 

Black possesses an astounding command of prosody, and like a world-class athlete, he moves through his lines without wasted motion.

 

“Rocking in my midnight robe, I am

alive and in an eye again beside

 

my kind insomniac, my phantom

glass, companion and my only bride:

 

this little window giving little shine

to something. What I see I keep

 

alive. I name the species, I define

the lurch and glimmer, sweep and pry

 

of eyes against the faint-reflecting glass

by what they can and what I can’t

 

quite grasp…” (Against the Glass)

 

While this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, Black opens with a procession of trochees that accentuates the quietly desperate state of the speaker. Notably, the opening line ends with a kind of existential release: “I am,” which both posits a stability of self and shifts the poem into its natural meter, which wraps itself around the line in a series of enjambments that create a cascade effect as we progress down the page: “I am / alive”; “my phantom / glass”; “What I see I keep // alive.” But as we course through the couplets, we are returned to previously introduced sounds. At times this consonance is semantically pleasing: “I am / alive;” “my only bride;” “I keep / alive.” However, at other times the effect is something more unnerved: a kind of haunting: “phantom” and “companion;” “faint” and “can’t.”

 

Black’s formal recursiveness is a microcosm of his poems’ engagement with poetic tradition: there is something undeniably traditional in Black’s prosody, yet that quality is cantilevered by Black’s associative ingenuity and contemporary diction, concerns, and general aesthetic orientation. In this regard, there are echoes of James Merrill, Robert Pinsky, Frederick Seidel, Thom Gunn, and the very best of Philip Larkin. And yet: the heart of Black’s formalism, which is, in the end, utterly Psalmic, seems to be in the spirit of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century: John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell, to name a few. These poets sought in their verse an ascent into the mysteries of the divine—mysteries rarely resolved but left open like metaphysical wounds that are simultaneously fatal and freeing. It was this quality, their articulation of spiritual brokenness in formal precision, that T.S. Eliot found utterly compelling, which led him to not only champion these once-derided poets into their still-standing critical favor, but eventually state that devotional poetry is actually poetry in its highest form.

 

Black’s poems are devotional in this regard: rather than proclaim “truths” about the divine, they are poems written toward the possibility of God. This postmodern faith is most prominently displayed in the second section of Storm Toward Morning, a crown of sonnets that testifies to both the undeniable reality of the sacred and its impossible position within the profanity of human living.

 

“There is no end: what has come will come again

will come again: and then distend: and then

and then: and then again: there is no end

 

to origin and and: there is again

and born again: there is the forming and:

the midnight curling into morning and

 

the glory and again: there is no end:” (Vigils)

 

Rarely are form and content so seamlessly transposed: as in Heaven so on Earth; so too in the poem. “There is no end” is both a joyful declaration and an ominous lament: to be “born again” in poetic rapture is to see the infinitude of experience within the finite moment. Or, as Blake famously wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” And yet: to be born is to be subjected to death. Incessant birth yields incessant death, and this fact yields profound ambivalence in Black’s poetry, which hiccups its rebirths and stutters its praise. In this, we are reminded inseparability of beauty and death, a tension that cannot (and must not) be resolved.

 

This resistance to resolution is Black’s most unique aesthetic move. While it has become a hallmark of postmodern poetics to parade this resistance, Black’s angle is fresh because of the shape of his formalism. Received forms convey implicit order: they are teleologically determined from the outset. Black’s sonnets are both elegant and desperate—their formal ruptures proceed out of existential doubt.

 

“Once more the bright blade of a morning breeze

glides almost too easily through me,

 

and from the scuffle I’ve been sutured to

some flap of me is freed: I am severed

 

like a simile: an honest tenor

trembling toward the vehicle I mean

 

to be: a blackbird licking half-notes

from the muscled, sap-damp branches

 

of the sugar maple tree… though I am still

a part of any part of every particle

 

of me, though I’ll be softly reconstructed

by the white gloves of metonymy,

 

I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut

that doesn’t heal a bit too much.” (This Gentle Surgery)

 

Black oscillates between formal precision and something like an artful wobble: by embracing imperfection in the presence of technical virtuosity, he dramatizes spiritual poverty and celebrates the fallibility that constitutes the essential distinction between the human and the divine.

 

 

All publishing poets know what chapbooks are. So, I’m not going to provide a history of the chapbook. The internet is full of good essays documenting that history. In fact, one brief essay can be found here on TheThe Poetry Blog by Sam Riedel. Here’s another link to one by the British historian, Ruth Richardson.  What I want to draw attention to is the importance of the poetry chapbook and the folly of considering it as less significant than a full-length collection.

A chapbook, which is basically any book with a page count under 48, will not be considered for any major prize. No matter how good, it cannot win a Pulitzer or National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award. In fact, there is, to my knowledge, only one national prize in the country dedicated to already published poetry chapbooks: The Jean Pedrick Award, sponsored by the New England Poetry Club. I emphasize “already published,” because there are plenty of prizes for chapbooks in which the prize is publication. But the incredible failure to acknowledge the significance of chapbooks after publication mirrors the failure throughout the poetry world to respect chapbooks as artistic achievements in their own right, the failure to judge them solely on their quality. Of course, there are devotees of the chapbook, but there are devotees and collectors of everything from backscratchers and umbrella covers to sugar packets. The error for poetry chapbooks is in the disregard for them, not only by the general reading public who may not even know of their existence, but by poets themselves, especially those aspiring to carve out a place in the literary world. The feeling is that if you want to be taken seriously as a poet you have to publish more than a chapbook, you must publish a full-length collection. Even those who value them value them only as “calling cards” or stepping stones toward publishing larger works. This is clearly an error if one reflects briefly on the history of great poetry.

Philip Larkin published five collections of poetry in his lifetime. Of those five only one of them would be a full-length collection by today’s standards and that one, his first one, The North Ship, only just makes it, coming in at 48 pages. The four that followed—XX Poems, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows—would all be considered chapbooks by today’s definition. XX Poems was privately printed and so it’s difficult to find information about its page count. However, given that Larkin generally wrote short poems and even if each poem in this collection took up 2 pages, which is highly unlikely, it would be 40 pages of poetry, and thus, still a chapbook. The page count for each of the following four books respectively goes: 45, 46, and 42. So, only The North Ship qualifies as a full-length collection. Imagine the loss to the world of poetry if such chapbooks had been ignored as insignificant merely because of their length? Or consider the ridiculousness of relegating them to being mere stepping stones to his Collected Poems, published after his death.  These short collections contain some of the most startling and beautiful poetry written in the last century.

William Blake’s famous collections: The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience were both chapbooks. The first book comprised only 19 poems published in 1790. Four years later he published The Songs of Experience, which was only 26 poems. And to be clear, none of these poems were long. Most were a page or less. Even though these chapbooks were very small, not only in page number but in actual size, they were works of art unlike anything anyone else had produced, created using Blake’s own method of printing from copper plates etched by acids.

More recently, the poet Tomas Transtromer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize, demonstrated the power of an oeuvre that accumulates in small increments, growing slowly like a glacier over years. Each individual addition to his total output never amounts to what is defined as a full-length collection. Only by combining old material with new material does he make more than a chapbook. His first book, 17 Poems, was, of course, 17 poems and they weren’t long enough to cover 48 pages. Not even close. The next set of new poems, Secrets on the Way, added fourteen more poems to his work. The collection after that, The Half-Finished Heaven, added twenty-one more poems. In this way, he kept adding to his oeuvre. But any given addition never would have broken that 48-page barrier.

Many other poets have published works that are chapbooks. The original publications of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, and Ginsberg’s Howl were both chapbooks. Of Louise Bogan’s four major collections, two of them—The Body of This Death, and The Sleeping Fury, were chapbooks. Edgar Bowers’ second collection, To the Astronomers, was 36 pages. And the following collection Living Together, although 84 pages, was a new & selected and therefore, full of material from his first two collections. I’m fortunate to own a copy of this book and can tell you that the new poems in the collection only compose a total of 10 more pages. This could also be pointed out of many other poets. So what is our obsession with making collections long when so many important poets published short works of great significance? Why consider these mere works on the way to—not more important work, but just larger collections of work?

I’m not an expert. But my guess is it’s market driven. Somewhere along the line, it is all ultimately determined by graphs of market value and profit margins for the larger houses that publish poetry. Unfortunately, we poets have largely bought into this mentality. Our entire culture believes, as if it were divine writ, that bigger-is-better, that perpetual growth defines success. But it is error in many ways and folly for poets to follow along with this thinking. A poet should write and construct the best book they can, and if that collection is under 48 pages, then that is how long it’s supposed to be. To ignore a collection because it’s only 20 or 30 pages long rather than 60 or 80 pages is simply the error of a mind that thinks bigger is better. Or it at least is not questioning that implicit assumption. I wager that most poets don’t think of themselves as adhering to this mentality and yet, here we are, all racing toward that 48-page mark as though it were what defines a collection of poetry. Certainly nothing in poetry itself determines that. It is an ulterior motive shaping the collection to reach that mark. Consciously or unconsciously it is not a poetic motive directing the poet’s choices here and it’s time to put that to an end.

We should encourage what bookstores remain in the world to display chapbooks as clearly as others.  We should encourage institutions to establish prizes that recognize the best chapbook published in the previous year, prizes that are honored and respected as equally as any other prize for full-length collections.  Chapbooks should be reviewed as regularly as other collections and in both large and small journals.  They should be reviewed with the same attention as other collections.  I would be willing to wager a large sum that if these things were done, we would begin to recognize a large number of very accomplished poets who haven’t had a full-length collection published but are just as deserving of recognition as any who have.

Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow – Whale in the Woods

Rescue Press 2012

Page Length: 73

Retail: $14

 

Blueberry Elizabeth’s Morningsnow’s debut collection, Whale in the Woods, is mythic and mammoth. Winner of the 2011 Black Box Poetry Prize from Rescue Press, Morningsnow gives us a vision that is obsessive, oddly spiritual, and urgently beautiful. The result is one of the freshest, most original spiritual voices in Contemporary American Poetry.

 

At the core of Morningsnow’s poetics is the fusion of the elemental and the spiritual. Many of these poems center on large, recurrent, elemental themes and symbols: the weather, the moon, stars, fields, bodies (human, aquatic, celestial), dust, mountains, and copious amounts of light. Atop these Morningsnow layers a spiritual valence that ambiguously and provocatively begs the question of how imbued these elements might be with spiritual forces: ghosts, god, breath, and death.

 

“Ghost trapped in a cloud:

it’s not my fault when a fish drowns
look at me lakestorming
I’m dissolving all the time

A cloud is a crowd, a crowd

My brains drip onto flowers, roofs, absences, whatever

Yet I’m not part of the external and its edges

I even help this lake

But the lake’s without humility

And forgets that there’s a middlest, finest hole

An internal to everything”

(“Ghosts Are Nature”)

 

The title of the poem makes a bold metaphysical claim: “Ghosts Are Nature.” If this collection’s sprawling metaphysics could be summarized by a single statement this would surely be it. It would follow naturally, then, that our experience of the natural world would be haunting—that beauty would be wound tightly with terror—that the known would merely float in the greater expanse of the ominous unknown.

 

Morningsnow’s poetic forms follow this animism: often presented in bursts of lyrical vapor, evanescent and inevitable, voices emerge from the previously inanimate. We find the landscape surrounding the human milieu to be fully alive and capable of speech, and the words being spoken are equal parts human and oddly-something-else.

The following is spoken by “The Lake,” a recurring character:

 

“Can I kill as well as die many times? Yes. Can I live as well as get born forever? Yes.

 

I am the bone that never stops softening. Yes. There are swellings and

balloonings inside me. Yes and I am chunked up with ice.

 

I’m the Lake and a poem.

 

My consciousness goes grey and I turn to sleep in my center for I am not sorry, as you are, that everything constantly changes.

Look how I am. I have drowned you with my swillings. Look how I carry you into silence. Do you feel that words are true. I am ragged, I am ragged. I am ragged.

Breath is the only thing that’s fair.”

 

(“Of Clearness and Birth”)

 

However clever many of Morningsnow’s poetic constructions can be, she is also, at times, stunningly forthright. In very basic terms she makes a very large claim: the poem is not human. While it is composed of language, the most human phenomenon in the universe, the poem is more a coalescence than a willed construction: it is a lake that collects its contents passively and then reflects to its reader what may be momentarily looked into before it changes irrevocably.

 

The resulting effect is a brilliant juxtaposition of clarity and obscurity: a voice that phases between registers, scenes, and characters, yet never hides behind those devices for fear of what they might reveal. Accordingly: this is a poetry of revelation and discovery, a kind of poetic animism that seeks to divine the sacred from within the world’s (and the mind’s) many strange forms. Its vision is offered with a ferocity that testifies to the unadulterated violence of beauty.

 

“Remember when I killed my own brother       turning him suddenly and stabbing

him …

then, chopping up his various parts and scattering them in the path of our father’s warriors?

how is it, we wonder, that people are bound to each other

remember when I was darkening and widening                like a river

tearing its throat out in the sea”

 

(“Argosy”)

 

While some poets may opt for highly-sanitized creation-symbols such as the epiphanic sunrise or beatific copulation, the creative center of Morningsnow’s universe is thoroughly visceral: the image is of perpetual birth, and where there is birth there is afterbirth, not to mention the looming inevitability of death.

 

“And you are dead if you’re reading this because I have bursted on you and

killed you out of this and beyond dissolvings.

And because I have seen

trembling transparent eyes

rippling eyes

eyes of dying

there are pure psychic places

inside my self

inside my drain

inside my up and down

Because I have no such thing as desire or guilt

poems do not exist

they are merely:

discardings of skin (something you float in)

 

(“How the Lake Learned English”)

 

Morningsnow’s spiritual-poetic animism is preceded in the 20th-century Western canon primarily by poets influenced by the East: Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, and Allen Ginsberg, each of whom refuse to distinguish between the earthly and the heavenly: the profane and the sacred.

 

However, Morningsnow’s approach to this dissolution (the central action of her poetics is captured by the verb “to dissolve”) is entirely different from these quasi-mystics. While the destination of her poetic orientation is similar, Morningsnow’s path couldn’t be more distinct. Indeed: her path is distinct because the starting point is her own. Whereas Snyder, Merwin, and Ginsberg bring to the poetic line the simulated weightlessness of meditation, Morningsnow is thoroughly Western in her rough pilgrimage through a world of terrible, dangerous beauty. Accordingly, an aesthetic kin can be found in the ragged Deep Imagism of Robert Bly and James Wright, not to mention the epistemically-obsessed naturalism of Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Forest Gander, and Susan Howe. Graham is, I think, a particularly interesting comparison, as Morningsnow, too, is concerned with the ever-shifting lines distinguishing the known from the unknown from the unknowable.

 

Whale in the Woods is equal parts shocking and lovely: its poetic machinations are diverse and unpredictable, and its dream is utterly unique. Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow presents us with a fiercely singular spiritual vision and a world entirely her own: dissolving; unstable; filled with bright and strange debris; uncompromising; necessary; fleetingly salvific.

She collects pieces, forms whole body slowly

 

In Movement No.1: Trains, by Hope Wabuke, (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) an abundance of unexpected, organic relationships power through this chapbook, transmitting energy between humans and people, sound, color, and movement. Like the line referenced in the title above, there are many bodies at play in this collection. The train is a body, and the people, parts, stored inside.

Using fluid language and an almost dream-like tone, Wabuke gives us glimpses of humanity’s core like spying on a commuting passenger through the windows of a subway car: intense yet indirect, witnessing a presence briefly. It’s how Wabuke wants us to see: life like “tiny match stick toys.”

The word “movement” in the title illustrates a dual meaning: physical movement and orchestral movements, the actual text caters to the ebb and flow of daily life while also illustrating the navigation through an urban jungle. The energy never stops.

Wabuke begins her first poem in mid-sentence— we are moving already—and the train is alive in all of its magnificent silver glory. We have all waited for a train but Wabuke’s writing anticipates an animal coming around the corner:

 

“…and when she waits, knowing its coming by the movement of light

across rusted metal, the dirty white tiles of tunnel wall almost

beautiful in the light sliding closer through darkness…she imagines the sound she hears is breathing.”

Like a mystical living force the train gives birth to shadow and light. Turning corners unseen, making noise, consuming space. We read these poems as blurryeyed infants seeking out black and white shapes, alternately lulled and startled by Wabuke’s insightful words and descriptions.

Metal is a wonderful detail that ties people together in this book. Who is holding the metal poles, who lets go of them to fall into each other as the train lurches ahead, who holds steady. The metal is a lifeline for all of the riders, forced to hold on and mesh their limbs into places that don’t mesh. There is other frenetic pops of color as well. The colors Wabuke uses are very specific: grey, (grey water, grey bridges, grey sky,) but also a relieving blue ink sky, a yellow moon piercing the night, and popping red seats are beacons of light and reprieve amongst the train’s cacophony.

 

“sometimes when she sits on the red plastic chair that is one among

many alternating rows of yellow and red seats bolted to the inside

walls of the train, she is not used to so much space below her…shifting

slightly against molded plastic shape that does not fit her form.”

 

It is through this image, trying to curve one’s body into a tiny plastic chair, that we meet “him.” He is mostly described in the past tense already, almost as soon as we meet him, he is gone.

At one time he used to bump arms against the girl in the poems, but no longer. We get the sense of “him” and time, whooshing by. He is there one second, gone the next, like a missed train.

 

“…he would hold her hand then, first pressing two fingers tight

to circle her wrist marking the point of meeting until, releasing, he

would hold the two fingers up to his eye, laugh and call her tiny…”

 

And then later:

 

“and on the day after his leaving. she notices his absence in the

awkward stillness of her legs, the way her arms hang stiffly at her

sides…”

His presence is secondary to the action of the train, the girl, and the crowds. The masses are always moving: dancing on the platform while waiting for the train to a hypnotic drum beat, hands waving above heads, eyes in heads looking up for rain. All of the senses blur together magnificently where one can never escape noise or people. This could be any city.

Wabuke captures an ethereal stillness amongst such noise and music. People sway and look and touch and never stop but it is beautiful. The masses moving and stopping is similar to an orchestral swell or street performer ten minute act. She writes:

 

“…he would touch drumsticks to upside-down white buckets to make beats, she would

see sound touch tile in tunnel walls and touch heels to ground.

rocking upward in tiny motions, she would lift hands lightly; she

would move her body in tiny circles of his rhythm.”

 

These masses move and strive to find a rhythm and a place in the world that makes sense. As Wabuke so accurately describes: “the pressing of a shape into something else.” Strangers mingling can be unsettling, but Wabuke joins them, links us to a higher power. These poems are so spiritual despite describing and participating in a commute, which is often a source of stress for most people. Wabuke writes:

 

“…in this space without sound or light, she will remember how in the

sounding of first explorations they would move parts to form one

body. so she will stand, rise and press close to half-open window,

push frame to crawl out. the train, restarting.”

Wabuke’s words transport us out of the train, into the pouring rain, into the sky. The water invades the tunnels and platforms. This natural element is not supposed to exist down here along the cement with the rats, sprawling puddles on concrete, dripping its own drum sound. Yet here it is. It finds a way in through rivulets, the ceiling breaks open, people push with one big surge to get out, escape into daylight, reborn. The water is a relief.

No matter what walls and tunnels are built, the boundaries of silence, not making eye contact with someone five inches from your face on a train, human-ness finds a way, rushes to the next stop, runs to get to the exit first to breathe the fresh air.Trains_cover

In these poems, Wabuke deftly explores that transition form “I” to “you” to “us” and back again. Leaving the inside to step outside is tough, but she tells us the movement will happen, whether we like it or not.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. Recent chapbooks are out or forthcoming from Grey Book Press, Dancing Girl Press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her first full length collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Pith Right Hand Pointing, Chiron Review, Cider Press Review and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

Elizabeth Bishop

When I first read Bishop as a young poet, I was dazzled by her perfect syntax and rhythmic modulation, the nearly flawless detail of images. Rereading her as, I would like to think, a mature poet, I am struck by the power of her social conscience. Pity is the underlying feeling she conveys, compassion and a deep feeling for the injustice of privilege. Few of her poems overtly express outrage, but it is very much at the surface with a poem like Pink Dog. It is so clearly about how society at large treats its poor and homeless, wanting them to just dress up and play a part so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable by their presence. But in light of it, I reflected on other, earlier, Bishop poems and realize they do the same thing, such as House Guest. Here is a figure who is forced to live a life not of her own choosing. In that context, the poem concludes,

Can it be that we nourish
one of the Fates in our bosoms?
Clotho, sewing our lives
with a bony little foot
on a borrowed sewing machine,
and our fates will be like hers
and our hems crooked forever?

It recalls Kennedy’s assertion that “freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” It aligns with what happens in the poem “In the Waiting Room.” The speaker, about to turn seven, realizes her singular self, “you are an Elizabeth,” and this is coeval with realizing she belongs to humanity, “you are one of them.” But this gives rise to countless questions of identity—what does it mean? So the speaker asks,

What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?

The poem returns, in the end, to its historical (and social) context: World War I.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

Again the poem is located in social issues, constructs. Where do our allegiances lie and why, the poem seems to ask. Or, more importantly, why decide to kill for country or cause when to be you or anyone, well, “nothing stranger/had ever happened, that nothing/stranger could ever happen.” All those running about killing and obsessing over borders and politics and power and land are like Bishop’s sandpiper, lost in the details of a world that is

minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!

Her poetry seems to say, take pity on us, on yourself. We are alone, even in the most crowded city. And for those with privilege, even more so, take pity. As the speaker in Manuelzinho says at the end, speaking to his land worker, whom he had looked down on,

You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or do I?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.
Again I promise to try.

Her poetry or its speakers do not even presume to know themselves fully. They have the humility of realizing that absolute self-knowledge is limited and to presume it is to fall into the same evil as those who presume to any kind of absolute knowledge. Every flawed one of us must humbly struggle to be a better person in whatever station we find ourselves.

If you haven’t heard yet, Mark Strand has released a new book with Monk Books called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka.

In honor of this beautiful new book, THEthe will be giving away a signed copy of this limited edition chapbook. All you have to do to “enter” the drawing for this book is make a comment on any THEthe post (past, present, or future). Each comment is an entry to win, so feel free to go crazy (we like your comments anyhow!). Please observe the commenting guidelines; no spam or blatantly vapid comments, please.

Please sign in with some form of contact information (via Facebook, Twitter, etc.) so that we can contact you if your name is drawn.

I recently learned how to use spreadsheets, and despite my own self-warnings about abstraction and its dangers, the ability to manipulate vast rows of numbers is beguiling to me.

Using my newfound ability, I have created a rather uncomplicated formula to get this list of the 10 “most popular” posts in 2010. It’s too simple just to use “hits” or pageviews. Lots of people accidentally surf into a website and surf out as fast as they came (Google giveth and Google taketh away). My formula takes unique hits, time spent on a post, as well as bounce and exit rate all into account. All answers, of course, are functions of the question, so…take this list with a grain of salt.

1. Dorothea Lasky’s Poetry is not a Project or Cutting More Lines in the Cosmic Divide by Ben Fama

Dorothea Lasky’s POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT made huge waves when debuted at this years AWP. The newest book on UDP‘s Dossier imprint, Lasky lays out, in 19 quick pages, a theory of poetry that reaches back through High Romanticism into a more hermetic time. Illustrated beautiful throughout bySarah Glidden, Lasky’s theory pushes against the limits set out by conceptual writing, striding toward a more cosmic and otherwordly approach to artistic creation. There’s a lineage of deep thought coming from poets back from Blake to Spicer’s ideas of poetic dictaction and Barbara Guest’s short collection of writing on art, Forces of Imagination. I was graced with the wondrous task of editing this book, and I present to you a soundbytey narrated version of the greater text, so you can get a flavor of what’s happening here.

2. The Ill-Wrought Urn? A Literary Critical Debate in Truth & Beauty, Part 1 by Adam Fitzgerald

One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.

3. Holy Saturday by Adam Fitzgerald

Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the least thought upon, least looked upon day in the Easter Triduum. But it has in the last few years come to epitomize for me my own life, spiritual and otherwise, where the pomp and majesty of supernatural events ceases; no gods dying, no gods reborn—merely dormancy on all fronts. This is the day when Jesus lay within his tomb; when the great hoax of the messiah was over; when if there was a hell, Christ descended.

4. Alexander McQueen, RIP by Stuart Krimko

I’m don’t consider myself a comfortable elegist (is anyone?), but reading of Alexander McQueen’s death this morning forces me to take up the mantle. I’m not a huge fashion-buff, but I made the walk past the McQueen store on 14th Street a highlight of my daily commute when I worked in Chelsea. His clothes seemed to me wild and well-tailored in the English way. His suits would have fit beautifully in this show at the V&A in London a few years back; he’s one of the only contemporary designers who would have fit, I think; and I mean fit while also doing his own, completely contemporary thing. That show, by the way, was a revelation.

5. Andrei Tarkovsky and the Visionary Experience by Stewart Lundy

We modern people forget how extraordinary it is for us to have such extravagant colors in our everyday lives. Even a hundred years ago, this was not the case. Common place things like big red barns were not painted that way to exhibit color, but because red paint was the cheapest at the time.

6. Some Sort of Truth: Dorothea Lasky’s BLACK LIFE Hurts Like Joy by Lonely Christopher

Dorothea Lasky is a poet of petulant grace. The particular way she does is she carves into the alphabet for poetry’s hurtfully buried, metastasized epiphanies of black life. Thence comes the fragments of jagged wonder she strings together to decorate her verse with pretty conflict. Her wonder (love and awe) is heavy and plain, stilted like she’s writing after a concussion, but the generalness of language (many fundamental ideas repeating, put forth directly) is thick—it spills over the edges of its meaning into the scary beyond. She meets herself in conversation with the space outside experience’s edges. That is the damaged holiness brought out: a haze of dirty purity like a cough toward an inaccessible God. It hurts like joy.

7. Theory of Everything Abridged by Ben Fama

Ben Luzzatto’s THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, ABRIDGED (UDP, 2010) is one of those rare artifacts that transfers its own actual magic—and it is real magic—until the possessed begins to lift a bit toward the sky.

8. AN AGREEMENT REQUIRES / AN OFFER AND ACCEPTANCE by Emily Pettit

I came here to get you excited.
We have an accidental stare-down.
No bees, no money. No one says this.

9. “Prepare for Peoplery” by Christie Ann Reynolds

I assemble flapping into a mechanical bird.

10. Aesthete and Propagandist: An Interview with Gene Tanta by Brooks Lampe

To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.

And for good measure I’m going to throw in number 11 because I loved this post:

11. Here Be Dragons by Colie Hoffman

We all have our ways of dealing with the unknown, I guess. Apparently cartographers used to write “Here be dragons” on sections of uncharted territory, especially oceans, where they drew pictures of giant sea serpents. One ancient Roman map cautioned travelers about the presence of dog-headed beings. Another 15th-century map warns of men with horns.

Ode to the The

I liked that you were small and thick,
easy to recognize.  I think
I thought you were married to and, who was often
somewhere in the sentence, holding things
together, while you would be standing, a tin
soldier, the rifle barrel of your h
sticking up over your shoulder.  I felt a little
sorry for you, always announcing,
never the thing itself.  When I looked
you up, they said your meaning is “controlled
by the notion ‘previously recognized,
noticed or encountered,’” and your Indo-European
base is *-to-, and *-ta-, each of them
the’d with its asterisk.  O the,
I have never thanked you, guardian of the noun,
worker ant, moving things along as if
from underneath–river of the,
wheels of the.  Thank you for always
being yourself, never adding
a letter to make a scary face
from within the phrase.  All honor to thee,
enduring grammatical gristle, plain
flourish, stalwart bugler–the the of this song.

_______________________________________

Sharon Olds is the author of many books including Satan Says, which received the San Francisco Poetry Center Award and The Dead and the Living which was both the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983 and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest collection is Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002. Professor Olds holds the Erich Maria Remarque Professorship at NYU.

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