January Exemplars: Books for the Turn of the Year

A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.


JANUARY EXEMPLARS 2015: Books for the Turn of the Year

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Repast by D.A. Powell. Graywolf Press. 206 pages.

A Woman Without A Country by Eavan Boland. WW Norton. 79 pages.

Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations by Naomi Ayala. Bilingual Press. 76 pages.

WMD: A Memoir by Richard Harteis. Poets’ Choice. 202 pages.

Plus Best Books List for January


Repast by D.A. Powell Graywolf Press. 206 pages.

When you open D.A. Powell’s Repast, the fireworks begin.  

The book combines three previous volumes: Tea/Lunch/Cocktails. The Table of Contents for each book becomes a subtext as well as a poem. Under the section “Tea,” the contents read: “Tea Leaves, Tea Dance, Spilling Tea, Tea Rooms, Reading Tea “ etc. Then under each of these sections is the first line of a poem. For ex: under “Tea Leaves,” the following titles:

[to and to open with a field: andy buried under a hunters moon. deer born of headlights}

[gary asleep in his recliner. this prison work clobbers him. today that the men stand unguarded]

[nicolas the ridiculous, you will always be 27 and impossible. no more expectations]

[kenny lost in the mine shaft among silver stalactites. his irises bloom in darkness]

Powell’s Tables of Contents are Russian nesting dolls.

David Leavitt’s intro, a fine piece, says that D.A. Powell “mixes gay slang, homosexual kitsch, shutter-inducing eroticism and a vocabulary to rival that of Norman Rush…” 

Powell’s staccato line lengths, imaginative spacing, occasional doodles, dashes, and lack of punctuation change your breathing. There is no middle field of emotion. It is full-throttle-all-stops-out-social-grace-be-damned as he works us through the process of being more human than we can bear. 

The book had me at a quote from Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies, a friend gone thirty plus years now. Hemphill’s words, used as an epigraph: “when I was ten, thirteen, twenty — I wanted candy, five dollars, a ride…”

Powell is a permanent source of primal longing, loss and lyricism. The poet Laura Orem says ‘all we have is from the top of our head to our toes’ – but what Powell manages to do with this is very deep swimming. His loose lines are revelations calling us to attention. He opens the last door that’s been closed on the passion of homosexual life- force (not style) turning it to reverence. Listen to these titles and then lines taken from his poems:  

[my neck at toothsome feeding ground.  Vespered swarms had drunk of me before this new Batman]. “…he will believe he is the one hero…I must remember to wince when I feel his fangs”

[I wore the green bandanna as often as I could, cheaper than plane fare. less baggage]. The epigraph or this: When you see a pretty boy with the slave auctioneer, the assumption is that he wants to be sold…Catullus. Last phrase of the poem,  “…the same spot in my heart where traffic stopped”

[sleek mechanical dart: the syringe noses into the blue vein marking the target of me] last line, “…I’ll throw parties where death blindfolded is spun: won’t someone be stuck. and won’t I be missed

From the section “Bibliography” is the poem [coda & discography] which includes a listing of songs and performers:

“… here is the door marked HEAVEN: someone on the dance floor, waiting just for you:

        so many men, so little time [miquel brown]

       calling all boys by the flirts. patrick cowley’s menergy

       only the strong survive [precious wilson] or I will survive [gloria gaynor]

 …

Get the book. Read the list.


A Woman Without A Country by Eavan Boland. WW Norton. 79 pages.

“There is no ordinary love,” Boland says, and her book goes on to prove it via generational history, marriage, ancestry and family. Her rhythm is a declarative stance that scans the page so smoothly we look for whatever lies beneath. In the literal, she shows the divine.

There will always be famine throughout history; there will be disjuncture and upheaval, but Bolden’s poetic survey of Ireland soothes the country toward resiliency and strength. The poems by stanza appear traditional, however there is a pleasant disobedience to convention that’s graceful and enduring. We call this craft.

What is the agreement Boland makes with the reader? We can expect a tranquil description of a complex and turbulent world, as imagination’s industrious plan allows us to know a woman, her people and her country deeply and honestly: whatever we might wonder about will be explained directly and clearly in a following stanza.

As an aside: few poets can use objects and make them sing exactly like Eavan Boland. I remember an article she wrote about using objects in poetry in the American Poetry Review maybe 25 years ago; she spoke of a pearl necklace — and  it was like holding  the necklace warm in your hands. So it is with this book — electric bulbs, copper pots, pastel silks, kettles, collars, rags. These things vibrate with her life.

Whether her poem is about translating from the Anglo-Saxon, or is about reading a Victorian novel, or rereading Oliver Goldsmith, Eavan Boland invites us into her home with its past, and we will not want to leave in a hurry.

Wedding Poem

                                               On the occasion of the marriage of Eavan Casey to

                                                                              Eamonn Barry, October 16th 2012.

Now on this day of promises

October light finds a way

To join the distance to our sight

For a moment that cannot stay.

As if to prove what we know:

There is no ordinary day.

 

Now on this day of promises,

One hand beneath and one above,

Each with a separate history,

Will join together as if to prove

The never worn-out covenant:

There is no ordinary love.


Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations by Naomi Ayala. Bilingual Press. 76 pages.

A nice feature to Naomi Ayala’s book is the section of notes following the poems that describe the Spanish terms. This is a bonus to a book that summons us inside a person who seeks to recognize and describe our commonality with particulars. How does one world conflate to another but in an emotional language of belonging? These are simple and elegant speeches, in verse, describing a pattern to life that is seen and felt — a compatibility with the self and its losses — so the world suddenly seems less wooden.

Ayala’s quiet tones stretch her memories, projecting them onto her every day observations — a bus ride in the city, a restaurant, a wish to hear her own language in Great Britain. She resurrects stories we each might have, when feeling alienated even in our own home town. She informs us with particular tastes and desires and makes her view ours. Ayala’s accounts of people seen on the street, and those she knew and loved, are like we are looking through a picture window to her heart. Precise and intense. And the poems? They are like looking into her eyes.

For Remembrance

 

I didn’t come here in sweat.

I came here laughing.

Laughing, I built the world.

Singing, I blew life into cell, rock, bone,

Ask me why I am silent.

I speak the unwinding

Through which the wind blows.

Listen and you will remember me.

There are echoes everywhere.

Laugh back.


WMD: A Memoir by Richard Harteis. Poets’ Choice. 202 pages.

The whole world Richard Harteis occupies is distilled into one volume. A writer’s alchemy.

I’ve been reading WMD for a couple of days and stayed home, today, expressly, to live with it all day long. Immersion in another person’s life is a way of living twice. Today is also the birthday of nostalgia-machine, Frank Albert Sinatra, providing an appropriate soundtrack on the radio.

WMD stands for white matter disease providing a through line for the narrative, as we follow Harteis’ interest in his brain for the past few years.  The book’s cover is a series of brain scans, MRIs that Richard has turned into happy and sad faces. This is so Harties-esque. The deterioration of primary cells becomes a poetic foil for a work of art. And who can think of a better use for them? I wanted to sit with this writing for unbroken hours, not during commercials, because this book demands that kind of respect. It’s not an insignificant journey, this one toward mortality or immortality — and the panache to face it is found right here.

Harteis always has his gaydar on, finding love in strange places and sometimes he’s prurient and sometimes he’s pure. Sex, the great arbiter of well-being, and the fountain of youth, keeps flowing here — even with a few photos, not pornographic, more poetic graphic, but put it up on the shelf away from the children.   

Also included are photos of a lifetime of friends, documenting some of the most inspired freewheeling writing you’ll read this year: letters, ruminations, philosophy

Richard Harteis is blessed with the gift of effortlessness; his pen does not miss a beat. His line describes, exhibits, plunges; his excursions are verbal handsprings somehow nailed to the page. I can’t imagine how it feels to have words go just the way one likes them every minute.

Harteis tells the tale of his 36-year monogamous relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning former U.S. Poet Laureate William Meredith, who was a friend to us all. The story has been told in previous books, Marathon (prose); Revenant (poetry); plus others, but this memoir expands on many intentions and understandings that have come after the party is over.

WMD is rethinking of a careful existence with a loved one after he’s gone, the hidden fear that we can never love again (or be loved), the many substitutes and stand-ins. The people who Richard beds, he truly loves; yet, they’re seen as the aftereffects of some motion that will never again be brought up to speed. Yet he tries.

Harteis gets up in the morning and does his International Thing, in Paris, Bulgaria, Connecticut, Florida, with in-between loves, and a sweet female companion. He runs a Foundation, publishes poets, gives national awards, mounts art exhibits, schmoozes with the glitterati, the great and the near grateful.

There is nice literary history woven in with Meredith’s old friends, W.H. Auden, James Merrill, Josephine Jacobsen. I might as well get Poets & Writers directory instead of trying to list them, because William and Richard “lived the life” on every continent with great poetry icons.

WMD: A Memoir tracks these times  through to the present condition: white brain disease, with truck-stop love, marvelous poetry — his and others — and sorry, if it is a cliché — but a final search to find out who Richard Harteis really is, other than a tricky thyroid condition, and atrial fibrillation. This book is never boring, not a second: at times it floats in beauty, quiet and reflective; each day is a foreshadowing of something that cannot quite be named; and people are omens for the living and the dead in a life etched in finite time. Other times, it’s funny and raunchy.

Most of Richard’s friends are handsomely quoted, photoed, and praised — a few doctors’ assistants are scourged.

Another note: My computer’s Dragon voice recognition hears Harteis as “ Heart Ties,” and maybe the dragon is right.

Whether he’s at black-tie affairs or wearing a Speedo — Richard Harteis escapes death every day through poetic sustenance until finally his illusions become reality and, thankfully for the reader, stylish ones at that. 


Others on BEST BOOKS LIST  

Drumming on Water by Susan Sonde. Finishing Line Press. 21 pages.

 Loved this poet’s work for more than 30 years.  

(The beginning section of a 4-page poem)

 

TACTILE IS THE STORM OF OUR OWN MAKING

I am the soap

in your future, that fragrance

 

you rinse

from your hands,

 

Splash of water in the sink,

the salt brushed casually from your lap:

 

You don’t subscribe to me anymore.

Your clarinet plays on.

 

I come to the door, look in and pass,

satisfied for a time

 

to connect with you by sound.

But the thought of you

 

ardent in another country

awakens my mind… 


Journey to the Heart Waters by Louisa Calio. Legas. 76 pages.

America, Italy, Africa braided in an extraordinary voyage to Africa.

(The beginning and end stanzas)

Black Madonnas


In the small villages

             black madonnas

                        fly from me like a flock of ravens.


From behind thick red-mud walls

when I approach.


Only men are permitted to extend a greeting.

Who makes this visual joke?

Is this heaven or hell

and I the foreign devil?

I wonder as I walk,

the only woman in pants

across a desert land

Still asking the Mother-Nile for answers.


The Threat of Rain by Michael Glaser. Seasonings Press. 22 pages.

 A favorite poet, with new poems of introspection.

The Dreams That Shake Me Awake

 

How might I name the thunder

rumbling along the landscape of my heart,

the nightmares that shake me awake?

 

And dare I follow these threads?

What if they become a woven rope

rising high in to bell tower?

 

What if the bell urges me to remember

the desire burning, still, within?

What if it cries out, “pull hard, pull hard!”

 

And if it does,

what then?


A Packet of Brickhouse Books

And For The Mouth A Flower by J. Tarwood. Brickhouse. 93 pages.

Sharp penetrating poems.

The Starry Hammock


God’s off in his starry hammock,

singing and boozing to bits

his bloody brain. It’s how he

heaves heavy loads out of mind.

Dick thick at last with divine piss,

God aches for Old Nick

to aim it like a bazooka

and let him douse the world again,

blessed face rapt

while his drumming stream cuts

our true names into clumps of mud.


Portrait without a mouth by Andrei Guruianu. Brickhouse. 88 pages

(&) made in the image of stones by Andrei Guruianu. Brickhouse. 84 pages.

A Romanian poet now writing in America.

The Eastern European Poets


Love-roughened, timeless,

Splinters caught in a derelict rain

Saints of the catastrophe cathedral

Smoking cigarettes

Still standing at the end of

Yet another miserable decade

Fire burning poetry on book covers.


A Parting Glass, A Remembrance of Ireland, by Bradley R. Strahan. Brickhouse. 24 pages.

Sweet, elegant poems.

A Book Of Common Prayer

(St. James Church , Mallow)
 

Let me not for the flowers

by the altar placed.


Let me not for the windows

that glean with grace 


Let me not for the music,

simple voice raised.


Let me still recall

the goodness that amazed


though nothing follows

being in this state of grace:


no more smiles, no more roses

and none there to embrace.


In 2015, Grace Cavalieri celebrates 38 years on air with “The Poet and the Poem,” recorded at the Library of Congress for distribution to public radio. Her latest poetry books (2014) are The Man Who Got Away (new academia/scarith) and The Mandate of Heaven (Bordighera).


Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books 
7029 Ridge Road 
Frederick, MD 21702

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