October 2014 Poetry Exemplars

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


An Individual History by Michael CollierW.W. Norton and Company, now in paperback, 80 pages.

The Book of Scented Things, edited by Jehanne Dubrow & Lindsay Lusby. Literary House Press. 144 pages.

Saint Friend by Carl Adamshick. McSweeney’s Poetry Series. 58 pages.

Blood Lyrics by Katie Ford. Graywolf Press. 62 pages.

BACCHAEA new translation of Euripides by Robin Robertson. Preface by Daniel Mendelsohn, Ecco/Harper Collins.85 pages.


An Individual History by Michael Collier. W.W. Norton and Company, now in paperback, 80 pages.

 

I now have a new take on this book I’d read once before. 

I think the signature in Colliers’ writing is that it is always on the verge of confessing something not said. We cannot help being genuinely interested because we almost get an interior view into the poem’s emotional life–making it all the more tempting. This is elegance in writing where we get a major part of the spirit behind the poem; and, a sliver is held just out of reach. I wish I knew how to do this— not to say too little – not to say too much. It’s a kind of behavior in poetry. This comes from the restraint of the classic poets and the loneliness of the metaphysical poets.

Collier gives us the root cause of a story, the essence of its music, a balanced narrative, and at the same time creates a kind of illusion made permanent, as if there is more we could intuit. What interests me is that it’s not so much a contemporary sensibility as it is an ancient technique – writing a nucleus of thought and then letting it pulsate on its own, without emotional editorializing. 

Holding Michael Colliers’ poems together is a picture made broad, then a retreat, then an intrinsic mystery left to us. The X factor. Poetry is a teacher and Collier trusts us to learn on the deepest possible level. Each poem has, at its heart, an honest inner vow we trust— a decency. The overt drama is not declared, yet there is an assertion and authority that it’s there. This paradox is effective, and I don’t know if a writer can plan it. The poet either has such a range of spiritual flexibility or hasn’t. This is why Collier’s poetry has been called” haunting.” From At a End of A Ninetieth Summer

 

Like Yeats’ wild swans their uneven number

suggests at least one of them is no longer mated. 

Added up, their several ages are short of a millennium 

This means the melting ice cubes are silent music beneath

their slow talk, and slow talk is how gods murmur

when eternity comes to an end.

The way it feels for these friends who amaze themselves 

With what they remember – not the small details –

   

But how long ago lives happened and how fast.

 


The Book of Scented Things,
edited by Jehanne Dubrow & Lindsay Lusby. Literary House Press. 144 pages.

Dubrow and Lusby have done something entirely original in the history of poetry anthology. Its precept states, What if 100 contemporary American poets were sent individually selected vials of perfume, each fragrance chosen to reflect the author’s voice… What if they were asked to write new poems in response? Yes, and wouldn’t we love to know more about the mailing process of these 100 vials of perfume. Until we hear more about that, I want to say the ingenuity and playfulness has inspired good poems from some of our best writers. As you can imagine, every invitee embraced the task, and we get 100 different sensibilities via 100 poetic neurological pathways. Some poets spread their wings in large narratives as with Tyler Mills’ “Progress as  Autumn Spice Dabbed onto Your Throat;” some render elegant couplets, Brian Brodeur’s “Barred Owls;” many are rich with legend—George Green’s “Cardinal.”

Every poetic form is represented. In each poem there’s something to remember, whether an interesting structure, an upbeat synthesizing, a simple repetition— or a  chic double cutaway, as in Maureen Thorson’s” A Real Psychology;” and, let us now praise magnificent minutia in Jessica Piazza’s ‘Too pretty for words.” Jehanne DuBrow works with a beautiful relationship to scent in ‘The Long Deployment,” and Sandra Beasley digs her toes into sensuality, “Banked.” From Lindsay Lusby’s Elegy with Osage-Orange, “This mockery smashed open / is surely not grief (for as much/ as any citrus can be). But maybe//it’s love?...

The delight of this collection is in the stimulus and reward – the sniffing of something delicious. 


Saint Friend by Carl Adamshick. McSweeney’s Poetry Series. 58 pages.

I thought, well, I’ve read so many good books of poetry – one a day, on a good day – maybe it’s time to give the job to someone else; and then I received Saint Friend. Just think, I would have missed this. How do I describe how taken I am by surprise that – poem after poem –Adamshick could write like the first person who ever wrote a poem; or, maybe, a poet who makes us feel the way we did when we read our first poem.

Poetry is a way of performing. It gives and takes until the writer is satisfied. That’s the first thing I know. The next thing is how constantly amazing it is that a poet can write in such a way that his name is attached to every line of it. These poems could not have been written by anyone else – and that’s the highest praise. There is never a tremor, never a sense of failure in one phrase. The work is like breath – paced, that naturally . After we agree poetry is the highest and best use of words, here, suddenly, is something more: We are present inside a man’s life and the poetry is what we have left. It surpasses the debate about what makes good poetry. These are convincing emotions in aspirations that become poems held out to us, so genuinely. While the world is burning, and we live in such a complex time – this is the stuff that makes us glad to be here. The book starts: 

LAYOVER 

They keep paging Kenneth Koch at the airport. 

Someone should let the announcer know

he is dead, that there is no city he can go to,

that no one is expecting him. Once, I applied 

to be a horse. The mirror of night had shed 

its clothes, and I needed to be something

that mattered. I needed to scrape my brown

flank against the bark of a ponderosa. 

My friends have moved away. They sleep

in places I’ve never been. And here we are.

It’s the most miraculous thing. We walk

over counter- weighted bridges in love

with snow tumbling through their lights. 

These are the people we are. Saint friend,

carry me when I am tired and carry yourself,

let’s keep singing the songs we don’t live by,

let’s meet tomorrow. We don’t have to wait 

until the holidays. The distance is long,

but it is nothing…

And there is this, one among poems for each day in February:

 February Fifteenth

I thought when you died

something else would go with you

the  lime leaf           black currant. 

I thought we would skip summer

that the box turtle would become extinct

that we would be           unable        to eat.


 

Days kept passing. I remember now.

We were drinking red tea.

You were telling me about the stars

and all I could think was how your hat

was blocks away         sitting

on a pile of raked leaves. 


Blood Lyrics by Katie Ford. Graywolf Press. 62 pages. 

What if a poet feels more than a poet can feel. What can be built from this? In Blood Lyrics Katie Ford takes us through the ensemble of words and feelings that accompany watching a newborn, while hoping for its survival. She immediately connects to our lives, for the body is the temple of the soul, and she manages to make the interaction unforgettable. What gives story power? Tradition is one part of it, for all of us are, line after line, compelled and inspired to wish the poem good luck. It rests on a tradition of maternity in the highest sense of the word. The poetry plugs into a universal hunger and energy – a newborn child – a mother and father suddenly made different by a life/death struggle.

Although the construct sounds as if it could have been written before – it could not have – because Ford transports us inside the energy of longing. The poem starts inside her person. And big ideas can burst unless they are rediscovered by beautifully made language. Ford’s music is the internal logic of the poem. Her phraseology is like every word was designed to love beauty. This is the perfect example of a writer who bears tremendous responsibility for unbundling material that could cause despair, and instead sets Angels’ wings clapping by her cadence and craft.

Little Torch

There should have been delight, delight 

and wind chimes, delight.

But she was clawing the beach

after so much battering,

a torch lit past the slim pine pitch

and draw of resin she was dipped in

at the beginning of the earth.

  

They said life might flee—

then tended the creature as if a torch,

bundling reeds tightly as day torched

toward them,

soaking rags in lime and sulfur

around barely lit bone.

 

Such are the wonders I saw.


BACCHAE
: A new translation of Euripides by Robin Robertson. Preface by Daniel Mendelsohn, Ecco/Harper Collins.85 pages.

The action of the play begins with the god Dionysus’s return to Thebes, to punish the family for their treatment of his mother ;and their refusal to see him as a god and worship him. He is the god of wine and ecstasy. In his absence the kingdom had been turned over to Pentheus (Dionysus’s cousin.) It was Pentheus who refused to offer sacrifices to Dionysus in Thebes. 

Pantheus represents law and order, rational man, and is threatened by Dionysian rites bringing the women from the city into the forest to cavort in bacchanal. He sees nothing divine in what he perceives as drunken debauchery. He attempts to bind Dionysus but the god turns into a bull, displaying his magical abilities. The conflict between sensuality and restraint is upon what all action depends: rich with drama, cross dressing, mutilation. Dionysus rules in the end and punishes the family with his godly powers.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s preface is a necessary reference point, setting up a functioning system for our reading of Robin Robinson’s new translation. It‘s been a while for me, so I’m reading Bacchae as if for the first time, and I can recommend the clarity of the translation, meaning we know exactly what’s going on at every stage of the writing. I believe the ability to maintain a conversational and colloquial tone, while managing archaic thought forms, is an accomplishment. I don’t think there are complete reinventions of original speech, but Robinson maintains a robust and exuberant style, as only a figurative poet could. As different a world as Euripides inhabited, it seems there are analogies to divisions in the world today— as great art always suits every time in history.  Mendelsohn points out how this play, above all others, reveals the origins of theater, and this play is a template for the original theatrical occasion, in its unique use of chorus and a “god” as an actual character. It’s time to brush up on our Greek theater and here’s a stunning chance. Robinson does not have characters express more than they feel which is good. Because of elaborate Greek plots/actions, translators could exaggerate to clownishness. Not here. The speech is worthy of a 21st century audience.

Dionysus

…you, Cadmus, will be turned into a snake,

as will your wife, Harmonia, daughter of Ares.

Then both of you, according to the oracle of Zeus,

will be drawn by oxen in a cart,

lead a barbarian horde and sack many cities.

When your army plunders the shrine of Apollo, though,

its homecoming will be dangerous and unhappy.

But Ares will save you both,

and bring you to the Land of the Blessed.

 

I, Dionysus, speak these words.

I, no son of a mortal, but of Zeus.

If you had shown sense before,

you would have found happiness, and an ally in me,

the son of Zeus.


Grace Cavalieri is a writer. She produces/hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio, celebrating her 37th year on-air.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702

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