September 2013 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


EXEMPLARS

Go Giants by Nick Laird. W.W. Norton & Co.69 pgs.

Birth Marks: Poems by Jim Daniels. Boa Editions LTD. 104 pgs.

Plus

BEST BOOKS FOR SEPTEMBER READING

Playing Bach in the D.C. Metro: Poems by David Lee Garrison. Browser Books Publishing. 59pgs.

Life Work: Poems by Charlotte Mandel. David Roberts Books. 96 pgs.

The Understanding between Foxes and Light, edited by Jane Ormerod, Thomas Fucaloro, Russ Green, George Wallace. great weather for Media Press. 143 pgs.

Her BookPoems by Eireann lorsung. Milkweed Editions. 76 pgs.

In The Kingdom of the Ditch: Poems by Todd Davis. Michigan State University Press. 93 pgs.

Both Sides of the Niger by Andrew Kaufman. Spuyten Duyvil Press. 80 pgs.

The Year Lived Over & Over by Clyde Fixmer. Dragonfly Press. 87 pgs.

Havoc: New and Selected Poems by Linda Stern Zisquit. The Sheep Meadow Press.177 pgs.


Go Giants by Nick Laird. W.W. Norton & Co. 69 pgs.

Anyone who wants to know the sound of the Irish in present day, from the glory of time-past has only to read Nick Laird. Laird writes with a dark raucous joy and can be silly and can also be a prophet. James Joyce laid the groundwork for the specific in the universal and Irish poets are usually held up to that light. Nick Laird has the music, the phraseology and the panache to break old patterns to make new, and literature is furthered by his presence.

First, you gotta love a poet who will write a poem with 60 established phrases beginning with “Go.” In the title poem Go Giants, here’s the 5th/end stanza.

Go in peace to love and serve the,

Go and get help. Go directly to jail.

Go down in flames. Go up in smoke.

Go for broke. Go tell Aunt Rhody.

Go tell the Spartans. Go to hell.

Go into detail. Go for the throat.

This is a legend building way to deal with life’s essentials. Even tragedy is funny. The true humorist uses the edges of language to his advantage so not only is the content: 1) playful 2) fanciful 3) wacky, but, the cadence, diction and rhythm have to be pitch perfect so as not to become leaden—grounded. Laird has no fear of that—the flamboyance of his writing is tightly controlled. This makes playfulness the social commentary that’s intended.

Laird takes on pomposity of all sorts, and religion as well. Convention, myth and everyday events all take a spin in a “Doctor Who” sensibility. Here are the first and last stanzas of Epithalamium:

You’re the beeswax and I’m birdshit.

I’m mostly harmless. You’re irrational.

If I’m iniquity then you’re theft.

One of us is supercalifragilistic.

and I am Trafalger, and you’re Waterloo,

and frequently it seems to me that I am you,

and you are me. If I’m the rising incantation

you’re the charm, or I am, or you are.

In a world where so many write like everyone else, no one writes like Laird. Who could imitate his salty tongue and fire-filled brain? A 23-page poem ending the book is an epistolary of autobiography and philosophy, sometimes addressed to an old friend, David. But after all of the high performance pieces I come back to a quiet poem of domesticity, Talking in Kitchens:

Our friend Michael comes by and we sit at the table,

eating a curry from the Bombay Club

and passing the baby between us


When Michael has left we head upstairs

and the baby’s asleep and we’ve talked ourselves out

and we feel as we feel every day of the year


like nobody knows how we feel and that’s fine,

because our secrets live near the secrets of others,

and our wants are not so mean.


Easement comes in the weirdest of places

like that blue fire lit in the wood-burning stove

or the face on the dog when he chews at a carrot.


Here it is written down if I forget to say it—

My home is the temple made by your hands.


Birth Marks: Poems by Jim Daniels. Boa Editions LTD. 104 pgs.

When a reviewer writes that a new book is out and “it’s time for celebration,” I say blah blah blah—now what do we do when a new book is out and it’s REALLY time for celebration! Jim Daniels’ tactics can be compared to an athlete’s—graceful, balanced and FAST. He writes till he gets to the finish line—the winner. His dominion is the grit of “the city”—Detroit, Pittsburgh—his strength comes from the city’s collective unconscious that he brings to consciousness. He’s a wellspring for all things during the steely 1970’s; and folds that into the steely present day. His eco system is the demise of youth and the tragedy we face every day merely by having relationships. And how we do not possess the strength or wisdom to understand what happens to us – but somehow through memory, faith in imagination, and the will of language, Daniels does it.

The poem Company Men begins like this: My grandfather worked at Packard’s for 43 years./ My father worked at Ford’s for 35./ One brother worked at Big Boy’s for 20/ then Chrysler’s for 15 and counting. Another/ has worked at GE for 35 and counting./The third has worked at Chevron for 30 and counting…” below, a stanza near the end of this 2-page poem:

Two of us laid off now, the counting suspended

due to inclement weather, or unreliable mathematicians,

a wrong turn or global hijinks, we can’t be sure,

scraping our fingers against the mortar.

Here’s the preexisting norm: Daniels’ blue collar world and his roughneck teen years are cause for humor, irony and regret. Here’s his poetic determination: to systematically examine what happens to us and the ones we love— grandmothers fade, curl up and die; parents have broken hips, blindness; aunts work in Burger King and MacDonald’s for minimum wage with deadbeat alcoholic husbands… all decrepitude is because everything we love we will lose…. and this makes Daniels furious. His poetic thermostat runs hot and we’re with him every step, with each anecdote, and its clever mechanism called a poem. Jim Daniels inspires us, his consumers, to be as bold as he is—as aware— because his torrent comes from the enthusiasm of pure spiritual power– and as much as he ridicules religion, this man writes like he has God at his back.  


BEST BOOKS FOR SEPTEMBER READING

Playing Bach in the D.C. Metro: Poems by David Lee Garrison. Browser Books Publishing. 59pgs.

 

Garrison’s book comes at a crucial time when it seems the world is at war with its own life systems and our civilization depends on either bromides or political “spin think.” His is the voice of authentic emotional structures for love, marriage, loneliness, teaching—all shown without trickery. His phrasing of interesting language is so sensitive to the moment that it becomes a Zen principle of awareness. Garrison captures each moment.

Brine

           It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

                           William Carlos Williams

If prose is dry land, poetry’s the sea:
its waves entice you in, then sweep you out,
its tides will tug you far beyond the quay.
If dry land’s prose, the sea is poetry—
the brine without which men die miserably—
so swim in salty language, dive in doubt.
If prose is dry land, poetry’s the sea:
it waves, invites you in, then sweeps you out.


Life Work: Poems by Charlotte Mandel. David Roberts Books. 96 pgs.

 

It is Mandel’s poems on her husband’s death I will remember above all this year for elegance and restraint. She chooses formal diction in verse to achieve a firm focus while allowing gifted flexibility within the lines. Our complex lives are richer for the clear beautiful eye of Charlotte Mandel—whether writing about a new sweater for an aged father or an estranged brother’s death, she grasps us out of our wilderness to say look at this truth, how language retrieves us from turmoil.

Crossing the Calendar Bridge

i

The first New Year’s Eve without your turning

in grateful wonder: “Lucky us, we’ve earned

another year.” The mirror on the wall

granted pardon: throughout life’s judgment-hall,


one question persisted: “Why am I here?”

Name: doctor, mentor, science pioneer,

father—and sorcerer who alchemized

state-of-loneliness into you-and-I.


We laughed at a third in bed—our snug down

quilt—perinyeh—in childhood mother-tongue.

Light as a ghost but warm, the featherbed

rises and falls with my uncertain breaths.


If I could say “he’s in a better place”

might I foretell his welcoming embrace?


The Understanding between Foxes and Light, edited by Jane Ormerod, Thomas Fucaloro, Russ Green, George Wallace. great weather for Media Press. 143 pgs.

 

The Understanding… holds some 70 poets plus an interview with Patricia Smith. The nice thing about anthologies—if you feel like tacos instead of ice cream there’s always a different page for you in the middle of the night. The book offers a cross section with new American poets to meet at every turn plus writers from Barbados, Ireland, France and Canada. The prose pieces are poetic without capsizing their genre. Anthologies are opportunities for everyone on both sides of the page. A Patricia Smith poem below:

Carnie

Taught to screech inwardly at his measured
and blatant filth, instead we find ourselves
drawn to his gray devastation of grin, the slithering
way nights map themselves onto the backs of his hands.
Women, giddy in the throes of repulsion, can’t help
visioning him as a blazing and wordless fuck,
his skin sandy and grating, the rot of his open mouth
sliding all over us. Notice how his eyes are always
snake-lidded and drained completely of color,
how his quick gaze reaches for our bone and twists
without a splash of mercy. In line clutching our tickets
and preparing to scream, we stare at his almost
angry knowledge of levers and gears, listen to his
muttered instructions on the best ways not to die.
And admit it now, out loud. With spit and the heel
of a hand, I want to clean off a place on his body,
then sit sedately upon that sacred place, wallowing
in the dirt denied up by mamas, riding that boy
with my head thrown back.


Her Book: Poems by Eireann Lorsung. Milkweed Editions. 76pgs.

 

I love this venturesome book. The first 15 poems are dedicated to the feminist artist Kiki Smith. These poems believe in the miraculous—part primordial, part philosophical, part whimsical. Lorsung goes places other poets just hope to inhabit—breaking form—creating new. She shows so much about beauty without abstracting it to an idea. This is a perfect blend of body and soul; and the kind of writing poetry sometimes dreams of being.

Revelation

after Kiki Smith

From inside all this hair I can see you.

The body on the ground,
on its own, is resurrection. Female,

that’s a question of creation.

Some days hair is miles of messages
meant for pre-Morse receivers,

bare scratching of another’s hand

on vellum that looks like skin.
The body inside the hair room is

speaking like most other bodies;

its speech packs around it like wasp
paper. Speaking a thin, permanent

archive. What we call a woman.


In The Kingdom of the Ditch: Poems by Todd Davis. Michigan State University Press. 93 pgs.

 

The beauty of this work is that Davis takes the seed of impermanence in every living thing and shows it growing to the good. This is the transformative power of poetry. A Father’s death makes for several memorable poems but it is belief in the beauty of life within shadows that turns Davis’ line. Each poem feels like a connotation of this is what I believe in, with the genome of perfect craft giving confidence. Davis does not need tactics or strategies. He has the dignity of the best word at his command and there is in this book no space between great and good.

Not Writing, Then Writing Again

Days and days away from the words:
only silence and the body’s movements.

No B-film horror, lips sewn together, tongue
lopped off and lugged behind with a rope.

A simple attempt to live beyond language:
hovel built of branches, head laid upon hemlock.

The hope this is enough for a world that cannot
be bound by a word. Then a ring

around the moon: not the small ring that holds
rain, but an enormous circle: fire’s holy

indulgence as it rises out of the forest
and at last offers a reason to speak.


Both Sides of the Niger. Andrew Kaufman. Spuyten Duyvil Press. 80 pgs.

 

Some forewords are window dressing and some are necessary. This one sets the important tone for a poet who entered what used to be called the “dark continent” Africa. Kaufman’s book is a stunning and detailed network of his travels—the frame of reference for this poet is as investigative reporter, registering an awareness of the suffering and joys of an indigenous people. It is the village hut he enters, not the tourist center, and the Niger is his vehicle winding through Africa’s imagery. What tips each poem is the transactional behavior of the people Kaufman meets. If only travelogues were in such poetics we’d have the true inspired boldness of a geography and its people. Kaufman faces conflicting beliefs in a battered land and the main asset is his humanity which overviews each poem. Excerpts from a 3-page poem below:

Girls and Women of Benin

As I crouch before an altar at Temple Yoho,
an old woman appears, offering me
a bowl of rice and a cup of sacred water.

• • •

A ten-year-old girl slams her forehead
over and over into the asphalt road
leading out of Parakou,
screaming, I sold fruit all day
then someone stole the money.

• • •

Five girls in their teens wait day and night
between a speed bump and a check point
on the road to Cotonou,
so they can race after bush taxis
to sell small plastic bags
of water.

• • •

One woman makes loud animal cries
into the forest, and listens
for her companions
to gauge how far they are
from her.


The Year Lived Over & Over by Clyde Fixmer. Dragonfly Press. 87 pgs.

 

How fine to have this book, a series of poems, retrieved from a 16-year period, 32 years ago. It makes us happy when publishers are willing to go against the grain to respond to leadership in writing, bringing it from where it was to a future world. The core ideas are plainspoken ones. It could be a Norman Rockwell world layered and made sophisticated by an innovation of language and the wisdom of a philosopher. Each poem has its own trajectory with the inner explosion of self knowledge. The poetic range is psychological; the poetic changes are spiritual.

SOUL FOOD

I was gone three days on retreat.

In my place, I left the feeder,

an electric device designed

to cascade water as needed,

its timer set twice daily

to drop cat kibble in a bowl.


Tho’ I’ve been home all summer,

my cats sit, transfixed

by that motorized cornucopia,

as if they are piously praying,

waiting more patiently for manna

than the Children of God ever did.


Havoc: New and Selected Poems by Linda Stern Zisquit. The Sheep Meadow Press.177 pgs.

 

It is a great benefit to have Zisquit’s poems written from 1993 to 2012. It’s an Interesting way to trace the poet’s journey. And although Eavan Boland claims poets do not age like vintage wines, I see a greater complication and deepening in the recent poems (2003-2012.) The 23-page poem in this section The World Moving is a masterwork. Since grief is not a single door that opens in our lives, from a single event, it is a spilling of all we’ve ever felt, how does the poet shape that? How does a poet ascend limitations to coax and tender emotions, facts, and statements into a graceful act of writing? Zisquit is fiercely intelligent and from our unworkable lives she makes order. In reading, we are humbled by the poet who entrusts so much of her value to us. From Unopened Letters, 1996:

ANOTHER FIRE

It is quiet now.

I can see you

from this spotted land,

free to look into your face

from this place without hope

where nothing touches me

erased.

Even if you move about

as if I am not,

pass through me as though

I were invisible

and you no longer

remember,

I am waiting

for another fire

to illumine

the astonishing blanks

of our attachment.


 

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio, now celebrating her 36th year on-air. She holds the 2013 AWP George Garret Award and the 2013 Allen Ginsberg Award for Poetry.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books, attn: Becky Meloan
311 Tschiffely Square Road
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20878.

 


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