My review of R. Nemo Hill’s latest book, In No Man’s Ear, has been published on Tupelo Quarterly, here. The book, available at Dos Madres Press, is a must-read, in a visionary class by iself, so please check out the review, published along with two fascinating reviews well worth your time, by Sara Rauch and Okla Elliott. I’m thrilled this review is in TQ, thanks to editor Kristina Darling.
Category Archives: Books
Check out my review of Carina Yun’s award-winning chapbook On Loving a Saudi Girl on The Rumpus.net site (a fantastic site for book and poetry lovers) today!!
Thethepoetry, a fine site for all things poetry, including reviews, essays and interviews, has published my review of the inimitable Yahia Lababidi’s new book, a “collected poems” with an intro by H.L. Hix (says something right there) that will simply blow you away (the book, of course). Who says poetry can’t be enlightening? Check it out.
Autostraddle has published my review of Mary Meriam’s comprehensive poetry collection The Lillian Trilogy here! It’s a fantastic book for anyone to read, a delight. Feminist, Lesbian, Sensual, full of subtle and penetrating rhyme and rhythm, seething in its exposure of injustice and moving in its declarations of pain and sorrow. Check it out!
By Gail White
With a forward by Rhina P. Espillat
Reading Gail White’s new book, Asperity Street, aside from its infectious tone that had me by the end thinking in rhyming quatrains, led me to the conclusion that poetry books such as this need an entirely different form of recognition: the patent. In this case, for total mood-altering. More effective than St. John’s wort (trust me on this), White’s poems get into you, usually “cat-quick and scalpel-sharp,” like the “Brother and Sister” of the poem by that title, with a certain “love that wields a hunting knife.” Getting out of an emotional slump, it seems, is best done with a sharp eye for truth in all its irony, mitigated only by that “thing” called poetry, and of course, a sense of humor.
The usual reader will generally respond to and recall those poems that they can relate to in some way. I was surprised to find so much in this book that resonated, my life having taken quite different turns. This, of course, is my ad hoc litmus test for universality, which is the natural result of straight-up honesty. For example, my life has been as far from “well-planned” as one could imagine. Yet this poem resonated, and brought me to appreciate what I actually do have.
Sudden Euphoria of a Middle-Aged Southerner
Youth gone and beauty never having come
nor money either, where’s it springing from,
this sudden joy? Fine weather and the slope
of green lawn on the bayou, snow-white shape
of heron fishing on the bank, is part
of it. The rest is books and art,
good health, two cats, a marriage going strong
for twenty years, a friendship just as long,
plus writing, and the love of what I write.
Summing up joys, I savor my delight:
this is as close as I will ever get
to the mystic’s peak of holy self forget-
fulness, the warrior in his savage bliss,
the lover’s ecstasy. I’ll stop at this—
a sense of living in a world well-planned.
Is this contentment? Yes. Well, I’ll be damned.
Well, who hasn’t experienced “sudden euphoria,” unexplainable in conventional terms? We look around us and occasionally are reminded of the good things: if not the same ones listed here, then other ones. But certainly “the slope/ of green lawn on the bayou, snow-white shape/ of heron fishing on the bank” are simple pleasures with universal access. But the clincher here, and in many of her poems, is that last line. A very typical Southern response, but here with a subtle twist of both “what people think be damned” and the surprise of sudden realization, in a word whose meaning is the opposite of its appearance.
Among those listed pleasures are two cats. Which figure in White’s poetry almost as archetype for the poet’s attitude: strongly independent, unpretentious, sharply observant yet soft at the same time, taking the time to luxuriate. In “Passion Spent,” a villanelle in tetrameter, she puts it in a different way:
My heart, an old and tired cat,
surveying age’s box of toys,
will not uncurl itself for that.
A hundred arks on Ararat,
the horses of a thousand Troys—
my heart, an old and tired cat
spurns hero’s crown and cardinal’s hat,
and whether love’s for girls or boys,
will not uncurl itself for that…”
Like a cat, the poet here is supremely unimpressed. She says “old and tired,” but one suspects it’s more a matter of having other priorities. Of which, gardening is not one. Now here’s something I can really identify with from “I Come to the Garden”:
I can name so few flowers. This is why/ I’m not a better poet…
Now finally, someone who’ll actually own up to this possible poetic deficit I also have, which comes down to this:
Mine is a gravel garden, where the rake
is all the cultivation I can take.
Those who tire of the conventional deification of infancy and its caretakers will find relief here in “Looking Through the Nursery Window:”
The babies seem alike as geese.
I hardly know which one’s my niece
until a nurselet points her out.
White manages to cut through the niceties with enough humor to get away with it. I mean, “nurselet!” Let’s hear it for Gail.
In “Postcard to Miss Dickinson,” she takes another icon to task:
I’m somebody? Well, no,
Perhaps a half one, though,
While you’ve been somebody for years—
Perhaps you didn’t know?
How dreary to be Nobody!
How fetid, like the Bog
Where chortling frogs exult above
The stifled Pollywog!
Did I say I needed that? Now for the biggest takedown we humans will have to face, White’s poems do not disappoint. As Rhina Espillat said in her lovely forward to the book (which I’ve scrupulously avoided copying), the book’s sections and their progression are based on Shakespeare’s stages of life (or anyone else’s for that matter), and we all know where that leads. Here’s an observation that puts an element of disarray into even that seemingly inevitable progression, from “The Way It Ended,” a sort of synopsis of life’s stages:
A golden anniversary came around
where toasts were made and laughing stories told.
The lovers found the laugh, but not themselves, was growing old…
She started losing and forgetting things…
Daily he visited the nursing home
to make her smile and keep her in the game.
Death came at last. But old age never came.
I’ve heard much wisdom in my life, but that nugget has never come my way. Downright astute! And beautiful. (Bear in mind I’m giving you only snippets of poems much better enjoyed whole.) And it changes entirely what death means. What else but poetry could do that? And do it honestly?
Finally she faces her own diagnosis: “a single cell has gone berserk./ And now my death begins its work.” Yet our work has its triumph, and it is neither in fame nor fortune, nor any lasting legacy. (Thus also undercutting the supposed takedown of scientific fact.)
The work of all our lifetime lets
us look on death with no regrets:
we vanish as the snow forgets.
Here is a book whose calling card is its style (deftly done formal), but whose prize is content. It’s always good when the reader identifies with the author in some way, and here White has succeeded. There is a certain practical and unpretentious transcendence to be found here. It’s right there in the very first poem quoted above.
With so much more than I can include—poems about everything from not being asked to the prom, a speech for Juliet’s nurse, fish mating, women who become trees, Pompeii, the mysterious tragedy of Mesa Verde, different “old maids,” and money, to family relations, religion and the larger Questions…and more. One outstanding feature of the poems in this book is the last line, most frequently taking the reader off-guard. Sometimes humorous, sometimes quite serious, but the surprise is one of the joys in reading this. The overall effect has entirely taken me out of my self-absorption and bad moods into a much better outlook. I will keep this book handy when times get rough. My advice to you: unless you are a cyborg, you probably need this book. My advice to Gail White: patent it. (And without ever using the word “wry,” I rest my case.)
Glad and Sorry Seasons
By Catherine Chandler
Before reading Catherine Chandler’s latest poetry collection, Glad and Sorry Seasons, I was already familiar with several of the poems in it, and felt I knew, to some extent, what to expect: fine, smooth, well-crafted “formalist” poems. And here we find a wide range of forms, in particular the sonnet, her home turf. But what I discovered in this book transcends this sort of categorization. Or maybe redefines it.
The title (from Shakespeare’s sonnet 19) tells us this is about seasons: the seasons of emotion and the passage of time. She explores this subject from the inside, the places of raw emotion, tamed by the sonics of formal poetry. Although metrical and rhyming poetry in English seems like a far cry from haiku, this interview in Rattle with Richard Gilbert on the subject of haiku gave me a number of interesting parallels showing the universality of form in poetry. I would assert that form is part of the essence of poetry, and the author’s mastery of the forms she uses is essential to how well they work.
Seasons, as Gilbert describes, have their own language in Japanese haiku, with whole dictionaries devoted to “season words” or kigo that “go back for centuries, which is really the vertical depth that makes kigo powerful.” In this sense, kigo may be analogous to literary allusions, a language connecting poetry to its own history.
Another dimension to kigo is that each one refers to a whole set of associations, an “environment.” “Moon” isn’t just the moon, for example.
In Japanese, when we say “moon” in haiku, it’s always the moon-viewing moon… there’s also a sense of impermanent beauty…in the early autumn…a quietly festive time sharing a sense of heart—that’s all included in the kigo.
This sense of a word representing many things is analogous to idiomatic expressions and even clichés, in the sense of common, frequently-used expressions. Chandler uses these types of words, in the tradition of Frost, to evoke a larger feeling with a few words.
For example, in her poem “November,” common expressions are used in unusual combinations to create a confluence of associations.
November is a season all its own—
a month of saints and souls and soldiers. Snow
will soon white out a fallacy of brown.
It is a month of waiting, lying low.
November is a season all its own—
a time for turning back the clock as though
it’s useless to pretend. A dressing-down.
Thin ice entices me to touch and go.
November’s neither here nor there, but here
in dazzling dawns that dissipate to grey;
here in the tilting asymmetric branch
and sharp note of a towering white pine where
the pik and churlee of a purple finch
can either break a heart or make a day.
She’s painted a strongly familiar picture of November: “a season all its own” works like a picture frame. Familiar expressions such as “lying low,” “turning back the clock,” “a dressing-down,” “touch and go,” and “neither here nor there” combine their associative power in unusual ways, to create a striking cadence of emotion. None of these words are the way we think of November. Yet the effect is strangely apt for how we feel about it. The poem takes on layers of new meaning, tinged with foreboding, cut to the possibility of uplift at the end, as if to say “at this point it’s in your hands.” We’re left with the image of the lovely birdsong, which will be what we make of it.
Of course, the dynamic of haiku is entirely different, image-focused, but this quote proposes a greater similarity than we’d think:
Linguistically, these languages, English and Japanese, do not meet at all on the level of the syllable; they meet on the level of the metrical phrase.
So there is a universal element between such disparate forms as, say, the sonnet and haiku. Chandler writes with an uncanny ear for that “metrical phrase,” in its rhythm and rhyme.
One more major and relevant haiku concept is kire or “cutting,” referring to how “the haiku has to be cut in space and time in some way, [which]… has an emotional charge.” This “creates these two broken parts that don’t go together.” And that is like the “turn” of the sonnet, or indeed any good poem, transforming one situation or thing into an entirely different one, “cutting” us out of time and place and seeing something unexpected in a new way. Chandler works in rhyme and meter, almost exclusively. But she “cuts” with exceptional subtlety.
To see how Chandler incorporates both concepts into her poetry, read this poem in an unusual form:
Rush Hour Sonondilla
I celebrate the great sardine,
and count the ways I love it: dried,
in cans, smoked, salted, deep-fat fried,
filleted in soup and fish terrine.
I love it’s pre-cooked beauties, too—
its sleek and shiny silver skin,
its single tiny dorsal fin—
before it hits the barbecue.
Young herring, swimming in the sea,
awash in your Omega-3,
soon you shall pay a hefty price
and end up on a bed of rice.
For now, take heart in that you’re free,
not packed inside this train, like me.
We are told that it’s rush hour by the title. Then swiftly taken into an ode to the sardine with subtle humor. “I celebrate the great…” implies a grand speech, then “cuts” into the unexpected image of a sardine. Like a master illusionist, she draw us into “I count the ways” from a Shakespearean sonnet everyone knows, then into a list of methods of food preparation. The final stanza is so comic and improbable that we forget the title until the last line suddenly “cuts” us back. To what? A cliché! Nice. This shows the use of words with strong common associations to take us out of a place and then plop us back in with everything changed, like a punchline. Oh, and another name for the form “Sonondilla” is “The Sardine.” Another little cutaway for the lucky nerd who reads footnotes, like me.
In a sonnet, I believe the prelude to the turn is of equal importance. Skillful placement of words and the creation of sonics and rhythm is what “floats” the reader in one environment before suddenly being “cut” into another.
The first part establishes a normalcy of action in which there’s an element of expectation but also of convention—hence the “convention” of forms, the sonnet in particular. This idea dovetails perfectly into Chandler’s sonnet to the Sonnet, “Sonnet Love.”
I love the way its rhythms and its rhymes
provide us with a promise, a belief
familiar voices at specific times
may modulate unmanageable grief.
I love the way we’re called to referee
the mind-heart matchup in its scanty ring;
how through it all our only guarantee
is that for fourteen rounds the ropes will sing.
I love the way it makes us feel at home,
the way it welcomes fugitives and fools
who have forgotten all roads lead to Rome
from shared beginnings in the tidal pools.
Life’s unpredictability defies
clean dénouement. I love the way it tries.
After a smooth, lilting progress through the poem, suddenly the final sentence cuts into the middle of the last line, ending on the verb “tries,” the only action we or the Sonnet can take to achieve resolution. “It” has been set up in the poem to refer to the sonnet. Yet despite the pronoun, we are led to feel it is us. We are the ones who try to create “clean dénouement.” And the verb “tries” hangs there, as if searching for the verb “resolve” to make this a clean reply to the “defies.” The “emotional charge” comes not from the repeated word “love,” but from “tries.” It hangs, as we do, never actually finished trying…
Her oft-quoted sonnet that shows how to “modulate” the “unmanageable grief” of the loss of an unborn child, Nemerov prize-winning “Coming to Terms,” takes the reader through the “after” scene in all its emptiness and attempts at resolution to “the artful look of ordinary days,” a powerful phrase that captures how we try, through the art of what must ultimately be a sort of deception, to create continuity in a life that cuts us to the heart, a life that must end. Her poems cut to her own heart to give us the art of resolution in ours.
Her subject matter traverses the emotional “glad and sorry seasons” of aging, loss, illness, both on an individual or mass scale, suicide, the need for love or companionship, the “seven deadly sins” (with modern applications) and, subtly included, the need for God. These days God is discreetly left out of all public discourse, replaced by “nature.” Chandler bucks the trend, her faith and doubts honestly expressed. The poem “When” uses a list poem to gently remind us, in a few strongly associative words, of something higher.
A review of this book wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the translations of French Canadian and Latin American poets, one of whose moving poems, “The Wonderful Boat,” is the title of her blog. These are languages Chandler has lived in; she is Canadian and spends much of her time in South America. Even so, I can hardly imagine how she managed to create such elegant, perfectly rhymed metrical poems in translation. Translation has been described by J.G. McClure as a kind of ekphrasis: “to celebrate the new artistic possibilities of the conversation between two writers.” It helps that her love of these writers shows through in the work. And judging by the final poem (her own) of the book, “Edward Hopper’s Automat,” which has a Hitchcock or Rod Serling cinematic quality and conclusion (think “cut!”), ekphrasis is one of Chandler’s strong suits.
In fact, “formalist” may be a redundant moniker: all poetry is by definition “formal,” but in different ways. “Free verse” employs line breaks. Even prose poetry, as well as free verse, uses the haiku characteristics of specialized associative language, cutting, and a sonic relationship with the language. In short, one can judge all poetry by these criteria, and the rest is a matter of style and taste.
In this larger sense, Chandler succeeds not merely as a writer of poetry in traditional forms and metrics, but of poetry that works to create an “emotional charge” in the reader. Poetry satisfies in ways prose can’t. Done here by one of the best.
On reading Earthly Use: New and Selected Poems by Kate Bernadette Benedict, a rich and full collection spanning years of fine writing, the first impression I get is of being in the presence of what is meant by the Arabic word “imlaaq” or “giant:” a presence that fills the space of these pages and the reader’s mind/heart. This largeness is expressed in the minuscule, the mean and lowly, the physical, the everyday, the small oddities and weird delights, banalities, or even horrors that we encounter in the normal course of living – “larger issues” feel grounded in something tangible, and the mundane feels imbued with the sacred. This is the voice, the world-conjuring voice of Kate Benedict.
Of course, something large fitting into something small or slightly out-of-whack must run through a vein of humor, which Benedict threads through the serious with sleight of language. So in “A Fine Form of a Man,” we meet her father, filling his giant spirit into a less-than-perfect body:
Mention one of his manifold abnormalities—
the crooked nose wart,
the swollen ankles, streaked and raw,
the toenail humped and earthy as a truffle—
and he’d smile, his green eyes twinkling.
You’d paid him homage.
You’d noticed a fine particular
of his excellent form!
A rare endowment, is it not,
to bear your flawed flesh royally,
blubber your vesture,
fungus your rare black pearl?
And then we have another variation of fitting the grand into the not-so-grand: a sort of religious seeing, a down-to-earth visionary, as evidenced in the title poem, “Earthly Use,”:
I see God in the eyes of my poodle!
a starlet on a talk show claimed
and I laughed at her, pleased by my own scorn.
Yet what did she see in her dog’s eyes after all,
but innocence, credulity, docility,
an effortless uncritical craven love—
the typical qualities of saints
for which, thus far, I’ve found no earthly use.
This narrative is filled with both irony and honesty. The narrator turns a sharp eye on herself as well as on the starlet, laughing at both, and yet seeing the redeeming qualities of both, simultaneously validating and skeptical, in a moment of perfect and imperfect balance.
It is this almost brutal honesty mixed with grace that characterizes Benedict’s poetry. Without being religious per se, she fills her moments with that spirit of something much larger, the holiness of which is reverenced in the subtlety of a holding back, the unwillingness to compromise the inviolability of things. She takes us, in that spirit, to the whole range of human experience. To “The Polis of Sorrow:”
And for those who slog through it,
on the other side of sorrow is more sorrow.
It comes as a great wave comes, walloping,
or like a swarm of locusts, feeding,
or it infiltrates like tapeworm or eye worm.
One day you see the worm, traveling your own eye;
one day you feel the woe, gripping you in its pincers.
Cry out or pray or plead; no answers.
And so her poems more frequently brought me to tears than I’d like to admit. But not always for sorrow. There is also exaltation, as in “Expedition in Mid-Life:”
Soul and body, I set out
to climb Reach Mountain
in the August of my life,
in blue-green coastal Maine,
not knowing that the peak I rose to
would be my own peak,
my physical moment,
what the squirrel knows
when it scratches its path up the pine,
fleet-footed and single-minded,
all animal radiance.
In her poems about work and the office (from her book In Company), she imparts the same cosmic sense there, too. In “Universe Management,” “a manager mistakes his customers for the cosmos.” And in “Waiting for Elevation,” a prayer:
As we do and are done to,
in the crucible of our humdrum jobs,
give us holiness.
Grant us ecstasy even in dailiness.
It is a book any reader will treasure, as I do the one in my hands, for its way of getting to the heart of things. It runs the whole gamut: childhood, prejudice, work, seeing newborn kittens drowned in a toilet, girl fights, peace and war, politics, vacations, love, adolescence, disease, old age, and death. Love, anger, terror, sorrow. “The Stinky Lady” personifies a recurring theme of the clashing of worlds and the voice of the outcast.
I pass her as I leave for work
and when I return from work.
Sometimes I watch her on closed-circuit television,
sitting or slumping, awake in the night, as am I.
Does she ever sleep?
Does she have a daughter?
A doctor, a P.O. box, a welfare check,
anything at all
besides those layered, threadbare clothes?
Somewhere, in some pocket or recess, she keeps makeup,
that rose lipstick she wears, the black eyeliner.
“Gad, I’m beautiful,” I’ve heard her say,
peering into the cracked mirror of a broken compact.
“God, she’s horrible” is the opinion
of our co-op’s board of directors.
They will add more locks
and fine any shareholder who lets her in.
Aeaea! Aeaea! Aeaea!
The feral call will echo not from this place
but from a near place,
maybe every place.
The fact is, I see her everywhere I go…
We can still hear her wailing “down the canyons of Manhattan.” She who reminds me of “She,” Benedict’s haunting ghazal about the Shekhinah, each sher reverberating to the end: “Ever since, beyond, unto, always, until, she wanders.”
Some of her pieces are practically scripture. Like “Self as a Refuge:”
Make yourself a refuge: there is no other refuge.
Intruders will crack the strongest lock. …
Divest of excess. Dearth is also treasure.
Robbers do not loot the empty coffer. …
Otherness may mark you, some will shun you.
Be undisturbed: forbearance, your asylum.
Be tabernacle, ark to timeless patience.
Be sanctuary, chaste and ample space.
These lines (and the lovely unquoted ones), “variations on a teaching of Theravada Buddhism,” have even greater meaning and impact in the context of the other poems in this book, which range from free verse to formal.
Many of her poems exhibit the craft of form – in top form. But what you will take away is so much more. One example shows us also, again, how something vast – too vast to be contained or described in words – is nonetheless contained in this small thing, a poem, “Into His Hand:”
…cupped in sleep, you’d slip a nickel. Such
gentle stealth: not wrist or finger stirred.
His O-mouth gaped, his snoring chuffed and whirred.
That sly transaction: all you knew of touch.
Double shifts of duty on the subways
conducting a shrill orchestra of doors.
Then tanking up with Clancy’s dull-eyes boors.
Back home he’d drop right off; you’d foray
into father’s room, bearing your small coin.
You loved imagining him, wealthy-waking—-
but did he like the joke? It wasn’t spoken.
Today that quiet man lies dead. I join
you, husband, in a rite of our own making:
tucking in his cupped, cosmetic hand this subway token.
This is why I love poetry. To read a book and come away enriched – by the elusive enormity hidden, real, and dynamically participating in Benedict’s poetry. And so a woman who has seen wealth and poverty, love and contempt (the poem about that will blow you away), exaltation and inexpressible loss, comes after such fullness with this observation:
It is nothing I return to now.
A bare plank floor, a pall of dust.
And in each ball of dust, a galaxy of mites.
And in the essence of each mite: alpha, omega.
A book deserving of “vast contentment” for its author, and a takeaway for the reader of equal size.
Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions, a masterpiece from an exceptional poet, has received rave reviews. But there is, as far as I could find, only one video if her reading an excerpt from it, which is on the Website of the Griffin Prize, which the book won. I’m including it here, even though it has an introduction to the author prefacing her reading. You can see she becomes quite emotional during the reading, even though what she speaks about is not apparently personal, showing how deeply emblematic this poem really is, and how its imagery is grounded in something human and heartfelt, yet expressed in the grandest and seemingly philosophical imagery. The whole poem is an overwhelming experience, but I do wish she would record more excerpts from it, such as “Sublimaze,” which Harper’s magazine published just before the book came out. Also, you might check out this interesting review of the book and the reviewer’s take on Schnackenberg and her significance as a poet.