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!!
My review of Mary Meriam’s Lady of the Moon has been published in the latest issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, a sophisticated and well-respected place to be indeed. I’m thrilled to be in it; the issue is also full of fascinating articles. In fact, once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. Here is the link, bearing in mind the full article can only be viewed by subscribers. Please check it out!
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!
A dazzling poet whose work puts you right in the middle of the Middle East, Zeina Hashem Beck is definitely someone you don’t want to miss. Her poetry has been described by Alexander McNabb, co-host of the Dubai Eye radio show “Talking of Books” as so vivid, “Beirut just drips off the page.” And if Beirut never interested you before, you may have to reconsider. In her new book, To Live in Autumn, she describes the heart of a war-torn, politicized, exotic, heartbroken, and fascinating place that is also very personal and as any war-ravaged place, grief-stricken. Beyond this description, we enter her city through the richness of imagination and deftly chosen words. Much of her poetry can be found through her website, which will give you links, and on which is printed this poem. To avoid copyright issues, I will only print here the poem from her website. But I also highly recommend checking out this poem in Poetry Northwest, “We Who Have Decided to Live in Autumn.” Breathtaking.
After the Explosions (published in Mslexia)
For Tripoli, Lebanon, August 2013
After the explosions, I’ve been having ash-dreams;
everything’s grey, even the children’s pencil cases.
September with its play of light and possibilities
burst in unnoticed. My dead cousin
comes to me smiling, tries to pinch me, laughs.
Two days after the explosions, the pharmacy parrot
who wouldn’t keep quiet was found alive;
he doesn’t speak, but meows from time to time.
The owner jokes, “This country will have him
barking soon.” The trees seem to remember
the human parts in their branches.
Some elevators have sprung out of their places
like frightened hearts. I try not to think
about the three children who died holding
each other in a van, after a day at the beach.
I take my mind past the broken balconies,
into my friend’s shattered house, stare at the frame
still hanging on the cracked wall: a fishing boat, a calm
sea. The volunteers are sweeping the street, the kid
who sells chewing gum is helping. The survivor
with an eye patch says it sounded like glass rain.
My aunt sings goodbye to her son from the window,
the red tarboosh on his coffin in the distance,
her white handkerchief taking flight.
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.
Reading Joy Harjo’s poetry is like discovering there is a paradise after all. It’s like discovering a soul mate. To select only one poem must necessarily be a random act because it’s all good. A link to her website will lead you to her books, and you do the rest.
So here goes, since of late I’ve been writing about maps…
A Map to the Next World
BY JOY HARJO
for Desiray Kierra Chee
In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map for
those who would climb through the hole in the sky.
My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged
from the killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens.
For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.
The map must be of sand and can’t be read by ordinary light. It
must carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit.
In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it
was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.
Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the
altars of money. They best describe the detour from grace.
Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; the fog steals our
children while we sleep.
Flowers of rage spring up in the depression. Monsters are born
there of nuclear anger.
Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to
We no longer know the names of the birds here, how to speak to
them by their personal names.
Once we knew everything in this lush promise.
What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the
map. Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us, leav-
ing a trail of paper diapers, needles, and wasted blood.
An imperfect map will have to do, little one.
The place of entry is the sea of your mother’s blood, your father’s
small death as he longs to know himself in another.
There is no exit.
The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine—a
spiral on the road of knowledge.
You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking
from the encampment where our relatives make a feast of fresh
deer meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.
They have never left us; we abandoned them for science.
And when you take your next breath as we enter the fifth world
there will be no X, no guidebook with words you can carry.
You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice, renew the song
she is singing.
Fresh courage glimmers from planets.
And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you
will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.
When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers where they
entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us.
You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder.
A white deer will greet you when the last human climbs from the
Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our
We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.
We might make them again, she said.
Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.
“A Map to the Next World” from How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems:1975-2001 by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 2002 by Joy Harjo.
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.
Maryann Corbett, a poet about whom the word “virtuoso” comes to mind, has succeeded in creating in her new book Mid Evil, a collection of poems so cohesive and penetrating that even the cover seems to be part of the overall poem-world within. Both gorgeous and sinister, its darks and lights beckon us deeper to where that dimly seen image in the mirror flashes into focus for tantalizing moments.
And so we open her book, which includes translations of actual medieval poems – Corbett’s renderings of Old English, French, and Latin poems from the era, in which she is well-versed, are strikingly contemporary and real – as well as her own.
From the title piece, we learn the origin of the title, a student in her Medieval Literature class:
And the last blow is this:
in which, over and over, you call the course
mid evil literature. Yes, I suppose
for you that is the word. We both are lost here,
mapless in Middle Earth and muddling through.
She allows herself to gain insight from “you who are always painfully there…as if to aim it right between my eyes: your boredom/ with low-tech words in a language you don’t speak.” Similarly, Corbett finds some deeper, universal thread in the everyday, as in “Insubstantial Pageant.”
Kitchen curtains part: a stage-set morning.
Hung with a fog scrim
spun from the ground’s heavy breathing,
the world gone Grimm:
Hidden, the rude devices
(clotheslines, trash bins, garden tools)
that label life an interlude of prop arrangers.
Foregrounded, all that glitters.
Autumn and watery air refract the light before us:
maples in court costume, their mill and murmur
an opera chorus——
Unsolid. Such is matter.
The light-play deliquesces in a blink.
Yet even the dishwasher
frothing now behind us in the sink
has curlicued these vapors
in foggy likeness, threading light-diffusions,
the plainest facts conspiring to be shapers
of glorious illusions.
Note the threading of today with history, the skillful use of rhyme to take this ordinary scene to another level. Just like her “plainest facts.”
And this shows to me Corbett’s more profound understanding of things medieval. One of my most influential college classes was Medieval History, in which our professor insisted we learn from original sources and spurn historians’ stereotype-ridden rewrites. The take-away for me was a discovery of the Middle Ages as a world where the “plainest facts” were imbued with meaning, where personal relationships were treasured over objects, things. How in the light of a higher vision, without artifice, one can find “the rude devices” mere props in the greater “illusion,” in which one fervently believes, about which one deeply cares. This worldview seems to infuse this book, and reading it has an almost religious feel.
Which is no accident. Religion plays a part in Corbett’s work, but on a more universal level. From “On Singing the Exultet,” which takes place in an actual religious ceremony, to “As Little Children,” where the narrator, in response to a birthday party for children, observes:
…I’ve come to feel
how all my feasts are haunted——
some holy, wounded memory
hanging above the meal.
There is also humor, as in “Foundation Myth,” about what girls and women do for the “myth” of their appearance:
Eyebrows thinned beyond the pale
and eyelash stubs now need the sort of wands
mascara conjures. Lips no longer full
call up the powers, and the hand responds…
And yet even here there’s a touch of the medieval: mascara wands,” or even calling up the powers. And the ending is even more fairy-tale-gone-wrong medieval. But you’ll have to get the book. 🙂
Oh yes, there’s darkness in the “Dark Ages.” But there is also light. And the same could be said of our world right now. Or, as in one of several poems that brought tears to my eyes, “The Historian Considers the End Time,” even after “the fact of body felt less like God’s gift, and more like a thoughtless insult,” her narrator asserts:
The fathers set it in stone, the world is good,
and the body’s way of knowing it is all we have
in the end.
And of course there’s more, but again. This didn’t win the Richard Wilbur prize for a few choice insights. This book won because people who love to read found that the reader who gets between these pages will be totally rocked.