The gorgeous print literary journal Lily Poetry Review has published a beautifully-written review of To Love the River in its Summer issue. Due to family issues, I haven’t been very active posting things of late, but hope to do more now. The review is written by Editor-in-Chief Eileen Cleary, author of the heartbreaking and powerful book Child Ward of the Commonwealth (Main Street Rag, 2019). She writes “To Karami, poetry is music and as such is composed rather than written.” And “to explore luminous spaces in the hands of this capable and imagistic poet is a true pleasure.” How can I thank you, dear reviewer, for such a thrilling review? And the journal itself is a thing of beauty, full of poems that open up worlds to the imagination. Well worth a subscription.
When it comes to form, nobody does it like Terence Hayes: he understands the larger view of form as a Force that can drive a point right into your heart. In this New Yorker article, author Dan Chiasson says that the sonnet, a form Hayes calls “part music box, part meat grinder,” became the poet’s vehicle of choice for his recent book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin , because for him,
the sonnet offered an alternative unit of measurement, at once ancient, its basic features unchanged for centuries, and urgent, its fourteen lines passing at a brutal clip.
In the book, the American sonnet both contains and assaults his assassins: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” The form itself being the brainchild of “the L.A. poet Wanda Coleman, who died in 2013 and who coined the term ‘American sonnet.‘” Who considered the term as referring to a more “improvised” sonnet that used jazz techniques and musical patterns.
The language is powerful and immediate, exuding worlds and threats. This is what sets Hayes apart: the combination of power, poetic skill (unique use of craft), unrelenting content, and an intensity of heart that drives all this into a tour de force of words closing in on flesh.
All cancers kill me, car crashes, cavemen, chakras,
Crackers, discord, dissonance, doves, Elvis,
Ghosts, the grim reaper herself, a heart attack
While making love, hangmen, Hillbillies exist,
Lilies, Martha Stewarts, Mayflower maniacs,
Money grubbers, Gwen Brooks’ “The Mother,”
(My mother’s bipolar as bacon), pancakes kill me,
Phonies, dead roaches, big roaches & smaller
Roaches, the sheepish, snakes, all seven seas,
Snow avalanches, swansongs, sciatica, Killer
Wasps, yee-haws, you, now & then, disease.
A list that also serves as ammunition, a kind of automatic fire that thrills with its sheer brilliance and expanse of imagination. And also with its truth, how he disgorges the racist and white supremacist attitudes made flesh in the form of Donald Trump and his followers. To which this collection is addressed, among other things.
“This word can be the difference between knowing / And thinking. It’s the name people of color call / Themselves on weekends & the name colorful / People call their enemies & friends.”
These poems all happen in the mind, which has been portioned into zones called “I” and “you.” Both assume countless different roles, but what remains constant is their reliance upon each other and their tendency to flip positions. This makes the work morally ambiguous in ways some readers will resist: I suspect that not everybody will recognize “blackness” as any part, even a rejected part, of Trump, a man whose loathing of black people seems unabashed.
Yes, “Hayes isn’t describing canonical melancholy, the pined-for vision of mortality that poets sometimes indulge in. He fears a more immediate kind of danger, which can’t be aestheticized or glorified in verse. “You are beautiful because of your sadness,” Hayes admits. And yet: “You would be more beautiful without your fear.”
In the form he invented:
The Golden Shovel
The Whale Road Review has published my review of Cynthia Neely’s chapbook Passing Through Blue Earth. Please check it out, as well as the fine poetry and reviews in this truly excellent site. Well worth your time. Also here is a link to where you can buy a copy of Neely’s award-winning chapbook, selected by the fantastic and illustrious Kwame Dawes, one of my favorite poets too.
The Rumpus has published my review of Joy Ladin’s transformative poetry collection Fireworks in the Graveyard” today here. Joy Ladin is quite an amazing person herself, and enlightened me, in the process of reading her work and about her struggles, about the deep connection between transexuality and religious faith. The review explores this and so much more. Please check it out!
My Review of Ann Tweedy’s wonderful poetry collection The Body’s Alphabet has been published on Glass-Poetry Journal. A gorgeous site, well worth visiting for the poetry too. So excited to be a part of Glass, one of the most beautiful venues out there. Please check it out.
The book’s author Ann Tweedy is a Pacific Northwest-based Poet, lawyer, scholar, and advocate for Native American rights, environmental protection, as well as polyamory, aka bisexuality, as a married bi woman. A voice that must be heard!
Is this the world’s first poetry book review with comics? OK, maybe not, but it seemed appropriate and even irresistible to try my hand at comics as review for a book that includes poetry comics. Look for Howard Bloom going for the buzzkill button. Jessy Randall’s new book, Suicide Hotline Hold Music, is the inspiring subject of the review, which includes samples of her comics too. Of course. And yes, the review also includes writing.
My review of And the Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania De Rozario, published by Math Paper Press, is up on Singapore Poetry, the premier poetry website in Singapore. Its founder and editor, Jee Leong Koh, is a fine poet in his own right, and has initiated an exchange of reviews and books between Singapore and the United States (where he now lives in New York). It’s a fascinating idea and a quick look at the site will tell you the high quality of literature coming out of Singapore.
De Rozario’s book is a fictionalized memoir, written in a style that reveals her skill as a poet and quite memorable. I learned much from her about the consequences of Singapore’s social experiment, and also about the struggles of the LGBT community there, one that illuminates the struggle for freedom and love for all humans. Please check it out!
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!
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.)