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.
If you haven’t read or discovered Faisal Mohyuddin, then this may be the moment to wake up to the unforgettable, even transformative experience of his poetry. Also an accomplished and unique visual artist, as well as a recognized innovator in the teaching profession, Mohyuddin’s poetry is not to be missed. His newest collection, The Displaced Children of Displaced Children, won the 2017 Sexton Prize in poetry judged by Kimiko Hahn. A “proud American Muslim” whose voice enlightens a path to multi-cultural coexistence and compassion, one cannot really categorize his work in the usual sense, because its boundaries are made dynamic by their heartfelt human core. Just a sample of his work below. (More on his website.)
What wilts becomes
the world for the weary.
They can’t help but
wonder at the lovely
shadow touch of another
war’s rubbled song.
If crossing freely into fire
can churn the blood’s
hollow music, then
surely the orphan can
ask at dusk for water
and get more than spit.
The following poem, published in The Missouri Review, is one of the most amazing poetic expressions of faith, fatherhood, love, and defining sacredness, I’ve seen.
It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. Guide us
to the straight path: the path of those You have blessed,
those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray. —The Holy Quran, “Al-Fatiha,” verses 5-7
THE CHILD: Tell me, Father,
what new turbulence took hold
in your blood on the day of my birth,
and did your stomach sink
each time I cried out for the basket
of your arms?
THE FATHER: I held you too close
to feel anything but the wild
gallop of your tiny heart.
THE CHILD: Did you recite
the call to prayer in my ear, slip
your pinky, dipped in honey, in my mouth
to mark with song and sweetness
my entry into the ummah
of the Prophet Muhammad?
THE FATHER: All night, I nursed
a candle’s flame, leaning in and out
of its sphere of light, mumbling verses
of the Qur’an, mispronouncing
the Arabic, not understanding a word
beyond “Al-Fatiha,” but knowing,
nonetheless, I had fulfilled
this first obligation of fatherhood.
THE CHILD: What was it like
to look into my eyes for the first time?
THE FATHER: I felt as if my fingers
had combed the embryonic silt feathering
the deepest bottom of the ocean.
And when I resurfaced, holding the key
to fatherhood, I understood
the true worth of being a living thing.
THE CHILD: What did you say
to Mother when she could not find
the words to tell you about how
the breaking open of a body
propels one toward heaven, that God
promises the greatest share of Paradise
THE FATHER: After a long silence,
I said, “To every unutterable thing
buried in your heart, to every miraculous truth
teetering on the tip of your tongue,
yes, yes, ameen.”
THE CHILD: Did you spill the blood
of two goats, give their meat to the poor,
to bless my arrival, to mark
the transition of my soul
from the library of the eternal
into the living fire of a body too fragile to share?
THE FATHER: For twenty years,
I harvested the silhouette of my father’s voice
from the night sky, let its echo rock me
to sleep whenever I felt so crushed
by heartache that even God’s infinite love,
a rescue vessel sailing through a history
of bloodshed and loss, could not hold me
intact enough to believe in survival—
so if it was my hand or another’s
that guided the blade along two throats
I cannot recall, nor do I want to.
THE CHILD: What else
might you have done
had fatherhood not stolen you
from the life you knew?
THE FATHER: When a surgeon
saves your life by amputating a limb
housing a reservoir of poison,
you do not curse the violence
of his work, nor the pain of the procedure.
You bow down before God.
You thank the man. You learn to write
with the other hand, to walk
on one leg.
THE CHILD: One final question,
Father. What should I say
when my son, when I too become a father,
asks me about the hours
of your life that exist beyond
THE FATHER: Tell him more
about the hours of your life
so his hunger is not as desperate
nor as bottomless
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!
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!
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.