01 January 2010

How to Live on Bread and Music by Jennifer K. Sweeney

Review by Tasha Cotter

How to Live on Bread and Music
by Jennifer K. Sweeney

Perugia Press
98 pages

ISBN: 978-0-9794582-2-4
Link to Purchase

Jennifer K. Sweeney’s second collection of poetry How to Live on Bread and Music consists of five sections, two of them being multi-page poems, which are somewhat unusual as longer poems are notoriously more difficult to maintain, but Sweeney manages to avoid the common pitfalls of longer works with ease. Both of her longer poems radiate with fresh imagery, clever word choice, and an uncommon strength of metaphor. Clearly Sweeney is one of the brightest stars in emerging poetry. Her multi-page poem, “The Listeners” recounts the poet’s childhood with her father and music. Song lyrics are embedded seamlessly into the stanzas and each moment feels very carefully wrought. Sweeney moves from the abstract to more narrative moments:
I’d sit between the six foot speakers,
ache of my adolescence

and his adulthood
soothed by those vinyl voices

surging from the Magnaplanes
in a shared and private anthem.
Perhaps the most immediate trait of Sweeney’s work is the rich language one finds in her poetry coupled with a very precise use of metaphor. Throughout this impressive second collection we find a wealth of strong imagery, and an intense focus no matter what the subject. There are no weak poems in this collection; each poem dazzles in its own way. In her poem “Weathering” her gift of precision is on display:
At dusk the sky lowered a spectrum of whites
and rested atop it like thickest netting,
rows of rooftops dwarfish under the fog.

Much of weathering is erasure,
the daily words disintegrating
in the mouth each night to mist.
Sweeney is never more strong than in the poem “In Flight,” the first poem in section five. Here she begins with legend and ends with a mysterious wisdom that holds the reader’s imagination in suspension. It is in moments like this where the world’s nature and all its subtle beauty are brought to the forefront. Sweeney captures that notion of being born in the air and turns back to the reader for a moment to pose the fascinating question:
Maybe you have been born
into such a life

with the bottom dropping out.
Maybe gravity is claiming you
and you feel
ghost-scripted.
Sweeney’s work has already garnered a lot of attention. Her first book, Salt Memory won the 2006 Main Street Rag Poetry Award and this most recent collection won the 2009 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. In short, this collection rings with thought-provoking images and the silence she employs is noticeably well-thought out. Sweeney is one of those rare poets who can take a subject and make it true. Through careful technique she brings each poem to life and the music we hear is truly inspired. 

***

Tasha Cotter’s work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in Booth, The Rumpus, Contrary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction was recently nominated for a storySouth Million Writers award, and her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net Anthology 2011. You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com.

Fire Pond by Jessica Garratt

Review by Carolee Sherwood

Fire Pond
By Jessica Garratt

2008 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry
The University of Utah Press
Perfect bound, 96 pages
ISBN: 978-0-87480-953-4
Link to Purchase


Jessica Garratt's debut poetry collection, Fire Pond, is a book of questions and answers. In fact, on my first read, I believed that every poem contained at least one direct question. I was wrong: a little over half the poems include questions (the official sort with question marks).

"Without" asks, "What happens when the two finally have it out?" "Neighborhood" asks, "Does it matter?" and the fourth section in the title poem "Fire Pond" (a longer piece comprised of ten sonnets true to rhyme scheme and syllable count) asks, "Is that what I've been doing here?/ Keeping something to myself, just to prove/ I could?" "Infidelity," ponders this:
When moving from the porch
        to the bedroom
with wine-deepened lips,
        a breeze lifting the corners
of poems lying on my desk, why
        didn't he see? And why
did those words
        not seek out the warmest entry
to his mind?
The remaining poems fooled me, gave me the impression of questions by describing longing and curiosity so intensely, I experienced them as requests. For example, "Cogito" depicts a college student's relationship to books, "which burden him with the suggestion/ that he might not be everything,/ or enough." We experience this as a question: Am I enough? Several poems imply questions similarly, including "The state of things," which Garratt begins, "She is suddenly convinced/ ... that she knows the answer" and "Fire Pond" (sonnet II), which says, "At dinner, I told a poet, I'm scared I/ think I might write for love." These poems never reveal questions, but we know they are present. The poems' narrator is relentless in her questioning; she constantly asks something of the world and her poems.

I want to be careful, using the word "answers" as a matched pair with "questions," as in my lead paragraph: "Fire Pond is a book of questions and answers." To be sure, questions permeate Fire Pond. Answers, however, are not only elusive, they may never unite with their respective questions. (In the poem "Fire Pond," the third sonnet tells us, "No sign/ told what to do once there," and its fifth sonnet states more harshly: "There's no such thing/ when wanting is the hinge on which you swing.")

Because of this, it may be helpful to talk about the theme of questions and answers in a different way, such as the exploration of openings (the questioning) and echoes (whatever reverberates within spaces). When we cry out, we often hear an echo. Even though it's the same voice repeating itself, even though it provides us with no new information, the response -- in a voice somehow changed -- is the answer. It is what follows, what comes next. 

It is also what repeats, and in Fire Pond I enjoyed recognizing fresh manifestations of repeated images. Again and again, we encounter (though always in new contexts) stones, airplanes, safety and threats, needle and thread, hearts, Spring, Winter and space, which I will use to show how Garratt gives new life to revisted objects. "Mirador" shows us space as absence: "The space where she was, then wasn't." In "Permanence," we consider space as absence again, but with a twist. Garratt assigns to it an idea that takes up space instead of creating a vacuum. She writes, "I felt I was entering a great heart, swollen to its rafters/ with solitude." Finally, the seventh sonnet in "Fire Pond" fuses the two seemingly opposite interpretations, depicts space as full and empty: "The rift/ of air, where something was, no longer is--/ that is where we live, our true landscape."

Of course, the most central echo in the collection is the concept of "answer," which has numerous permutations in Garratt's poems. "Answer" appears as "theorem" in "En Route:" "the man's theorem chimes the chime/ of a grandfather clock -- with the benefit, I mean,/ of never sounding wrong." "Answer" is "object" in "True North:" "to feel desire/ loosen its attachment on any one/ object, to lose its focus/ on one." It is the proof provided by the sun in "Epilogue:" "I guess the sun was too, proving each one/ of our days to us," and it is "the bare gray fact" of a dead mouse in "Pilgrim." In addition, "answer" is a "conclusion" (about sex and poetry) in "Expression:"
The guy who looked right at me, said,
        Let's make love
                right before we did, not two full morning hours
before he helped me toward the conclusion
        that this was only an expression --
                not of feeling
but of syllables,
        chosen for their flow, their gauzy, filmic effacement
                of all we didn't mean.
"Answer" also evolves several times within the single poem "Mirador." We see it first as "theories" ("Something/ my mother told me just yesterday/ ... according to the theories she's learning") and later as "this is why," when characters in the poem are considering the suddenness and permanence of death and how to explain it to a two-year-old ("This is why we shouldn't have given up God,/ he said. I finished his sentence/ internally: so there'd always be something left to say"). In the end of "Mirador," "answer" becomes "what we know about things." (The narrator says, "We must not go on this way, friend,/ knowing what we know about things.")

Creating elaborate synonyms for objects isn't the only tool Garratt uses to establish echoes. She also utilizes repeated movement within the poems, relying most heavily upon circular motion, which works so cleverly with the notion of questions and answers (which lead to more questions). For example, the ends of many poems circle back to their beginnings. "Without" begins and ends with a stone. Here is its first line, "the reflected future of a stone in air over water" and its last, "groping inward toward that cold, intimate stone." "Leaving Sykesville" begins, "There's never an ill fit," and close to the end it repeats, "never is it not/ a perfect fit." The first task of the poem "Fire Pond" is to question the excuse a lover for not calling, and near the end, it calls the lover into question again ("You said, I'm only tired./ But I saw through).

The poems encompass perpetual motion, as well, what comes and goes and then returns, what flows one thing into the next continuously. Spring, for example, comes over and over, "blotting out whole histories/ of hurt and wrongdoing" ("Self-Preservation Ode"). In "Expression," the narrator describes herself as "a leaky fountain/ in the shape of a woman, giving itself away./ Have I, then, abandoned myself/ to motion?" The poem "Brooklyn, February" provides another sense of this sort of motion, round and round, beginning and ending and beginning again. Our narrator is on a train:
We were part of things, caught
in the narrow intimacy of that car, joined
to other cars, to the destination
and the people at the next station, facing the dark
tunnel, willing our train
to arrive. A feeling of pure
saturation: the this-ness
of moment.
Like the train, which circles without regard for us, other systems operate independent of us because that's what they're designed to do. "Climate of Refrain," which implies repetition in the title itself, shows us how nature works this way: "Squirrels leap and swing/ overhead, as though squirreling/ were the only real business/ these days." The narrator considers her body in the same context in "Foundation." Though she fears something's wrong with her body, she notes, "The body too/ keeps reeling through its actions, even/ after something's gone wrong." In "Infidelity" we see it again: "Absurd/ how effortless is the architecture/ of being. Intention, judgment,/ forgiveness, these/ have no business being bound/ in the same warm knot/ as those industrious veins/ ushering blood to the gray in-roads/ of the brain."

The collection's most pervasive movement is revolution, a spinning motion. In "Transmission," the narrator considers the rotation of the earth: "spinning/ to avoid spinning's opposite." What an echo this is to the body reeling, how it keeps reeling no matter what to avoid the cessation of reeling! 

It would be easy, if that were the answer: that the world goes on. But true to a collection of questions, Garratt takes a jab at even the most fundamental spinning, that of our planet, in the final stanza of "Transmission:"
I've seen, of course, the serene reels
        from the satellite's oracle eye:
Earth's "spin" a mulling over
        of motion, its revolution
imperceptible.
She doubts even this concrete reality, which reminds us of the introductory poem in the collection, "Abstract." Its central image -- a cement truck's "gray steel football turns/ wise as a clock" -- at first leads us to believe we can trust the constant motion. Instead, Garratt attaches to it doubt:
Upside-down, CONCRETE
        appears, disappears, reappears
                in big red painted letters, turning
for someone I can't see
        on the other side of the truck, only
                right side up.
The narrator tells us she thinks the world has answers, but she's not sure the answers will be given to her. She wonders about others and their answers: do they access them more readily? The poem, as an opening, is the perfect choice. We know right away our narrator is trying to grasp something out of reach. We know the world provides clues but isn't going to make it easy for us. Later, when we read about the earth turning "one of its faces/ in one direction, and someone driving to work squints, curses/ the light" ("Rotation"), we are brought back to the cement truck's "gray steel football" turning, and the narrator trying to read the word "concrete." 

This continual struggle -- "to always believe/ in the circle" ("En Route") -- our narrator admits, is "exhausting." We can't grasp everything; we can't know what's real or true, no matter how close we try to bring the answers to the questions:
What if there never was a point
        of intersection, after all?
If they've only floated in each other's vicinity
        for convenience's sake (from "Infidelity").
Garratt delivers us to this place, where we stop expecting "answer" to be "resolution" and instead consider that the answer is this: being present in the space the question creates.

Fire Pond engages me on both the cerebral level and the instinctual level. Intellectually, it thrills me that each section ends with a poem about how our choices split us apart from ourselves. One of us goes this way; one of us goes the other way. The poem "Farewell" ends section I like this:
It wasn't clear who was who
until one let go -- the way a child lets go
of balloon after balloon, across years,
and only with practice is able to watch
that bright shape float away
and not feel herself go with it.
Section II, ends with the tenth sonnet "Fire Pond," which includes the lines, "So many strands. Can each be true?" and "A willingness/ to let the self loop out and back, to thread/ each You anew." Finally, section III, ends with "Fascicle," in which the narrator considers a future time when a lover will no longer be with her. She imagines, "Your smile fossilizes/ in the wall of a duplicate diner/ that has no walls; it will live longer/ there. I'm laughing, too, I'm there."

At the same time it makes my logical brain salivate, Fire Pond entices my heart most of all. So much of the verse makes me think: This is it, what we're all trying to say. The poem "Foundation" confesses,
I might disappear with so little to hold me.
        I wanted someone to look at me
                and never stop. Someone to say,
I'll notice, I'll fix it
        if anything goes wrong.
And the eighth sonnet in "Fire Pond" says, visitors
feel the vulnerable indifference of
a place they've come to new, which hasn't need-
ed them so far, though they hope it will. Love
is similar. And so are other things.
I say, I want more. More and more poems from Jessica Garratt.

***

Carolee Sherwood is a poet and artist who lives in Upstate New York. Several of her poems have appeared in online and print journals, including Literary Mama, Qarrtsiluni, Umbrella, Awakenings Review and Ballard Street Poetry Journal. She is co-editor of Ouroboros Review, mother of three boys and a veteran columnist for the online poetry project Read Write Poem. You can find her rambling about the creative life at Carolee Sherwood and drafting poems at I Am Maureen.  

Dark Card and Mom’s Canoe by Rebecca Foust

Review by Anne Harding Woodworth


Dark Card
By Rebecca Foust

Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize, 2007
Texas Review Press
ISBN: 978-1-933896-14-4
Link to Purchase


Mom’s Canoe
By Rebecca Foust

Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize, 2007
Texas Review Press
ISBN: 978-1-933896-27-4
Link to Purchase


Dark Card and Mom’s Canoe by Rebecca Foust share a consummate poetic skill. Both winners of the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize in 2007 and 2008 respectively, they examine family. One scrutinizes the role of mother, the other penetrates a daughter’s memory. From the birth of the poet’s autistic son in Dark Card to the death of the poet’s mother in Mom’s Canoe, Foust draws on her craft—the hint of meter and rhyme, alliteration, repetition of words, and the risk of asymmetry—and thereby reveals her angry, compassionate, truth-seeking and affectionate mind.
 
In Dark Card autism is the operative force, as both mother and her son with Asperger’s grow into this reality. The drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) lurks in a past of generationally delayed miscarriages, and Foust in what might be considered generationally delayed rage against the medical industry targets the doctor in “Palace Eunuch.”
You were practically pissing yourself
in your fear of malpractice,
you were shaking
in your green paper booties.
Emerging from this birth scene, the poet’s son becomes the poem. We read him, memorize him, recite him, and embrace his lack of guile, which—“face flower-open” —
reveals the truth.
My son is gentler with moths
than people ever were with him,
and he chooses truth like breath.
In “He Never Lies,” the poet expresses her fears of what might happen to her child, who simply cannot lie— “not because he won’t / or doesn’t know better, / or how, he just can’t.”
I imagine him drugged
or locked down on a ward;
in my nightmares
he’s caged.
In the chaos of life, the mother protects her son intensely, admitting that perhaps she doesn’t really “have to whisk / the ice smooth ahead of your / curling stone.” But the maternal urge to protect is tender in its toughness and makes for spellbinding lyrical-narrative poetry.

The story could not be told without Foust’s subtlety of craft. Delightful plays with words appear unexpectedly: “like the moon-crazed tide; / it raves like the tide-crazed moon.”  The word “dark” in the title suggests an obvious complicated darkness, but also an enlightenment. The “dark card” is the autistic boy’s exceptional intelligence. As caretaker of a child who suffers the cruelty of his peers—“how one time they cornered him / behind the storage shed and stoned him” — this mother is going to point out his brilliance. She is fierce protector, no longer the young carefree girl who “dove from cliffs / into dark quarries.” 

And quarries, mines, dirty rivers course through Mom’s Canoe. Foust is no less involved in the story she tells here than she was in Dark Card, and she is just as desirous of the truth. But differences abound. Now the poet observes the mother. The casual word “Mom” in the title suggests a lighthearted mother, but a light heart does not figure in these poems. For Foust the ominous Allegheny Mountains of her childhood “calve memory from twilight.” 

Foust paints her familiar Allegheny mining area with soot, mud, squalid water, wife abuse, and other tokens of desperation and broken dreams. Death is everywhere in a mining place, but it does not destroy. Like Whitman, Foust knows that matter remains. DNA lives on. Memory survives. This is the lovely breadth of her vision. Here it is, in the title poem that delicately evokes “Hiawatha.”
I still see you rising from water to sky,
paddle held high,
river drops limning its edge.
Brown diamonds catch the light as you lift, then dip.
Parting the current, you slip
silently through the evening shadows.
You, birdsong, watersong, slanting light,
following river bend, swallowed from sight.
***

Anne Harding Woodworth’s most recent book is Spare Parts, A Novella in Verse (Turning Point, 2008), and her most recent chapbook is Up From the Root Cellar (Cervena Barva Press, 2008). Her essays and poetry have appeared widely in US and Canadian journals. She is a member of the Poetry Board at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, where she lives part-time. The rest of the time she is hiking in Cedar Mountain, NC. Visit www.annehardingwoodworth.com.

Cures and Poisons by Caroline Maun

Review by Mary Jane Lupton
 
Cures and Poisons 
By Caroline Maun
Pudding House Press
Chapbook Series
36 pages
ISBN 1-58998-808-6

Link to Purchase

For readers captivated by the poem “Cicadas as Parable” in Caroline Maun’s first volume, The Sleeping (2006), her second volume Cures and Poisons offers an even more astounding glimpse into the parallels between the insect and the human worlds. 
 
In 2006 Maun described cicadas as large, winged insects doomed to be reborn every seventeen years with “no time to eat,/sleep or reflect or watch where one goes.” They remind us that we too are “slaves to our appetites” (The Sleeping, 4). 

The poem in Cures and Poisons (2009) that most closely evokes the fate of the hapless cicada is the parable of the artificially inseminated queen bee, her hive so displaced over the centuries that the angry and unrepresented drones had “left/in search of independent flowers” (“The Abdication of the Bees”). Through Maun’s bee-human analogy she is possibly signifying that artificial fertilization in both the insect and the human realms squashes the fidelity of the underperforming drone/husband. 

Among other insects in this thirty-nine poem collection are the mantis, the spiders, and the fly. Maun is at her most bizarrely perceptive when she describes female mantises who eat their mates:
but when she rips him out
the penis remains inside
as a dam against further mating.
The human counterpart does not occur until years later, when two lovers talk on the phone, “feeling half alive, ravenous” (“Sexual Cannibalism,” Cures and Poisons).

In many of Maun’s poems the autobiographical takes precedence over the metaphorical as she recollects a broken knee cap, a conversation with her mother, a ride in the country side with her father, the specters of nicotine withdrawal.. The most memorable of these recollections is her being raped at the age of sixteen (“I Was Failing Math and Just Sixteen,” Cures and Poisons). She alludes to this dreadful moment of her life in “I Didn’t Miss School” (Cures and Poisons); in the title poem of The Sleeping; and in an unpublished short story.

Maun’s chapbook surprises, not only with the power of its images but also with its remarkable lyricism. In “On Becoming a Shadow” (Cures and Poisons) the traditional four-line ballad form is re-invented through the eye rhymes of the first stanza: “lost,” “most,” “cost,” “ghost.” Several other lyric transformations (“Some Demons are Devils” and “The Breadthless Length”), for example, appear to culminate in the last poem of the volume, “The Road”:
The sages once said
a long time ago
don’t lose your head
when the wind starts to blow.
“The Road,” with lyrics by Caroline Maun, is on the sound track of a DVD, Phases of the Sun, which she recorded with musician Frank Koscielski. Maun wrote most of the lyrics for the album. Many of them are love songs and many of them blues-rock songs reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. Caroline’s soft clear voice adds just another dimension to a poet whose amazing talents inform all of her work.

***

Mary Jane Lupton, Professor Emeritus from Morgan State University, is the author of five books, including critical companions to Maya Angelou (Greenwood, 1998) and to James Welch (Greenwood, 2004). Her latest book is Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters (Praeger, 2006).

Crazy Love by Pamela Uschuk

Review by Naomi Benaron

Crazy Love
By Pamela Uschuk

Wings Press 
Perfect binding, 102 pages
ISBN 978-0-916727-58-1
Link to Purchase


Crazy Love, Pam Uschuk’s new poetry collection is just that: crazy love. Each poem is a wild white-water ride down a raging river. In a voice ranging from sparsely narrative to stream of consciousness, Uschuk navigates through a landscape carved from the natural world, ecology, politics, family, and above all, the mysteries of love in all its incarnations. Uschuk is passionately committed to the world she lives in, and her fire burns in every line.

Each poem in Crazy Love grows from Uschuk’s confident voice and innate rhythm. In a recent interview with Derek Alger, she said, “As a child, I loved rhythms, loved words.” (Pif Magazine, August 16, 2009) This love is evident in the playfulness of language and sound. Her poem “Christmas Dawn” begins:
Five degrees and I slip
through the front door for kindling
when the click of the lock spooks
the buck just off the deck grazing on cheat grass.
I feel each meditative footfall in the stressed syllables, hear its frozen echo in the still morning resonate with every k sound. In her poem, “Meditations Beside Kootenai Creek,” I enjoy faint stirrings of Pablo Neruda in her plunge into the metaphors of water and her fresh and unexpected pairings of images:
Your black hair waves like tentacles
or a negative halo radiant in its aquamarine pool.
Like the blind minnows, your fingertips
bump the smooth skulls of stones underwater
Uschuk was raised in a multi-lingual home, and her language resonates with the sounds and songs of the Slavic tongues she grew up hearing. Her poems constantly surprise, constantly renew, constantly twist and turn along the freshly-blazed trails of her poetic terrain.

In a single poem, Uschuk’s language slips easily between the lyrical, “On diminished wind, tiny moths/white as thin dead lids/navigate the sun’s final rays,” and a brutal realism, “fresh from Baghdad, a slim line of flag-draped coffins/drifts down a Maryland conveyer belt.” In this poem, “White Moths,” the juxtaposition brings home the contrast between war’s harsh reality and a beautiful and meditative moment far away from the front lines. Just as the fighter jet “rips the underbelly of sky,” Uschuk’s words rip open the quiet mood she has created and replace it with a stark image of the cost of war. “Event becomes myth,” Uschuk says in “With Its Toll of Char,” and indeed, in Uschuk’s lines, event becomes myth, myth becomes event – over and over.

Uschuk is equally at home in the narrative voice of “Saving the Cormorant on Albemarle Sound”:
I focus on a pair of cormorants a hundred yards offshore.
One startles skyward eaten by fog
as its mate slinghots up then slams
back, leashed to the gray chop.
and the stream of consciousness of “With Its Toll of Char”:
Inside midnight’s sleeve
the architecture of imagination slips
from its routine mooring
in an earthquake of dreams . . .
In “Cormorant,” Uschuk tells of saving a cormorant tangled in a net strung across the sound, building narrative tension as skillfully as any storyteller. In “Char,” she creates a dream world. She glides back and forth between the mystical place created by a journey through night fog where “All sounds bassoon in haze” and the image, pinned by her car’s headlights, of a dead fox and her grieving mate by the side of the road.

The natural world is at the core of Uschuk’s poetry; it forms the riverbed over which all her verse flows. Like a tour guide in the back country, she names every bird, every creature, every plant. We journey with her to South Africa, the mountains of Colorado, her childhood home in Michigan, and she paints each place with stunning clarity and loving tenderness. 

In every poem, Uschuk spins in her sensual and prayerful world like a dakini, the Tibetan Buddhist goddess of her poem by that name. “Blossoming in Lilith’s Garden” begins:
I pick wild cherries plump as the fire moon
as I brush through
my garden’s full blooms—
       fuschia petunias that tongue
velvet Pasque flowers pulling themselves
erect as silk temples next to blousy lips
I am reminded of Bruno Schulz’s wild and fecund landscape in Street of Crocodiles. In both Schulz’s prose and Uschuk’s poetry, a world is created in which one is always somehow unsettled, as if the edges of things are never quite square. In her own life, Uschuk is familiar with a world of unclear boundaries and expectations. Speaking of her mother, who suffered from bipolar disease, Uschuk told Alger, “Our family spun on the tilt-a-whirl of her frequent psychotic episodes.” In the case of her poetry, however, we freely ride the tilt-a-whirl of her language. Although we never quite know where each line will take us, we are glad to be along for the journey.


In the end, it is love that binds together Uschuk’s eclectic collection of poems: love for the natural world, for her husband, William Root, a fellow poet, for her family and all their quirky stories, for, “the stories of those people or creatures who have no voice or whose voices have been suppressed in some way,” as she told Alger. No matter the subject, Uschuk’s poems are filled with prayerful reverence and fiery devotion. In her poem “Motorcycle,” Uschuk ends by asking the question, “What souvenirs of wise/devotion will we leave, scattered like empty boots/for our kids to try on?” She asks similar questions in many of these poems. Love, she affirms, in any of its various incarnations, provides an answer. In “Change of Heart,” a poem for her sister Val, she says, “it is never too late for repair . . .never too late/for a malformed heart to create/a new pathway, opened, loved.” Whatever the cause of our own heart’s malformation, Uschuk’s poetic arms embrace us. Her unabashed passion heals us.

***

Naomi Benaron’s short story collection, Love Letters from a Fat Man won the 2006 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction (selected by Stuart Dybek). She was a finalist for the 2008 National Best Books Awards, the Eric Hoffer Award and the Montaigne medal, and her novel was a short-listed finalist for Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for a Novel of Social Change. Among other prizes and awards, she is the winner of the 2008 Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, the 2008 New Letters Readers’ Choice Award, and the 2005 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous in print and online journals. She lives in Tucson AZ where she teaches writing and geology at Pima Community College. 

Cities of Flesh and the Dead

Review by Emma Bolden
 
Cities of Flesh and the Dead
By Diann Blakely
Elixir
Perfect Bound, 112 pages
ISBN 978-1932418262
Link to Purchase


One does not simply read a new book by Diann Blakely: one experiences it. Blakely’s long-awaited latest collection, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, which won the Poetry Society of America’s prestigious Alice Fay diCastagnola Award, is no exception. In this collection, Blakely follows in the footsteps of such poets as Matsuo Bashō and Walt Whitman, treating the journey as a physical, emotional, and psychological imperative. These poems, however, are far from traditional travel narratives. Instead, Blakely explores travel’s promise for escape, its ability to jolt one from the cruel simplicity of the known and the inherited cruelties of the home. Blakely both invokes and evokes the spirit of Charles Baudelaire, “skimming a secondhand Baudelaire” through lunch in New Orleans’s French Quarter (echoing Baudelaire’s own Latin Quarter) and also echoing Baudelaire’s perception of this life as “a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds” and the soul cries out to travel “'No matter where! No matter where! As long as it's out of the world!’”

The collection is divided into five sections, each of which explore another aspect of the brutality of the ordinary and the necessity of travel. The poems in the first section, “Exiles and Returns,” speak of the terror which prompts us to run, the terror built of histories national, cultural, and personal. Blakely begins with a cinematic memory which her readers will certainly share: the shower scene in Psycho. In “Bad Blood,” Blakely writes of how this portrayal of one woman’s terror, “when death, / That black-winged angel, / Appears without warning, without any time for prayers, rescues,” brings us to terrors of our own even in moments we trust for comfort, such as the shower, where we trust “water like a lover to soothe, to cleanse of the grit // And smudge of ill-spent pasts, to give us a new start.” The poem melds the speaker’s experience with Marion Crane’s experience, ending on a prayer – “love me, treasure my body, don’t ever let me die” – a plea to be singled out in times of terror and reminding the reader that it is terror which defines us as human: we will all die.

Blakely then moves on to “Family Battles,” one of the book’s six sequences. In these modified sonnets, Blakely reminds us that horror is not limited to the horror film, but is perhaps most present in what is most familiar to us: our homes and our families. There is, for instance, her uncle Eddie, who “[s]pent most months at a VA hospital / Thorazined and crying in the chapel / For his buddies.” For Eddie, the war didn’t stop with the war, but lived on in his every action, even when, during Christmas lunch, he “winks at me and twirls the carving knife.” The sequence suggests that tragedy has the potential to transform, as in Temple Drake’s case, the Faulknerian “belle / Turned whore, she’s transformed by loss and contrition / When her child dies.” At the same time, Blakely hints that this transformation isn’t complete, or else isn’t perceived as complete. Even sexuality becomes a threat, as a priest jokes with the narrator as a child, “his chilblained right hand stretched / Toward my bent shag,” that “‘hairdressers call / On Mary as. . . . their patron slut . . . er, saint.’”  Through this sequence, it becomes clear that there exists little difference between a war abroad and a war in a home; though bloodshed may be scarce, the terror is the same.

In the next sequence, “The Last Violet,” Mary Jane Kelly confirms that sexuality is inextricably linked with violence. Kelly, an Irish prostitute who was Jack the Ripper’s final victim, speaks of how poverty brought her to her occupation: she was, at first, “glad to scrub / A convent’s floors for porridge and a cot, / But who’d call these fair wages?”  Though her profession may consist of sleeping “days after twisting the sheets / With proper husbands in derbies like yours,” she is able to “keep a lady’s ways: / This basin, my bottle of French perfume / And that small one of brandy.” Kelly is therefore able to make a home of the sort that is expected, if not respected; this home is, however, dark and dangerous, the place where “jealous wenches nicknamed” her “Black Mary.” She finds acceptance only in sex, in men “[w]ho go home late to their wives, long asleep, / Milk-faced and tight-kneed, dreaming of the Queen,” and is punished even by those who are meant to show mercy, as a priest hears her Hail Mary and “looked up from his prayers / Like I’d raved curses; he startled and made / The cross’s sign with his smudged, crookéd fingers.” There is no comfort, then, in the familiar, even in religion, as “we’re doomed to certain things by God.”

This idea runs through the rest of the poems, spurring the speaker to run from place to place, from escape to escape. In “Memphis Blues,” Blakely describes this city of great violence and glorious music, where she attempts escape within “the fallen raptures of this murderous world.” Even in travel, even in sex, there is no escape; in “On the Border,” Blakely describes sex as bloody and painful – “Delilah never warned me / Just how much this hurt / Or just how quickly I’d flee that boy” – but as necessary for love, which is itself bloody and painful, existing “to cross borders, slip into other bodies / With the same sweet ease / That we slip into sun-warmed grass or a river’s muddy flow” and, at the same time, as wire which “stings / And rips our flesh, wire saying Do Not Enter, saying Go Back.”

In the second section, “Blood Oranges,” Blakely skips from city to city, seeking difference and similarity, wondering, upon thinking of Lorca and Capote, “What do they share, and I with them, beyond / A language of desire and shame, of homes / Escaped then mourned?”  The section begins with another sequence of modified sonnets, this one taking the way we travel, without choice through time and with choice through space, as its subject. Most of the poems take Manhattan as their subject, focusing on how that closely-packed life is fraught with emergency. However, it isn’t just the close proximity of city living which is the problem; the problem is, instead, any close relationship, which, contrary to what we’re taught to believe, is dangerous and brutal. In the third sonnet, “Houston Street Grille,” Blakely celebrates brevity in human relationships as she bids farewell to a lover, wondering “[w]hy do these encounters possess such allure / When short, their farewells always chaste, like this? / He’ll marry soon — I’ll miss him, more or less.” In “Travel Permission,” Blakely speaks of her female students and of women in general, who are “raised to be fulfilled with love, with friends.” But such teachings are traps, and dangerous ones, at that: in the Soho Guggenheim, Blakely speaks of deKooning’s famous women, “bent and fractured,” “scribbled with black, carmine, / Streaked cobalt and deep murky ochres, mirrors – of what?” The answer is, of course, all of us, and all of us women in particular. “Photography Wing” speaks of the pain of separation, even when return is promised, as “[w]hen my parents drove off to dinners, furred / And tuxedoed; I tantrummed, held my breath / Until my blood-congested cheeks turned scarlet.” Her parents return; it was “[a] false alarm” – though most alarms are not false, especially those regarding the home, which continues its treacherous lessons. In “Another Saturday Night,” Blakely describes how we are all born into a mess of a family, and how we use our own families and friendships merely as a method for repeated the trauma we’ve experienced, the harms that others have caused us: 
But what terror freights our early steps from home,
From families we’re born to, none untroubled,
And toward these larger ones we make, messy
As the first with love and loss, our fumbled histories. 
The final poem of this section, “Blood Oranges,” continues and alters this theme by presenting travel as a way to escape our homes and harms. The speaker takes the physical steps that led others – St. Teresa of Ávila and Federico García Lorca – to spiritual revelation, though each revelation leads her nowhere but home: “I want dreams / Of angels too, their wings hymning escape / From travel-smutted flesh. . . .as Southern suns / Force dogwoods’ buds to cruciforms.” “God is in the details, / Teresa said,” but for the speaker, the details swirl back to home and to a place she cannot equate with God, just with “legacies / Of shuttered rooms and Easter dresses stiff / With starch, the mingled smells of sour milk / And talc.” These ideas carry into the next section, “Following Signs,” and particularly the first sequence, “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” in which home and not-home combine with dizzying and disorienting effect. The speaker’s mother travels abroad with her to England; her presence reminds the speaker of home, and how happiness and unhappiness are inextricably linked: “‘I hate babies—they mess up your nice things,’ / My mother shrieks, my brother spitting up / On her bed’s counterpane, hand-tatted lace.”  Even her mother’s marriage, performed against the family’s idea of “marriage for bloodlines, not happiness,” “turned bitter.” Blakely suggests that this is a situation intrinsic to the human heart itself, which longs both for what will heal it and what will hurt it, as in Larkin’s “poems that comprehend the heart, / How it craves love, also deprivation.” Perhaps nothing better represents this state than a woman’s state in marriage. Late in the sequence, Blakely moves to compare personal memories to cultural memories of women in domesticity: her mother to Sylvia Plath, herself to Vivienne Eliot. In the case of Plath and her mother, no matter how deeply domesticity is desired, it ends in tragedy:
Both houses white, both haunted by Furies
Who took their revenge as good women do,
Not with guns or knives but black depression,
One’s hair falling lankly from an oven door
As hissing gas choked our her eulogy;
The other crying in bed through whole seasons,
Wearing the same nightgown as summer air
Sharpens into fall. . . .
Through these women, the speaker learns how quickly the home becomes a trap; through Vivienne Eliot’s “bloody rags, / Head-blurring pills quacks said would stanch the flow / That continued red for weeks,” she learns how women are helpless to their own situations, how the only real solution is isolation: “At sixteen I knew what I wanted: / To be Prufrock, remote from those women, / Pliant and perfumed. . . . / To write poems as singing as Eliot’s dry bones.” Love, the speaker reflects during evensong at Westminster Abbey, is not the grand exercise proclaimed by church hymns, but damage: “God, what forms can / Love take except the smudged, the failed, the human?”

Blakely continues her meditation on the divine and human aspects of love in “Church of Jesus with Signs Following,” a sequence of poems dissecting a murder trial in her home state of Alabama in which a preacher attempted to murder his wife by forcing her hand into the cage holding his snake-handling church’s serpents. In this sequence, the holy and the dangerous are inseparable, signs of grace become “hot-fanged offerings,” and to have a family means that one is “made ripe for grief.” This is a situation inherent in Christianity,  in Paul’s warning that one should not marry but that one had “Better marry than burn,” and in Christ’s command for all to “Turn the other cheek,” advice which necessarily extends to dangerous domestic situations. As Christians – and as human beings in general – we are therefore set up for a fall, or “backsliding,” as Blakely puts it, which is “serious stuff in Alabama, / But isn’t that why I return?” By the end of the sequence, Blakely’s speaker has traveled away from and back to home, now seeking salvation there, “wanting hands / To be laid on me, still following signs.”

Blakely’s quest for redemption and revelation at home continues in part five, “Home Movies,” a stunningly well-wrought and beautifully executed sequence of poems in which the speaker is forced to question both herself and her desire for escape. Though home is “a Dantescan pit” which “glitters into view,” it is also the locus of a history she inherits and shares, a history she must in some way accept even if she does not want it. Her parents greet her with the “surprise gift of home movies,” which begin with the burning of a foundry, “O dying town of Bethlehem Steel,” an event which takes her grandfather’s job and her great aunt’s will to live. Just as she did not ask for her history -- “Who gets to wish-list anyone as parent or child?” -- so did they not ask for this event. This triggers the speaker’s realization that examining one’s own history is, in the end, an exercise which ends only in more confusion. As in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, tight focus and close examination lead only to dissolution, to questions, as Thomas’ photograph itself, which shows “a woman’s frightened face—there— / Then dissolve[s] to grain?  Or is the body, / And the gun, a trick of light?”

The ultimate questions of our lives, therefore, have no answers other than uncertainty, dissolution. Travel, distraction, movement: all are redemptive because they involve escape, transport rather than catharsis, which, Blakely argues, is as useless as questioning one’s past.  In art and in travel, in cinema scenes and in the footsteps of those who stepped before us, we are “[n]ot purged by transported!” – we are able to become. The poem ends with a series of sonnets for Tina Turner, that great icon of revelation, redemption, and transformation, who, through travels away from and back to the home, through reinvention and liberation, learns that the only real truth is that “We build ourselves, and love ain’t everything.”


***

Emma Bolden’s chapbooks include How to Recognize a Lady (part of Edge by Edge, Toadlily Press), The Mariner’s Wife (Finishing Line Press), and The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press). She was a semi-finalist for the Perugia Press Book Prize and a finalist for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize and for a Ruth Lily Fellowship. She teaches at Georgetown College and is poetry editor of Georgetown Review.

Two Tales of One Tragedy: Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, Katie Cappello’s Perpetual Care, and the Catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina

Review by Karen J. Weyant

Blood Dazzler
by Patricia Smith
Coffee House Press
Perfect Bound 90 pages
ISBN 978-1-56689-218-6
Link to Purchase

 
Perpetual Care
by Katie Cappello
Elixir
Perfect Bound 88 pages
ISBN 978-1932418323
Link to Purchase


Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, flooding the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas, causing billions of dollars worth of damage and killing over 1, 8oo people.  Since that tragedy, writers have plunged into this dark part of American history, exploring the politics and people involved with this catastrophe. How often to we insist that it is the job for poets to bear witness to the truth? The truth, of course, is always subjective, but both Patricia Smith in Blood Dazzler and Katie Cappello in Perpetual Care come close. 

Patricia Smith opens Blood Dazzler with “Prologue - And Then She Owns You” a poem that introduces New Orleans as a “She” that is not necessarily a glamourous literary heroine: 
Weak light, bleakly triumphant, will unveil scabs,
snippets of filth music, cars on collapsed veins.
The whole gray of doubt slithers on solemn skin.
Call her New Orleans.
This “she” is hardly part of a poetic utopia; she “prefers alleys, crevices, basement floors” and has a voice that “sounds like cigarettes/pubic sweat, brown spittle lining a sax bell/the broken heel on a drag queen’s scarlet slings.” Smith humanizes New Orleans, which is what makes the devastation found in the poems afterwards so heartbreaking. Smith excels at working with persona. Not only is the city a “she”, but many of the poems are told through a first person point of view of the storm itself. For example, in “5 pm, Thursday, August 25, 2005,” the day that Katrina is upgraded to a hurricane the storm explains, “My eye takes in so much —/what it craves, what I never hoped to see.” In another poem, “8 a.m. Sunday, August 28, 2005" when Katrina becomes a category 5 hurricane, she exerts her power:
Now officially a bitch, I’m confounded by words—
all I’ve ever been is starving, fluid, and noise.
So I huff a huge sulk, thrust out my chest,
open wide my solo swallowing eye.
And if hearing from Katrina is not enough, we also see another historical storm critical of her little sister. In “What Betsy Has to Say” she admonishes the storm:
The idea was not
to stomp it flat, ‘trina,
all you had to do was kiss the land,
brush your thunderous lips against it
and leave it stuttering, scared barren
at your very notion.  Instead,
you roared through like
a goddamned man, all biceps and must
flinging your dreaded mane,
and lifting souls up to feed your ravenous eye.
By giving the storms human voices, Smith dismisses the idea that Katrina was a “natural” disaster. However, she does not leave the true victims out of her work. In “Ghazal” the poet chronicles the powerful force of the rain in such couplets as “Everyone else tried hard to vanish the sight of dripping/nomads rowing cardboard boxes. No, this was not mere rain.” In “Luther B Rides Out the Storm” the victim is a dog, whose “wet yelps and winding croon reach nothing/Wobbling, he latches muzzles to the wall of wind.” 

But the most heartbreaking and disturbing tale is the story of Ethel Freedman, whose body was left outside the New Orleans Convention Center. The poem relays her story in a poem titled “Ethel’s Sestina”:
Gon’ be obedient in this here chair
gon’ bide my time, fanning against this sun.
I asked my boy, and all he says is Wait.
He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.
I trust his every word.  Herbert my son.
I believe him when he says helps goin to come. 
Of course, any discussion of Katrina in poetry or otherwise, cannot ignore the political elements of this particular disaster. George Bush appears in many of the poems including the “President Flies Over” where he chronicles what he sees below, not comprehending (or perhaps caring?) what is really happening with the words, “I understand that somewhere it has rained.”

Smith’s collection is brutal and honest, focusing on the human element of the natural disaster. It would be too easy to simply focus on the political aspects of the disaster; instead, she renders the stories of the storm, both human and natural. 

On the other hand, Katie Cappello’s Perpetual Care is, in many ways, is a collection of a more surreal South. Cappello excels at the image – especially when she explores the world through mythology. For example, in her opening poem, “Twentieth Century Genesis” she relays a creation story:
The snake slid out, pale pink
          like the inside of organs.
When she put her legs together
she counted fifty tiny razors
cutting her fifty times.
They found her lying in the clover
pale pink and drained of blood.
The boots of policeman
           ripped up the sweet pea
as they took photos, gathered bits of fiber.
No one noticed the newborn snake
like a glossed lip
in the shade of the bottle tree roots.
Is this the birth of a new world, or simply a rebirth of a devastated world? Or, is there really a difference? The opening is not clear, although through the poems that follow we see a narrator traveling through a devastated South. Unlike Smith’s collection, not every poem in Cappello’s book is specifically about New Orleans, but still the near death of this city is never really far from the narrator’s mind no matter what experiences she records. For example, in “The Bedtime Story” the narrator states, “My father says we will watch the world end/from the football bleachers/grasshoppers rising from the thirty yard line/noted legs, eyes like negatives.” Such details render a sort of the end of the world fairytale, filled with both wonderment and destruction. This juxtaposition can be seen in many of Cappello’s poems, where we see a destroyed city and the hope found within its carnage.

Cappello’s poems often record travel, and her words take the reader through trips to Alaska, California, and Texas. However, two poems bookend the narrator’s feelings about New Orleans. In “How to Drive Through Texas” a narrator cites the lasting image she has of the city:
Tell a new story, your final month in the city,
how the mechanized claw of the garbage truck
struggled, leaking dog out into the street.
Wonder why, when they found him shot,
they didn’t bury him, didn’t call the police
just threw him into the trash to swell and rot.
Realize this is why you left.
Yet, it seems that there is something about New Orleans that makes the narrator return. In “Louisiana State Line” the speaker has decided “to wait for New Orleans/your dream last night thick as gravy/in the back of your throat.”   

Still, it’s the poems that take place directly in the city that truly capture the reader’s attention. Many of her Cappello’s poems fit into aspects of Southern Gothic literary traditions; her words, with images of desolated landscapes, lonely and bewildered spirits, and grotesque characters take the reader through a haunted city. In fact, it seems that it’s the ghosts of the city who are the most alive. In “Hilary Street Cemetery, New Orleans” the narrator notes that “molecules of the dead” are “here in front of me/walking slowly through the intersection/sure no one will hit them when the light turns red.” Even those characters who among the living seem to prepare for the dead. The character of Miss Jenny Croix  is the most intriguing. Wandering in and out of many of Cappello’s poems, the mysterious Jenny acts as a guide, relaying what she knows and what she has seen, in surrreal chants and mantras. Jenny knows flooding, flowers, and bodies – and as she “files her teeth/to points” and “puts cayenne in her chocolate” she advises the narrator that “Every step//Honey child, leads us to our death.”

What can be learned from these two poets, or any poet for that matter, who writes about tragedy? We know, of course, that words cannot erase the past.  But we also know that words can help remember the past, cite the wrongdoings and provide hope for the future.  Both Smith and Cappello reach for these lofty goals, and surpass them.


***

Karen Weyant's most recent poems have been published or are forthcoming in 5AM, The Barn Owl Review, Copper Nickel, Innisfree and Lake Effect. Her chapbook, Stealing Dust, was recently released by Finishing Line Press. Visit her blog

Anxious Music by April Ossmann

Review by Christina Cook
 
Anxious Music
By April Ossman

Four Way Books
Perfect binding, 52 pages

ISBN-13: 978-1-884800-81-8
ISBN-10: 1-884800-81-5
Link to Purchase


In keeping with April Ossmann’s slippery use of words and her “catch me if you can” voice, the closest Anxious Music comes to having a title poem is “A Kind of Music,” buried in the middle of the collection. This poem epitomizes Ossmann’s signature change in key, moving between major chords of playful, casual language and minor chords of more serious, reflective language. Just as in regular music, it is the insistence of regular measure which lends a firm yet flexible coherence to each poem, as well as to the collection as a whole. This is music which alerts the reader that the poems it orchestrates are to be read carefully, and read more than once or twice.

 “A Kind of Music” invites us to consider
that “quick” means alive
     as well as fast, that “dead”

is the final measure
     of the lack of motion, so speed
must be a measure
     of life, and the quality of life
a measure of speed,
     so if you’re in the check-out
line at the grocery
     (remembering that “checking out”
is slang for dying),
     and the line’s not fast
in the sense of moving
     at an acceptable speed, that’s life
threatening. . .

The clipped line breaks and short line lengths, along with the largely mono or disyllable words and the contractions, are collectively calculated for speed. Although this piece is built on the linguistic equivalent of staccatos and sixteenth notes, it is also deceptively complex, and requires multiple reads to capture the high-speed wordplay and turns of meaning. The poem could almost been seen as describing itself when it goes on to ask us to
     Consider that music is used
to rouse as well as soothe,
     that no music is made
without motion (the heart,
     to emotion); that speed
is a kind of music—
     the music we most desire
to dance to—
Ossmann does not let the music of her poems simply lift into any abstract shifts of air or thought. Rather, she grounds them in specific moments of every day life: from the grocery store check-out line in “A Kind of Music” to flipping through the dictionary on a Sunday morning in “Epergne,” a poem which also sparkles with wordplay and wit. She slows the poem down to a whole-note pace by infusing its variously long and short lines with abundant white space and letting it sprawl over two and a half pages, ever so slightly loosening the dictate of left-justified lines. As in “A Kind of Music,” Ossmann uses the full range of a given word’s various—and possible—meanings to build the central tension in the poem:

I am looking for epergne when I find it, Sunday morning,
   in my Webster’s Unabridged between ensorcell
(what desire does to the brain)
   and ensphere

what we think the head does to the spirit,
   though it might be the opposite—
the soul ensphering the body, the body
   meant to contain only what it could, a tenth,
of its guiding spirit, the rest

   streaming continually out—
the way light illuminates the lampshade and spills over the edges—
   but the word that stops my search is ensoul:
The speaker goes on to explore the possible insights which this found word may yield to her, wondering if “daisies or roses, trash or ashes” could be ensouled, and realizing that
   when I think of it, I’ve had or assumed
scant control over what I allowed in
   or what’s been tossed in my soul.
I have been the epergne I was looking for—
This realization is far from the end of the arc that this poem takes, however. After this moment, the speaker goes on to probe more and ask more questions, indeed ending the poem with a question mark. No answers are final, no conclusions ends in themselves in this collection of poems, but rather invitations to look at objects and ideas from a different perspective, to find a different angle, a different answer, a different question.

Just as the speaker of “Epergne” supposes the opposite of the meaning she finds in the dictionary: “ensphere—/what we think the head does to the spirit,/though it might be the opposite—,” the speaker of “Photo of the Artist With Chainsaw” also challenges the received idea of the interior position of the soul. In a stunning depiction of a man who is seeking trees to sculpt into figures with his chainsaw, we see a vision of art as the catalyst for such a profoundly literal baring of the soul:
He wants to give himself
wholly to something, not
like he gave himself
to women, to the bottle
and needle, no,
just this once,
he thinks, he’ll give himself
to something beautiful
and clear and final. Just
this once give himself
to something with
no holding back—something
to turn him soulside-out,
like jade green blown
Venetian glass. He’ll sing
an opera, dance the tango.
But here Ossmann again shies away from a pat closure, choosing to end the poem by humorously depicting the effect of the catharsis—that the artist will seek out another catharsis—rather than holding the reader’s hand through an explanation of the event itself:
He’ll remember finally,
all the names he’s forgotten,
and answer to his own:
Edward Hopkins, wildlife
artist, willing to travel.
What if ensoul does not mean to endow with a soul? What if it means to turn something insoul out, to make something dance just as Edward Hopkins does to himself when he puts the chainsaw to the birch? What Ossmann says in “Epergne” is true: “I have not done what the poets have done/which is to give objects or words a soul.” Rather, her poems ensoul things in this last (if only posited) sense: they show what things truly are, as only art can. The collection’s first poem, “One,” for example, opens with the line “I wanted the avocados” and ends with “I steered my cart/down the market’s/gleaming avenues,” however, it is not about avocadoes in the usual sense. It is about avocadoes as they truly are:
something
that cost too much, that
felt too smooth
on my tongue,
that would torment me
with its absence as it would
with its presence.
I never passed them
with indifference.
After reading this poem, neither do I. Ossmann’s range is so wide, she can even show the act of washing dishes, with all its mundaneness, as it truly is: not mundane. In “Whose Fragile Lips,” she washes
[f]irst, the glasses, whose fragile lips I trace
with a lover’s hands: glass too thin
at the rims, bottoms too round not to slip
my soapy grasp, though I keep thinking
I’ll invent a better grip. Do I press too hard—
or is the glass too frail?
I can not hold it gently enough.
Under my strength I see it breaking
like before, opening, and reopening
the white crescent moon of my early injury.
Just seven stitches in a body’s life
of injuries, but I remember every time
I ease my hand into the soapy glass,
grateful, for each reprieve.
Just as I no longer pass avocadoes with indifference, neither can I wash a wine glass without being reminded of how close to the edge we live, of how we must bear our fragility with strength: a delicate balance to maintain in any arena of life, and one often struck imperfectly. Ossmann explores life’s many arenas and their attendant imperfections with the precision of a surgeon and the sharp wit of a polished conversationalist. Eschewing perfect closure, her poetry achieves a fullness which matches the range of life as it truly is, from its quotidian depths to its delightfully soulful surfaces.

***

Christina Cook is a poet and translator and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals including, most recently, Prairie Schooner, Hayden's Ferry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Sojourn: A Journal of the Arts. Her manuscript, Out of the Blue, was shortlisted for the 2006 Dorset Prize, and she was a finalist for the 2007 Willis Barnestone Translation Prize. Christina holds an MFA from Vermont College and an MA in English and American Literature from the University of Cincinnati. She is a poetry editor for Inertia Magazine.

An interview with Dawn Potter

by Rory Waterman
Rory Waterman: Not least because it is so important to your new book, Touching Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, I want to begin by asking you about life in rural Maine. You grew up in Rhode Island, I believe. What led to you moving north?
 
Dawn Potter: Although I’ve spent most of my life in New England, I was actually born in Maryland, halfway between my parents’ childhood homes. My father grew up on a farm in central New Jersey, and my mother was the daughter of a coal miner in the western Pennsylvania mountains. Rather amazingly, they became academics; and our family moved to Rhode Island when my father was offered a professorship. That was in 1970, when I was about to enter first grade. My father continues to teach at the same university, although my family did move just across the border into Massachusetts when I was in eighth grade. 
 
Oddly, though, I don’t entirely identify myself as a New Englander, primarily because we spent every summer of my childhood in western Pennsylvania, on my grandfather’s farm. When I knew him, he was no longer working in the mines but was pouring steel in the local mill. We spent three months of every year living there, my father helping him make hay, my mother canning beans and running our clothes through the wringer-washer. It was five hundred miles away from my schoolhouse world, and sometimes it felt as if it could have been five hundred years away. Those summers with my quiet, remarkable grandfather taught me to love a place with the ferocity that one loves a person. They taught me about the honor and suffering and boredom of labor, and about human goodness.
 
So when I made the decision to move north to Maine, which, as Tracing Paradise explains, came about rather haphazardly, thanks to no money and a truckload of goats, I had a vision of rural life that was both idealistic and realistic but that was also rooted in a sense of displacement—and “place” really is the root word here. For various reasons, the farm had been sold after my grandfather's death. I had lost my childhood place, and I needed to find an adult place. And, miraculously, poor beleaguered Harmony, Maine, turned out to be that home.
 
It is interesting that you talk about learning to ‘love a place with the ferocity that one loves a person’ and then describe your adult hometown in such human terms as ‘poor’ and ‘beleaguered’. You seem to love Harmony as much for its flaws as for its virtues.
 
I do, and I think my mixed feelings about the town parallel my mixed feelings about Paradise Lost. Both the town and the poem are difficult to love. They require a patience and a concentration, a willingness to put up with tedium and discomfort. And I think that living in this town, raising my sons here, has led me to understand that dullness and isolation can be the prerequisites of art. I write, in chapter 8, about child rearing, but my comment has wider ramifications: “Like strict training in any discipline, the self-negations and hardships of raising children can, by means of honed boredom and obsessive observation, set a mind at liberty.” For me, this is also true of living in Harmony and of copying out Paradise Lost word for word.
 
But there’s no question that Harmony can be hard to love. It’s poor. Few of the citizens have anything more than a high school education, and many are unemployed. In chapter 2, I spend some time describing it: “It squats in the middle of the state [of Maine], far away from the ocean, far away from the ski lodges. It has no scenic New England charm. . . . Almost everyone watches a lot of TV and votes Republican. Junked pickups rust in the weeds, little children are horrifyingly fat, and men beat their wives. Mobile homes burn down. Trash piles up in the ditches.” Such a description makes the place sound dreadful. Nonetheless, this has become my home, and it matters to me, in spite of its flaws. As I say later in the chapter, "Milton's image of hell as refuge does offer some hint about the mutability of place in the human psyche. Like most overquoted lines, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n’ resonates because it strikes a familiar knell: because we are alone and changeable in all our colors and seasons; because we and our refuge are one and the same.”
 
‘A willingness to put up with boredom’. So you didn't always find Paradise Lost compelling reading, then.
 
No, I had to fight my way into the poem. Milton and I are not naturally amicable, not in the way that I am with, say, Shakespeare or Keats or Coleridge. Even though most of my literary affections are pre-twentieth century, I find it difficult to deal with a certain dogmatic, condescending arrogance in Milton. Basically, he doesn’t care if I love him or not. This may sound self-evident: after all, he’s been dead for four hundred years. But I think books last as literature because they continue, over the centuries, to create personal and idiosyncratic links between reader and writer. I did not find it easy to make that connection with Milton.
 
Do you find Milton an empathetic figure? I’m trying to understand how your relationship with him grew as you transcribed Paradise Lost.
 
I think my growing affection for Milton as a man was one of the great surprises of this project. As I began to comprehend the poem as art, I also became increasingly aware of Milton the human being. He was always lurking beneath the surface—this brilliant, obnoxious, curious, eager, grieving, sensitive character. Like all of us, he was longing for beauty and happiness but was dealing, as we all must, with the pangs of real life—of aging, of isolation. For example, Milton’s only son died young, and I think that loss, though never explicitly mentioned, is an enormously important element of the tone of Paradise Lost, especially when Milton writes about God and the Son of God. As I say in chapter 8, I sense: “that a father’s loss of his one son, whether foreseen or unexpected, whether as myth or memory, lies at the heart of the tragedy of Paradise Lost, mirrored in the poem’s rigid adherence to the doctrine of father as king as well as its idealized and distorted image of the father-son bond.” These intuitions, even though they cannot be proven by scholarship, did bring me closer to the writer; they did make the poem matter more to me than it otherwise might have.
 
What encouraged you to reach a stage where you could begin to ‘love’ him? And do you hope to encourage your readers to dust down their copies of The Collected Milton?
 
Copying out Paradise Lost word for word became one of my regular chores, just as carrying firewood and feeding livestock and kneading bread are my chores. So I learned to love Milton and his poem in the same way I learned to love these other tasks. Just by “doing my duty,” so to speak, day in and day out, I developed a structure for observation and patience, for questioning and exasperation, for laughter and passion. All those elements also make up a long marriage; truly, they are love. And sometimes we need to undergo the dull cycle of habit before we can really understand what love is. It's not a lifetime of inspiration and heady desire. It's much more complex and ambiguous. Love is a difficult knot that we can't untie. And I do feel that Paradise Lost has become one of my knots. That said, I don’t necessarily recommend Milton to everyone because one’s attachment to books is very personal and unpredictable. What I do recommend is that readers challenge themselves, in some way, to deeply address the work of an artist whom they find difficult or mysterious. It pays off.
 
I want to ask you a bit about your own poetry. What inspired you to start writing?
 
I've been a serious and obsessive reader since childhood, but primarily of fiction: Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, and the like. I was also reading poetry but always poetry of the past: Donne, Blake, Chaucer. I never thought of poetry as contemporary, as something that regular people do. (I’m still very undereducated in contemporary poetry.) So while I hoped to be a writer, I was focused on the idea of writing novels. Yet in my mid-twenties, I was becoming more and more frustrated with my writing. I could not seem to handle a plot; I kept getting distracted by individual words and sentences. I had no idea that this was an insignia of poetry because no one had ever talked to me about poetry in that way. But after my eldest son was born, I found myself needing to write as a way to preserve a sense of personal identity. If I wrote down three words, they would belong to me, not to this consuming baby. And that’s where the poetry began. The first ten years of my son’s life became my apprenticeship in the art. I did not pursue a graduate degree but worked from within my own head and my own reading background, although I did have the support and guidance of a mentor, the poet Baron Wormser, whom I met at a workshop for amateurs and who took me in hand and helped me find my vocation.
 
Your new book of poetry, How the Crimes Happened, will be published this year. Did your Miltonic odyssey feed into any of the poems in this volume?
 
One small section of the book arose directly from the Paradise Lost project: it's a short series of poems about Satan and the garden. I loved the complications of Satan's character, his swirling, intellectual inconsistencies; his cockiness; and suddenly I felt myself needing to insert that character into my own lines. Here's one of the poems from that set:
Burglar

A green taloned hedge, so massive
            dove could not flutter over, so dense
an armored snake could not slip beneath—
            This was the obstacle
between the Fiend and earthly delight!
            Thin-hipped, high-shouldered,
chin in hand, he studied the situation.
            Of course, far on the other side
of the Garden, due east, there was a gate,
            if he chose to hike the border and rap
on the front door.  What the Fiend
            puzzled over, at the moment,
was not the trouble of getting in,
            which for an angel was minimal,
but this curious pretense of a barricade—
            Why make it so fraught yet convenient
to break into a park that, no matter how
             buxom, was merely a dull facsimile of bliss?
This was the kind of setup that had always
             irritated him—the King’s cunning
propensity for dramatic ambiguity, “free will”
             with a catch, not to mention
these ridiculous processional formalities.
             “Ugh,” muttered the Fiend;
and with a contemptuous snap of his wings
              at one slight bound he leaped over the hedge,
landing on his feet as briskly as a cat
              dropping through a hen-house window
into a huddle of fat chicks.
              Then up he flew, up to the middle tree,
the highest that grew in the yard, and perched,
              kneecaps tucked to his ears,
black as a cormorant in the frilled branches;
              and there he devised his next really good idea.
Many contemporary poets, especially in America, seem to have followed a fairly conventional route: a postgraduate course in creative writing followed by a teaching post in a university. You have eschewed all of that. Do you think it benefits a poet to be individualistic in this manner?
 
There is absolutely no financial benefit to the route I chose. Without a graduate degree, I am essentially unemployable at the university level. If I were a pulp-fiction writer, this might not matter; but I’m a poet and a literary essayist, and my books aren’t going to be bestsellers, ever. So making money is difficult.
 
Yet for me, there have been great benefits to taking this road. I am a self-motivated reader and writer. I don’t require classroom structure to get the work done. And I thrive on being an eccentric reader, following my own trajectory among books. This means that I have a lot of holes in my education (e,g., contemporary poetry), but I’ve also loitered and lingered among the canonical books that have become my touchstones. Moreover, being underemployed means that I have plenty of time to write, and to wander around the house thinking about writing, and to idly eat cheese and crackers while muttering over Shakespeare’s sonnets or Iris Murdoch’s novels or whatever I’ve got in hand at the moment. Finally, I think there’s something to be said for living in the real world rather than the academic bubble. When I’m not writing, I’m not trapped in committee meetings or jousting with student theses. I’m hanging sheets in a cold wind, or organizing canned goods at the local fair, or digging potatoes, or singing “Amelia Earhart's Last Flight” with fourth-graders. Nothing dramatic here, except that it’s the solid earth. And my work needs that earth.