29 July 2012

From Motown to Mos Def: The Musical Influences of Patricia Smith, Major Jackson, and Kevin Coval

By PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli 

Popular music that comes out of African-American culture provides not only content, but rhythms and cultural values that animate the work of the poets Patricia Smith, Major Jackson, and Kevin Coval, poets who give voice to experiences outside of the middle-class mainstream. These poets share strategies for incorporating music into their work, each with individual style and technique, and to the benefit of poets and readers alike.

Patricia Smith uses the convention of the seemingly autobiographical “I” persona in her collection Close to Death, with the predominant voice of the poems being that of a young black woman similar to herself. One of the principal ways in which she moves beyond the personal is through references to popular music icons. In her poems that refer to Smokey Robison, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Michael Jackson, Smith is able to explore various issues of racial identity on a cultural scale at the same time that she explores her own identity. Secondly, using popular African-American musicians allows Smith to define her audience in subtle ways. Smith is a black woman writing for her own community, but she doesn’t want anyone forcing a definition on her as to how far “her own community” should stretch. These are issues those three musicians have faced, and their familiarity to such a wide a range of Americans benefits Smith and simultaneously allows her to define her territory as wide but specifically African-American.    

Motown star Smokey Robinson is the first to appear in the collection. He represents the promise of access—even for poor young black girls—to an idealized version of love, relationships, and a middle-class American dream, a promise the persona will ultimately realize is an illusion.

In the poem “Smokey Lied I,” the name Smokey is repeated several times, which suggests the crush/obsession the 13-year-old girl has. The speaker pretends the older boy she dances with at a party, Bernard Williams, is Smokey Robinson and reflects Smokey’s idealized dream songs. But none of the qualities are authentic. The ideal is a man who tells her “love can be found in storybooks,” and he is “sweet and crying the tears of a clown, begging like he shoulda been.” By the end of the poem, reality seeps in for the young woman, though, and Smith uses blunt, sexually-charged language to highlight how threatening and sexually aggressive men can be. The speaker admits that Bernard Williams was “taking advantage of the situation, brushing/me back and forth across the bulge in his pants, playing my little ass/like a piano.” 

In “Smokey Lied II,” the young woman has matured: she has been hurt by past boyfriends. Worse yet, her father has been murdered. Smokey becomes an image of hurt and disillusionment. “Your perfect/love and sugar pleading could not bind these gaping wounds, could/not convince me to wait,” she tells Smokey.  By “Smokey Lied III,” the persona reduces him to nothing more than a star who dances badly and whose voice “lacked the cream” she remembers. His lyrics no longer have any effect on the woman, as she fully understands he is not an ideal or an idea, but rather a man whose star has faded, replaced with a set of health problems.

Scattered among the poems in her own voice, Smith adopts other personas, including the voices of Ray Charles and Little Richard. In “Brother Ray,” Smith adopts the identity and persona of Ray Charles and uses several techniques to make the voice as authentic as possible. She treats him as more raw-edged and more human than Smokey Robinson, and this is reflected in the forms of the poems. In “Smokey Lied I,” for instance, the poem looks like standard newspaper columns on the page, which presents promises and ideals as a truth that the young female persona initially believes. “Brother Ray” has more raw line breaks and enjambment, such as:

Think my best music
is gon' follow me to the grave.
Smith further humanizes Charles by having him admit he “ain’t no angel/I sing ugly.” He acknowledges that he’s been labeled a “womanizer/abuser/creative headache.” Unlike Robinson, Charles doesn’t offer any idealized promises about love and perfect marriage. The fact he’s flawed and Smith chose to write in his voice makes him more of an everyman with a set of problems.

Even the diction is more ordinary and authentic than the dream-like descriptions of Robinson in “Smokey Lied I.” The Charles persona frequently uses words like ain’t and gon, but despite all of his flaws and even his age, Charles presents his music and legacy as a validation of black culture and a complicated construction of audience. He says, “There’s a line of white folks follow me/everywhere I go. I got ‘em witchcrafted.” Those lines prove the connection he had to a wider audience, and they shift the power balance to give a black man power over white listeners. They also represent an insider conversation, what Charles tells black listeners, not a white audience. 

In “The Room with a Star,” Smith uses third-person narrative that contains lines written in the voice of Little Richard. Unlike Robinson, Richard is depicted as more threatening, especially sexually, and an iconic musician that also drew mainstream listeners and gained respect as an artist across racial lines, like Charles. Smith addresses Richard’s legacy by calling him “the architect of rock and roll” in the first line. His power over white music fans is addressed, and the language is more explicit and sexually-charged than any of the Smokey Robinson poems. The poem’s speaker says Little Richard had the power to make the white boys “dance with their cocks in the air.” The language is effective because it proves how much of a danger the music was. Smokey Robinson comes across as desexualized and idealized in the collection, but Charles and Richards come across as bolder, less-controlled, and sexually-charged, powerful enough that they made some white listeners “deny their dull, righteous upbringing,” as the poem says.
At the end of the poem, Smith allows Little Richard to speak, and his language is just as forceful and cocky as the Ray Charles persona. “I built this shit,” says Little Richard, referring to rock and roll. “Designed it, named it, pushed it out between my legs,” he adds.

Like Smith, Major Jackson’s first collection of poems, Leaving Saturn, uses the persona of the seemingly autobiographical “I.” The collection’s coming-of-age experiences carry the reader from the basketball courts and hip-hop clubs of an urban and black adolescence to a professional life as a young academic and poet.

Jackson uses musical references to create a vivid scene, connect to his audience, and suggest a rhythm for the poem. For instance, in the poem “Hoops,” a quote by the hip-hop group De La Soul is used as an epigraph. It’s likely De La Soul or similar groups would be pumping from the boom boxes on the basketball courts during the time that Jackson’s persona was shooting hoops, so this epigraph is one way to establish an authenticity for the urban setting and can work to hook readers that may have little interest in more esoteric poetry. 

Jackson incorporates other hip-hop phrases into the poem, including the words “Don’t Stop the Body Rock,” which is “bombed” on a wall at the basketball court by a graffiti artist named PHASE. The phrase, first an early hip-hop song by Kurtis Blow, is now a universally-borrowed hip-hop refrain. Jackson’s use of the phrase is a reminder how the past influences the present, but he is extending the conversation by using the phrase in a different way—placing it in a poem instead of a song to expand the range of cultural reference. 

Formal aspects of “Hoops” are influenced by hip-hop as well. Jackson employs alliteration and full rhyme to an extent that strikes the reader as almost aggressive. For example:

A boom box bobs
& breaks beats on a buckling sea
of asphalt; -- the hard
pounding rhymes of BDP

flooding a wall as a crowd
of hustlers toss caps, waging
fists, dollar bets, only louder--
& one, more enraged

promises to pistol-whip
the punk who doesn't pay
Doubling down, he blows a kiss;
each dealer counts his days.
As Leaving Saturn progresses, Jackson’s persona ages, and he leaves the urban setting and hip-hop clubs behind. The poem “Don Pull at the Zanzibar Blue Jazz Café” is far different in technique and content than “Hoops.” The language of the poem is discordant to reflect the speaker’s relationship woes. For example, the speaker observes that Don’s “wire fingers are/scraping the ivory keys, off/rhythm” and “The Connection hacked harmonies/smashed scales, pulverized piano keys/all in rhythm as each brutal chord/exploded in a moment’s dawning.” The language and imagery reflect the speaker’s pain. Jackson drops the tight rhyme schemes, word play, and heavy alliteration that compose his hip-hop poems, and instead, the lines and stanzas are longer, similar to the long rhythms of jazz or blues music.

The poem is a more lyric and less straightforward narrative than “Hoops” in that it focuses on internal moods and emotion more than on action. Though the first stanza is all a description of music and the musician, the second stanza focuses on relationship and begins with the line, “She said she couldn’t trust me.”  Hip-hop was an accurate music form to depict the reality of the persona’s urban neighborhood and his adolescence, but as the persona and his concerns mature, the musical model shifts to jazz and blues, music forms that are older than hip-hop and more nuanced. 

In the article “Louder Than a Bomb: An Interview with Chicago Hip-Hopper Kevin Coval,” published by In These Times on March 9, 2006, Coval explains that he was drawn to hip-hop because of its working-class roots and his similar economic situation:

The hip-hop I was getting, primarily from New York, was about working-class narratives. Chuck D comes from Long Island, and so does De La Soul, so they’re black suburban kids still talking about a similar economic system in which they see their parents work, struggle, and be treated unjustly, and for me, there was a real resonance in that. I eventually learned that’s the story I have to tell.

What Coval’s interview validates is Smith and Jackson’s construction of audience, because Coval, as a white kid, found his way into American culture through black experience. This point is further proved by the fact that in Everyday People, he dedicates the poem “What It’s like to Deliver Pizza in Your 50s” to Patricia Smith, signaling her as one of his mentors. He employs some of the same techniques she uses. As in Smith’s “Smokey Robinson” poems, he uses the pronoun you to immediately pull the reader into the poem. The you’s can be any worker struggling to survive, even if the poem is about an older pizza man. Second person point of view directly addresses the reader and can draw him or her in.

Coval structures the poem by referring to all of the lousy aspects of the job line after line. For example:

It’s blistered fingertips, lost addresses, gas station
pee breaks, side streets with tree names, doorbells
14 year old princesses answer and never tip
$5 hr plus a buck a pie.
Listing the job’s grinding tasks creates a fast rhythm throughout the poem, mirroring the hectic life and motion of the pizza delivery man, or anyone else working several hours with little pay just to survive. Even in the poem’s final line, the pizza man is literally in motion, driving away, which is a testament to his ability to keep working and pushing forward despite the hard lifestyle. 

Coval’s structure is somewhat Whitmanesque in the listing and long lines. It’s a twist on Whitman’s workmen in “Song of Myself.” Whitman had a grittiness to his poetry and included everyone, but the poems were always celebratory of working men and women. There is a real irony then, in using Whitmanesque techniques to address how working men and women are often shafted in the present day.

Hip-hop’s influence on Coval is evident throughout the collection, especially when he gives a voice to break dancers and graffiti artists, images of urban culture. In “The DTC Pays Tribute to Dice,” a poem about a graffiti artist who dies after he falls through a roof because he was chased by cops, the lines are filled with hip-hop lingo, including the words beat boxes, cipher, and flair, as a formal technique to enhance the authenticity of the urban setting. Like Jackson, Coval relies heavily on word play, especially alliteration, to reflect the rhythms of hip-hop. The line “Pele writes graffiti, beat boxes in the cipher, but he is a b-boy in the tradition/boogaloo on grey stoops” is one example. Hip-hop remains the core musical model that runs through much of Coval’s work, and it has yet to be seen whether or not he will explore other musical models, such as jazz or blues, similar to the musical shift evident in Jackson’s Leaving Saturn.

Jackson, Smith, and Coval shed light on experiences outside middle-class mainstream via music. Smith adopts the voice of iconic black musicians as a way to address identity and define her audience.  Jackson uses hip-hop both to validate his own community and provide a way in for readers not of that community. As his persona matures, his musical model shifts to jazz and blues. Coval sees hip-hop music and culture as a core influence in the working-class narratives that compose some of his poems; at the same time, black experience provided him access to American culture, proving that the audience Jackson and Smith constructed is now validated because it’s had such an influence on younger white poets such as Coval.

In all three poets’ work, conventional boundaries between literary poetry and music blur alongside those between identity based on gender, age, and race—opening culture and community to a far wider audience and empowering it to influence writers and readers alike.

Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, The Portland Review, Rockhurst Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Boston Literary Magazine, Chiron Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be published in 2013 by Unbound Content.

21 July 2012

The Inexplicable Math of Good Poetry

I am at no loss for information about you and your family; but I am at a loss where to begin.
-- Demosthenes 

By Grace Curtis for Poets' Quarterly

Recently, an editor of a well-known journal posted a message online from a reader who was praising the latest edition. The reader said she could feel the stake the poets had in their words and content. That got me to thinking about how one can tell when a poet has had a stake in his words and content. We frequently hear these kinds of statements being made in reference to poetry. For instance, we say we can feel the tension in the poem, or the poem surprises us, or it is accessible, or it is coded, or it resonates. These terms are often first used by a writer in a critical essay or, by a book reviewer; then, over time they worm their way into our shared lexicon.  

Our propensity to talk about poetry in these kinds of terms speaks to the difficulty we have identifying, and then articulating in plain-speak, how poems do what they do. Most poets know, for instance, what is meant when a poem is said to be accessible. That we tend to broaden our vocabulary used in our poetic discourse speaks in part to our desire as poets and readers—or at least it should—to understand more clearly what makes a good poem good. Knowing it and knowing how to accurately talk about it using shared vocabulary—often begged, borrowed, or stolen from other usages—develops a kind of basis of understanding, murky as it continues to be.

It is fascinating and enlightening to listen to poets talk about poetry. In fact, one of the best things about the annually released, The Best American Poetry books, edited by a guest editor—including such notables as John Ashbery (1988), Jorie Graham (1990), Adrienne Rich (1996), and Paul Muldoon (2005)—and Series Editor, David Lehman, is the guest editors' introductions. In these short passages, each editor talks about why he selected the poems for that year’s book. The intros are like keys that unlock the double cast-iron, triple dead-bolt locked doors of understanding, since the guest editor explains, in more or less specific—and usually eloquent—terms, what made the selected poems stand out from among the hundreds considered.

For example, in the 2008 edition, guest editor, Charles Wright tells us, by referencing lines from W. B. Yeats “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” that poetry comes from the heart (the “foul rag-and-bone-shop of the heart”), and also that, as  Keats asserts,  poetry is a matter of soul-making, along with a little math.

It truly is not a matter of arrangement, of performance, of presentation, of rhetorical dazzle or surprise, though all of those matters may be a part of it. It is not the distractions, but the focus…It’s the only time that two plus one makes two—language is half, technique is half, and emotion is half…It’s not a question of paper, of typewriters, of white space or of dark space—it’s a question of what’s in your life, and where you want that life to lead you. You’ve only got one, and you can fill it with whatever you want…But if it is poetry that you want, then don’t look for language games, intellectual rip-offs, or rhetorical sing-alongs. You’ve got to know in your heart of hearts, that Keats is right, that it is about soul-making, that it does matter, and that it can make you or break you as a person.

Wright is suggesting that the poetry that resonated with him that year was the poetry in which he could sense the poet’s make you or break you stake in the game; poetry that was not just from the heart, not just soul-making—but also poetry that was, in this odd equation using poet-math:  half language, half technique, half emotion.

He must have felt that the poems he selected for inclusion came as close as possible to making the math work out. Here is a passage from one of the poems in that edition, “Pentecost” for John Foster West, by R. T. Smith, from Notre Dame Review:

Squint-eyed and cunning, its tongue split
like a wishbone, the canebrake sulls up,
cursive spine and the diamond in spiral
like genetic code,

and Joby frets the Stratocaster, its plastic
the color of a salted ham. A tambourine’s
discs shiver, and Brother Pascal wields the Book’s
hot gospel like a blunt instrument. This is

spirit. This is bliss. The words from Heaven
would almost strangle you. The Holy Ghost
is a rough customer alright, . . .

And, here is another from Susan Mitchell’s “Ritual,” from The American Poetry Review

as one who casts the word bread upon the word waters, testing

as one who not believing something will rise up from
those waters, but not disbelieving either
casts out her voice

as one curious or hungry or filled with longing breaks
off just the crust of a word, throwing
the way she threw as a girl when everyone

told her that was not the way
to throw. . .

In both of these poems, it seems you can indeed feel a kind of “make you or break you stake in the words and content.” It manifests itself as a kind of intensity. In “Pentecost” the rhythm is as pulsing as, well, a Pentecostal church service. The language is lush and startling (or do we call that, surprising), e.g. wielding the Book’s hot gospel like a blunt instrument. In “Ritual” the language seems to twist and turn slightly from what one might expect, e.g. rather than casting the bread upon the waters (from Ecclesiastics 11:1), Mitchell writes of the casting of the word bread upon the word water. Also, there is no capitalization or sentence punctuation in the poem. As you read, you often feel you are coming to the end of a sentence, but instead, the poem takes you off into another idea that plays off the last idea. It’s an intriguing structure—a long run-on—that supports an overarching sense of the personal questioning and rumination that runs throughout the poem.

Finally in Wright’s introduction he says:
Everyone talks about the “great Health” of American poetry nowadays. And it’s hard to fault that. There are very few bad poems being published, very few. On the other hand, there are very few really good ones, either, ones that might make you want to stick your fingers in a Cuisinart, saying Take me now, Lord, take me now.

Indeed, we have all had the experience, upon reading a moving and brilliant poem, like these two for example—there are so many in this series each year—of wanting to stick our fingers into a Cuisinart and say, Take me now, Lord, take me now.  Wright’s equation—half heart, half technique, and half emotion—is his explanation of what makes good poetry good. He is using a far-fetched metaphor to speak to, what often feels like, the far-fetched qualities of a great poem.

Perhaps it is appropriate to express astounding and beautiful poetry as some kind of inexplicable math. And maybe it is also important just to accept some measure of inexplicability in the matter—language inadequacy, if you will—even as we continue to try to pin it down with any possible terms we can beg, borrow, or steal, such as sticking one’s fingers into a Cuisinart and saying Take me now, Lord, take me now.

Grace Curtis’ chapbook, The Surly Bonds of Earth, was selected by Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Stephen Dunn as the winner of the Lettre Sauvage 2010 Poetry Contest.  She has had poetry in Scythe Literary Journal, The Chaffin Journal, Waccamaw Literary Journal, among others. Grace received her MFA from Ashland University in 2010. She lives in Dayton, Ohio where she volunteers at The Antioch Review. Grace writes about poetry at www.N2Poetry.com.

09 July 2012

The Intersection of Poetry and Prose: Summer of the Novella

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of poetry and prose. Although my background is in poetry, I’ve always loved reading novels, and recently finished writing a novel-length book myself. Genres aside, what I’m really drawn to is sharp, rich language, usually with a philosophical bent that tells a good story. Naturally, I gravitate toward the novella, which is roughly a work of fiction that’s anywhere from 17,500 words to 40,000 words (exact definitions will differ). Over the last year, I’ve read some fascinating novels and I wanted to share a few that I thought were nothing short of brilliant.

Adolphe by Benjamin Constant
This slim novel is something I found in a Borders Bookstore in Chicago in 2010. On the shelf, it looked like it could be a poetry collection, but it was the prominent quote on the back “we are such volatile creatures that we finally feel the sentiments we feign” that prompted me to open the book and it was the way the author told the story—almost like reading someone’s most intimate report on love gone wrong—that sealed the deal.

The book touched on the themes you encounter in Flaubert, Goethe, and Tolstoy—love and destruction, love and time, and what happens when the balance between hearts is askew—even if just a little bit? How do we reconcile the moods and weather of our volatile hearts? In this case, it’s a deeply poignant, definitely poetic story of a man and a woman who launch themselves into an affair, finding out too late that though you may break from other people, you cannot break with yourself.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Who remembers being 18 and deeply confused about whether or not you were a grown-up yet? Sagan was only 18 when she wrote this book—and it’s probably her masterpiece. I was in Colorado Springs, browsing in a bookstore when I came across a tattered copy of this book, which was published in France during the fifties. It’s steeped in a French brand of melancholy and it’s a young woman’s coming of age story.
The book is a framed narrative and from the very first line, I was hooked, “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the name of sadness.” Basically, the book grapples with sexuality and the in-between years when you’re not quite a kid, but also not yet an adult. It’s a gorgeous meditation on the angst of growing up, which we all know so well. It’s a bittersweet gem and is easily read in an afternoon.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
If you’ve not yet read this book, please do so now. This book recently received the Man Booker Prize and I can see why: it’s a gorgeously written, slim novel that investigates the nuances of time and the fickleness of memory. In short, it’s immaculate. I loved how poetic the work itself felt and how Barnes masterfully took us through the life of his main character, Tony Webster, whose life was simple enough, until an unusual bequest forces him to reconsider the past—and the part he played in the lives he’d long since distanced himself from.
I’d encourage you to read the book in one sitting. It’s a deeply philosophical tale that left me wondering about the past we all imagine for ourselves and how there are spaces in our own lives that are rich in mystery—some to be explained, some to be left forever untold.

PQ welcomes Tasha as our new Reviews Coordinator.

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. She received her MFA from the Bluegrass Writer's Studio. In 2010 her fiction received agency representation with AKA Literary. She is the Reviews Coordinator for Poets’ Quarterly and is a current member of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. 

01 July 2012

The Fugitive Self: New and Selected Poems of John Wheatcroft

The Fugitive Self: New and Selected Poems of John Wheatcroft
John Wheatcroft
Etruscan Press
Paperback, 218 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9797450-9-6

Review by Mary Jane Lupton

The Fugitive Self  is not an easy read. The extensive collection, which includes poems dating back to the 1964 volume Death of a Clown and ahead to a section entitled New Poems, represents a lifetime of rigorous contemplation.  To begin to grasp the significance of the volume demands that readers review the best-known poems of Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, John Milton, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Lucille Clifton, William Butler Yeats, and a host of ancient and modern predecessors.
Yet even without a knowledge of those sources, the reader will experience joy in reading poems that stand completely by themselves, poems as diverse as “Hitting a Pheasant on the Pennsylvania Turnpike” or “The Second Best Hotel in Chambery” (the latter was first published in 1990 in the New York Times Book Review). 
John Wheatcroft was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1925. He attended Temple University on a Mayor’s scholarship. After a semester at Temple, he joined the Navy, hoping to fight against the Germans. Instead, he was assigned to a battleship to fight the Japanese, becoming involved in the battles of the South China Sea, Iwo Jima, Okinowa, and the Japanese mainland.
As a young sailor, Wheatcroft miraculously escaped death when an unnamed enemy, falling from the sky in a parachute, was blown to bits instead of him. Many of his poems, including the title poem “The Fugitive Self,” are attempts to resurrect the dead Japanese warrior within his psyche, to stop the bullets that “tore into/his flowering youth, and scattered it all to petals. I then and there became him.”
In “Love and War” Wheatcroft writes of “bloodied hands,”
blood from our buddies,
innocent blood, blood of the beaten.
All of Wheatcroft’s senses are overcome by the bloodshed.  Seeing the flashes from artillery, hearing the blast from guns, the author of “Love and War” wonders if he was perhaps smelling the 
stench of flesh we’d never seen
but knew had roasted in the ovens
we’d turned their cities into?
The visionary connections between Hiroshima and the Holocaust are unmistakable.
Other poems not about war nonetheless shock with the violent intensity of their images. In “Oysters” he compares opening the shells of oysters to “slick-fingered abortionists” who “scrape their flesh from its mother-of-pearl/swallow them raw.” In “The Cutting” he describes having “made love/to you with a scapel.” These frightening sexual images reverberate against Wheatcroft’s more gentle academic tributes to French novelist Marcel Proust or to American composer John Davison or to French autobiographer Jean Jacques Rousseau. His conflicting visions suggest a peace-loving poet torn, even traumatized, by his horrific witnessing of war and death.

After World War II, Wheatcroft returned to Temple under the G. I. Bill, transferring to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in his senior year. He completed his Bachelor’s degree and taught at Bucknell; he later earned his Master’s and his Doctorate from Rutgers and then taught two years at the University of Kansas before going back to the English Department at Bucknell University, where he taught World Literature from 1952 until 1996.
Themes of war, struggle, literature, devastation, relationships, culture, and religion form the core of The Fugitive Self. As he had identified with the dead Asian airman, as prince Hamlet had identified with his slain father/king, so Wheatcroft had identified with his own father, a Baptist clergyman. Wheatcroft wrote me that although he and his father had “different views of the Christian religion,” the differences never interfered with the “beautiful relationship” between them.
In one moving eulogy, “A Prayer for my Anguished Father,” the young Wheatcroft cries: “Let my Father go Lord, Whose dying son has nailed my father on/the shadow cross of self….” In another hymn, “Nulius Filius,” which roughly translates as bastard son, he compares his father to a dying fish and Death to an angler:
No angler ever played a fish more surely
to exhaustion
than Death has done my father—only to
unhook his lip
each time and fling him back in life before
he flops on land
his Father promised…
The hooked lip recalls the scapel and nails and scrapings of other poems. The stanza describing his father’s prolonged pain is unending, exhausting, its music soured by the “bony fingers” of Death plucking on his father’s nerves.
The most formidable poetry in the collection is religious in nature. In “Nativity Quintet,” a section from New Poems, Wheatcroft dramatizes many of the Biblical figures surrounding the birth of Jesus: the merchant who gives the infant his swaddling clothes; the thief who will one day hang on the cross next to Christ; the Virgin Mary; Saint Joseph; even the merchant’s donkey, who addresses the Lady, promising to carry her and the baby to safety.
As he retells the familiar story, Wheatcroft echoes Lucille Clifton, T. S. Eliot, the 23rd Psalm, Yeats, Milton, and others. The various figures of the sequence intersect, held together by Saint Joseph’s humble confession to the merchant: “I fear I can pay you nothing, sir” and by the musicality of the “Quinet.”

The extraordinary rhythms of “Nativity Quintet” shift and change—from couplets to ballad form to stanzas of irregular length—exemplifying what Tom Gardner, in his introduction to The Fugitive Self, calls the volume’s “heatbreaking music.” The sequence differs radically from John Milton’s great ode, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” with that ode’s fixed stanzaic structure, and more closely resembles the informal lyrics about Christ and the Virgin that one finds in Lucille Clifton’s some jesus.
The most eloquent voice in “Nativity Quintet” is the mother’s. Mary feels the child’s “first kick” within her and exclaims:
Oh! Something inside me breaks open.
A light from a star right above
This shed turns night into noon
I’m torn apart by love.
The repetition of internal sounds—light, right, night—creates a staccato rhythm similar to a shattering, while the words “breaks open” and “torn apart” image forth the act of a woman in labor. In a single line, Wheatcroft has brilliantly reproduced Mary’s agony but also her joy: “I’m torn apart by love.”

This subtly sexual stanza from the new poems reminds me of a much earlier poem, “The Rollercoaster,” which I heard John Wheatcroft read when I was at Bucknell more than fifty years ago:
How dazzling like the rollercoaster’s
Are the climbs we make together,
My lovely—
The tantalizing tugs,
The breathless instant
While lunging and clutching
For the star bubbling silver
Forever unattainable;…
And on and on, in breathless swells, with the ‘bump at bottom” followed by the “ski-ride over the little undulating humps.”

“The Rollercoaster” exudes both energy and climax. Little did I realize, being so terribly naive, that Wheatcroft was describing orgasm. To me, a rollercoaster was a rollercoaster. Nor did I realize, in 1958, that I would one day be privileged enough to review the collected works of a poet whose verse has undulated even more wildly with the passage of time. 

Mary Jane Lupton, author of Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters (Praeger, 2006), has published two earlier reviews in Poets Quarterly. John Wheatcroft’s most recent book is a novel, The Portrait of a Lover (Inverted-A Press, 2011). All biographical information is from their correspondence.

The Outskirts of Karma by Alfred Encarnacion

The Outskirts of Karma

by Alfred Encarnacion
Illustrations by Hong Xia
Aquinas & Krone Publishing, LLC, 2012
Paperback, 58 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-9849505-0-8

Review by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael

The word “mature,” when used to describe an artist’s work or a writer’s voice, tends toward positive connotations. Critics incline toward praise when a writer’s youthful exuberance and riskiness matures into noteworthy ground-breaking territory, or when a poet’s early promise, if a bit callow, ripens into spirituality, wisdom, or keen and unsparing observation. I mention this aspect of the artist’s growth because I first encountered Alfred Encarnacion’s poetry when both of us were young. Full disclosure: the micro-press I co-published with the late David Dunn issued Mr. Encarnacion’s early chapbook collection, At Winter’s End. We lost touch for about 30 years. I didn’t even know he was still writing poetry. And now, through the digital network and the circuitous mysteries of friend networking, Alfred Encarnacion’s book The Outskirts of Karma has re-introduced me to his work; more accurately, the book has introduced me to the mature poetry of this talented writer. 

In keeping with the collection’s title, Encarnacion employs images of the natural world throughout and keeps the tone of this collection fairly steadily in the “now” of Asian-influenced philosophy. Allusions to Eastern poets, art, and approach appear effortlessly and crop up appropriately. The reader doesn’t get the sense that Encarnacion is pasting Eastern ideas together just because he likes Li Po or thinks karma is a cool idea. What these poems do, instead, is to incorporate aspects of ancient wisdom-teaching and demonstrate their relevance to modern life, to the USA or wherever one happens to be: in a cornfield in August or waiting for “Buddha’s call on my cellular phone.” In the opening poem, Encarnacion’s speaker says, “I read the I Ching to be enlightened/but nothing changes; I read it//for pure entertainment & suddenly/it’s prophetic as the TV Guide.” Things do change; in “Winter Light,” another awaited phone call comes: “a nurse’s voice breaks the news” that the speaker’s mother has died, while outside “footprints, clear and stark,//fill again with snow.” The call in each case is partly spiritual, partly place- and time-specific. We can read the call as metaphor or fact, and Encarnacion leaves those options, and opportunities, to the reader.

Many writers reflect on mortality and the brief span of individual human lives, and Encarnacion does not avoid these much-examined tropes and questions about death. In fact, he explores the subject in ways that are sometimes confrontational (“In the Hall of the King of the Terrible Lizards” and “Winter Light” for example) and sometimes much subtler (“Gravity,” Disappearing,” and “After the Summer”). From “In the Hall of the King of the Terrible Lizards”:

What chills the blood
is not the reconstructed
remnants of a reptile
eons dead but a word
buried in the head,
its connotations
glimmer like swirling
grains of dust. Extinction.

And yet, describing an 18th-c. still-life by Alexandre-Francois Desportes which features a dead hare and bloodied pheasants waiting to be plucked, Encarnacion observes “One feather/falls through centuries…” evoking the lasting and revivifying nature of art. There is also the promise of biology doing its cyclical thing: in “Deserted Village, Endless Mountains,” the narrator tells us:

Whatever’s abandoned the land will reclaim. These silent
dirt streets belong to lichen and ragweed. Stray dogs follow
us shyly, pretending they’re wolves. Under its breath
the wilderness whispers.

From the aphoristic “Sorrows” to wry poems concerning Cafavy or the Famous Diving Horse, Alfred Encarnacion demonstrates his mature poetic voice through a range of subject material that seems personal but not over-telling and which is thematically lyrical almost above all else. A mood of skeptical faith acquired through the process of living a full life offers the reader the chance to reconsider each poem upon re-reading and may be why Philip Terman, and Chris Bursk have mentioned the word “wise” when praising Encarnacion’s work. Hong Xia’s delicate sketches contribute to the total book experience. All but one of the artworks are spare and offer the kind of mental space necessary for meditation and reflection. 
Of the departed, “I feel presence/ in their hovering absence;/ a little faith in the imagination,” writes Alfred Encarnacion. These poems aim to keep that faith in imagination vivid and necessary, and they do.

Ann E. Michael’s latest collection of poetry is Water-Rites, from Brick Road Poetry Press. She works at DeSales University, where she is Writing Coordinator. Her website is www.annemichael.com.

Ions by Jean Bleakney


by Jean Bleakney
Lagan Press
ISBN: 978-10908188-02-1

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Elizabeth Kate Switaj

At its most obvious, the title of Jean Bleakney’s third collection of poetry, Ions, refers to the titles of the poems themselves: each is an abstract noun, ending in “-ion.” Bleakney’s playfulness and love of words comes through even if one only looks at the list of titles, as every letter has at least one ion, and these are arranged alphabetically. There is one exception to this pattern: the poem “x,y” which counts for both letters it contains. Having lost its “-ion,” this title gains a charge the others do not have and becomes, therefore, itself an ion.
These kinds of small but significant twists characterize the collection. Take the body of  “x,y”: it begins with a playful compression of René Descartes’ mathematical contributions. Then, the reported perplexity of another historical genius become the segue to something broader: 
 . . . Even Isaac Newton was baffled,
allegedly. Where does that leave us, who have to take

so much on trust? Sometimes curve and axes never touch.
These lines could simply be given a mathematical interpretation: those of us who cannot understand calculus must simply accept graphed representations of equations, but the question suggests something broader or more existential. Trust is not a mathematical concept. We are left somewhere, trying to make somethings touch that may or may not ever do so. Where that somewhere and what those somethings does not matter; this is Negative Capability, “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” as Keats once wrote. Uncertainty is foregrounded here by the “allegedly” dropped from its sentence to share a line with the beginning of the question. This kind of overflow is typical of Bleakney’s work. Here, where the comma before the line break emphasizes rather than authorizes it,  the excess adds a charge; if the title of “x,y” becomes a charged particle because of what it has lost, then its concluding two lines become an ion because of what they have gained. 

Charging a line, a sentence, or word through addition or subtraction could serve as a workable definition of poetry. How much a poet adds or takes away depends on aesthetic allegiance and personal taste. Bleakney balances the two impulses. The lengths of the poems also reflect this, as some (such as “Circumlocution” and “Cogitation”) appear two-to-a-page, while others (such as “Consolidation” and “Improvisation”) require two pages each.

Addition and subtraction create different kinds of charges. Abstract titles meet concrete images. The piece with the very abstract title “Alphabetisation” opens with three lines listing vegetables in alphabetical order. The result is a kind of ionic bonding that the rest of the poem explores as it becomes a kind of ars poetica for the book:
Stocking the seed stand, flowers first,
elastic bands in drifts around my feet,
I’m stalled at the vegetables; distracted
by the C to K hiatus, inventing
extinct varieties, their sudden demise.

Close observation leading to imagined objects and their histories might look like distraction when one is expected to be arranging a display (Bleakney in fact works at a garden center) but that is, in fact, a kind of attention becomes clear here and throughout the collection, even or perhaps especially when she describes things that are not real:

 … a little Dutch boy of sorts
(for isn’t that what I’ve always aspired to
in the savior stakes?). As if I could resurrect
deeproot, exceltuce, frailwort, grippage,
hopeso, indurant, jard: an A to Z restored.
The order of the book’s poems fulfills this fantasy, restoring an A to Z that never before existed.
In Ions, Jean Bleakney makes charged particles of words, parts of words, sentences, and images that bond to each other through their oppositions. The result is a kind of serious whimsy in which what is made up may also be well-observed. Plants that are real and plants that could be real turn up in imaginary gardens that never let you forget that they are made of words.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s first poetry collection, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. She has also published a chapbook, The Broken Sanctuary: Nature Poems, with Ypolita Press. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Irish Pages and a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. Her website is www.elizabethkateswitaj.net.

The Art of the Sonnet edited by Stephen Burt and David Mikics

The Art of the Sonnet 

Edited by Stephen Burt and David Mikics
Belknap Press (Harvard),Cambridge, 2010
Paperback, 464 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Arthur McMaster
As the sonnet approaches its nominal seven hundredth birthday, counting from Dante and Petrarch, that is, not from Will Shakespeare, who courageously turned the form in an accommodating way, we speculate on why such vigor, such appeal, such legs.

The basic elements of the sonnet include fourteen lines set in one of two essential rhyme schemes. Originally the metric scheme was iambic, but that convention was one of the first to go as the sonnet found common purpose with poets who preferred to tinker, rather than obey the letter of  Roman law. The earlier, Italian form offered an octet, usually abba, abba. This was followed by an answering sestet. Most common would be cde, cde. The Shakespearean sonnet, in the late Sixteenth Century, waves away the octet/sestet structure and prescribes:


The final couplet is the poem's defining feature. Once the original mold was broken the only proviso to stand up was the convention of fourteen lines.

Could its apple-cheeked health be explained by its trim, modest fourteen-line foundation, its good-natured adaptability, its willingness to go along with nearly every theme a poet might wish to dress her up in? Sure. But talent underscores talent, and the 100 poems presented in this volume, with a page or three of extrapolation and comment by esteemed experts, work well to show off the form. We find within the volume some of the oldest recorded sonnets, several from the Victorian and Georgian era, a parcel from the early and "post-modern" era, and an assortment (Whitmanesque) from America, Europe, and other "overseas" stations. The package is complete.

The earliest are Elizabethan poems, moving chronologically at an steady pace: three from the Bard and his contemporaries, a generous showing from the Romantics, where we discover the usual suspects: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. Every poem is accompanied by interpretive notes from editors Stephen Burt and David Mikics, professors of English from Harvard and the University of Houston, respectively. Their scholarship is worthy and accessible. The reader is unlikely to feel he or she is sitting in on a lecture one or more grade levels removed from one's comfort zone. Their focus on readers works just as well for scholars as for the practicing poets among us who want to more successfully work in the form. Ozymandius makes his storied appearance, even as the quintessentially-mortal subject is further lost to the sands of time. 

Dramatic monologue is in full fig, with one (enough!) from Liz Barrett Browning. You will not soon find another poem with four exclamation marks and four ellipses. But maybe such love poems are entitled to more emotional gambits than something held tight and tidy, such as William Meredith's beautiful (Italianate) and simple testament to love untested and misunderstood. Who among us is not still looking for Petrarch's Laura? 

Several more poems, brooding, heraldic and heroic, connect the early sonnets in conventional forms (Italian and English: Petrarchan and Shakespearean) to the sprung variations that began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Few stand as dramatic as Emma Lazarus's 1883 poem "The New Colossus." Recall the signature final lines:

 . . . Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
No one did bombast better than Emma. But this was an era of immense growth and promise. The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883. Edison's electric lights were streaming across New York City that year. Golden door indeed! "Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild," wrote Denis Diderot one hundred years before his countrymen gave us Lady Liberty. The tempest-tossed were welcomed here, maybe to help quell all that vastness. Ever adaptive, poetry is reflective of its weltanschauung. The French will have to accommodate our purloined use of the German term, at least this once.

Back to Miss Emma's ulterior motive for writing and publishing her sonnet, David Mikics informs us that she wanted to raise money for the Statue of Liberty's completion and delivery from France. "Pennies poured in from schoolchildren and working people. Three years later the statute was assembled and delivered." Let's move ahead in the volume and significantly in time. Sonnets, we agree, are adaptable. The only constant, or near-constant, is the fourteen lines. Robert Frost's "Mowing," an unhinged sonnet with no visible rhyme or meter, underscores the vicissitudes of nature. The poet-farmer in New Hampshire speaks of "no easy enchantment," where "Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak." This poem is catholic and broad, but in a highly private sense. And what could be more representative than that of the taciturn poet, in 1913? "Mowing" appeared in Frost's first published volume, A Boy's Will.   

Hart Crane took a day away from his epochal long poem "The Bridge" to write "To Emily Dickinson." Of Crane's homage, Stephen Burt writes that this " . . . is a poem about spiritual and artistic failure, about obscurity, silence, and the abandonment of impossible projects. . ."  The suggestion that the poem may also be autobiographical cannot be disputed. Some poems included here — Ted Berrigan's "The Sonnets 44 (1964) — scatter rhymes to achieve something essential in the busyness and peccadilloes of New York. Find here too poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Miss Elizabeth Bishop and her friend Robert Lowell, who insists on blank verse. Les Murray, who once dreamed of wearing shorts forever, checks in from down-under. Rita Dove offers a remarkable poem touching the Greek myth of Persephone. Derek Wolcott's briny sonnet complements his Caribbean energy and experience. Let's take a look at the concluding lines to Wolcott's "The Morning Man:"

It's early December,
the breeze freshens the skin of this earth,
the goose-skin of water,

and I notice the blue plunge
of shadows down Morne Coco Mountain,
December's sundail,

happy that the earth is still changing,
that the full moon can blind me with her forehead
this bright foreday morning,

and that fine sprigs of white are springing from my beard.

Rarely has a poetry anthology been better conceived, for purpose or pleasure. If I had to quibble it would only be to say that I had expected to find one of the best and most often anthologized of all American sonnets, "Those Winter Sundays," by Robert Hayden. It is not included. Surely I can make a decent excuse for the good professors' decision, as editors, to leave it out. The fact that it is so well known and loved leaves room for one more in the collection that we know less well. At the end of the day I admit that I would not want to be without medical doctor and poet Rafael Campo's poem, from 2007, "Rest Stop near the Italian Border." Like so many in this volume, his is a poem I will come back to. 

Arthur McMaster earned an MFA from the University of Florida. He now teaches creative writing and American Literature at Converse College. He is the author of Musical Muse, Wives and Lovers of the Great Composers, as well as two chapbooks of poetry. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was twice a runner up for the James A. Hearst Poetry Prize.

The Pattern Maker’s Daughter by Sandee Gertz Umbach

The Pattern Maker’s Daughter 

by Sandee Gertz Umbach
Bottom Dog Press
Perfect Bound, 83 pages
ISBN: 978-1-933964-52-2

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli

The discussion and attention drawn to class issues, thanks in part to the Occupy Wall Street movement and debate over austerity measures in Europe, is not solely for newspaper headlines. The current U.S. Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, is the quintessential blue-collar American poet, who made his name known decades ago by writing about Detroit’s struggles and its impact on the average Joe. Other poets are also giving praise to working men and women. Sandee Gertz Umbach’s debut collection of poems, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, is loaded with poems appropriate for the times. The hard workers and survivors that populate her poems would get along well with characters in a Bruce Springsteen song or Levine’s poetry. The farmers, mechanics, and other laborers that live in her poems struggle to overcome hard times and tough luck, including a historic flood that may conjure up images for the reader of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath. By the last page, the reader hopes these characters pull through.

For the most part, the book is told from the point of view of a young woman who suffers from epilepsy, and the collection is broken into three sections. The first is the most haunting, as several of the poems focus on the 1977 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania that ravaged houses and swept away the young and old. In the poem “What Was Left at the Creekside House,” Umbach offers chilling imagery of a gutted house:

A single kitchen wall standing
A single ceramic pot
A knife that spread the peanut butter
her boys had eaten before bed.

On the counter, a roll of paper towels,

Umbach also employs local history in the poem with a note that states a sole family survivor of the flood tried to save her 7-year old son by grabbing the cloth of his sleeper. However, he was torn from her and perished, as well as her 8-year old son and husband . The note adds much context to the short, image-stacked lines of the poem.

In another poem, “Becky’s Ride,” dedicated to Becky Lichtenfel of the 1977 Johnstown Flood, Umbach captures the brute force and sheer power nature sometimes displays. In the poem, the sky “pulses, shooting itself full of light,” and cars “lift up erect and form a tower.” Anchored to the apocalyptic imagery is Becky’s story. She was swept away in the flood, and the young speaker confesses to searching Becky’s face for years at the bus stop, for traces of “thrashing against rock, the rushing waves that flowed through her hair.” By the end of the expansive narrative poem, Umbach does a fine job making the reader really care about Becky and her plight, her will to surface from the cold, muddy waters and somehow survive.

The second section of the book shifts to poems about the speaker’s struggle with epilepsy. Some of the poems are just as mesmerizing as the flood poems, especially “Climbing the Tower,” which describes the speaker’s countless trips to a Pittsburgh hospital when she was a teen.  The speaker recounts seeing “Stick figures from Children’s Hospital” that were wheeled in and “bald and shushed by nurses.” The poem also captures the frustration of the speaker’s parents, who just want to understand what is wrong with their daughter. The father hopes the doctor will offer a diagnosis on paper, “something he could explain at the lunch table/of mill men drinking thermoses of coffee and milk.” The mother wanted “reasons, clipped out exotic mail-order/cures from backs of magazines.” What the speaker wants, however, is just to be normal, to be like the college girls she sees from out of a window, “perfect in their careless bodies.” Anyone who had a difficult adolescence and didn’t fit in could certainly relate to the last few lines of the poems.

The book is punctuated with a final section that offers more character-driven poems that find the speaker returning home after years away. What the final section makes clear is the empathy the speaker has for blue-collar workers, and how they remind her of her father, a pattern maker. In the poem “Service Center Repair,” the speaker takes her car in to get fixed and listens to the story of a mechanic working on “getting’ outta here” and saving extra money to make that happen. Here, the speaker draws a connection to her father and the mechanic.

I let out a sigh; he doesn’t know how drawn I am
to the neck of his blue collar, just like my Dad’s
-everything I wanted to trade—stretching
out on the passenger side of the car.
I want to tell him not to work so hard,
that money could make things complicated—
that his wife could find the postman
becoming more attractive with his regular hours
and the careful way he raps on the door
when the baby’s sleeping.

The poem is similar to a lot of the other poems in the collection because it again offers a story of a man working hard to survive and to carve out a better life for himself and his family.

The Pattern Maker’s Daughter is a fine celebration of the working-class that have populated Johnstown, Pennsylvania .  Umbach’s expansive, character-driven poems are laced with images that show the beauty and value in hard work and survival. 

Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, The Portland Review, San Pedro River Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and other journals. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be published in 2013 by Unbound Content. Find him online at www.brianfanelli.com.