18 November 2015
One thing poetry can do is grab our sunken (that is to say, sublimated or denied) preconceptions, bubble them to the surface, and pop them so close our eyes, it stings. It can be excruciating or refreshing to change direction--sometimes it's both. Whether the topic is pets, parents, illness, or language itself, sometimes our eyes water.
Welcome to the Fall 2015 issue of PQ. You're guaranteed pleasures and challenges this time. We've brought you reviews of books we love, interviews with poets we admire, and essays about ideas we are intrigued to think about. Reading them is very a good idea. Every single month we're delighted to find that poets we've featured in past issues have won new awards, published new poems and books, and been busy with new projects as teachers, speakers, activists and thinkers.
PQ keeps you inspired and informed.
So enjoy these articles that dive deep and swim wide, and be a regular visitor to our social media sites for fascinating, timely dispatches from around the world. Better yet, join the conversation. We thrive on your comments and submissions.
Ann E. Michael,PQ Contributing Editor
In Memory of Brilliance & Value
Saturnalia Books, 2015
paperback, 65 pp. $15.00
When encountering couplets on the page, readers tend to expect the lyrical rather than the narrative. Michael Robins’ most recent poetry collection, In Memory of Brilliance & Value, in which every poem uses the couplet stanza, delivers on this expectation and also subverts it. By this I mean that these poems contain narratives, if often through omission. The stanza break, and lapses in the syntax of sentence structure, create in these poems lacunae that suggest that story is going on somewhere—unsaid in the poem, maybe, but vivid in possible interpretation. The reader wants to supply the narrative. The poem doesn’t have to, or perhaps refuses to. That’s part of what makes Robins’ collection intriguing.
Tension between lyric and story may be the foundation of what we call literature (as opposed to plot). Robins’ poems call themselves anecdotes, poems, and songs; he alludes to the lyrical through titular references to elegy, requiem, and simile, such as a poem called “Like So Many Mice in a Bucket.” His couplets do not connect into so many grammatically-sound sentences strung into a storyline, but the reader should not discount that ten of the poems employ the word “Anecdote” in the title. These poems do have stories to tell, illustrations of human experience, events, and memories amid the song-like alliteration, rhythm, and closely-measured lines.
“Wooden Bridge & Wooded Waters” begins:
We had found our place in the sun
intending to saddle down. Took off
our jackets, our boots in the canyon
true west beneath the whirling falls.
Thus far, clear and physical images that indicate narration. What the poem builds toward, however, its climactic moment if you will, remains unstated except for, quite soon, “the flood & that explosion.” The narrative abandons the poem there, but the ghost of a story stays on, swirling with the fig leaves “few in going around.”
Re-reading these poems, I felt that each time a new tale would emerge—I found myself wondering if the backstory was in the gaps, or whether the poems supplied only the backstory. “Upon the Patrons of the Game” is a poem about baseball, for example; or is it a story about America? Or about growing up? “To speak easily of pastime is our crime, // of sailboats, sliced apple pie, the trains / like foppery…It’s April then July. We have no work…” There is considerable work in the craft of these lines, including puns and allusions, internal rhymes and tight syllabic counts. But the poem has a tale to tell as well, and the story might be one thing or another depending upon how the reader interprets what has been left out.
Omitting the narrative thread through omitted actions—verbs are noticeably few in these texts—arrives partly through Robins’ interrupted grammar rhetoric, but his lists and deft imagery supply meaning as relayed by other aspects of language. That is one of the challenges of poetry, the task of saying what always seems so damned hard to say. Robins uses implications, gaps, and descriptive lists to get us there, and he doesn’t shy from humor and the more-than-occasional pun or cliché, either (see “Most Likely to Secede,” “Song of the Second Fiddle,” and lines like “led horses / to waterboards but couldn’t make them // shrink…”).
I don’t mean to minimize the lyrical resonances of Robins’ poetry; that’s the aspect of his work most superficially noticeable, however, and it feels important to suggest that readers be attentive to the less-obvious in these short poems. The breezy, speculative tone of pieces such as “Requiem as Seen from Infinite Space” draws us in: “Isn’t living plain enough, hankering / unavoidable, stealing with it a yard // & the spitting of carbon everywhere…” and manages, in this case through reasonable cornfields and cars and dodos, to drop us off somewhere thought-provoking at the poem’s close: “Let us weigh what dazzle we know / where our people reassemble and rise.” Between those lines, story happens; it could be the Rapture, it could be a road trip zooming out to Google Earth. Robins encourages his readers to imagine a host of potentialities. The imagining is the reward.
Ann E. Michael
PQ Contributing Editor
Barrow Street Books, 2015
Paperback, 74 pp
The parent-child relationship, in an ideal world, could be open to generous renegotiation—fluid, adaptable—as parents age and their children become adults. Psychology and experience tell us that such changes are often too challenging and the roles too ingrained for a successful transition, particularly when the whole enterprise of family life is fraught with discomfort and poor communication. In Lesley Wheeler’s latest collection, Radioland, the narrator’s vexed connection with her father provides the exigency of many memorable and startling poems; but the book is not a series of memoir-pieces “about” their relationship. The collection centers on a more abstract but equally compelling concept: distance, physical and emotional, and its opposite, intimacy.
Radio, once the mainstay of contemporary music, entertainment, and news, provides the perfect image of communication over vast distances. Radio waves travel at the speed of light and across great cosmic distances, but close to earth they may be intercepted, diffracted, and distorted. There’s static. And, with a radio, the transmission can be interrupted by the flick of a switch: “Your inheritance is dead air. Receive // without refraction the heaviness of vacancy. / Trace with one finger its curious property / of one-sidedness.” In these lines from “Bequest,” the reference is to a Möbius strip; yet even in the book’s opening salvo, the closing-off or distancing appears. Radio waves possess the “curious property” of transmitting without the quality of communication, for true communication requires a listener who can answer in return. Wheeler’s poems urge us to listen.
In her previous collection Heterotopia, Lesley Wheeler has proven herself to be a poet with a deep familiarity with form and an edgy willingness to experiment with both poetic framework and subject. In this book, her approach to making a poem is similar and her themes of loss and outsider-status continue to emerge, this time focused more on the father than the mother-figure of Heteroptopia. The speaker now identifies herself as the “reckless thing,” formerly “the gale-force winds no one could pacify” and, in the now of this collection, mother to an adolescent girl. A wonderful sonnet’s devoted to negotiating this transformation, “Adolescence Is a Disorder of the Mouth,” during the course of which the speaker’s husband “inhales / the minestrone through his nose,” an image both telling and hilarious. The daughter criticizes her mother’s lipstick, choice of television shows, even the key in which she sings lullabies: “My pitch is catastrophic” (rhyming with “hypotoxic” three lines previously—a “wow” in terms of line endings). But this is a mother-daughter distancing and intimacy, not a father-daughter conflict.
That central difficulty, the difficulty of the larger-than-life, fascinating, storied, “bad” father, sets the theme of distances that resonates through these poems. The section “Deep Fade” examines the speaker’s emotions and reasons about the father and his dying carefully, with a pragmatism that stems from the ability to distance oneself from the enemy and a genuine sense of multiple kinds of losses that arrive when an estranged family member or loved one dies. Here, the distance is physical—previous poems establish the narrator as traveling abroad (New Zealand, during the 2011 earthquake, among other far-flung places). Simultaneously there is the emotional distance between a daughter and the father who has betrayed the family over and over: “Who knows how he’ll hurt me [From what sector / of the sky” she writes; try sending radio communication and “Transmissions just bounce off his craters. / He wants to be loved but if you do / he can’t love you.” His death seems to leave the survivors with nothing but “Throats full of silt.”
Months and years supply distance, of course. Can a transformed sort of intimacy occur? Maybe not. But the radio waves continue in their outward-bound direction, and the living continue living, the adolescents mature, the borders shift. Wheeler writes, in the aptly-titled “Earshot”
This spirit-talk isn’t much of a change in our, what,
relationship. I tune. His fury, sometimes love,
beams out in long pulses. Hey you out there in radioland,
are you listening? It’s your old man swinging the airwaves.
No place with borders, schools, census rolls
but a state of mind. Ambivalent daughters sleepwalk there…
Ambivalence nails it, a paradoxical statement which sums up—though not neatly—the intimate/distant tension in Wheeler’s poems. Who will pick up the receiver and, after listening, respond? In “Belief,” one of the collection’s last poems and another of Wheeler’s curious sonnets, the speaker admonishes us that “The gods don’t give dictation,” that “Nobody tells the wind to cry.” And yet:
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen
and watch. Reception’s a religion when
everything whispers. Your hand to mine.
Starlings to branch. Signal and noise, ensnarled.
It’s a love poem, the classic use of sonnet form. The love here expressed survives, even embraces, a certain amount of distortion and interference. Wheeler has transmitted words worth listening to.
Becoming the Sound of Bees
Paperback, Perfect Bound, 112 pages
for the sound of bees
& hearing nothing
but the wind boxing the panes
we began to hum & buzz & drone
becoming the grey matter
An amalgam of mythopoetic fragments woven into a narrative thread, Becoming the Sound of Bees assembles time in a triage of moments via the life of a shell-shocked wayfarer named Ivan. The individual poems here are integral parts comprising a narrated synergy that strives to recombine and recover Ivan’s personal gestalt: “It is a fractured cinematic narrative where scenes saturate one another and characters shift and exchange faces, some of which are our own” (Jake Berry).
Ivan is the Everyman, even as he is a protagonist with no heroics attached. The Everyman character in the text is shadowed by the narrator/commentator, allowing us to break through the fourth wall, that semi-porous membrane that covers our shared meldings with Ivan. The voice is omnipresent in this story, which also allows us as readers to project ourselves into Ivan’s wounded core; into the evocative imagery of these beach scenes; and most certainly, into his process of transmorphing himself while he uses his pain as the fuel to keep going in this shattered world of his.
We too are mythology … to live again transmorphed.
One wonders if Ivan might be a former academic, one who has experienced some form of life-shattering breakdown. Has he lost a child named Max? Has his wife also died? Or both, through some vicissitude of fate? He apparently no longer makes sense as he wanders through the dystopian scapes of his life on the beach, acquiring the detritus offered up by the oceanic tides. His prowess in the art of beachcombing, however, is immense and all-consuming.
Living in a ramshackle bivouac above a slough, composed and held together by civilization’s washed up debris, his is a cobbled-together beachcomber’s shack where he boils seawater for stews of invertebrates and kelp. He has chosen this spot on the bluff above the beach for access to the tides and what gets brought forth nightly. In a parallel way, his own personal tide coalesces with the oceanic tide, that giver of flotsam, existential knickknacks, and ephemeral trash.
Ivan, King of the Seaweeds, this exile from civilization, has become a bottle cap hoarder, nailing them to the south wall of his shack with any rusty sharp thing he can find. “Twist the Cap” has become his mantra. He is Ivan the Geomancer, pursuing auguries through this mythopoetic journey by the sea, drinking a psychotropic broth from a plastic bucket, which sources his hallucinatory episodes while a grey thrush chirps out fresh bird language as Ivan mimics its song. He and his commentator traipse up and down the beach, observing “the curious cacti on the hills,” Ivan soldiering his way on through his presumed PTSD hours, stumbling forth like one of Cormac McCarthy’s traumatized characters. Malcolm Lowry, another famous beachcomber, who sheltered up in a seaside bivouac in British Columbia, exiled from a world too wounding to live in, also comes to mind here.
Yet, given all this, we still want to know who this Ivan really is, this hoarder of memories, akin to Beckett’s Molloy perhaps, that outcast who hoards his sucking stones in a lonely sea cave. Ivan the beachcomber, with a loose rope belt such that he has to keep hitching up his odoriferous threadbare trousers, screams “blue at the sea” -- “I’m the You!” he yells as he angles with his makeshift spear. He is a recorder of “illusions and smoke-knowledge,” indicating that “smoke is our umbilical cord … to the dark deities.” Perhaps through his scribbled metaphors, a possible redemption/salvation is being generated while he traipses across the silent desolate sands.
Also, referencing any possible absence of bees, apparently it is now us doing the buzzing. Yet how do we become, or even incorporate, the sound of the bees? Especially the buzzing sound, as defined in the word bombinate: to rumble, buzz, hum, or produce a low boom. The continuous sound of the surf that Ivan absorbs with each daily cycle may echo the symbolic sound of the bombination of bees. Or internally, there is the systole/diastole oscillation of this pulsing life, the sound of the blood as it expands and contracts through his cranium. Through this process of transmorphing that Vincenz alludes to throughout this text, perhaps this gives us a clue about the imminent peril that we as residents of earth now find ourselves in.
While in the pregnant silences heard at noon, that is the noon that until recently was endowed with the low hum of apian industry, this quiet may fill the entirety of our empty days ahead. And yet this narrative, as loaded as it is with the metaphorical associations of hope, warns us about more than the demise of bees. Through poetic language that goes kaleidoscopic in Becoming The Sound Of Bees, we are given a sketch of what our future might become, whether we choose to heed it or not.
Certainly the exuberant forces exhibited by Vincenz’s imagination, erupting forth like Pele’s magma flowing into the Hawaiian seas, is palpably apparent in these poems, an igneous fluidity that depicts a human tragedy through the existential aftermath of coping with traumatic loss. One thinks of Berryman’s Henry, another soul who has suffered an irreversible loss like Ivan, proceeding through the minefields of self-alienation and depression.
As one reads through these poems, it is striking how Vincenz has this great gift for working his language into such evocative imagery, his penchant for the scholarly blending with the quotidian, driving the transformative thematics throughout these poems. This book serves to remind us that breakdowns in our consciousness can also serve as breakthroughs; we will prevail only with the integrity of our fellow apian creatures if we do not succumb to despair, and proceed with hope and desire towards interpersonal wholeness.
Residing in the southern part of Northern California, Matt Hill is a sculptor, poet, and fiction writer. His poetry, prose, and short fictions can be found on many Internet venues, including BlazeVox Books, Argotist ebooks, and Gradient Books.