The Clock of the Long Now
by Annabelle Moseley
David Robert Books
Paperback, 96 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Leya Burns
A strange thing may happen to our perception of time after a family member dies. The hours stretch and distend, with past breaking into present and present into future. This experience of time is central to Annabelle Moseley’s first full-length book of poetry, The Clock of the Long Now. Named for a 10,000 year clock that ticks only once a year, soon to be installed in the deserts of the Southwest, Moseley’s book vividly demonstrates how loss may transform time, balancing elegy and hope with equal care.
How grief may alter our experience of time is introduced in early on in “The Persistence of Memory” (after the Dali painting of the same name, and the image on a watch her father ordered before his death):
Our house clocks stopped the day my father died—
at three, the very hour that he passed.
No catch of shifting gears, no pulse defied
his absence. Time itself mourned him. The past
and future froze in one long pause…
That “long pause” is the “long now,” one presumes. Here and elsewhere, Moseley maintains a keen awareness of time through narratives shaped by its passage; yet she knows, too, that events and people decades apart often connect unexpectedly. Moseley’s careful sequencing defines her book’s inclusive vision: as one poem follows the next, we see how the past informs the present and influences the future.
The book’s first half features poems that elegize and reflect on the death of Moseley’s father, a tragedy that results also in a very necessary exploration of family history. After his death, the poet discovers that her father was adopted, the son of a priest whom her grandmother excused from fatherhood when she relinquished their son for adoption (“How I Imagine He Proposed”); related poems on this powerful subject are “My Father Is Conceived,” “Cave,” and “The Accidental Is Born.” But whatever their connection with each other, most of Moseley’s poems remain independent entities, whether they span a century or a moment. This is true even in formal sequences, such as “Unearthing Jupiter: a Crown for a Slave” and in the impressive “Lloyd Manor Tesseract” that unfolds the home’s long history in sonnet-shaped glimpses. (Lloyd Manor is an historic eighteenth-century Long Island house whose past residents include Jupiter Hammon, the first published African American poet, enslaved on the original estate.) In Moseley’s sequence, people separated by time are connected by geography—a sort of “time travel,” Moseley calls it in her afterword—from celebrated author Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her famed aviator husband, to Jupiter Hammon, Moseley and her spouse, and even her priest-grandfather: “I entered Lloyd Manor, the time machine—/…It was a day for decades to break down.” Past and present moments become almost welded to one another, each informing the other and adding significance to the seemingly unrelated.
Immediacy and concision—two important strengths—are ensured by Moseley’s use of and confidence in the sonnet form. Her specialty is the subtle, letting end rhymes fall beneath notice by way of enjambment only to have them suddenly resurface, creating new meaning and correlations. Brief incidents become compelling metaphors, as when Moseley writes, in “The Persistence of Memory,” “One night in childhood I ran/chasing a firefly. Then I let go./That is the way my father died.” Beginning and end become one and the same; the child’s memory of summer fuses with how the adult poet imagines that her father “beheld a distant speck of light,/and lunged, then with a laugh, fell forward.”
Connections between past and future are further heightened in the handful of “mirror sonnets”: two-stanza poems in which the second stanza is, with slight modifications of punctuation or syntax, a line-by-line reversal of the first (Moseley herself devised the nonce form). Here, an echo of the familiar inhabits the new stanza, linking past and present moments within the act of reading; cause and effect are blurred, and the inherent circular movement questions the very idea of origin and ending—perfect for a poem such as “The Sea Cave of My Mother,” in which the speaker longs “to burrow down, and sleep/inside my mother’s womb, where I could hide/within my life-source, cradled in the deep.” In these mirror sonnets, distant events lie atop each other as on tracing paper, bringing surprising similarities to light.
Moseley’s very best poems are effortlessly heartbreaking. In the seventh stanza of the final poem, “The Lloyd Manor Tesseract,” Moseley imagines herself and her husband gathering horse chestnuts beside both Jupiter Hammon and Anne Lindbergh. She hears
the scratch/of Jupiter’s quills on parchment, a flow
of tapping keys—the trill of words. Attach
all three poets, our joys and pain—to sound.
That’s how we travel time—our common ground.
Moseley has cracked the sonnet form wide open. Her poems span past, present, and future, neatly contained in only a few lines. The Clock of the Long Now is an apt title, as her poems are surprising and attentive to time’s strange transformations. Dali would be proud.
On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
by Lucia Perillo
Copper Canyon Press. Cloth, $22, 81 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Arthur McMaster
Lucia Perillo is a storyteller. She is a naturalist, a trained observer, a woman with delightful, sardonic wit. She is also a writer who works in precise imagery, a poet not unwilling to use unflinching candor about what ails her, ails us, all of us — about the highly vulnerable physiognomy of the human condition.
This is her sixth book of poems and I have to think she has never been sharper. Laced through a body of forty-six poems we find the temporal body in variegated states of disrepair. As the title suggests, people and things have unexpected ways of expiring. Together we will consider some odd and unnecessary passings, often humorous, more often bizarre.
In the poem “Auntie Roach” we learn
“One day George Washington rides around Mount Vernon
for five hours on his horse, the next
he’s making his auspicious exodus
on the spectrum of possible deaths.”
The poem continues: “Rasputin was fed cyanide in little cakes / but did not slough his living husk. . . ” Rasputin was then shot several times, his more or less dead body tossed into the Neva River, where he finally gave up the ghost to hypothermia. The poet renders the story of the mystic’s death that December day, in 1916, more poetically. Perillo adds, “Shakespeare went out drinking, caught a fever, / ding!” If we can’t take our own body’s ultimate breakdown lightly, who will?
If I had to select one poem in this volume to suggest as representative of the whole it would probably be “After Reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” where: “The hungry ghosts are ghosts whose throats / stretch for miles, a pinprick wide, / so they can drink and drink and are never sated.” / Every grain of sand is gargantuan / and goes down thick as bile.” No doubt Lucia Perillo has read the book, studied it, perhaps puzzled some over it, a book musing on perception, death, consciousness, and rebirth, written (we think) in the 8th Century, in verse, where we find that “all phenomena are naturally uncreated.” How is that for Buddhist whimsy?
Diverting dear reader from several forms and fashions of death we also are given to consider Great Uncle Stefan in the Assassination Museum, as well as the courtesan Shikabu and her one thousand poems on tasteful sex — one thousand!; and fetchingly we find a young man, who may or may not be Lucia’s grandfather, in 1915, sent by the Great Depression down the family stairs, “for lack of other work,” to the boiler room, where he will “nurse the chromosomes of sadness / while his words turn in to coal.” Social commentary in American poetry is hardly new, but Lucia Perillo handles its prickly edges deftly.
I should emphasize once more that the poet has done no mean job of research into her far ranging subjects, people, and their demises. And not all doom and destruction is human, though the chances are most destruction ties in awfully well to old homo-sapiens. No other poem is more unexpectedly fact-filled and technically accurate as “Lubricating the Void.” Here we learn of a space walk in 2008 by U.S. Navy engineer, astronaut, and salvage diver Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. Honest. I looked it up. She lost her tool belt and grease gun while on a repair mission, just outside the space vehicle. Ms Perillo uses this unexpected slice of history to give us a view from space, what images Captain Piper actually caught in her helmet camera: “we see the blue Earth, glowing so lit-up’dly despite the crap / that we’ve dumped in its oceans, a billion tons of plastic beads, / precursors to the action figures that come with our Happy Meals.”
Toward the end of the book her lovely poem “Matins” brings us back home, back to family, for a young woman’s love for her dead father, whose long-sleeve shirt, the sleeves unraveling, she wears until it too “falls to ruin.”
These are mostly personal poems, poems all of us can relate to. Everyone has lost a dear one. And so these are largely I poems, me and my poems. Perillo does not dissemble, though she is a master at allusion. She declares; she underscores her thesis and does it brilliantly. No hiding from the truth, from the work she has been given to do in this life, whatever remains of it.
She concludes the poem, evidently referring to a drug, “Autothalamium,” that opens with her wedding night and concludes with this:
And no matter what has happened since (she insists)
the years and the dead,
the sadness of the bound-to-happen,
the ecstasy of the fragile moment,
I know one night I narrowed my gaze
and attended to my captaining, while the sea
gave me more serious work than either love or speech.
by Ben Kopel
Perfect Bound, 91 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli
From the opening pages of Victory, Ben Kopel praises misfits and outcasts, blade-wielding punks that attend hardcore shows and young women that roam parties in bizarre outfits, offering confessions to strangers. His poems are as raw and noisy as a Black Flag record, but as edgy as some of his lines are, Kopel hits some softer notes throughout the book, while showcasing a range of forms and attention to sound.
As early as the opening poem, “Gymnasium of the Sacred Heart,” Kopel describes teenage outcasts, two boys in track jackets, “with shaved heads and smooth hands,” who spend their school days huffing Pine-Sol from plastic bags and breaking into cars with coat hangers. Yet, despite their crimes, the speaker pleads, “I scream City of Love! City by the River/Don’t disown your skinny fisted sons/locked inside the locker room/They too are the father of you.” As a reader, I didn’t want to give up on these characters. Not only did I have sympathy for these oddballs, but I immediately wanted to read on, engaged by their antics.
Kopel draws on adolescence and the feeling of not belonging one page later in the poem “Duende-Tripper.” The beginning of the poem could be any scene in a movie or TV show—two teens in a car, with the headlights turned low. However, the writer immediately veers away from the cliché with jolting imagery and striking lines:
My darkness, it expanded
to fill the space provided, like a melody
or a metal rod placed in a loved one.
Some summer ago, the surgeons
they shoved a goodbye into my jaw.
There was confetti in the carpet.
A steak knife in the ceiling. So what.
So long. In between such stations
my life can save no song.
Like other poems in the book, “Duende-Tripper” mixes gritty, sometimes jarring imagery with well-constructed sounds, including rhyme, assonance, and alliteration, that make the lines soar.
Beneath the lines of other poems, there is a pulsating anger, bubbling to the surface in the actions of the characters that fill Kopel’s verse. In the poem “Untitled,” there is mention of a t-shirt wrapped around a fist, a desire to stay up late, smashing bottles against a levee, and the haunting image of a woman who “satellites” around the room, stabbing an avocado with a spoon. Yet, in such raw, animalistic action, Kopel depicts beauty and release. In “Bar Fight #2,” a fisticuff between friends, or ex-friends, is described as “part mutilation,” “part victory,” “part garden.”
My favorite character woven into the book, and one of the most surreal, is a girl “dressed up as a piece of wedding cake” found in the poem “The Birthday Party.” The character is so strange that the reader can’t help but find her interesting, even endearing, as she confesses to the speaker that she once got so high sniffing markers that she “mistook a man-made lake for her mother.” At some level, the speaker, perhaps as crazy as she is, connects with her and admits to the reader that he loved her for all her crazy stories. Ultimately, he pulls away from her and hopes to find someone who will understand his oddities even better.
In other poems, Kopel captures the tenderness in a moment of connection, no matter how brief it is. In “Teenage Victory Poem,” the reader is introduced to a girl who is “all Halloween and hardware,” and a boy who is “a handsome young skater.” Then, the reader plunges into a scene where the teen lovers go skinny dipping, before having sex a few lines later. Kopel depicts the heat of the scene, of young love or lust, before punctuating the poem with another striking image and a pleasant echo of sounds:
And as the lonesome sun rose over the local
nuclear reactor, the two of them made some great
noises together while two pairs of jet black jeans
dried out along a banister.
Other poems include various references to pop culture, including rock critic Lester Bangs, John Berryman, and Black Flag. Besides the pop culture references, the book also impressed me for its shifting meters, carefully constructed sounds, surreal images, and loose sonnets. Kopel’s poems grip the reader from page one and don’t let go until the end.
Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Red Rock Review, The Portland Review, Harpur Palate, Evening Street Review, Word Riot, Inkwell, 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. Find him online at www.brianfanelli.com.
Phyla of Joy
by Karen An-Hwei Lee
Tupelo Press, 2012
Paperback, 63 pp.
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael
The poems in Karen An-Hwei Lee’s collection Phyla of Joy cross several boundaries, yet what stays in this reader’s mind is the consistency of her tone. Often, an unwavering tone leads to monotony. Lee’s eclectic vocabulary and stylistic variations demand attention, however, a demand that does not unbalance the steadiness of the whole. Reading Phyla of Joy is akin to listening to the reverberations of a singing bowl: first, one is attracted to the struck note, but the diminishing vibrations last a long time, compelling a continuing reflection.
I want to call these poems lyrical, though seems somehow incorrect. The “I” behind the work is frequently diffused by images that command more notice. Readers who prefer a strong sense of character-as-speaker in poetry will not find one immediately. These poems seem to be spoken by a less personal voice, one that acts as guide yet does not completely abandon a sense of intimacy with the reader. Lee’s poetry has been called “meditative,” an appropriate modifier. One can imagine these poems being read by a calm voice softly urging the listener to relax into awareness:
A woman sees a poem grow like a melon.
How does a melon grow? After soft rains,
on a vine, it bows under a knife.
A poem says its flesh sweetens sun…
A consistent tone is not the same as a consistent mood, and Lee’s work is riskier than the contemplative tone suggests. She breaks linguistic, syntactical, and cultural rules and writes of famine, war, and other disasters. While she often uses fairly traditional free-verse stanzaic structures, she is not afraid to experiment. A few of her prose poems are fragmented blocks punctuated with periods, resulting in a fusion of images that build a mood rather than a narrative (from “Feminaries”):
wings . I recite . names of moths . phyla of happiness . she
remembers . alpha . imperial . pale green luna . or mourning
cloak . not Lepidoptera . feminaries . hand-bound . string . what
Lee also employs a reverse poem form (which she calls “cycle poem”)[i] most effectively in “Sunday Is,” where the reversed lines come to a pleasing closure.
Another risk Lee takes involves vocabulary. While she intersperses some of her poems with Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and other languages, her use of terms from biology, geology, and physics is risky because readers who are not interested in science may feel frustrated with epeiric seas, indehiscence, seed carpels, or words like hydrophanous, Lee’s inventive use of scientific and marginally obsolete vocabulary generally works well. This is partly because the poems can be read for sound, flow, and tone; and they are beautiful. If the reader has to re-read, think, work a little with the poem—isn’t that part of the enjoyment of reading? The marvelous pitch of the work is worth listening for even if lyrical meaning does not yield itself easily.
In a review this brief, there is no room to analyze Lee’s themes and recurring images, which include biblical and Asian allusions, blindness and sightedness, womanhood, extinction, flowers and flesh. It is noteworthy that even when Lee’s language startles, there is a sustaining, calm reflectiveness in the fluid surfaces of these poems that invites contemplation. Contemplation, and re-reading: two things we readers should make more time for in our busy lives.
Our Lady of The Ruins
By Traci Brimhall
W.W. Norton & Co.
Paperback, 96 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Russell
In timely fashion, on the eve the world’s complete annihilation, comes Traci Brimhall’s new collection of poetry Our Lady of the Ruins. It begins: “Imagine half the world ends and the other half continues / in a city made holy by pilgrims who wander to it.” Lucky for us, Brimhall has done all the imagination work for us in her second book, selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize. What follows is an extended dream (or, arguably, nightmare) sequence in which Brimhall guides us through the wreckage of the fallen world, a place of broken cathedrals, promises, people. Reading Brimhall’s new collection, I had the acute sense of being an anthropologist who was witness to increasingly disturbing scenes of a landscape and species both alien and entirely familiar: a coroner discovers “minnows swimming in a drowned girls lungs;” a blind beekeeper whose “apiaries are empty except for dead queens, and he sits // on his quiet boxes humming as he licks honey from the bodies / of drones;” and “angels crawl the walls of the cathedral / trying to get back in.”
It is tempting to read this collection as a prophetic vision of what’s to come. Though one finds little evidence to support such a reading. If anything, these poems seem to set their gaze backwards, as if to suggest that our present day is the outgrowth of Brimhall’s half-ruined world. Noticeably absent from these poems are any relics of contemporary society—no burnt-out cars, abandoned skyscrapers, or national monuments turned over on their sides. Nothing we might expect to find in a vision of the post-apocalyptic future.
Instead these are poems forged from a primal lexicon. The book is peopled by butchers and blacksmiths, knights and pharaohs, witches and pilgrims. We are led through graveyards, past gallows, and into dark forests and darker caves. One can almost imagine these poems as translated from an ancient dead language—the word “fire” appears 18 times. Such primitive imagery figures prominently throughout.
From “The Cities That Sleep”:
We want to ride the horse of the past backward
through time to first wounds, laughter and milk,
but instead we drink from the beginnings of rivers.
The collection as a whole is incredibly consistent. With the exception of a few misfires, each poem is individually strong. It’s not surprising that much of the book was first published in a long list of journals. Though, at roughly the book’s midpoint I began to feel that the poems were treading the same ground, that in my attempt to work my way out of the forest I found myself inexplicably back where I started. What is startling and affecting in the beginning—“A pregnant woman drowns herself in a well. No one drinks from it now”—rings hollow towards the end—“I have eaten the eyes of the eyes of the enemy, and I am the enemy.” While the language feels immediately, if paradoxically, new, at times certain lines tend to read like a medieval Mad Libs: “We found half / of her bones and buried her // uneaten heart in a dead cub’s rib cage.” I wish, too, that the book developed its themes more fully from beginning to end. The book’s movement mimics an extended establishing shot, though one that is expertly executed to be sure. At times I’m left asking, then what?
Despite a few missed opportunities, this is an impressive collection from a poet whom I feel fortunate to have discovered early in her career, which I plan eagerly to follow. More than once I came upon moments that were so affecting I had to put the book down and gather myself. Here’s one, from “To Poison the Lion:” “I poisoned myself / to poison the lion, but when I arrived, it was dead.”
Brimhall situates us so firmly in her world that instances like this are utterly devastating. While the setting of the book, and some of the particular circumstances, may seem foreign to contemporary readers, the motivations and tensions of these people do not. Their struggle for survival and the necessary resourcefulness and selfishness therein is immediately recognizable: “Only when I hurt her do I know she will stay.” They struggle to find a reason for faith in God when confronted with such overwhelming evidence to the contrary: “bread is still mistaken for a missing body, / and a missing body is still mistaken for a miracle.”
For a book so permeated with death, it’s rather surprising how full of life these poems are. In complete darkness, one sees more clearly the brightness of what odd moments of beauty remain. The end of “Envoi:”
Yesterday I cleaned the bones out of the boat
and met a child on shore. He made a gun
out of his hand. No one taught him this.
He raised his arm, fingers leveled
at my heart. You said I could contain it,
this gift. The boy told me I could keep
the boat. The bones were his.
At a time when so many poems (and poets) turn their backs on the world in which they and their art exist, it is refreshing to read a book so firmly rooted in the dirt of living.
Paper Kite Press, 2011
Perfect Binding, 60 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Dawn Leas
I am a Jersey girl, born in a port city that lives in the shadows of New York skyscrapers. I grew up being a city-dweller wannabe. Now, every time I drive through the Lincoln Tunnel or across the GW Bridge to deliver my sons to their respective schools, I pledge that someday it will be for me to return home. But, for the near future, I am just an earnest, maybe slightly idealistic, observer and visitor who is drawn to anything related to New York city. A few months ago, a friend gave The Commute by Susan Scutti a thumbs up on Facebook. When I found out that Scutti was also a New Jersey native who now lives in NYC, and that The Commute was a Paper Kite Press title (I love PKP books), I quickly put it on my to-read list.
This debut full-length poetry collection is brimming with life experiences and snapshots of city living; angst and strength. It isn’t dark necessarily; but it isn’t bright like the lights of Times Square either. Some of its poems are gritty, sad and resigned. Others are detached, observant; calm and matter-of-fact. It lays out a story, welcomes you to take it all in, but makes no apologies for its characters, its city, or its subjects, such as birth, abortion, sex, disillusionment with work, and family dynamics. I appreciate that Scutti tells the stories in her poems with thoughtfulness, honesty, heart and soul.
For many who haven’t lived in New York city, there is a certain mystique surrounding it. We forget the realities – garbage strikes, torrential rain with no empty cab in sight, pet owners that don’t carry bags, hot subway platforms crowded with cranky commuters. We forget that city dwellers often yearn for something else, something more, just like everyone does at some point in life. And Scutti captures this need in several poems in the collection.
The opening poem “Job” moves through the mundaneness of an ordinary day from commute to work to home to the next morning, but in “The Blackout of 2003” the daily routine of mundaneness is interrupted by the loss of power. Scutti begins stanza two with “on the spiritless train headed/towards an unembellished office building” and ends it with “penned like veal calves/waiting to be slaughtered/the corporate class/generates hostile hormones/and emits them/into exhaust-filled air.” A beautiful, yet sadly empty image. In stanza four, the narrator is standing in a pay-phone line when a man pulls up in a car billowing with smoke. The stanza ends with the simple grace of humanity in the face of a crisis:
“although all i do is offer
to bring him water –
although he refuses –
I still feel like the
he calls me.”
In “The Dental Assistant” Francisco describes his loneliness as “a fanged beast,” “an icy blue vapor,” and “suddenly fluid.” This vivid imagery is the foundation of a poem that is the epitome of a person lonely in the midst of millions of people. The first lines of “Night Club” reek of despair and while the reader may initially think he is meeting someone, this will have a happy ending, the poem dives deeper into loneliness and ends with this haunting image:
“With a blanks wall behind her and eyes
that don’t seem to blink she looks like a character trapped in a
comic strip, and after, after, he feels nothing as he watches her sleep.”
Scutti navigates life events and feelings like a seasoned New Yorker wends through a throng of tourists snapping pictures of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Several family poems exemplify this as well as bringing a sense of the personal into the collection which also often exudes a subtle sense of disconnect. These poems, like “Education” and “Safe,” are poignant and ones that readers can instantly connect with. In “Safe” Scutti recounts how her father wrote three books in his 70s by hand that she wasn’t allowed to read until he was 84 and suffering from Alzheimer’s. Even then she could only read the only copies in his home where they were “safe” from being lost. The reader feels the mother’s frustration when she yells at the dad:
“She likes your book.” When she turns to me
my mother’s blue eyes appear glacial. “I told him
years ago that you would be the only one
to appreciate his novels. And now it’s too late –
he doesn’t remember enough to discuss them with you!”
While I enjoyed every poem, by far my favorite one is the title poem nestled in the center of the collection and spanning just over six pages. It’s sub-titled stanzas are vignettes that fit together like puzzle pieces, yet also flow and move as individual entities. These are small gems that once mined deserve to be turned over again and again for images and phrases such as “the clothes worn by each passenger/give off an odor of exhausted concern,” “where sunlight /is leaking from a cloud,” and
“As the train races through the dark
from the city to my home town,
hurtling from my adult life
backwards into my childhood, I begin
Scutti expertly brings her poems alive with every day, crisp descriptive images that engage the senses. Readers can hear the city breath; see the weight of struggle, feel the pain of difficult decisions, smell a hint of desperation of last call at one bar of thousands in the maze of intersecting city streets; taste the angst of people unsure they are on the right path or that happiness is within reach. Her words are layered with meaning like a richly tiered chocolate cake. The kind of cake you slowly slide your fork into – icing, cake, icing, cake – enjoying the texture, savoring the effort that went into making it. Have a fork ready when you sit down with Susan Scutti’s The Commute.