Monday, December 10, 2012

Review of Katherine Larson's RADIAL SYMMETRY


Review by Karen George
Radial Symmetry
     by Katherine Larson

 Yale University Press (2011)

 ISBN: 978-0300169201

 96 pages




_______________
Katherine Larson's debut poetry collection, Radial Symmetry, winner of the 2010 Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, is riveting. The book's title suggests how the book will operate. The term "radial symmetry" refers to organisms made of similar parts that radiate out from a central axis, such as a starfish or sea anemone. In Larson's collection, the poems diverge from the central core of her unique perception as poet and biologist to a variety of physical locations such as Arizona, Central America, Ireland, Galapagos Islands, Leningrad, Africa, as well as into emotional territories of love, betrayal, grief, and the realms of art, dreams, and metamorphosis. Yet this collection of poems is anything but disjointed. 

One of the unifying principles is Larson's extraordinary attention to detail and her stunning imagery, whether she's referencing a work of art, or describing a landscape, a sunfish, or vivid dream. In "Djenne, Mali," she gives us sound imagery in "sewing machines nattering on," and a combination visual and feeling image in "Shops fill and empty like lungs." In "Masculine/Feminine," she describes clouds that "come to pin up my hair with their tiny torn tufts." This is such a rhythmic phrase with its repeated "t" sound and all but one word a single syllable. In "Love at Thirty-two Degrees," she describes a dissected squid:

            ...there was no blood
            only textures of gills folded like satin,
            suction cups like planets in rows...

            ...Amazing, hearts.
            This branchial heart. After class,
            I stole one from the formaldehyde
            and watched it bloom in my bathroom sink
            between the cubes of ice.

The above lines give an inkling of the author's voice–one of amazement, sometimes rapturous, at the beauty of this world–another element that runs throughout these poems, setting up a sense of intimacy with the reader. As Louise Gluck describes in the foreword:  "The poet is a kind of dazed Miranda, so new to the world that its every ordinariness seems an emblem of wonder."

Later in "Love at Thirty-two Degrees," Larson describes an astronomer gazing at the night sky:
            ...that expands
            even as it falls apart

            like a paper boat dissolving in bilge...

            The snow outside

            is white and quiet
            as a woman's slip

            against cracked floorboards...

            ...his wife
 
            her hair and arms all
            in disarray

            like fish confused by waves.
   
Larson chooses her words carefully. In the above lines, simple words convey a palpable feeling of reverence and awe, and a heightened awareness of all the senses that appears again and again in Larson's work. In the poem, "A Lime Tree for San Cristobal," which is placed in the Galapagos, she says:

            ...The pure
            sting of citrus delivers perfume in a halo
            of blossoms.

The second line of the above quote, with its repeated short "i" sound, also exemplifies the musical quality of Larson's writing that makes this collection such an aural delight. Later in the same poem, she describes a shark the fishermen have killed:

            ...pink gills embroidered
            blood, the eyes–two mirrors snapped over
            with iron. This shark that I will cut and soak
            in lime has a mouth made for eating darkness
            an architecture built without a need for dawn.

The above lines bring me to another unifying element of this book–the repeated motif of pairing opposites, in this case life and death, eating and being eaten, beauty and violence. We see this again in the poem, "Low Tide Evening," where a man is eating mussels:

            But it makes her shiver, the way
            those shells split apart–like half-black

            moons that gave off no light, only
            shadows...

There is such a luminous, haunting quality in the above description, where she pairs light and darkness, beauty and violence, and it creates an effective tension in her poems. In "Lake of Little Birds," which references Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda, she pairs beauty and deformity–lepers "cured, but blind/and terribly disfigured. Their island overgrown/with scarlet poinsettias... hillsides...labyrinthine green...songbirds." In that same poem, she creates a tension by using synesthesia–describing one sense in terms of another: "The smell of sunlight/fading from the stones." 

The first poem in the book, "Statuary," sets up the push and pull of opposites, represented by the cranes suspended in the air and earthworms that she says:

            ...move forward
            and let the world pass
            through them they eat
            and eat at it, content to connect
            everything through
            the individual links
            of their purple bodies.

In the above lines, we see Larson's vivid details, her effective use of line breaks, and the rhythm set up by repeated consonant sounds. In this poem, she also sets up the mirroring of herself in nature's patterns:

            But somewhere between
            the crane and the worm
            between the days I pass through
            and the days that pass
            through me
            is the mind. And memory
            which outruns the body and
            grief which arrests it.

This back and forth motion of "days I pass through" and "days that pass through me" describes an ebb and flow that echoes the motion of the ocean, omnipresent throughout the book. This image pattern is repeated in the poem, "The Gardens of Tunisia:"  "There are days that walk through me/and I cannot hold them."

In these last lines of "Statuary," Larson introduces the motif of memory and grief.  In "Lake of Little Birds" she says, "We touch each other briefly/and depart. As if memory wasn't a wound to bear." Throughout the collection, we see how in the loss of a loved one, or a strained relationship, memory brings as much pain as it does comfort. In "Ghost Nets," there are the haunting lines: "Memory. The invention/of meaning. Our minds with deeps/where only symbols creep." In "Grandfather Outside" she speaks of a visit to a monastery at which they sing and pray during the night:

            so that Christ, crying falcon,

            plummeting alone       
                        through Gethsemane
            would be caught by the threads

            of a net so loyal it stretched
                        backwards through time. I never knew
            that days were held together by singing.

            Or that those who suffered
                        could be attended to
            long after they had gone.

 Then she speaks of her grief over the loss of her grandfather, and the ghost of John the Baptist, whose ankle bone she saw in the sacristy:

             Maybe tonight he'll bless me.
                        With a simple gift, one a ghost could
            give. Something like snow falling

            over the morning you died. Emptying
                        yourself into the exhausted
            arms of a hospital bed.

This image of snow covering, softening the memory of her grandfather's death is haunting. As is the phrase "emptying yourself." There is such beauty and tenderness in her desire to heal herself, and to be able to heal her grandfather back through time. In "The Oranges in Uganda" Death is personified: "He rises like a swallow/from the depth of grasses,/leaving a rip no word can cover."

Transformation is another motif that threads throughout Larsen's text. In "Ghost Nets" she speaks of how the evolution of our eyes and the octopus' relate. In the dream poem, "Risk," she morphs from having a monkey heart to becoming an egg, a grub, a girl. In the poem's ending, she stresses the importance of being open to change by having her mother, transformed to a monkey, reveal the poignant message, "You haven't much time–/risk it all." She ponders transformation in the natural world in "Metamorphosis," speaking of dragonflies and damselflies:

            ...their eyes like inky bulbs, jaws snapping
            at the light as if the world was full of
            tiny traps, each hairpin mechanism
            tripped for transformation. Such a ricochet
            of appetites insisting life, life, life against
            the watery dark, the tuberous reeds. Tell me –
            how do they survive passage? …

This ravenous appetite in the lines above runs throughout the poems, in the natural world and in poet herself. "Metamorphosis" ends with "Each lunar/resurrection, each helix churning in the cells/of a sturgeon destined for spawning," and a final brilliant transformation: "A hallway/with a thousand human brains carved out of crystal./Quiet prisms until the sunlight hits." In "Low Tide Evening," Larson says, "everywhere the spirits are hungry," "the sea always asks for more, "the gulls and shadows/involved with one thing only: hunger./She is suddenly aware of her desire for him."

While the poems of Radial Symmetry are illuminated with nature's beauty of an almost eternal quality, they are also filled with nature's fragility and impermanence, as seen in the long poem, "Ghost Nets," that references how connected we are to the sea, as many of these poems do, and how our carelessness impacts it. In her notes, Larson explains that ghost nets as "Lost or discarded gill nets, sometimes called 'ghost nets' for the way they continue to indiscriminately trap and kill organisms from seabirds to porpoises...":

            The fish, the scientists say, are gliding quietly into extinction. They hovered
            last night at the edge of my half-dream, softening their fins to a point of pure
    
            blur, pure erasure...

                                         ...and the stench
            of the rotting sea lion carcass with the plastic Coke bottle
            lodged inside its throat...

            The gulls cartwheeling, screaming as they shred the washed-up diapers.
   
Amidst these disturbing images are passages of intense beauty:

            The tide seeps in with its pewter description,
                                           simple and flat under halophytic grasses...

            We emerge from the pale nets of sleep like ghost shrimp
            in the estuaries–
                        The brain humming its electric language...

At the end of "Solarium," Larson pairs pomegranates ripening and cancer cells dividing, ending the poem with the line, "Either everything's sublime or nothing is." Her belief that all aspects of life are equal echoes the collection's title, the idea of "radial symmetry"–the arrangement of parts around a central axis, so that if you sliced the organism from one side through the center to the other side, you would wind up with two equal halves.  In the closing poem, "In a Cemetery by the Sea: One Definition of a Circle," this idea of equality surfaces again, with a quote from Euclid:  "Things that are equal to the same things are equal to each other." The poem and the collection end with the following striking lines:

            Here, the morning birds are equal to the dawn.

            The stone wall to the shore, where jellyfish like terrible offerings
                                                                        present themselves each day to rot,

            sheer centers surrounded by violet circles.
                I trace them as he would have–beginning to end.

Larson's breathtaking imagery, repeated motifs, skill with the sounds of words, infectious tone of wonder and tenderness, and mood of intimacy combine to make Radial Symmetry an exquisite collection. These radiant poems compel us to read them more than once, to grapple with the dichotomies and mysteries of life that Larsen delves into, and to revel along with her at this amazing, haunting world we inhabit.


Karen George lives in Northern Kentucky. Since she retired from computer programming to write full-time, she has enjoyed traveling to historic river towns, mountain country, and her first European trip. Her chapbook, Into the Heartland, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2011. You can find her work in Memoir, Still, ninepatch: A Creative Journal for Women and Gender Studies, Vestal Review, and Ontologica.

Monday, November 5, 2012

PROFILE INTERVIEW WITH BILLY BROWN and THE BIRTH OF FIXED AND FREE POETRY READINGS AND ANTHOLOGY

What are we looking for in the poetry we read, write, and listen to?  Literary stimulation, solace, self-expression, community?  On the page, the computer screen, face to face?  Some combination of the above?   These are the questions that rose to the surface as I interviewed Billy Brown, poet, organizer of monthly Fixed and Free poetry readings, and one of four editors of Fixed and Free:  poetry anthology 2011, published by Mercury HeartLink in 2012.  The book is a finalist in the anthology category of the New Mexico Book Awards to be announced on November 16th.    

Before turning to the book and how it came into being, I’d like to introduce the Albuquerque, New Mexico poetry scene and Billy Brown’s role it.  I met Billy Brown early in 2012 when I came to Albuquerque to explore the possibility of relocating here.  Albuquerque generously welcomes and supports poets.   Billy Brown is an especially friendly and welcoming representative of the Albuquerque poetry scene. There are a number of monthly poetry readings at various venues and I quickly found my way to several of them.  The first venue I attended was Fixed and Free, which was begun by Billy Brown in 2008 to fill the vacuum created by the demise of a previous Albuquerque venue. 

Billy avoided poetry until later in life, having had a not unusual and discouraging experience with a high school English teacher.  Actually, he is a bit of a renaissance man.  A retired math professor and INTEL employee, he now teaches several statistic courses at the University of New Mexico; tutors math students, sings in several local vocal groups; runs a baking and catering business; coaches high school speech/debate teams; is active in community theater; and, finally, organizes the monthly Fixed and Free readings with featured poets and an open mike,as well as a quarterly Poetry Open House in his home.

In 1996, after his 18 year old daughter, Elizabeth, was killed in a motor vehicle accident, Billy found himself writing poems to express his grief.  He shared these with others in the grief groups he attended and he began reading other poetry.  His morning ritual still includes reading poetry:  in anthologies as well as some on line services such as Panhala  (http://www.panhala.net/Archive/Index.html) and Poetry Daily (Poets.org poetnews@poets.org).  His favorite poets are Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda.   About four to five years after his daughter’s death, he was ready to move beyond grief groups and grief poetry, though he continued his coaching and theater work as a way of honoring his debater/actress daughter’s memory.   His need for self-expression led him to community poetry venues.  His devotion to helping others express themselves eventually motivated his creation of Fixed and Free readings.

As it happens, on a friend’s recommendation, I had just finished Gregory Orr’s book of essays, Poetry As Survival about the time I decided to review the Fixed and Free anthology and interview Billy Brown.   Interestingly, Billy Brown shares Orr’s premise that poetry is an important form of therapy for the initiated and uninitiated alike.  This belief has driven his devotion to the Fixed and Free community since the monthly readings began in an Albuquerque bike shop by the same name. The parallel between fixed and free traditions in bicycling and poetry is reflected in the publisher’s cover design of the book.  Eventually, the community found an affordable, venue where it has regularly met for several years.  

The process by which the anthology came into being is very interesting.   After a few years, a number of regular readers encouraged Billy to consider creating an anthology to showcase the community’s writing.   In the end, the anthology was edited by three local poets, including Billy.  Stewart S. Warren, an area poet and publisher, handled production and publication details.   

The book consists of seventy-nine poems by the same number of poets.   Only regular participants in the Fixed and Free community could contribute—a requirement which increased attendance at the monthly readings.  Each poet submitted three poems.  Since the editors were committed to publishing a poem by each poet, an editor coached those whose work needed some fine tuning.  Editors individually rated all submissions.  The rankings and final choices were hashed out in committee meetings.  According to Billy, the process evolved organically but, if you are considering editing an anthology he recommends that you be as conscious as possible about your process and choices.  A single editor can be more efficient but when the inevitable overload and procrastination weighs in, it can be good to have several editors to create a sense of accountability and keep the process moving.  On the other hand, a team of editors will likely run into inevitable relationship issue and challenges in the process.  

After publishing the Fixed and Free community anthology and organizing monthly readings and quarterly open houses for five years, Billy is pondering how to decrease his involvement in sustaining the group’s gatherings in a way that can keep it alive in the community.  Whatever the final resolution to this challenge, Billy has made a noteworthy contribution to Albuquerque’s poetry community and the broader body of published poetry.    

____________

Caroline LeBlanc turned her energies toward making art and writing after thirty-seven years as a Nurse Psychotherapist.  In September she relocated from Northern New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she enjoys the regular sunshine and the rich cultural community.  Her chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle was published in 2010.  Recent work can be found in War, Literature & the Arts and The Louisville Review.  A former Army Nurse, she continues to lead writing groups for active duty military, veterans and their family members and looks forward to having more time for her own writing and studio work once her home is set up and Lola, her rescue puppy settles down. 

Review of Fixed and Free: poetry anthology 2011 edited by Billy Brown, Gregory L. Candela, Elaine Schwartz and Stewart S. Warren

Fixed and Free: poetry anthology 2011
edited by Billy Brown, Gregory L. Candela, Elaine Schwartz and Stewart S. Warren

Mercury HeartLink
www.heartlink.com

By the numbers
ISBN 978-0-9827303-3-1
Publication:  2011
Total Pages:  85
Number of poems:  79






______________

I met Billy Brown early in 2012 when I came to Albuquerque to explore the possibility of relocating here.  Albuquerque generously welcomes and supports poets.  There are a number of monthly poetry readings at various venues and I quickly found my way to several of them.  The first venue I attended was Fixed and Free, which was begun by Billy Brown in 2008 to fill the vacuum created by the demise of a previous Albuquerque venue. 

_______________

Fixed and Free: poetry anthology 2011 is a collection of seventy-nine poems with conscience and heart.    Edited by Billy Brown, Gregory L. Candela, Elaine Schwartz and Stewart S. Warren, it contains poem by forty-seven women and thirty-two men from Albuquerque, New Mexico.   Arranged alphabetically by author, the collection holds together in meandering themes.  More free than fixed form poems, the latter include ghazals, sonnets, regular stanza verses and prose poems.   Many poems reflect aspects of Albuquerque and New Mexico at large, from its environmental qualities to its Catholic Hispanic culture and ties to Mexico.   Others take the reader to different states or continents entirely.  Themes include nature, daily life, racial and economic inequities, terrorism/ war related concerns and gender issues.    The book is a finalist in the anthology category of the New Mexico Book Awards to be announced on November 16th.  In this entry, I will quickly introduce the reader to a few poets before devoting a few pagers to a more in depth discussion of the writing of several other poets. 
Billy Brown’s poem, “Roberta,” is a tender nineteen line thanks to a young violinist who reminded him of his dead daughter who was also a violinist.    
            to see you again
            after three weeks
            is like seeing a daughter
            gone fourteen years
           
            her tan skin
            her long brown hair
            her dark brown eyes
            her long delicate fingers
            dancing on violin strings
            her small nose
            her smiling lips
            gently pressed together in effort
            are all yours now
             in blessed reincarnation

            her flesh, her moisture,
            her ashes, her steam,
            her grace, her beauty
            miraculously reassembled

            a divine gift

Early in 2012, Hakim Bellamy was named Albuquerque’s first Poet Laureate.  His long poem, “The Origin of the Hand Sake,” is a narrative commentary on illiteracy, class issues and violence, especially against children, in our culture.  Its style and rhythm reflects his work with young poets as well as his Poetry Slam and song writing affiliations.  In the poem, the hand shake that is “thought to imply that one holds no weapons” morphs into hands raised for the police, hands empty of food, a “raised right hand/ [that] holds five fingers until there is a fist inside it.”  Playing on the phrase “hand shake,” the poem ends:
Since they are only fifty percent proficient at reading, reciting, essay
            writing and multiplying our lies

            Knowing our history and their present
            An open hand
            Means nothing
            To a child
            Who is much more concerned with whether that hand is held or
            shaking

            Cause when she’s only four
            And this hand shake—is what’s left from her “night before”
            There are lots of answers
            But only one question…
            Why? 

Sandi Blanton’s “Watching Little Daryl,” is a lighthearted, yet profound, meditation on the ordinary as a doorway to the eternal.  The vehicle for this journey is “a tiny black and white kitten/sleeping on his back/…in its furry tuxedo/ pulsing with the peace/that passes understanding.”  From there the speaker journeys through the “amazing miracle” of “every molecule/lined up perfectly” to create a cat with all the right parts—inner and outer—in good working order.  Contemplating and then entering this mystery, the speaker notes: 
He is dreaming,
riding on the breath,
miraculous prana
lifting and falling
like gentle ocean waves
carrying him deeper and
deeper into nirvana.
I breathe with him
lifting, falling
pulsing, throbbing
in, out
up, down
searching
for my own heaven.

Kenneth Guerney is an Albuquerque poet and editor of the New Mexico poetry anthology Adobe Walls. His satirical poem, “Becoming Impossible,” offers a different twist on the miraculous. Is it coincidence that the human speaker, suspicious of eternity, limits his poem to 7 quatrains—a number just shy of 8, which, on its side, is the symbol for infinity?  Numerology suggests that the number 7, uneven and therefore unbalanced, resolves itself into the even and complete number 8.  Not only does the poem’s content impede such a resolution, the structure of the seventh stanza, with its break away last line, impedes it as well. 
The speaker begins by noting his attempted “walk on water trick” which he “thought a good compromise start/ for my real goal of walking on air.”  His gymnastics meander through “bend[ing] light around my body,” which he says is “as easy as learning/ the mariner’s manual of knots.”   In the next two stanza, the speaker references popular science to elucidate his failed attempt to fly, which, “gave me the idea/ of walking on air.”  The poem goes on:           
            It has something to do with my Roadrunner mentality
            and the successful assertion of ignorance
            in the meaningful accomplishment of what might,
            otherwise, be considered impossible.

Now, what are some popular associations with “Roadrunner?”  Well, if you live in New Mexico as Guerney and this reviewer does, you will on occasion see one of the long, tall, Roadrunner birds race along the sand or tarmac from point A to point B.  I am thrilled each time I encounter one of these unlikely creatures and am never quite sure if it is running away from or toward something. Although the Roadrunner can fly to a perch or over an obstacle, it is predominantly ground- dwelling, like the poem’s speaker. 
Perhaps you also recall the Looney Tunes cartoons and the eternal struggle between Roadrunner—that speedy bird—and Wile E. Coyote who inevitably suffered what should have been fatal encounters with Roadrunner.  Yet, Coyote repeatedly comes back to life only to be outsmarted time after time.   Roadrunner often has something to do with Coyote’s would be demise.  Coyote was the trickster predator, but Roadrunner, with his carefree enthusiasm, always did him one better.   The speaker in this poem shares a devil-may-care defiance with this Roadrunner.
More recently, there is the Roadrunner high speed internet cable company that services parts of the US but they do not service New Mexico so it is not likely to be an association in this poem.  Still, the image is apt for an internet company since users do manage to “fly” in the infinite ethers while never actually leaving the ground.
In the last quatrain, the speaker reveals that what he is after is assurance that he will not be tricked out of an abundance here by false promises about an abundant afterlife.  
            My true goal is to visit heaven before death
            and make sure there is plenty to go around
            of the promised riches of the afterlife

            before I join any one religion over another. 

How does one “visit heaven before death?”  Perhaps by seeing the universe through the wave-particle relativity of quantum mechanics referenced in the poem’s fifth stanza.  Perhaps through a Roadrunner mentality, that looks for heaven on earth and refuses to take promises of the hereafter more seriously than the abundant fun of now.
Mortality and the march of the generations is the subject of Don McIver’s poem, “The Awning.”  Well published, McIver is also a slam poet who has organized and performed at poetry events across the country.   The poem’s first stanza recounts the speaker’s childhood experience of his father, “a being capable of anything.”  By stanza two, the boy has become a man, as strong and competent as the remembered father.  Indeed, the son is now stronger than the aging father who, by the third stanza was “tired/wanted to call it quits…/but I insisted.”  The son drives the father as he once felt driven by the father to perform, achieve.  Father and son reach a kind of accommodation:
            He plugged away, though watched me work more often than in the
            early morning hours.
            And we did as much as we could with the materials at hand.
            In a small town, 60 miles from the next bigger town,
            we were stuck.
            This suited him fine,

In the next lines, the speaker implies his frustration with these limitations as he
            …looked at the mass of wood, crossbeams, canopy pieces, bolts,
hoists, nails
and knew I was strong.”   

The son has displaced the father and the speaker seems to feel some satisfaction about this.  However, the last couplet reveals the speaker’s deeper ambivalence about two things:  the price of being a “strong” man and the sadness about the once omnipotent father’s aging—and, by implication, the speaker’s inevitable aging.
            I was the body that my brain could still abuse.
            And my father, once capable of anything, was old. 

One is left with the impression that an inevitable part of being a man is to dominate and drive one’s body—even to the point of abuse—in the service of a will to achieve.  Just as inevitable is the diminishment of this ability to challenge limitations as one ages.  In its own way, each is just as sad as the other.   While this poignant poem stands strong on the father/son story, the twist in the last couplet introduces a stunning depth.   
Carol Moscrip is a published poet and teacher of creative writing in high school and college.  Her poem, “Shadows,” takes the reader back to the speaker’s childhood experience of her father’s return from World War II.    This poem is of particular interest to me as a former Army Nurse and spouse, mother of a soldier, and leader of writing groups for active duty military service members, veterans and family members.  In this free verse poem, Moscrip beautifully captures how the realities of war affect families as well as military personnel. 
Moscrip’s poem has the dream like quality of early childhood memories—memories of the speaker’s four year old self during World War II.  Indeed, the speaker’s first reference is to a dream.
            It must have been
            an anonymous tip
            in a dream
            that woke me

Capitalization is reserved for the first word of each line, the first person “I”, “Mother”, “Father”, home description (“Victorian”), and place, (“San Francisco”).  Punctuation is sparing and there is no period at the end of the poem’s sixty-six lines.  “Shadows” mirrors the experience of families who currently have family members in the military just as accurately as it represents the speaker’s experience so many years ago—the worry for the one in danger, the effort to connect through imagination when distance makes touch impossible, the tensions and challenges of reunion, the desperate, private whispers in the dark and the “everything is OK” daylight face shown to family members and the public alike.
The second stanza begins, “[a] whisper of light/drew me down,” the “whisper of light” echoing the whispers that the speaker was not supposed to hear, and soon wished she had not heard.    The next two lines describe the “generous…Victorian house/where we lived…during the war.”  Then the speaker breaks into a description of her fears during the war—of blackouts, of the “whistles of bombs,” even “the sudden flashes of star! star! star!/in the utter night as though pitched/ into the sky by my fear of dark.”  As a four year old, all the speaker knew of her father was what her Mother had told her—that he “could see the same stars, too, /wherever he might be—. “
Then the fateful night of the “anonymous tip” and the “whisper of light” that compelled the speaker, “despite the dark” to tiptoe
            …past Mother’s pale floral
            chair and Father’s overstuffed one—
            which meant his presence
            and his absence through those years—[.]

The “single shaft of light [cast] its spot…/Mother sat bolt upright/ with an electrified stare.”  The light has gone from a whisper to a glaring, electrifying spotlight illuminating the paradox—to wife and child—of a returning hero/husband/father who “held his head and wept,/ just come home from war to find/ the savings all spent.”  It is not clear how much his tears are over his combat experiences or his fractured dream of returning home to peace and prosperity.   It is striking how common the problem of management of finances remains for military couples.  It may be that the military person unrealistically imagines the accumulation of bank balances, forgetting the financial realities of civilian life.  Or it may be that the home-side spouse has indeed mismanaged funds the military spouse earned by risking his/her life.  Of course, during World War II, almost all of the stateside spouses were wives.  Now, it could just as easily be a husband as a wife. 
Whatever the case, the home a combatant returns to is not the home s/he left.  Nor is the combatant who returns the same person who left so many months before.  It certainly is not the home s/he daydreamed about returning to, even if the physical structure is solid and intact.  Even when the home spouse has managed things responsibly, there are home side “bombs” that drop on most reuniting families.  This poem contains no sentimental stars to wish upon with a na├»ve faith that one’s wish will come true.  This poem is full of “the sudden flashes of star! star! star!”—three stars for the three star characters of the poem.” 
It is all too much for the young child who, like a startled little animal, ran “[s]currying in panic back upstairs,/ [and] ducked under my blanket/lest he know I saw his tears.”   Even at her young age, the speaker knew seeing the tears was as dangerous as the fact that they were shed.  Perhaps the parents also received and “anonymous tip” because, at least in the poem, the Father quickly looms in the bedroom door,
            the huge shadow of his anguish
            stood there for a moment looking in
            as I, curled up in my bed
            like a shrimp on a platter,
            pretended to be asleep…,
bit down hard on my fear
            of this big person in my house
            crying like a child[.]

The language in these lines is compelling.  Father is not a man but a “shadow of…anguish.”  The child, “a shrimp” as a child is often called, has become not only a small person, but a morsel to be served on a platter as so many children are served up to help solve problems in their parents’ relationship, or served up to carry emotional burdens their parents cannot carry “well enough.”  There’s no blame here, just a stunning description of how frail children can feel devoured by the sufferings of their frail parents. 
The child’s experience of the father as intruder magnifies as she wonders, “where would he sleep, not here in my too small bed.”   These lines caught my breath the first time I read this poem.  Were we going on to memories of sexual abuse?  Thankfully, this was not the case for, “after a silent moment he moved on/…[to take] refuge in my mother’s room.”   Interspersed with the child’s recollection of events, are lines that must surely grow out of the years of the speaker’s internal replaying and reflection upon this pivotal  experience, for though the child may have had a visceral apprehension of the situation, a child could not formulate the astute observations about the father that follow.
            …like any other child
            distraught at night
            he took refuge in my mother’s room
            where she would know how
            to quiet his sobs, …

The vulnerability of this warrior Father has exposed his despair and child-like need for solace.   The child imagines him being comforted by Mother, much the same as Mother has comforted the child, and perhaps in his fragile state, that was the comfort offered.  However, an adult reflecting on this observation likely imagines the comfort and maturing influence of long unavailable sexual congress between this long separated couple.   Even as a child, and certainly as the reflecting adult, the speaker “knew/ that I could not comfort him.”  Only now does the speaker tell us that this is “my first memory of him ever.”  Clearly, it is a memory burned into the speakers psyche and one that shaped her psyche as she matured.
It is fitting that the child’s awareness of the father is as a shadow for the father who returned from war was a mere shadow of his former self and the child’s imagined hero.  After three dreamlike stanzas describing war related trauma,  
            [t]he light of day did come
            but could not bleach out that shadow
            of the night before,
            now permanent at my bedroom door
            this solitude he brought home from war[.]

This solitude, so powerfully imaged as a dark shadow in a doorway that cannot be lightened, moves the father from fragile to intruding to remote.  What a meal for a “shrimp on a platter” to digest!
Then, as now, adults often act as if these surreal events—the war, the tearful homecoming, the financial crisis—never happened.  Friends gather.  Father talks of a swing and a dog for his little girl and likely never again talked of his crisis with such vulnerability.  What is the dream here—the crisis of the night or the illusion in the daylight.  
But bodies, especially young ones, are exquisitely attuned to discrepancies between verbal and non-verbal messages, between what is said and what is viscerally communicated.   And so, the child “stood transfixed as if posed/for a photo, anxiously curious” about which reality held the greater truth—“the sunlit room” that put a bright face on everything or the Father’s “shadow seated at the same place.”  A shadow relegated to the shadows, it is “now small upon the wall” even though it held his immense pain, which the child had witnessed the night before.
Moscrip’s poem depicts how people can attempt—and fail—to bury agony in ordinary life.  At the risk of charges of political incorrectness, Aaron Trumm’s  persona poem, “Walking Dead” brings a woman’s agony,  in a militant  Muslim culture, into the light.  At the anthology‘s celebration event last March, Trumm’s delivery of the poem from memory was riveting.   Trumm is another published, slam poet who has competed nationally.  At one time, he was ranked 10th in America.  He is also a musician and owns an Albuquerque recording studio ( www.nquit.com ).   
“Walking Dead” is an eighty-two line free style poem with irregular rhyme patterns, lines and stanzas.    Punctuation, consisting of a few commas, is sparse.   A couplet begins the poem.  The two lines, together and individually, stitch the poem together.
            I am walking dead today
            mother of six three taken away 

This poem, also plays on the image of hands—mother’ hands that “the cradle of civilization cannot warm.”  Hands that are
… cold from the touch of death
and long to cradle sons’ foreheads
they are withered from three souls gone far from my body
they float
as if they loved still…

I am walking dead today
all my hands can do is pray [.]

Hands that
            …are looking for something to touch
            but they don’t want daughters
            they don’t want fathers
they don’t need a blanket or a pen or a phone
            they need SONS[.]

This same mother who “sometimes …wonder[s] if Allah will not listen to daughters” is “like stone and rain.”  She is a “cold mother shunning her daughters.”    In a culture that values only sons even a mother forgets that she was once a devalued daughter and inflicts the same abuse upon her daughters.  Women perpetuate misogyny as surely as men do.   This mother’s only plea (to whom?) is,
don’t take my SONS
I am walking dead today
my sons are my SOUL

but Islam’s sons are lined up like grains of sand
they blow away before the night comes…

they drop wind and word and nothing for nothing
and sons,
they send no word of aliveness or grief
they say no prayer to their mother
they send nothing home unless ashes
and letters with news
not of heroism, heat and death
only villains
and victims

they only send letters here, if your sons are dead [.]

Though “crazy, desperate birds from the other side of hell /come steady now every night” when the mother cannot sleep she prays,
let me hear nothing,
if silence be the word of triumph

let me see no man again for all my days
as long as no corpse be given to me in the evening
fresh with the smell of blood and lead[.]

But the mother cannot escape the fact that even though she hears nothing,
            I am walking dead today
            no everything is NOT ok
            I am like all mothers with bullets in their bellies
            sons waiting in Allah’s place
            begging to be birthed

only to “walk this fair firm Earth…in their fathers ‘ footsteps” that have become
            …foxholes
            slobber
            dripping
            gushing
            bleeding
            everything naked
            everything in the skin
            standing in their dirty dripping holes
            waiting for the rain
            why?

From beginning to end, the imagery graphically as it progresses from hands, to cold stone and rain, to sand and ashes, to letters, to nothing, to bullets and blood, climaxing in a mother’s despair.
I am bloodier than the dust
            walking dead brained in the wind
            waiting for the dry-eyed sky to cry my sons to me
            mother of six three taken away

            it only rains here, when you’re dead [.]

This is not a poem that talks of redemption.  This is a poem which, by virtue of the stark integrity of its speaking, is redemptive for those with the courage to listen.   The repetition, the rhyming, the rhythm and the imagery propel the reader/listener forward through the heaviness of the topic.  The fact that a son wrote this poem also invites the redemption of other sons and mothers who undervalue their own daughters and womanly suffering.  One can only hope that someday men and women in such oppressive cultures will have the desire, courage and ability to stand for woman’s value and truths.  And while we’re at it, let’s hope that humans will find a way to turn from war as a solution for differences.    
The last poem we will explore is “Gulf Ghazal” by Yasmeen Najmi.  Najmi is an environmental planner and a  widely published poet.  Her poetry reflects her deep feelings for ecosystems.   The poem is set in the Louisiana gulf.  It concerns the physical and spiritual nature of the place and how human’s and the space they occupy impact each other.   In particular, it is a tribute to the life in the Louisiana bayous that mourn the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill.
The ghazal is a traditional Persian form which owes its popularity in English to Pakistani and Indian poets who wanted to reclaim the ancient form.  Strictly speaking, a ghazal consists of unenjambed couplets which share an end refrain (rhadif). The word preceding the refrain is the word that rhymes through the poem. The refrain is set in the last phrase of the two opening lines and repeats at the end of each couplet.  Each couplet must be able to stand alone, in structure and content.  The cohesiveness   of the form is in its structure and pattern.  Another distinctive feature is that the poet refers to him/herself by name in the last line of the poem.   It is a challenging form, particularly in English. 
The “Gulf Ghazal” layout on the page consists of three, rather than two, line stanzas.  It is difficult to know if this was a printing necessity or the poet’s intention.   I would judge the former since, when one examines each stanza, the content and rhythms break nicely into couplets.  Otherwise, Najmi has met most of the technical requirements of the form:  the refrain, “thin places” is repeated verbatim.  The words preceding the refrain rhyme well:  “grow/toes/closed/those/through/below/roux/our.”   There are two minor variations from the formula: the insertion of the article, “the” between the rhymed “closed” and the refrain in the second stanza, and the context and placement of the poets name in the last couplet.  Though it would be nice to have a visual couplet layout for the reader who counts on such things, the variations do not disrupt the texture or flow of the poem when spoken, which is how a ghazal is traditionally delivered.
The refrain, “thin places” is defined in the author’s note as “a physical place on the landscape where the veil between this world and the next is thin—a place you understand intuitively.”  The poet heard this definition on public radio.  The sixth and next to the last stanza indicate the event that likely got the radio people and the poet thinking about thin places—i.e., the gulf oil spill of 2010. 
The play on the phrase, “thin places,” evolves through the poem.  The first stanza describes the “dry stripes between the feral bayous and rivers” where people built.  These were “thin places,” in both structure and atmosphere.     The second stanza describes trees “slumped like old women” and “antebellum lace of moss that filled dikes of sunlight.”  One gets a visual image of the veil between worlds in the definition of “thin places.” 
The third stanza eases us into imagery related to the oil spill.  It follows life forms that “settled in all those thin places” of sky, earth and water as “earth’s blood crept to shore, staining, straining….”  “Earth’s blood” is, of course, the oil pumped from her heart, deeper than the sea.  The fourth stanza magnifies images of wild life, confused by the eruption of oil that that darkened the ocean. 
            Thinking it was night again, eels left their watery nests among the
            breathing roots that held the world together, darting, twisting in the
            flow through thin places.

Again, there is the multi-valance definition of “thin places” here when we imaging thin eels literally passing between and among tangled tree roots and the “slimy” feeling most people get just thinking about eels. 
The poem has three human presences:  the settlers who worked with nature in the first stanza, the implied actors who caused the oil and so confounded nature in the third and fourth stanza, and the local fishermen and a particular cook who populate the last three stanzas.  The fishermen are the “anointed soldiers of Goddess Yemanja”, an Afro-American goddess of the ocean, motherhood and protection, whose name shares sound sense with the poet’s name.    The fishermen “pried the”
paralyzed from gluey graves, wound new levees like chastity belts
around shores, dark clouds and truth spun below thin places.

I find this imagery compelling.  The once fertile and “ferel” bayous have become oily, “gluey graves” for wildlife.  The “chastity belt” of levees implies a barrier against the toxic oil which brings death rather than fertility.  Just as the oil spill and the “spin” of oil officials are “dark clouds,” so also the oil spreads into “dark clouds” along the “thin places” of coast and waterways.   In Jungian psychology, transition places such as coastlines are referred to as liminal spaces—a place where realities meet and vie for dominance, where truth is nebulous and awareness is cloudy.  Najmi describes not only the physical state of the oil infested waters and shores, but also the psychic state of the perpetrators, victims and observers of the disaster.
The last two stanzas ground the generalities of the previous stanzas in the person of  one man in one place, “Old Joe at Boutte’s Bayou.”  Old Joe can fix only a “poorboy sandwich.”  While “poorboy” fare is a southern tradition, the reference also underscores that the oil spill has made poor boys of all inhabitants of the ecosystem. 
When the poet’s name is spoken in the last stanza, she seems to be more a listener than a speaker, which is a transgression against the traditional ghazal formula.  It reads as if she is being told the story, rather than telling it herself to the reader/listener.   I had to read this a number of times before I realized that, by now, the poet is herself in a “thin place” which, if not a new experience, she now experiences it in a new way.  By letting Old Joe be the speaker in the last as well as the penultimate stanza, the poet, Yasmeen, is bowing to a man, a people who have inhabited the “thin space” of the bayous for years, even generations.  “‘In these prowling bayous’ “they know the most about their “thin places.”  It is a break from the ghazal formula but it is a break that creatively serves the poem and leaves a devotee of the form in her own “thin place” as she wrestles with what the poet did here and why.
I selected the seven poems presented here because they deeply touched me.  They also hang together thematically around questions of life, death and eternity even though their style and content differs greatly.    Their quality is representative of the other poems in Fixed and Free, which I encourage the reader to discover.                                   
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Caroline LeBlanc turned her energies toward making art and writing after thirty-seven years as a Nurse Psychotherapist.  In September she relocated from Northern New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she enjoys the regular sunshine and the rich cultural community.  Her chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle was published in 2010.  Recent work can be found in War, Literature & the Arts and The Louisville Review.  A former Army Nurse, she continues to lead writing groups for active duty military, veterans and their family members and looks forward to having more time for her own writing and studio work once her home is set up and Lola, her rescue puppy settles down.