Tuesday, June 18, 2019

What We're Reading Now

Commons via Flickr

We're always reading fine works of poetry. This month on Poetry Matters, instead of an in-depth review or interview, you’ll find three quick posts about what books have captured our attention: 
So take a look—you might find that next great book of poetry or a poet whose work resonates with you.

Karen George discusses two chapbooks

I recently finished three intriguing chapbooks: Taunja Thomson’s Strum and Lull (Plan B Press, 2019) and The Profusion (Kelsay Books, 2019), and Sally Rosen Kindred’s Says the Forest to the Girl (Porkbelly Press, 2018).

I’ll concentrate on Thomson’s first chapbook, Strum and Lull, a celebration of, and a meditation on
nature, mythology, art, imagination, language, and transformation. It opens with the title poem, in which “A small girl touches what she thinks of / as the tibia of a tree…This she knows: Eden is ravens / flying esses while the sky agape / looks on.”

These poems contain insects, fish, reptiles, birds, plants, trees, the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), priestesses, mythological and magical beings. This poet sees beauty and interconnectedness everywhere, whether it’s during a morning run, “On the ground: / piece of gum / flattened into the shape / of a swan” or how, when she’s unable to sleep, she sees a dragon and goldfish on the ceiling above her; in paintings by Klimt and Magritte; and in her riveting attention to the natural world, describing crows as “those black candles of winter,” evening as “unraveling yarn of night,” and wheat in wind as “ecstatic / slanting altars.” She also explores the world of loss and grief as part of the web of life these poems deeply embody.

The poems of Strum and Lull flood the senses with dreams, visions, and trances full of color and sound, lush with openness and wildness. Thomson ends her chapbook with the rapturous lines: “know the moon…eat the sky / mouthing the clouds.”

The chapbook Says the Forest to the Girl by Sally Rosen Kindred takes place in the fairy tale world of wolves, crows/ravens, and a talking forest, peopled by Little Red Riding Hood, Sleep Beauty, and Rapunzel, who speak through persona-poems about danger, pain, illness, loss/grief, being lost/finding your way, wildness, escape, memory, and transformation. At its core are these girls/women finding their voice, telling their stories, speaking their truths.

In the first poem, the you, called Girl, doesn’t seem to have a voice—a choir of crows “cry between towers— // work your mouth can’t do.” The poem “Ravenous” speaks of a terrible hunger “To shriek an open- / ing with a call, a caw, a / carcass / song.” In “Said Rapunzel to the Wolf” Rapunzel tells of sisters who “rise / into song, shared words that curled / on our skin.” She goes on to say in breathtaking imagery, “My story starts in the throat. / The throat is a tower: the story climbs out / of that red cage, personal, burning,” and continues with “My story rides you out of here,” and “My story wants time.” In another poem, Little Red says, “Nobody ever told / me a story / where the woman’s / body, mean and squinting, gets / stronger” and repeats the phrase “Nobody ever told me / a story where…” In the final poem, “I Tell What Kind of Girl,” the I begins “There was a girl, once” and continues with “Her longing sang, soured / through heartwood.” The poem, and the book, end with a white door opening “like mercy, like breath, / when she began to tell,” once again repeating the theme of girls/women telling their story.

Sally Rosen Kindred’s Say the Forest to the Girl is threaded with images of the body (throat, teeth, blood, bone, breath, womb, belly), and of doors, windows, wings, wind, roots, nest, and the moon. The poems come alive, pulling us into her haunting world, where Little Red ponders “What is it that waits / inside her, a nest / or a knife, a huntsman / or an open door?”


Anthony Fife touches on Jonathan Fink’s Barbarossa
by Jonathon Fink
Dzanc, 2016 
ISBN: 978-1-941088-55-5

Jonathan Fink’s Barbarossa: The German Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Siege of Leningrad: Sonnets, chronicles the beginning and early stages of the Third Reich’s encroachment into the Soviet Union during the Summer of 1941. Instead of a dry, uninspiring retelling of military history, however, Fink populates his sonnets with characters through which the reader can witness the historic events.

 I’m not deep in the book and therefore can’t offer much by way of comprehensive insight but, so far, I really appreciate the care with which Fink treats his subjects, and the fine line he walks between the humanistic, the artistic, and the informative. For every character suffering, there’s a stark image, and for every image there is a title that schools the reader on the historic, military impetus behind the human reaction.

Fink’s blank verse is mature, it’s articulate, and I wholly look forward to the next page.

Rosemary Royston comments on Savannah Sipple's WWJD and Other Poems
WWJD and Other Poems
by Savannah Sipple
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019

Sipple’s collection of poems is one I’ve read multiple times prior to lending it out to my daughter. As a woman raised in the Bible Belt, there are many ways in which I relate to the speaker of these poems, who must leave behind antiquated and prejudicial beliefs. Acceptance of the self, which in this collection is a fat woman
who must embrace her queerness in a community that is not receptive, is a goal all readers seek, so the poems become universal to anyone on the journey to feel loved and accepted. First comes the anger that rightly takes traditional religious language and turns it on its head, [Our anger is a lantern This little light / of mine], to full acceptance of the self, “Yes, love. Yes, you are worthy,” all while sharing a PBR with Jesus (!), who not only gives the speaker the unconditional love we all need, but also shows the young man side-eyeing condoms what to buy. I’m continually intrigued by the form that several of the poems take -- the use of brackets and white space to convey both emotion and information.

Nancy Chen Long is reading Monica Youn's Blackacre
by Monica Youn
Graywolf Press, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-55597-750-4

Blackacre is Monica Youn’s third book. It was long-listed for the National Book Award in Poetry and is the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award. Youn, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University as well at Warren Wilson College in their low-residency MFA program, is a former lawyer, and so it’s not surprising that legal terminology is peppered throughout the book. ‘Blackacre’ is a legal term used to define hypothetical or unidentified property, similar to the way the term Joe Doe might be used when referencing a hypothetical or unidentified man. Youn offers an example in the NOTES section of the book: “In a legal hypothetical, one might say that John Doe wishes to bequeath his property Blackacre to his sister Jane Doe. Similarly, one could designate other hypothetical properties Whiteacre, Greenacre, Brownacre, etc.”  The title Blackacre serves to set the themes, motifs, metaphors, and images of the book: hypotheticals, land and landscapes—seeds, fertility, trees, bareness—what can be created or destroyed, explorations of belonging and ownership, being trapped, impeded, or imprisoned.

The book is a hybrid of prose and poetry that contains four sections and opens with a prologue poem, “Palinode.” Merrian-Webster tells us that a palinode is “an ode or song recanting or retracting something in an earlier poem” or “a formal retraction.” Starting the book with a backward-looking poem, one that renounces or retracts what came before, surprised me. Obviously, in the book itself, no poem comes before “Palinode,” so I assumed that the poem was alluding to one of Youn’s previous poems or books. That I hadn’t read her previous books did not prevent me from being intrigued by this sparse poem. In the first section of the poem, we are presented with the image of a bird that finds itself falling off of a balcony. Instead of flying safely away as it would naturally do (perhaps having forgotten how to fly), it uses its wings to grasp “fistfuls of / air.”  The second section continues with the panic started in the first, the repeated pleas of “please” giving the retraction a sense of desperation tinged with shame. That we, the readers, do not know what the error-mistake is opens the poem up (and by extension, the whole book) to be filled by whatever error-mistake we bring to it.

The remainder of the book is in four numbered sections. Three of the four sections are poetic sequences:
  • The first section is a poetic sequence of unidentified people being hanged, e.g. “Interrogation of the Hanged Man,” “Portrait of the Hanged Woman,” and “The Hanged Men Reprise.” 
  • The third section is a poetic sequence in which each title follows the pattern ___acre, e.g., “Greenacre” and “Redacre.”
  • The fourth section is a sequence comprised of two poems, both titled “Blackacre.”
 While reading the sequence in the first section, the ‘hanged man’ that immediately came to my mind was the Hanged Man tarot card, with its meanings of self-sacrifice and surrender, the halo suggesting enlightenment, wisdom, or learning. Some of those elements can be found in this first section of the book. Youn provides additional insight in the book’s NOTES section, saying that poems in the first section are “loosely based on Fran├žois Villon’s 1462 poem “Ballade des pendus” (“Ballad of the Hanged Men”) (aka “The Epitaph in Form of a Ballad whichVillon Made for Himself and his Comrades, Expecting to be Hanged along withThem”), which some believe Villon wrote while in prison waiting to be hanged. Among the themes in this section, the one that stuck with me was that of the body and of failure/error, for example, here in the last third of the poem “Portrait of a Hanged Woman”:
            The Greeks
            were wrong.

            is not a weaver,
            there is no spindle

            in her hand;
            it is a woman
            wearing a steel

            collar, wearing
            a stiffly pleated
            dress, which lifts

            to reveal nothing
            but fabric where
            her body used to be.

In poetic sequence of the third section (poems titled “Greenacre,” “Redacre,” etc.), I experience each poem as a landscape or viewpoint. The subjects of the poems are varied, including white noise/light (“Whiteacre [TM Soft White Noise Player]”), Twinkies and urban legends (“Goldacre [snopes.com]”), and a sixty-item list of sounds and actions in one shot of a short film (“Blueacre [The Passenger].”) Trees feature prominently in this collection, even an imagined tree encountered in “Brownacre” that speaks to a marriage in distress. “Brownacre” also serves as an example of Youn’s exquisite imagery: “I wasn’t paying attention: I was watching the thing / you had just said to me still hanging in the air between us, / its surfaces beading up with a shiny liquid like contempt... .” (Side note: She has clever poem in the second section of the book called “Against Imagism.”)

The poetic sequence of the fourth section is comprised of two poems, both titled “Blackacre.” I read the first poem titled “Blackacre” as a poem that considers embodiment, immortality, body-less-ness, and the mistakes and missteps due to being trapped in both time and a body. The second “Blackacre” is a prose/prose-poem sequence that traces through Miltons Sonnet 19 (“On His Blindness”). This “Blackacre” poem might be the title poem for the book?  In it, Youn ponders the last word of each line of Milton’s sonnet, e.g. “The ‘wide’ is always haunted by surprise. In a dark world, the ‘wide’ is the sudden door that opens on unfurling blackness, the void pooling at the bottom of the unlit stairs. ...” (“2. Wide”).

I found Blackacre to be a captivating book. The first time I read through it, I needed to look up a number of references and words, for example, some of the legal terminology. After completing it, I promptly started rereading it and am discovering even more to savor in this second pass. If you appreciate careful language, skillful rhyme and word-play, fine imagery, and intellectually-challenging content, this book will not disappoint. I’ll leave you with the eleventh sequence from the poem “Blackacre”:

To be scooped out, emptied of need and rinsed clean of its greasy smears, pristine as a petri dish on a stainless lab table. Enucleated, the white of the egg awaiting an unknown yolk.
“Yolk” from geolu (Old English: yellow). Not to be confused with “yoke” from geocian (Old English: to be joined together). A yoke is an implement, meant to be used, to fill a need. But where there is no field to be plowed, no wagon to be pulled, why demand a yoke that is useless, needless?
One day the Romans sent for Cincinnatus to lead the republic against the invading Aequian army. He laid down his plow in the field and went to war. When the Aequians surrendered, Cincinnatus spared their lives but decreed that they must “pass under the yoke.” The Romans fashioned a yoke from three spears, two fixed in the ground, and one tied across the tops of the two verticals. Since the horizontal spear was only a few feet off the ground, the Aequians were made to crouch down like animals in order to complete the surrender. This is thought to be the origin of the word “subjugate,” to be brought under the yoke. To bear a yoke is to be bowed down, oxbowed, cowed. One day they laid me down on a gurney, my feet strapped in stirrups, my legs bent and splayed like the horns of a white bull.

“11. State” from Blackacre. All quotes from poems are from Blackacre by Monica Youn. Copyright © 2016 by Monica Youn.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Spoken and the Unspoken: Troubled Articulation and Evolving Selfhood in Heather Christle's What Is Amazing

by Anthony Fife

Heather Christle’s What Is Amazing (2012), published by Wesleyan University Press, reads like a treatise on what it means to be alone in the world.  Divided both physically and rhetorically into three equal but distinct, untitled sections, each one highlights a perspective on interpersonal relationships and selfhood.  Buoyed by rich imagery and highly concerned with form (or lack thereof), the collection is full of characters who, A) attempt to connect with those around them and, B) come to terms with their own identity.  The former, it turns out, is a far more daunting task than the latter.
The first section is equal parts whimsy and longing, like little fairy tales that crop up in the course of daily life.  Despite the inventive spatial setting, the characters themselves are unmoored, much like the book itself is unmoored by an overall lack of punctuation.  Despite these ever-present themes, however, it’s not a depressing read.  Not necessarily.  The collection is saved from the darkest of darks by the duality of fanciful but mundane settings and the tiny glint of hope that so often peeks, small but alive, from between the lines.
In “If You Go into the Woods You Will Find It Has a Technology,” the poem seems to say, “We are not coming together.  I cannot find you from here.”  Whereas the speaker, at first blush, is more or less competent and comfortable with their place in the world, the personified tree is not.  Flashing upon its LED sign messages that read, “grow stronger” and “fireworks effect,” the tree attempts but fails to connect, to convey anything profound or even articulate.  Christle writes, “The tree is the saddest prophet in history / but you don’t tell it that.”  How could you possibly bring yourself to tell it that?  It wants so desperately to connect.
Saying what we want to say is sometimes so difficult.  Even if we can say it, our message often gets lost.  Somewhere in the ether our words and feelings hang, balancing forever, and we know that they might not ever find a home.  The poem ends: the tree “can’t see you and it starts to cry.”
Of course, if the poem’s speaker can read sadness into words like “grown strong” and “fireworks display,” maybe they aren’t as secure as they’d have us believe.
The speaker in another poem in the first section, “Self-portrait with Fire,” is far less able, despite their best efforts, to don the mask of stoicism.  They are quite pitiful, in fact, in their need to explain themselves.  The pleading tone of the poem, of course, isn’t completely due to subject matter.  The rhetorical structure of the poem—it’s almost a confession—is also responsible for the urgency.  The speaker is coming clean after having feebly sought to deceive.  This feature, when coupled with word repetition, shows the emotional lengths to which they will go to be understood.  The speaker pleads.  The “[n]o no no no / no no no” of the first and second lines and the incessant “I” permeating the entire poem evidence profound desperation. 
Whereas these are common themes, not every poem in the first section is so haplessly vulnerable, though usually vulnerable nonetheless.  Toward the end of section one, when “I’ll Be Me and You Be Goethe” rolls around, the speaker is much more assertive, though no more in control.  Christle writes, “[E]verything I do / I do to get more beautiful so you will want / to love me.”  From redecorating a room to redecorating themselves, the speaker is an active agent curating their own existence.  Not a bad way to be, unless you are doing so at the expense of the very things that make you such a potentially strong, unique person in the first place.  This almost-selfhood is mirrored, maybe even created, by the poems’ forms.
A few of the poems in this book are dyed-in-the-wool sonnets.  The bulk of the poems in the first section, however, are sonnet adjacent while never fully taking the plunge.  They fall in the general vicinity of fourteen lines, have a discernible rhetorical shift or “turn,” and attempt to plumb the depths of the human experience, but something holds them back. Maybe it’s the sensibility.  Perhaps the otherworldly nature of the some of the poems pushes back a little too hard against such old-school formality.  Regardless of the reason, many of the poems are able to dwell in that sphere without being stifled by it.  The ever-presence of sonnet-like poems, however, dissipates when we begin What Is Amazing’s second section.
Section two provides a paradigm shift.  Though not as startling as the change we see in the third, section two is a bit older and wiser, though some of the same issues from the first section persist.  Whereas in the first section some of the speakers are quiet and scared, in the second they tend to be much more contemplative in their articulation, attempting something like control, though not necessarily any more successful at interpersonal communication.  In short, both sections display a vulnerability, but the maturity of the vulnerability has somewhat changed.
In “Bash,” the thoughts are there; the feelings are there.  They’ve got it inside them waiting to escape.  The words, however, or maybe just the will to speak them, evade.  Whether feeling love or the mundane, the speaker cannot express themselves.  Christle writes, “I open my ordinary mouth as if to speak / but find there is no voice there.”  Later, the speaker says, “[T]hough I do not speak it / that I love her in the ordinary way.”  The speaker is able to tell us, but unable to tell her.  Misdirected as it might be, it is, after all, a mature inarticulation, which is perhaps the greatest tonal shift differentiating sections one and two.  And is not unique to this one poem.
Though “Up Again with the Night” begins with inarticulation, this time it’s on purpose.  “It’s no good trying to talk to a roof,” writes Christle, “It will only turn away / Better to stand on it / and yell facts at the stars.”   “Up Again with the Night” is a bold, assertive poem.  In other words, the speaker is much more mature and autonomous than a majority of those in section one.  With its “I will be a leaf myself / resolved against sunlight,” and “I’m not sorry / I’m not sorry,” the poem is far more a declaration of selfhood than a whimper of solitude. 
As void of punctuation as the first section, and as singular in its narrative focus, the second section shows the other side of sentience: the standing up, for better or worse, and owning our identity.  And in some cases, even trying to change it.  This new, mature speaker, however, does little to prepare us for the third section, with its deep imagery and overall defiance of being approachable in the mundane way. 
Section three is challenging, requiring a more patient attention and a willingness to leap a bit further to reconcile certain juxtaposition.  But Christle, exercising her poet’s craft, helps us along the way—the most obvious bit of guidance, aside from the punctuation, being the use of multiple stanzas.
Just like the new presence of punctuation, the fact that the poems are now broken up into more than one piece plays a significant factor in how we are able and allowed to read them.  The poems are different because of punctuation and their physical form, yes, but for the same reasons we, too, are different as we navigate them.  Being given the clearer, more concise roadmap renders us a bit more competent to make our way through poems that, frankly, are far more opaque.  Opaque, that is, if our overall goal is to discern something like concrete or literal meaning.  Fortunately for us, Christle’s multiple stanzas, or maybe I ought to say the empty space between the stanzas, provide us the direction we require to reach a destination.
Couplets are the most common reoccurring form in section three, so much so that, despite the outliers, the two-line form comes to define the third and final section of the book.  One such grouping of couplets, “Last Time I Wore This Sweater,” shows just how beneficial the space between the stanzas can be.
The unpunctuated couplets slow us so that each syntactical unit garners our full, thoughtful attention. Christle writes:                                  
                        That morning when weather erased the mountain
            and I kept talking into the white like an American

            and could see nothing I then rubbed the feeling
            that all the data I had collected (the white) (the

            mountain) (the talking) was draining away through
            this vast and new hole with which I coincided
How unsatisfying would the word “America” be with no blank space trailing behind?  The fact that the stanza ends (we could fall off it like from a cliff) lets the reader linger on the word; it resonates.  The richer for it.  By taking our time, new, deeper meanings are gleaned.  I won’t trouble you with my own interpretation of the line; suffice it to say, I’m allowed to run with my own interpretation because of the void between the first two stanzas.  To quite a different end, we could similarly discuss the space between the second and third stanzas.
            The enjambed, parenthetical line and stanza break between lines four & five is just plain weird.  Whereas the first few lines read much more smoothly and prose-like, once the parentheses descend upon us, we must rethink matters drastically.  We don’t know quite what to do with it, and perhaps the poem doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.  The poem gets strange and so the reading is supposed to get strange.  Or at least different.  Our way of thinking must change if we are to accommodate the poem’s own change.  But to assume it’s all about guiding us would be foolish.  Sometimes the stanza breaks, especially when coupled with a lack of punctuation, allow us to make our own decisions.
            Choices abound in “What Will Grow Here,” a poem for which couplets serve to provide us multiple avenues for exploration.  Christle writes:
                        another miracle is
                        to forget

                        in the garden to find
                        nothing with a name

                        to pass on through the green
                        as if it were an hour

                        gathered together by glass
                        as if to breathe

                        were to take apart the sky
                        and why not

                        if everything is moving
                        and down in your gut
                        there is that
                        borrowed blue
Where does one syntactical unit end and the other begin?  Are these lines end-stopped or are they enjambed?  Sometimes, like between the first and second stanzas, we can imply punctuation for ourselves: “Another miracle is to forget in the garden—to find nothing with a name” or “Another miracle is to forget—in the garden to find nothing with a name.”  If the former, the stanzas are knit together much more tightly, and we must read them as such.  The latter choice, on the other hand, lets the first two stanzas hang independently, floating in their own orbit, letting us linger as long as we like before moving on to the next.  The importance of that space, or lack thereof, cannot be overestimated.
We have several such choices in the poem, each decision tethering us to a different breath pattern or set of implications.  Yes, the sum of our experience is a major factor in determining how we’ll receive a poem, but artistic creation is not passive.  The best poet nudges us, often without letting us know that we have been nudged.  Toward what destination does “What Will Grow Here” nudge?  Maybe the freedom to go our own way (within the poet’s framework) itself is the nudge.
Poet-craft aside, the two poems printed above in their entirety dovetail nicely with the theme running through the rest of the book—namely, inarticulation.  In the former, the speaker articulates into a void.  No one there to hear it.  In the latter, the speaker recommends a letting go of knowledge and communication.  We should all be lucky enough sometimes, the speaker says, to pass untouched through life, if only for an hour.  The urgency of the incessant “I” and the pleading “no, no, no” is replaced, peacefully and quietly, with “why not?”  And in reaching this point, the collection has completed the arc. 
Three sections, three distinct sections, make up Heather Christle’s What Is Amazing.   Each, however, despite their differences, speak toward the same element of human longing.  From the almost-reality of the cover art, to the speakers unmoored by their lack of punctuation, the psychic transition is palpable.  Across the three stages—urgent longing, assertive declaration, recognition and acquiescence—we step slightly more toward security, though some things won’t be resolved.