Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wild Flight by Christine Rhein

Texas Tech University Press

By the numbers
ISBN 978-0896726215
Publication: 2008
Total pages: 120
Number of poems: 47


It was the fabulous Molly Peacock, one of my mentors in Spalding's MFA program, who introduced me to Wild Flight and the multifaceted poetry of Christine Rhein. In addition to the recommendation-review below, I also had the opportunity to interview Christine. Click here for the interview and to read more about her.
Nancy Chen Long

Christine Rhein's debut book
Wild Flight takes the reader on no ordinary journey, from World-War II Germany to contemporary Detroit. To keep us securely fastened in our seats, Rhein provides threads of continuity, most notably through a layering of various facets of flight, such as refugees fleeing

their homeland, the flight of bullets in Detroit, flying in an airplane, a two-year old flying “his bright red helicopter / through the sunshine of the room” (“Hero”) and birds, birds everywhere. 

Rhein weaves in other elements as well—the motifs of war, of nesting, and of children/childhood. She engages the reader with juxtapositions: kindness in the face of cruelty, the mix of science and art and the daily news, the precision of mathematical logic applied to violence and to the morass of human suffering. Filled with beautifully written poems that lean toward the narrative (the book teems with stories), Wild Flight flows smoothly from start to finish.

The subject of the first of the five sections in Wild Flight is war. The bulk of the poems in this section are about Rhein’s father in WW II Germany, when he was a child fleeing his German homeland with his family.

The first poem, “Gift,” pulls the reader in with a story about Rhein's father when he was a schoolboy and a certain Russian POW that worked in a park that the boy passed on his way home from school. One day, the POW whispered “Brot, Brot” to him, and in response, the boy hid his butter sandwich behind a tree. Day after day the child hid his lunches behind the tree for the POW, German guards so close they surely must have seen him. Decades later, Rhein returns to that very place with her father, “the tree—grown huge now.” Her father recounts “that afternoon when he found a toy, / a little wooden gun, propped against / the trunk” of the tree, carved and left there by the POW. In the last stanza of the poem, Rhein tells us that she likes to imagine that the POW could see her father smile when he found the wooden gun—she likes to think that the POW “lived / to carve another make-believe / pistol” for his own son.

Rhein includes a number of persona poems in this collection, and in this first section, there are poems written in the voice of her father, for example “What I Wished for at Fourteen,” which has the epigraph “my father in Silesia, August of 1945.” In this poem, the father, hunting for deer, follows a trail of blood, wanting “to be the first to find the deer.” However, at the end of the blood trail, instead of a deer, he finds a man from his village “who had stayed behind” to defend them. In the eleventh stanza, as the father describes the dead man, we experience Rhein’s keen attention to detail, the care she takes to make the father and the scene come alive for the reader:

I did and didn’t want to look at him,
his clothes—shoes pointed skyward,
corduroy pants, heavy jacket,
gray gloves strained at the tips,
fingernails or bones pushing against the wool—
and his head, a naked skull,
empty sockets starting right through me.

While the first section is primarily about the ravages of war and Rhein’s father as a child-refugee, the second section is more personal. Here we turn to the poet as an adult, for example “Exercising to Poetry Videos” and “Self-Portrait, Three-Way Mirror.” 

“Self-Portrait, Three-Way Mirror” has an interesting shape on the page, what some might call a cleave poem. It has two columns—each column is a poem in its own right, and each column-poem is also a self-portrait. Rhein is a former mechanical engineer, and so the first column is a portrait of that engineer who “remembers the rumble: / indoor engines, full-throttle roar … a certain and safe design.” The second column is a portrait of Rhein as “the poet recalling childhood.” As the reader reads across the lines of both columns, a third portrait emerges, that of Rhein as the mix of engineer and poet. Conversely, if one considers the physical layout of the poem on the page to be a “three-way mirror,” then each column is one of those mirrors. And as each column-poem clings to its respective right or left margin, it leaves a jagged empty space in the center. The third ‘mirror’—the one in the center—then, is the white-space gap between the two columns. Each portrait-poem stares at the other on the page, across the chasm of that blank center-mirror.

The second section also includes a number of poems inspired by the news, such as “In the Morning Paper,” which is about Mohammed Sesay of Sierra Leone who had his hands amputated by those in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The speaker of the poem offers details of Sesay’s experience, e.g., “Already he’s relived the moments countless times: Sun-glare / on the machete. A butcher-quick whir. The blade thudding … .” Rhein then juxtaposes the horror of that experience with “He will not see this photograph, his own steady gaze / or mine, as I read, drink coffee, turn the page.” This parting gesture of the speaker—the nonchalance, the turning of the page—is, of course, a commentary on indifference to suffering. There is no self-righteousness here, though, as the speaker openly indicts herself along with the rest of us who are privileged, we who are complicit in doing nothing.

In the poem “Upon Being Asked What I Belive In,” Rhein answers: “I say the pulse of algebra … I say the tangle / of science and poetry.” And tangle she doesRhein integrates science, math, and technology into a good number of her poems. One such example in this second section is the poem “In Code.” (For another example, one from the first section, see the poem "Story Problems" at the end of this review.) The epigraph to “In Code,” taken from a 9/9/2004 Detroit Free Press article, prepares the way for the poem:

It was the complex software created at Michigan’s Gene Codes Corporation that made most of the 1,571 successful World Trade Center victim identifications possible . . . This week the Gene Codes staff is working on Version 137 of the software called Mass-Fatality Identification System, M-FISys, pronounced emphasis.”

Like “Self-Portrait, Three-Way Mirror,” the poem "In Code" has an intriguing shape on the page and is written in two columns. The first column contains snippets of computer code encapsulated between an IF / END IF statement. The second column contains verse. The first two stanzas demonstrate the interplay of code and verse:
If                     the latest shipment,
                        tiny vials cradling
                        flecks of charred bone,
                        pinches of dust
= True
Then                the work of processing
                         presses on,
                         even into dreams

As the poem progresses, the input data files to the computer code are revealed to be the “faces of parents, siblings, children / silently opening their mouths to offer / a swab of their cells, / the tangible scrape / of something carried within.” In the final stanza, the column of the poem that contains the computer code makes reference to an object stream, which calls to mind the coding process of serialization—converting an object into bits so that it can be reconstituted (resurrected) later. Therefore, in the final stanza, hope becomes a serialized object stream, something destined to be flattened, digitized, “packaged in manila envelopes, / in a lipstick or razor, toothbrush or / pillowcase a spouse folded / and smelled for the last time / or maybe the first.”

The third section of Wild Flight continues the focus on the poet-speaker. However, in this section, the bulk of the poems focus on memories of childhood, for example “Leaving East Berlin, 1967 Visit.” In "Leaving East Berlin," the speaker recalls a childhood memory of a particular visit to Germany when she and her parents were harassed by a German government official (“the guard’s fingers opening our suitcase, // touching all the gifts my grandmother had given us”) as they tried to cross back into West Berlin. Through that memory of being delayed, the speaker offers poignant bits and pieces of her maternal grandmother's story: a woman who “now worked as a Toilettenfrau,” who “sometimes slept in a chair / between the two rows of stalls so as not to miss // … any tips, saving / the pennies and wages to buy gifts for her children.”

There are also poems in this third section about children who are not the speaker, such as Middle School Band Concert, as well as “For My Son, at Twelve,” one of several epistolary poems in the collection. “For My Son, at Twelve” speaks of the changing dynamic between a parent and soon-to-be teenager, using the metaphor of football, e.g. Rhein's ending lines to her son: “I still can't grasp the rules, / the shifting line of scrimmage / between us, turns at offense and defense, / your yardage, my fumbles.”

In the fourth section, most of the poems touch in some respect on the poet’s contemporary culture, such as the first poem “The Beat Goes On.” “The Beat Goes On” is a pantoum comprised of lines from pop songs, commercials, and news sound bites. For example, the fourth stanza contains a line from a beer commercial, a sound bite from Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, a line from a Tina Turner song, and a phrase from the Viet Nam era that has come to be associated with the U. S. military and U. S. foreign policy:

When you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all.
It’s the economy, stupid.
What’s love got to do with it?
Winning hearts and minds.

The fourth section of the book also includes more persona poems, such as “Imagining Her Letter,” in which Rhein writes in the voice of Louann Mims, the 78-year-old woman who experienced the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and was featured on NPR’s This American Life, and the poem “Artiste Maurice Bennett Explains His ‘Burning Desire’,” in which Rhein speaks as Bennett, an artist who works in toast (yes, toast—he calls himself the Toastman), regarding his 2001 version of the Mona Lisa made in toast.

While the fifth section continues to offer various considerations of flight, and continues with the motifs of war and childhood/children, the main thread of this section is nesting: home, love, marriage, family.

We can see the mix of all of these motifs and elements in “Flight Path,” the opening poem to the fifth section. In “Flight Path,” the speaker of the poem is flying home with her father after vacationing in Germany. She is sitting next to a young mother who is going to visit her parents in Tusaloosa “to introduce / her six-month-old son to his grandparents.” The young mother spills her story to the speaker: “We live on a base in Germany. / My husband is being redeployed / to Iraq. Nothing I can do but pray.” But the speaker does not reciprocate: “I don’t explain about the hidden layers / under the map of Poland, the farm / that had been my great-grandfather's.” The ambiguity of home that occurs during the displacement time of war, which we saw in the first section, reappears here as the young mother tries to fill out a customs form. She is unsure whether Germany or the U.S. is “her place of residency.”

Also incorporated into the fifth section are the subjects of marriage, and of the nest as home without children, for example “To My Mother, on Her Wedding Day,” an epistolary poem written to the speaker’s mother after receiving photographs of her mother’s second wedding. The photographs show the mother and new husband “blushing after a dozen years / of morning Kaffee, evening Brot.” The speaker shares her joy for her mother as her mother’s face fills the computer screen, “life-size wrinkles, joy—leaving only the merest margin // for worry (his insulin, your lithium … ).” There is movement from flight to a settling into the nest, as the speaker ends the poem: “How good that today / is not a new beginning, another arrival or departure. // Just married.”

The opening poem of Wild Flight is about war, war in the early 1940’s. The closing poem, “Not Another,” is also about war, but war here at the end of the book is contemporary—2005, during the Iraqi War. “Not Another” is a monologue that begins with the speaker saying to herself “Not another bird poem” as she reads Birding Babylon, “the web log of a U. S. soldier in Iraq.” The poem is an exciting (to this reader) foray into documentary poetics, as Rhein juxtaposes entries from the soldier’s blog with her own poetic monologue, his in italics next to hers in plain text. The two together create a kind of call-and-response feel, for example:

A lot of rocket and mortar attacks.
We go everywhere in body armor and helmet.
A day for birding in “full battle rattle.”

What good all the rattling—
the blog, the news, eyewitness and breaking.
Sixty years ago, victorious giant headlines.
Today, “Parade of Troops Celebrate . . .

Rhein uses juxtaposition and ambiguity to enrich her poems and this final poem is no exception. Near the end of this closing poem, the speaker answers her own question, which opened the poem, when she says “so why not write about the strawberry finches / building a nest outside my front window, … .” The responding text of the soldier-blogger concurs—his words are all about the birds “… near an amphitheater from Alexander the Great’s time / a black-crowned night heron, a few little egrets … my first laughing dove,” his bird, the laughing dove, leaving the reader with a final image: laughter and the symbol of peace, both in the face of war.


[a poem from Wild Flight]

Story Problems

A welder in Moldova hasn't been paid in 3 years.
He has 1 wife, 1 child, and 2 kidneys.
Calculate the cost for his travel to Turkey,
the sale of 1 kidney for 30 years' wages.

The Japanese use 12 distinct sets
of words for numbers, based on the shape
of what's being counted. Determine if sacrifice
is a cylinder, a surface, or a bowl.

Compute the likelihood the British soccer player
who bought the kidney fears death
more than the Moldovan does.

Stalin said, A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths
a statistic. Prove his theory using AIDS victims.
Solve for grief in Africa.

Edvard Munch painted different versions of The Scream.
Plot the size of the howls against
the intensity of the blood - red sky.

In 1202 , Fibonacci discovered a mathematical sequence,
the pattern obeyed by sunflower petals, pinecone whorls.
Analyze technology, minimalist zeroes and ones,
for the same kind of beauty.

Your dishwasher breaks on Monday.
At Appliance World, the salesman tells you 3 times
he'll give you free 2 boxes of detergent if you buy today.
If you don't, what is the probability
his family will eat macaroni & cheese all week?

What is the extravagance-to-guilt ratio when a) a multimillionaire
buys a baby-sized Gucci leather biker’s jacket for $1500?
b) you buy a double caffe latte for $3?

Assume Hawking is right—humans, Earth’s kudzu vine,
won’t survive the next millennium unless they colonize space.
Write an equation to show who goes, who stays.

“Story Problems,” © Christine Rhein Wild Flight (Texas Tech University Press, 2008)

Nancy Chen Long works at Indiana University and lives with her woodsman husband and blue-eyed dog in a small cedar cabin in the forested hills of south-central Indiana. At this time (June 2012), you'll find her recent and forthcoming work in RHINO, The Louisville Review, Roanoke Review, and Adanna Literary Journal.

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