Sunday, January 13, 2013

What We're Reading Now

Since we've been reading lots of fine work lately, this month on Poetry Matters, instead of an in-depth review or interview, you’ll find four quick posts filled with book-candy: 
So take a look—you might find that next great book of poetry or a poet whose work resonates with you. And friends, please do share with us what you're reading. We're always looking for good books!

 Barbara's Chapbook Recommendation

A Brief Natural History of an American Girl

by Sarah Freligh
Accents Publishing, 2012
2012 Accents Publishing Poetry Chapbook Contest Editor’s choice award winner
ISBN: 978-I-936628-14-8
Accents Publishing, Lexington KY

A Brief Natural History of an American Girl by Sarah Freligh is all that the title promises, and then some. Brief (alas!), offering a wholly natural first person portrait of a girl in literary landscape vividly American and tangibly reminiscent of the 50’s and 60’s. The references, evocations and vignettes summon my own American girlhood of that same period. Here is the post WWII era deromanticized, an engaging subversion of the Nelsons and the Cleavers. The book is a stunner, in every sense of the word. However, no matter the decade or cultural window through which the poems are framed, most any reader can relate to the awkward, the confusing, fraught, exhilarating nature of youthful self-discovery.

This is the true stuff of growing up: languishing in the back seat during the endless family car trip, fantasizing about Davy Jones, about “doing it,” teenage pregnancy, the naïve response to sexual harassment (“I was sixteen and didn’t understand/yet how life can kill you a little/at a time. Still, I kissed him back”): all moving parts of girlhood. Freligh presents her journey from a wry perspective; looking back on her particular yet universal tender years from a middle-aged woman’s knowing wink and sensitive edge. Her voice is authentic, unyielding, carrying a great sense of spontaneity. Yet beneath the seeming automaticity of the lines lay carefully crafted poems: analog, ekphrasis, the boom of prose blocks, couplets, tercets, free verse. She achieves the tricky pairing of the natural speech line and considered technique rendered inconspicuous by the immediacy of lines like “. . .clatter of engine,/rev of cells: oh axons : oh dendrites.” (“Old Flame”).

A Brief Natural History sketches a life journey whose point of departure is girlhood, whose mode is memory, and whose imprint is indelible. The poems are freshly rendered yet tempered by the wisdom of a mature speaker (self-deprecatingly yet affectionately described as an “Old hen: all fruitless//tubes and bristled/chin” in “Depending”). The collection is a compelling narrative which this reader drank in in one captivated sitting. Freligh has given us an entirely original collection whose coming-of-age theme knits these poems into a throw of unadorned retrospection, at once heartbreaking and humorous.

Caroline, Writing for Your Life, Poetry of Witness

For several years now, I have, at different times and in different places, offered ongoing writing circles called Writing For Your Life © for active duty troops, veterans and their family members.  Currently, I lead a weekly circle for women veterans at the VA hospital in Albuquerque, NM and am preparing for two structured programs about women’s writing and war. * As a teacher, veteran and military family member myself, I am always on the lookout for poetry about these experiences. 

Currently, I am reading clamor, by Elyse Fenton.  The book won the 2009 Cleveland State
University Poetry Center First Book Prize.  In 2008, Fenton also won the Pablo Neruda Award from Nimrod International Journal.  clamor’s  fifty love poems explore a woman’s feelings and pre-occupations from the beginning of her fiancé’s Iraq deployment to his return and the lingering emotional aftermath of the deployment.   

The book begins with the speaker’s contemplation of a combat related experience her fiancé reported to her, in the book’s first, stand-alone poem. “Gratitude, “previously published in Best New Poets 2007.

          Wreckage was still smoldering on the airport road
          when they delivered the soldier—beyond recognition,

          seeing God’s hands in the medevac’s spun rotors—
          to the station’s gravel landing pad.  By the time you arrived

          there were already hands fluttering white flags of gauze
          against the ruptured scaffolding of ribs, the glistening skull, and no skin

          left untended, so you were the one to sink the rubber catheter tube.
          When you tell me this over the phone hours later I can hear rotors

          scalping the tarmac-gray sky, the burdenless lift of your voice.
          And I love you more for holding the last good flesh

          of that soldier’s cock in your hands, for startling his war blood
          back to life.  Listen.  I know the way the struck cord begins

          to shudder, fierce heat rising into  the skin of my own
          sensate palms.  That moment just before we think

          the end will never come and then
          the moment when it does.         
Section I consists of lyric poems concerning the time of the fiancé’s deployment.  Most have to do with an event in Iraq.   Several relate the speaker’s concerns to those of Dante’s classic and Greek Mythology.  One such is “Refusing Beatrice.”

           Dante needed a whole committee—
           Beatrice, Lucy, Virgil—to guide him
                                                    down and back, even though hell
           was a known descent, a matter of pages, a book
           ending in certainty with a hero seeing stars.

                         You’ve got no itinerary.  Just an armored car
                                       to ferry you down the graveled airport road, a Chinook

                                                     gut-deep in the green swill waiting to dislodge.

           Maybe it’s time to stop comparing—
           I could never be Beatrice, couldn’t harbor such good faith.

                        And I won’t be there in the Tigris basin to watch
                                      heat flake cinders of paint from the Chinook’s body
                                                                                       like a rug shook out

                           or see it hasten to sky’s surface
                                                                    like an untethered corpse—

           My curse or gift is blindness;
                                         I’ve never read this story before.

                     And if the updraft’s whirlwind
                                     doesn’t make the sniper miss, if your helicopter lifts
                                                 From Baghdad as doomed as the Chaldean sun,

           I won’t be there to see the wreckage
                               or papery flames, the falling arsenal of stars—

Section II consists of prose poems about the realities of return, reunion and ruminations about loss endured and escaped.  Section III begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno when he returned from hell to “once more [see] the stars.”  It deals with the joys and challenges of picking up a life and relationship after the separations and traumas of war and worried waiting for the lover’s return from war.  The joys, as small and bright as stars, and the challenges, as large as the night sky, are lyrically explored in poems that take the reader on a PTSD type roller coaster.  Grief and guilt contaminate even the happiest moments of reunion.  “Infidelity,” the section’s last poem is startling in its conclusion.

                When you were in Iraq I dreamed you
                dead, dormant, shanked stone

                in a winter well, verb-less object
                sunk haft-deep through the navel

                of each waking sentence.  I dreamed
                myself shipwreck, rent timbers

                on a tidal bed, woke to morning’s cold
                mast of breath canted wide as a search light

                for the drowned.  Dreamed my crumbling
                teeth bloomed shrapnel’s bone light

                bricks mortared into a broken
                kingdom of sleep where I found you

                dream-sift, rubbled, nowhere.
                Forgive me, love, this last

                infidelity:  I never dreamed you whole.

The last poem, “Roll Call,” stands alone at the end of the book, just as “Gratitude” stood alone at the book’s beginning.     I read it as a tribute to loved ones who did not return, a testimony to the never ending fear of losing the beloved and a reverent acknowledgement that, for each of us, that loss will come, even if not premature or through the vagaries of war.

                No matter the details.  It always ends
                at the sweat-salt metal of your un-
                answered name.  Twenty-one triggers
                and twelve-hundred bit down tongues.

                Last clamor of the swan-beaked rifle.
                Last unmuzzled  throatful of air.

clamor contains poetry of witness touched by the proximity of the loving witness.  Many in our country give little to no thought to the fact that we are still at war, still sending troops into harm’s way, still calling on their loved ones to wait  in near despairing uncertainty, still bringing home traumatized troops home to bewildered and differently traumatized loved ones—parents, siblings, lovers, children.   It is my hope that these graphic poems, tenderized by  lyric beauty and loving tones, will invite readers to share in the realities which they witness.

* WRITING FOR YOUR LIFE: A Writing Circle for Women with Ties to the Military is a six hour workshop I will offer as part of the Women and Creativity celebrations sponsored by the National Hispanic CulturalCenterWomen, Writing, the Military and War is a six week review and discussion of women’s war related writings offered through the University of New Mexico’sContinuing Education OSHER Institute .  

 Karen's Mini-Review of See How We Almost Fly

I was first introduced to Alison Luterman when I read her poem in the January 2010 issue of The Sun, "Because Even The Word Obstacle Is An Obstacle," which begins with the line, "Try to love everything that gets in your way." That poem led me to buy her second poetry collection, See How We Almost Fly, selected as winner of the 2008 Pearl Poetry Prize and published in 2010 by Pearl Editions. The foreword mentions that Luterman's first collection, The Largest Possible Life, won the 2001 Cleveland State University Poetry Prize.

The poems of See How We Almost Fly cover a diverse range of subjects such as poverty, homelessness, greed, bullying, rape, quilting, Olympic gymnastics, massage therapy, fireworks, relationship problems, grief, prison, and capital punishment, in such varied locales as Alaska, Africa, and Haiti. But there are common motifs that thread throughout this collection to give it a pleasing sense of continuity: privileged vs. deprived; innocence vs. worry, fear, shame; love vs. loss and grief; joy and hope vs. despair; and success vs. failure.

Music, dance, and art are also weaved into many of these poems, as a means through which the poet and her personas find release, solace, and hope. There are also repeated images of flying that connect with the collection's title, See How We Almost Fly, just one example of how the poems celebrate the resilience of the human spirit.

Luterman's poems are full of beautiful and unusual imagery, as in the poem "Rooster": "At the first crack/in dawn's black eggshell,/my neighbor's rooster crows/with a voice of rusty tapwater." In her poem "Liar," she writes, "Sun lay a lascivious tongue/along the blonde hairs of my arm." "Song" honors a woman singing while she cleans an airport restroom, in a voice "thin and sweet and a little blue,/like the first spurts of a new mother's milk." She describes a gymnast in "Young Girl at the Olympics" as "Like a salmon leaping upstream to spawn,/Her sleek body unfurls/ Impeccably through the absence/Of matter." But what I found most compelling and at the same time haunting in Luterman's collection, See How We Almost Fly, was her compassion, her sense of longing, and her unflinching honesty that resonated throughout the poems.

 From Nancy's Bookshelf

I recently finished re-reading for the third time The History of Anonymity (University of Georgia  Press, 2008), Jennifer Chang’s first book of poetry, which was selected for the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Poetry Series and was a finalist for the Shenandoah/ Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers. I love this book filled with lyrical poems rooted in myth and fairy tale, haunting, sometimes frightening, poems. (Her quiet, yet hair-raising poem “Obedience, or The Lying Tale” was included in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006: 19th Annual Collection.) The History of Anonymity is mostly imagistic—evocative images, remarkable use of language. There’s not much in the way of direct narrative, although one certainly gets bits and pieces. If a narrative takes shape, it does so in a way more akin to Rorschach inkblots, but with words/word-images rather than ink splotches. The bulk of the book centers on the familial relationships of mother, father, and sister, and, as you probably would have guessed, it’s not the Brady-bunch. Here’s my favorite poem from the collection, “Innocence Essay.”

The book I’m in the middle of reading right now for the first time is Litany for the City (BOA Editions Ltd., 2012), Ryan Teitman’s debut book of poetry selected by Jane Hirshfield as the winner of the 10th annual A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. Since I’m on my first read, I’m still learning how to dance with it. So far, I’ve experienced it as a thoughtful, smart, and compelling collection of intimate memories and episodes that cohere around the construct of ‘city’—the city as scaffolding—ripe with biblical references and beautiful language. I’ve just rounded the half-way point and have been captured by two poems in a row, the evocative “Ode, Elegy, Aubade, Psalm,” published in issue 9.2 of DIAGRAM, and the dark “Ode to a Hawk with Wings Burning,” published in 2010 in Sycamore Review.  As some of you might know from my blog, I have a meditation practice of writing certain poems out by long-hand, something about the feel of carbon on wood, the way lead can be erased. These two poems are ones that I am now writing out, so compelling are they to me. I’m not going to say much more about this beautiful book, because I’m thinking of doing a fuller review of it in March.

As for literary journals, I’m making my way through a few, currently catching up on back issues of Rattle and Ploughshares, and reading the latest issues of Ruminate and Michigan Quarterly.  Here are a couple of favorite poems from issue #37 of Rattle: “Property,” by Ace Bogess and “Honeysuckle” by Lyn Lifshin.