Friday, September 28, 2018

What We're Reading Now

Flickr/ Stewart Butterfield. Creative Commons (CC by 2.0.) Some rights reserved.

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. And friends, please do share with us what you're reading. We're always looking for good books!

Barry George on Steven Carter's Translations of Buson's Haiku

Stanford University Press, (1993)
ISBN: 978-0804722124

Currently I am making my way through Steven D. Carter's ambitious Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991). Here as elsewhere, one of the poets whose haiku I enjoy seeing in fresh translation is Yosa Buson (1716-1783), the second after Matsuo Bashō in the line of generally acknowledged Japanese haiku masters. Buson's haiku are clear, unified portraits which often pivot on a specific appeal to our senses, as in the following translations by Carter:

A stonecutter
stops to cool his chisels
in the clear water (393)


A camellia falls,
spilling out rain water
from yesterday. (399)

That Buson was as accomplished a painter as he was a poet is evident in the visual and compositional qualities not only in the above poems but also in this well-known haiku:

Spring rain falling—
and talking as they walk along,
a raincloak, and an umbrella. (396)

Buson employs the traditional elements of haiku—a kigo or seasonal reference ("spring rain"), a caesura, and the effect of karumi or lightness—while using the figures of speech "raincloak" and "umbrella" to add a pleasing subtlety.  

Being of a more worldly bent than the spiritual and earthy Basho, Buson ranged more freely about secular topics, such as everyday commerce:

At the house next door,
he's still talking away—
an oil salesman. (397)

This humorous sketch, incidentally, might today be considered more of a senryu (haiku-like poem focusing on human nature) than a haiku; however, that distinction had not yet become meaningful in Buson's time. Carter points out that although Buson "disavowed any ambition of becoming a poet of high seriousness," his work nevertheless produces "a tension that makes them much more than paintings in words" (390). Consider, for example,

A bat flits by—
and the wife from across the street
takes a look my way. (392)

In this suggestive and mysterious poem, we experience the kind of "drama hinted at....but never played out" (390) that makes many of Buson's haiku intriguing. Indeed, these translations, as well as the many—1105 to be exact—other literary selections Steven D. Carter renders in this anthology, show both his critical insight into the work of Japan's literary figures and his delight in the evocative power of words

Anthony Fife on Rita Dove’s American Smooth

American Smooth
by Rita Dove
W. W. Norton 
ISBN: 978-0-393-32744-1

I’d first read Rita Dove maybe seven years ago.  At the time it was her first and second collections, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980) and Museum (1983).  Since I started American Smooth (2004) a few days ago, I realized that, though about two decades separate this book from her first two, not much has changed in one very specific, marvelous way: Rita Dove’s poems seem to want to be read in exactly the way I want to read them.

When her poem pauses, I pause.  When she emphasizes or slurs, I emphasize or slur.  When she stops outright, or breaks line, I follow suit.  It’s almost as if I’m in control, but I know this cannot be the case.  And it not because her breaks are common or predictable, necessarily.  It’s just that when I need room to let something linger, swell or die, Rita Dove allows me that space.  My readings of her poems are the better for it.

This is a rare occurrence for me.  I can think of no other poet who writes (unwittingly) so completely to my tendencies.  It’s bazaar and more than a bit exciting.  

Anyway, American Smooth.  I like this one quite a bit, especially the WWI poems.  Be it Noble Sissle or James Europe, these poems are not only evocative of the era’s music and lingo, but also the cadence of their intellect.  Or so it seems to me.  Authentic or not, I believe it.

Rosemary Royston on Angela Jackson-Brown's House Repairs

House Repairs
by Angela Jackson-Brown
Negative Capability Press, 2018
ISBN: 978-0942544473

I first met Jackson-Brown in the Spalding University MFA program, where she was studying fiction and I poetry. I have since read Angela’s fiction, Drinking from a Bitter Cup, and have kept up with her through social media, which led me to her book of poems, House Repairs. There’s no mistaking the voice in this collection: it is bold, honest, and leaves nothing unexamined. The poems are arranged thematically by sections: House Condemned, House Demolished, House Salvaged, House Rebuilt, with the house being a metaphor for the Self – a Self that was damaged early in life, that lacked a healthy mother figure, and one that confronts what it is to live in America as a Black woman. Like the phoenix, Jackson-Brown takes the reader up from the flames as the persona in her collection redefines and rebuilds herself. An early poem, “A Midwife’s Lament,” sums up what occurs in this collection: “You gotta know you deserve to be happy. / So come on. Let go of all that you’re holding onto / and push.” Letting go of dead weight (in this case, a stillborn) is the metaphor for not allowing our wounds to “fester” and kill us, but to instead expel what is no longer living and birth a new self.

Some of the damage done to the persona in this collection stems from incest, and “Hush,”uses lineation and italics to convey dialogue. As a child tries to tell her mother about what her uncle has done, the mother continually shuts down the child, “Hush? / Hush. / Hush.” Being quiet and compliant is a theme also found in “I Must Not Breathe,” which captures the anxiety and fear when being stopped by the cops as a Black woman. The anaphora of “I must” shows the unrealistic expectations thrust upon the woman, and interwoven within the poem are the repeated lines,”I must not breathe” which equates to not even existing, mirroring the line, “I must be prepared to die.” But this voice does not die, nor does it comply to expectations projected by society. Instead, the persona flourishes, becoming her “own Ezekiel” in “Dry Bones,” by resurrecting herself, and clearly asserting how she chooses to exist, “I will not revamp my attitude so your fear / of my power will go away,” in “I Am Not Your Corporate Mammy.” This persona transcends all, “I am Spirit-Woman. / I am wind-storms,” in the celebratory, “Spirit Woman,” who “...cannot be studied / or understood. / I am life.”

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