Tuesday, June 18, 2019

What We're Reading Now

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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?”

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Anthony Fife touches on Jonathan Fink’s Barbarossa
BARBAROSSA: SONNETS
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.
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Nancy Chen Long is reading Monica Youn's Blackacre
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.

            Necessity
            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”:

11. STATE
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.

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