8th and Agony by Rich Ferguson

 

8th & Agony
Rich Ferguson
ISBN 978-0-9851293-6-1
Punk Hostage Press
135 pages

Reviewed by Kelli Allen

 

In the introduction to Rich Ferguson’s debut poetry collection, 8th & Agony, Bob Holman writes that “the words come at you like it’s just a conversation among folks, but then it’s like he’s talking thunder.” Yes, thunder, but also the smoothness of a barely recognizable wind, and the sensual wet of steady rain, and the oppressive need of dry dessert heat to occupy every space, every particle of the air. Ferguson’s poems are like that—they are organic, alive, part of an atmosphere we all live within, but seldom take the time to discuss and dissect. His words are for us and –of- us, becoming at once a celebration of the breathing body and also a communion with the words we give to each other—this gift of language from one group of folks to another, from the poet to waiting listener.

It is difficult not to image a shade of Whitman in this collection, which is broken into three sections: Origins & Sin, Journey & Suffering, and Destiny & Enlightenment. Ferguson invokes the desire to be seen as physical presence, to share his personal experience of his relationship to the objects in the shaky, temporal world and then offer explanation and explication for why his own impressions are vital, important. His voice does not allow us to look away from the damaged buildings lining a street, or the damaged women and men swimming through one stage of living into another. There is much of The Hero’s Journey sketched-out in these sections. We can imagine Jung’s bright mandala circling its elephants, horses, bows, princes, maidens, arrows, and gold as we read through these poems.  Ferguson begins his own quest with “Where I Come From.” In this poem he offers us this notion of beginning, of birth, both ugly and visceral, and reverent with quirky abstractions:

I come from Are you sure we should be doing this?

From the Grim Reaper’s belly button lint,
………babbling Scrabble pieces, and an abracadabra thesis.
I come from the vibration of bells;
………bells singing down into
………the places deep inside us,
places deep inside us that say…

Every moment is a breath / Every breath is a word /
Every word is love / Every love is now /
Every now is everything…
 
I come from hummingbird beer burps,
………..from evening’s first song in a cricket church.

The physical body is present in all of the poems in this electric collection. We are given moments of the body’s first pleasures, its anguish, its unpleasant realities, and its closeness to mortality. Ferguson wants us to remember that we are skeletal, and that our own journeys give us flesh. He tells us this while always remembering where the structure begins, as in “Bones:” “Sometimes I feel like I’m filled with bones—/Bird bones/Lullaby bones/bones sung heartbroken and moaning through some/Hangover Radio bones/Dust bones/Shadow bones/Alone bones.” There is Ginsberg in this poem, and some very early Ferlinghetti, and we are treated to Ferguson’s interpretation of the Beat vibe, the roll and swish of the hip as we bounce from short line to short line.

There are stories in these poems, too. Narratives of boy-meets-girl-explodes-in-lust-pain-joy populate the collection. Titles sing their own brief tales such as “Grow Wings or Cease to Be,” “Because of Camp,” and “world without dogs.” Ferguson is above all a storyteller, or rather, a story singer. He uses language to continue our oldest traditions of gifting the tale, sharing the fabric of verse through sound. These poems beg to be said aloud, and more than once.

“we voice sing,” a nod to Philip Levine, functions in style as song lyrics formed into a poem with the backslash signifying breaks in tone, meter, bridges. I think of Etheridge Knight and his sexy swaying jazz poems, which used this same style to make the reader sing the lines, feel the breaths between verses. This oddity in form comes toward the end of the collection and serves as something of a prayer and a call-and-answer for community and togetherness.

There are two prose pieces (“A Dedication” “On Becoming an Urban Legend”) in the collection, coming toward the book’s end, and their language is a departure from the tone Ferguson tapped into throughout the first two sections. In these long blocks, he decides to tell it like is, give it to the reader straight, with language open and engaged:

This one goes out to those whose spines are lightning rods. No wonder the blazing, brilliant light follows you wherever you go. This one goes out to Generation Elation, Generation Elevation, Generation Regeneration. This one goes out to those who can scrape the old, crippling stories from their bones. Make themselves Tabula Rasa. Blank slate. Brand new day. Anything & everything is possible. This one goes out to all the dogwalkers, streetwalkers, freedom riders & freedom marchers. This one goes out to those who are far from homogeneous. (“A Dedication”)

Here, the dedication is to the Reader, the one being given the package containing the lesson, the one with the swift pat to the shoulder, the smile from poet to reader, the author’s heart open, pulsing, pushing his message into the ear. In “On Becoming an Urban Legend,” we are shown a map of sorts, in one long rant with comma after comma, sending the reader down the hole of destructive self pity and illusionary redemption, and sadness that we all know too well. He begins with a single, sharp sentence: “Becoming an urban legend is simple.” The prose is anything but simple. Here, as in no other place in the collection, the reader is given a hard mix of the urban, hot, greasy, -now- of the jumbled, voyeuristic coma we frequently try to claw our way past. This is a sexy block of prose, though a real departure from the high-hopefulness of the collections other poems.

I want to say that Rich Ferguson is a mystic poet living in a city where mystiscm is rarely allowed. I want to say that he gives us something of ourselves when he admits, “Yeah, you and me/ we’re tired of crash-and-burning down/ our bird-bone shrines/ to fleeting time.” I want to say to Rich, Thank you for asking me to be brave, to find the beauty in a broken bottleneck, a wandering feather, in my own regret. I want to say, Thank you for asking me to sing with you, however briefly, and letting me return to your poems, your assertions that we are in this together.

 

 

Rich Ferguson has shared the stage with Patti Smith, Wanda Coleman, Bob Holman, Ozomotli, and other esteemed poets and musicians. He has performed at the NYC Fringe Festival, the Bowery Poetry Club, and is a featured performer in the film What About Me? He has been published in the LA TIMESOpium, and has been widely anthologized. Ferguson is a Pushcart-nominated poet, and a contributor and poetry editor to The Nervous Breakdown. His poetry collection 8th & Agony is out on Punk Hostage Press.

Lines of Flight by Catherine Chandler

Lines of Flight

by Catherine Chandler
Able Muse Press 2011
ISBN:  978-0-9865338-3-9
Pages: 98

Reviewed by: Richard Wakefield

 

 

 

Whatever else our brains do – or our hearts, if you prefer a more figurative view – they seem as ineluctably dedicated to reading meaning into the world as our lungs are evolved to separate oxygen from air. It’s as natural as breathing, this process of seeing things in the fourth dimension of significance. Call it the confluence of the outer and inner worlds.

Catherine Chandler is one of the skilled and discerning few who help us navigate the resulting stream. In place of the fragments of meaning glimpsed by most of us most of the time, Chandler gives us a coherent view of the course along which we speed. The view sometimes enlarges us, makes us more at home in the world, and at others forces us to look a little more soberly at the vast and frightening void toward which we are hurled.

In “66” she contemplates a coincidence of toponymy: “Along Route 66, connected by / a six-mile stretch of road, two towns align; / one bears his family name, the other mine.” A charming bit of chance, it seems, a bit of geography that reflects an emotional connection, the kind of thing we might notice and recall as an anecdote. But Chandler traces its meaning far beyond the trivial. “The decommissioned highway’s gone to hell,” she continues, and the fading connection between the two towns becomes a metaphor for the complex ambivalence of human relationships. The road connects; the road separates. We find that we and those we love inhabit “universes spinning parallel.” That may not be the meaning we wanted, but it’s more true to experience than the facile sentimentality we might have preferred.

Someone noted once that poetry gives us tools for living. A poem like “66” does exactly that, nudging us out of complacency and into an awareness that will better serve us. The poem acknowledges the separateness that we work so hard to ignore, and yet, paradoxically, it makes us a little less alone by assuring us that we are not alone in our loneliness.

What better occasion for sentimentality than Mother’s Day? And what can be more oppressive than the narrow, mass-produced emotions that holidays can impose on us? In “Mother’s Day” Chandler opens a woman’s heart to reveal wounds that the woman herself cannot express; in fact, as she weeps, the tyranny of expectations makes others blind to the real meaning of her tears. There must be no more profound loneliness than that. We understand the woman better than those closest to her, and perhaps we understand ourselves and our own loved ones a little better for it.

“Supernova” begins by asking why we should “dull” the beauty of nature with “a lapse to metaphor / or scientific fact, or myth.” A telling word, that “lapse.” Our need to analyze, to probe beneath the surface of beauty, can feel like a fall from grace (perhaps it was that very need that drove Eve to eat the forbidden fruit which, after all, was from the tree of knowledge). At the conclusion of three stanzas that seem to celebrate the “burnished afternoon” in preference to what she will later call “logic, reason, purpose, cause,” the poet asks, “Why resort to words / when hush will do?” The answer comes in the second half of the poem, where we learn that the speaker has come to scatter a loved-one’s ashes: “…I find / it’s easier to release you, as I must, / less harrowing by far, / knowing that all human dust / was once a star.” How do we live through loss? The Book of Common Prayer, with its “dust to dust,” assures us that our senses get it wrong when we see mortal remains as mere elemental dust; science, teaching us that all elements had their origins in the fires of supernovas, assures us that there is nothing “mere” about dust. Either way, our consolation – dare we say our salvation? — comes in our ability to see more than motes.

A big part of a writer’s inner life is, of course, literature. It is no surprise to find that the meaning Chandler finds in the world is informed in part by her wide reading, just as there’s no doubt that her own poetry will become part of many readers’ inner lives. The epigraph to “Journey” comes from Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook,” a poem about how memory conditions our view of what we care deeply about: “We love the things we love for what they are.” What they are, inevitably, is a palimpsest, one impression written over another and over yet another – the sum of our experience of them..

“New Hampshire Interval” pays explicit homage to Frost. At the farm to which Frost returned after his desperate (and successful) quest for recognition in England, Chandler sees the tangible objects, “his Morris chair,” “the woodstove,” “the frosted trees” he tapped for maple sugar (delightful trope, that “frosted), and she sees them all transformed by her knowledge of Frost’s life and work, hears him “speaking to God about the world’s despair.” Just as Frost himself wrote meaning into the landscape, Chandler writes another page of her own, and for us.

“Vermont Passage” also transforms a landscape, describing the profuse flowers of summer that linger in memory after summer gives way to cold: “I breathe in honeyed memories of clover, / and winter, for a while at least, is over.” We live in two worlds, or many worlds: the literal “bitter night” of winter, along with our memory of what was, which is also our expectation of what will be. Chandler gives texture to the flat world. If there’s any truth to the cliché that poetry reminds us to stop and smell the roses, Chandler’s poetry reminds us that we can also revel in the smells and sights that linger in our recollection. It is the remembered roses we smell most poignantly.

“Lines of Flight” ranges far and deeply. The poems display a craft that is all the more impressive for the way it never distracts us from the scene but, rather, adds a dimension of music and, yes, memorable texture.

 

Catherine Chandler, an American poet born in New York City and raised in Pennsylvania, completed her graduate studies at McGill University in Montreal, where she has lectured in the Department of Languages and Translation for many years. She is the winner of the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. Her poems, interviews, essays and English translations from French and Spanish have been published in numerous journals and anthologies in the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia.

Meeting Bone Man by Joseph Ross

Meeting Bone Man

By Joseph Ross

Main Street Rag Publishing 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59948-355-9

Pages: 90

Reviewed by: Cort Bledsoe

 

 

Joseph Ross has been a staple of the DC literary community for some time as a teacher, activist, and an amazing poet. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Joseph read several times, and he’s always a profound experience. I’ve had the opportunity to read with him more than once, and frankly, I’ve been nervous about it because I respect his work so much. Joseph Ross is a very rare kind of poet, compared to most (including myself). He rarely writes poems exploring his own experiences; his attentions are turned outwards on social issues, on ignored segments of the population, on the abused and mistreated. But Ross doesn’t lecture or seek to rub the audience’s noses in perceived wrongs; he’s simply exposing things that need to be exposed. He writes poems that matter. With more and more of the audience turning away from the self-absorption of current poetry trends, Joseph Ross is a breath of fresh air.

Ross’ debut collection is one I’ve been waiting for a long time. His writing is beautiful and brave. He opens each section of the book with portrait of the ‘Bone Man’ character, an anthropomorphic incarnation of death: “In the end,/ we all lie down in pieces,/in dry and tilting disarray” he concludes. Ross moves to the Darfur poems, a series of portraits of people and objects in Darfur, each imbued with meaning. “Darfur 1: The Boy” describes wrapping a boy’s corpse:

My hands move as slowly
as they have ever moved.

I carefully wrap
the stiff, brown body

of this child,
in a bright orange and blue cloth.

A boy, seven years old,
very old, for here.

Elbows, like crickets’ legs
teeth, luminous white.

The canvas walls of the tent
gasp for air

as the colored cloth
covers his face.

Ross’s imagery is stunning, not just for the power of the subject, but his description: the ‘elbows, like crickets’ legs’, the teeth, ‘luminous white’. Ross is silent in the presence of the body; he doesn’t rant or rail or try to make the reader feel one way or the other. It’s an impressive display of restraint, and further evidence of his talent. Anyone can write a sad poem about a dead child, but Joseph Ross has written a beautiful one.

Another series in the book is the Cool Disco Dan poems. Cool Disco Dan is a graffiti artist in the DC area. Ross uses this topic to not only shed light on an interesting subculture, but with Cool Disco Dan’s subject matter – frequently on social issues – Ross does double duty and further exposes the injustices faced in the African American inner-city culture. “Because spray paint smells/like anger, his name growls/from walls along the train track,” Ross begins.

Ross excels in finding beauty and significance in overlooked places, whether it be graffiti that many would consider vandalism, or in “The Universal Artificial Limb Company” which might be considered a grotesque subject with certainly a tacky building, but which also produces hope and opportunity in tangible form.

In the second section, “Bone Man Loves Parties,” Ross deals with more personal issues: memories of his mother. In “Grieving,” a beautiful contemplation on loss, Ross begins:

Thinking of her
is kind

of a search, a voyage
of looking

for signs and moments,
shadows and gasps

of her.

In these brief lines, Ross captures loss beautifully. His word choice is perfect. I especially like “gasps//of her”; aren’t memories of someone we’ve lost gasp-enducing?

The third section is “Bone Man Goes to the Beach.” In these poems, Ross deals with groups marginalized and victimized by American culture: African American and homosexual victims of violence and oppression. In “Bone Man is Not My Friend,” Ross deals with his father’s illness, among other things.

But don’t think that these are depression poems beating us over the head with that ever-present guilt-inducer “We need to do more!” As Ross says in “When the Dead Stand Up to Sing”:

Their song is not
of blood and breath.

It cannot just stop
like those things.

Their song is of victory.
Their song is of overcoming,

It is not the music of ashes,
clinging to us all.

It is the music of light
breaking through every crack

in every stone.

And Ross does his damnedest to share that light with us.

Joseph Ross is the finest poet I’ve read who wasn’t long dead with several college buildings named after him. There are a lot of people out there publishing writing they’re calling poems, and I might be one of them, but Joseph Ross is a Poet. Let’s hope his work gets the recognition it deserves. Suffice to say, I can’t wait for his next collection.

Joseph Ross is part of the vibrant literary community in the Washington, D.C. area. His poems appear in many anthologies including Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality, Come Together: Imagine Peace, Full Moon on K Street, and Poetic Voices 1 and 2. His work also appears in a variety of journals including Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Drumvoices Revue, and Sojourners. He has read at the Library of Congress and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. An early member of D.C. Poets Against the War, he co-edited Cut Loose The Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib. He founded and directed the Writing Center at Archbishop Carroll High School and now teaches in the English Department at Gonzaga College High School. He writes regularly at JosephRoss.net. 

Otherwise, Soft White Ash by Kelli Allen

 

Otherwise, Soft White Ash 
by Kelli Allen
John Gosslee Books, Sept. 2012
ISBN: 0983365547
Pages: 144

Reviewed by: Melanie Moro-Huber

 

“Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives?”

–Mary Oliver

There is something of Oliver’s “dark acorn of the heart” being broken open in Kelli Allen’s Pulitzer prize nominated debut collection Otherwise, Soft White Ash -poems and other creatures- An intensely intimate view of familial relationships, Allen grabs the reader and throws them right into those “long black branches.”  The poems in this book contain the visceral terrain of memories seeped with traumatic moments sometimes told through the perspective of child dealing with a suicidal mother. Her poems are richly intertextual; they engage the intellect without mucking it all up with sentiment or pushing us too far into the sensational. Using Jungian landscapes in the tradition of imagists like H.D. and with a pioneering approach similar to Millay and Plath (note the occasional nod to Dickinson) there are veins here, literal and metaphorical, bleeding through each page, and yet not in the grotesque voyeuristic style of an ego-driven author content to wallow in suffering. No, there is no inept stuttering of an ultra-confessional “I…I…I, me…me…me” hemorrhaging here; rather the author’s revelations are more of a Rorschach inkblot, evidence of how poetry with insight and clarity will expose the mythologies we are caught in.  The courageous honesty in the author’s approach is surprisingly uplifting and is very relevant to our cynical doom and gloom culture. It makes me believe, even momentarily, maybe poetry’s main purpose is (or should be) a reconciliatory one, overcoming loss through the ability to express that loss: in other words, there is a healing aspect in Allen’s language.

I am not a big fan of narrative style poetry, a technique Allen employs, but many of the lines in Allen’s poems unexpectedly turn in on themselves as she often pays homage to past masters, for instance:

There is an old poem in which Rumi says:
I don’t like it here, I want to go back.
Yet, there is only going up
when the twigs of our soft nests
have become brittle again
in what we know to be heat and sun,
but hope is a round shade of some beloved
eye watching as we climb, climb hard
and askew toward where our dried grass bowl
allowed us careful haven to be born.

As Allen incorporates words from other poems these words become life-lines, if you will, that the narrator seems to hold to and build from as she adopts them into her lexicon; this is one of the ways she delicately elevates each poem from a one-dimensional narrative into a multi-layered, multi-generational expression of art.  I love when a poet honors the tradition, and our poetic history, treating past poets like they are a part of her family instead of just a bunch of old dead dudes from a bunch of old musty textbooks.

Allen’s introduction is a long poetic prose piece called Orphan Near the Cave. Here, we step away from the allegory of Plato’s cave and past the shadows on the wall right into a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale.  Through-out the prose sections in the book the narrator references the story The Wild Swans as a parallel to the narrator’s trials within her own family; a traditional fairy tale to correspond with the fairy tale of the traditional family.

The opening paragraph begins:

“If the egg splits, its sides falling open just enough for the fuzz-capped head of the child to emerge, then the story might be allowed to end.  When the egg is found crushed, wet pieces tucked quickly into the open mouth of the tree, then we have little choice but to begin again.  Often, after peeking through loose fingers held as wings over our eyes, we look for fragments, hoping they remain piled, split and sharded, not growing, as magnets, back together.”

The egg becomes emblematic of many facets of birth–one hints at the poet’s awareness of the “birthing” aspect in the poetic process.  As a mother of five Allen has practical physical knowledge of these connections that subtly informs her writing. Several of Allen’s poems reveal the interior workings of the poem so we are often allowed to see not just the delivery but all the ugliness of labor. Although I’ve read and often heard meta-poetry is overly self-conscious and caught up too much in the nuts and bolts of the craft, here I appreciate it as an expression of belief, or maybe even a summoning of like to like, valuing the creative depth and intelligence of each reader. Allen’s meta-poetry makes the self-aware poem seem like a litany. For example, just look at the luminosity here in the poem “Amputated Landscape, Getting Closer to There”

In the line, if a claim is to be made
about the origin of loss,
it can be asserted by plotting
the trilobites on the ocean’s floor
against the orchid heads floating
in their bowl on my desk.

There’s an evolution occurring from one poem to the next. Back to the egg for a moment though, from the opening paragraph the reader can surmise the evolution that occurs after birth happens through destruction; the breaking open of the hard outer shell will reveal the emptiness that follows.  But not just emptiness, it is important to note the reference to wings. “Often after peeking through loose fingers held as wings over our eyes, we look for fragments.” Wings, again, relate back to the story of The Wild Swans.  In this tale there is, of course, the standard wicked step-mother. She jealously turns her step-sons into swans.  The tale is different than the usual wicked step-mother fairy tales because there is no prince; the hero is the little sister who takes on an enormously difficult, seemingly impossible task in order to free her brothers of their cursed wings and give them back human form.  She must painfully weave shirts by hand for each brother from thorny thistle plants. Each shirt she creates leaves her hands bleeding. In a like manner the narrator uses poetry to defeat another mythical mother curse, shame.  Indeed, the poems here are weaved with the sharpest of words.

Let’s move on and talk about the book’s format for a minute. After the introduction, the book is divided into four sections.   The beginning and ending of Allen’s book are long prose pieces.  One could argue that the prose pieces could and should have been condensed into poems, or omitted, as this is a poetry book after all, but the flowing nature of the prose allows for an expansion of the narrative voice that assumes an enlarged Jungian landscape and in this collection it anchors the poems into the concrete archetypal female birthing images: wings, eggs, feathers, and nests.  The four sections of the book are as follows:

1. Otherwise, Soft White Ash
2. Making the Mouth
3. Notes for Elijah
4. Final Wing

Section one, Otherwise, Soft White Ash deals with a type of “curse,” the fear and shame of a daughter who momentarily wishes her mother would just succeed in one of her many suicide attempts so that she would no longer have to suffer with the threat of it hanging over her head. In the poem:  “Unsprung, On the Weak Quiver” the narrator explains how words are helping her overcome this curse.

I read The Lover the same year
my mother was institutionalized
for the second time.  Marguerite Dumas
was able to state what I had long assumed
I believe that always, or almost always,
in all childhoods and in all the lives
that follow them, the mother represents
madness. Our mothers always remain
the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.
Her lines haunt and succor me
and serve to bridge the disconnection.

Here we see how lines from a poem can “haunt” and yet at the same time “succor,” as when a line tries to “trace the origin of loss” it becomes a “bridge” to the “disconnection” which occurs in dysfunctional relationships.  Lines are not just words on a page, Allen suggests, but a pathway to overcoming the emptiness of separation.

In section two, Making the Mouth, the longest section of the book, Allen brings back the fairy tale symbolism, the egg and the wing reappear and in her poem “The Twelfth Swan” she writes of the one brother stuck between worlds, part human, part bird.  The little sister was able to break the curse for the rest of the brothers but something went wrong and she wasn’t able to complete the task for the Twelfth.   Again this connects the reader back to the familial relationships in the first section, an attempt to heal something that cannot be fully healed, words can only do so much, after all, and it points us towards the third section, which is about the author’s son.

The other poem in the Making the Mouth section that draws from the Grimm’s fairy tale also suggests that while curses might be broken in fairy tales, in the real world broken relationships aren’t that easily mended.  From “Four Legs, Two Voices” the narrator assumes the voice of the little sister:

I am a weak companion
whose twelve raving princes
would rather collect feathers
from red throated birds
than share this cracked beach with you.

Still, we ignore everything
Aside from a promise, even
though each other sounds faintly
extinct, post nebular, like whispering
amen behind missing fingers.

Consider the use of italics here: “even though/ each other sounds faintly/ extinct” as it seems to emphasize the mother/daughter relationship and yet at the same time is able to encompass all relationships.  The poem also shows the evolution of self-awareness,

… God,

how horrible I have become
that I want to hurt you, collect
full fisted clusters of sand
to rocket hard in your mouth
and eyes.  Too many times
I have sat on your roof,
swallowing dense dread enough

to taste, enough to burn
rightdoing and wrongdoing
out of potential conversation.

There is a shifting point of view in this poem as the narrator addresses “you,” which is directed towards the archetypal step/mother female figure that Allen conjures in previous poems.  We return our focus to the intimate mother/daughter relationship in the concluding stanza: “Because there is only me/ and only you after all/ and we engage in jumping/but never tragically, / and no closer to reprieve.” The “me” and “you” at times in this collection seem to become one person, a mirror image of self: the mother reflecting/becoming the daughter, wanting to “hurt you” is the daughter reflecting/becoming the mother, and in hurting “you” is the poem suggesting the wish backfires leaving the narrator “no closer to reprieve?”

In section three, Notes for Elijah, the author writes about her own son, bringing in another aspect of familial relationships.  It is particularly difficult (I know from experience, being a mother of five myself) to write about your children in such an intimate way and yet still maintain a sense of autonomy.  As such, for the benefit of the reader, I requested the author’s permission to allow us insight into this relationship and help the reader put the poems in this section in context.  Elijah, like the fairy tale half-bird, half- human brother left in between worlds, is challenged in life because he is not like other children. In her own words, Allen explains:

“[Elijah] has Asperger’s and a significant social anxiety disorder. He is also Bi-Polar, which is rare in a child his age. The combination of these three issues makes parenting him extremely challenging. He is also asthmatic and has a rare fever disorder which means he becomes ill very quickly with high fevers and the cause is unknown (despite thousands of dollars in genetic testing to determine where the fevers may be coming from). The poems deal with his anxieties (and mine) and how vastly different he sees the world compared to his siblings and parents. “Milligrams” refers, in part, to my long hesitance with allowing Elijah to be medicated, and finally understanding, after so many of his rages wherein he hurt himself and me that without medical help, he could not function safely in our world. “One More Stick” refers to the monthly blood tests he must get and the long ritual we go through before and after to prepare. There is much hope in the poems in this section, especially with the more myth driven pieces, and I hope that comes across.”

The poems in the third section do come across as hopeful.  Although in some ways the section feels a bit disjointed from the first two, as the shift from the perspective of a child viewing the mother to the perspective of a mother viewing the child is jarring, but in a good way I think. The prose sections Allen chose to incorporate in the book and the use of the Swan symbolism allows Allen to carry it off as she skillfully repeats this symbolism here, for example, from “Just one More Stick,”

Between his structure
of breath, concentration on frantic wings,
and mine, measured hums through noise,
he is pinching a finger to thumb
while he tells me one more time
that some do die, and that the water
breaks its bond too fast no matter
how gently he loosens the pinch.
I tell him, no. Not today.  No, not ever.

In the introduction of the book and in Making the Mouth the death of the mother is a constant threat, a threat which becomes accepted and resented. Here the fear and threat of death are outwardly rejected, so in this way, and in the concluding prose piece “Final Wing” the book does have a resolution.

I could probably go on writing about this book for another 2000 words but I guess I should go ahead and conclude with at least a mention of the title.  Otherwise, Soft White Ash, to me, harkens (yes, I did just say harkens again, I can’t believe it myself but oh well) back to the H.D. poem “Helen” which concludes with the line “white ash amid the funeral cypresses.”   In an essay by Susan Standford Friedman about “Helen,” she explains, “Because of her mother’s name [meaning H.D.'s mother who was named Helen], Helen was always a personal and mythic mother-symbol for H.D. But at this point in her life, her mother-symbol was too overwhelmed to help her daughter the poet. To serve as “the Muse, the Creator” as the Goddess does in H.D.’s later poems, the daughter had to give birth to her own mother.”  (Note another serendipitous connection to Swan Brother’s fairy tale, Helen is the mythical daughter of Zeus who seduced her mother in Swan form.) In Allen’s book there is a sense of the daughter giving birth to her own mother, and in the title there is the suggestion that grief must be dealt with in full, “otherwise…”

Oh hell, let me just use Allen’s own words again:

“The title is meant to suggest the struggle of the body to free of all gaze. The way we are seen, by others and by ourselves, is a burning. What remains after we recognize the looks as hurtful, as healing, as essential grace, as mirrors, is simply ash. The mythic elements in H.D.’s poem apply to my title in the notions of softness, a woman’s pale “white” flesh as necessary for perceptions of purity, for the idea that wings above and below are always, always white, the gazes burn doubly– when received, when given. The articulation of the gaze is important. As a woman who grew-up under the heavy weight of physical attention as the only “real” attention, the stone body has no choice but to dissolve if the hate (Helen’s) can ever turn to love, or rather, for me, forgiveness.”

Kelli Allen is an award-winning poet, editor, and scholar. Her poetry and fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Echo Ink Review, Poetry Quarterly, Fjords, Abridged, Other Poetry,Lyre Lyre, The Blue Sofa Review, WomenArts Quarterly, The Caper Review, It Has Come to This: Poets of the Great Mother Conference, Foliate Oak, Greatest Lakes Review, Lugh Review (where she was the featured author), Blackmail Press, The Chaffy Review, Euphony and elsewhere. She has been the featured poet for Desperanto Press’s segment “Tea With George” for September 2011. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the 2011 Rebecca Lard Award. She is the author of two chapbooks (Applied Cryptography; Picturing What Breaks) and has served as the Managing Editor of Natural Bridge. She is also the founder of the Graduate Writers Reading Series for the University of Missouri St. Louis. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Missouri St. Louis. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of English at Lindenwood University and Florissant Valley. Allen gives readings and teaches workshops throughout the US. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Schizophrene by Bahnu Kapil

Schizophrene

by Bhanu Kapil

Nightboat Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-984459865
Pages: 73
Reviewed by: Sabrina Dalla Valle

 

 

 

A STEREOSCOPIC UNIVERSE OR TOUCH OF THE MIND

“If anything touched her sari, if one of her children brushed
against her thigh, she felt a peristaltic reflex. She felt she
was swallowing them too.”

Bhanu Kapil demonstrates how the sense of touch leads us to our first complex notion of boundary. As the poet Novalis says, “Touching is separation and connection both at once.” In some cases, this boundary is dissolved: physically, conceptually, and narratively. The A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia says, “Schizophrenia is a complex mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, think logically, have normal emotional responses, and behave normally in social situations.” This experimental writer’s determined commitment to research psychological manifestations of immigration leads her to the connection between forced exile/relocation, schizophrenia, and the redemptive possibility of touch as a narrative device.

Cast from the dye of her own Punjabi family migration tragedy, she spares no details in observing how geographical boundaries of separation drive deep into the psyche transpiring not only as forms of fragmented awareness and emotional affect, but also into a new territory of narrative exposition.
One day per room. It’s raining […]
my mother saw, peeking between the slats of the cart,
row after row of women tied to the border trees. “Their
stomachs were cut out,” said my mother […]
This is something that happens in the second room, in
the city that the room belongs to, and it functions (the
information) as a grave.

Rather than calling the schizophrenic ‘pathological,’ Schizophrene uses this condition to change our relationship to space and time and reconceptualize the existing organized, rational design to discover something new.

Here are the tools: the passing of devotional objects back and forth between hands to give the schizophrenic a healing touch. What Kapil is interested in is not the objects, but the way pulsation and frequency of the invested movement opens up new narrative possibilities to talk about mental disorder. Bhanu Kapil says, “Schizophrenia is rhythmic, touching something lightly/ many times.” How might this be interpreted as a story, or in the author’s case, a biography of exile capable of testing all boundaries? She turns to hallucination as a device, explaining how it is an organization of acute matter, “the capacity of fragments to attract, occur, re-articulate or shake (descend): in play.” The book begins as fragments of a failed research project, phrases that survive a notebook buried under snow in winter, “…who asks what’s forbidden, what’s expected. In the/ annular zone. In the airport. On the earth.” This is a collection of seemingly fragmented sequences of impressions coming at the reader like hands stroking the taught surface of tabla drums, resonances arranged as musical tension– a fugue, perhaps– to overcome disassociation and integrate a torn sense of ‘belonging.’

Here are the notes: a charged trajectory of migration, tracks like scales inked on a score sheet for three voices–audible at once in their dissonance. Flashes of setting chase one another: “Delhi… focusing upon the freshly/ dyed black wool hanging from a line in the garden and/ dripping”; “a London suburb seen from above and recorded with/ dyes: an indigo house leaking its color into the grid like/ a cloud”; “[…] Colorado with its dark brown fields,/ a fresh snow sparkling and linear in its furrows. Its bee./ Its wolf.” Contested, they wrap around a center point of the ocean. Location, like nerves, becomes a grid of tension between the ‘exiled’ as schizophrenic subject and a trailing ghost–racism. In a seminal moment of domestic abuse, father beating mother’s head against the wall in a house of windows transparent to the world, she writes, “…You fucking/ Paki, what do you think you’re doing? This is England, you bleeding/ animal.”

Kapil embarks on a journey of the foreigner’s passage across sea with a disposition similar to Rilke’s during World War II articulated in his Duino Elegies: “Here… distances unending./ There… a gentle breathing./After that first home, this one seems windstruck and degenerate.” The exiled is caught living with ‘distances unending,’ a pulse of continuous displacement; s/he cannot return, because as Kapil says, “‘Reverse migration…’ [too] Is psychotic.” Both authors swallow the bitterness of isolation, and yet, by so doing¬–paradoxically find unification with everything that rejects their completion.

Speaking as an emigrant in an interview with Katherine Sanders, the author asks, “How do we get above the place where we are ‘caught living’.” She tells us this kind of out-of-body relocation exemplifies somatic bodywork, “mov[ing] between the body and the larger space or auditory environment around it.” This process is called titration and can also be applied to the use of language. As Kapil explains, it is like “Light, consistent or secular touch that remedies, in certain forms of exchange [like a pendual]: a disturbance. That discharges something from the nerves […] That moves between storytelling and sensation: the body, vibrating, above, in or next to the sea.” Titration is a chemistry term that describes a controlled reaction when two opposing chemicals are combined. When done so quickly, there is an explosion. However when mixed slowly over time, when titrated, the explosion is avoided and the oppositional fluids become complimentary. Narrative flashes, sensations, blank space: this is the textual laboratory where the tincture is made.

How is it possible to titrate the tension between exile and homeland and create a tincture of being so we are no longer caught living in a place, but may simply live? Location must be seen as fluid, moving through connective tissue, not as a still image of place. “Schizophrenic, what binds design? What makes the city/ touch itself everywhere at once, like an Asian city, like the/city you live in now? What makes the wall wet, the step/ wet, the sky wet?” How might one touch so as to arouse a sense of life, a return of pleasure? In order to overcome the schizophrenic’s propensity for anhedonia– the inability to experience pleasure from usually pleasurable activities– Kapil turns to the world of non-living things.

One of the book chapters titled “Abiogenesis” investigates the scientific phenomenon whereby a certain arrangement of inorganic matter gives rise to create organic life. If chemical reactions from non-living things can create fundamental biochemicals, which are the building blocks of life, what are other possible similar relationships? “To flux, to squat: a conjunction of living and non-living/ matter. In a book without purpose–with a dead start./ But with the body displaying signs of early spring: pink bits/sensitive to being touched, like a Jain woman crossing the/street in her linen mask and with her pole.” There is no demarcation between non-living and living matter, just as there is no distinction between here and there.

In her earlier chapbook, Water-damage: a map of three black days, Kapil tells us, “It is psychotic to draw a line between two locations.” It is impossible to go from here to there, have complete separation between two positions. The work of hybrid authors is to create a ‘passage’ of mutation between ‘belonging’ and ‘being’ so that ‘being’ is good enough by itself. French literary theorist and immigrant writer Hélène Cixous describes this ‘passage’ as a form of movement awareness. “I realized there is no harm, only difficulties in living in the zone without belonging… I would stay passing… Je suis en passance.” The emigrant exists en passage, which can be read as ‘pas sage’ (a term that has several meanings in French, this one referring to ‘not well behaved’ or ‘naughty’), between interior and exterior. The passage provides transformation, but also transgression. It is expedient and uncensored. Cixous writes, “One must act fast. And no time to learn.” The emigrant writer shows by example how to “trim and edit this space of passage to ‘relaunch life’.” The only way to seal the rift is by dissolving the boundaries between presence and absence creating a new space ‘to be.’

Here is the house. It is the space Rilke writes of, “the nowhere minus the no:/ that innocent, unguarded/space which we could breathe,/ know endlessly, and never require.” The ephemeral where becomes a habitat without a shell– free from the tug of necessity. However, do not be misled; there are a certain number of life-accounts to settle before such a metaphysical experience is attained for the author and even the reader. Ever sophic, this book continues to echo the strivings of French literary theory, “The upwelling of philosophy attends to what we can’t see./ A light tent over the text. [blank space] Nevertheless, reading these words, I can’t have them in/ my house.” This hidden scaffold that completes meaning from the fragments is Derridean– “one is shaped by difference…the ‘self’ is constituted by its never- fully-to-be-recognized-ness”; we are the play of chance and necessity (Of Grammatology, xliv). At first, Kapil refuses to roll the dice in a climate of compulsion. “Is it a right thing or a mad thing not to/ want to re-connect, to avoid reading or writing because of/ what those will bring?” But there is another version of this metaphor reaching back to the Gospel of John, “The word became flesh and set its tents within us.” And this, I believe, is the final goal of Kapil’s literary project.

Her opening epigraph quoted from Adorno supports her project’s quest to discover a more complete, integral sense of belonging: “It is part of one’s morality not to be at home in one’s home.” In this detachment of the exiled – home is always a provisional space. Only after we are exiled from the house do we begin to have self-knowledge. The 12th century monk, Hugo of St Victor writes, “The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world, the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.” He has no need for place, nor event. In the second line of Schizophrene we are told, “Immigrant. Nothing happens. Immigrant.” How does a book that, in Kapil’s words, “barely says anything” gain importance? An immigrant man and his granddaughter walk through the public square, “They’re walking into that, the darkness pouring into/ their mouths when they reach the hills.”

What is the value of the fragment versus the continuous phrase? What is the grammar of fragments? Written as a quick note at the end, we are told, “Grammar is emotional.” It is a flexible template that must adapt to the changing frequencies of the internal against the external world. Spatial and tactile, it reflects the genuine nature of actual life engaged with dissonant layers, more meaningful than story that must tell itself to arrive somewhere. Again, Rilke seems to shed light, “We are, above all, eternal spectators/looking upon, never from,/ the place itself. We are the/essence of it. We construct it./It falls apart. We reconstruct it/and fall apart ourselves.”

While gnawing at the bones of critical theory and philosophy, Schizophrene is a description of pure creative thinking, a narrative without a directed conclusion – yet a direct connection to life through the experience of nerve frequencies and tissue connectivity. “‘If you touch it, its yours,’ says the butcher to the house/wife as she extends her hands towards the ham. In this way,/you are the velvet body of a boy or girl, the raised part of/the pattern.” This work is treacherous. The brutal truth of social vulnerability becomes identical with the author through touch; it is chewed, fragmented, dissolved and purified into a river of blood. And in this magical contagion, with her, we too swallow it knowing that “An economy is/ a system of apparently willing but actually involuntary/ exchanges. A family, for example, is really a shopfront, a/ glass plate open to the street.” But if the transparent boundary becomes fluid, then “1. Nobody is [emigrant].”

 

Bhanu Kapil has written four full-length prose/poetry works, THE VERTICAL INTERROGATION OF STRANGERS (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: A Space for Monsters (Leon Works, 2006), Humanimal: A Project for Children (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), and Schozphrene (Nightboat Books, 2011). Born in the UK to Indian parents, Bhanu lives in Colorado, where she teaches in The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.

can’t stop now! by John Yamrus

can’t stop now!

by John Yamrus

Epic Rites Press, March 12 2011
ISBN: 978-1926860060
Pages: 133
Reviewed by: Devin McGuire

 

 

The opening poem in John Yamrus’ latest book “can’t stop now!” addresses his readers and critics with a little secret. Besides all the hard work that any successful poet must sweat out at the keyboard, in the end the only thing that matters is:

you either
got
it,

or
you
don’t.

Besides the fact that Yamrus does have it, there is great reasoning for him to point out this little secret. It’s not to detract his critics, but rather to provide caution to his would be imitators. “can’t stop now!” is Yamrus’ eighteenth collection of poetry. While Yamrus’ work won’t likely win awards in poetry contests he’s been at the game for over forty years now; he’s certainly earned some respect in regards to what it takes both to become and to remain a force to this day. John Yamrus writes the kind of poetry that punches right through to the core of his reader’s hearts. He is a poet who needs no validation from the literary or academic establishment. However as a contemporary of the late L.A. poet Charles Bukowski (a poet Yamrus draws heavy influence from) one can easily sympathize with any defensive posturing on his part. (If I can rightly call it that) Yamrus has doubtlessly had to deal with the same sort of criticisms Bukowski did; You call THIS poetry? might likely be the most common one. Yamrus makes efforts to address this in this poem from “can’t stop now”:

on reading some of

my
poetry

this
guy i knew

said,
“damn,
if that’s what
you call poetry…

i can do
that

any time”

and he
pulled a pen
out of his pocket

and
wrote:

“the birds
that fly over
my yard in the summer
never bother
to land

they only
shit in the pool.”

then,
he put the pen
back in his pocket,

smiled
and walked
away.

Like Bukowski, Yamrus likely has his critics and imitators for the same reasons. He makes it look so easy. His poetry lacks nearly all manner of poetic device. In “can’t stop now!” you will find no easily discernable rhythm, pattern, musical device, alliteration, and no rhyme, no metaphor, simile, symbolism, or allegory, no strongly wrought imagery and no form. What you will find is tone, all tone, a been there done that no bullshit tone driven by a narrative fuel that adheres to a strict lack of pretense with themes that are everyday universalities, poetry that is accessible, poetry that makes people who didn’t think they liked poetry actually willing to admit that they like THIS poetry. This is important stuff as Yamrus’ explains in this poem:

every year

someone
sends me
an entry form
for the local
Poet Laureate competition.

unable
to throw the thing out,
but unwilling to co-operate,
I take ten minutes
and fill out the form,

sending in
the required
number of entries,

all the while
making sure
that each and every poem
is about hemorrhoids,
a hair on the tip of my nose,
bad breath
or my dog
taking a dump in the yard.

I know the poems
wont be what they want,
but they
just might be

precisely
what they
need.

So that’s it you ask? Poems about dog shit, nose hairs, and hemorrhoids? Why would we need all that? Why is this important? These are honest worthwhile questions, yet after a steady barrage of razor sharp lines you begin to realize you are being hit with nothing more than pure raw honest to god truth, all poetic pretense stripped away, life as it is to be dealt with in the everyday. With the massive stream of lies, embellishments, falsehoods, and fabrications constantly being fed to society via the media and our elected and non-elected officials how could we not need this? Why doesn’t more poetry do this? I’d venture to say that many poets today and wannabe poets really do try to do this. Ever since Bukowski crashed the scene nearly fifty years ago all manner of anti-establishment, anti-academia working class poets have found the guts and inspiration to drop the pretense and tell it real too. There are droves of these poets. The thing about it though is that all too many of them just don’t have it. Just what “it” is is something that is hard to nail down. It’s what others have called soul, but I’m not sure I’d even call it that. To use a common everyday phrase, it just is what it is. And like what’s been said of pornography, I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it. Yamrus hits a nerve or a chord in you almost every time. That’s all he needs to do and he’s done his job. He doesn’t have to make you do any sort of mental gymnastics to get what it is he wants you to get. As long as something gets in your craw in some way and causes some sort of significant emotional or philosophical reaction then the job of the poem has been done. John Yamrus prefers to do his job with a simple frugality. Yamrus understands the reason why poetry isn’t so widely read and he’s doing his part to try and change that. He’s gotten real good at it by now. Far too many poets attempt to go about their jobs this way too, thinking that this is all so easy, but it’s not. Far too many just churn out vapid lines that are so soulless they can’t even elicit a sigh from the reader. Whereas Yamrus’ lines evoke powerful feelings that can send chills straight up your spinal column making your hair stand on end, as he does here:

object lesson;

when looking in
the mirror,

it’s often best
to overlook

the beginnings of
a sag under
the chin,

and wrinkles
under the
eyes.

it’s often best
to ignore
the gray
around the
temples,

and
the bloodshot eyes.

no,
what you
really have to
watch out for, is
that look of
fear,

and resignation.

even
terror.

it’ll
kill you
every time.

That’s powerful stuff. Much of the poetry in this book bravely deals with the starker realities of life and the everyday unwanted occurrences that just are, and just will have to be dealt with. One of my favorites “he” hits you like a punch of despair, leaving a deep bruise:

he

lay
back,

angry,

knowing
nothing
would
ever

really
light
her

fire.

These are poems about the aches and pains of aging, the lack of “grace/or gallantry” in death, the annoying or stupid things people say just “trying to make conversation”, other people’s arguments or complaints, Jehovah’s Witnesses at your door, and telemarketers on the phone. There’s plenty of humor here too but keeping with the over all tone of this body of work it’s often a wry humor. Yamrus’ straight forward narrative style gets to the point, rarely missing his mark. Some poems in “can’t stop now” do however miss the mark like this one that slipped through and left me scratching my head:

no

i
do
not
know
who
did
this
to
me.

However, the poems of “can’t stop now” that fail in their jobs do not upset the balance of this book. They are few and far between. This book has enough worthy weight to handle a rare dud.

In the second to the last poem in this book, “when you’ve been”, Yamrus speaks about the poem one hopes to write at the very end of it all: “something/that sums up/all you had to say/ a/good/exit line…/ maybe a joke,/and a tip of the hat/ before you left the stage.” Because every poem of Yamrus’ has a specific intention he ends this poem stating his hopes that this isn’t that last poem written at the end of it all. The title of this book lends itself well to the content. “can’t stop now” is a snapshot of a man with his thoughts who is on the cusp of turning sixty, getting up there but not quite done yet. The cover of the book pictures a 17th century depiction of a perpetual motion machine. A perfect symbol for the force behind the poetry within; producing more energy than it appears went in, something that might seemingly go on doing this indefinitely. John Yamrus knows it does all end at some point. Despite this knowledge of the finite he tells us in this book that he can’t yet “see” the end. John Yamrus can’t stop now because regardless of whether he can see the end or not, at sixty he’s a lot closer to the end than anyone is ever really ready for. And he makes it clear that he’s got more to say.

Lastly, with all the careful consideration I’ve given to “can’t stop now” I willingly admit many various struggles writing a review that can both inform its readers while at the same time entertain them with the standard literary pastiche of the contemporary critical review. My problem being that Yamrus’ poems are so obviously devoid of any sort of literary fluffery that it almost makes no sense to explain this book via ANY KIND of fluffery. One almost feels compelled to explain/critique this book like one of Yamrus’ poems would, or if you will; this review really should have been written something more like this…

“can’t stop now”

I recently
came by this
really
good book
of
poetry

from this guy
named Yamrus

I thought
it was like
a lot
of
the good parts
of
a Bukowski
book.

I really
enjoy
reading it
while
I’m
taking
a shit.

I
hope
you
do
too.

 

 

Since 1970 John Yamrus has published 21 books (19 volumes of poetry and 2 novels) as well as more than 1,300 poems in print magazines around the world.  Selections of his work have been taught at both the high school and university level, as well as having been translated into several languages including French, Swedish, Italian, Japanese and Romanian.

I Take Back the Sponge Cake by Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson

 I Take Back the Sponge Cake: A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure 

By Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson

Paperback, 64 pages
Poetry and Artwork
Rose Metal Press March 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9846166-4-0
$14.95

A Choose Your Own Adventure Book Review by Nicelle Davis
I Take Back the Sponge Cake is an illustrated lyrical choose-your-own-adventure collaboration between poet Sierra Nelson and visual artist Loren Erdrich. This book is amazing; I can’t say enough good things about this book that would capture the joy it inspires. The content of this book covers the spectrum of emotions, however it makes depths of fear and sadness approachable. This collection of images, poems, and choices is a real demonstration of how art can be infused with life—how art can become an extension of life.Because I am unable to be an objective observer of this book, I felt like it was essential for me to find others to give this book a proper review. As a homage to the work of Sierra Nelson and Loren Erdich, I have created a choose-your-own-adventure review.Please read Section I, if you would like The Uncensored Critics view of the book.Please read Section II, if you would like The Unsuspecting Critics view of the book.Please read Section III, if you would like The Critics as Audience view of the book.And please read all three sections of this review, if you are having a fun with this review.

I. The Uncensored Critics

To begin this review, I invited some of the most uncensored and hard to please critics I know (a team of grade school children).

These critics gathered to help me make costumes based on the illustrations found in, I Take Back the Sponge Cake. While we waited for the paper mache to dry, I read the book to these harsh critics. They really enjoyed the homophones. They chose “wait” over “weight” when it came to heartbreak, and that made all the difference in how their version of the story unraveled. When I asked them why they chose “wait” over “weight,” they explained that “their hearts are always light,” so a heavy heart sounded like a bunch of nonsense to them.

When I asked them how the book made them feel, they explained, “The eyes are watching you—always watching you—and you can’t get away. That is scary.” They also said that the pictures are “creepy and spooky, but that is okay because they like creepy and spooky pictures.”

My son admitted to being “confused and scared” by I take Back the Sponge Cake, but he said he would like for me to read it to them again.

II. The Unsuspecting Critics

After the glue and paint dried on our costumes, we took I Take Back the Sponge Cake to our local Sagebrush Café. There we met with a group of bright and kind college students.

We asked them if they would like us to read them a story. They were delighted to be dragged into the adventure. 

The illustrations were brought to life by our costumes. The college students’ childhoods where resurrected by the book’s format. Really, the only comments I could get from any of these critics was their infectious laughter intermixed with a chorus of “Whoa, no way!” Joy filled every crevasse of the coffee house by the time we finished the book.

 

 

 

 

III. The Critics as Audience

Next we took I Take Back the Sponge Cake to share with an open-mic poetry event. It was a mature audience, but once we began to read the book, everyone clapped and cheered like children. Even at the books most heart wrenching moments (and there are many places in this book that move me to tears) the audience chuckled at the cleverness of the words and images.

People came up after the performance and commented on “how interesting and different” the book seems. Yes, this is a different sort of poetry book, yet it keeps all the traditional aspects that make poetry magical. I Take Back the Sponge Cake is interesting because it layers even more magic on top of an already mystical medium.

 

If you love to feel joy, you should read I Take Back the Sponge Cake. (Costumes are optional, but highly recommended.)

 

Loren Erdrich (left) is a mixed-media visual artist working primarily in drawing, sculpture, performance, and video. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, both individually and as part of CultureLab Collective. A 2011 show at the Joan Cole Mitte Gallery in Texas featured her work alongside that of Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Félix González-Torres. Loren completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving a BA and BFA respectively. She received her MFA in 2007 from the Burren College of Art and the National University of Ireland. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Sierra Nelson’s (right) poems have appeared in CrazyhorsePoetry NorthwestCity Arts Magazine,Forklift OhioPainted Bride Quarterly, and DIAGRAM, among others. For over a decade she has collaboratively written and performed as co-founder of The Typing Explosion and the Vis-à-Vis Society, including at the 2003 Venice Biennale and on the Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington and is a MacDowell fellow. She currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

Loren and Sierra continue to collaborate under the name Invisible Seeing Machine.

 

The Frantic Force, essays by Norman Ball

 

 

Norman Ball
The Frantic Force
Petroglyph Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9800396-6-5
Pages: 192

Reviewed By: CL Bledsoe

 

 

Ball begins his introduction with a reference to the old TV commercial in which a guy eating a chocolate bar collides with a guy eating peanut butter from a jar, and voilà, these two seemingly disparate tastes combine into the peanut butter cup. Similarly, Ball’s essays combine many seemingly unrelated things – he throws in everything including the kitchen sink – when discussing poetry. This is because Ball is interested in shaking things up, bringing poetry down from the lonely mountaintops of college professors’ covetousness and plopping it down for all the world to see, or even opening it up to scientific inquiry. A noble sentiment. Reaching back to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and even further back to hold Eliot up as the last gasp, Ball argues that modern poetry has become obscure, purposefully obtuse. (Eliot at least knew what he was doing, seems to be the implication.) This obscurity is difficult to argue, in a certain sense. Ball cautions that difficulty in reading is a good thing, but impossibility in reading has made modern poetry irrelevant.

Ball blames the commodification of MFA programs, which afford a common, easy scapegoat. One problem that he neglects to address is that not all MFA programs encourage ‘experimental’ (i.e. purposefully obscure) poetry, and not all the journals he references publish ‘experimental’ poetry. I, personally, studied at an MFA program that strongly dissuaded students from inaccessibility, for example. I’ve also worked as an editor on a couple journals, which I steered towards a focus on narrative poetry. But let me just go on the record saying I have no love lost for MFA programs in general, and many of them may well pump out cookie-cutter hobbyists posing as writers. Likewise, it seems like one can’t virtually spit without hitting some new online journal, many of which boast guidelines that discourage anything resembling emotional impact in the work they’d like to publish. But there are also plenty of journals interested in poetry I think Ball would quite enjoy. So let’s be accurate. But let’s also not skewer Ball unnecessarily. His motivation isn’t sour grapes, and his goal isn’t petty. He’s fighting the good fight.

After the introduction, Ball deals with the very personal topic of his father’s death. There’s some damned good writing, here, as there is in his first true essay, “Cultural Referents The Intermittent Man” which deals with Ball accidentally attacking his mother-in-law when she sneaks into his house and, also accidentally, breaks a vase. Ball waxes philosophically on the gender role of men in modern American society. But what does this have to do with poetry? Ball explains that he is not really a fighter, though when he sees ancient art (the Mycenaean Urn his mother-in-law broke) destroyed, he rises. He is showing the reader some of his motivation. Again and again, Ball refers to himself as a journeyman poet, which I take to mean ‘not a very serious one’.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love poetry, and he sees poetry being ‘attacked’, inadvertently (destroyed through carelessness), just as his urn was attacked. Still, he has risen to the occasion and penned these essays.

Many of these essays are about poetry, but often, Ball is writing about the state of the modern world, i.e. politics, alongside poetry. He uses Da Vinci, Jung, the Bible, Quantum physics, and any number of other approaches to filter his observations. In “Prozac IndigNation,” Ball gives statistics on the numbers of Americans on mood altering medications, and uses this as a possible explanation as to why there hasn’t been open revolution in America, after the Ponzi scheme that brought on the Great Recession. It’s a humorous take, a tongue-in-cheek idea not dissimilar from conspiracy theories (the one regarding fluoride in water comes to mind).

In “Nothing But Nihilism” Ball takes three branches of some of the world’s major religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) to task for their negative tendencies when it comes to apocalyptic fervor. Ball brings in Jung, Christopher Hitchens, and many classical allusions to this well-rounded discussion. Progress is hampered, argues Ball, by people who’d rather look backwards, or worse, who’d rather see society destroyed in apocalyptic vengeance. But let’s not lose hope; Ball considers this extremism the last gasp of this kind of extremism, at least when it comes to these religions. He references the shockwaves of conservatism reverberating throughout America these days, the war on women, and the general backward-looking that’s pushing the Republican party into irrelevance.

And this really brings us to Ball’s strength as an essayist. His chocolate/peanut butter mash up approach allows him to come at ideas in such fresh and new ways. He is, clearly, a philosopher in many regards, but he’s quite accessible and focused purely on application, on real-world ideas. He deals with pop culture only when it’s relevant to larger considerations, but he does take it to task, often relating the negativity so prevalent in pop culture to the nihilism so pervasive in religious extremism, politics, and modern art (he muses, at one point, that a certain starlet may be working for Satan in order to bring about the downfall of Western civilization). He also links all of this to poetry, which is no small feat. In the same way that poetry shouldn’t be a grouping of meaningless syllables interesting only for their complete lack of being interesting, Ball argues that poetry should be (and is!) a vital force for social commentary and change. Poetry is revolution, or it can/should be, anyway. Ginsberg wrote about all the celebrities he fucked, but he also wrote extensively about political corruption and the government overreaching itself (and isn’t Ginsberg’s sex life a kind of political and/or social commentary in itself?).

For such a seemingly stream of consciousness writer, Ball has organized the book mainly around the major topics of poetry, politics, and science, which gives it a nice, readable structure. His tone is playful; admonishing, at times; and very readable. He’s having fun writing about poetry – how often do you see that? I’d like to read more of his work, which is certainly a compliment.

Norman Ball (BA, W&L (’83);MBA, GWA (’91) is a Scottish-born writer, musician and businessman who lives in the Washington DC area. A multiple Pushcart Prize nominee and Associate Editor for The Potomac: A Journal of Poetry and Politics, his writings appear regularly in eScene’s Best of the Literary Journal series.  His poetry and essays have appeared in hundreds of publications including Prairie Home Companion, Epicenter, The Times, Scotsman and Raintown Review, among others.  His first essay collection is How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? (Del Sol Press 2010). A collection of poetry: A Signature Advance from Hoof and Paw is due out from Diminuendo Press in 2012.  A book on the cultural effects of television, Between River and Rock: How I resolved Television in Six Easy Payments will also appear in 2012.

 

 

12: Sonnets for the Zodiac by John Gosslee

 John Gosslee
12: Sonnets for the Zodiac
French translation by Elizabeth D. Watson and a Spanish translation by Jose M. Guerrero
Gival Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1928589587
Pages: 108

Reviewed By: Quincy Lehr


John Gosslee’s debut collection, 12, comes in a rather large package. Twelve sonnets, after all, are a bit slim for a chapbook, much less a full-lengther, so the collection, which has one sonnet for each sign of the zodiac, has a fair number of doodads, both visual (calendars for each sign), and were that not enough, translations of the poems into French and Spanish, never mind that Gival Press is Virginia-based and presumably has limited reach in Cartagena and Lyons. One almost suspects that the doo-dads were put there so that the book would catch the eye of editors, to make it “different” and thus “interesting.”

The discerning reader may have intuited a certain curl of the lip in the above.  When one strips away the doo-dads and translations, we have twelve sonnets. About the zodiac. But hey, sonnet collections are in, with an off-the-top-of-my-head list of recent titles including Ernest Hilbert’s Sixty Sonnets, Julie Kane’s Jazz Funeral, Kim Bridgford’s In the Extreme: Sonnets about World Records, William Baer’s “Borges” and Other Sonnets and “Bocage” and Other Sonnets, and others. So it’s trendy. On the other hand, though, while the quality of these books is by no means even, the best of them set the bar for sonnets quite high indeed.

For all the bells, whistles, calendars, and sonnets en francais, the sonnets in this book are… underwhelming. In the Taurus poem, “Bulls Always Charge,” we get these lines:

……….I know what is here and what has commenced
……… The divine past cannot be dispensed!

The latter line recalls in its tenor not so much Shakespeare or Sidney as it does Skeletor from The Masters of the Universe.  Gosslee’s tone and indeed imagery at times hit a bathetic level, as in his Aries poem, “The Ram’s Baa”:

………Musicians drum on its kindred’s skin torn
………By a sacrifice o’er a mortal duel.

O’er really? The poem describes a ram being sacrificed in Conan the Barbarian-like detail (original film version, 1982)—do we especially need the archaism, which elevates the tone unto risibility?

Metrically, too, the poems’ lines tend have the ten syllables connected with the traditional iambic pentameter meter, but Gosslee seems to interpret meter syllabically, resulting in periodic rhythmic constipation. Perhaps Gosslee is attempting to play it loose. Perhaps, though, he simply doesn’t have meter down yet. One cannot say with any certainty, but I would suspect the latter, with the excuse given as the former. Certainly, the collection strives, not entirely successfully, to meet rather robust requirements such as those of the Petrarchian sonnet with its ABBAABBA rhyme scheme in the octet. However, here, too, Gosslee is frequently less than sure-footed, and we get too many runs shoehorned not entirely successfully into the formal requirements of the given sonnet form. Take this example, from “Lady Justice” (the Libra poem):

……….You, bestow desires or passions deplete,
……….And decide from the start, but are discreet,
……….Allowing judgments to change through action—
……….By disavowing outside distraction.
……….The scales are above any that compete;

The inversion of “passions deplete” is, in a contemporary poem, maddening and a bit distracting, while the long sentence seems less subtle and complex than gaseous, as if coming up for breath at regular intervals for the end rhymes that punctuate generally awkward phrasing.

This is a remarkably bloated book, a lot of rigmarole for a series of less than surefooted, rather slight poems built on an idea that seems more of a workshop exercise than a grand conceit. Many of its missteps—the convoluted phrasing, the overwrought imagery, the needless or lazy archaisms—are a beginner’s missteps, and it is quite possible that Gosslee will outgrow them. Far less forgivable is Gival Press’s decision to publish this premature debut collection. Youthful maladroitness can be a phase. A book is far more permanent. Let’s hope that Gosslee’s next shows greater thought, craft, and depth.

 

 

 

 

 

John Gosslee was poet-in-residence for Attitude: The Dancers’ Magazine from 2008 through 2011. His first book “12″ was published by Gival Press
in French, Spanish and English. He is the Editor of Fjords Review and enjoys riding his motorcycle throughout the United States.

 

Grasshopper: The Poetry of M.A. Griffiths

 

M. A. Griffiths
Grasshopper:  The Poetry of M. A. Griffiths
Arrowhead Press, 2011
ISBN:  1-904852-28-5
Pages:  352
Reviewed by:  Marybeth Rua-Larsen

 

 

As poets, very few of us impact the world of poetry in a long-lasting and significant way. We write our poems, revise them, maybe workshop them with poet-friends or on online poetry boards, and if we research current journals and markets carefully, we may even be fortunate enough to publish them in respectable journals and raise a glass of champagne or oatmeal stout in celebration. But the next day, it’s another poet getting published in a better journal with more fanfare, and our work and effort fade into the distance. Most of the time. So, when dozens of poets around the globe admire and respect a poet’s work so much they spend countless hours finding, collecting and cataloguing her poems from various online sites and then publishing them in an extensive collection after her untimely death, we know this is a poet who made a significant impact. Very few poets command this kind of respect, and the resulting book of poems, Grasshopper:  The Poetry of M A Griffiths, proves the full range of Maz’s talent and accomplishments.

I did not know Maz personally, but I certainly knew her by reputation when she frequented the poetry boards at Eratosphere where I began workshopping my own poems in 2007. It quickly became clear that if you could catch Maz’s eye with one of your poems and prompt her to comment, it was a coup, even if she found the poem lacking. She was clear-eyed and succinct in her criticism, almost always on-target with her advice, and if you followed it, your poem would improve. I was lucky enough to attract her attention only once, and when she noted that my poem had improved significantly with revision, I had a smile on my face for days. This poet’s approval, even though she was essentially a stranger, meant that much, and when I had the opportunity to read and study her work in this posthumous collection, much of it previously unpublished, I was eager to learn from her example.

In some ways, this is an unwieldy book. Unlike most books of poetry these days, which organize the poems into manageable sections and group them by theme or narrative flow, these poems are presented in alphabetical order, all 300-plus of them. There is little context provided, other than Alan Wickes’ informative introduction, and the poems are undated and include few notes, which occasionally make it difficult to pin down the historical context. There were moments when I wished the book had been organized by theme or some other structure, but given the fact that Maz was a private person and many of her personal notes and drafts had been lost in various computer crashes over the years, other ways of organizing would not have been possible or accurate. After reading the book, I understood why the editors made this choice, and truth be told, I learned much from this arrangement, which allowed me to group poems by theme organically rather than be influenced by someone else’s interpretation.

With a book this size and considering that every poem Maz was known to have written is included, several key themes emerge, including elegies to pets and animals in the wild, poems on the process of writing and commentary on poets and scholars, poems about illness and aging, poems about God and spirituality, and poems about the effects and consequences of war. One of the most varied and compelling themes, however, centers on women and sexuality. In his thoughtful introduction, Alan Wickes states that there’s conflicting evidence on whether or not Maz was a feminist.  I find that her poems overwhelmingly confirm her as a feminist. Yes, Maz criticized women, and she sometimes criticized feminists in particular, such as in this sonnet, “The Women’s Circle,” included here in its entirety:

Faith takes the chair, and switches off her phone,
“First, gifts for our poor sisters overseas:
Joy has donated three warm wraps, and Joan,
a book entitled, Women:  Off Your Knees!”
Amanda checks her hair, Sue clears her plate
and Caitlin thrums her throat to signal hush:
‘Anent last month’s pornography debate
I’ll show a tape to illustrate this trash.’

Faith views the tilting pricks and shaven groins,
tuts with the others at the sordid scene,
the squalid pumping of the actors’ loins.
Stern-faced she watches like a widowed queen
and feels with pique, as personal affront,
the creeping liquefaction of her cunt.

The criticism here, though, is for a particular kind of feminist, one who is judgmental and holier-than-thou, for whom any kind of pornography is automatically a “sordid scene” and “squalid.” Maz’s poems imagine women capable of being more and doing more, and some poems nudge women in the direction of asking questions about their own behavior, such as in the sonnet, “Ding Dong Bell,” where a cat watches and offers commentary on how its owner cleans the house for company:

Great Bast, today she pulled out all the stops,
all faff and fussle to impress her friends;
the bedrooms were a whirl of cloths and mops,
much bathroom bleach sploshed all around the bends,”

The owner continues to “Hoover” and make the furniture “gleam,” while the cat watches in disgust and eventually pees on the rug just as the guests arrive, suggesting that its owner has much better uses for her time and energy than impressing her friends with a clean house and an elaborate meal.

Maz is often at her best when offering her insights couched in wit and sly humor, but she can also take a much more serious tone, such as in the prose poem “Traditions,” which explores the horrific effects of cliterodectomies, a form of female genital mutilation performed on young girls in some African cultures:

 Outside was a big dusty black car, and waiting inside were Nurse Hani, the midwifeand some other women.  They drove me to a place I did not know.  They stripped me and held me down and Nurse did it with a razor blade.  I screamed and screamed with pain till the screaming nearly made me sick, but they did not stop.

It is the women in the poem – the mother, the grandmother and the nurse – who conspire and ensure young Amele, the speaker, has the procedure. They secretly go against Amele’s father, who said, “No, I will not agree to it.” In this instance, it is not men enforcing and perpetuating this cultural tradition but the women themselves, believing that abandoning the tradition will result in disgrace and that Amele will lose her opportunity for marriage. Through her critique of the women in these poems, Maz encourages women to make different choices, choices that empower, and suggests that we have power over our own destinies if we choose to exercise it.

There are, of course, poems that focus on the suffering of women at the hands of men, such as in the historically accurate sonnet “Constanza Carved,” in which the sculptor Bernini suffers no consequence for having his former lover’s face slashed:  “Did God forgive the razor that you sent/to slice her perfect, faithless face to shreds.”  Despite the harshness of this example, Maz casts a wider net as a feminist. Numerous poems challenge the status quo by presenting, through history and myth, women who are powerful or make choices that allow them to live more meaningful lives, such as in the free verse poem “Emily abandons her breasts.” The subject of the poem, Emily, is an 18th or 19th century young woman who chooses to bind her breasts and live as a man:

Emily feared she would be rolled up
like bills in a man’s pocket
amongst the must and fust
and fingered things.

Emily chooses to take control of her own life rather than have her options limited by others. Maz also portrays women who wield power successfully, such as in the sonnet “Hippolyta on a Field of Linen.” In mythology, Hippolyta was an Amazon queen descended from Ares, and the poem depicts her sexual conquest of a warrior-lover. Sex is equated with battle, and it is a battle Hippolyta wins:

He sighs, he yields – this skirmish ends to soon –
and he sleeps like one slain, force spent for now,
but I’ll engage a battle royal by noon.
They say an army marches on its belly – how
I plan to feast! The world and its alarms

One last notable theme, more subtle than some of the others, is that of transformation. A few poems, such as “Sally’s Song,” portray a character’s inability to transform or become all that she is capable of because of circumstance. Here, young Sally is forced to turn to prostitution:

Your Ma is dead, your Pa’s a sot.
Feel in your stocking for what you’ve got.
Your petticoats hide such tight young meat
so sell it while it’s hot and sweet.
Another tickle, and God willing,
another trout, another shilling.

More often, however, transformation is portrayed in the spiritual sense or the ability to open the heart and the mind.  In the poem “The Silkie,” for example, Mhaire, the subject of the poem, is tired of her life and housework and chooses the life of a Silkie at sea:

At night, on a sheet of sand,
her muscles liquefy.
Silver fishes shoal her bowels.
The ocean shakes its creamy mane,
rises on strong green knees
and carries her away.

Mhaire opens herself up to dreaming, to the power of transformation, and as “Sky in the Pie” suggests, we must cut ourselves open to the “rush of dark thrushes,” to all possibilities.

Sky in the Pie


Two sure cuts open the crust
And release a rush of dark thrushes
With golden beaks, heralding an arc of stars
borne on a rainbow.  The spectrum flexes
like muscle, then settles in a single depth
of colour, blue as the powered lapis
on a manuscript page in a rich book
of hours, blue as a dunnock’s egg, blue
as distance.  Take your spoon before
it elopes with the knife, and taste.
The clouds melt on your tongue
and sweeten your throat.  You can chant
this day across the meadows, and call the lost flocks
home. The sheep and the chestnut cows. The dappled deer
and wild black horses. The wolves and small quick foxes.
All the lost beasts of your kingdom.
Call them home.

Maz’s death was a huge loss to the writing community. Her sonnets, especially, are remembered and quoted often, and there are seventy-seven included in the book. She was much more than a sonneteer, however, and these are skillful poems, poems with heart, poems that believe we can be much more than we are, if only we choose to be.  “Take your spoon…and taste.”

 

Margaret Griffiths (1947-2009) was born and raised in London and lived for some time in Bracknell then later moved to Poole. Rather than seek publication through traditional channels, she was content to share her work with fellow poets on various Internet forums. On the rare occasions she submitted work for publication, it was typically to online venues. Also known by the Internet pseudonyms “Grasshopper” and “Maz”, she began posting her poetry online in 2001. During the mid-2000s she worked from home, running a small Internet-based business, and edited the Poetry Worm, a monthly periodical distributed by email.
In 2008, her “Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud” won Eratosphere’s annual Sonnet Bake-off, and was praised by Richard Wilbur. Later that year she was a Guest Poet on the Academy of American Poets website, where she was hailed as “one of the up-and-coming poets of our time”. She suffered for years from a stomach ailment which eventually proved fatal in July 2009. Almost immediately after her death was announced on Eratosphere, poets from all over the English-speaking world, from London, Derby, Scotland, Wales, Queensland, New South Wales, Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, Missouri, Maryland, California and Texas collected her work for this publication.