Friday, December 29, 2017

Conflict Tours by Jonathan Travelstead
(Cobalt Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Michael McLane

My day job entails organizing literary events around the state of Utah, including a statewide book festival that happens each fall. In 2015, a colleague sent me a copy of Jonathan Travelstead’s first book, How We Bury Our Dead, a wrenching collection of poems detailing Travelstead’s tour in Iraq with the Air National Guard, the loss of his mother to cancer, and his work as a firefighter in Illinois. I was floored by the work, and during a brief conversation at a conference that spring, invited him to Utah for a couple readings as well as a workshop with veterans.

A few months later, we were just a couple blocks from the VA hospital when Travelstead looked at me and said, “You know, I’ve never done this before.” He was nervous, and now I was nervous, though I tried to downplay it. It had never occurred to me to ask him if he had worked with veterans before. Something in his eagerness and confidence, as well as the candor and compassion in his work, just left me assuming he had. I had no reason to worry. What followed that exchange was a two-hour discussion of Yusef Komunyakaa, Anne Caston, and many others, as well as a poignant conversation on how writing allows us to navigate anxiety, loss, and healing that left even the most reluctant of participants captivated. Some wrote about their military experience for the first time in their lives. Travelstead looked like he’d been there a thousand times before.

It is this same Travelstead that we see time and time again in his second collection, Conflict Tours—throwing himself headlong out of his comfort zone repeatedly, because of curiosity, empathy, or simply a desire to be engaged, to be helpful. The conflict of the title is real, be it life and death struggles along the U.S./Mexican border, the literal and cultural fallout that remains in the Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster, or Travelstead’s own struggles with ADD/ADHD. Both the military and recreational connotations of the word “tours” are at play, sometimes simultaneously, and Travelstead does not shy away from the complexities that the roles of soldier, fireman, or tourist carry with them.

The book opens along the U.S. border with Mexico, where Travelstead volunteered for a stint with the border patrol and witnesses the abuses that transpire throughout this landscape. He condemns much of what he sees, but also places such tragedies within a larger cycle of abuse that immigrants of all backgrounds have been subjected to throughout our history. In the poem “Field Worker,” he compares the black-lunged fate of his coal mining great-grandfather to the field workers of the Southwest exposed to agricultural toxins daily:
  
    My eyes open again on the fields, and I see hours when minutes
    are all we have, field workers trading

    the only previous thing they have for what settles in the hands
    before reaching the lungs, their family, I see the working dead.
    Grandfathers and children alike, their leathery hands


Or in the opening moments of “Border Patrol, Arizona,” where Travelstead is thrown immediately into the role of a medic with frighteningly insufficient resources:

         The square-jawed sergeant snatches my order.
    
Nothing that matters burns here. Congratulations, Airman First Class—
         You’re a medic. Shunts me to female private beneath
    the basketball hoop, who, with an IV and an orange bruised soft as skin,
         instructs me on the military’s care towards aliens.
    Cups my hand clasping the orange in hers. Finds the sweet spot in four
         or less punctures. Suddenly it’s my lone hand holds the fruit.


Travelstead’s sympathies clearly lie with those wandering the desert, be it for the benefit of their families, or in the attempts to flee violence, only to find themselves in the arms of another, albeit slower, form of violence. The stories of his own immigrant ancestors are made flesh and blood repeatedly in the poems. The duplicity of those the migrants encounter is clear, as with the farmer in “Riding the Beast,” who is happy to have the help as “no one educated enough for English picks / in the upper branches” but then jokes about the dangers of train hopping his workforce endures when “a hundred chalupas atop a train is a family portrait, / but when a train car slices into a low-slung tunnel / it’s a damn good start […]”Ultimately, the border becomes a seemingly arbitrary and meaningless method of rationalizing greed, racism, and dehumanization. It is a place where we are left with the same question posed to the poet by two wild horses in a later poem, “Tell me who you are to draw a line / our myths cannot cross.”

The poems in Conflict Tours oscillate between concerns external and internal, but the poet’s personal conflicts receive every bit as much scrutiny as the troubles he witnesses in geopolitical hot spots and war zones. Ostensibly, section two and its detailing of long bike trips and Appalachian Trail hikes lands the reader in a lighter place than the border poems. However, it becomes clear quickly that the physical activity and endurance inherent to these activities are both recreation and an ongoing challenge, a means of working through anxieties resulting both from the poet’s professional and military experiences and from his own ADD/ADHD. “Ultralight” opens this section and is a litany of the objects in the speaker’s pack along with their corresponding weights in grams. It ends with a declaration of emotional weight and surety that would make Tim O’Brien proud:
  
    Closed, I clutch the blade
    dangling loose from the slipknot on my chest strap—
    less than a kilo of pull and it’s freed. Bumps
    tumoring my hip-belt pocket.
    Adderall. I know where everything is,
    exactly how much I carry.


The aforementioned Adderall, what Travelstead calls his “pitbull pills” are a constant companion in the poems. They become, in many ways, a character in and of themselves, as in “Rapture,” an ode of sorts to the clear-headedness they allow:

            […] Hummingbird
    nested in the space between ribs. Your last thought,
    you are it, sustained forever.

    O Benzedrine, Dexedrine.
    O cold blue angel of methylphenidate, Concerta, and Ritalin—
    I hum with praise, I hum with joy


The complexity of this relationship becomes central in the book’s third section, which is devoted almost entirely to exploring this state of anxiety and how a regimen of medications, physical exertion, and wanderlust allow a means of navigating through them. “Analysis Paralysis” illustrates how even the most banal tasks become impossible in such a state of mind, while the poem’s staccato, checklist form creates just such a state for the reader:
  
    A quick in-and-out and nobody gets hurt, you promise,
    popping a sleeved capsule before walking into
    the Kroger’s. Only suddenly
    it’s two-oh-five
    and you’ve been fingering packages
    of meat on Manager’s Special for fifteen minutes
    comparing orange stickers on sirloin.


The titles of the book’s third section alone are indicative of the ups and downs which Travelstead is both enduring and exploring in the work—“Pleasure Principle (Pitbull Pills),” “Scientist,” “Analysis Paralysis,” “Failure,” “Monster,” and “Ghost.” But there is also something in the long, expansive lines that populate many of the poems, and with which Travelstead is so adept, that strips the poems of ambivalence and makes his work an emotional tour de force. Nowhere is this on display more clearly than in this third section, in poems such as “Failure”:
  
    Better to forget what plateau means, and the law of diminishing returns,

    how muscle ceases making gains when worked the same way twice.
    Sometimes even I try unyoking myself but Failure’s been calling the shots
    so long he’s not going to give up. Laughs like a loon imitating a hyena.
    Jerks the chain tighter, and this time when he smears my face in it

    I come away with a bloody nose
[…]

Though its poems are more historical in nature and perhaps are more precise in many ways than the more personal work in the poems that precede them, Conflict Tours is at its best in its fourth section. The section is a collection of nine poems that traces Travelstead’s journey through the Ukraine, particularly his time spent in the “Zone of Alienation,” the restricted zone around Pripyat, the town evacuated after the meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl. Here, we meet Oksana, his guide to the Exclusion Zone who, with the aid of various radiation detectors, helps him discern where he can and cannot go. We encounter glowing trees, the eerie, fly-by-night state of Pripyat, which is being reclaimed by the forest around it, and the abundant wildlife that has returned to the area. The cognitive dissonance that such a place should cause any visitor is a treasure trove for Travelstead, as in the poem “Proximity,” where he is astounded by the indifference of the nearby wildlife to their presence, to which Oksana responds,

                         […] it’s not curiosity

    or pride, but time and nearness that make us forget
    what is truly dangerous. A window
    on the third floor where her red hair blazed as she wheeled
    to the white wolf like rolling thunder in the doorway.

    it’s lupine breath, penny rot. 


Travelstead calls his travels “an addiction to traveling to places of internal or recent conflict.” It would be easy to dismiss such excursions as disaster tourism were it not for the empathy that is always centered in his work. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem “The Liquidators” which functions as the heart of the Chernobyl poems. In it, we discover that Travelstead’s motivation for visiting Pripyat lay not so much in its devastation and reclamation, but in a kind of pilgrimage to the monument left for the liquidators—the fire fighters and other first responders who lost their lives battling the initial fire and trying to contain the subsequent contamination caused by the meltdown—and to research the hours leading up the hellish circumstances that cost them everything. The poem is an in-depth look at the interactions of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Brigade and the Pripyat Brigade as the meltdown began. Travelstead is technically precise in the jargon and dialogue, while still compelling. We are thrown headlong into what are essentially lyric logistics, and they are heartbreaking:

    Thumbing the mic, I recall the rate of depletion, our half-life in these conditions,

    and the assurance in Newton’s Second Law that there is no death,
    but a changing of energy.
Put out Reactor Four or they’re all going up!
    Some relief comes when Commander Leonid arrives,

    assumes command from the roof of Reactor Three where he directs
    extinguishment of five fires formed into tornados of their own weather.  


That Travelstead would journey across continents to one of the least tourist-friendly spots on Earth in order to pay the briefest of  respects to his firefighting brothers says as much about him and his work as anything I can say here. The complex empathy of the poem, the giving of a voice to those memorialized in a place that essentially no one can visit, only reinforces this. It is a feat he replicates throughout his work, and is perhaps best summarized in some of the final words of Vladimir Pavlovych Pravik, one of the two members of the power plant brigade to die that day:

    In the silence I mouth
Thank you, that I am become a tool

    and not a weapon […]

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Sycamore by Kathy Fagan
(Milkweed Edition, 2017)

Reviewed by Cassandra Cleghorn

Kathy Fagan’s poems have lent their talismanic power to readers for over thirty years: in The Raft; Moving & St Rage; The Charm; Lip; and now, blessedly, Sycamore. In book after book, Fagan teases, bringing to light what we thought we knew, what we want to learn, what she has come to know, and what she will tell so as to include us in her wild unknowing.

As a volume, Sycamore displays extraordinary coherence. In a recent interview, Fagan admits that it’s something of a “project book” insofar as its subjects “consumed my days and nights and bled over into my artistic life, and as such… entered the poems, shaped the poems, and my vision of what the poems could be.” The book’s title, its stunning design (cover by Michael Kellner), and more than half the poems put trees front and center. Plantanaceae is the prominent family: the American sycamore or buttonwood, and its cousin, the London plane, trees distinguished by their stature, their hardiness in cities, and by the pale, mottled camouflage of their bark.

The opening, wildly inventive poem, “Plantanaceae Family Tree,” contains seeds of myths from Egypt and beyond, of the poems that will follow, and of poems as yet unwritten. In “Letter to What’s Mostly Missing,” Fagan plants some tree knowledge: “That’s all for now, except to say that, unlike other trees, / the sycamore’s bark can’t expand, so it just breaks off, / which accounts for its Bernini-like sheen.” She builds “Inscription” around the story of the 42,000 plane trees that have lined the Canal du Midi since the 1830s. Over the past decade, the old trees have succumbed to a fungus, and are being felled and burned by the thousands. But Fagan never sentimentalizes, “So what / if we are replaceable? Mostly I love how / we burst the prisons of our skins and shine.”

Contemporary philosopher Michael Marder might place Fagan’s tree poems in the tradition of what he calls “plant thinking,” “a way of thinking that is not only about plants, but with them,” a form of “intimacy grounded in difference.” When Fagan sees herself in or as a tree and vice-versa, or when she converses with trees and has them converse among themselves, she tries out strange and wonderful strategies of cross-species identification. In “Santa Caterina’s Tomb” and “Inscription,” she calls the sycamore her “emblem,” evoking the Catholic tradition according to which the sycamore represents clear vision of Christ. But tree is never reduced to symbol. In “Inscription,” she admits, “Mostly I love the light / they hold inside, the all-too-much and aged toujours / of them, their airborne electricities. Who’s to explain / affinities like these?”

“I may look smooth—” she tells the reader at the beginning of “Self-Portrait as Sycamore in Copper and Pearl,” and complicates the analogy right away:

                           but take a long hard                                                                                                                                                look. Take a biopsy.

    Interrogate my juices
    
               under your scope &
                    
            you’ll survive as I have
                
                                the sylvan hallelujah

    moments, bullion bars
            
     fanning through the showy
                    
           oaks & maples & the sweet
                        
                    sweet gums. When blue is

    dominant all over
            
    the earth, atmosphere is king,
                    
          the air so hammers-on-
                        
                    strings-perfect it steals

    the voices right off
            
          the birds.

Fagan’s lines move through human and tree bodies with what feels at times like laparoscopic zeal. Language is a calibrated instrument that pushes into the blight that must be discovered. At other times, Fagan’s lines exert a no less visceral, but infinitely more tender pressure on the surface. In “Sycamore in Jericho,” a poem about the diminutive tax collector, Zaccheus, who climbed the sycamore so he could see Christ, the speaker employs her reiki touch (on herself, on her reader):

    And after that, I felt, for a long time after, a weight on me then,
    a heated impression, hotter than the sun’s,
    like a word can leave or the memory of a child
    in one’s arms.


Losses of every kind also reverberate through the book’s bright air and are absorbed into its tissues. In “Letter to What’s Mostly Missing,” she writes, “In any case, one can only ask how many / names for the past there are. I am one.” We recognize the stage of life from which these poems issue. As she writes in “Black Walnuts,” “It is the season of separation & falling / Away.” What trees and humans share, Fagan might say, lifting a phrase from “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods Behind Your Place,” is “the one altricial need,” a species-wide certainty that each of us begins and ends in a state of fragility and perfect dependence.

In the extraordinary final poem, “Eleven-Sided Poem,” eleven tree species accost the poet after her death. “[O]ne of the whiter / sycamores who live on the river said, / Kathy, why didn’t you live in your body more?” The poet defends herself, “So, I said. Listen, you trees / (though I could not speak), / I remember dying to grow up. Standing / on tiptoe to pull my own baby / teeth.”

“Nervure” (the hollow veins in a leaf, or an insect’s wing) is one of the many poems in which the poet reaches her full lyric span and height—consistently and swervingly true, never portentous in that way poets of lesser skill can adopt as their default move: “I will die knowing less than I know now: That I bartered / my children for words and my words for love. That all my debts / were paid in full. And that when I was finally a child again myself, / scared, hungry, and cold, I was aware of none of this.” “Convent of Santa Chiara and the Poor Clares” is set in Assisi. When I read this poem, I began to think of Sycamore as providing a kind of hospice care in the archaic sense, a way station where one finds basic sustenance, but also comfort and the quiet chance for a reckoning. Such reckonings happen every few pages. In “Choral Sycamores: A Valediction,” Fagan builds an ars poetica around the figure of Daphne: “Like her / We are beheld unheld; we will not leave / The earth alive.”
  
Fagan’s way station, if at times primitive in the elemental sense of the word, is never austere. The book is full of the poet’s characteristic humor and the delight she has always taken in intricate wordplay, but is more indulgent in its pleasures than the previous books. Every pun pays unexpected dividends, windfalls of meaning. Most importantly, above Sycamore shines a sky of evident joy. At the end of “Letter to What’s Mostly Missing,” is a double gesture of tenderness offered and received: “The oak says, Let me spread / this mantle of blue over your cold marble shoulders, / Sycamore. And what can she say but yes.” We join this poet and her trees in affirmation. Sycamore warns and warms us, and deserves in return every show of love we can offer.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Spool by Matthew Cooperman
(Parlor Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Cassandra Cleghorn

Matthew Cooperman’s fifth full-length book, Spool, is—to borrow from his own ample word-hoard—ampulacious. This generous collection of spare and insistent poems both contains itself and spills over in ways the reader comes to crave: book as amphora, as sealed barrel of hypodermic needle, or even as bomb, which, according to an earlier work of the poet, “is ampulacious, fully round, goes off remaining a spread object and a startling awareness.” (Jars, barrels, hoops—the cooper who bends and mends them. Under the spell of this cooper-man’s language, I’m newly attuned to roots.) The thread thrives.

From its opening lines, Cooperman’s book reels the reader into a space that is recognizably lyric, yet also—and on principle—opposed to what Anne Waldman calls the “identity kit” we poets drag around with us. Through an extraordinarily sure touch, Cooperman mixes pastoral and “post pastoral,” love poem and elegy, abstraction and intimate detail drawn from a life, whosever it may be.  The opening stanza reads:

    time is honey
    and honey pain
    we earn it
    confusing the whip
    with the watch
    how it passes
    year after year
    a wrist with
    handcuffs all alone


Like a musician who works with implied overtones, Cooperman tricks the reader’s ear trained by ad-speak. Not money, but honey; not gain, but pain; not all along, but all alone. Elsewhere the “author was hard / of herding he,” and meaning becomes moaning. The unsounded syllables resonate. By the end of the first page, we hear the click of the cuffs lock, we feel this poet’s drive

    to ask questions
    to want answers
    a red balloon
    caught in elms
    how many times
    in this life
    in this life
    will we stop
    the honey clock


This clock recurs through the book, as does the red balloon, time as viscous as the substance in the (breakable) beaker, as buoyant as the gas in the (puncturable) bag. We watch the words morph in the last lines of this first section, “this is the / wrist to save / risk of hive.” We factor danger and pain into the sweet industry before us.

Without exception, every poem in the book is composed of three-word lines; variations play out through layout and, occasionally, typography. This supple form recalls Williams, Olson, and Creeley, and yet Cooperman’s verse is constrained beyond even these models at their most rigorously experimental. In respect to form, Olson’s presence is palpable. I can easily imagine teaching Cooperman’s book as an exploration of Olson’s “composition by field,” whereby energy is built up and discharged as each line trips the next:

    I know I’ve
    met you some
    where or wearing
    space and days

    rhyme you say
    a true blue
    next life think.


Behind or around or through the buzz and spark of the lines are further layers: at bottom, a drone or sustain or what in jazz is called the pedal tone, and the overlay of a steady thrum—heart, heat, hearth.

There are many ways into the book: Milton, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dickinson, Marvell, Bly, Duncan, Revell are named in the notes. But in my most recent reading, Williams and Creeley (not named, but everywhere present) are importantly and, as Creeley and Cooperman might say, complexly felt. The reverberations happen around particular words and situations, snatches of dialogue (“’drive,’ she said / ‘drive it fast. . .’”), and in the relation of poet to his subject. The opening lines of Paterson, Book II hover:

    Outside
                            outside myself
                                                 there is a world,
    he rumbled, subject to my incursions
    a—a world
                               (to me) at rest,
                                                 which I approach
    concretely—


Cooperman’s incursions, too, bring us along with him into and up hard against “the dredge of / city rivers,” mountains, and “vanishing woods”:

    more and more
    the day makes
    clear the day’s
    a separate mass
    I must enter
    at all costs
    the very thorn
    like locust moved
    a tree for
    all my wandering


Most often, however, Cooperman is after something smaller—that basic human unit, “the family bin,” in its “wild domesticity”: “a family is / a thing a / made thing almost / a true wall / we made this / thing true wall.”  We watch the mind at work on “blood and cradle.” “Spool 7” begins: “some more new / thinking about about / and while I’m / at it on / and through the / time of conflicting,” doing a metacognitive dance that descends into body: “the body thirsts / the pupil dilates.”

But embodiment is hardly a solution to the problems of self that are hatched in this “family linkage nest.” This poet is tender with his intimates and harsh on himself, admitting he’s “a man unplumbed” (48), “placeless / among empty loans” (47): “how I am / this difficult man / a gnarled me” (28).  Again and again, the poet finds his limits, the silences without and within. The word “autism” drops once in the book, and reverberates, bone by bone, in association with “Daughter.” We witness the toil of being the father who “know[s] not / where she goes / or how to / go to her / with articulate grace”:

    receiving      I long
    to fly and
    can’t stitch ends
    such so and
    so my tongue
    responds      its ruth
    a savage silence


The wonder of the invariable, three-word rule is that at times it propels the poem forward, feeding off resistance; while, elsewhere, the effect is a stall or heart-rending stutter: “it’s confronting what / I don’t know / what I do.” The radiant “Spool 25” contains a prayer: “patience please please / dark dark understanding.”

Then there are, of course, the spools themselves—in the names of the individual poems (numbered randomly, nonconsecutively) and in the web of countless related figures: “lathe of time / lave of shine” and “world’s quick spindle / turns coriolis hairwise.” While the three-word lines give a transverse rhythm to the eye’s movement from left to right, and back again to left margin, this work is less about warp and weft than edge and fray. Spool catches the thread of its forebears: “If you could just ravel out into time. That would be nice. It would be nice if you could just ravel out into time,” says Darl in As I Lay Dying; “What common language to unravel,” asks Williams parenthetically in Paterson; and Cooperman follows with “she and me / a raveling spore / in every darkness.” While Faulkner and Williams cast their taut lines for the biggest fish, Cooperman favors coil, tangle, that which both binds and severs. The possibilities that open out from his title immeasurably extend Olson’s crude use of “kinetics” to illustrate the “machinery” of projective verse. We are ushered by Cooperman via modernist forms into new relations to time and space where “years go by / not as catches / but as drones.” He asks elsewhere, “is it we’re / free from the / surveillance when we / made the surveillance.” The effect of Cooperman’s anachronism is at once as familiar as a quilt, and vertiginous.

And yet, Cooperman rows us steadily with his “vacant oar,” paying out the tilting arcs of language that lash us to our objects, and cut between us and everything we aim at or converse with. Richard Serra presides over the book perhaps more than even the most influential poet. Cooperman offers the sculptor “a string of gratitudes,” calling him the “hovering ‘architect’ of the Spool design.” Cooperman’s book confirms my sense that poetry and sculpture are the closest cousins of the expressive arts, sharing our obsessions with objects and their making; with substance, medium, and material; with the primitive relations between nouns and verbs. Perhaps in a moment of overstatement, Serra traces all of his work to a single detail from an outing he took with his father when he was four years old. Serra recalls the “tremendous anxiety” he felt as he watched an oiler launched in the San Francisco Bay: “as the ship went through a transformation from an enormous obdurate weight to a buoyant structure, free, afloat, and adrift.” Cooperman spins a parallel moment, speaking as father rather than son, and supplementing memory with what he observes and what he hopes for:

    becoming a past
    to reflect upon
    is to see
    a pond not
    time but distance
    of transport known
    a toy drags
    my son years
    discretely shapes of
    blocks he builds
    a ship so
    wanting to transform


An aching joy seeps through every line of this hard-won book. Cooperman ends “Spool 20” with a sigh, “so hard to / make real objects.” For my honey, the heft and breath of this book is as real as it gets.

Friday, June 23, 2017

WoO by Renee Angle
(Letter Machine Editions, 2016)

Reviewed by Michael McLane

Renee Angle wastes no time in laying out the premise of her first collection, WoO. Its preface opens with the declaration “I am the bastard great-great-great grandchild of Joseph Smith, in search of a textline, not a bloodline. I affirm the manner in which durability and transience are imposed upon the world of objects.” This is a far cry from the traditional Mormon testimonial of “I know The Church is true; I know The Book of Mormon is true; I know ___________   is a prophet of God.” Nonetheless, it serves a similar purpose, a means of delineating one’s place within, or in this case without, a tradition that is at once familial, cultural, and literary. For followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, this triangulation of identity, particularly for those of its early, pioneer stock, is every bit as crucial as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. After all, it is The Book of Mormon, with its companion texts The Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price, that differentiates Mormonism from other Christian faiths.

Needless to say, any prophet who brings forth a work subtitled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” is bound to stir a little controversy. Smith’s book, along with his political and sexual proclivities, cost him dearly. It is within this context that Angle adds her own contribution to the literary tradition started by Smith, a book she calls “a hagiography written under the spiritual guide of a heretic.” Ostensibly, WoO is a translation of the missing 116 pages of The Book of Mormon, pages Smith translated from gold plates provided by an angel and which he then allowed his scribe, Martin Harris, to borrow to show his wife and friends in order to legitimate his plans to finance Smith’s publication. For Angle, it is clear that her interest in these pages is an exploration of creation, not divination. The pages are
  
    Archeological syntax. Real estate hides behind Moroni’s
    etymology. I want to tell you want it means. Want to
    know what it means? But language is a skin, a mouth
    for wearing. Language is a kin to kinder flophouses
[…]

Angle’s lines are slippery and charismatic. It is easy to read right through the syntactic shifts and play and difficult to forget their idiosyncrasies once they are observed. Smith, though not especially literate, understood this characteristic of language. When the missing pages did not resurface, he understood the scrutiny he would face if he and Harris were to recreate them and the two sets of revelations were not identical. After the rest of the book was finished Smith provided a condensed version of the 116 pages, also via revelation. Such fears of scrutiny resound throughout Angle’s work, perhaps most strongly with the question, “What happens when you hand your relics over to science, and, what if science doesn’t want your saints?” Or, perhaps more pointedly,
  
    A crater muffled in the ruse. How ruseful to believe your
        own ruse. Bake it up, chamber desert
[…]

WoO is a textline made by one alienated by Smith’s legacy, ostracized by its patriarchy and made a bastard both in the literal sense—as a product of an implied sexual encounter between her ancestor and Joseph Smith that was outside of traditional marriage or the spiritual marriage (polygamy) that was integral to Smith’s church—and figuratively in that Angle writes as a non-believer outside the LDS Church’s sanctioned, faith-promoting works. Her speaker is:

                […] too organized to wander.
    Too practical to pray in a way that wants answers.
    Perhaps this want from answers is in fact a pheromone.
    Perhaps this wonk of answers is indeed a pheromone.
    I want answers.


While much of the book takes places in domestic settings, women are never named and rarely characterized beyond mothers, wives, a means to kin.

              In any given story, who is the fake? Is it the mother
    That does not protest enough and therefore fails to
    Protect her daughter from the lies of the father? Is it
    her father who we are not sure is lying in the first place?
    Is it the daughter herself, who could never know what
    Her real interests are, or what is set before her each
    morning?


There is a looming acquiescence and timidity to the women that speak to both their place within this tradition and the power inherent to Angle appropriating the keystone creative achievements of its founder. That said, it seems clear she counted herself among the LDS numbers at one time:

        I was happy to flip shadows on hinges. Now I can’t
    look at a shadow without him. I erase a set of out-of-tune
    church bells, parking lot full of police cars.


Angle confronts both the history the LDS church extols for the public and its membership, as well as the complexity that constitutes its much larger historical record. There is an idiolect at work in WoO that does double duty. For readers unfamiliar with Mormonism, it operates as playful lyricism, a litany of images, alliteration, and oddities such as salamanders, Egyptian objects, and words such as Urim and Thummim (names of seer stones used by Smith for translation) that seem more prosodic than thematic. But for those who share Angle’s background, such as this author, these phrases and images are the lynchpins of the “heretical” work in which she is engaged. They are a catalog of references to canonical Mormon doctrine, cultural mores and mythology, as well as mystical origins of Smith’s theology, which was built on a series of encounters with American spiritualism and other traditions that ranged from water witching and Freemasonry, to seer stones, treasure hunting, and  Swedenborgian philosophy. Early in the translation portion of the book, Angle writes:

    […] mummies curl in a pouch. Moon is itself inhabitant of
    marshmallow. Permanent charms pioneer the pavement
    mud of wheel ruts. It is the human form pinched to
    death with cold. Partly peeled from the element, radiate
    in red, one suspicious bowl. A ringside seat to Rosetta
    Stone, make hinge-friend. If we believe that the tongue
    Is a kind of tattoo. Primitive member, missing link.
    Between their piss and peace no mudpuppy, hellbender,
    or red elf crest. Salamandra salamandra, sugar up leaves
[…]

In one short section, Angle upends The Book of Abraham (a later text by Smith), seer stones, the hallowed ground of the pioneer myth, the translation of The Book of Mormon, and the White Salamander letter, a document forged by Mark Hofmann, a disgruntled member of the church eager to both discredit its current leadership and place Mormonism within the legacy of its mystical beginnings.

In its hagiography, WoO is much more akin to Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, with its in-depth look into the spiritiualist history of the Smith family and other questions of Smith’s legitimacy, than to Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, both of which are titles referred to as source material for the book. WoO is every bit as much a historiography and bibliography of legitimacy and fraud as it is ecclesiastical biography or tribute. Scattered throughout the text, and acting as a transition between the preface and Angle’s translation are reproductions of images from Egyptian funerary papyri that Smith purchased from a traveling expedition of mummies and “translated” into The Book of Abraham, a scriptural text that would later be integrated into The Pearl of Great Price and which laid the foundation for a number of Mormonism’s more unique doctrines including the plurality of gods, the pre-mortal existence, and the planet Kolob—the star closest God’s home. These papyri and Smith’s translations remain deeply problematic for many members and Mormon scholars, yet they remain crucial to the “textline” from which Angle descends and they are only one of many such examples tied to Smith’s work. There was the supposed Solomon Spalding novel, long lost but written a decade or so before The Book of Mormon, that outlines the lives of the Nephites and Lamanites, lost tribes of Israel who washed ashore in North America. There were also the Kinderhook plates, further translations of ancient tablets found in an Indian burial mound near Nauvoo, IL, that turned out to be a hoax played on Smith by locals. References to these works and others weave themselves into WoO, tracing a literary lineage as remarkable from a creative standpoint as it is troubling from one of faith. Early in the book, she outlines the perils of the textline’s faith and artistry:

    Who would hang a fake?

    *

    A way to teach is to say faction is truer than nonfiction.
    We see the thought progressed in Plato’s “god must be
    represented as he really is.”

    *

    Who do you take sympathy with?

    *

    Which mind do you choose?

    *

    Whose style did you assume you might say?


Of course, it is almost impossible to invoke the word “fake” within context of Mormon literary history without simultaneously invoking the name Mark Hofmann, who in the midst of a crisis of faith and ongoing financial troubles, honed his skills as a forger to a nearly unprecedented level and would later turn to murder via mail bombs to try and cover his crimes, nearly killing himself when one exploded in his car. He forged founding American documents, Emily Dickinson poems, and much more. But his specialty was Mormon history. He loved provoking Mormon leadership and fomenting doubt and disagreement in their followers. One document, the White Salamander letter, was supposedly penned by Martin Harris and outlines how it was not the angel Moroni, but a white salamander (the salamander being a potent symbol in various mystical traditions) who led Smith to the gold plates.

Salamanders make repeated appearances in Angle’s work, as does Hofmann, “Krill bashed her squash / blossom necklace, but enter Hofmann’s & ‘Thou may’est see the burn marks yet.’ ‘Thou may’est’ papyri-sty / climb.” Later in the same piece, she writes, “Polygamy is not interested but it wants / his sperm count catered. ‘Mercury, or quicksilver, that most volatile of metals and a central alchemical emblem.’” It is worth noting here that Hofmann used mercury switches for his bombs, triggers that are particularly volatile. In these two short passages, Angle draws a direct line between the practiced alchemy of Smith’s spiritualism and mysticism and “alchemy” of creation, even for less-than-savory reasons, such as the creation of scripture or history wholly from the imagination or the making of paper and iron gall ink that can fool an appraiser.

In one interview Angle refers to Smith’s book as a “mongrel.” It was almost certainly pastiche. “Ready-made” may be a more appropriate word. Like Duchamp, who also makes an appearance or two in WoO, Smith had a keen eye for repurposing otherwise overlooked artifacts and texts and putting his own flourish on them. Angle takes up her place in this tradition beautifully, and with a humor and lyricism that Smith could only dream of. She is participating in other literary traditions as well, as she makes clear in her notes about source material for the book. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me be Lonely is named specifically, as is Harold Bloom, but it seems that Charles Olson is here in spirit as well. Like the aforementioned writers, Angle does not merely trace the violence and indiscretions of her topic, though they are numerous, especially if the legacy of his creation is considered. Instead, she builds a network of histories that spans nearly two centuries and at least one continent while encapsulating an enormous spectrum of motives behind the creative act. As a translator, she complicates her source material in a myriad of satisfying ways, understanding, as one passage in the book’s final pages notes,

    Eventually writers understand they must turn their backs
        on the original
    There is almost not an interval

    Objects are outside the soul, of course; and yet, they are
        Also ballast in our heads

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Worrier by Nancy Takacs
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Katie Kingston

Worry is not a new concept, but Nancy Takacs’ treatment of the issue in her new collection, The Worrier, is both refreshing and unnerving. She cares about the plight of the natural world, and these poems address these concerns as well as their impact on our personal relationships. Each poem is an arena where vanishing bees “[p]lay practical jokes”; where algae is “[a] cross between turquoise fleece and lime velour”; where light comes from “[a] lightbox and nine double A batteries.” She immerses the reader in an endless pool of imagery rooted in sparse language as she addresses climate change and human encroachment. She allows the reader to ruminate under a rural Utah sky, get in touch with wilderness, relearn what it is to be “[b]lue mustard / igniting the desert field.”

Takacs’ “Worrier” enters into a dialogue with the self. The questions are honest, basic queries that arise from an everyday voice, as if formulated by a friend or parent, teacher or therapist: 

    What is the point of it? 
    What is that scar on your thumb?
    What are you looking for? 
    How will you remember to paint him? 
    What is the poet doing? 
    Where is your plastic?

These questions are a dynamic springboard for the answers that follow, which are unexpected, loaded with tension, and wildly juxtaposed. Each of the brief responses is weighted with wisdom. It’s as if a placid lake has been sliced open by a diver and the ripples surge in their wake. The twists, turns, and leaps in midair are breath-taking as in this poem subtitled “failure.” 

    Where does failure come from?

    Trilobites, corals,
    dinosaur footprints,
    ice-aged mammoths.

    How do you get rid of it?

    I’m learning not to trust the map.

These seemingly disparate jumps continue throughout the course of the book. No matter what the subtitled theme of each poem suggests, the answers are always unorthodox, always thought provoking, as evidenced again in the opening lines of “skin.” 

    What lives on the skin?

    A mirror and a cloud of tumbleweed.

In addition to her emphasis on dialogue, Takacs leaves the reader plenty of white space to absorb the ricochet of her words. Her pauses allow the reader to savor the stream of natural imagery and find a place for it, not as a conclusion, but as an opening that floods a void. Her silences are key to a resonance that internalizes these images for the reader as in the poem “volunteer.”  

    What have you given up? 
   
    Words,
    but they seep into my mouth
    anyway.

    What do you feel?

    I feel embroidered tonight,
    like an intricate
    tablecloth of blossoms
    whose eyes stay open.

Each poem is a scaffolding of concern honed from direct questions and followed by answers juxtaposed on a stepladder where each rung is separated by white space. Just as the rung allows the foot to enter and raise the body to new heights, so too, Takacs’ use of white space allows the mind to enter the poem’s sensibilities and elevate. These Worrier voices resonate with the wisdom and turmoil of mid-life as they traverse remote, wilderness landscapes—Lake Superior, Devil’s Backbone, Swasey’s Leap, Flaming Gorge—exploring not only terrain, but a field of stunning images from a poet who knows firsthand “[w]hen the sandhill cranes / begin their chortle. / [w]hen the wind chime / stops its winks of glass.”

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances by Elizabeth A. I. Powell
(Anhinga Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Jamie Wendt

Elizabeth Powell’s second book of poetry, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, is a beautifully woven collection of prose poetry, lyric poetry, and memoir. She writes about the mixing of identities, particularly of Jewish and Gentile heritage as well as the combining of twins’ blood in the womb and the confusion of one’s self versus a doppelganger. Using Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Powell continually returns to the idea of auto-correction and the censoring of identities as a means to contemplate the erasure of female voice and presence within the Loman family and within the poet’s own family experiences.

Powell raises issues of sexism and gender bias in theater and life, particularly for an unnamed daughter whose voice is silenced. She uses excerpts from Death of a Salesman as well as stage directions, theater typography, and lingo to intensify Loman’s death and the illicit relationship with the “Other Woman,” whose “Reckless Daughter,” a character of Powell’s imagining, sees the dysfunctional American family in a fresh light. Using symbolic moments from the play, such as Linda Loman’s stockings as a reminder of Willy’s affair in “How to Sew an Unhemmed Day,” Powell questions what the American Dream means for women in this play as they are repeatedly cast as “Other.” Women's lines are cut-off or ignored, or they are simply written out of the play or reduced to the role of understudy.

Death of a Salesman and the poet’s memoir collide in a theatrical understanding of American families. Powell acknowledges that an actor/actress, extra in the play, or even audience member are at times the same, so there is often a blurring of reality and fiction. In a series of sonnets titled “The Understudy’s Soliloquies,” she plays with the idea of salesmen putting on a show and American business as an act. In the first sonnet, she writes,

    The photo on top of Father’s coffin was from before the creditcrunch,     
    a portrait taken for a New York Times article on American business. 
    Father fake-smiled from the frame before his final stage left, his mistress     
     in the back made eye contact with the idea concealed behind journalistic     
    facts […]

Poems such as “Accident Report,” “Set Design: What the Door Knows,” and “Traveling Salesman in Providence” are directly in conversation with Death of a Salesman, and the poet uses Loman’s story to talk about her own father and the life and death of his American Dream. In “What Death Said,” Powell imagines her father’s thoughts as he is dying and his concerns about who will care for his body in death. The reader cannot help but be reminded of Loman’s death as Powell weaves her own story with that of Miller’s tragic American family.

Powell understands that people perceive the world in part based on the stories they hear, so if the reckless daughter is silenced, the audience misses part of the story. In the title poem at the end of the book in the section titled “Act 5. To Further Understand I May Not be Human at All,” Powell writes,

    Every salesman tries on so many faces,
    they lose their own in the road’s empty spaces.
    I was a secret stuck inside a secret. You kept 
    tabulating yourself in me. I wept 
    for the curtain’s endless rising
    on your death. The morning shining 
    in through the kitchen window. 
    The past could not enter, nor foreshadow.

The recklessness of the daughter lies in the fact that she wants her story told, so as not to be erased from the plot of her family’s yearning for the American Dream. These poems—full of rhyme, longing, memory, and forgiveness—make for both an incredibly original book and a nuanced rethinking of the classic Death of a Salesman.


Jamie Wendt is a graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA program. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, including Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, and Saranac Review. Her essays on Jewish writing have been published in Green Mountains Review and The Forward. She contributes book reviews for the Jewish Book Council. Wendt teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter. Find her at JamieWendt.WordPress.com.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Scriptorium by Melissa Range
(Beacon Press, 2016)

reviewed by Philip Belcher

In a speech commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Gogol’s death, Philip Rahv said that Vladimir Nabokov, as a Gogol critic, “suffer[ed] from something like a phobic fear of all interpretive techniques not strictly literary in reference—a fear driving him toward the extremely one-sided emphasis which takes the literary act to be a phenomenon solely ‘of language and not of ideas.’” Because contemporary poets who yield to the pleasures and disciplines of various formal elements still appear on the current literary landscape infrequently enough to be considered exceptions to the norm of loose free verse, readers encountering them also are tempted, like Nabokov reading Gogol, to expend so much energy admiring these poets’ facility with language that they devote inadequate attention both to considering the poems’ ideas and to evaluating the effectiveness of the poets’ formal skills in making those connections with readers that make poems memorable and worth the interpretive effort. So striking is Melissa Range’s devotion to formal, particularly sonic, inventiveness that a reader encountering Range’s poems for the first time might well be tempted to focus on the poet’s language to the exclusion, or at least the diminution, of the ideas presented by the poems. That would be unfortunate.

Range made clear her intent to luxuriate in sound in her first volume of poems, 2010’s Horse and Rider. For example, that volume’s “The Warhorse” opens with a burst of alliteration:
  
    Oft has the warhorse, the wayworn widowmaker,
    with wearied withers been dismissed
    from battle, bereft of bit and bridle,
    saddened and saddle-sore, to survive
    his final charge, his last campaign—
    the paddock, the pack, the stall.


Range is no less committed to form and sound in her second volume, Scriptorium, but careful readers will notice an evolution. Although form and content are congruous in all of Range’s work, that alignment is tighter in Scriptorium than in Horse and Rider. In Scriptorium, readers will notice in poems like “Ultramarine” how Range disciplines her use of alliteration, meter, and rhyme in service of the poems:

    Beyond the blue scum sea, miners assault
    lazurite and pyrite, a blue-gold beam,
    pry from limestone caverns the lapis seam
    for the shade that painters’ patrons so exalt
    to hem the Virgin’s mantle, foam the Vault
    where she’s fixed like a lodestar or a gem.

 
Scriptorium, selected by Tracy K. Smith as a 2015 National Poetry Series winner, includes thirty-three poems and five pages of notes that help orient readers unfamiliar with the historical settings in which some of these poems are placed. One of the particular joys in reading Scriptorium is puzzling over the form and structure of the volume as a whole. Of the thirty-three poems, the titles of ten name pigments used in illuminating manuscripts. Each of these ten, spread more or less evenly throughout the book, is a sonnet—not the fourteen-line, half-rhymed semi-sonnet that one reads so often these days, but an end-rhymed, metrically consistent, honest-to-Goodness sonnet, many with a conspicuous volta in which the speaker turns to address God directly.
           
Range, a trained theologian, also draws on her East Tennessee origins as a source for Scriptorium. In poems like “Hit” and “To Swan,” the poet highlights the quirks of her native Appalachian, Southern dialect. Here, Range is her most playful. The opening lines from “Flat as a Flitter” will suffice to give a flavor of these poems:

    The way you can crush a bug
    or stomp drained cans of Schlitz out on the porch,

    the bread when it won’t rise,
    the cake when it falls after the oven-door slams—
  
    the old people had their way
    to describe such things. “But what’s a flitter?”

    I always asked my granny. And she could never say.
    “It’s just a flitter. Well, it might be a fritter.”

    “Then why not say ‘fritter’?”
    “Shit, Melissa. Because the old people said ‘flitter.’”


Readers unaccustomed with the colloquialisms and patterns of speech in these poems will be seduced by their humor and intimacy. Readers from the South will be grateful for these poems’ authenticity and their lack of the faux-folksiness of writers ashamed or too proud of their own histories. These poems also recall ones by Rodney Jones and R.T. Smith in which those poets deal with their own Southern heritage and the evolution of language and place into something more homogenous than they remember. Range is no more regional (if that term is used in some limiting sense) than Jones and Smith; she, like they, uses her particular circumstance to address more universal themes. These poems address, too, the difficult break from the bonds of place and family toward promise and a fulfillment unavailable within the confines of the familiar. In “Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg,” the speaker asks how she might explain to her grandmother “that the creeks crisscrossing / our tumbledown ridges // are ropes trying to pull my heart straight / when it’s a crooked muscle, / its blood crashing in circles?”

Although two themes—language and the relationship between the speaker and God—underlie all of the poems in Scriptorium (Could there be a better metaphor for that thematic intersection?), two poems emphasizing aspects of those topics deserve particular mention. It was a particular delight to see in “Incarnational Theology” a thoughtful treatment of the German theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann. Although Range’s note on this poem is useful, it is not necessary for enjoyment of this fine villanelle. The poet combines her facility with received forms, her theological preoccupations, and her Appalachian vernacular to conceive a poem worth the price of the book. Few other contemporary poets are writing like this:

    God takes on flesh and thinks he’ll smother.
    Reeling, obsessed, his heart a wilderness,
    God’s a mess, suffering in me as I suffer

    over a torn leaf, a tore-up man, the others
    I’ve tried to love, shorn to the bone and luckless
    as the Son.
[ . . .]

If any single poem in Scriptorium incorporates all of Range’s concerns, “Ashburnham” does. The related note helpfully describes the 1731 Ashburnham House fire that damaged and destroyed many manuscripts in the Cotton Library. Among those damaged severely was the only extant copy of Beowulf. The eighteen unrhymed couplets describe the origin of the library when books discarded from scriptoria upon the dissolution of monasteries were saved and collected and then their destruction by the fire. This is not merely a description of literary and historical loss; the loss seems personal to the speaker and, by extension here, to the poet. But the damage did not begin with the fire. The originals were “[ . . .] irretrievable / the instant the pen quenched // the harp: a smoldering / smothered, a ruin of the tongue.” Range reminds the reader through the content and the form of her poems that language was spoken and heard before it was written. Her musings in these pages, the scriptorium in which she considers language, her history, and the role of the divine in both, deserve to be heard as well as read.