Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sediment & Veil by Kirsten Jorgenson
(Horse Less Press, 2014)

reviewed by Michael McLane

“No one in Utah ever died from radiation poisoning; it isn’t on the form.” This pithy and chilling remark, usually attributed to R. Billings Brown, a professor at the University of Utah medical school, cuts to core of why the legacy of nuclear tests remains the elephant in the room throughout the Southwest, and Utah in particular. It also suggests the reason that Kirsten Jorgenson’s first collection, Sediment & Veil, is such a welcome addition to the poetry world and to Western literature at large. Though many poets have contributed a poem or two on the subject, Jorgenson’s is the first poetry collection since Emma Lou Thayne’s 1983 How Much for the Earth to approach the subject with such depth and care.

These poems grapple with the acute disruption that nuclear testing—and its attendant skyrocketing rates of leukemias, thyroid cancers, female reproductive cancers, sterility, and congenital malformations—caused for thousands of families, including the poet’s, throughout Utah and Nevada, an area declared “a region of sacrifice” by both government and military officials owing largely to its low population densities and a widespread perception of the Great Basin as a wasteland. It was safer to risk clouds of fallout landing on small communities like Ely and St. George than for them to roll through large populations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Likewise, the largely-Mormon population in the area, still eager to be perceived as patriots after a century of distrust from the nation at large, were rightly believed to be less likely to complain or to seek litigation or remuneration. These conflicting perceptions and legacies of landscape and faith come to bear heavily on Jorgenson’s poems and illustrate that the term Downwinders is not to be used in the past tense, but is instead an ongoing struggle, one that bears itself out in in the ephemeral world of memory as well and the much more tangible world of medicine.

From the opening page of Sediment & Veil, it is clear that the body, and many bodies, are the primary setting(s) for these poems, but the body it is not a boundary, a place clearly delineated; rather, it is a membrane which the joy and tragedy of memory transgresses perpetually and which unwittingly welcomes the legacy of the Nevada Test Site and the nuclear West:
  
    every one

    is remembering

    a single line

    a mouthful

    say I border

    my body

    filmy

    ghost

 
Ghosts abound in this text, as do skeletons, bones, and souls; the corporeal and spiritual infrastructure of the individual are at stake throughout it pages. As the book’s title implies, there is a direct correlation between what settles to the ground and the losses felt upon that land.

On a half dozen or so occasions in the book, images accompany or even overlap the poems. In one instance, “a grid representing abnormal macular degeneration” in which one corner of the grid sways and bends, illustrates a patient’s blind spot. Overlapping the grid is the passage “memory is light / through flesh / honeybee / ghost / incinerator / a language / in bones / cells / a promised land.” Jorgenson packs an unbelievable amount of history and conflict into that combination of sixteen words and one image. It is one such moment in the book where the poignancy of loss, the governmental blind spot toward a population, the irony of the poisoning of a wide swatch of the Mormon Zion (represented by both the “honeybee” and “promised land,”) and the tragic connotations of light in this context, collide head-on in a succinct-but-chilling moment. Elsewhere, Jorgenson has essentially dissected what she labels a “contour map of a ‘Turf’ detonation in Area 10 of the Nevada Test Site,” placing single sections or layers from the map on top of, or adjacent to her text. Removed from their full context, these images are haunting, appearing as ultrasounds or small piles of dust strewn across the page, the latter creating a particularly devastating effect when accompanied by passages such as “written into darkness / a curtain / veil / to be pulled through or not.” Perhaps more importantly, the pieces of map are a reminder that when such tragedies are visited upon a landscape, neither maps nor the land itself can be trusted going forward.


Of the various themes addressed in her poems, the notion of faith pitted against citizenship is one of the most complex and overlooked aspects of Utah’s nuclear legacy. Despite overwhelming evidence that they were deliberately overlooked and lied to, there is an ongoing conflict between victims and descendants who are furious and seeking both admission of guilt and recompense from the federal government and those who continue to want to believe that their family members, farms, and animals died for the greater good and for a patriotic cause. Though Jorgenson offers no judgement or resolution of such conflict, it is key to her interaction with others throughout the poems, most poignantly in the writing of “This is the Place” on a makeshift sign for a family reunion (a clear gesture to the words ascribed to Brigham Young upon his entrance to the Salt Lake Valley) and the poem’s final line, “Your hair has ash in it,” a reference to the fact that many Downwinders at first perceived falling radioactive ash from tests to be freak snowstorms.
                                   
As much as it is an exploration of historical events, Sediment & Veil is also a poignant exploration of the function and dysfunction of memory of the period preceding, and immediately following, great personal loss. While the specifics of this loss are never overtly revealed, which often allows such scenes a timeless quality, it remains an axis on which the book turns and reprises. The passage quoted in full earlier in this review reappears on several occasions, its eight lines disintegrated and recombinant. Similarly, other media that appear in the poems, like the test site map presented in piecemeal, begin to undo themselves. A photograph in one poem offers a stark example of this tendency when Jorgenson writes:
  
    call you ghost
                                      
                                       you moved away
       
     you left a smudge on the film
                            
                           no face to identify your body
no body but spilled and congealed milk


Like memory, the body is a desolate setting here, whether it be the men a relative describes finding in Dachau, “so thin they were hanging by their genitals from piano wire,” or the “evening ghosts[…] / collapsing against horizon / the 6,000 head of sheep / blood atonement.” Such moments are reflected in the increasing expanse of the poem’s geography, as the southern portion of the Great Basin expands to include the Great Salt Lake and the salt flats of Utah’s west desert, places ostensibly barren but playing host to ecosystems as fragile as a body under attack from cancer. It is a psychic landscape as well, as references to the 1960s cult classic Carnival of Souls implies. Shot in and around the Great Salt Lake, including the former lakeside dance hall of Saltair, the film, like the book, is an exploration of attempting to make home in a place that poses a tangible threat. But where Mary Henry’s character is largely haunted by ghosts of the mind, the ghosts of the land itself play an equal counterpoint in Jorgenson’s poems.

Sixty-plus years on, the legacy of nuclear testing continues to be shaped simultaneously by ongoing tragedies for those families exposed to its byproducts and by an increasing desire from Downwinders, and the nation at large, for a more complex understanding of the events surrounding the tests. The numbers of scholarly studies and oral histories are increasing, giving voice to a group that achieved a day of remembrance only two years ago. Likewise, Jorgenson’s unflinching glimpse into ground zero’s “glass desert” provides a crucial lyric and fragmentary component to such work. Difficult history gains emotional and intellectual depth in the hands of a skilled poet. This is precisely what Sediment & Veil offers, to devastating effect. And yet, in spite of the sacrifices made, the steadfastness of the people these poems document shines through from time to time, as in the
  
    two years of food in the pantry

    enough to walk

    through the burning world


    counting blessings

    locust and gull

    counting blessings

    locust and gull

Monday, July 20, 2015

Father, Child, Water by Gary Dop
(Red Hen Press, 2015)

reviewed by Josh Cook

Gary Dop’s charming debut collection, Father, Child, Water, wrestles with many myths, the most prominent being conventional manhood. Favoring narrative, anecdote, and stand-up-like swerves over music and fancy footwork, Dop reinstates the idea that poetry can, first and foremost, invite rather than challenge. As the title suggests, the book is split into three sections. “Father” begins with an eponymous love letter to a child:
  
    I lift your body to the boat
    before you drown or choke or slip too far

    beneath. I didn’t think—just jumped, just did
    what I did like the physics

    that flung you in
[…]

Dop deploys Biblical imagery throughout the collection, sometimes utilized to clarify attitude—in the above poem, the child is referred to as “fountain cherub”—and sometimes in borderline pastiche. In “To My Love Handles,” a humorous homage to the middle-aged body, the speaker begins:

    The body’s seers, you prophesy
    to the left, to the right, where the rest of me—
    my loves—will go. Lead me,

    guide me, walk beside me. I sneak cookies
    in the night to strip off the guilt
    of the South Beach sin that enslaves me
    and threatens your lives. Together,

    we flow into the wide world,
    our promised land of whole milk and honey
    butter. We pass on Norwegian girth
[…]

It’s a signature Dop poem. The humor slides easily off, but underneath, there’s that apparent wrestling: what is a man? A father? A saint? A sinner? An obsession with legacy runs through the collection, too. “Shifting the Bolt,” a hunting scene set on the Nebraska-Kansas border, is the most obvious example. The young speaker, after unloading the gun his father gave him, asks “if he hunted with his father.” But legacy is more fraught and complex in “Little Girl, Little Lion.” The speaker’s daughter tells him that girls can’t be poets, and in an effort to both correct and empower, the speaker wonders, “…how can I / wrecking ball the commandments she’s constructed?”

In the second section, “Child,” a number of subtextual strains crop up, the most surprising of which is the incredulity of war—surprising because, in the case of “A Brief Argument,” the second father-son hunting poem, the speaker’s father is a veteran. Here the most intriguing inner conflicts are made apparent: the need to wrestle with your most intimate relationships and institutions. The speaker in “Shifting the Bolt” seems an older, disquieted version of the speaker in “A Brief Argument.” After five shots to a slowly dying buck, he anxiously hopes that his father “won’t see the mess I’ve made, / the mess I’ve become.”

“That Night in Mobridge” encapsulates the manifold angsts of this section. The speaker of the poem reflects on an old classmate’s lapse in belief. After speaking in tongues and claiming to see angels, the speaker addresses his classmate:

    You remind me we were boys, and I see
    doubt swallowed you like candy sucked to nothing.
    Now, I don’t want to speak with you for fear

    I’ll be swallowed
[…]

From community and family to the existential, the collection moves outward. The third section, “Watershed,” suggests a swerve, not only in the collection itself, but away from the previously-inhabited tones of earnest confession and light-hearted sarcasm. Comprised entirely of persona poems—one of the many strengths of the collection—these often comic sketches speak to Dop’s self awareness: let’s take a break from all this talk of belief and terror and fatherhood and see what the rest of the world has to say. These are both more tightly constrained (formally organized, narrative-centric) and Dionysian (jazzy, offbeat).

The collection gets increasingly funnier, though no less earnest in its empathetic reach. In a cycle of three poems titled, “Simulations,” Dop inhabits the voice of “Pothead Pete,” who begins his class presentation like this:

    Shakespeare, the top American writer ever,
    wrote his plays in an English accent
    like Russell Crowe. Merchant of Venice

    is a problem play because it’s about hard crap
    like racism and the civil rights movement,
    but not Martin Luther King who was southern

    and not in Boston like the bard,
    which’s Willie’s nickname. People call me
    Slash
[…]

Dop saves the weirdest for last with a cycle of Bill Bitner poems. Bitner is a possibly mentally ill, working class guy infatuated with his mother who freely tells of his prostate infections and bizarre encounters while delivering pizza. At one moment, he seems loopy or deranged, as in “Bill Bitner Goes to Walmart”: “Eyes to the front, I’m an undercover  fed who has to score / some crack[…]” But in another, “Bill Bitner Daydreams,” Dop invokes our compassion,  as Bill tells of his desire to sell hot dogs on a city corner, “like / everyone / needs me / to stay alive.”

Fable, parable, joke, character study, epics in miniature: there’s a precocious range at work in this collection, which is both the collection’s strength and mystery. Though accessible, the poems strain toward plurality. In a seemingly innocent recollection of a childhood campout, the speaker of “Winter Campout,” shares a sleeping bag with his friend after forgetting his own and says, “We didn’t tell anyone or touch / the deep questions,” which may suggest an unwilling homosexual curiosity. In another, “To the Ice Cream Man,” a highlight, the speaker begins, “I got no green for your red, / white and blue bomb pops,” which simultaneously suggests race and the oppressive capital. In this way, the people that populate Dop’s pages are perfectly human; that is, they are rendered compassionately and, like the best fiction, with exquisite attention to psychic complexity, no matter the person—rich, poor, child, father, grandmother, prodigal.

The poems, for the most part, heed that old advice to get out of the way and let the poem do its work, but this economy doesn’t negate playfulness. There’s some amusing wordplay, subtle puns, and deliciously-crystalline detail, but they don’t grope for attention. Instead, they highlight Dop’s dedication to the poem, the speaker, the situation. When he conjures a laugh, it’s well earned and perfectly timed, as in “The Long Madness.” The Speaker attends a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. When Sir Ian McKellan drops his pants, the speaker describes the boy next to him:

    […] eyes, two wide balls,

    like Gollum’s, saw
    the future

    the wrinkled future,
    which hung

    before us,
    all glorious

    and magical, foreshadowing
    the ups and many downs.


Father, Child, Water is a colorful sundry of voice and character that, underneath all its existential wrestling, deceptive insouciance, and clever humor, celebrates the very thing it questions, which is what makes it—and Gary Dop—seem all the more established.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Last Psalm at Sea Level by Meg Day
(Barrow Street Press, 2014)

reviewed by Andrew Haley

In Last Psalm at Sea Level, Meg Day gives us poems that quake with mutability. The concrete things—bodies, shadows, landscapes, and wounds—merge not in surreality or the changing of masks, but in an oceanic wholeness. “As if one is a shadow stitched to the other, / they sit, knees bent & parted, cradled in the basin / of the clawfoot, her belly to his spine.”

Complex things join with the common nouns. Intention and cause, desire and consequence blend in these poems that are at once frivolities and dirges. In parts, the plain spoken, even throwaway, breaks into lyric in shifts that can be disorienting. The poem “Tell Me It’s Not Too Late for Me” begins as a chain of commonplaces: “Leave the refrigerator door open / or the bathroom light on, drop your shoes / in the hallway, borrow my ties…just tell me it’s not too late.” This sequence could come to us ghostwritten in a country song, but between the sixth and seventh stanzas lightning strikes.
  
    […] the man slid the package
    across the desk at me, asked quietly
    if I would like a bag, then paused & said

    how much you cost


The poet’s keening, to which our ears have become inured, is instantly heard anew with the revealing of the beloved’s transmutation from overflowing and indefinite to a weight of ashes, boxed and priced.

The book is raw with these moments coming unforeseen: “the tender felony /of waking up in a shared bed not shared / with you”; “Let her carry you like a bouquet of splinters”; “the clearing erupts with an exaltation / of larks, fifty applauding bodies lifting then / settling into stately quiet.”

In the best places, the quavering of boundaries is drawn the bow’s length of the page. The poem “What I Will Tell His Daughter, When She’s Old Enough to Ask” is worth quoting in its entirety and was this reader’s favorite in the collection:

    When they removed the yellow tape
    from the doorway, our neckless birds
    still sat, unfolding, on the tabletop,

    his stack of paper—foils & florals
    & one tartan velum—fanning out
    across Origami for Dummies

    & onto the floor. The chair we’d set
    in the middle of the room for hanging
    the first twenty attempts at a thousand

    seemed frozen mid-bow, all four legs facing
    west. He never mentioned his plans
    or his grief—only that I could find the fishing

    line toward the front, near the large spools
    of rope. Don’t go on without me I’d said
    & whistled the eleven short blocks

    back from the hardware while he folded his apologies
    & suspended himself from the ceiling of cranes.


There is much to praise in this mature and masterful poem: the spareness and solemnity, the complex and haunting metaphor of the unfinished birds, and the insinuation of our selves into these paper mutabilities; the cruel joke of the word “hanging,” especially set against the dignity of the verb “suspend,” and the play of that word inside the trope of an interrupted progression of forms; breaking the pattern of three-line stanzas to end the poem with an absence making itself felt inside the final couplet.

I wish the whole of the book were at this level. The smoke of the small fires of poetry workshops still lingers in its pages. Ghazals and sestinas appear like exotic animals on parade in a book that does not seem designed for polite applause. The poems in Last Psalm at Sea Level, despite a few unfortunate cliches (gaping coffins, howlings in the chest, saxophones wailing on street corners at dawn), are full of pride, urging, resistance, anger, sorrow, and perseverance. They are poems of the body, of incisions and tombs, not parlor tricks.

Last Psalm at Sea Level draws much of its power from its religious attitude. Day has fashioned a queer God of multitudes whom she addresses not with irony, but with the exposed sincerity of hymn. In the expert “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God,” she has mastered the sinewed, animal language of John Donne but brought it whole into our vernacular. Like Donne, and his acolyte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Day writes of multiplicity and consubstantiality with such fervor the language of her poems too becomes part of the protean shifting of her subject matter.
  
    […] Show every part
    to every stranger’s anger, surprise them with my drawers
    full up of maps that lead to vacancies & chart
    the distance from my pride, my core. Terror, do not depart
    but nest in the hollows of my loins & keep me on all fours.

  
Here, the language within the lines is so muscled one barely notices the architecture of end rhyme to which it hews. This is not the spavined favorite of the viceroy trotted out by courtiers, but a poem that fills the space of its own being. It, like so much of this genuine, important book, is everything poetry was meant for.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Cartographer's Ink by Okla Elliott
(NYQ Books, 2014)

reviewed by Justin Hamm

Okla Elliott’s The Cartographer’s Ink begins with an invocation of a certain light. “The Light Here,” we’re told,

    […] is a light that yellows the periphery.
    It is not a light that brightens the center.

    It is mixed from an overcast morning
    and the electric urban dust.


Such light sounds familiar. At first, perhaps, it seems like it could be the light from a Caravaggio painting illuminating the gritty beauty of its subjects. But no, that isn’t quite right.

Read on and it sinks in. Maybe the source is different, but this light is the light of an old Russian novel, of something written by Dostoevsky. It is a light of melancholy and seriousness, and the whole of The Cartographer’s Ink seems bathed in it—from Tesla, who in “In the Days of New Wonder” watches a brown bear through an open window and sees death, to the landmine that lies in wait and “dreams/the echoing boom/and the wet bloom of meat and bone” to the phone booth in Mannheim, with its “Soot—film on the glass,/the pollution so thick in this city.”

Elliott incorporates a world map’s worth of locations and an entire history book of time periods into the collection, but the light remains the same, and ultimately we come to see it as the light under which things appear most as they are. This is just one of the aspects of the book that holds it together and makes it more than simply a gathering of strong poems.

There are others. Also built into its architecture is a recurring exploration of the life of the mind and the difficulty in reaching an ideal that is out of range—from the aforementioned Tesla to “The Man Who Named Bees,” who shows delicate interest in his field of study but “at night, he slept / beside his wife, / whom he wanted to love / more generously,” to the speaker in “I Want to Be a Buddhist—Or Reading Heidegger Midly Hung-over” who tells us, “I want to be a Buddhist but I can’t because I like whiskey / more than enlightenment.”
 

Elliott is especially exciting at a line level. He manages to surprise with the phrasing of his lines, but they are built of a readable lexicon, too. There is a playfulness, certainly, but no trickery. The images are clear and imaginative and sometimes hilariously bawdy, as in “A Hot Minute,” when the speaker tells us “I’m facedown on your front lawn, / my eyelids flame-red membranes.” Consider, too, this description from “Shibboleth, Beginning and Ending with Lines from Kim Ch un-Su,” which shows Elliott’s mixture of inventiveness and clarity:

    Like cracked brick, like pristine anarchy,
    we sprawl on this carpet, my rough fingers
    in your hair.


At other times Elliott can be gorgeously plainspoken, such as in the opening lines describing the fish in “Nightfishing”:

    By the beam of a plastic flashlight,
    I saw the torn shadow
    of a carp flopping hard against
    the boat’s metal bottom
[…]

Section II of The Cartographer’s Ink is occupied solely by the long narrative poem “Emerging from Clouds.” The strongest and most intimate poem in the collection, it tells the story of the end of an affair through an accumulation of tiny, perfectly-arranged details that grow into scenes and recollections. There is simplicity to the language in the poem that seems meant to evoke the language of fairy tales, which Elliot uses metaphorically to emphasize that, while the relationship described seems like a simple, happy fantasy, betrayal lay beneath:

    That wasn’t the only meeting Lela and I had.

    During my office hours back in Mannheim
    one week when she was able to escape Dr. Kowalski:
        another time, after a reading she gave in Heidelberg;
        and again in the rank, cramped space
        of a train restroom


The reality of the betrayal is a gut-punch to the reader. As the poem closes, it swells with the impending pain this couple will face, and Elliott wisely leaves us there, imagining the terrible confession.

It is one of many wise moves Elliot makes in The Cartographer’s Ink. In all, the collection comes off as skillful, as weighty and moving. It manages to travel across the map and through time without feeling the least bit scattered. Instead, it allows us to see Elliott’s particular light and the truth of whatever that light lands upon.


Friday, July 17, 2015

What Things Are Made Of by Charles Harper Webb
(University of Pisstburgh Press, 2013)

reviewed by Gary Dop

Charles Harper Webb’s poems pulse with comedy and wit, but the distinguishing feature of his latest collection, What Things Are Made Of, is his unflinching, honest study of contemporary life. Void of contemporary niceties, Webb’s book tackles the things of our lives. With all his usual humor and ease, Webb writes of our simplicity: “Brains hold tight to what they think helps them survive—”

Although this statement could be dropped into a thesis on cognition—familiar territory for Webb, a PhD in psychology—the line is included in Webb’s inquiry into Jackass: The Movie. Here, he navigates the oddness of remembering the ridiculous film and failing to remember loftier material. The line itself may as well serve as the motto for Webb’s critique of contemporary culture. What Things Are Made Of suggests that so much of how we are taught to survive in the world is based on clumsy survival mechanisms and social ruses.

Webb, the humorist provocateur, playfully dismantles our constructions and returns us to our simplest things—pleasure, taste, our historical moment. What other 21st century poet would dare to cry out, “I adore my privileged American life!” In “At Lamaze,” where the above line appears, Webb is not employing the privilege buzzword to tackle its expected associations of race, class, or gender, but he also does not shy away from acknowledging and celebrating the benefits of American life. Most other poets would feel obligated to soften their exclamation, to feign a sense of the humility in recognizing an unjust world. Webb, however, finds the moment where false humility is unwelcome and where a singular voice drops pretension in order to fully appreciate a good thing.

Webb knows that the father in a Lamaze class celebrating life—via yoga, sitcoms, and electric garage doors—cannot suddenly consider the larger world.  The father says, “Forget global warming and overpopulization,” and this is not meant to dismiss the world, but to present the honesty of a father—and, of course, to make us laugh. The father rejects everything that hinders celebrating what he now sees: how fortunate he is to have modern medicine that insures his child and wife will survive delivery and that, years ago, insured his own survival through a difficult birth. There is no space here for the father to give an aside to the troubles of others. This is unfiltered fatherhood, a man consumed with one family and survival. The poem closes: “I know for sure I’ve won life’s lottery,” and we find no lingering falsity or superiority, only unhinged appreciation, gratitude.

This freedom is refreshing, and nowhere is it on greater display than in the collection’s opening piece, “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used to Be.” The poem, a burst of Webb at his most sardonic, considers the ice cream truck from a postmodern literary theorist’s vantage, but rather than applying a theoretical lens to the ice cream truck, Webb applies a full catalog of postmodern lenses, which ultimately serve as absurdist mockery, and one might say, deconstruction, of postmodern theory:

    The products sold reinforced a Capitalist hegemony—

    Fudgesicle (racist), Eskimo (not Inuit) Pies, Torpedo
    (military-industrial imperialist), Popsicle (no Momsicle), etc.
    The sugar in our treats deconstructed sweetness into cavities,
    obesity, diabetes. The (always) man in (always) white—
    who pulled, from the back of his condensation-smoking-truck,
    products iced with polluted air which our tongues melted,

    loving the cold jolt—may have been a child-molester,
    exploited immigrant, or untreated dyslexic.


Webb rejects the expected angle—the inclusive delicacies of politicized criticism—to show that clunky theory can steal us from, well, the ice cream. Thankfully, his poems end with more than a dismantling; Webb regularly pushes toward the thing that matters, the taste that is good.

In “Bimbo Limbo,” for example, we laugh our way through his lusty recollection of ex-girlfriends. Here we receive the untethered male gaze without the filter of 21st century pleasantries, which provides a more honest platform from which the poem can spring to its truer aim, our mortality. His bimbos, we learn, have been lost to the likes of “breast cancer, car wreck, some disease I’ve never heard of,” and it would be false to pretend that the speaker’s memories are more heightened than “Britney’s heavenly thighs” and Jessica in cutoffs. This is a poem, after all, about the dying human, an animal, and the animal need not pretend virtue when considering those like him who are,  “keeping heads out of the river, enjoying the swim / and view, though the current’s picking up.”

There are other poets, no doubt, who venture down these waters, but Webb, ever the adventurer, takes the unexpected branch. Suddenly these ample bimbos in Catholic limbo have semantically freed Webb to shift celestial limbo to the venue for bimbos doing the limbo—“How low can you go?”—for his speaker’s satisfaction.  Even here, Webb can’t end with absurdity. The poem closes with a stanza to elevate the memory, the hope, the loss, and the bimbos, who are no longer objectified figures, but have become catalysts for the thing that matters:

    A place where that happens can’t be too far
    From heaven, especially if my old girlfriends are there,
    God being Beauty, after all, God being love.
 


This is this poet laughing and smiling, not the poet believing in God and the afterlife. Webb finishes his trek with the honest, corrected memory, the realization that the experiences lost, imperfect as they may be—the experiences we’re all going to lose when we slip under the current—are among the supreme things, the fullness of beauty and fleeting love. This poem, and the whole of What Things Are Made Of, reminds us that an honest angle and a laugh are at the core of things that keep us alive.  

Friday, December 26, 2014

Little Oblivion by Susan Allspaw
(Elixir Press, 2013)

reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb

Antarctica, the expanse of ice, the blues and whites, the temperatures with their sustained lows, the wilderness and wild that is there—seals, petrels, terns—and the humans who wrap themselves in layers of down to work and study in an unforgiving environment, a place of surprising life and obvious death: this is what Susan Allspaw’s first book of poetry, Little Oblivion, would have us consider.

Allspaw tells us, in her poem, “Burial,” that “the ice is trying / to tell me a secret it’s been keeping // for years.” That’s a clue to these poems, free verse poems that exhibit moments of narrative, though the real story is Allspaw’s examination of ice as “other,” of place as mystery, of landscape as the story-teller and mirror for what haunts and intrigues her. For Allspaw, this ice and landscape is father, mirror, and companion. We’re not just reading a poetry of place, of ecology, but a navigation of map and meaning, a reflection of “our nakedness as wonderful as icebergs.”

That nakedness is how we get to the overarching feeling—longing, for both meaning and connectedness—that dominates these poems. A poem early in the book, “Heading into Dion Island, Antarctica,” starts us on our journey to the ice—though to enter this challenging landscape, we must also recognize what we’re leaving—on a mission to count penguins and eggs.

    Twenty centimeters of ice below the bow,
    seven knots, and the barometer falls on us like bad news.

Yes, the good news is behind us. Yet, this adventure is a letter to her father, a man no longer with her. “Writing the dead is not easy,” she says, cleverly writing both to and about “the dead” in this case. “Pity dead fathers / can’t see us trawling for science, wanting to write home,” and we’re in Allspaw’s landscape, the place of craft and examination where she tells us about so many delicate things at once, recounting the science, her concrete mission, but linking to longing, to the human grasp of what’s already gone and can’t be regained, no matter how intelligent the writer or scientist.

    […] Dad, the sun rises in the north here, and the Southern Cross
    is pointing with us, south, where we will census

    what hasn’t been born yet. I can’t reach him through the salt water.
    Sea smoke, my father. Brash churned with tide.


We experience the place, the past, an address to a father, but then the first-person brings us back to reality, to the more abrupt present. The voice of the letter, this story-teller attempting to send mail, faces the constraints, the reality, of this unforgiving place, of life. The tide and ice and water become both her father and the barricade that prevents her from reaching him. Allspaw has guided us to this lonely and poignant ambiguity.

Allspaw, who serves as support for the US Antarctic Program, is in the grip of that paradox. In the poem, “Weightlessness in a Red Parka,” she writes: “I walked on water / for hours. I lay in a seal’s old cradle, ready to curl up / for my own hibernation.” There is an almost religious attachment conveyed; we’re close to transcendence, something out of body, closer to animal than human. In other poems, this attachment is conveyed using remembrance and comparison, frequent tools in these poems used to bring in other worlds. In “The Body of Ice Remembered,” a male diver, one of a young crew who’s “excited about everything they see—smoking Erebus, / distant splashes of seals making holes, even the slush / forming on top of the dive hole,” also remembers his girl in Colorado.

    His body will sink in the water
    because when he isn’t in it, he is loving that girl
    in Colorado, swimming through her,
    all her parts.


Colorado is an alien word here, a collection of syllables that stand out as foreign because we’re so far from the vocabulary and vision of that kind of landscape. The western girl may as well be on the moon, and the divers and scientists feel this, too, according to Allspaw,
  
                […] if only that girl
    in Colorado could grow like a glacier, if only
    she could move with the freedom of icebergs.
    If only he could stay down, below the surface,
    his breath forming a body on its underside, then hands
    wouldn’t matter, then deep water would be enough.


So we are again merging with the landscape, wishing what was distant could merge with the rich experience of the ice, the deep water, an experience that can make the “other” world seem superfluous.    

The lessons of Antarctica continue through this volume, reflected facets of human learning from what is essentially a desert landscape. “Even ice over ice creates heat,” she teaches us. This heat and longing is what Allspaw shows us about her Antarctic life. It’s how a vast plain of snow and ice can become her father, her obsession, her life. In this book we are down-clad and trekking, we are naked and groping. We are deep in the sticky dryness of this vast southern-most continent. This long meditation gives us a gorgeous understanding of compulsion: “When we leave, / it clings, the damn child, / the obsessor, the stalker. / The ice never learned to let go.”


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Royal Nonesuch by Steven Schroeder
(Spark Wheel Press, 2013)  

reviewed by William Neumire

If a pun, a limerick, and a sonnet got together to drink and impugn America for its dehumanizing free market economy and idiosyncratic stupidities, and things got a little sloppy, and they had a one-night stand, this would be their child. Steven Schroeder’s second book of poetry, The Royal Nonesuch, is silly-thick with sound like a braid of tongue twisters and mad gabs.

A nonesuch is a person or thing without an equal, but in Schroeder’s collection, it alludes to the scam run by the duke and the king in Huckleberry Finn in which the audience, expecting a drama, gets instead…nothing. Bitter over the philistine sensibilities of the townsfolk, the con artists scam two different audiences like this, and before the third can pummel them with rotten food, the pair make a run for it. How does this translate into Schroeder’s poems? In “Better Consider My National Resources,” the reader gets a microcosm of the whole collection’s bent attitude, as the speaker riffs on “The National Anthem,” “This Land is My Land,” and other chants of Americana: “Oh say can you see my cheese fries…I only regret that I have but one life to give for my third job at / 7-Eleven.” It’s a joke bitter with debt, the failed promise of the American dream, and most of all, a joke bitter about loneliness amidst plenty.

The book moves forward in four thirteen-poem sections, each poem a little 13-line sonnet (a scam in itself) with sporadic stanza breaks; it is reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s Lichtenberg Figures in form. The poems are accusations documenting the collapsing expectations of this myopic, conned speaker:
 
                       In that last dusty library book,
    the vocation least likely to become obsolete

    remains bookmaker.


There’s an underlying and absurd desire manufactured by an even more absurd, amoral free market economics at work in poems such as “Imbecile, Donkey, Flax-Head, Dope, Glump, Ninny and Fool,” whose speaker begs, “please oh please / may they name this disease after me.” In half-rhymes, iambs, and homophones, the book regularly details money’s Marxist role in devaluing people and engendering loneliness:


    Cash makes you fun. A check can stop
    without your help and when it wants
    Credit cards only hurt themselves…

                                               To save
    your country pay until you’re spent.


Schroeder also plays this game of homophones throughout the collection, as in “Where the Bank Fails”: “Lenders weigh debtors down with pounds / Of Krugerrands and launder their hands / Tender in the green-eyed current, see?” Note the sly slipping of currency into current, see and legal tender into “tender in the green-eyed current.” It’s smart and funny and acrimonious all in one grand blur.

With titles clipped from pop culture (such as “I do not think it means what you think it means,” lifted from The Princess Bride, itself a grand mock), this is an indictment of whatever vestige of “the American dream” remains, as the reader can see in a jaded take on Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “America, your song was too big to fail / Your song cost more than itself.” The poems slip like this from funny into somber, like a tough guy deflecting pain with humor, and then finally cracking.

Chained to each other and cleverly phrased in this language as tongue-in-cheek game, Schroeder’s poems constantly set up and break from expectations: “After a break // on whatever levels of the word, we can make up / reasons to repeat these moves we make, Love.” Here, in “Each One Goes Alone,” we get that comforting, euphemistic cliché, “make love,” broken by that direct address comma in such a way that both meanings come through, though—as is usual in this book—the conventional meaning is tainted and fraught with contempt, or at least strong critique. But cynicism gives way to internal collapse soon enough in most of these poems, as in “Code Name Is The Only One,” where Schroeder writes “your password is passive-aggressive… // Why can’t you guess this picture I encrypted / in invisible ink? It’s obvious it’s loneliness.” And loneliness here gets the last echoic silence after the laugh.

On Poetry’s podcast a while back, Don Share declared, “language makes lying possible.” These poems, as much as they accuse and complain, are odes to that language of lies, and to the greatest lie: that all of this belittling madness is not ephemeral,

    When we closed your eyes for good, you looked
    like you were checking the lids for pinpricks.

    When we closed ours, we could deny everything.


It’s always there, that hollow sense at the end of the joke, that hangover after the party:

                      Add in bed after any of my statements (in bed).
                               We’re Pete and Repeat sitting in a boat.

    If I complement you, will you compliment me?
               When I’m with you, don’t whisper implications.
                        When I’m incognito, tell everyone I’m cute.
                                   When I’m gone, say I was beautiful.
 

A reveler in oxymorons and ironies, Schroeder rolls through The Royal Nonesuch with his cheeky, stinging mojo on full-tilt: “This bunker-buster bomb is user friendly, idiot proof and child safe for the entire family to enjoy, eight to 88 / This gun wants to tuck your kids into bed / This one would fuck anybody.” He’s a gamer and a scam artist to the very end, where he offers his “Transgressions” index, a sort of categorizing of the sins his poems illustrate, everything from “bad advice” to “substance abuse.” And though this collection can feel, at intervals, like it strikes the same note too many times, it’s fast-paced, double entendre, witty jabs and word games make it too much fun to put down. It’s a good laugh (itself difficult to pull off so intelligently in contemporary poetry) that also gradually builds a poignant sense of pathos for its conned and broken speaker.