Monday, April 27, 2020

The Davids Inside David
by Sarah Wetzel
(Terrapin Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach

Art permeates poetry in Sarah Wetzel’s third book, The Davids Inside David. But if you think that means you are going to get oversized marble statues, or every depiction of Jesus’ suffering in painstaking detail, you are mistaken. These poems dig in and explode out, seeing artworks from new angles, tangling ancient art with modern life, and finding new wisdom in the interaction.

Wetzel’s poems take place in Italy and Spain, at the edge of the sea, and with people you meet in a bar. But mostly they take place in front of art. In addition to the titular David, St. Bartholomew, St. Thomas, Mary, Eve, and many others confront the speaker with their beauty, boredom, and their complex choices. Wetzel vividly brings those characters and objects to the page, as in “The Marble Fawn and Other Anecdotes of Excess,” where Wetzel writes of “Muscled calves and overworked thighs, neck thick with the / weight of wineskins and ferrying baby goats.” First, she brings what she sees to the page—the muscles. But as she imagines the neck straining under all the wine he carried, her poem becomes a commentary on the excess and sexuality in the art. In “A Case for Resurrection,” Wetzel vividly shows us catacombs, “six vestibules / of ulnas and humerus, hundreds of skulls architected / into arches,” so we can see the bones she sees, but the line actually starts “This might be what Nabokov meant when he said art / is equal parts beauty and pity.” That sentence layers moral weight on to what she describes.

Often, Wetzel finds new meaning in art by weaving in personal and modern-day associations. “In Caravaggio Copying Caravaggio,” the speaker notes:

    The guard beating Christ seems incompetent; he's not putting his back into it.
    Like the middle-aged man who bagged my groceries this morning at Kroger.

    I've just been released from prison, he told me.

Two types of incompetence, the beating and the bagging, form an intersection of art and life, but then they cross back as the bagger's life story makes the reader wonder about the guard, why he holds back. The real world that Wetzel brings to the art encourages a slow, recursive, and rewarding read of her work.
 

Worlds become even more entwined in her poem, “Of Myself a Basilica” when the speaker becomes a cathedral:

    
                                    my hips
    and buttocks, coarse-crystaled and my waist
    serpentine, circumscribed with mosaics, ribboned
    in gold-layered tesserae.


The dream logic of surrealism that Wenzel uses here, combined with the alliteration of words like “serpentine,” and “circumscribed”—emphasize the image of a person becoming art, the language swirling around the reader like an incantation.

There is a wide spectrum of tones in the voices in these poems—calm, practical, awed, surprised—but there is a wisdom to the speaker in some poems that is particularly effective. Wetzel makes big announcements, “I have to start paying attention,” "There's always confusion about / who to blame,” and "I suppose, I'm terrified too," that come as a surprise in the midst of rich description and yet feel earned. She does this again in "Regarding the Beauty of Cockroaches" (a title I feel plays off the title of the book) where the poem opens with children looking at a box of mummified cockroaches at an art exhibit in a museum. The poem moves from setting, description, and dialogue, to background information about cockroaches and then leaps to the Wallace Stevens quote: "How does one stand / To behold the sublime?” For me, this poem holds so much of what I appreciate in Wetzel's work: grand pronouncements grounded in the real and infused with art.

The Davids Inside David is a well-crafted book. This is true of not just the sections, which have a helpful coherence—a section on divorce, a section on a father—but in the transitions between poems. Wenzel ends one poem with a father on his knees and the next poem starts with a daughter on her knees. Another poem ends “like the face of a first love appearing / in a crowd and then gone” and the next one begins “They are here. All of them.” So, what was lost at the end of the last poem comes back in the next. The transitions create flow and dimensions that leap between the divides.

This book considers silences, family, thoughts on the meaningful life and the creation of empathy, but it does so mostly by examining art’s role in our lives. How do we touch art and how does art enter us? As Wentzel writes in “Like St. Thomas,” “you’ve got to reach your whole hand / into the body.” Wentzel reaches far into the body art, and we all come up richer for it.

Monday, December 16, 2019

NOS (disorder, not otherwise specified)
by Aby Kaupang & Matthew Cooperman
(Futurepoem Books, 2018)

Reviewed by Michael McLane

There are thousands of books for caregivers of all types. They mostly deal in platitudes, with subtitles that rely on words like “hope,” “mindful,” “comfort” and “heart.” I tried to read many such books during the five years my wife and I cared for her father only to give up in frustration or disgust. My background in poetry didn’t help matters, as the literary contributions to this canon are largely non-existent. What no one tells new caregivers is that there are no books for this work—no map, no manual, no army of technical writers making sure you can’t get it wrong. At best, you make it up as you go, and hope you get parts of it right. Whether it be terminal illness, senescence, or profound, long-term disability, caregivers are dropped into an uncanny space between the diagnostic and the metaphysical.

The work is traumatic enough when a loved one is able to communicate their wishes, needs, and pains. When that ability is taken away, or never existed in the first place, all the Chicken Soup for the Soul is thrown out in favor of a kind of anguished ambiguity that becomes routine and is embodied in a seemingly endless two-part act of translation—one part for the doctors, specialists, and the diagnostic spectrum, the other for the family member whose every movement, wince, or touch may or may not be an act of communication in the eyes of the caregiver. The books skirt around the costs of this work, not the literal financial costs (though they are often considerable), but the costs to all else you love—your marriage, your family, your own health, say nothing of your professional and creative endeavors. They do not tell you to prepare to lose more. There is a profoundly different kind of absence involved in, and a wholly new kind of love learned from, caregiving because the loved one is right there within reach.

So perhaps it takes a poet, or in this case, two, to more effectively navigate such lyric territory. Aby Kaupang’s and Matthew Cooperman’s collaborative book NOS (disorder, not otherwise specified) arrives in this space as a revelation. It is a brutally honest exploration of the first decade of their life together with their daughter, Maya, who lives with a complex set of developmental and medical issues and whose care is intensive. The personal narrative is both contrasted and emphasized by a critique of the institutional maze they must navigate to find care for her and for themselves in the medical industry. Moments of intense personal reflection are undercut on the next page by medical charts or rebukes from doubtful doctors. Anyone who has ever advocated for a loved one can recognize the disconnect at play between these two modes. It is easy to feel completely at the mercy of medical staff and institutions, to sense that one is being literally cut off from the world outside the hospital, as an early section illustrates:

    they that were in the children’s hospital      they that on the pavilion
    parented    they that refined their faces in the sieve of seizure


    in the daylight met the carded men         the parking arm        

    the vertical blades of the guillotine elevator

However, for all the severing offered by expertise, parking arms, and elevators, Cooperman and Kaupang immediately recognize a community in that insistence on the “they.” It is a litany that carries on in the book, and one that suggests they acknowledge a camaraderie amongst the parents and the children present in such settings, in spite of the intense isolation they feel in the midst of Maya’s fluctuating health.

NOS makes it clear right away that it will not spare the reader any part of the corporeal or emotional space of its characters, be they Maya or her parents:

    The girl began and then so did the book, a mirror for sorrow or anger
    or fear. The book is a messenger, out in front. It canvases the halls of
    many hospitals.  Again and again at the ER soothing her body. The
    daughter  didn’t  eat, didn’t  sleep, didn’t  laugh, didn’t  shit, didn’t walk
    anymore. We went for a long visit. Doctors said autism, Valium,
    Abilify, sensory processing, seizures, inactive GI, they said tape a bag
    to her shoulder. We went again when they said she was crazy,
    a crazy summer when our little girl lived with other un-specifiable children.


Such overwhelming moments become routine here, and even the most practical aspects of Maya’s care take on far larger implications in the midst of such stress:

    She is an environmental crisis. We imagine the mountain she’s made, she
    daily makes, of diapers and shit and wipies and shampoo bottles and
    soiled car seats, and plastic toys, she cares not a whit. How can such a
    little pliant body make so much? She pushes and pulls and climbs her
    potty mountain to the end.


Maya’s life, and that of her family, shift from a domestic sphere to an institutional one, their days spent in an anxious ecosystem of highways, waiting rooms, and specialists’ offices, trying to nail down a diagnosis for her condition. The costs of this shift are high. Maya is not an only child and her brother, Elias, is largely absent from the text, an absence rectified in several crushing moments—such as being relegated to an item on one of the diagnostic “checklists” that reads “is one with the son who is absent” and is footnoted with the following: “The other one missing in this terra incognito is my son, Elias. I miss you…I’m sorry for all this I’m missing—.”

The disorientation Maya’s medical regimen causes in their actual day-to-day lives—one footnote reads “Distance from home/son to hospital/daughter = 92 miles”—combined with a lack of developmental milestones in Maya’s life—the kind of linear, horizontal trajectory from newborn to infant to toddler that most parents can take for granted—is contrasted by the presence of medical establishment in the poems. Medicine exerts its own inscrutable order on the family in several ways. The first is the form the book takes—eight sections, each of which corresponds to a floor of the hospital in Denver where the family spent large swaths of Maya’s early life. This provides a vertical or hierarchical progression through treatment that accentuates the missing linear/temporal milestones in her life. Ironically, we begin in the ER at ground level and end on floor eight where patients are discharged, a counterintuitive arrangement that metaphorically suggests the danger and uncertainty of walking out into the world with so much unspecified, but also emphasizes the increasingly wide or aerial view of what their care and love of Maya will entail, even if the specifics remain unclear.

Perhaps the most obvious way that medicine asserts its role in the book is the inclusion of numerous documents from doctors, hospitals and other medical entities. The coldness and confusion such medical charts, graphs, and diagnostic tools represent for patients or their families are further emphasized by Kaupang’s inclusion of several of her own diagnostic tools in such lists, which provide a far more empathetic view of their subjects. Interspersed amongst phrases such as “identifies property as an object” or “shows an interest/puts it down” are criteria such as “chooses to be in a collection,” “identifies as a diagnosis,” and “identifies poetry as a placebo.” An additional feature of these documents  is their ubiquitous use of acronyms (NOS, FOC=father of child, MOC=mother of child, among others) that seem efficient and useful from a medical perspective, but they belie the enormity of the task facing parents like Kaupang and Cooperman and only serve to further alienate worried parents who may or may not know their meaning. Ever the advocate, Kaupang not only learns all their meaning and implications, but incorporates them into even the more lyric sections of the book, adopting them as unconventional terms of endearment within their new living arrangement:

                                 our house was
         struck by lightning


                         the lightening     actually not so surprising

                        
was humorous even      fire shot out the oven door

                        
the instance   FOC leaping aside       was antic


Maya’s endless itinerary is trying for the whole family, but the lack of answers that medial experts provide, the perpetual unknowing is far more taxing on both parents, as illustrated by sections such as this one from “THE QUESTION OF DIAGNOSIS IS THE HISTORY OF GNOSIS”:

    There is a lost gnosis in our little girl, there is a lost gnosis
    in your little boy. The pronominal drift of allegiance
    pulls at the cell strings. Arias of dissonance.  


Dissonance and the unspecifiable loom large everywhere in NOS. It the nature of both Maya’s condition(s) and the nature of the task ahead for her parents. But uncertainty finds its way into every aspect and every relationship in their lives, including their relationship with each other. In what is perhaps the most searing confession in the entire collection, the penultimate poem begins with celebration and descends quickly into a kind of quiet chaos “We went into Marriage to see what we could sing. Ourselves and / others. The song. Co-mingled singing, they that co-sang there. / But biographical seizures, sleepless nights, not the song one intended to / sing, no, not singing at all.” However, this same piece ends on a note of survival but with an admission that the unknowing continues, “NOS. No one knew. Not if the daughter, the mother, the father, the / brother, the marriage, could survive. Only that days keep coming. Most / days are unspecified.”

It hardly seems an accident that this closing reflection is the only center-justified piece in the book (though others have moments of centering only to break away from that format quickly) as it seems a foundation of sorts, a leveling of the pains suffered and work accomplished as well as an embrace of uncertainty as a way of being, a fitting segue into the book’s final poem, “Good Day.”

In the interest of a late but full disclosure, I should say that I know and love Aby, Matthew, and Maya. I’ve known Maya since her birth and I watched, mostly from afar, as her parents struggled for years with a seemingly impossible situation. These poems and their early readings of them helped me survive and navigate the chaos of my own caregiving experience. Those performances were heartbreaking, as were some of the early reactions to the material which, as they note in the book’s final section questioned their attempts to speak for their daughter and even questioned whether or not they loved her.

         […] As if the repeated diagnosis, “Not Otherwise Specified,”
    wasn’t such a blow because no one could specify, could lead us to the
    her that was more than ill body, body ineffective. No one could name a
    thing so we couldn’t treat a thing.
      
         Maya means “illusion” and so we have wandered looking.

    Did we do this to her? Did your genes or my genes, or your drugs, or
    My drugs, do this? It’s not that the reader knows anything. We’ve
    Wandered and wondered and blamed ourselves all alone.


Guilt is an inescapable part of the caregiving experience. It cozies up to the fear that surrounds every new medication, trial, or procedure and never leaves its side. To be so reductive in one’s reading of a decade’s worth of daily attempts to connect to one’s own child, illustrates a literary parallel to the treatment of those practicing advocacy, particularly advocacy for others, within the medical establishment. In an early poem, one of the countless documents Cooperman and Kaupang salvage from their hospital trips contains a doctor’s notation that reads simply, “the parents are rude.” In a recent interview with Michael M. Weinstein in Michigan Quarterly Review about NOS, Kaupang addresses that moment in more depth:

“One doctor noted ‘the mother was rude.’ Perhaps parental advocacy sounds rude? The documents, too, reveal the lows of parenting and desperation. And sometimes, I think I would recall nothing of Matthew’s and my relationship, or our experiences with the medical establishment had someone else not written them down. Such interminable intensity is bound to deposit black holes in the mind. The texts serve as cues.”

And so too do the texts in NOS serve as cues, for a desperate need to understand, to survive as a family, however unconventional, and to continue loving Maya, both in ways she may understand and those she may not. Nowhere is this more poignant than during a visit that Kaupang has with the midwife who helped to deliver Maya:

    One day my midwife came and straight-talked, “Aby, I helped bring
    her into this world. I can help you bring her out.” And we talked about
    hospice. Talked about removing the feeding tube. Talked about what a future
    without Maya would be
[…]

Instead, they went “to the hospital one more time.” It was likely not the last time, but it was enough to continue on, to disregard all thoughts of a future without Maya. It is easy from afar to project motives onto such relentlessness, to accuse the advocate of some twisted form of narcissism. But advocacy is nearly always the reverse. It demands one be subsumed by the one you advocate for. Identity and individuality blurs for the advocate(s), helped along by the acronyms and negation of the medical establishment (i.e. FOC and MOC). But in the end, such criticisms are unimportant in the face of declarations such as,

    What is there to say of this child? She lived, lives through this.
       So did we. You want to know
    more about her. So do we.


Or more simply:

    Maya is real and worth writing for

NOS is a tremendous act of love, both for this single family and for a much larger community of parents and others providing such care to loved ones, all of whom almost certainly feel the isolation and desperation that is so central to much of the work in this book. It does not shy away from the screams, and tears, and shit inherent to such work. Language falters often at such times, and NOS allows it to falter, to jumble, to slur. But in the end, Maya is present and “[p]resent is / this gift of the daughter’s enormous need,” and “[it] is not hopeless—she brings a joy as ‘swim’ and / ‘more’ and ‘movie’—but it is wholly child, / a simple life without her own earned heartbreak.”

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Unbuttoned Eye
by Robert Carr
(3: A Taos Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Devon Balwit

Back in the mid-eighties, I sometimes accompanied my gay roommate to the bars of West Hollywood. A woman, I was invisible to the patrons and spent my time like an anthropologist, trying to learn the ways of gay bodies—how men signaled desire and acted upon it—so different from what I knew. Robert Carr’s poems flesh out (indeed!) these hows, unabashedly delighting in men’s desire for other men. “We are the timeless fuck in skinless / dark,” “We do not care / for sex with women, hunt // toothsome men.” Bodies and the pleasures they give are lovingly itemized— “thin men measure dark lengths against the lining of a mouth.” Sexual pleasure is taken in bars, in bathrooms, on boardwalks, in tents, in elegant bedrooms, “[c]ock dowsing the center / that sustains space.” Even knowing the threat of what was then called G.R.I.D. (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), candy-colored condoms were left by many sex-club patrons untouched in bowls: “Come into me unsheathed / strand, little death hood / between boy and man.”

These are the beautiful bodies documented by Robert Mapplethorpe—not the least of which was Robert Mapplethorpe’s own. Readers should spend time with Mapplethorpe’s photographs to catch their many echoes throughout the poems—the infamous whip in the anus, the gorgeous calla lilies, men having sex in multiples, leather-clad men, men pissing on one another, Mapplethorpe sporting devil’s horns. The photographs of Robert Carr as a young man echo some of Mapplethorpe’s poses. They are produced using the process of Solarization, which involves re-exposing the photographic paper during the development process to produce an eerie silver image that makes his young, sculptural body look electrified, surrounded by a dark halo, almost as if the fine hairs of the skin have become metal filings drawn by a magnet.

Alas, as we all know, in the 80’s, the hungry body soon became the dying body. Drawing on his long years of witness and serving the infected and the suffering, Carr writes intimately about the ravages of AIDS on his community: Kaposi’s sarcoma, thrush, incontinence, hair loss, vomiting. These bodies that were once sought out to pose in art classes, for photographs, for one another in the heat of passion, soon fail in hospices, hospitals, and on living room couches. Carr’s poems are unsparing: “Release of shit in a death-bed, spread / of blood shaken over birth. Salt of first cry, sugar / of breast milk, black rattle vomit.”

And yet the dying body calls forth compassion, as in this excerpt, from “Font”: “You whisper how he’s lost the strength to walk, so for weeks // you’ve carried him like a child learning a waltz. You tell me how, / lifted from the bed, he places lesioned soles on top of your feet, / how you walk backward toward the bathroom […]” All-night sex morphs into fear and deathbed vigil.

And yet, as the poet’s mother says to him: “Not everyone who dies / is a beautiful boy, amen.” Many of these men do make it through the crisis. Then, they have to accommodate yet another loss—that of aging, the beautiful, sculptural body morphing into the lumpy, dumpy, mottled old body, yet one that celebrates the opportunity to age. “Wrapped in a fist, I grow still—age spotted, / a lichened twist growing out of a night.” “I burrow contented in fattened fur— / learn to love loss // of lank […]” Bars tame into thirty-year marriages, husband and husband, the raising of a child, wills, and funeral arrangements. While good, the poet admits, “Life is flatter now that no one is dying.”

The reader soon notices that The Unbuttoned Eye is full of Roberts. The collection begins with a prelude: “Some names I remember, others I make up […] I am the sum of prints, stacked Roberts […]” At least fifteen poems reference the name: Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Carr, young Roberts, older Roberts, bedside Roberts, bedded Roberts. How do these many Roberts interact? Robert chides Robert: “Robert, stop moping with the dead.” Robert witnesses Robert: “Robert clings // to castles in reread picture books.” Roberts mourns (with) Robert: “Wordless, / another Robert leaves the neighbor’s house.” Robert reflects: “Robert, even now, we are not lovers. I allow you a bronzed urn on a mantle, nothing more.” Prose poem letters to and from Robert Mapplethorpe serve as section heads. The multiplication of the name, the reappearance of the poet’s younger self in photographs, shifts the reader forward and backwards in time—through avid bodies and ailing ones, wistful and grateful ones. The Roberts challenge one another and call one another to account.

Finally, the poems must stand as poems, and not just as a historical record. These do—artfully and cunningly wrought. Carr has mastered line breaks, startling us with deft shifts in direction, for example: “I sit naked with a small group / of strangers, unusually well / hung.” He plays with layout, adding space at the margins and between stanzas to allow the poems to breathe as in this excerpt from “Someone Else’s Bruise”:
  
    Restless swelter
           —curled paint,
                        a ceiling skin hanging
    in heat. A never-
                       to-do list. Rolling
    onto my back,
    I find imprints
          on a forearm. Twisted cotton
    sheets spiraled on the floor.


Carr’s work is also full of poignant metaphor. He writes of pink magnolia blossoms, birds echoing boys: “Almost to a bird, they fell to earth / and died of fear. Blush gray wings / silent, folded on a walkway […]” Titles unfold layer upon layer. Font evokes tears, holy water, the fluid in lesions as well as the font of the Motel 6 sign. “Chocolate Box” refers to the slab of a dead man’s coffin as well as the narrator’s own anus, hiding the thong of the deceased whose funeral he is attending. Carr has a light touch with his heavy material. Never once does the reader feel that the book was written in the service of a message, and yet it traces the course of an epidemic and of attitudes towards and of those who bore the brunt of it. “Everybody leaves behind something,” Carr writes. We are fortunate that he will have left The Unbuttoned Eye.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Inside the Animal: The Collected Red Riding Hood Poems
by Shanan Ballam
(Main Street Rag Publishing, 2019)

Reviewed by Ben Gunsberg

Shanan Ballam’s third collection, Inside the Animal: The Collected Red Riding Hood Poems, enters the same woods mapped in her debut chapbook The Red Riding Hood Papers, but rather than carrying a picnic-sized bundle of poems drawn from the European fairytale, this book assembles a six-course feast. The collection is divided into sections that correspond loosely to Charles Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, a tale intended to warn readers—particularly women and children—about the dangers of trusting men. Inside the Animal inherits the basic dramatic contour of the original story, but by deploying a diverse range of perspectives Ballam’s poems uncover a more complex set of motives and desires than the fairytale allows. Here Wolf wears Red Riding Hood’s cape, Red Riding Hood shape shifts into a “girl-gun,” and Grandmother hangs upside down, dreaming of a bat. Such surprising additions and addendums create a pleasing tension between the familiar and the strange. Much like Little Red Riding Hood herself, who steps off the safe path to collect flowers, one feels neither completely lost nor at home while reading these poems, but one certainly finds beauty.

Wild roses, petunias, red-winged blackbirds—the natural world tempts and troubles the various speakers in these poems. Take the first few lines of “Grandmother Waiting for Red Riding Hood: The Footprint,” which uses gorgeous language to connote both vulnerability and menace.

    Silvery lupine,
    blue penstemon,
    throats open, drinking bees.


Seduced by such beauty, it’s easy to forget the dangers that dwell in the forest, most notably the slippery carnivore who preys on little girls and sickly grandmothers. Wolf, however, develops into something more mysterious and extraordinary than we expect. Unlike fairytales, which tend to typecast characters, Inside the Animal complicates the relationship between good and evil, predator and prey. In “Wolf Tracks Red Riding Hood,” for example, Wolf appears more heartbroken than frightening while bemoaning Red Riding Hood’s Dear John letter: “Over and over he reads her note / through a burning blur of tears.” Dejected, Wolf imagines the auburn afternoon he and Red Riding Hood planned to elope:

    They would float away down
    Emerald River, emerge at the end
    of the world where no one
    knew who they were.
    They would marry, build
    a cabin. They would live alone
    in a bee-loud glade.


By rendering Wolf as a rejected suitor rather than a killer, Ballam redraws Perrault’s portrait of predatory masculinity and helps redeem Wolf despite his transgressions. Indeed, transformation as means to redemption is a thematic line that helps cinch the collection into a satisfying whole.

Red Riding Hood and Grandmother escape victimhood. Wolf shakes his fate as an eternal predator. Even the woods, which provide a treacherous context for the drama, surrender their “meadows of death” for “gold light filling the mouth of the valley.” In this way, Ballam challenges the fairytale’s familiar conventions and presents a more complete and genuine reflection of the human condition. These transformations ring true because the poems, though set in the fantastical world, record keen observations about the world in which we live.

Inside the Animal
also explores the liminal space between the observer and the observed. In revelatory poems, such as “Both Sides of the Window,” the speaker’s place inside (outside?) the story is called into question.

    The story is a window, and light slides
    its eyes through the glass. Little prickles
    of time, the squeak of a finger, smudging
    its oily print. Outside the sky darkens


Whether the speaker of this poem lives inside or outside the Little Red Riding Hood story, “Wolf will always be waiting, the girl always watching.” Such lines suggest there is no escape from the animal, yet the book’s final section marks a pathway forward. We’re granted a glimpse of this path in the poem “Grandmother, Inside the Wolf,” where Grandmother “whirls, weightless,”
  
    turning and turning
                           in the gauze of beginning

             She is a hummingbird
                                         inside a glass cage,
                           feathers thrumming


While one imagines Wolf’s insides to be vulgar and terrifying, Ballam once again defies expectations, this time by transforming viscera into a gauzy womb. How lovely this reversal, this renovation, where Wolf becomes a means to Grandmother’s rebirth and renewal. Indeed, many of these poems conjure sublime moments out of the most visceral language, out of carnage. How is this possible? Credit Ballam’s dexterous control of the prosodic elements of the language. It’s easy to luxuriate in an abundance of consonance and assonance in the first stanza of “After Reading The Odyssey & Paradise Lost, Wolf Dreams”:

    From thick woods men emerged,
    wind-sick, sea-blown,
    her voice, woven silver, rose
    from her house of stone,


The pleasing repetition of vowel and consonant sounds warbles atop an irregular pulse. In addition to showcasing Ballam’s fine ear, this stanza illustrates the contrastive movement typical of many poems in the collection. Often the most melodious lines are paired with the most terrifying images. Poem to poem, this contrastive tendency conveys a philosophical stance, one that blends a romantic faith in the imagination with a stoic acceptance of vulnerability and peril.

In an unforgiving forest, one fashions shelter by drawing upon the imagination. It’s no wonder so many of the poems refer to “dreams” and “dreaming.” The imagination is cast as both a refuge and a source of agency for Ballam’s characters. Moreover, these poems recommend the toleration of opposites as a means to recovery and self-acceptance. In “Grandmother Dreams of the Field Mouse,” for instance, the speaker’s self-regard oscillates between fragility and strength. In one stanza Grandmother exists as “an obscure stain at the base of milk thistle”; in the next she discovers her shadow spreads “fantastic, tall… a fierce fang on snow glowing orange with evening.” Dreaming of herself as a field mouse, Grandmother appears both large and small, powerful and pathetic. Through the acceptance of contradictions, she frees herself from her role as victim, just as Wolf ultimately resists being written off as a criminal.

Freedom and understanding arrive through a willingness to accept conflicting versions of one’s self. One must come to terms with multiple states of being. Such recognition is the “dark portal” referred to in “Birthday,” the collection’s final poem:

    I close my eyes and drag
    my life, heavy tail,
    into the dark
    portal—

    I understand
    falling, how it feels
    to be a white fountain
    with no beginning,
    a continuous subtraction—


Within this portal the speaker inhabits a “new body” prepared to tread a new path through the lovely, dangerous forest, her eyes “keen and animal, / adjusting to the dark.”

Readers will be rewarded by following Ballam inside the animal. The eyes and ears of Wolf, Grandmother, and Red Riding Hood conjure what William Trowbridge calls a “prism of empathy, erudition, and wonder.” Those who enjoyed Ballam’s previous collections, The Red Riding Hood Papers and Pretty Marrow, will be pleased to find inventive additions and unexpected twists to the fairytale. Undoubtedly one finds pleasure in the way these poems swerve against the uber narrative, but there is so much more to relish while reading Inside the Animal. How delicious the sounds. How satisfying the movement between points of view. What big eyes these poems have. How sharp the vision.

Friday, December 13, 2019

What We Do
by Michele Bombardier
(Kelsay Books, 2018)

Reviewed by MaryEllen Talley

This debut collection of poems by Michele Bombardier begins with a vignette of youthful spontaneity. Two hospital clinicians on a break are igniting past indiscretions written on paper to float like ashen butterflies out a window. In the poem, “Fireball of Sin on a House of Prayer,” the unprofessional yet emotional release of ashes becomes a small fire on the roof of a trauma unit, a metaphor for the well-trained but immature women dealing with the challenges of providing services for impaired patients.

    Frantic, we poured our cups of cold coffee, contents
    of our hospital-insignia water bottles dousing
    the sizzling remnants above the heads
    at those staring up at the ceiling below.

 
The importance of such moments of release for a fledgling speech/language pathologist (SLP) become obvious in the deft images of poems such as, “Baptism,”

    His hand a fist as he pulls the catheter
    from his crotch to above his head,
    an arc of movement and mustard color urine
    dousing me, my clipboard, and my intern name-tag,
    his head lolls to one side, his eyes closed.
    I pull up the chair, lower the bedrails.
    He bats at my hand. When he finds it, he quiets,


As the clinician dry heaves later in the bathroom, Bombardier shows us the aftermath both minimally and compassionately. Readers cannot help but feel the experience. The speaker calls her brother, telling him to promise to always wear a helmet. The incident is evidence that she has found a calling in a profession where success will be measured in small victories. She told her brother that the ten minutes she spent at the patient’s bedside holding his hand had been enough to calm his agitation. No amount of training could have prepared the clinician to deal with this challenge.

While most poems in this collection are not formal, “Adherence: A Cycle of Sonnets” ties together poems about the author’s father, religion, nature, and the past with lyrical loveliness: “when I noticed the sweetness was ocean / couched in brine on my tongue.” Bombardier is an adept multi-tasker, a form in and of itself, and is able to create a confluence of skillful poems on diverse topics: her clinical career, her husband’s cancer, her sons, her family’s Jewish and Catholic heritage, her father’s challenges with residue from WWII and with alcohol, and international crises close to her heart. Rather than overflowing their thematic banks, the scope and variation of the poems weave to highlight the complexity of a woman, wife, mother, daughter, clinician, and humanitarian.

Bombardier’s collection is often self-effacing, as in the poem about her mother-in-law, “What I Want to Believe,” in which she describes family gatherings:

    Once I brought a Buche de Noel
    on her holiday table, next to her Jello

    banana pudding with Nilla Wafers. I was insufferable
    and she forgave me. Now my vegetarian daughter-in-law

    refuses dairy and sugar, brings her own spelt crackers
    and sunflower butter when they visit. I want to believe

    my mother-in-law can smell the grey-brown paste, that she hovers
    in her chenille bathrobe right outside my kitchen window.


Likewise, grandparents bequeath significant memories. In “The Song and Dance Man,” Bombardier reminisces about her grandfather wearing a Derby hat and breaking “a chain of seven generations / by not becoming a rabbi. Another word / never spoken in our house: pogrom.” Such silences can become a survival trait in a family. In the poem, “My Grandmother Comes to Ellis Island, 1923,” readers learn that her grandmother never mentions a baby left behind in the old country,

The poet addresses her father’s tribulations as well. Although Bombardier writes in the sonnet, “A Toast to My Ghosts,” regarding alcohol, “I like my wine to taste like relief, which means only one glass, sometimes two,” she also writes of being a child smelling fear, “I’m four again and he stumbles down the hall.” Bombardier alludes to the ghost of her mother, “She put up posters to cover the holes / in the walls.”

As time bears witness to changes, the adult daughter cares for her father in poems such as, “A Taste of Sweetness,” which describes how she “loved feeding my dying father” using skills likely honed in the hospital setting, “tapping the spoon / soft against his lips, waiting / for his bird mouth to open.”

    The time for words had passed
    and my father, who did not speak
    to me for years, blinked
    as he reached for my hand

 

This collection is not about Bombardier the parent or penitent. However, motherhood and spirituality are never far from her musings. “Sometimes All We Hold is Prayer,” beautifully recounts a phone conversation with her son who had just become a father after a dangerous delivery:

    And they realize they are moving, rocking
    side to side, holding
    their son through the little metal box

    and a thousand miles. The three of them
    softly crying, then breathing,
    not wanting to release the weight in their hands.


Bombardier’s love of living amid the water and trees on an island in Puget Sound has infiltrated her son’s life. In the poem, “What the Arborist Hears,” she writes that her son asks the tree for permission before, “the grip and embrace, the pull / up and into the canopy, that foreign land.”  She instructs her son in another poem, “Rise Like a River,” how to be a feminist,

    If you were my daughter, I’d want you to rise
    without asking, spill over your embankments.
    And to those who would dam you,
    I’d want you to rise higher, to push
    your currents against what holds you back.

 

Close to the end of the collection, in the poem, “Ode to The Pacific Northwest Winter,” she writes of family and resiliency in the context of weather, “The rain continues its long blue song, / humming lullabies even as we rise in the dark,” ending with,

    If we’re lucky, we’ll lose power, stay home, read by candlelight,
    listen to the roof buttress against the relentless pelting.
    We’ll eat from the stockpiled tins of beans,
    boxes of shortbread, packets of cocoa with dried marshmallows,
    like eating shrine offerings, symbols of surrender, a type of devotion.


This collection begins with the poet in “Frantic” mode, as she and a young colleague pour cold coffee on a fire they set, and ends with a waitress filling a cup “held aloft, little white begging bowl” as a more mature Bombardier sits alone in the poem, “Breakfast at The Local Diner.” Even though the poet doesn’t “like to eat in the morning,” she eats now because the waitress offers solace. Like the waitress, Bombardier’s poems offer literary and emotional encouragement and nourishment, a solace while we wait for our “cup to be noticed and filled.”

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Deaf Republic
by Illya Kaminsky
(Graywolf Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach

Ilya Kaminsky’s second book, Deaf Republic, is both a book of stand-alone poems that hold in their individuality and gravitas and a heart-breaking play where the second poem, “Dramatis Personae” lists the characters and each subsequent poem builds with setting, narration, dialogue, and dramatic action. The craft and the moral weight of this work left this reader in awe.

In Vansenka, a fictional occupied town, the plot is set in motion when soldiers gun down a deaf boy in the poem “Gunshot.” The townspeople respond by pretending to be deaf. The reader walks with the townspeople as they resist, gets to be inside the heads of the puppeteers who lead the insurrection, and suffers all the consequences. Like the people of Vansenka, the reader must live with harsh truths. It’s not easy or pretty, but necessary.

The poems center on several themes: how to resist, how poetry can or cannot address violence, despair, hope, and complicity. These are not small topics but explored via Kaminsky’s deft hand, images, and humor, we get lines like these from “Soldiers Aim at Us”:

    On earth
    a man cannot flip a finger at the sky

    because man is already
    a finger flipped at the sky


Kaminsky uses the image of man literally standing up to make a philosophical statement about resistance. However, in the overarching themes of the book, the “fuck you” of the finger is given silently through a full body gesture.

While “Beautiful are the women of Vasenka, beautiful,” their resistance is fully embodied when the women of the town in “Gaylas’s Puppeteers” lure the soldiers into the puppet theater for sex and then “when finally he passes out, she strangles him with a puppet-string.” Death by puppet string is so bleak as to be ridiculous, but it also symbolizes the small lethal power the townspeople hold.

Kaminsky addresses head-on a conflict inherent in this work: can poetry be used to describe the horrors of occupation? Obviously, the book is evidence he believes it can, and yet, one of the strongest moments in the book refutes poetic tools. “That Map of Bone and Opened Valves” is full of imagery and metaphor, but in the middle of the poem Kaminsky writes:


    The body of the boy lies on the asphalt like a paperclip.    The body of the boy lies on the asphalt    like the body of a boy.

By setting up one simile and then using the same pattern to refuse to make a simile, Kaminsky hurls the reader out of the fictive dream. The reader must wake up and see this boy only as a dead boy. Through this moment, which occurs early in the book, Kaminsky warns the reader that some horrors cannot be shown through plays of language. So, even as the reader continues on in a world of imagery and metaphor, they are asked to also stay present to horror.

One of the biggest horrors this books addresses is not what the soldiers do to the people, but what the outsider does not do. In the first poem, “We Lived Happily During the War” Kaminsky writes:

    And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

    protested
    but not enough, we opposed them but not

    enough, I was
    in my bed, around my bed America

    was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house—


Kaminsky uses line breaks as a dangerous pause to switch focus and meaning. The line “enough. I was” finishes one sentence and starts another, but as a line together the words suggest the speaker believes their survival was enough without worrying about their neighbor, a strong indictment. Kaminsky uses the same doubling in the next line, creating the image of a bed floating in America and then stripping that support away in the next line. The effect is disorienting. These line breaks simultaneously delight in their layering of meaning and point to the horror of our own culpability. Kaminsky makes sure structure matches meaning. During a poem about bombardment, the lines are confusing, surreal:

    It has begun: I see the blue canary of my country
    pick breadcrumbs from each citizen’s eyes—
    pick breadcrumbs from my neighbors’ hair—
    the snow leaves the earth and falls straight up as it should—


The first of several poems titled “Question” is small (presented here in its entirety) and quiet just like the newborn in a moment of peace.

    What is a child?
    A quiet between two bombardments.


Sometimes Kaminsky specifically uses the structure as a counterpoint to the meaning. In “What We Cannot Hear,” he juxtaposes a wistful folk tune over a speaker’s wife being taken by the invading army:
  
    They shove Sonya into the army jeep
    one morning, one morning, one morning in May, one
         dime-bright morning—


Kaminsky’s most unusual craft technique is his incorporation of sign language. He tells us early in the book that the townspeople invent their own sign language. Periodically, a poem ends with a drawing of a sign, labeled with what the sign means. Kaminsky is both illustrating the poem and teaching the reader their language as the townspeople are learning it. We become one of them. One of the last poems in the book is just made of signs without any words. Two powerful things happen in that moment: the reader has to go back through the book to remind themselves of the signs’ meanings, literally revisiting the history, and they are forced to be in silence with the townspeople, while feeling the thrill and power of having a language that subverted the system, no matter how precarious their situation.

Kaminsky does not let us relegate bombardments and murder to some fictive town. He frames this dramatic fairy tale with poems set in our modern Western world, bringing the pain very close. Kaminsky is a Jewish, hard-of-hearing, Ukrainian-born Russian refugee who has lived on the US/Mexico border. He brings all those identities to bear in a dramatic poetic fable for our time. We are now in a deaf republic where so many are willingly deaf to others. These poems help us to listen.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Carrying
by Ada Limón
(Milkweed Editions, 2018)

Reviewed by Peter H. Michaels

Ada Limón’s new collection The Carrying finds joy in the quotidian and wonders how a self-directed life should feel. The poems repeat imagery of the newly born, green growth, and death as moments with truth, but without answers. In “The Real Reason” the speaker’s mother is scarred “from an explosion that took her first child she was carrying / in her belly,” and although a similar speaker in the poem “Trying” is working with her partner “to knock [her] up again,” the book expands the meaning of “carrying” beyond its recognized connotations. Limón’s ability to examine the smallest moments of life anew and translate that wonder and weight to the page is astounding and illustrates what this collection carries.

The speaker in “The Last Drop” owns many of the collection’s narratives as her own and considers the many stories—replete with grief—she carries within. After iterating several titles for her potential memoir the speaker recites two parallel parables implying that her life hasn’t been “easy,” but “all of it is good.” This thought guides the reading of “Dead Stars” which is seeded with lines such as, “We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out / the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder. // It’s almost romantic,” because Limón mates the celestial with the earthly while meditating in the midst of collecting trash.

In “Almost Forty” the speaker says “I’ve never been someone / to wish for too much, but now I say, I want to live a long time.” Facing mid-life after accruing a lifetime of grief leaves the speaker afraid, but grasping for more. This sentiment is repeated in “Sundown & All the Damage Done” where the speaker finds “a strange / contentment to this countdown” of years in contrast to loved ones who have passed already. This consideration of mortality continues in “The Vulture & The Body” when the speaker asks, “What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?”

While not an answer, a reply is found in “Instructions on Not Giving Up” as the speaker faces “a green skin / growing over whatever winter did to us,” because now the speaker is like that greening tree that “seems to say, a new slick leaf / unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.” This acceptance of growth, in whatever form it takes, roots as the collection winds down. Other green and grounded moments occur in “The Burying Beetle” where a speaker confesses that she “lost God awhile ago. / And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them,” and this scene of grafting new vegetable life to her own becomes explicit.

Scions of leafy, life-like weeds and tomato plants wind through this collection. The speaker in “Dandelion Insomnia” stays awake pondering how simple propagation would be if she were a weed like a dandelion “making perfect identical selves, bam, another me, / bam, another me.” This innate fertility in weeds is paralleled by animal life in “Carrying”:

    A few farms over, there’s our mare,
    her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea
    of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any
    mare worth her salt is carrying the next
    potential stakes winner.


While “What I Didn’t Know Before” is a poem-length metaphor about an effortless love, the ease of animal reproduction returns: “A horse gives way / to another horse and then suddenly there are / two horses, just like that.” This is in stark contrast to the speaker in “Would You Rather” who is struggling with fertility and is “making a list of all the places / I found out I wasn’t carrying a child.” 


Then in “Mastering” the speaker’s trusted friend posits “the thing that makes you / believe there might be a god after all, is the making of a child” adding a friendly face to a patent societal pressure intimately intertwined with womanhood. This married speaker without children seems to broadcast an implied desire for childlessness, adding sting to her secret struggle with infertility. Her friend, assuming that a woman’s meaning in life must be gestated, regardless of willingness or capability, wounds the speaker and their friendship. The reader is privy to the speaker’s unspoken thoughts, “Isn’t love / that doesn’t result in a seed, a needy body, another suckling animal, / still love? Isn’t that supernatural? Screw your god.”

The speaker in “Trying” tells us “I’d forgotten how much / I like to grow things” adjacent to another attempt at pregnancy. Likewise, the speaker in “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother” eschews traditional motherhood for days “writing words / and then at the movies, where my man has bought me a drink, // because our bodies are our own.” While “Trying” ends with desire to nurture another:

    I still worry
    and want an endless stream of more,
    but some days I can see the point
    in growing something, even if
    it’s just to say I cared enough.


This feeling seems reconciled by “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother,” which says “it’s only the original tree again, green branches giving way // to other green branches, everything coming back to life.”

At the end of the collection, we arrive at a reckoning with these struggles in these lines from “Sparrow, What Did You Say?”

    What would I
    do with a kid here? Teach her
    to plant, watch her like I do
    the lettuce leaves, tenderly, place
    her palms in the earth, part her
    black hair like planting a seed? Or
    would I selfishly demand this day
    back, a full untethered day trying
    to figure out what bird was calling
    to me and why.


This passage leaves the speaker questioning whether her offspring should inhabit ink and page or a more corporeal form without any answer.

Generally, a failure to reconcile a craving for the impossible with an accepting of the attained is jet fuel for anxiety. The Carrying brings this fuel of the unanswerable to the burning grief from Limón’s preceding collection Bright Dead Things where such losses could “light up the room with pain, / [it would] be such a glorious fire.” However, the speaker in “Mastering” starts to accept that “perhaps the only thing I can make / is love and art,” and the poems in this collection are bursting with masterfully created art. That isn’t all that it is carrying. What Limón’s collection truly carries is “so much fire,”  a glorious fire—lighting a path of self-awareness and warming the chill of loneliness—allowing a reader to stop and encounter all that they are carrying.