Saturday, February 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Scriptorium by Melissa Range
(Beacon Press, 2016)

reviewed by Philip Belcher

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Original Face by Jim Peterson
(Gunpowder Press, 2015)

reviewed by Gary Dop

Jim Peterson’s latest collection, Original Face, weaves meditative inquiry with narrative mastery. These stories and reflections return, again and again, to Adam and Eve, to man and woman, and to the possibility that all of life’s suffering, sensuality, and joy are part of a sweeping love story. This suggestion risks oversimplifying Peterson’s book, which contains multitudes in each of its moments, including explorations of Goya’s paintings, a maintenance engineer’s love song, and people who live inside loose-fitting bags.

Original Face’s distinction is its close focus on expansiveness and inclusivity. In “The Long Roads,” a poem whose subject seems to be the loss of a child, Peterson expands the subject matter to the relationship or connection of all things: absence and presence, body and earth. The poem, as expected, presents the mother’s loss, but her behavior—her calmness and acceptance—provides an unexpected response, which is built upon the presence of the lost child, active and involved in the scene, as though death has not ended life as much as it has changed it.

The poem’s closing sentence follows a moment in which the mother considers a pickup passing by, a moment we perceive as normal until the child, who we know to be dead, is present. Unlike the reader, the mother finds the child’s presence to be as normal as the pickup: “the presence she feels / dreaming in the leaves around her.” Soon “her man” will be home:

    The night will crawl out
    from the roots of great maples and oaks
    through their windows and into their bed,
    into the fallow and fertile fields,
    down the long roads
    that lead to all of their kind,
    even that curious child
    resting deep in the vine.  


Life continues in these “fertile fields,” where the lost child, who is not a passive presence, alive only in memory, but an active presence, is signified by that most alive adjective: “curious.” Here, “deep in the vine,” all things are one, all are normal.

Peterson supports this normalizing sensibility in the sounds of his poems. The music, which feels as easy and conversational as Whitman, has, like Whitman, a natural use of rhythm, consonance, and assonance, among other devices.  In the previous example from “The Long Roads,” the closing three lines are strung together with the assonance of the hard I sound in the last word of each line, which complements the notion that all things—“kind,” “child,” and “vine”—are unified.     

We see this unification again in “Planting Season,” a poem about the playful barroom connection of a woman and a man. This type of poem, the meeting of lovers, has been written since antiquity, but Peterson’s sincere, yet humorous version brings an earthy point of connection between the lovers. The poem’s narrated by the man—“She has black dirt on her face,”—but the action of the poem is the woman’s. She pursues. She establishes the game. She brings the black dirt, which is not only on her face, but also her feet, her hands, and in her mouth. For the man, the black dirt is not an object separate from the woman, something to be washed away, but it is a compelling part of her beauty. The poem ends, and the lovers are together, after the woman approaches the man, throws her dirty feet up on the table, and they speak to each other:

          “I hope you like
    black dirt,” she says. I make a grin
    with as much black dirt in it
    as I can muster. “Oh yes,” I say.


Perhaps it is the openness of his characters that makes his narratives, and the speaker in nearly all of these poems, dynamic. These people all seem to be taking in the world, “the light and the dark,” rejecting nothing; even in moments of suffering or difficulty, the characters do not walk away—they walk into and through their experiences.

They study each moment, as does the speaker in “Men and Women in Sacks,” who watches a woman remove her sack and swim in a river. When she steps out of the river, the speaker sees her: “her wet body glinting / like a sword.” He studies her, and when they’ve finally seen each other:

    […] together
    we step out of our sacks, open
    our bodies to the light and the dark
    and to each other, and together
    we lie down in the river
    of deep currents, the cold
    pouring over us, together swim, free

    to find our own way home.


The speaker’s freedom flows with the change that has arrived, a change born of the studied, open eye, receiving whatever comes. These characters, and the characters in many of Peterson’s poems, model an openness that teaches the reader how to experience the book. No, it’s more than that—Original Face wants to teach us how to live an open life, to help us crawl from our confining sacks. Peterson’s poems all seem to say, of suffering, of joy, of dirt, of freedom, the same thing his readers will say of this expansive, moving collection: “Oh yes!”






Friday, December 9, 2016

lifedeathetc / livdödetc by Anna Maris
(Red Moon Press, 2016)

reviewed by stinne storm


Red Moon Press’ lifedeathetc / livdödetc, is the debut collection in the U.S. from Swedish poet Anna Maris. As its title implies, lifedeathetc holds to the natural cycles traditional to the haiku form, but Maris’ work is not confined by these conventions. Without unfolding the centuries-long history of the haiku tradition, it can be noted that Maris’s poems function within the well-known Japanese form that was initially composed of 17 syllables divided into three groups, respectively five, seven, and five syllables (more precisely, they are comprised of five, seven, and five morae, which determine syllabic stress or timing). Traditionally, haiku must include the natural world and should be in the present. The form originated in the 1600’s and its conventions have undergone numerous changes, especially in the 20th century, as it spread to the Western world and became a common form in other languages.

Maris, a member of both the Swedish Haiku Society and Haiku Society of America, translates her own work into English, and the translations are exceptional. In some places, the diction in the original Swedish is more melodic than English, while in other places, her English vocabulary provides a wonderful openness to the haiku form. One example of such differences in English is “paper boat […],” which in Swedish sails away with much more grace.

    paper boat (singular)
    another worry
    sails away

    pappersbåtar (plural)
    så lätt flyter de bort
    mina bekymmer


Whereas “long shadows” leaves one bird behind, graceful in its English alliteration.

    long shadows
    after the siege has lifted
    a lone crane

    långa skyggor
    efter att flocken lyft
    en ensam trana


Maris’ poems excel in their depictions of nature. For this reader, well acquainted with the Swedish climate, her work invokes the Scandinavian seasons vividly. The text in “Part One (life)” oscillates from one changing season to the next, one elemental state to another: sea to fog, to mist, to rain, to rivers—and back to the sea. There is the wind in spring, deep harvests, crisp frosts, and winter stars. It is an intimate landscape, but not a tame one.

    moon river
    thoughts wandering
    out to sea

    mångata*
    tankarna vandrar
    ut på havet


    *mån=moon /gata=street


This cycle of haiku arranged around Nordic weather might well be a mediation for spaciousness, nature juxtaposed against domesticated spaces—bedroom walls and ceilings as canvases for projections of shadows and light, but with uncanny cracks in the harmonies and monotone beauty, the arrival of the unfamiliar on the scene.

    home town
    in the familiar houses
    strangers

    barbed wire another country

    hemstad
    i de välbekantan husen
    främlinger

    taggtråd ett annat land


This hometown of strangers and its “icy winds” hold traces of other continents—Africa appears via references to Zanzibar just after the above passage­—but when we meet the outside world it is through violence or alienation. The world, like the icy Nordic setting, is closing in, shrinking like “winter fishing,” like “the hole in the ice.”

In “Part Two (death),” nature might be the same, but the poems are not. A specific pain has arrived: “the same hole in our heart / white chrysanthemum.” This loss is ephemeral, the “thing with feathers” and the words that cannot be found in a suicide note. Here, the uncanny gives way to darkness, but still the beauty survives.

    insomnia
    the cold on the other side
    of the pillow

    sömnlöshet
    kylan på andra sidan
    av kutten


This is a good example of how the bilingual nature of the book opens up the poems in different ways. The original poem in Swedish has a distinct tempo created by the alliteration s, k, s, k, which is lovely to read and say aloud. Although it is not as melodic, the English version still preserves the stark simplicity of the metaphor. Here, in the heart of the collection, Maris is mourning the living, even as death becomes a physical weight.

    packing up to leave
    everything we have
    dead weight

    i packningstagen
    allting vi har
    dödvikt


Whereas the previous part began with a whisper, “Part Three (etc),” begins with “open sky” and a sea personified through its overt desire to take. There is a change in pace, as well as place. The urban is more present.

    high-speed train
    along the railway line
    wild apple trees

    järnvägssår
    snabbtåget passerer
    vildäppelträden


This is a nature enveloped by the city, a nature both globalized and unfamiliar.

    southern winds
    foreign sea weed
    covers the beach

    sunnanvind
    främmande sjögräs
    täcker stranden


Winter is never far away, but monsoons appear as well, as do a new-year’s spider and wild boars in spring, and war. Again, the outside world is rife with troubles.

    war-epic
    we pause for a firing squad
    of micro-popcorn

    krigsfilm
    vi pauser för skottsalvan
    av mikro-popcorn//


This last section of the book feels at times disconnected, as if it is in search of something. Its title, “Etc.,” implies a collection of things known, but unnamed. Perhaps for these reasons, it feels uneven. Or perhaps it is simply the stirring, for better or worse, that occurs when family enters the scene, the mirroring and defiance that their appearance brings. Here, we find a “mother’s angry wrinkle / in my selfie,” or, after the slow, rural rhythm of the life and death of the prior sections, the turbulence of a father’s appearance in the final moments of the book:

    haiku
    my father wonders
    if that is all

    haiku
    min papa undrar
    om det är allt


As if the spaciousness of the first two sections is compromised by the onset of familial values, Maris invokes the natural world of the haiku. While much of the collection’s imagery gives voice to a particularly Swedish tone and setting, it is here, through the mastering of a classic poetic form, that her work grasps something timeless. These last poems left this reader wondering, like the father, but for very different reasons, how could it not be all?

lifedeathetc is a fine work of literature when it mediates the personal with the universal. When it positions itself in the contemporary, it is even better. There is currently a darkness in European societies, one which is difficult to write about and more difficult to live in. Within this space, Maris’ literary generosity is a pleasure and a gift. There is similar darkness in all lives, but to escape it is not to conquer it. Haiku offer a way to navigate such troubles. Maris writes them with grace; we can read them with hope.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Country of Ghost by Gaylord Brewer
(Red Hen Press, 2015)

reviewed by John Pickett


In Gaylord Brewer’s new book of poems, Country of Ghost, the reader follows a protagonist named Ghost as he deals with the afterlife that is happening right now all around the rest of us. While the title alludes to one country, Ghost’s travels actually take him through three: Spain, Finland, and France. The prominent motifs and themes of the book—regrets, memories, love, loss, family, and home—are made clear in poems with titles such as “Ghost Says Goodbye,” “On the Pier, Ghost Finds a Love Note, Paper of Seeds, and Accepts an Invitation,” and “Ghost Rehearses for His Funeral,”

Brewer opens the book in Spain with “Ghost Born.” We begin with the death of Ghost and his rebirth as a spirit who still has unfinished business in the land of the living. In “Becoming Ghost,” we are present at his funeral where, “Your secrets mean nothing to anyone now,” and Ghost himself seems to forget that he’s actually dead as he “breathes on for awhile—sorry nostalgia, so breathe.” It’s as if Ghost is fighting for relevancy and his life, and Brewer makes this fight one of the central themes to the book.

Also central to the book is the question of what happens in the afterlife? “Where are you going?” the narrator asks at the end of the poem, and then answers “Where you have arrived, of course,” as if the answer to the movement of Ghost is already predetermined. Ghost doesn’t take this answer lying down as he continues on as a spirit, as he continues doing the things a living person would, as in “Ghost Takes the Evening Bus, Briefly Dozes,” “Ghost Holds His Vow of Fasting for Nearly Twelve Hours,” and “Ghost Bleeds.” In “Ghost Takes the Evening Bus, Briefly Dozes,” we see Ghost 

[…] work the crowd, seat to seat
lap to lap, so exquisitely exhausted
you’re sure of truth in each,

And near the end of this particular journey to a destination that Ghost himself doesn’t name, but by sight, he writes, “Next stop, perhaps one after / that’s yours. Don’t worry—you’ll / surely know when you see it.” Ghost is merely a tourist in his own memories, but he longs to do something about it. For a person that’s dead, Ghost certainly lives on.

Brewer’s tone through these pieces is melancholy, but with a wink and a nod to a hope, even in the direst of situations in which Ghost finds himself. There are no fixed patterns here in the structure of the poems. Much like a ghost, Brewer roams where he wants to with his phrasing. In the aforementioned “Ghost Rehearses His Funeral,” Brewer is almost staccato in the first stanza:

Leave candles unlit, the field’s
bouquet unharvested, book of
scripture closed. Unbutton shirt
and trouser.

Later on in the work, the syntax opens:

Lie now on the black down
of your bed-giving pillow,
still room, last rites of silence.
Cross hands loosely one upon
the other, where the heart lived
its urgencies and desires.

Brewer’s work leads readers to be more mindful of their own travels and day-to-day existence, more aware of the subtleties and the finer details of life. Country of Ghost is essentially a travel companion of a life once lived and lived again. Though it moves through well-tread themes, it travels well. Brewer’s Ghost is more real, more complex than our moaning, white-sheet stereotypes. Ghost regrets, particularly when his wife shows up from time to time in pieces like “Ghosts Says Goodbye,” where he looks at a photograph and remembers “Your wife, your home, the man you meant to be and became instead.” But before the end, Brewer again offers a hopeful sliver:

And yes, if there were a ghost
of a chance for one blessing more,
deserved or otherwise […]



John Franklin Pickett, III, received a BA from Florida State University’s Creative Writing Program and is currently a professor at Northern Virginia Community College and National Defense University. He has work forthcoming in Apalachee Review this fall.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ruin and Light by Danielle Beazer Dubrasky
(Anabiosis Press, 2015)

reviewed by Nancy Takacs

Danielle Beazer Dubrasky’s Ruin and Light is a stunning sequence of poems, like a body of water with many inlets, each shadowing natural images such as stones, leaves, fish, shells, constellations, and skies, in a patient cadence. Each poem reveals bits of a story in a non-linear way about two young people who form a relationship that metaphorically and literally traverses wild places, and can never be forgotten. Although this is a chapbook, its depth and beauty allow it to seem like a much longer book, one that should be read again and again.

The book is addressed to a male “you.” A story is told back to him, even though he is a part of it. There is a “she” in the relationship, possibly the poet’s self. Imagery, symbols, and references to myth throughout the sequence allow the reader to feel the couple’s losses, their epiphanies in their attraction to, and need for, one another, and their mystery. The fact that the story is told back to him suggests that he may not be aware of some of the events in the way the poet wants him to be, while also indicating that his side hasn’t been told: “Only one of you is telling this story. / No one will ever know / who is body and who is shadow.”

In poem three, after the young woman has revealed her story, which the you “hold[s]…as if you could never burn,” and begins to carry her “sorrows between your fingertips,” she goes into detail about her scar, and how in her mind it brings them together:
       
       She carries a sundial shell in her hand, its tip a gnomon.       Libra’s scales follow the day’s journey on a sundial—
       the scales that were derived from the scallop Venus rode to the strand,       the only shell that crosses oceans, clapping two valves through spume,
       a hundred eyes on its rim. St. James fell into the sea       and was buoyed by mouths clinging to his clothes.       

       The scallop-shaped scar on her cheek is a pilgrim’s sign       as if she has traveled to the groove in your palm       and all her days were held in one moment she glimpsed       out the corner of her young eyes while collecting shells
       when she saw her own life’s helix curl
       into a carapace to land at this morning’s shore.

In her shell-collecting on a shore that reminds her of Venus, through the telling of her story to the you in the poems, the young woman is able to begin to cast the weight of it, lose the “carapace.” It is key in this poem that the poet not only uses the word shell to mean self-protection, but skillfully allows it to radiate into fairness, sacredness of the body and sexuality, the birth of love, the plight and also strength of a woman, the connectedness to a groove in the man’s shell as his own scar that she recognizes instantly because she feels imprinted herself with all of the myths and meanings of “shell.”

Although some of the poems suggest the couple are in their teens, they seem to also have a history as children:  in the anaphoric  “the children who have never heard rain,” and in poem four: “You treasure marbles, matchbox cars, old maps, / stray fishing flies you unhook from reeds. / […] You give her what you value most— / a mayfly nymph broken off someone else’s line.” Likewise, these childhood memories arise in poem 17: “You were her mirror—a blue sea in which she found not herself / but a boy looking up at her window, who memorized maps by flashlight / and followed a strange road to her cul de sac.”

Experiencing their intimacy, as the poems build, is tantalizing, as in poem five:

         You taste sweet water when you drink from her lips,
         she tastes snow and a thousand blackberries.

         When she becomes your lover, she hears the notes
         in your voice’s flame—moths playing wildly with light.

         When you become her lover you are bound
         to someone always searching for ocean.

 

And in poem seven:

         Deer tongue fallen apples, haunches taking shape in the dawn,
         the only sound: soft mouths nudging open ripe skin.

         She rests her hand on your navel where your first hunger was nourished
         and touches that scar where you were cut and released.


Dubrasky has a unique way of allowing images to surface, as if they are tossing in the waves of the couplets themselves, eventually washing ashore the intimate moments of the relationship as the couple wanders together and then apart.

These images pulse through the sequence, with the repetition of words like “deer fur,” “map,” “acorn,” “train,” “ocean,” “shell,” “river,” “scar,” “swan.” This repetition shows transformation as the relationship intensifies and shifts. Deer fur is tied into fishing lures by the male character, which are used repeatedly. In poem seven, he is depicted as casting a fishing tie to lure the female character, “to catch her hair once, her fingers twice, with deer fur…” In poem 13, after she leaves him, she pictures him calling her back “to the strands of deer fur” she imagines he is still tying into flies as if he is unaware of the relationship’s ending, believing she will come back to his “mirrored world.” In poem 17, the image of deer hair surfaces again after it is clear she is not coming back, and he “unlatch(es) a box of deer hair” and feathers, but the speaker imagines him choosing from pheasant and peacock, instead of the deer fur that was only tied for her. Dubrasky intuitively places these images, showing the character and progress of the relationship, as well as the man’s character, with the resonance of this gentle image to lure her, but with the sinister sharpness of the hook that is beneath the “iridescence.”

The images seem culled from the depths of the poet, revealing how nature, too, is deep and timeless, just as the relationship, not without its troubles, has been for them.

Recurring constellations and maps reveal their importance when his “father chart[ed] Cygnus in the August sky” or in a later poem when he “touch[es] the past on vellum / in a constellation of vanished cities.” In the last poem, “Cygnus appears in the stars over the rusted tracks” as the poet shows how she imagines he must be leaving his past behind.

Likewise, she reveals how he has been influenced by the relationship he has had with her: “What she has given you is a way to pilot the distance / between memory and a river of roads.”  Water remains important for her. She floats, enters waterfalls, plunges into rivers. In poem five, she

    swirled in eddies, dizzy beneath stars;
    she became its break and took in silt,

    she became its eyes and saw minnows, trout,
    deer fur skipping the surface.


And in poem 10: 

    Your stories join on a shore where freighters
    cross a lake that makes its own weather—

    lifeguards muscle rowboats against the tide
    beyond bathers plunging into choppy water.


The above poem foreshadows their unraveling with the “choppy water” as well as the line he speaks to her “I am memorizing you already, you say.” The next several poems suggest more unraveling, with trains cars that become unbuckled,  “flowers and rain on the willows / [that]call her back to the river,” while he looks into a pool, wondering who “is behind those eyes, that mouth—”

In poems 15 to the end, the poet casts more light on their mystery, though shadows remain, fluttering or rising to the surface, as “Moths tap inside the lampshade, spiraling the wrong way home” for him, and in one of the final poems:

    She looks for you behind mirrors as if the river could break open
    the rooms where you held her in quiet breathing.

    The mirror shows only one face with eyes that haven’t slept for years—
    she wanders past closed windows, stares at the alcove of your locked door.

    She looks for you in stories of an old father weeping over his bound son
    before he finds the ram in the thicket between leaded panes.

    When did the water freeze to glass?
    The boy still lives in your hands,


The reader feels the poet’s tenderness for their story, despite what has happened between them:

    You can take her back in the darkness, she is not a dream—
    her body against yours, her hair, cheek, lashes brushing your arm.

    Don’t open your eyes she whispers and you both drown in a braided river
    but as your drown you rock each other as if you are riding a train

    through a place no one else has entered.
    You listen to the note only you have heard on the sinews of her voice,

    a vibration of music so exquisite you must open your eyes—
    your fingers hold moth wings burning in starlight.


I was lulled by the undulant feel of these poems, by Dubrasky’s boldness with language and its subject, and stirred by the images and symbols that seem to converge and break apart in other worlds and other myths. This sequence masterfully gathers the story of the relationship in Ruin and Light, and unfolds its own myth—dark at times and dreamlike, but wholly alive.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

88 Maps by Rob Carney
(Lost Horse Press, 2015)

reviewed by Lexi Jocelyn

Rob Carney serves as an expert topographer in his most recent collection of poems, aptly titled 88 Maps, guiding readers along various paths in search of a meaningful destination. Carney invites readers to follow as he searches for home within himself, among others, and on the surface of a wild and beautiful earth.

The collection is divided into five sections: “Departures,” “Directions,” “No Return Address,” “Home Appraisals,” and “Arrivals.” The first poem in the book and the only poem under the heading of “Departures” is the one for which the collection is named. “88 Maps” is a series of vignettes detailing the discovery and contents of maps found in the basement of a home. In the opening, Carney establishes his capability for vivid storytelling.

       I found them rolled up, dusty, in an old armoire
       too big to get out of the cellar—
        

       no way to fit it through the door frame        
       and angle it up the stairwell—       

       decades ago he must have hauled down wood       
       and built it where it stands.        

       And it’s not just a place to store winter jackets.        
       He was being deliberately permanent,       

       sawing, planing, and jointing        
       more than six feet underground.

The final stanzas of “88 Maps” serve as a transition to the next section of the book as readers embark with Carney as their guide:

       I know about maps, though:
       the way they all start somewhere,

      
[…] but always arrive at the ocean, stars, or underground

        whichever way we go.

“Directions” contains twelve poems in which Carney observes the relationship between human beings and the natural world that surrounds them. The poems in this section serve to highlight place and the improvement of the conditions in which we live. In “Here, in the Rugged, Noble West,” “Suggestions for Urban Renewal:,” and “Here in What Used to Be Mexico,” Carney uses lists to comment on political issues of wildlife management, the preservation of nature in urban environments, and immigration. Contextualized by the national political climate in which we live, the imagery and directness of these poems point to cutting truths that have become all too difficult to keep in focus. From “Suggestions for Urban Renewal”:

       10. A new Target’s not where people fall in love.

From “Here in What Used to Be Mexico”:

       2. Our language is not a lug nut,

       3. and you’re a thinking human being not a wrench.


“No Return Address” consists of four prose poems detailing the complicated intersections of human relationships with the natural world, with sometimes dangerous results. “Undercurrents” portrays the sublimity and danger of the landscape of the American West:

       Seems like every weekend in the summer here, someone wants to
       take you down to Moab. You go there and hang out and marvel
       at nature and beauty
[…]
      
[…] Somebody died that day. Drowned. […]
     
  […] what I’m saying
       is there must be someone who’s still sick about that summer
       because this guy they loved went out and ended up dead. No
       more telling him it’s time for dinner. No more sex or calling him
       on the telephone. Gone. Just memories. And even those getting
       less and less every year….


In “Lost and Found,” a man is on a boat with a grizzly. “Dinner Date” illustrates a woman’s aversion to chicken. Despite the complexity of the maps illustrated by Carney, simplicity of language creates a series of honest portrayals, depictions of fragile and fickle human life in the 21st century.

The poems in the “Home Appraisals” section of 88 Maps evaluate the priorities of people searching for a home, both literally and metaphorically. Carney’s emphasis is on wildlife—the plunge and pursuit of hawks; the color, texture, and shapes of plants; the smell of “rain on dust;” the attributes of insects; the “shimmer of fish.” Likewise, Carney accentuates the parallels of home and memory construction, as in “2,140 Square Feet”:
  
        You pass between the two through an open arch
        but not the kind of arch you see in church,
        the kind you find in women: rounded hips,
        the small of her back, her somersaulting laugh,
        her slow smooth way of coming ‘round from sleep.


or “January 26, 2009”:

        Forty-three thousand job cuts in one day,
        in just one morning. Thirty thousand more

        by late-afternoon. Mine wasn’t one of them.
        We’re not part of the millions since last May

        who’ve lost their homes—lost porches and front doors,
        the mantel ‘round their fireplace, the trim

        they painted ‘round the windows one April:
        pale green to go with her flower garden.

        Or the place where he first saw her naked.
        Or their kids’ favorite hiding closet. All…


As in the opening section, the final section, “Arrivals,” contains only one poem. The final poem of the collection, “In the Only Zombie Flick I’ll Watch,” finds Carney reaching the X on the map he’s been drawing for the past sixty pages:

        It’s generic Defense of the Genre 101:
        our anxieties projected,

        the dead-alive virus of consumerism,
        suburban fear of wild animals

        whose wildness is safely on TV,
        and so on, and so on. Take your pick.


While Carney does not exempt himself from falling victim to the concepts these zombies represent, he does express a desire to choose the more difficult path—rising above petty consumerism and insubstantial activism. Carney’s map culminates by reaching a conclusion that his place is to find home and strike a balance between coexistence with other human beings and with the natural world.

Though Carney tentatively reaches his conclusion, it is important to note the cultivation of uncertainty in these maps—informing readers that it’s okay to not know all the answers before embarking on the search, to not know all the answers on the way, and it’s okay to not know all the answers once home has been found. As he states in some of the book’s closing lines:

        Certainty feels like a flag when you fly it. It snaps in the wind
        and makes the sound of your own good name,
  
        of your own high opinion. It’s the opposite of birds.
        And it was birds that he was growing, after all: 
[…]

       
[…] One morning he went ‘round his yard on a ladder.
        He paid no attention to everyone clapping,

        just picked each bird and released it into the sky.