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.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Logan Notebooks by Rebecca Lindenberg
(Center for Literary Publishing, 2014)

reviewed by Stefanie Wortman

In The Logan Notebooks, Rebecca Lindenberg offers poems of careful observation, colored by the particular beauties and idiosyncrasies of the town in Utah where the book is set. This is an elemental poetry, characterized in part by multiple attempts to address subjects like “Birds” and “Trees” and “Mountains.” Lindenberg attends to what is strange about the “usual stuff,” as in “Things Found in a Local Grocery Store”: “pink tomatoes, bagged salad darkening in the corners, pale gelatinous salmon or flaccid little gray shrimp.” Her poems also approach the sublime as in “On a Visit to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels,” in which the winter solstice offers a sight “Worth the pain in your hand-joints you can only feel in this kind of cold.” In either case, the poems are sensitive to beauty wherever it might be found.

The notebook structure of the collection gives rise to a tension between the forward-movement of narrative—centrally, the story of a relationship growing, failing, and ending—and the constancy of elements like clouds and wind, which Lindenberg names in many varieties, some factual and some imaginative. The book moves from “September” through “A December Wedding” and “One Week in April” to “The End of August.” The cycle of the year and the seasons partakes of both movement and stasis, joining the forward momentum of time with the constants of nature.

In their attention to both the ordinary and the extraordinary, these poems display a classifying impulse, and they often take the form of lists. Lindenberg’s catalogs have a force different from the accumulative poetry that comes out of Whitman. His poems, and others inspired by them, take a view of the world that Elizabeth Bishop might have characterized as everything connected by “‘and’ and ‘and’.” By contrast, Lindenberg’s lists often feel like they’re implicitly connected by “or” and “or.” She seems to search for the best or most representative member of a category. In these prose poems, often modeled on work from the 17th century Japanese text The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, each item in the list comprises a distinct paragraph, a technique that contributes to the feeling that their speaker is holding up and carefully considering each possibility.

Even as she makes these lists, Lindenberg acknowledges that the project of cataloging contains the seeds of its own failure. The entirety of the poem “Impossible Things” is the admission, “It is impossible to be comprehensive.” She also wonders about the judgment implied in putting things into categories. In “Beautiful Things,” she begins with confidence that a certain tree is beautiful, but stumbles when she tries to explain why:

    The Tree of Life in our backyard is beautiful because it holds up a swing. No,
    because it conceals the pheasants. No, because it drops its leaves in the creek. No,          
    because you love it. No, because everyone loves it. No, because its origins are a
    mystery. No, because it is ours.

She wants to find some justification for including the tree in the list, but ends back at simple assertion: “No, it is not beautiful? O, it is beautiful. It is beautiful.” As she tries to pin down her criteria, Lindenberg also explores the correctness and effectiveness of language itself. These questions are most immediately apparent in “Different Ways of Speaking”: “Our neighbor across the cul-de-sac says something about gays in the military. Only he does not say ‘gays.’ / Our neighbor says something about alcoholism in the Native American community. Only he does not say ‘alcoholism’ or ‘Native American.’” In a book that makes many things parallel, Lindenberg also has to question whether language should be sorted into better and worse, acceptable and unacceptable, as she corrects the neighbor’s discriminatory speech. She holds out the hope that by writing a poem she can get beyond misunderstanding and miscommunication: “Poetry is nobody’s / native language. Or the only one.”

The Logan Notebooks is also a book about place—or about the idea of a place. What makes Logan a part of the West? What makes the West the West? Among Lindenberg’s quiet observations, there is an undercurrent of conflict and violence, and it is telling that her first attempt to define the West looks back to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake: “That was the first time I felt the strange elation of utter rupture, when something happens that is so scary, it is too much to feel.” In one of the poems titled “Mountains,” the landscape rings with gunshot, and though it is likely just some kids shooting for sport

    […] it’s still the sound of a heavy-haunched creature being put down. Or it’s the sound of a
    great rural indignation. Or of some dread teenager’s heart backfiring. Or a hundred
    schoolchildren turning to see what clicked open the door.

Lindenberg’s is not a poetry of epiphany or clever wordplay. This is not to say there aren’t clever moments—one of her “Things that Lose by Being Written About” is “Being a woman, which is fairly easy as long as no one’s around.” She is just not particularly interested in flash. Instead, she aims to look deeply into what is most familiar. As she writes in another of the variations on “Mountains,” “[…] all I want is to see the same landscape a thousand times and never repeat myself.”

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Stuntman by Brian Laidlaw
(Milkweed Editions, 2014)

reviewed by Josh Cook

Stuntmen are surrogates. They willingly put themselves in harm’s way, give a glossy sheen to danger, stage art in the name of preserving “the pretty.” Brian Laidlaw, the yarn-spinning musician and lyric poet, takes a scalpel to the heart of the stuntman in his first full-length collection. Does the stuntman elevate the art? Or is he an underpaid instrument? Where does real creation happen? In the poet or the poem? The song or the singer? The sense or the sound? The book begs these questions but also interrogates lost time, individual responsibility, communal apocalypse, the role of art, the absurdity of art business, and the precariousness of the body/shell of things. These strains manifest in mysterious missives, rants, fragments, and confessions.

The speakers in The Stuntman are restless souls full of folk wisdom. They yearn for home, casting about genuine modes of expression. “THE EARTH BROKE OPEN BECAUSE WE BROKE IT OPEN,” the speaker of “Telegram,” the book’s opening poem, says. Ingenuity comes at a cost, and humans, though agents of destruction, are also agents capable of manifold change. Even beauty is susceptible to violence, as in “Notes for a Song Called ‘All it Takes’” where “The day doesn’t just break, it outright shatters.”

The first section teaches the reader how to read the collection. Repeated images of home abound, and a remarkable associative logic rides on jaunty rhythms and wordplay. The speaker of “Upstate Mother’s Refrain” comprises a list, repeating “I know,” but then her voice is shot through with italicized commentary.  She says:

    I know the tart iron water is reaming the well-poles
    I know freshwater sharks
    I know haters & orphans
    I know patriot atheists

Where are we, exactly? Some distant land, perhaps. In section two, we get references to the Washburn A Flour Mill in Minneapolis, torn-down cities, Trotskyites, outer space, the Cold War, and cannibals. The collection’s eight “Terrarium Letters” and five “Telegrams” also throw the poems into dislocation. Is the sender from a far-off place? Or are we? Either way, they conjure a sense of lost home, alienation, and a vacant space between that which is and that which is desired. “Terrarium Letter #2,” a twangy ramble, strains toward the connectivity and complexity of objects:

    the record needle has dust, is an eyelet, a stinger, isn’t stingy, the coronets on the
    record are dumber than ever, the daughter falls in love with her own hands

The swerves in action and the clever line breaks jolt you into and out of frenetic narratives, the effect somewhere between be-bop and ballad. “Narcissus the Debutante” begins:

    newcomer grows in, killing familiarity
    the wealthy scramble to incorporate

    he attends their dinners
    like demons they need new bodies.

Laidlaw’s not giving anything away explicitly, though. We’re left to guess where we are located, and it often turns out to be a cold, mythic mystery landscape where “here were trappers,” where the “Voyeurs Cum Voyageurs” collectively assert, “we lowdown our hearts in the tundra / we lowdown the spades.”  “A List of Scenarios” unravels in non sequiturs, what could be a stoner’s brainstorm for song-titles, including, “a bird with a broken wing” and “the randomizer stalks the spreadsheet.” The inclusion of objects like “spreadsheets” destabilizes the landscape, something Laidlaw—the Stuntman—is adept at. Hold on to your reins, cowboys, Laidlaw seems to say, don’t get too comfortable. If you do, you might miss something ingenious, like this from “The Cartographer Cries into His Knapsack”:

             I want to hear my elegy for everywhere, over the radio in the off-road
    limousine, wrenching up to a place I have no business, a sing-along

                        to myself weeping with joy.

Laidlaw is aware of his tricks, thus a constant reckoning of the commercialization of art. “Terrarium Letter #5” begins, “So-and-so is the next So-and-so, I wonder if that’s enough or if I care at all […]” Here, Laidlaw succeeds at parsing the paradoxes that lie between making art and “making it.”

It helps to know that Laidlaw is working from, riffing off of, and deconstructing the myth of Narcissus and Echo, the central image, of course, being Narcissus peering down into his own image.  It’s also based on Bob Dylan’s relationship with Echo Helstrom, his high school girlfriend and “The Girl from the North Country.” Dylan’s cryptic references to Echo throughout his career—at different times referring to her as Hazel, Becky Thatcher, and the girl who looked like Brigitte Bardot—baffled critics, and no one really knows how important she is or was to Dylan. In many ways, Laidlaw’s “Stuntman” pivots with the same reluctant frenzy of Dylan’s amorphous career—that is, seamlessly, and not without blithe provocation. The book also comes with a companion album for download. The songs are easy, Sunday-afternoon tunes, and Laidlaw’s voice pours like rich molasses. He’s less confrontational in his songs, freer, more narrative. Perhaps this is the echo, the stuntman’s double, the safer, prettier side. He saves danger for his page, and we’re all the better for it.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Blue Patina by Nancy Takacs
(Blue Begonia Press, 2015)

reviewed by Kate Kingston

The poems in Blue Patina weave through varied subject matter, some relating to childhood, others to wilderness, and still others to the concept of worry. Each of the four sections has its unique theme, but the unifying threads are in Nancy Takacs’ attention to voice and imagery, her relationship to the natural world, and her intuitive perception.

In the opening section, “The Voices,” Takacs journeys back through her childhood in the cityscape of Bayonne, NJ. Her opening poem of the same title begins with a lyrical description of voice which serves as a springboard for the poems that follow:

    My bee and blossom voice
    hums in my wrist each morning, flies out
    over the field, bumbles through dust
    in the April wind, flies low to the apple trees
    to lose myself whole in each center.

Takacs immediately focuses on the act of writing, the physical activity of the wrist, the ability to go beyond the self, drawing on nature and its images, to become lost in the centering—an intuition that gyrates with wisdom. This poem serves as an introduction to the collection as a whole. The determination and grit that drives these poems is expressed further in the poem:

    The bicycle voice
    is a wise voice, tells me
    to keep moving, get back on
    and turn my thin beige tires

This first section reaches back to a time of I Love Lucy, garter belts, and childhood secrets, defined by Takacs in her poem “Hurt” as a time when “writing was penmanship, / and we were in love with letters / as if they were tears, and we were / the ones who had cried them.” These poems lend a renewed perspective to growing up—Sunday Mass followed by donuts from the deli, a stolen kiss, and intimate relationships that form family—the brother’s distance, the father and his buddies at Campbell’s Tavern, and the mother’s voice of prayers and songs. From the poem, “Sunday, My Brother,” we hear an example of Takacs’ haunting voice:

    No one knew back then
    what you and I know now:
    personality disorders, AA.
    No one thought anyone
    was crazy or needy.
    We just expected our neighbor
    to lay all night smashed,
    bloody, in the alleyway.
    Even our own father
    coming home from the tavern,
    speaking nonsense, might
    have a gash or two.

Her subject matter is unflinching and grasps the core of what it is to be human, to transcend our surroundings and make sense of the world we inhabit.

The poems in the section “Utah Map” use nature as a catalyst for rediscovery, opening into a life much different than her childhood in New Jersey. From her experience as a Wilderness Studies Guide, landscapes surface—mountains, deserts, rivers, and slick rock. Seamless language appears to grow effortlessly from the sandy soil, rugged canyons, and juniper-laden ridges where “the exotic is nature.” Takacs luxuriates in images of flora, fauna, and weather that compose wilderness and shares this adventure of spirit in her “jeep / clawing its way over slick rock.” She writes of avalanches and quicksand, arches and petroglyphs, flash floods and crabapples in her desert yard. Her sensitivity to inner landscape likewise flourishes as in the poem “Escalante” where she invites the reader to discover “ghost-shaped / petroglyphs in the dark blue patina.”

Takacs is also a water color artist, and her intimate knowledge of hues, tones and textures is evident in her images of desert landscape infused with light as in the poem “Balance Rock, October”:

    We never tell where we jeep for lunch
    between nearby canyon walls whose dark
    patina sheens to indigo, sapphire, a swarm of blues;
    petroglyphs float under alcoves
    near Swasey’s Leap; silent orange vistas
    accordion at The Wedge. 

As if her notebook were a canvas, she sketches images through idiolect and responds to other artists’ paintings as well, infusing the page with a rich verbal palette. Her ekphrastic response to a painting by David Dornan in the poem “‘Process’ at the Balance Rock Café” highlights her ability to process color and texture through language:

    Now I know I need the sudden turquoise car
    inside the lemon-yellow house,
    lavender anemones over corrugated
    ribs, the tin ribs, the bare ribs,
    a whiteness more like a rose-cream,
    orange a true orange into fluorescent-orange into red,
    lipped over undercoats of lime, violet, battleship;  

In the section entitled “The Worrier,” her voice takes on the previously promised maturity of wisdom from the “bicycle voice.” Each poem in this section is structured as a dialogue between two inner voices that create a philosophical template based on our human capacity for worry. The question/answer format revolves around fear, relationships, and nature’s fragility. The two voices remain true to themselves, never bordering on the sentimental, never hesitating, but rather speaking with a clarity based on experience. The juxtapositions parallel the turmoil of mid-life, but they also resonate with an inner intuition that dictates the wildly juxtaposed answers as in the “Worrier” poem subtitled “the body.”

    What are the crimes of the lake?

    Not giving up the dead.

    And what does the lake heal?

    Elbows of crawdads,
    splintered oak,
    edges of washed glass,
    the plan of silver.

    What does that silver do?

    It allows the body
    to surface.

The litany here is not only dependent on the words but also on white space. Concrete and abstract meld to create a resonance rooted in the sparse toughness of language. Her word choice, “Not giving up the dead,” ignites the concept of fear and diffuses later in the “plan of silver” that “allows the body /  to surface,” leaving an intuitive truth growing like wisdom in the rib cage. Through sparse language, white space, and dialogue, Takacs scaffolds an emotional and intellectual core in each of these “Worrier” poems.

Thematically, childhood poems, wilderness poems, and “Worrier” poems lead us to the fourth section, “Still,” with its attention to the all-encompassing fragility of nature reflected in the fragility of the self. Takacs’ images and their appeal to the senses keep us grounded while her intuitive grasp of what is beyond the mundane culminates in this last section. Here we discover meditative, quiet poems that subtly resonate back through the manuscript. The poems in this final section are embedded in a sense of reflection that acknowledges tension as portrayed in the poem “Yoga Class”:

    I like it when the moments
    fall gently into one another,
    end up on some island
    with no human footprints
    and many bear. 

Takacs’ poems leap from unexpected places, yet they always land in the still pond of the self that sends ripples, not unlike a stone tossed into still water. Takacs’ poems migrate out from the center through imagery, and discover, then embrace, the shifting self. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

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

reviewed by Michael McLane

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

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

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

    is remembering

    a single line

    a mouthful

    say I border

    my body



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

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

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

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

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

    enough to walk

    through the burning world

    counting blessings

    locust and gull

    counting blessings

    locust and gull