Monday, April 18, 2011

Rookery by Traci Brimhall 
(Southern Illinois University Press, 2010)

Reviewed by Christopher Leibow

Traci Brimhall’s first book, Rookery, winner of the Crab Orchard 2009 First Book Award, is a book embodied with flesh, blood, and soul. There is a static of truly being alive, vulnerable, aware; a rawness that courses through its pages. This is a visceral book of betrayal, injustice, faith and shades of redemption.

The poem that brought me eagerly to Ms. Brimhall’s book was “Aubaude In Which I Untangle Her Hair.” The first few stanzas grab the reader by the lapels,

Bring me fistfuls of your hair if you want to say
you’re sorry.

         I will send my curls one envelope at a time. Your mailbox
         will be full of stamps and maple dark hair and apologies.

Are you sorry?

         After he left I planted milkweed thistle in the birdbath,
         After he left I carved “summer” into the tree and above it,
         “summer” and below it, “summer.” And I made my axe
         kiss all three summers, and they became firewood.
         When I burned them, the stump outside began singing,

These poems have movement and a present power that comes from their embodiment. They are poems felt in the body, not in the intellect.

The first series of poems in this collection is about betrayal. Brimhall expresses pain with such bitter beauty that with each succeeding poem there is the trepidation of one who is viewing something so intimate that the first response is to turn away. Yet these poems do not have the feel of confessional poems, though Brimhall’s speaker explores personal details without meekness, modesty, or discretion. There is no “look at me and my suffering” that many confessional poets succumb to. See “Aubade with a Fox and a Birthmark.”

You crawl into bed, apologies and insect wings
in your hair. I forgive the way you touched her knees,
your amber memory of her body. I make you tell me

how her pleasure sounded— a fox with its paw
in a trap’s jaw, blood on her thigh. I want to hear
how freckles on her stomach made constellations

of unlucky numbers…

or “Dueling Sonnets on the Railroad Tracks”

Don’t admit anything. Don’t ask your question.
I tasted her sweat on your knuckles, her whispers
in your mouth like second hand smoke. I’ve wandered
north to the railroad tracks, throwing gravel at the cars.

The small violence comforts me…

In all of the poems, there is a fearless gaze from which we discover the surreal, and the transcendent in the quotidian. Her surrealist elements work because her juxtapositions are concrete, everyday images, moments, feelings. There are beautiful conversations with self and others: “Prayer for Deeper Water” and “Restoration of the Saints.” Poems that reveal that the tender and brutal sometimes coexist in the feral like in “Requiem with Coal, Butterflies and Terrible Angels.” Brimhall’s language is always precise, as in “The Summer After They Crashed and Drown”

Hold them so tightly the inside of their bodies
                      escape out of their mouths. And we don’t say
          their names. We lure wary schools of sunfish
                                   with dead horseflies

And net them. Necks broken, bellies split.
                      We palm their hearts and watch to see
                      which stops beating first. When thy slow, we toss
                                   the limp muscle into the lake.

The second half of the collection moves towards a species of piety with mediations on God and faith. Brimhall’s influences are seen here. These are conversations of faith and what faith means. The speaker of these poems is in the midst of a family that has embraced religion and the speaker clearly relates. But again, Ms. Brimhall embodies these poems, or roots them into the earth. These are not poems about the spirit per se, but about the body as illustrated by passages such as

You say it is not the animal in us that loves the struggle,
But the spirit that wants to be locked in the crucible
Of flesh until the soul burns clean…


…Children who’d grow up with a river

that resembled their God—beautiful, brutal and prone to flooding.

Throughout this collection poems break through the thin veneer of the narratives we carry around with us to make us feel in control. They ache with an intimacy and immediacy, even when darker, that is lacking in most poetry (see “Fourteen Years Later and Fiat Lux”). Like the poignantly dark, “To The Tall Stranger Who Kept His Hands in His Pockets”, with its slightly ominous title and its more ominous birds, and then,

             You touched my knee. I let you. I could kidnap you

if I wanted. How many park benches
       have you sat on alone, trying to spot the same scabbed

knee and braids? How many times have you said
       my name to yourself, its taste like pennies,

the warm metal of a child’s sweat? Do you wish
       you’d pressed your thumb to the hollow of my throat?

This is a lyrical, surreal and palpable first collection. Brimhall is a poet whose brilliant execution and understanding of her craft will make her voice important in coming years.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Juniper by Nancy Takacs 
(Limberlost Press, 2010)

Reviewed by Carol Henrikson

“They open to you and open to you.”

What is true of the yellow trees, the cottonwoods, black walnuts and poplars that Utah poet Nancy Takacs describes as all along the desert horizon—with theircadmium,/ochre,/pumpkin,/saffron,/hardly any green now,/in stands and circles that spray yellow-blossom—further, how they shine in the dark—is true of all the poems in this, her third book, Juniper: they emanate the same huge translucence. Sensuous imagery is everywhere, imagery she draws from a deep connection to the natural world, her desert landscape and home, from earth’s resonance within her.

In this collection of thirteen poems, recently published in a beautiful letterpress edition by Limberlost Press (featuring cover art created by Takacs’ son, Ian), Takacs invites us in. These are poems we can enter, trust and, like the poet, feel our way along. Right from the start, the title poem tells us

Juniper’s the word I chose,
I love, the tree that makes me feel
I’m less on Mars than Utah.

In her characteristically straightforward way, Takacs gives us, so to speak, the keys to her heart, to the poems and to the almost-alien but beloved high desert near the San Rafael Swell where she and her husband (poet Jan Minich) made their home many years ago.

The tactile world, and her own inner truths, are equally her home, leaving no room for the dictates or dogma of imposed, inherited beliefs, namely religion—I gave up religion / years ago, but still believe / in junipers, she states. Nor is there room any longer for the fear-inducing tyranny of her Hungarian grandmother’s superstitions: No hats on the bed, / shoes on the table, / open umbrellas in the house. / No kissing a man who wears a hat. It’s a wonderful moment, at the end of the poem, when Takacs describes this deeply serious, seemingly trivial, act of defiance, I take the hat from my husband’s head / and throw it on the bed and more wonderful, and profound, when she then proceeds to describe what she does choose, what she does draw nourishment and poetic inspiration from. She tastes the bitter pungent juniper berry,

Which takes me away from its cousin narcissus
And back to the tree itself with its ancient
Shaggy-body universes of dark-blue berries
That know in each green center
How to pine the air, how to
Curry the tongue.

From such an earthy connection arises a voice that is grounded, courageous and compassionate.

It is a voice felt throughout this collection of poems. In “Twentieth Anniversary,” which begins by tenderly conveying the lasting love in their long marriage through everyday detail—Last night we had a feast of halibut / he cooked with fennel, / and I sliced tomatoes from our garden—and setting the scene, showing herself looking at her husband’s Old Spice and Everafter cologne bottles in their medicine chest. Takacs continues, reflecting on a time of doubt and suspicion, of how she came to feel, to understand, to trust her husband’s ways, though different from hers.

I found he has integrity
though he doesn’t reveal much.
Which I do. I always do.

In fact, to look back at Takacs’ other books (Pale Blue Wings, Preserves) is to see that this has been true of her work from the start, that she reveals, though her earlier collections are darker and more confessional, their material often the pain of memory, family history, violence, or, as the poem “I Should Feel Pain More” calls them, truths and abandonments. Here Takacs reflects, with some irony and distance, that these abandonments have to come out sometime, that she has been afraid to let go, but now even as the shasta daisies bloom in her desert yard, she participates in this new healing. As the yellow trees shine in their translucence, as the juniper tree offers itsshaggy-body universes of dark blue berries, from deep in each green center, so the more domestic shasta daisies in her own yard offer sustenance, even approval, though

They look so fragile,
whiter than any teeth or stars, so white
I can go out at night and still see them
along the fence all the way up to my front porch,

Yet these poems do worry. No one knows how long they have, Takacs says of the yellow trees—because of drought, the desert, and changes wrought by man. She sees that the animals too, in Springsteen’s words, have “hungry hearts.” In the poem “The Deer,” these hungry creatures and humans are shown competing, in conflict for the same land, or, in this case, the only five trees (they) have planted in their yard, as the neighborhood deer come at night and eat them. Takacs sees, and seeing, must say, though acknowledging disquiet, and lamenting the loss of the trees, she praises:

At first we find
Their coffee-bean-dark stools, then their deep
Hoof prints, double trails through the snow, winding
And crossing. I follow to the beginning to look
Where they jumped in.

Her words themselves are deep hoof prints…trails through the snow, winding/and crossing, throughout this entire book. We follow, and share both Takacs’ awe and concern. For instance, in the poem “The Flicker,” the poet speaks directly to yellow-headed blackbird, as if to her Muse, in trying to cut a deal, imploring it to stay with the promise:

…..I’ll set out
water under every tree if you raise
your young among the milkweed
and bindweed in my yard.

The bird is at the mercy of the drought, as are we. The water she offers to supply can quench it, as does her very language. At the beginning of the poem, the day of the yellow-headed blackbird’s arrival, the speaker admits having given up such a “drought,” of having thought herself a victim in the past, and unloved. It is a day she had decided to clean out her closet of all / shirts that were gray, my favorite color / I became sick of.

Likewise, in “Flying Home After Visiting Aunt Ginny With her Broken-Hip Delirium,” there is such sadness in the image of her aunt she has just visited in the hospital who

stroked her teeth
glued in by an aide each morning,
made sure they were still there.
She held the blue sheet
over her head, pushed it
through the bedrails,
asked me to push it back.
Her face was always dusky, afraid,
her eyes in constant surprise.

or the image of the man sitting next to her on the plane as she flies home

His furrows and tufts remind me
of last spring’s badger
I didn’t mean to corner
in our old railroad-tie shed…
widening to show its back teeth.

Yet even in her mourning Takacs searches, taking an aerial view out the plane’s window, and finds, healing in landscape that even from this distance calls to her. She looks down over the plains, over Wyoming, and the Wind River Range and sees

a field in the shape of a shoe, its ankle opening, unweaving in a spray
of unearthly green, early snap peas? Broccoli? my aunt ate to keep herself well.

The color green, like the juniper berry’s green center, renews her memory of Aunt Ginny, taking her back to the time when she had strong hands, when as a girl she held them, felt them her own and renews her gratitude for her garden at home with its

blooms of blue flax, penstemon,
daisies, beginning fortunately
all by themselves, how
they appear to live only on air,
with so much grace.

“Home” is the title of the last poem in this collection. Again there is nature about to bloom in these last lines, on her windowsill where

The amaryllis
has made another turn on its stem,
has leant again toward the light. It won’t be
long before the ruby slips from its green lips.

The poem is as well a tender portrait of her neighborhood where, waking early, the speaker looks out the window and considers her neighbors’ lives, their daily routines, lights just starting to turn on. She watches from her quiet house, while her husband sleeps, as the kitchen percolates, the coffee brews in the ancient pot he washed and filled last night. In Juniper, as in this poem, it is as if it is because of her love, and her saying, that amidst this darkest time of year, the amaryllis bloom will open—and the skies lift in dark blue and peach. The book doesn’t seem to want to end, but to begin again, the last poem taking us beyond the cycle of a year and spilling over as from the amaryllis bud, when the ruby slips from its green lips.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Missing You, Metropolis by Gary Jackson 
(Graywolf Press, 2010) 

Reviewed by Nick Depascal

What are the lives of superheroes like? Given the chance to be one, would your life improve? How do comic books offer us a lens onto our own lives and histories? Are comic books merely escapism? Gary Jackson’s first poetry collection, Missing You, Metropolis, winner of the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, succeeds in providing an interesting and fresh exploration of these questions, as well as questions about what mediums are perceived as art.

It is easy to question why anyone would write a book of poetry that focuses on comic books and superheroes. Though the poems never answer this question explicitly, it is clear that the first poem of the book, “The Secret Art of Reading a Comic,” wants to dispel any reader assumptions about the relative worth of comics. The poem is modeled after Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts,” which is in turn a consideration of Brueghel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Auden’s poem begins About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters; how well, they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along, and goes on to consider Brueghel’s painting specifically, and its figures’ willingness to overlook the misfortune of Icarus, as it doesn’t affect their own desires and commerce.

Similarly, Jackson’s poem begins, The old comics were never wrong. / Right always defended / by the hero, and continues, These are treats, delicious twenty-two-page / snacks we swallow, never questioning / the actions between the panels’ gutters / and how similar that world bleeds / into our own. In the last stanza, like Brueghel’s Icarus, we see Captain America in Avengers #4 falling from a disintegrating plane while the action of World War II rages on below, its players oblivious to the figure wrapped / in the American flag, dropping / into the frigid ocean behind.

“The Secret Art of Reading a Comic” draws attention to the antithesis of the book. While comics sometimes avoid small details, jumping in space and time between single panels, Jackson’s book examines the detailed lives and motives of characters in the comics. In “The Dilemma of Lois Lane,” we see Lane confronting the reality of living with the perfect man.

when we’re alone at home,
fixing dinner, you’ll pretend
to wince when you cut yourself,
and I find myself hoping
that the tiniest drop of blood
will bloom on your finger.

Likewise, in “When Loving a Man Becomes Too Hard,” Mary Jane Parker, Peter Parker’s/Spiderman’s wife, details the loneliness of loving a man that belongs to New York / and its myriad of victims and villains, and how she holds / his absence like a crutch.

Jackson’s work succeeds because it resists the comics’ urge to summarize. Instead, both the poems that focus on characters and those that seem more autobiographical seek to illuminate a particular event, emotion, or trait in a way that comics, in their brevity, do not. In this way, his poems also reject the willful ignorance Auden ascribes to humanity, as the poems become about identifying and empathizing with those who aren’t often given opportunity to share their motives and emotions. Jackson’s poems pull Icarus from the water and set him down on the shore to talk, to explain exactly why he ignored his father’s missive to stay away from the sun.

These poems challenge the assumption that poetry, and literature in general, are superior to comics as an art form. By modeling this opening poem after Auden, and by linking Avengers #4 to the painting by Brueghel, Jackson likens comic books to other art forms, and suggests that they can and do deal with the same themes and issues of so-called “high art.”

Jackson spends much of the book bridging the gap between reality and comics. Interspersing the world of mutants and superheroes with that of our own allows Jackson to talk about race in an original way. In “Magneto Eyes Strange Fruit,” Magneto—enemy and sometimes-ally of the X-Men in the Marvel comics—comes across a horrific scene wherein two mutant children have been brutally murdered and their bodies festooned with signs that mark them as mutants. This scene echoes the famous picture of the real-life lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith that inspired “Strange Fruit,” the song made famous by Billie Holiday. Like the Northern outrage and anger that sparked the poem and song, Magneto’s reaction is violent, as he wishes to:

            rip every man out of his home,
make each one burn, reverse
the earth’s rotation, rupture the core
and tear this planet inside out,

only so they can know how it feels.

A few lines later, Magneto decides that someone must be / the villain for the dead.Likewise, in the poem, “How to Get Lynched on the Job,” we see an example of racism in the real world. The speaker describes an incident at work where a friend whispers something to a white, female co-worker, and that It was the first time / I worried for him, because Whistling and whispering, it’s all the same. The truth is the world ain’t changed. / None of us are far / from ending like Emmett. Both poems make a nod to terrible events and images associated with the murders of African-Americans in U.S. history. The use of one event that occurs in the imagined world of the comics and one in the real world shows the way comics can —like another medium—deal with history and ideas as an art form, and suggests why readers are attracted to comic books.

Jackson uses the seeming dichotomy of the real and imagined worlds to compare autobiographical events with their comic book counterparts. In “After the Green,” the speaker discusses visiting his disabled sister at her school for the first time to see the students chewing blocks, / throwing crayons, and how the speaker then feels ashamed to see her among them. Later, the speaker is filled / with a hollow rage. When all you can do / is watch a body fail, / what words are there? At the end of the poem, shocked at his mother’s pride that his ailing sister outlived the doctor’s predictions, the speaker closes with the line As if this were a good thing.

Compare the tone of this poem to that of “Home from Work, I Face my Newborn Mutant Son,” wherein the speaker arrives home to discover his son is a fragile, glass-bodied mutant and his wife is dead from childbirth. As with “After the Green,” the speaker of this poem seems to barely contain his rage beneath the surface of a well-crafted and coherent voice:

He cuts into my palms and slides
in the creased blood. I see
his tiny organs getting used to their work,
while my wife—bled out—grows cold.
What paper-bag test can this boy pass?
His skin reflects the white of my eyes.
And I know he cannot last.

This poem also ends with a death, though it is the father—grieving the loss of his wife and the fact that his newborn son will never survive the world in such a state—that drops his son to the floor, shattering him. Like the speaker in the previous poem, he checks out, refusing to grant that anything positive (a birth) can redeem both of his losses (the death of his wife and mutant son).

Interestingly, both poems use time pieces as a central image. In “After the Green,” the sister’s body ticked / like a broken watch, arms moving staccato, / muscles jerking limbs to their own order. In “Home from Work, I Face my Newborn Mutant Son,” after he drops his son to the floor, the speaker observes how As he shatters on the floor, / everything from his heart to lungs / freezes like the hands / of a wristwatch at ground zero. These images suggest a human body that is damaged beyond repair, and again subtly suggest a connection between two dichotomous elements: the unpredictable human body, and the supposed predictability of a watch.

By the final poem, “Reading Comic Books in the Rain,” we see explicitly the main thrust of the collection. The speaker describes reading a comic in the rain, seeing the colors run, and wishing to Stave off Topeka, Kansas, / the whole goddamn world, by falling / into another one, and in the final line of the poem, to inhabit a world a page removed from our own. The speaker of this final poem wants to escape Kansas through the comics. The comic book characters that inhabit the poems want to escape their deformities through costumes and the use of their various powers. This hardly seems so different from poets and other artists who wish to escape to a new world, or at least a new vision of the existing world, through the various mediums of art. It is this theme of escape in the collection, seen through both the lens of the autobiographical and the make believe, that coheres the book and allows Jackson to place the art of poetry and the art of comics on equal footing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Becoming Weather by Chris Martin 
(Coffee House Press, 2010)

Reviewed by Curtis Jensen

Chris Martin, in Becoming Weather, tracks between registers closely situated and theoretically distant, registers loosely coordinate with the particularly experienced the abstractly removed. Becoming Weather is significant in that it addresses the dual registers of human experience, the instant and the infinite, by poems which both contain and enact this duality. That is to say Martin manifests the dualism of Becoming Weather’s content by means of its tensioned form and vice versa. From Disequilibrium, the first section of Becoming Weather:

What we ask ourselves
Now is—What is forgivable?

I move to bare
the little splitting
inside as it

reds between
the pink on the end
of my finger

Somehow this coincides
with a faith in
the world as a place

In 6, Martin attends to that which we ask ourselves and the pink on the end / of my finger, the abstract and critical and the close and experiential. In terms of content, the compositional field of the poem is marked. Extending from 6 to Becoming Weather as a whole, Martin’s pathos-rich poetic voice traces across the book a weave both local and global, highly personal and highly public. A sort of inscape is formed, but unlike Hopkins, Becoming Weather does not explicitly intend its instresses of poetic attention to some logocentric being or trope or combination of the two. Martin calls to the reader early in the text:

I’m asking you

if it’s possible to refuse
to go blind—I for whom

the divers tones
of a mental life meld

at once
So is it

the infinite or
the instantaneous

quality of movement
that frightens us more?

Martin marks his registers, instantaneous and infinite, and he situates his poetic voice in a differential position between them, between I and for whom, between subject and object. Martin’s vocation is to voice the inspired moments of his existence, to sing the correspondence between instance and infinity, between spots of time and high virtues, between epiphanies close at hand and the void beyond what is not at hand. Romantic and late-romantic poetics are applicable to Martin’s poems, but fail to account for the formal signature of Martin’s subject/object position. Thus Martin is set with the task of both seeing and saying:

Can I say the air
is beautiful?

Can I spend my whole life
as a guest inside the eccentric
Let us release
these appearances
and in so

doing hold
fast to what burden
bodies make
thick returning
to us their
unconscious care

Can I spend my whole life as a gust
outside the eccentric balloon?

Can I see the air
as beautiful?

A follow-up question to stanza 2 could be: if not a speaking subject, then what? By inverting the opening couplet into the closing couplet, saying and seeing bind together in chiasm; Martin demonstrates the two acts’ integral interrelationship in the formation of the speaking subject. For Martin the poet must attend to both inside and outside, must attempt both saying and seeing. But how can one do both, how can someone be both inside and outside? In order to manage this duality, an ethics of instability (see Ted Mathys’s interview with Martin, soon to appear on is practically entailed and a poetics that privileges movement between registers is deployed. Across the poem and the book Martin flickers (and he must) between subjectivity and objectivity, the instant and the infinite in order to attempt both. Martin’s poetic voice tends towards a reflection of something essentially dualistic by function of its demonstrated vocation as well as its chosen subject. In this way, Becoming Weather is a rich working out of Martin’s poetics, a poetic vocation dually composite of a self-declared and content-determined set of imperatives.

I’m a man
becoming weather

None of this is to suggest that Martin aims for the expression of an imagined algorithm of nature—though the moment that one of Martin’s poems seems to alight on a mimetic perch, it just as quickly veers away. But this figure happens less in the way a finch flits instinctively about and more in the way a deliberately composed loop is shaken out from a lariat. Accordingly, as often as the poems of Becoming Weatherappear to manifest themselves, Martin clearly composes them.

Now if you would
gently tip
the assemblage
I will breathe
my torrent
once more

Both contingency and composition hold places of privilege in Martin’s poetics. InBecoming Weather, perceptions follow one another quickly, but simultaneously Martin affects a subtle, tense chord between an emphasis on the open field and the particulars brought to position in that field. This tension is reflected in the poems’ movements between registers concrete and abstract. Across the book, Martin achieves the radical Disequilibrium he sets out to enact. Martin both sings, to borrow more terms from Charles Olson, from a position of objectism, and sees from a position of objectivism. Though at times the work tips too far towards it theoretical ground, threatening to topple irrecoverably into the discourses of critical thought, it does not. Thus the work achieves through form an enactment of its own content, and it does so in the pathos-rich timbre of Martin’s poetic voice. Martin’s poetic inheritances are in this way clearly present in the book’s figures (Oppen, Guest, and Berrigan are mentioned the book’s last section, Chorus); the book presents a flush document of Martin’s movement into a deeply dual poetics from a position informed by late modern poetry.