Friday, April 20, 2012

Negro League Baseball by Harmony Holiday 
(FENCE Books, 2011) 

reviewed by Steve Langan 

Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball, winner of the 2010 Fence Books Motherwell Prize, is a difficult book, and it is, in many places, impenetrable. But after a more full immersion, these cryptic poems, most of which are in amped-up prose, deliver the reader with immeasureable energy into the future of medium. Set in landscape, rather than portrait orientation, to better hold long lines/stanzas/paragraphs, many poems are punctuated by varying taps on the space bar, which is one of the ways this poet holds the beat. It’s a book almost as idiosyncratic as Spring and All. The cover of this collection depicts a riotous orgy of music appreciation. Holiday’s expansiveness brings to mind C.K. Williams, but compared to her display of fullness and spontaneity, he’s counting iambs on his fingers and toes. 

Music, heard through unexpected and thrilling word and phrase choices, is apparent throughout this bold debut. From Holiday’s far from run-of-the-mill bio, however, we are made aware that she’s a dancer and an instructor of dance, which may be the best way to frame how she should be read. In her poems, we 
are made to feel the presence of the sinuous dancer, the lithe one who can move with ease—muscles and muscle groups that middle-aged men like me never were able to access—and with fluidity that approaches the level of danger. Now that she made this leap and that spin, how is she going to come, in one piece, down to earth? Over and over, Harmony Holiday’s poems defy gravity. 

Told slant, Holiday has a story to tell, one that involves and serves the memory of her dad and mom. Dad, we learn in the poems and more directly in the bio, was “Northern Soul singer and songwriter Jimmy Holiday.” Mom, 30 years younger than he, was a writing student at the University of Iowa when they met. A trim early poem, “The Soonest People,” channeling her, ends: 

         My father was Jimmy, dad
         was weeping so frankly it came like gazing had 

Yes, we see that Holiday can do Dickinson, just one of many samples and references spliced onto these poems that are shot through so brazenly with multiple influences that, paradoxically, they find a sound—or layers of sound—like no one else’s. Another poem that appears early in the first section, “Assembly,” arrives—after playing around a bit with the metaphor of the “battery” and then, through free association, to the “body” via the “house” and then the “self” (this is how Holiday’s poems move; People get ready)—at mom. Part of the first stanza emits a valuable clue about how Holiday, from here forward, should be read: 

         recklessness became a dance and a dance became every battery lined up like ready 

For a more full taste of Holiday’s hyper-charged mind in motion, I include the last stanza of “Assembly,” which achieves a full report of Mom, with so much love and tenderness and heartbreak, and includes a Dickinsonian victory salute: 

         Every battery lined up in a station as the police check for accidents, no my mother
         hasn’t slipped when she had fallen that maximum down there is constant effort, we
         feel it as agency one commits to behaving in a certain way and ceases to motor,
         matter, my mother, with her casual sense of a language of the household scaffolded
         by words for average moments by words for disaster, for happier, bywords, I can’t
         think of any now but maybe purified by the effort hiding its failure watch her slump
         into the one rubber chair until she amuses with the automatic of her own sacrifice or
         fact or Edith Piaf or As you Like it, the right clothes, the right desperation looks
         indignant and I am dizzy backwards each time I laugh about while I cry for her,
         demiurgic as our mild sorrow it runs, bang! into ecstasy. 

By dismissing the rote writing workshop dictate to trim the poem down, Holiday is able to access her particular genius. She openly explores and speculates—she says this, says that, how about this?—in messy unrelenting metaphoric free-form. I get the sense she periodically pauses to make what becomes an unexpected and ultimately wise editorial decision: to leave it all in. She lands not only with unexpected gentleness on her marks, but more often than not with complicated and resounding pathos. She seems to convey, “So how do you like that, arbiters of what has become, in too many circles, the denaturing creative writing roundtable?” 

Throughout the third section (of five), Holiday clearly hits her stride. In “An Assassination from Appropriation Forms,” Jimmy returns: 

         that Jimmy finishes wearing his hat down that babbling lane [...] 
         And, near the end of the poem, he arrives in yet another form,
         And then Jimmy steps in the from of him, lend me your teeth, lemme your teeth

It is at this point that even the most jaded reader will want to step in and attempt to save the young woman who demonstrates her vulnerability through the stress she places on language, which keeps fracturing or flaring everywhere she looks, for her protean father, for herself. 

However, in “Alltime,” also in section three and presented here in its entirety, Holiday seems to be telling us that, despite the worry her poems may cause, as 
long as love and validation are options, she’s okay: 

         And every time I fall in love, what television, another obituary, I am three, trying to tell psychology about /
         psychology: look at me, see me, watch me. 

Because of this poet’s youth and audacity—or because Holiday’s is an original voice, which can obscure or upend readers’ judgment—others may argue that these poems are headlong, excessive, and “private” beyond what’s tolerable. Examining some poems or sections, they probably have a point. But I would happily counter this argument by saying the high virtuosity Holiday represents depends on excess. Though they could not differ more tonally and formally, I see the Derek Walcott of Omeros—and the epic poets to whom Walcott regularly pays homage—as ancestor to Harmony Holiday. She is mission- driven to lay claim, however fleeting the objects and subjects of her vision become—dissolving sometimes just as they are presented—to her own distinct contemporary epic of hurt transferred through music and motion into beauty. 

Her project, in the end, is one of humanity’s oldest: the reinvigoration and reenactment of history through lyric poetry. By detailing the quest for her family and personal history in a fully imagined stream of crosscurrents, Holiday delivers to us the opportunity to begin to lay claim to our own complicated pasts. The difference between Holiday and many other contemporary poets is that Holiday is brave enough to transfer this information to her readers in an interactive form that upsets all they thought they knew about how poems look, feel, sound, and function. Holiday is energized by the spirit and need of discovery. It seems she can’t help but take ongoing formal, syntactical, and linguistic risks and leaps. Through Harmony Holiday’s daring first collection, we begin to feel what freedom really is; she makes us hardly afraid to reimagine and redefine 21st Century American poetry.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Still: of the Earth as the Ark Which Does Not Move by Matthew Cooperman
(Counterpath Press, 2011) 

reviewed by Jerry Carlin

In his new collection, Still: of the Earth as the Ark Which Does Not Move, Matthew Cooperman gives readers poems of contemporary chaos filtered through a human brain and attendant nervous system. The work provokes multiple blood pressure spikes and drops within individual poems, though we ultimately come to sympathize with this scrupulous, self-observant list-maker and erudite poet. These 28 poems pencil out a fluid, incessant anxiety. In the Still: series the poet indexes his cache of persons, places, and things, setting his foundation to build list-like poems—Christ and Celine Dion, NASA and Gaza, arugula and hangovers—all the while future-tripping to The Three Horsemen of The Rapture. Cooperman holds close to his charged, disparate bits of information. Ordered on a page, they’re like digits on a spreadsheet in a bookkeeper’s ledger. Categories of interrelated subjects, pertaining to the poem’s title, are placed down the right side of a page. Anxiety “triggers” related to those subject headings are inventoried across the page, separated from their parent heading on the right by a colon:

                                                      Still: Winter
         and the lanterns coming on: the oil price rising ($135 crude), the old furnace
         functioning (2/3rds capacity), the body count rising (38%, 1/20/01–3/20/11)
         Snowman: made of salt, or the salt made of man, a pillar standing in Whatzitstan
         a soluble symbol, a salient salve, desert, deserted, dersertification […]

Like Frank O’Hara in his “I do this, I do that” poems, Cooperman gives readers a glimpse at how a brain filters the world. O’Hara was freer in dispatch, showing how he felt; Cooperman, not so much. He’s a straight guy poet writing about feelings. He hides them behind a wall of vocabulary, realizes what he’s done, and after being scolded for it, once again, the poet caves and shows tenderness or terror. He’s the guy who busts your chops before jetting home to take his twin boys to kiddie yoga; openly butch, closeted sweet.

Reading the collection start to finish in one sitting requires no uncertain stamina. The weft and warp of Cooperman’s bulging spreadsheets will unravel the unsuspecting reader, who will live the poem’s escalation from baseline worry to despair to stratospheric paranoia. However, the depth of Cooperman’s poems becomes apparent in subsequent readings. I am not erudite. I am curious. Faced with the obscure, I stayed close to my Webster’s, with Wiki and Google fired up. Accessible but not facile, the poet’s bank of cyber-ephemera and skillful nods to total annihilation come to life with terrific rhyme schemes and manic sparkle, while tonal shifts go Pushmi-Pullyu over the map of pyscho-social issues:
         you are first
         and on a
         list complexly these
         are hours and
         days oh daze
         to singularize and
         bind disparities please
         please baby please
         make larger space.

Throughout, the reader is reminded how painful it is to be scared. All. The. Time. Yet, throughout the struggle, readers are asked to consider accepting life on life’s terms, as in the final stanza of “Still: Enlightenment,” “Problem: driving pictorial expressions of breath down a page about letting go.” Not inclined to acceptance, I prefer the stanzas with humming disquiet, like those in Still: Thirst, “Equation: coffee = the Enlightenment, Michelob Ultra Peach = the Decline.” The Still: poems alternate with brief, single stanza poems. Whitman, Crane, and what feels like Ashbery, color the verse. In this mix of poems, readers experience Dubstep pacing, measured, lullaby lines, and soft stumbles at frayed line breaks. These poems are like punctuation, a transition, or a rest from the dire lists, like this poem that sets up the reader for a new section:

         everyone in invocation
         chalking a line
         around a thing
         hedge glittering
         to bolster home
         the local altar
         our little time
         pearling quite quietly
         the child within

The pattern is sucker-punched as we move into “Still: Shooting.” The poem beginsat a brisk pace, the humor in the first stanza devolving into severe turbulence in the second. The stunning simplicity and the chilling rhyme scheme of the secondstanza kills, literally in, “Location: grassy knoll, Indonesian atoll, Dakota Hotel,Arizona mall.” The shooting continues with a “roll call:” of schools and colleges,“‘Presidential Fatalities:’” and a well-timed injection of humor, “Announcer: ‘Yes,after a tough day sometimes a shooting game is all you need.’”

These aren’t static lists of whack-a-doodle thinking. Everyone’s anxious, hence The End Times people, the Global Warming People, The 9-11 Conspiracy People. The poems are morning-time gnawing in your gut before hopping out ofbed. We’re all afraid of some force taking us out, and Cooperman has catalogued a glorious pandemonium of grown-up considerations to feed off.

Visuals, typographic and otherwise, accompany Cooperman’s poems. Pages of white typeface floating on a black ground are interspersed throughout. Letters, dropped from words on the black pages, disrupt quotes from Harriet Tubman and Kathopanisada, The Serenity Prayer and Corinthians. Crumbling platitudes are no longer reliable. Sprinkled throughout are iconic fonts and logos of name brands; Coca Cola, Ralston Purina, Trojan Condoms, Playboy, and Nikon imply the root of all evil once removed. Cooperman’s visual aids suggest society is totally doomed.

At 116 packed pages, the freshness occasionally disappears; a rhyme scheme doesn’t hit the mark, a stanza doesn’t scan. It takes a DeMilleian effort to sustain this level of energy. Cooperman succeeds despite minor blips in the final cut. He takes risks with mechanics and reputation. Simply put, he has the nerve to let his readers peek and poke at what goes on in his vivid imagination. Near the conclusion of the work, however, the poet really goes all out with a direct poetic declaration in “Still: Here,” “Author: and in the end, I’m still here, I am always in the book, a somewhere I
am […].”

“A somewhere I am” nails it. The poet’s self-exposure made this reader squirm. As someone who obsesses about the inevitable or the unimaginable, Cooperman’s poems do come around to something I easily forget—hope eternal. If he can hang onto that, I suppose I can too, and hope for a world that eschews Michelob Ultra Peach for the refinement of coffee.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Hurricane Lamp by Sundin Richards 
(Otis Nebula, 2011)

reviewed by Andrew Haley 

In his first book of poetry, The Hurricane Lamp, Sundin Richards gives us lean, jagged poems that seem at first glance mostly erudite bravado but deepen with repeated reading until they span into multitudes. Under inspection, the language reveals simultaneities hung over the precipice of adept enjambment, and syllabic economy developed from scrutinizing the American masters of the short-lined poem. Individually, these poems nurture a fondness for the actual delivered via Richards’ predilection for the sordid: “the little / town fumes / in a cradle.” But try as he might, the effect is more H.D. than Bukowski. In “The Last of the First of the Last,” the misanthropic hangover opens into the lyrical:

         I’m deeply sick
         of you

         And want to be
         left alone


         You spin
         and your

         Hair spins
         with you

         Fire your flies
         all you want

         It won’t change

The modulation from bitterness to elegiac to self-censuring is standard throughout. The forlorn, even self-pitying tone, leads to wider laments (and not a few minor jeremiads) often with such sincerity that a handful of Richard’s syllables, divided among couplets or tercets, evoke the more sinuous lines of the Pisan Cantos. Few poets use the couplet so concretely. For a punk rock acolyte
 of Williams and Olson, Richards’ couplets have a materiality, a sculptural intentionality. It is no small thing to fashion short-lined poems which are hewn but not hatchetted. Perhaps because he writes his poems on old manual typewriters, Richards’ poems seem machined. There is purpose to their shape. They maximize conduction. The line of their music does not flag. In an age when free verse wears the pope’s ring, it is surprising how little attention is paid to the materials. Whereas Richards’ basic unit of expression is the syllable, it feels like many poets today use the blog post, or that staple of creative writing workshops, the so-called free write. Lines end with a keystroke, without cause. As a result, much free verse today reads like a paragraph broken at random on a smart phone’s screen. Richards puts such thought into the tooling of his lines, into their parsing, shaping, and selection that they exceed the sum of their parts:


         Algebra of
         rocking wires

         Makes its
         own reveille

         For me
         and I’m sure

         I might blos
         som into breaks

As a collection, The Hurricane Lamp pays a subtle, but indebted, homage to The Maximus Poems. Richards’ Gloucester is Helper, Utah, a derelict coal mining town in the mountains southeast of Salt Lake City, accessible by the nation’s most dangerous highway, US-6. It is a scenic, nineteenth century hamlet abandoned to its ruin by the indifferent economic gods, a place whose present was hijacked by its future before it escaped its past. Richards’ grandfather lived in Helper and, as a boy, Richards visited by train from his native Colorado. It is from memories of these trips, and later visits, that Richards’ Helper, as imagined and remembered, is formed and populated. A blue-collar, tough-guy persona speaks from the last bar under the mountain but, as with Olson among his watermen, the intelligence, sensitivity, and education of the poet continually slip from beneath the mask. While “Firedamp is feared/up and down the line/and are those your teeth/or dice over there?” “chords are/no match/ for a starved/Solyma” and “singing saws/are thaumatropes.”

Alecto. Solyma. Thaumatropes. As tough as he tries to be, Richards swaggers though his honkytonks and hangovers quoting Milton, and not the usual soliloquies. Alecto, brother of Nemesis—one of the avengers, the Erinyes, born from the mess of Uranus’ castration—punishes moral crimes committed against the people. Richards has brought him to Helper. He is a man with no name. No town has better need of an avenger. This shuffling of rhetorical masks evokes Pound’s Cantos, which Richards knows well. The persona, as well as Helper’s role as an Olsonian topos commit less to a process of realism, than to a Poundian invocation of a lost arcadia; in this case, a plain-talking arcady replete with hookers, miners, and librarians isolated in the high mountains from transformative social and economic changes that destroyed Helper in the second half of the 20th century. Topos in The Hurricane Lamp is less important for what it is than for what it is for. Richards’ mountain-Gloucester is an instantiation of arcadia meant to evoke all arcadies. These are not histories, but odes.

In later poems, Richards’ poor, sordid habitations are visited by Enkidu and Metatron—Sumerian and Hebrew demigods. As in the Cantos, this kind of name-dropping blows out the walls of the realist project and sites the poet, and the reader, in a great vortex of culture and context. Just as Helper is meta-Helper, more variable than referent, so obscure, anachronistic characters and objects help universalize the scope of Richards’ poems and predicament. He too becomes a collage. The hardboiled tough guy, the miner, the drunk, the plain-talker, the Hellenist, the slighted wunderkind, the birdwatcher are all masks worn variously, with varying success, sometimes all within the same poem. Despite the chaos and complexity, Richards never lets up on his extreme focus. The poems are tight, clean, tooled. They are inheritors of the ethos of the Imagists. Take for instance that previously quoted line:

         Singing saws
         are thaumatropes

A thaumatrope is a Victorian toy which consists of a disc with two different images, one on each side. The disk is connected to a string. When both ends of the string are pulled in opposite directions, the disk spins, end over end, creating the illusion that both images are blended into one. A long-time student of Donald Revell, Richards has learned to abhor simile. Here the long, two-handed saws, themselves an anachronism, bend and twist, their blades flipping from one side to another, creating the illusion that both sides are one. The singing saws are thaumatropes. They are not like them.

In “An Explanation,” dawn comes early for the poète maudit and his female companion:


         for grief

         Loose the
         dogs all over

         For all
         I care

         Many dawns
         goddamn it

         Sprinkle your
         sun somewhere

         Else for

         I’ll give you
         the coordinates

         for oracle

         arms reach

As I’m not much of a scientist, I assumed Promethium was a neologism and, on first reading, I imagined “Promethium/for oracle” as a way of saying something nifty about fire. Promethium is an element on the periodic table. Highly radioactive, it was once widely used in luminous paint. The poet, lying in the half-dark, hearing dogs bark, is looking at his watch. As in “singing saws / are thaumatropes” here promethium really is an oracle. The beauty, complexity, and meaning of these three words are not conveyed through metaphor but through the things themselves, and the suggestion of wider meanings, of the gift of fire, of first dawns, and all dawns, occurs not in a pocket reality created by inventive word play but in our own minds as our educations and collective culturing respond to the exactitude of the poet’s choice. The same goes for “Numphe / arms reach.” Numphe, pronounced “noom-fay,” is an obscure Greek word, infrequently used in classical culture. It appears briefly in the New Testament and is adapted from the verb “nupto,” which means “to veil as a bride.” By extension, numphe refers to a young woman or bride. In this case, it is the girl stirring beside him in the twilit space between worlds, still a bride for a moment longer before she wakes up a wife. We have traded punk rock for Morgenlied. In the half-dark, woken by distant dogs, her veil-white arms and the light of a watch dial. It is the honeymoon when night has been forgiven and the day’s choices remain unmade. Even the brutest have their aubades.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ship of Fool by William Trowbridge 
(Red Hen Press, 2011)

reviewed by Liz Kay 

In his fifth full-length collection, William Trowbridge offers a comical, historical account of man—both mankind, and the singular man—through the archetype and character of the fool/Fool. Sections one and three present Fool as an everyman with spectacularly bad luck, a sort of perpetually recycled Forrest Gump who’s brushed shoulders with the important snapshots in human history and left the smudge of his fat thumbprint on each one. Fool’s experiences are not limited, though, to the terrestrial realm. He is, we learn in Trowbridge’s answer to Milton, “Fool’s Paradise,” a sort of angel whose fall from grace was not through intent, but as fitting a fool, accident:

         Fool, who was standing too close when God
         swept the rebel seraphim into perdition, tries,
         as the former Lucifer exhorts, to make a heaven
         of Hell. After all, feeling your eyeballs boil inside
         keeps your mind off your smoldering testicles.

Fool maintains his rotten luck and kick-me grin throughout his misadventures.
He’s “Basic Fool” in Cupid’s army, an unsuccessful werewolf, the captain of a
child’s bathtub boat, and the 97-pound weakling from the Charles Atlas ads. He’s
God’s (musical) instrument, a spiritual guide assigned to Hitler, and a perpetual
celestial fuck-up. In the poem, “Foolin’ Around,” Fool is left in charge by a
vacationing God in a mythical future in which earthly life has been perfected:

         […] But he can’t resist trying to pick up
         the Hammer of Creation, which causes him
         to stumble against the Divine Trash Bin,
         spilling Hate and Death into the Pipeline,
         which schleps them back into the fabric
         of temporal life, where there’ll be hell
         to pay, Fool knows, being omniscient also.

This is neither the first, nor the last time humanity bears the brunt of Fool’s misguided efforts, as in “Fool Demonstrates His Invention.” Envisioning fireworks and celebration, Fool introduces gunpowder into human history.

         “Think of the children,
         their upturned faces
         shimmering in the dark,”
         says Fool. “Think
         of the stubbornest obstacles
         blown away,” he says
         to the Emperor,
         who’s already thinking.

Yet this demonstrates what is both Fool’s frailty and his redemption—his naivete, his inability to see the shoe about to drop. Fool, we’re told, is “grief’s warm-up bag, / unhygenically pure,” who might love anyone, and indeed, he does. While God and other celestial beings pop up in poem after poem, it’s Fool who loves humanity, who weeps for the earth and “how its six billion passengers / bump along in sorrow and hope and terror and sometimes / that sweet jalopy called love.” Fool’s

                                                             […] heart
         takes up a galaxy. There’s room in it
         for all humankind, even burdens on society

         and threats to public decency

The middle section of the book breaks from Fool the archetype’s adventures
to recount the foolishness of a singular life. We’re taken through childhood
adventures like “Pantsing Bobby Freeman in Fifth Grade,” through accordion
lessons and getting pounded by the neighborhood bully. We see the dumb
luck of teenagers managing to live through the stupidity of fast cars and young
heartbreak and adolescent anxiety. We’re shown the musings of an older man,
a little wiser only in his ability to recognize himself as a fool, to realize the
foolishness of his youth, yet still fool enough to be nostalgic for all of it.

While the Fool poems of the first and third sections are sharp and crafted and
full of wit, it is this middle section that resonates. Where Fool is naïve and
guileless and incapable of anything but spectacular failure, the middle section
reveals us as we are and shows our small sad failures, our small, un-Fool-like
hearts. Take “Pantsing Bobby Freeman in Fifth Grade,” in which our speaker
witnesses the pantsing of a victim chosen for “the eyes that said // ‘free shot.’”

                           […] “Eeyow,
         shit stains!” somebody yelled,
             as Bobby squirmed to cover up

         his tiny pecker and those eyes,
             and I joined in a ballsy-toned guffaw,
         one like I’d heard my father share,

         matching boilermakers
             with his buddies from the plant—
                   one B-flick Viking to another

         as the monastery roars. It felt OK,
             and school so nearly out.

Throughout the book, we’re treated to Trowbridge’s trademark talents—the fine
craft of his poems, his irreverent humor, and his egalitarian mixing of references
in which Milton and Hume share equal footing with Mr. Bubble, classic movies,
and hot-rod cars, especially one “with Lake pipes, Olds spinners, / Hilburninjected
Chrysler hemi / cammed with an Isky Crossflow 7000.”

It takes pieces of all of this to capture the story of mankind, and of course, our
story is one with less of a hero and more of an anti-hero, one with not much luck
but with a lot of heart, bumbling through the best he can. The secret, from “The
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” is to

                  […] Quit brooding on the high speed
         wobble, the endo, a decline in futures.
         Have faith in the sturdy god of gyroscopics
         and, despite the October chill, this tangy day
         when you’re not yet dead or worse.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Sliding Glass Door by Scott Poole 
(Colonus Publishing, 2011) 

reviewed by Rob Carney 

“What influences my writing more than anything
are my old Steve Martin albums. The timing of his
delivery is pure genius. He holds the audience on
every word. That’s what a true poet does.”
—Scott Poole

Like Scott Poole, I’m a fan of Steve Martin. I’m on my third copy of Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Other Plays. I’ve seen the title play performed twice. What first got me hooked, though, were the comedy albums. My friend and I used to play them over and over in his living room back when they were brand new and we were just kids. Hilarious. But unparaphraseable.

Poole’s poems are similar. They arrive at what functions as a punch line, but he isn’t telling jokes, and often the punch lines are aiming at something bigger than a laugh. “What Happens Every Year When My Mom Asks Me What I Want for Christmas” and “Visit from a Bullfighter” demonstrate this well. The titles cue us to expect narrative and drama, but in inverse ways: The first suggests we’ll be presented with the extraordinary in the ordinary; the second suggests the opposite; and in each, that’s exactly what happens. And both end with punch lines: “How about a shirt?” she replies. “Shirts are nice,” and “I don’t know what he’s crying about. This ice cream is good.” But without the stories—Poole’s avalanching or balky trial-and-error ways of getting there—the punch lines aren’t able to skeet-shoot us out of the air. And those stories, those gettingtheres, can’t be paraphrased. You really need to have them whole.

Still, here’s a synopsis of the Christmas poem, followed by excerpts from the one about a matador so baffled by the banality of our suburban way of living that it’s like he’s being existentially gored: In answer to his mom’s question about what to get him for Christmas, a grown man, played by Scott Poole in his exuberant imagination, progresses from “just want[ing] everyone to be happy” to needing fencing lessons, a vast tank of helium, 2,523 banjos, and a secret lair, not necessarily in that order. As you read it, it makes perfect sense. And “Visit from a Bullfighter” begins in medias res with no explanation about what prompted this visitation in the first place:

         I show him the croquet set.
         It’s broken. Nobody has played in years.
         Next, we turn on the television to find a show

         but he stabs his sword straight through it. 

         I take him to the Olive Garden for lunch. 
         “This is ridiculous,” he says, crossing his arms. 

         I love the library. I take him to the library.
         […] I raise my hands

         to the bookshelves in a grand gesture of possibility.
         He throws his head back and tromps out with great pomp.
         Outside, I find him smoking by the fountain. 

         “Where are the bulls?” he shouts to no one in particular.

         “Where is death and beauty?” he screams.
         “Back off freak!” says a scampering woman.

The poem doesn’t exactly add up to Rilke’s “You must change your life,” but it’s in that neighborhood. And it’s subversive right up to the final line, where it undercuts the absurdist game it’s been playing, and does so with an ordinary ice-cream cone.

It’s poems like this one that keep me coming back. From his first book The Cheap Seats (Lost Horse Press 1999), to Hiding from Salesmen (Lost Horse 2003), to this new collection The Sliding Glass Door, that’s always been the case. I’m hooked by the joyful, goofy, improbable, fantastic humor he rides in on like a unicycling armadillo juggler. But I stay for the more serious, sometimes even melancholy, remainder of the show. This book, like the previous two, has plenty of that.

“Small Resistance” is an elegy that gives me, still, that experience of nerve shivers even though I know what’s coming in the final stanza. It’s understated and moving. Likewise, “My House” is a critique of the Bush administration disguised, à la Frank O’Hara, as a present-tense rendering of daily this-andthats. Like O’Hara, Poole weaves counterpoints so that the result is much more than a journal entry about cleaning the house and taking care of the kids:

         It’s the weekend. A Saturday.
         There are three children sleeping
         in the rooms of my house.
         My son. My daughter. My nephew. My house.
         I’m in charge. Me.
         It’s 9:16 p.m. in the dark days of October.
         Rain pounds the house, and the porch light,
         as I peer out, fills with breath.
         Yesterday, one of the top five
         people in the White House was
         indicted for perjury. A man named Scooter.
         I have almost constant rib pain now,
         but I’m not being indicted for perjury.
         No great scandal is rocking my house.

And like O’Hara—I’m thinking of classics in Lunch Poems like “A Step Away from Them” and “The Day Lady Died”—Poole ends this twelve lines later with a redirect, a swerve away, that’s somehow exactly on target, “The president can kiss my ass. / Everyone can come live with me.”

Finally, there’s “Keeping the Promise,” another strong example of a high-stakes subject approached with both humor and seriousness. This poem about devoted fatherhood moves seamlessly toward its own self-help-support-group antithesis, and it’s the word “cardboard,” of all things, that allows him to conclude with an impressive shape-shifter move:

         […] In fact, if I didn’t have kids
         that would even be better. Cardboard kids
         I could always commit to and still get to my

         committing meetings and not have to worry
         about giving them constant commitment. That’s it!
         I’m going to have sex with a cardboard box.

         I’ll put my entire self in a cardboard box,
         commit in my mind as hard as I can,
         and someday they’ll mail me to my children.

If you know his work already, you’ll be glad to have this new book. Maybe “Shelving” will be your favorite, or “How Our Living Room Became a Cemetery.” They’re a couple of brilliantly oddball fables, and I’m a fan of both. For those of you who’ve never heard of Scott Poole, you should treat yourself—you’re worth it. Get this book, then back up and read Hiding from Salesmen and The Cheap Seats too. I’ll bet 2,523 banjos you’ll be happy that you did.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Moments of Delicate Balance by William Kloefkorn and David Lee
(Wings Press, 2011) 

reviewed by Gary Dop 

Poems and poets do not exist in solitude. We often want to believe that each poem stands alone and likewise that each poet is an autonomous voice. We tend to tie the concept of a successful lone-voice to aesthetic mastery. So when I picked up Moments of Delicate Balance, I puzzled over why these two poets, both experienced and established writers, would tie their individual collections to each other’s. Of course the available answer is that they were longtime friends, they shared a poetic sensibility, and their voices complemented one another, but none of this really answers what the reader gains from a two-author collection.

The sheer volume and quality of the poems in this collection, which are divided into two sections, one for each author, is easily worth the price of admission. This generous heap of language fits alongside the very best of Lee, former poet Laureate of Utah, and Kloefkorn, the long-time State Poet of Nebraska until his death prior to this book’s publication in 2011. These poets share an honest, accessible, and rustic perspective. Their impressive body of work, here and elsewhere, celebrates life, inimitable people, and common speech.

But it’s the differences between the authors that enhances this collection, like the way a film can thrive with two distinct protagonists—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example. Kloefkorn and Lee, like Butch and Sundance, want the same thing but each approaches it in his own way. Perhaps it’s Lee who is the better gun slinger, à la Sundance, spraying his bulleted colloquial speech across the page, mesmerizing the reader. But it’s Kloefkorn, like Butch, who never lets hope slip too far away; even in death’s doorway, he’s still dreaming.

Kloefkorn’s appreciation for life and people is at the forefront of all his poetry. We know from him that the world matters because we feel it mattering through him. In “At Risky’s Bar & Lounge,” we don’t stop to wonder, as we might with other poets, if we’re to assume that Kloefkorn is the speaker of the poem. It doesn’t matter. We’re sitting with him, seeing the “lean and young and moonfaced and clear-eyed” waitress tell him that her cancer is in remission, and we’re wanting, with Kloefkorn, not to look too much at the hair on her head, which he tells us looks “to be fur, young rabbit fur.” We need, as Kloefkorn constantly shows us—his need—to be in communion with his wonderful world:

                  […] And when
         our waitress returns I’ll ask her to remove
         her apron and join us. I want to give her
         the keys to the kingdom. O somebody, please,
         attend me! I want to touch her hair.

Kloefkorn’s poems attend their subjects with such compassion and pleasure that we sense he’s honored to have been allowed to write them. We hear this even in “Almost Spring,” where Kloefkorn exults in the beautiful mess of our bumbling individuality and connectivity:

                  […] Hope
         wearing only her
         birthday apparel appears and
         kisses me full on the mouth and
         the moment like a curtain
         rises and all the world is a stage
         and we are on it acting
         singly and collectively and gloriously
         and god help all of us
         forever the insatiable fool.

Lee’s, on the other hand, do not foreground his appreciation for his characters and life. Instead, he disappears and his characters present themselves to us with all the grotesque joy of a Sherwood Anderson story. His poems pulse with the gravelly, seriocomic voices of rural America, specifically his West Texas. The opening poem of his section follows the investigation of the rumor of the lightning-strike death of Wesley Stevens, “the second sorriest excuse for a human being,” according to R.B. McCravey, who learns that Stevens is alive and was simply lying in a field measuring the dents from the rain. McCravey is disappointed both that the rain didn’t come to his own land and that Stevens is, in fact, alive:

         it was all a dead false issue
         under another clear blue sky
         one way or another
         with not a single next cloud on the horizon
         nothing to celebrate or look forward to
         as far as he could see.

I couldn’t help but read this closing of his opening poem as Lee’s ironic wink toward his portion of the collection, which is certainly worthy of celebrating. His poems pop with unique personas, and his various narrative voices and found poems always channel local lingo. In “A Veritable Tale of a Wife, A Porch and a Dog,” the speaker says of Mutt Landry that he “was on the worst luckrun of his whole live life history,” which allows the speaker to both set up the story and to embody Landry’s voice. It’s Lee’s colloquial speech, the envy of all except perhaps Twain, that hooks us into his world, a world of quirky characters, like Harold Rushing, who tells the local preacher about a man who quit studying to be a priest in the “non-true faith” because

         abstinence, poverty and chastity
         aren’t any one ezactly
         all they cracked up to be

We read the poem and laugh. We trust the voice. We know the voice. There’s no lofty poetic message coming through—it’s on the page to celebrate the singular desperate voice, the voice of all of us. At one point in “Odus Millard,” a man speaks about his daughter to his potential son-in-law:

         a woman can only love a thing
         if she can pity it
         and then run over it
         so you might be just what she’s destined for

Lee writes from deep within the West Texas world he’s never escaped, even after all his years in Utah, and as a result, we hear our own community’s peculiar voices.

Several of Lee and Kloefkorn’s poems seem to be speaking for more than the poem’s surface context. In “God’s Lion, God’s Lyre,” a town bristles when one of its deviants becomes a Pentecostal preacher, and Lee writes through one of his characters:

         if we search long and hard enough
         through the mental pages of our own self-invention
         and whoever’s face we find
         will just flat not be the one we expected
         whether it’s in the mirror or in front of us smirking
         we are all of us of the same ilk and in this together
         we best learn to live with it and each other

Similarly, in “Ashokan Farewell,” Kloefkorn’s words seem to portend more than enjoying his grandaughter’s gift for playing the violin. Here Kloefkorn embodies the unaware, prophetic voice of the poet writing of his own gift, of the gift that he and Lee have given all of us—the important reminder that poetry is a communion between writers and readers and writers and writers, as Lee writes, “we best learn to live with it and each other,” and that as Kloefkorn says:

         Just now it is no more farewell
         than hello, hello to the gift
         unwrapping itself in sound

The initial question—why do two authors share a book?—has its better answer: two authors bind their books together because they have moved beyond the petty, youthful posturing of individuality, and they know their poems were bound together, with their readers and the writers to come, long before their poems were ever written. Through Moments of a Delicate Balance we celebrate with Kloefkorn and Lee the life lived sharing life, our “whole live life history.”