Friday, December 26, 2014

Little Oblivion by Susan Allspaw
(Elixir Press, 2013)

reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb

Antarctica, the expanse of ice, the blues and whites, the temperatures with their sustained lows, the wilderness and wild that is there—seals, petrels, terns—and the humans who wrap themselves in layers of down to work and study in an unforgiving environment, a place of surprising life and obvious death: this is what Susan Allspaw’s first book of poetry, Little Oblivion, would have us consider.

Allspaw tells us, in her poem, “Burial,” that “the ice is trying / to tell me a secret it’s been keeping // for years.” That’s a clue to these poems, free verse poems that exhibit moments of narrative, though the real story is Allspaw’s examination of ice as “other,” of place as mystery, of landscape as the story-teller and mirror for what haunts and intrigues her. For Allspaw, this ice and landscape is father, mirror, and companion. We’re not just reading a poetry of place, of ecology, but a navigation of map and meaning, a reflection of “our nakedness as wonderful as icebergs.”

That nakedness is how we get to the overarching feeling—longing, for both meaning and connectedness—that dominates these poems. A poem early in the book, “Heading into Dion Island, Antarctica,” starts us on our journey to the ice—though to enter this challenging landscape, we must also recognize what we’re leaving—on a mission to count penguins and eggs.

    Twenty centimeters of ice below the bow,
    seven knots, and the barometer falls on us like bad news.

Yes, the good news is behind us. Yet, this adventure is a letter to her father, a man no longer with her. “Writing the dead is not easy,” she says, cleverly writing both to and about “the dead” in this case. “Pity dead fathers / can’t see us trawling for science, wanting to write home,” and we’re in Allspaw’s landscape, the place of craft and examination where she tells us about so many delicate things at once, recounting the science, her concrete mission, but linking to longing, to the human grasp of what’s already gone and can’t be regained, no matter how intelligent the writer or scientist.

    […] Dad, the sun rises in the north here, and the Southern Cross
    is pointing with us, south, where we will census

    what hasn’t been born yet. I can’t reach him through the salt water.
    Sea smoke, my father. Brash churned with tide.

We experience the place, the past, an address to a father, but then the first-person brings us back to reality, to the more abrupt present. The voice of the letter, this story-teller attempting to send mail, faces the constraints, the reality, of this unforgiving place, of life. The tide and ice and water become both her father and the barricade that prevents her from reaching him. Allspaw has guided us to this lonely and poignant ambiguity.

Allspaw, who serves as support for the US Antarctic Program, is in the grip of that paradox. In the poem, “Weightlessness in a Red Parka,” she writes: “I walked on water / for hours. I lay in a seal’s old cradle, ready to curl up / for my own hibernation.” There is an almost religious attachment conveyed; we’re close to transcendence, something out of body, closer to animal than human. In other poems, this attachment is conveyed using remembrance and comparison, frequent tools in these poems used to bring in other worlds. In “The Body of Ice Remembered,” a male diver, one of a young crew who’s “excited about everything they see—smoking Erebus, / distant splashes of seals making holes, even the slush / forming on top of the dive hole,” also remembers his girl in Colorado.

    His body will sink in the water
    because when he isn’t in it, he is loving that girl
    in Colorado, swimming through her,
    all her parts.

Colorado is an alien word here, a collection of syllables that stand out as foreign because we’re so far from the vocabulary and vision of that kind of landscape. The western girl may as well be on the moon, and the divers and scientists feel this, too, according to Allspaw,
                […] if only that girl
    in Colorado could grow like a glacier, if only
    she could move with the freedom of icebergs.
    If only he could stay down, below the surface,
    his breath forming a body on its underside, then hands
    wouldn’t matter, then deep water would be enough.

So we are again merging with the landscape, wishing what was distant could merge with the rich experience of the ice, the deep water, an experience that can make the “other” world seem superfluous.    

The lessons of Antarctica continue through this volume, reflected facets of human learning from what is essentially a desert landscape. “Even ice over ice creates heat,” she teaches us. This heat and longing is what Allspaw shows us about her Antarctic life. It’s how a vast plain of snow and ice can become her father, her obsession, her life. In this book we are down-clad and trekking, we are naked and groping. We are deep in the sticky dryness of this vast southern-most continent. This long meditation gives us a gorgeous understanding of compulsion: “When we leave, / it clings, the damn child, / the obsessor, the stalker. / The ice never learned to let go.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Royal Nonesuch by Steven Schroeder
(Spark Wheel Press, 2013)  

reviewed by William Neumire

If a pun, a limerick, and a sonnet got together to drink and impugn America for its dehumanizing free market economy and idiosyncratic stupidities, and things got a little sloppy, and they had a one-night stand, this would be their child. Steven Schroeder’s second book of poetry, The Royal Nonesuch, is silly-thick with sound like a braid of tongue twisters and mad gabs.

A nonesuch is a person or thing without an equal, but in Schroeder’s collection, it alludes to the scam run by the duke and the king in Huckleberry Finn in which the audience, expecting a drama, gets instead…nothing. Bitter over the philistine sensibilities of the townsfolk, the con artists scam two different audiences like this, and before the third can pummel them with rotten food, the pair make a run for it. How does this translate into Schroeder’s poems? In “Better Consider My National Resources,” the reader gets a microcosm of the whole collection’s bent attitude, as the speaker riffs on “The National Anthem,” “This Land is My Land,” and other chants of Americana: “Oh say can you see my cheese fries…I only regret that I have but one life to give for my third job at / 7-Eleven.” It’s a joke bitter with debt, the failed promise of the American dream, and most of all, a joke bitter about loneliness amidst plenty.

The book moves forward in four thirteen-poem sections, each poem a little 13-line sonnet (a scam in itself) with sporadic stanza breaks; it is reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s Lichtenberg Figures in form. The poems are accusations documenting the collapsing expectations of this myopic, conned speaker:
                       In that last dusty library book,
    the vocation least likely to become obsolete

    remains bookmaker.

There’s an underlying and absurd desire manufactured by an even more absurd, amoral free market economics at work in poems such as “Imbecile, Donkey, Flax-Head, Dope, Glump, Ninny and Fool,” whose speaker begs, “please oh please / may they name this disease after me.” In half-rhymes, iambs, and homophones, the book regularly details money’s Marxist role in devaluing people and engendering loneliness:

    Cash makes you fun. A check can stop
    without your help and when it wants
    Credit cards only hurt themselves…

                                               To save
    your country pay until you’re spent.

Schroeder also plays this game of homophones throughout the collection, as in “Where the Bank Fails”: “Lenders weigh debtors down with pounds / Of Krugerrands and launder their hands / Tender in the green-eyed current, see?” Note the sly slipping of currency into current, see and legal tender into “tender in the green-eyed current.” It’s smart and funny and acrimonious all in one grand blur.

With titles clipped from pop culture (such as “I do not think it means what you think it means,” lifted from The Princess Bride, itself a grand mock), this is an indictment of whatever vestige of “the American dream” remains, as the reader can see in a jaded take on Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “America, your song was too big to fail / Your song cost more than itself.” The poems slip like this from funny into somber, like a tough guy deflecting pain with humor, and then finally cracking.

Chained to each other and cleverly phrased in this language as tongue-in-cheek game, Schroeder’s poems constantly set up and break from expectations: “After a break // on whatever levels of the word, we can make up / reasons to repeat these moves we make, Love.” Here, in “Each One Goes Alone,” we get that comforting, euphemistic cliché, “make love,” broken by that direct address comma in such a way that both meanings come through, though—as is usual in this book—the conventional meaning is tainted and fraught with contempt, or at least strong critique. But cynicism gives way to internal collapse soon enough in most of these poems, as in “Code Name Is The Only One,” where Schroeder writes “your password is passive-aggressive… // Why can’t you guess this picture I encrypted / in invisible ink? It’s obvious it’s loneliness.” And loneliness here gets the last echoic silence after the laugh.

On Poetry’s podcast a while back, Don Share declared, “language makes lying possible.” These poems, as much as they accuse and complain, are odes to that language of lies, and to the greatest lie: that all of this belittling madness is not ephemeral,

    When we closed your eyes for good, you looked
    like you were checking the lids for pinpricks.

    When we closed ours, we could deny everything.

It’s always there, that hollow sense at the end of the joke, that hangover after the party:

                      Add in bed after any of my statements (in bed).
                               We’re Pete and Repeat sitting in a boat.

    If I complement you, will you compliment me?
               When I’m with you, don’t whisper implications.
                        When I’m incognito, tell everyone I’m cute.
                                   When I’m gone, say I was beautiful.

A reveler in oxymorons and ironies, Schroeder rolls through The Royal Nonesuch with his cheeky, stinging mojo on full-tilt: “This bunker-buster bomb is user friendly, idiot proof and child safe for the entire family to enjoy, eight to 88 / This gun wants to tuck your kids into bed / This one would fuck anybody.” He’s a gamer and a scam artist to the very end, where he offers his “Transgressions” index, a sort of categorizing of the sins his poems illustrate, everything from “bad advice” to “substance abuse.” And though this collection can feel, at intervals, like it strikes the same note too many times, it’s fast-paced, double entendre, witty jabs and word games make it too much fun to put down. It’s a good laugh (itself difficult to pull off so intelligently in contemporary poetry) that also gradually builds a poignant sense of pathos for its conned and broken speaker.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

History of Grey by Katie Kingston
(Main Street Rag Publishing Co, 2014)

reviewed by Diana Anhalt

Katie Kingston’s latest collection, History of Grey, explores lives that lie in-between—in that area beyond judgment, which is neither black nor white. In addition to the grey in the title, colors vibrate in these poems. They are exhilarating and full of life. Fusing history and legend, they cover a region encompassing Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Traveling from past to present and back again, they imply that the past informs the present; the present the past. Time flows like the river, El Rio de Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (The River of Souls Lost in Purgatory), introduced in the book’s opening and its voyage speaks of struggles and perseverance.
The first of the book’s three sections introduce two figures, Umaña and Bonilla, roughly translated from Spanish as Human and Beautiful. Part history, part legend, the two are reputed to have set out in search of Quivira, a utopia noted for its great wealth. They meet their fate on the banks of the Colorado river, El Rio de Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio. According to legend, when Bonilla and Umaña die, their souls end up in that grey area, located midway between heaven and hell. In the poem “Flood,”

    Bonilla laughs. His mouth fills with water,
    a traveler of mirrors toward sea
    with a voice like bees in the crabapple.
    The opaque world of indigo rapids splashes
    his rugged lips. He cares about sound,
    how the river evolves its own name,
    Purgatorio, Purgatoire, Picketwire.

More recent history—the 19th and 20th centuries—is depicted in the second section of the book with a series of highly lyrical poems, many in the first person from the points of view of women. Often they portray their lives on the frontier, their struggles and yearnings. The personas speak for themselves and are never idealized, never self-pitying. They inhabit that middle ground marked by uncertainty—a grey area undefined by right and wrong, a place not unlike purgatory, where suffering is the norm. This is their history. Like most women of the time, they exist on the margins of society, and here Kingston captures their voices, the reality of their day-to-day lives. Catherine German, a girl held captive by the Cheyenne in Kansas in the second half of the 19th century, wonders whether she has been stolen and sold again. A laundress at Fort Kearney, Wyoming, writes in a journal of her night visitors and the pleasures she takes in her simple life. Among the most compelling is a Colorado miner’s wife who studies her daughter’s hands “as she lifts chunks into wheelbarrows”; a woman whose own mother told her “it would be this way / child after child, the sky without pelicans”; a woman who finds solace in her own voice, “whispers the color blue / just before snow releases down feathers, / eclipses the sun.”

Because of their honesty and simple, straightforward tone, “Unwritten Letters from Josefa Carson to Kit” are particularly moving. In this poem, Josefa’s words are punctuated throughout with the refrain, “I remember your fingers,” evoking their intimacy. She writes:

    I am waiting for you, dear husband,
    to return with your company of Ute,
    your tobacco pouch sweetened with candy,
    pockets teeming with buffalo nickels,
    to return with your feet blistered,
    your hair sullen, your skin tinged to rosa.

Characteristic of Kingston’s writing is her ability to individualize her subjects and avoid stereotypes in order to capture their sense of reality. This is evident in a poem like “Stampede,” where the speaker remains anonymous:

    In my wilderness warriors
    rise up like hornets, women like spiders.
    Flutes serenade wheatgrass. Water
    lifts its voice. I see blue windows,
    yellow willows, red clouds. I see
    turquoise, drums, corn dances.
    In my wilderness I hear pick axes,
    chisels. I hear horses.

To a great extent,  her ability to use  vivid, evocative language makes her work so memorable. In “Relocation of Old Sopris Cemetery” she writes:

    […]When I leave,
    names trail me like children, sun
    spilling down their backs
    into their shoes. Sunshine
    flicks celadon through poplars,
    bleaches tombstones, turns
    white pickets to grey. Erases.

Although grey may figure in Kingston’s title and much of her work here deals with life’s grey areas, color—though sometimes muted (white, black, rust)— appears throughout. Her work is insistently visual and often references works of art. They appear in such poems as “Bonilla’s Portrait,”  “Bonilla as Artist,” “History of Grey” and  “River Canvas,” where she writes:

    I have been thinking about your painting all weekend,
    the breast dissected into angles, the coffin floating
    like a barge through the faces of the living, a woman’s neck
    in layers of white. And what is that color, the one
    that resembles a vein of rust in candlelight?

This last example from the third section of the book is one of thirteen poems that take place in the present. Here Kingston alludes to her work as a teacher, drawing from her students, her youth, and to scenes from everyday life.

In an attempt, perhaps, to illustrate the flow of time, how history repeats itself, she terminates where she began, in the past. In her final poem, Bonilla gives Umaña directions:

    If you want to get to the heart, study the underbelly
    of clouds just after daylight, learn their vaporous language
    before it dissipates. The bone sky knows marrow,
    knows sorrow.

While Kingston possesses the skill to create gorgeous imagery and give life to voices that are singular, what sets her apart from other merely competent poets is her ability to summon complexity of meaning. She transforms the “in-between,” the gray, into more than just a place or situation. In her words, these become a frame of mind. To that she adds language of depth and dimension. Long-legged and bold, these poems travel through centuries. They cross many lives and bring her full circle, starting the collection and ending it with a river called Purgatorio.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Sweeter Water by Sara Henning
(Lavender Ink, 2013) 
reviewed by Kate Savage

A sweet title introduces poetry that is also all-at-once deliciously sour, bitter, salty. Sara Henning’s debut collection speaks out of hard-bit scars, a secular stigmata of suicidal fathers, brutal lovers, animals rescued or left for dead, a cruel mother, and the motherly ‘bad girl’ next door. There are dahlias and peonies in these pages, but they grow on spit and sulfur. Her words heft the weight of those trash bags from her gut-wrenching piece “Dead Reckoning”:

    so full of his things and her sorrow

    they could have held dead bodies.

This is a confessional text, heartfelt and autobiographical—and yet it skips away from the traps of naivety and self-indulgence. Henning explains in her opening poem:

    My father taught me how an artist disappears behind the walls of his work,
        that the dismantling of composure is cutting cobalt from a rattle, soft ochre 
        from a tabby’s fur, a father from removal’s intense red.

Henning knows how to cut herself out of the whole cloth of her craft. She disappears behind the walls of her work but never manages to hide.  

The resulting pieces reveal a peculiar kind of snipping and stitching, a demon handicraft of domesticity. In “Self-Portrait as Stitching a Summer Body, Philomela,” she begins: “The striking thread carries so many portals, occlusions.” Thread, which would bind us in homey togetherness, operates through striking, tearing, cutting­—making an opening and a break. We are brought together by all the ways we are separated from each other. Any moment of apparent nostalgia for togetherness and home is always revealed as more “occlusions.”

It’s worth noting the allusion to Philomela in the title. In Greek mythology, Philomela was raped by her sister’s husband, who then cut her tongue out to silence her. Mute, she weaves a tapestry to tell her sister the story, stitching to reveal a wound. When the sister reads what happened in the tapestry, she kills her son and feeds him to her husband in an act of revenge. Finally, the sisters are turned into birds (Philomela to a nightingale) to escape the cycle of vengeance. Henning’s quiet sign-post to this brutal story tells us something of the weight of weaving and cutting in this volume—and also the weight of “family,” with both its unspeakable violence and its fierce solidarity.

Another stitching poem explores the inevitability of brokenness. “Twine and Needle” is an attempt to compose a face­—specifically the face of childhood:

Shortly after my birth, my face shattered to pieces.
    When surgeons attempted to construct a new one, each attempt fell to the 
        floor like exhausted porcelain.

The shattering that splits us off from others is shown in this poem to creep internally as well. Our only face is a failure to construct one; our identity grows out of the dissolution of a self. As with Philomela, Henning’s poetic voice seems to grow out of the scar of a tongue’s removal.

Her more fundamental similarity with Philomela, however, is her need to communicate an actual narrative. These poems aren’t primarily ‘about’ ideas or moods: Henning is a story-teller. The events that happen in these lines are described with clarity, as in this scene from “Requiem with Dog, Dead Sparrow, and Wisteria”:

    I too wouldn’t turn
    against the piston syllable of love holding
    me down. Once, I slept with my leg wrapped
    in a towel, the other wrapped around
    a lover who cut me, blood like snuff mouthed
    loosely, spit in the rust of a can.
    In the morning, he threw the towel’s
    wet elegy of fever in the trash.

The solidity of events in her poetry allows a nuance—and even a muddling—of its attendant emotional responses. Like the bees in “How She Loved Me,” Henning is constantly dovetailing “to where soft and terrible is the same pithy center.” Her second piece, “Home,” seems to offer in its first line an uncomplicated, nostalgic metaphor for returning homeward:  

    Like listening
    to a river that heads toward the sea [. . .]

Which she then troubles with a clarification: “Fresh to salt.” Going home isn’t a return to freshness; it’s salty, with the sting in a wound. “I let hole replace wholesome,” she writes in “Zuihitsu Beginning and Ending with Wildflowers.” If you want to find something wholesome in the title A Sweeter Water, you may: or you may read it as a longing to fight one’s way upstream and get the hell away from home.

As with the nightingale’s singing, Henning is capable of loveliness in these lines. But when the speaker in “Philomela” describes herself knitting and stitching, the reader can’t quite decipher if she’s cross-stitching Home Sweet Home for the mantlepiece or cutting herself. Henning looks deep into the emptiness of home’s cliches, and fishes out the unsettling.

Henning’s poetic creation is always a double-movement; here nothing can escape either its own shadow or its own luminescence. She writes in “First Striptease”:

    [. . .] sometimes we kiss deeply
    just to turn away, so one day we won’t feel the holes
    in our bodies so desperately, so one day they
    can’t help but startle us.

She strikes a distance from her poetic subjects, but finds this space only serves to magnify. It’s as though Henning is capable of binding together lack, in one solid mass, and simultaneously breaking apart all possessions with a claustrophobic gasp. This paradox is the seat of her versatility. Compare the dense paragraph-poem “Lost Things” with the structural dissolution of “When You Ask if I Ever Really Loved You.”

From “Lost Things”:
    I begin my list: tomcat with feet flexed in a seizure of pleasure, belly chasing
    sun; hen rescued from a truck jumping against the heft of her body for a
    crust of bread; brother plucking sorrow from my lap like peonies. No one
    wants stories about fits of nostalgia, mothers, birds that call with the sun in
    their mouths. No one gives a shit about your brother even if he’s blitzing
    through the binding of the same lost father. [ . . . ] The tom was cold when I

    touched my face to his fur; my brother is marrying a woman I have never
    spoken to, and yet this urge is here to name things which I am not: hen’s
    wing ripped off by a dog, mother burning my childhood on a pyre, childhood
    expunged from my body like a struggling sack of sugar.

From "When You Ask":

    When you love
    another woman,

    you’ll plant in her
    the same brutal

    seed that won’t stop
    pulsing, and I’ll

    forgive her [. . . ]

Henning rides the ridge between escape-from and longing-after, marrying an overflowing brain with an animal whimper. All of this makes her a new artist of that very old subject: Love. What is A Sweeter Water but a particularly fresh, nuanced, and troubled love song? The honesty, novelty, and grace which Henning brings to this task makes her a poet who deserves to be read and reread.