Sunday, December 20, 2015

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

reviewed by Stefanie Wortman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Stuntman by Brian Laidlaw
(Milkweed Editions, 2014)

reviewed by Josh Cook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    newcomer grows in, killing familiarity
    the wealthy scramble to incorporate

    he attends their dinners
    like demons they need new bodies.

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

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

                        to myself weeping with joy.

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2015

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

reviewed by Kate Kingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What are the crimes of the lake?

    Not giving up the dead.

    And what does the lake heal?

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

    What does that silver do?

    It allows the body
    to surface.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

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

reviewed by Michael McLane

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

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

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

    is remembering

    a single line

    a mouthful

    say I border

    my body



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

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

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

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

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

    enough to walk

    through the burning world

    counting blessings

    locust and gull

    counting blessings

    locust and gull

Monday, July 20, 2015

Father, Child, Water by Gary Dop
(Red Hen Press, 2015)

reviewed by Josh Cook

Gary Dop’s charming debut collection, Father, Child, Water, wrestles with many myths, the most prominent being conventional manhood. Favoring narrative, anecdote, and stand-up-like swerves over music and fancy footwork, Dop reinstates the idea that poetry can, first and foremost, invite rather than challenge. As the title suggests, the book is split into three sections. “Father” begins with an eponymous love letter to a child:
    I lift your body to the boat
    before you drown or choke or slip too far

    beneath. I didn’t think—just jumped, just did
    what I did like the physics

    that flung you in

Dop deploys Biblical imagery throughout the collection, sometimes utilized to clarify attitude—in the above poem, the child is referred to as “fountain cherub”—and sometimes in borderline pastiche. In “To My Love Handles,” a humorous homage to the middle-aged body, the speaker begins:

    The body’s seers, you prophesy
    to the left, to the right, where the rest of me—
    my loves—will go. Lead me,

    guide me, walk beside me. I sneak cookies
    in the night to strip off the guilt
    of the South Beach sin that enslaves me
    and threatens your lives. Together,

    we flow into the wide world,
    our promised land of whole milk and honey
    butter. We pass on Norwegian girth

It’s a signature Dop poem. The humor slides easily off, but underneath, there’s that apparent wrestling: what is a man? A father? A saint? A sinner? An obsession with legacy runs through the collection, too. “Shifting the Bolt,” a hunting scene set on the Nebraska-Kansas border, is the most obvious example. The young speaker, after unloading the gun his father gave him, asks “if he hunted with his father.” But legacy is more fraught and complex in “Little Girl, Little Lion.” The speaker’s daughter tells him that girls can’t be poets, and in an effort to both correct and empower, the speaker wonders, “…how can I / wrecking ball the commandments she’s constructed?”

In the second section, “Child,” a number of subtextual strains crop up, the most surprising of which is the incredulity of war—surprising because, in the case of “A Brief Argument,” the second father-son hunting poem, the speaker’s father is a veteran. Here the most intriguing inner conflicts are made apparent: the need to wrestle with your most intimate relationships and institutions. The speaker in “Shifting the Bolt” seems an older, disquieted version of the speaker in “A Brief Argument.” After five shots to a slowly dying buck, he anxiously hopes that his father “won’t see the mess I’ve made, / the mess I’ve become.”

“That Night in Mobridge” encapsulates the manifold angsts of this section. The speaker of the poem reflects on an old classmate’s lapse in belief. After speaking in tongues and claiming to see angels, the speaker addresses his classmate:

    You remind me we were boys, and I see
    doubt swallowed you like candy sucked to nothing.
    Now, I don’t want to speak with you for fear

    I’ll be swallowed

From community and family to the existential, the collection moves outward. The third section, “Watershed,” suggests a swerve, not only in the collection itself, but away from the previously-inhabited tones of earnest confession and light-hearted sarcasm. Comprised entirely of persona poems—one of the many strengths of the collection—these often comic sketches speak to Dop’s self awareness: let’s take a break from all this talk of belief and terror and fatherhood and see what the rest of the world has to say. These are both more tightly constrained (formally organized, narrative-centric) and Dionysian (jazzy, offbeat).

The collection gets increasingly funnier, though no less earnest in its empathetic reach. In a cycle of three poems titled, “Simulations,” Dop inhabits the voice of “Pothead Pete,” who begins his class presentation like this:

    Shakespeare, the top American writer ever,
    wrote his plays in an English accent
    like Russell Crowe. Merchant of Venice

    is a problem play because it’s about hard crap
    like racism and the civil rights movement,
    but not Martin Luther King who was southern

    and not in Boston like the bard,
    which’s Willie’s nickname. People call me

Dop saves the weirdest for last with a cycle of Bill Bitner poems. Bitner is a possibly mentally ill, working class guy infatuated with his mother who freely tells of his prostate infections and bizarre encounters while delivering pizza. At one moment, he seems loopy or deranged, as in “Bill Bitner Goes to Walmart”: “Eyes to the front, I’m an undercover  fed who has to score / some crack[…]” But in another, “Bill Bitner Daydreams,” Dop invokes our compassion,  as Bill tells of his desire to sell hot dogs on a city corner, “like / everyone / needs me / to stay alive.”

Fable, parable, joke, character study, epics in miniature: there’s a precocious range at work in this collection, which is both the collection’s strength and mystery. Though accessible, the poems strain toward plurality. In a seemingly innocent recollection of a childhood campout, the speaker of “Winter Campout,” shares a sleeping bag with his friend after forgetting his own and says, “We didn’t tell anyone or touch / the deep questions,” which may suggest an unwilling homosexual curiosity. In another, “To the Ice Cream Man,” a highlight, the speaker begins, “I got no green for your red, / white and blue bomb pops,” which simultaneously suggests race and the oppressive capital. In this way, the people that populate Dop’s pages are perfectly human; that is, they are rendered compassionately and, like the best fiction, with exquisite attention to psychic complexity, no matter the person—rich, poor, child, father, grandmother, prodigal.

The poems, for the most part, heed that old advice to get out of the way and let the poem do its work, but this economy doesn’t negate playfulness. There’s some amusing wordplay, subtle puns, and deliciously-crystalline detail, but they don’t grope for attention. Instead, they highlight Dop’s dedication to the poem, the speaker, the situation. When he conjures a laugh, it’s well earned and perfectly timed, as in “The Long Madness.” The Speaker attends a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. When Sir Ian McKellan drops his pants, the speaker describes the boy next to him:

    […] eyes, two wide balls,

    like Gollum’s, saw
    the future

    the wrinkled future,
    which hung

    before us,
    all glorious

    and magical, foreshadowing
    the ups and many downs.

Father, Child, Water is a colorful sundry of voice and character that, underneath all its existential wrestling, deceptive insouciance, and clever humor, celebrates the very thing it questions, which is what makes it—and Gary Dop—seem all the more established.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Last Psalm at Sea Level by Meg Day
(Barrow Street Press, 2014)

reviewed by Andrew Haley

In Last Psalm at Sea Level, Meg Day gives us poems that quake with mutability. The concrete things—bodies, shadows, landscapes, and wounds—merge not in surreality or the changing of masks, but in an oceanic wholeness. “As if one is a shadow stitched to the other, / they sit, knees bent & parted, cradled in the basin / of the clawfoot, her belly to his spine.”

Complex things join with the common nouns. Intention and cause, desire and consequence blend in these poems that are at once frivolities and dirges. In parts, the plain spoken, even throwaway, breaks into lyric in shifts that can be disorienting. The poem “Tell Me It’s Not Too Late for Me” begins as a chain of commonplaces: “Leave the refrigerator door open / or the bathroom light on, drop your shoes / in the hallway, borrow my ties…just tell me it’s not too late.” This sequence could come to us ghostwritten in a country song, but between the sixth and seventh stanzas lightning strikes.
    […] the man slid the package
    across the desk at me, asked quietly
    if I would like a bag, then paused & said

    how much you cost

The poet’s keening, to which our ears have become inured, is instantly heard anew with the revealing of the beloved’s transmutation from overflowing and indefinite to a weight of ashes, boxed and priced.

The book is raw with these moments coming unforeseen: “the tender felony /of waking up in a shared bed not shared / with you”; “Let her carry you like a bouquet of splinters”; “the clearing erupts with an exaltation / of larks, fifty applauding bodies lifting then / settling into stately quiet.”

In the best places, the quavering of boundaries is drawn the bow’s length of the page. The poem “What I Will Tell His Daughter, When She’s Old Enough to Ask” is worth quoting in its entirety and was this reader’s favorite in the collection:

    When they removed the yellow tape
    from the doorway, our neckless birds
    still sat, unfolding, on the tabletop,

    his stack of paper—foils & florals
    & one tartan velum—fanning out
    across Origami for Dummies

    & onto the floor. The chair we’d set
    in the middle of the room for hanging
    the first twenty attempts at a thousand

    seemed frozen mid-bow, all four legs facing
    west. He never mentioned his plans
    or his grief—only that I could find the fishing

    line toward the front, near the large spools
    of rope. Don’t go on without me I’d said
    & whistled the eleven short blocks

    back from the hardware while he folded his apologies
    & suspended himself from the ceiling of cranes.

There is much to praise in this mature and masterful poem: the spareness and solemnity, the complex and haunting metaphor of the unfinished birds, and the insinuation of our selves into these paper mutabilities; the cruel joke of the word “hanging,” especially set against the dignity of the verb “suspend,” and the play of that word inside the trope of an interrupted progression of forms; breaking the pattern of three-line stanzas to end the poem with an absence making itself felt inside the final couplet.

I wish the whole of the book were at this level. The smoke of the small fires of poetry workshops still lingers in its pages. Ghazals and sestinas appear like exotic animals on parade in a book that does not seem designed for polite applause. The poems in Last Psalm at Sea Level, despite a few unfortunate cliches (gaping coffins, howlings in the chest, saxophones wailing on street corners at dawn), are full of pride, urging, resistance, anger, sorrow, and perseverance. They are poems of the body, of incisions and tombs, not parlor tricks.

Last Psalm at Sea Level draws much of its power from its religious attitude. Day has fashioned a queer God of multitudes whom she addresses not with irony, but with the exposed sincerity of hymn. In the expert “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God,” she has mastered the sinewed, animal language of John Donne but brought it whole into our vernacular. Like Donne, and his acolyte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Day writes of multiplicity and consubstantiality with such fervor the language of her poems too becomes part of the protean shifting of her subject matter.
    […] Show every part
    to every stranger’s anger, surprise them with my drawers
    full up of maps that lead to vacancies & chart
    the distance from my pride, my core. Terror, do not depart
    but nest in the hollows of my loins & keep me on all fours.

Here, the language within the lines is so muscled one barely notices the architecture of end rhyme to which it hews. This is not the spavined favorite of the viceroy trotted out by courtiers, but a poem that fills the space of its own being. It, like so much of this genuine, important book, is everything poetry was meant for.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Cartographer's Ink by Okla Elliott
(NYQ Books, 2014)

reviewed by Justin Hamm

Okla Elliott’s The Cartographer’s Ink begins with an invocation of a certain light. “The Light Here,” we’re told,

    […] is a light that yellows the periphery.
    It is not a light that brightens the center.

    It is mixed from an overcast morning
    and the electric urban dust.

Such light sounds familiar. At first, perhaps, it seems like it could be the light from a Caravaggio painting illuminating the gritty beauty of its subjects. But no, that isn’t quite right.

Read on and it sinks in. Maybe the source is different, but this light is the light of an old Russian novel, of something written by Dostoevsky. It is a light of melancholy and seriousness, and the whole of The Cartographer’s Ink seems bathed in it—from Tesla, who in “In the Days of New Wonder” watches a brown bear through an open window and sees death, to the landmine that lies in wait and “dreams/the echoing boom/and the wet bloom of meat and bone” to the phone booth in Mannheim, with its “Soot—film on the glass,/the pollution so thick in this city.”

Elliott incorporates a world map’s worth of locations and an entire history book of time periods into the collection, but the light remains the same, and ultimately we come to see it as the light under which things appear most as they are. This is just one of the aspects of the book that holds it together and makes it more than simply a gathering of strong poems.

There are others. Also built into its architecture is a recurring exploration of the life of the mind and the difficulty in reaching an ideal that is out of range—from the aforementioned Tesla to “The Man Who Named Bees,” who shows delicate interest in his field of study but “at night, he slept / beside his wife, / whom he wanted to love / more generously,” to the speaker in “I Want to Be a Buddhist—Or Reading Heidegger Midly Hung-over” who tells us, “I want to be a Buddhist but I can’t because I like whiskey / more than enlightenment.”

Elliott is especially exciting at a line level. He manages to surprise with the phrasing of his lines, but they are built of a readable lexicon, too. There is a playfulness, certainly, but no trickery. The images are clear and imaginative and sometimes hilariously bawdy, as in “A Hot Minute,” when the speaker tells us “I’m facedown on your front lawn, / my eyelids flame-red membranes.” Consider, too, this description from “Shibboleth, Beginning and Ending with Lines from Kim Ch un-Su,” which shows Elliott’s mixture of inventiveness and clarity:

    Like cracked brick, like pristine anarchy,
    we sprawl on this carpet, my rough fingers
    in your hair.

At other times Elliott can be gorgeously plainspoken, such as in the opening lines describing the fish in “Nightfishing”:

    By the beam of a plastic flashlight,
    I saw the torn shadow
    of a carp flopping hard against
    the boat’s metal bottom

Section II of The Cartographer’s Ink is occupied solely by the long narrative poem “Emerging from Clouds.” The strongest and most intimate poem in the collection, it tells the story of the end of an affair through an accumulation of tiny, perfectly-arranged details that grow into scenes and recollections. There is simplicity to the language in the poem that seems meant to evoke the language of fairy tales, which Elliot uses metaphorically to emphasize that, while the relationship described seems like a simple, happy fantasy, betrayal lay beneath:

    That wasn’t the only meeting Lela and I had.

    During my office hours back in Mannheim
    one week when she was able to escape Dr. Kowalski:
        another time, after a reading she gave in Heidelberg;
        and again in the rank, cramped space
        of a train restroom

The reality of the betrayal is a gut-punch to the reader. As the poem closes, it swells with the impending pain this couple will face, and Elliott wisely leaves us there, imagining the terrible confession.

It is one of many wise moves Elliot makes in The Cartographer’s Ink. In all, the collection comes off as skillful, as weighty and moving. It manages to travel across the map and through time without feeling the least bit scattered. Instead, it allows us to see Elliott’s particular light and the truth of whatever that light lands upon.

Friday, July 17, 2015

What Things Are Made Of by Charles Harper Webb
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013)

reviewed by Gary Dop

Charles Harper Webb’s poems pulse with comedy and wit, but the distinguishing feature of his latest collection, What Things Are Made Of, is his unflinching, honest study of contemporary life. Void of contemporary niceties, Webb’s book tackles the things of our lives. With all his usual humor and ease, Webb writes of our simplicity: “Brains hold tight to what they think helps them survive—”

Although this statement could be dropped into a thesis on cognition—familiar territory for Webb, a PhD in psychology—the line is included in Webb’s inquiry into Jackass: The Movie. Here, he navigates the oddness of remembering the ridiculous film and failing to remember loftier material. The line itself may as well serve as the motto for Webb’s critique of contemporary culture. What Things Are Made Of suggests that so much of how we are taught to survive in the world is based on clumsy survival mechanisms and social ruses.

Webb, the humorist provocateur, playfully dismantles our constructions and returns us to our simplest things—pleasure, taste, our historical moment. What other 21st century poet would dare to cry out, “I adore my privileged American life!” In “At Lamaze,” where the above line appears, Webb is not employing the privilege buzzword to tackle its expected associations of race, class, or gender, but he also does not shy away from acknowledging and celebrating the benefits of American life. Most other poets would feel obligated to soften their exclamation, to feign a sense of the humility in recognizing an unjust world. Webb, however, finds the moment where false humility is unwelcome and where a singular voice drops pretension in order to fully appreciate a good thing.

Webb knows that the father in a Lamaze class celebrating life—via yoga, sitcoms, and electric garage doors—cannot suddenly consider the larger world.  The father says, “Forget global warming and overpopulization,” and this is not meant to dismiss the world, but to present the honesty of a father—and, of course, to make us laugh. The father rejects everything that hinders celebrating what he now sees: how fortunate he is to have modern medicine that insures his child and wife will survive delivery and that, years ago, insured his own survival through a difficult birth. There is no space here for the father to give an aside to the troubles of others. This is unfiltered fatherhood, a man consumed with one family and survival. The poem closes: “I know for sure I’ve won life’s lottery,” and we find no lingering falsity or superiority, only unhinged appreciation, gratitude.

This freedom is refreshing, and nowhere is it on greater display than in the collection’s opening piece, “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used to Be.” The poem, a burst of Webb at his most sardonic, considers the ice cream truck from a postmodern literary theorist’s vantage, but rather than applying a theoretical lens to the ice cream truck, Webb applies a full catalog of postmodern lenses, which ultimately serve as absurdist mockery, and one might say, deconstruction, of postmodern theory:

    The products sold reinforced a Capitalist hegemony—

    Fudgesicle (racist), Eskimo (not Inuit) Pies, Torpedo
    (military-industrial imperialist), Popsicle (no Momsicle), etc.
    The sugar in our treats deconstructed sweetness into cavities,
    obesity, diabetes. The (always) man in (always) white—
    who pulled, from the back of his condensation-smoking-truck,
    products iced with polluted air which our tongues melted,

    loving the cold jolt—may have been a child-molester,
    exploited immigrant, or untreated dyslexic.

Webb rejects the expected angle—the inclusive delicacies of politicized criticism—to show that clunky theory can steal us from, well, the ice cream. Thankfully, his poems end with more than a dismantling; Webb regularly pushes toward the thing that matters, the taste that is good.

In “Bimbo Limbo,” for example, we laugh our way through his lusty recollection of ex-girlfriends. Here we receive the untethered male gaze without the filter of 21st century pleasantries, which provides a more honest platform from which the poem can spring to its truer aim, our mortality. His bimbos, we learn, have been lost to the likes of “breast cancer, car wreck, some disease I’ve never heard of,” and it would be false to pretend that the speaker’s memories are more heightened than “Britney’s heavenly thighs” and Jessica in cutoffs. This is a poem, after all, about the dying human, an animal, and the animal need not pretend virtue when considering those like him who are,  “keeping heads out of the river, enjoying the swim / and view, though the current’s picking up.”

There are other poets, no doubt, who venture down these waters, but Webb, ever the adventurer, takes the unexpected branch. Suddenly these ample bimbos in Catholic limbo have semantically freed Webb to shift celestial limbo to the venue for bimbos doing the limbo—“How low can you go?”—for his speaker’s satisfaction.  Even here, Webb can’t end with absurdity. The poem closes with a stanza to elevate the memory, the hope, the loss, and the bimbos, who are no longer objectified figures, but have become catalysts for the thing that matters:

    A place where that happens can’t be too far
    From heaven, especially if my old girlfriends are there,
    God being Beauty, after all, God being love.

This is this poet laughing and smiling, not the poet believing in God and the afterlife. Webb finishes his trek with the honest, corrected memory, the realization that the experiences lost, imperfect as they may be—the experiences we’re all going to lose when we slip under the current—are among the supreme things, the fullness of beauty and fleeting love. This poem, and the whole of What Things Are Made Of, reminds us that an honest angle and a laugh are at the core of things that keep us alive.