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.