Sunday, December 11, 2016

Scriptorium by Melissa Range
(Beacon Press, 2016)

reviewed by Philip Belcher

In a speech commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Gogol’s death, Philip Rahv said that Vladimir Nabokov, as a Gogol critic, “suffer[ed] from something like a phobic fear of all interpretive techniques not strictly literary in reference—a fear driving him toward the extremely one-sided emphasis which takes the literary act to be a phenomenon solely ‘of language and not of ideas.’” Because contemporary poets who yield to the pleasures and disciplines of various formal elements still appear on the current literary landscape infrequently enough to be considered exceptions to the norm of loose free verse, readers encountering them also are tempted, like Nabokov reading Gogol, to expend so much energy admiring these poets’ facility with language that they devote inadequate attention both to considering the poems’ ideas and to evaluating the effectiveness of the poets’ formal skills in making those connections with readers that make poems memorable and worth the interpretive effort. So striking is Melissa Range’s devotion to formal, particularly sonic, inventiveness that a reader encountering Range’s poems for the first time might well be tempted to focus on the poet’s language to the exclusion, or at least the diminution, of the ideas presented by the poems. That would be unfortunate.

Range made clear her intent to luxuriate in sound in her first volume of poems, 2010’s Horse and Rider. For example, that volume’s “The Warhorse” opens with a burst of alliteration:
    Oft has the warhorse, the wayworn widowmaker,
    with wearied withers been dismissed
    from battle, bereft of bit and bridle,
    saddened and saddle-sore, to survive
    his final charge, his last campaign—
    the paddock, the pack, the stall.

Range is no less committed to form and sound in her second volume, Scriptorium, but careful readers will notice an evolution. Although form and content are congruous in all of Range’s work, that alignment is tighter in Scriptorium than in Horse and Rider. In Scriptorium, readers will notice in poems like “Ultramarine” how Range disciplines her use of alliteration, meter, and rhyme in service of the poems:

    Beyond the blue scum sea, miners assault
    lazurite and pyrite, a blue-gold beam,
    pry from limestone caverns the lapis seam
    for the shade that painters’ patrons so exalt
    to hem the Virgin’s mantle, foam the Vault
    where she’s fixed like a lodestar or a gem.

Scriptorium, selected by Tracy K. Smith as a 2015 National Poetry Series winner, includes thirty-three poems and five pages of notes that help orient readers unfamiliar with the historical settings in which some of these poems are placed. One of the particular joys in reading Scriptorium is puzzling over the form and structure of the volume as a whole. Of the thirty-three poems, the titles of ten name pigments used in illuminating manuscripts. Each of these ten, spread more or less evenly throughout the book, is a sonnet—not the fourteen-line, half-rhymed semi-sonnet that one reads so often these days, but an end-rhymed, metrically consistent, honest-to-Goodness sonnet, many with a conspicuous volta in which the speaker turns to address God directly.
Range, a trained theologian, also draws on her East Tennessee origins as a source for Scriptorium. In poems like “Hit” and “To Swan,” the poet highlights the quirks of her native Appalachian, Southern dialect. Here, Range is her most playful. The opening lines from “Flat as a Flitter” will suffice to give a flavor of these poems:

    The way you can crush a bug
    or stomp drained cans of Schlitz out on the porch,

    the bread when it won’t rise,
    the cake when it falls after the oven-door slams—
    the old people had their way
    to describe such things. “But what’s a flitter?”

    I always asked my granny. And she could never say.
    “It’s just a flitter. Well, it might be a fritter.”

    “Then why not say ‘fritter’?”
    “Shit, Melissa. Because the old people said ‘flitter.’”

Readers unaccustomed with the colloquialisms and patterns of speech in these poems will be seduced by their humor and intimacy. Readers from the South will be grateful for these poems’ authenticity and their lack of the faux-folksiness of writers ashamed or too proud of their own histories. These poems also recall ones by Rodney Jones and R.T. Smith in which those poets deal with their own Southern heritage and the evolution of language and place into something more homogenous than they remember. Range is no more regional (if that term is used in some limiting sense) than Jones and Smith; she, like they, uses her particular circumstance to address more universal themes. These poems address, too, the difficult break from the bonds of place and family toward promise and a fulfillment unavailable within the confines of the familiar. In “Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg,” the speaker asks how she might explain to her grandmother “that the creeks crisscrossing / our tumbledown ridges // are ropes trying to pull my heart straight / when it’s a crooked muscle, / its blood crashing in circles?”

Although two themes—language and the relationship between the speaker and God—underlie all of the poems in Scriptorium (Could there be a better metaphor for that thematic intersection?), two poems emphasizing aspects of those topics deserve particular mention. It was a particular delight to see in “Incarnational Theology” a thoughtful treatment of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Although Range’s note on this poem is useful, it is not necessary for enjoyment of this fine villanelle. The poet combines her facility with received forms, her theological preoccupations, and her Appalachian vernacular to conceive a poem worth the price of the book. Few other contemporary poets are writing like this:

    God takes on flesh and thinks he’ll smother.
    Reeling, obsessed, his heart a wilderness,
    God’s a mess, suffering in me as I suffer

    over a torn leaf, a tore-up man, the others
    I’ve tried to love, shorn to the bone and luckless
    as the Son.
[ . . .]

If any single poem in Scriptorium incorporates all of Range’s concerns, “Ashburnham” does. The related note helpfully describes the 1731 Ashburnham House fire that damaged and destroyed many manuscripts in the Cotton Library. Among those damaged severely was the only extant copy of Beowulf. The eighteen unrhymed couplets describe the origin of the library when books discarded from scriptoria upon the dissolution of monasteries were saved and collected and then their destruction by the fire. This is not merely a description of literary and historical loss; the loss seems personal to the speaker and, by extension here, to the poet. But the damage did not begin with the fire. The originals were “[ . . .] irretrievable / the instant the pen quenched // the harp: a smoldering / smothered, a ruin of the tongue.” Range reminds the reader through the content and the form of her poems that language was spoken and heard before it was written. Her musings in these pages, the scriptorium in which she considers language, her history, and the role of the divine in both, deserve to be heard as well as read.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Original Face by Jim Peterson
(Gunpowder Press, 2015)

reviewed by Gary Dop

Jim Peterson’s latest collection, Original Face, weaves meditative inquiry with narrative mastery. These stories and reflections return, again and again, to Adam and Eve, to man and woman, and to the possibility that all of life’s suffering, sensuality, and joy are part of a sweeping love story. This suggestion risks oversimplifying Peterson’s book, which contains multitudes in each of its moments, including explorations of Goya’s paintings, a maintenance engineer’s love song, and people who live inside loose-fitting bags.

Original Face’s distinction is its close focus on expansiveness and inclusivity. In “The Long Roads,” a poem whose subject seems to be the loss of a child, Peterson expands the subject matter to the relationship or connection of all things: absence and presence, body and earth. The poem, as expected, presents the mother’s loss, but her behavior—her calmness and acceptance—provides an unexpected response, which is built upon the presence of the lost child, active and involved in the scene, as though death has not ended life as much as it has changed it.

The poem’s closing sentence follows a moment in which the mother considers a pickup passing by, a moment we perceive as normal until the child, who we know to be dead, is present. Unlike the reader, the mother finds the child’s presence to be as normal as the pickup: “the presence she feels / dreaming in the leaves around her.” Soon “her man” will be home:

    The night will crawl out
    from the roots of great maples and oaks
    through their windows and into their bed,
    into the fallow and fertile fields,
    down the long roads
    that lead to all of their kind,
    even that curious child
    resting deep in the vine.  

Life continues in these “fertile fields,” where the lost child, who is not a passive presence, alive only in memory, but an active presence, is signified by that most alive adjective: “curious.” Here, “deep in the vine,” all things are one, all are normal.

Peterson supports this normalizing sensibility in the sounds of his poems. The music, which feels as easy and conversational as Whitman, has, like Whitman, a natural use of rhythm, consonance, and assonance, among other devices.  In the previous example from “The Long Roads,” the closing three lines are strung together with the assonance of the hard I sound in the last word of each line, which complements the notion that all things—“kind,” “child,” and “vine”—are unified.     

We see this unification again in “Planting Season,” a poem about the playful barroom connection of a woman and a man. This type of poem, the meeting of lovers, has been written since antiquity, but Peterson’s sincere, yet humorous version brings an earthy point of connection between the lovers. The poem’s narrated by the man—“She has black dirt on her face,”—but the action of the poem is the woman’s. She pursues. She establishes the game. She brings the black dirt, which is not only on her face, but also her feet, her hands, and in her mouth. For the man, the black dirt is not an object separate from the woman, something to be washed away, but it is a compelling part of her beauty. The poem ends, and the lovers are together, after the woman approaches the man, throws her dirty feet up on the table, and they speak to each other:

          “I hope you like
    black dirt,” she says. I make a grin
    with as much black dirt in it
    as I can muster. “Oh yes,” I say.

Perhaps it is the openness of his characters that makes his narratives, and the speaker in nearly all of these poems, dynamic. These people all seem to be taking in the world, “the light and the dark,” rejecting nothing; even in moments of suffering or difficulty, the characters do not walk away—they walk into and through their experiences.

They study each moment, as does the speaker in “Men and Women in Sacks,” who watches a woman remove her sack and swim in a river. When she steps out of the river, the speaker sees her: “her wet body glinting / like a sword.” He studies her, and when they’ve finally seen each other:

    […] together
    we step out of our sacks, open
    our bodies to the light and the dark
    and to each other, and together
    we lie down in the river
    of deep currents, the cold
    pouring over us, together swim, free

    to find our own way home.

The speaker’s freedom flows with the change that has arrived, a change born of the studied, open eye, receiving whatever comes. These characters, and the characters in many of Peterson’s poems, model an openness that teaches the reader how to experience the book. No, it’s more than that—Original Face wants to teach us how to live an open life, to help us crawl from our confining sacks. Peterson’s poems all seem to say, of suffering, of joy, of dirt, of freedom, the same thing his readers will say of this expansive, moving collection: “Oh yes!”

Friday, December 9, 2016

lifedeathetc / livdödetc by Anna Maris
(Red Moon Press, 2016)

reviewed by stinne storm

Red Moon Press’ lifedeathetc / livdödetc, is the debut collection in the U.S. from Swedish poet Anna Maris. As its title implies, lifedeathetc holds to the natural cycles traditional to the haiku form, but Maris’ work is not confined by these conventions. Without unfolding the centuries-long history of the haiku tradition, it can be noted that Maris’s poems function within the well-known Japanese form that was initially composed of 17 syllables divided into three groups, respectively five, seven, and five syllables (more precisely, they are comprised of five, seven, and five morae, which determine syllabic stress or timing). Traditionally, haiku must include the natural world and should be in the present. The form originated in the 1600’s and its conventions have undergone numerous changes, especially in the 20th century, as it spread to the Western world and became a common form in other languages.

Maris, a member of both the Swedish Haiku Society and Haiku Society of America, translates her own work into English, and the translations are exceptional. In some places, the diction in the original Swedish is more melodic than English, while in other places, her English vocabulary provides a wonderful openness to the haiku form. One example of such differences in English is “paper boat […],” which in Swedish sails away with much more grace.

    paper boat (singular)
    another worry
    sails away

    pappersbåtar (plural)
    så lätt flyter de bort
    mina bekymmer

Whereas “long shadows” leaves one bird behind, graceful in its English alliteration.

    long shadows
    after the siege has lifted
    a lone crane

    långa skyggor
    efter att flocken lyft
    en ensam trana

Maris’ poems excel in their depictions of nature. For this reader, well acquainted with the Swedish climate, her work invokes the Scandinavian seasons vividly. The text in “Part One (life)” oscillates from one changing season to the next, one elemental state to another: sea to fog, to mist, to rain, to rivers—and back to the sea. There is the wind in spring, deep harvests, crisp frosts, and winter stars. It is an intimate landscape, but not a tame one.

    moon river
    thoughts wandering
    out to sea

    tankarna vandrar
    ut på havet

    *mån=moon /gata=street

This cycle of haiku arranged around Nordic weather might well be a mediation for spaciousness, nature juxtaposed against domesticated spaces—bedroom walls and ceilings as canvases for projections of shadows and light, but with uncanny cracks in the harmonies and monotone beauty, the arrival of the unfamiliar on the scene.

    home town
    in the familiar houses

    barbed wire another country

    i de välbekantan husen

    taggtråd ett annat land

This hometown of strangers and its “icy winds” hold traces of other continents—Africa appears via references to Zanzibar just after the above passage­—but when we meet the outside world it is through violence or alienation. The world, like the icy Nordic setting, is closing in, shrinking like “winter fishing,” like “the hole in the ice.”

In “Part Two (death),” nature might be the same, but the poems are not. A specific pain has arrived: “the same hole in our heart / white chrysanthemum.” This loss is ephemeral, the “thing with feathers” and the words that cannot be found in a suicide note. Here, the uncanny gives way to darkness, but still the beauty survives.

    the cold on the other side
    of the pillow

    kylan på andra sidan
    av kutten

This is a good example of how the bilingual nature of the book opens up the poems in different ways. The original poem in Swedish has a distinct tempo created by the alliteration s, k, s, k, which is lovely to read and say aloud. Although it is not as melodic, the English version still preserves the stark simplicity of the metaphor. Here, in the heart of the collection, Maris is mourning the living, even as death becomes a physical weight.

    packing up to leave
    everything we have
    dead weight

    i packningstagen
    allting vi har

Whereas the previous part began with a whisper, “Part Three (etc),” begins with “open sky” and a sea personified through its overt desire to take. There is a change in pace, as well as place. The urban is more present.

    high-speed train
    along the railway line
    wild apple trees

    snabbtåget passerer

This is a nature enveloped by the city, a nature both globalized and unfamiliar.

    southern winds
    foreign sea weed
    covers the beach

    främmande sjögräs
    täcker stranden

Winter is never far away, but monsoons appear as well, as do a new-year’s spider and wild boars in spring, and war. Again, the outside world is rife with troubles.

    we pause for a firing squad
    of micro-popcorn

    vi pauser för skottsalvan
    av mikro-popcorn//

This last section of the book feels at times disconnected, as if it is in search of something. Its title, “Etc.,” implies a collection of things known, but unnamed. Perhaps for these reasons, it feels uneven. Or perhaps it is simply the stirring, for better or worse, that occurs when family enters the scene, the mirroring and defiance that their appearance brings. Here, we find a “mother’s angry wrinkle / in my selfie,” or, after the slow, rural rhythm of the life and death of the prior sections, the turbulence of a father’s appearance in the final moments of the book:

    my father wonders
    if that is all

    min papa undrar
    om det är allt

As if the spaciousness of the first two sections is compromised by the onset of familial values, Maris invokes the natural world of the haiku. While much of the collection’s imagery gives voice to a particularly Swedish tone and setting, it is here, through the mastering of a classic poetic form, that her work grasps something timeless. These last poems left this reader wondering, like the father, but for very different reasons, how could it not be all?

lifedeathetc is a fine work of literature when it mediates the personal with the universal. When it positions itself in the contemporary, it is even better. There is currently a darkness in European societies, one which is difficult to write about and more difficult to live in. Within this space, Maris’ literary generosity is a pleasure and a gift. There is similar darkness in all lives, but to escape it is not to conquer it. Haiku offer a way to navigate such troubles. Maris writes them with grace; we can read them with hope.