Thursday, December 17, 2020

Blood Vinyls

by Yolanda J. Franklin
(Anhinga Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Sarah Giragosian

In African American traditions, where there is abjection, there is also music. From slave music to hip-hop, African American music has offered a blueprint for survival. For poet Yolanda J. Franklin, music can be a joy as poignant as a raised fist against the face of atrocity. Her debut collection, Blood Vinyls, suggests that writing about Black music entails confronting the bloody legacy of American history and its politics of Black representation, as well as contending with the violence and abuse in one’s own family history. While the white appropriation of African American traditions and the misrepresentation or erasure of the Black voice haunt the collection, Blood Vinyls is both fiercely intelligent and alchemic in its capacity to take the violated and appropriated Black voice and reclaim her as an agent of meaning.

African American music, as Franklin figures it in Blood Vinyls, is both bond and crossed boundary. It’s both salve and a salvo, as well as a foreground and a background. It resurrects past communities, and serves as memory, memorial, and mnemonic. A life force, Franklin’s music is also a counterforce, a turntable or a revolutionary terrain in which the poet remixes and undermines the voices of white supremacists, past and present. In Blood Vinyls, a square-shaped book that mimics and pays homage to a vinyl cover, Franklin embraces all these musical resonances and more throughout.  

Franklin is a Cave Canem and Callaloo Fellow, a recipient of a both 2016–17 McKnight Dissertation Fellowship and a Kingsbury writing award. A third-generation Florida native, she’s deeply invested in a poetics of place and the buoying, communal impulses of African American womanist traditions. Under the threats of annihilation and cultural erasure, many Black artists like Franklin have had to not just radically reimagine racist clichés, but also be historians to their community, literate in all the ways the dominant white culture obscures and misrepresents those who live on the margins.

In her poem “Black Writer,” a wry remix of Tony Hoagland’s “White Writer,” she writes, “I know that Black readers too need to see their lives reflected on the page— / (re) memory and vinyl; the fear of vanishing.” However, while the poet-speaker recognizes the political exigency of representing Black history in a country marked by amnesia about the rape, murder, and enslavement of Black people, she expresses ambivalence about the role of the poet-activist as well in the same poem:

    [ … ] you will start to feel like the rite of blanket cliches
    are all you’ll ever right in this world.
    And gradually,
    throughout the picketing for

    contentions coloring who you are

    you deflect it, it adumbrates you to write whiter, I mean righter and              

These final lines act as a reprisal of the last lines in Hoagland’s “White Writer,” in which the white speaker addresses the apparent futility of writing in a world that recognizes one merely as a racialized writer, one who is essentialized and marketed according to their racial designation. Of course, a white writer is not racialized in the violent ways of a Black writer, nor is he subject to the methods through which the gatekeepers of publishing industries exclude or tokenize Black writers. For Franklin, as a Black writer, to “right” a cliché involves rebuffing the psychic violence of misrepresentation and erasure, but it also involves engaging—perhaps at her own expense—a white audience. The speaker’s slippage of “whiter” and “righter” in the poem suggests that whiteness is the stumbling block that the Black writer must contend with, whether it be in the form of white exclusion, erasure, or stereotyping before one can write “righter and righter”—implying a form of writing that earnestly embraces accurate and ethical representation.

In “White Room Syndrome,” Franklin imagines Kenneth Goldsmith’s racist representation of Michael Brown, in which he read the murdered victim’s autopsy report and closes his poem with the image of Brown’s genitals. White American culture has long been obsessed with the consumption of the dead Black body, a fixation that spectacularizes while also normalizing the violent underpinnings of a tradition that includes lynching, slavery, and murder. As Elizabeth Alexander writes in her collection of essays entitled The Black Interior, “Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American spectacle for centuries. This history moves from public rapes, beatings, and lynchings to the gladiatorial arenas of basketball and boxing.” Goldsmith’s double violation is another kind of murder. In the last section of Franklin’s prose poem entitled “Eating the Other,” referring to the white consumption of the Black body dead or in pain, she writes, “call it poetry, work, avant-garde, uncreative neo-racism or necromancy. They will take the body again and again and again.” Poetry, slyly slipped into the same catalogue that includes neo-racism and necromancy, is un-innocent, another grammar of psychic and linguistic violence. But in the right hands, it can be redemptive.

Schooled in the traditions of a western market that white-washes the unique experiences of people of color, as well as the mythopoetics of Black poetry and music, Franklin imagines art as transportive and transformative in the face of racism and generational trauma: “the job of the artist is not to leave you where she found you / this art requires gentrification.” Dynamic, textured with blues rhythms, jazz, bop, and found poems, her work is lively, demotic, and deeply political; as well as idiosyncratic in its highly imaginative formal permutations (think of Gwendolyn Brooks’ formal genius mixed with Claudia Rankine’s capacity to cast found material and the experiences of daily life into prose poems that offer visceral and temporal impacts and insights). One can also detect the influence of Frank O’Hara’s capacious eclecticism in these poems.

Indeed, there is astonishing vocal and formal range in Blood Vinyls, as well as high-powered energy from one poem to the next. “Double Dutch Bust,” “Manual for Still Hunting White Tailed Deer in a Gated Community,” and “White Room Syndrome” are just a sampling of the poems that continue to haunt me long after reading them. A poetics of polyvocality, snappy American idioms, and a discursive versatility, Franklin makes visible “the [m]iracle of the [b]lack [f]emale[p]oet”. Channeling the voices of her literary forebearers Phillis Wheatley, Lucille Clifton, and June Jordan, Franklin writes in her found poem:

     Oh, come and do marvel at how could she
                                                                  sing & know of a lyrical life.
     How did she know & see to be except herself?
                                                                  Come celebrate with me that I am—
     Perhaps, you will because
                                                                  each day something has tried to kill                                                                           me & failed.

Forging literary sociality out of mutual resilience, Blood Vinyls is an other-oriented text that finds recourse from the psychic violence of white supremacy in an intersubjective poetics, one that hearkens back to major African American musicians and poets of the twentieth century. One will find that the most oft-repeated verb of the collection is “to know.” Franklin’s emphasis on knowing as an epistemological currency may be read as an investment in the communal, where knowing is based in collaboration and in reimagining, rewriting, and testing out one’s knowledge in tandem with the other.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


by Steven Cramer
(MadHat Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Clarissa Adkins

In Steven Cramer’s sixth poetry book, his namesake poem, “Listen,” directs the reader to be a present observer of the speaker’s mindful relationship with the world: “how // resonant—the bones of our middle ears.” This same poem introduces us to a family history that expresses two lineages: one of personal experience and the other the ideal of poetic craftsmanship. These interwoven paths act as a gentle blueprint for the overall theme of the collection in which Listen equally embraces the reader in intimate and analytical ways. Cramer guides us through emotional and metaphysical pathways regarding the theme of listening. He accomplishes this intricacy by using the word “listen” variously as subject, object, action, philosophy, or as noun. The result is a clear demonstration of Cramer’s sincere and masterful poetic craft: a collection of poems that is wonderfully accessible, yet masterfully subtle.

This personal lure into the poet’s mind feels a little like receiving two invitations in the mail on the same day—one to a casual, close-friend get-together, and the other to a bowtie wedding. “It got bad; pretty bad” in the poem “Bad” as the book begins, and then proceeds to grow even more straightforward in later lines, “Christ, let’s let things not get even worse.” This juxtaposes with the strikingly romantic couplet from the very next poem, “South Belknap”: “and sparrows fly into and out from the azaleas, / and roses flicker, fire from a magician’s fingertips.” Cramer carries the reader seamlessly in and out of these unceremonious or tender voices. Earlier in “South Belknap” we learn about the speaker’s moroseness in a starkly matter-of-fact way: “first time I recall wanting to die I was eight. / When I tried and nearly did I really wanted to live.”

These oppositional pairings of dreaminess and severity occurring in the space of one poem reveal an oxymoron of strong vulnerability in the poet. Cramer lets the reader see, feel, hear, taste, and touch his speakers’ experiences. Lines like, “but first, love, help me stop playing dead” in “Zuni Fetishes, Santa Fe” take away the reader’s breath. And again, in “The World,” the reader cannot help but feel alongside the speaker, “I saw two futures—one a / moonlit shoreline; one a diagnosis.”

Cramer divides Listen into four numbered sections. Like the first, the second section conveys an unabashed intimacy and includes several poems about marriage and relationships. The first poem in this section, “Self-Portrait with Insomnia, Rocks, and Fireflies,” again delivers romantic, nature imagery:

    [. . . ] Mystic Lake
    wets me a fourth time,
    then settles me bottomward,
    one among millions
    cast into the snail’s pace of underwater time.

Later in the poem the intimacy marries the nature:

    and beside you now I’d swear to anything:
    I’m that tired in this sleepless daydream
    as a deeply appreciated pebble, while a ring
    of rocks circles the August lakefront fire—

The section continues the theme of relationships and the brutally honest tone with “A Habit” where the speaker announces in the first line, “If she’s unhappy, she stays upstairs.” And, as it appears throughout the book, the many meanings intrinsic in the title of the book weave in and out of the poems. We see this again in the last four lines of “A Habit”:

    Now, after sex, they press their palms, hard,
    against each other’s ears—inducing
    for that moment before they disengage
    the feeling of being both deafening and deaf.

These lines express yet another dichotomy with the double-play of “deaf” being an oxymoron similar to deafening silence. The idea of listening grows deeper in meaning, as if the poet means to express how one has to listen, must listen, needs to listen, yet has to suffer the emotional consequences of doing or not doing so when called to.

Cramer ends the second section with “Elegy to My Family,” which lands the reader in the speaker’s dreaming, then awakening, as once again we heed the call to listen: “[. . .] poplars circle / the duck pond. New Jersey church spires blacker // than the black sky. What I tell her wakes me up.”

The third section turns and twists, in places, into a different call. “American Freedom” grapples with the recent political climate: “he writes an email quoting Naomi Klein— / ‘for the men who rule this world, / rules are for the other people.’” This ars poetica piece shows Cramer’s personal call to address the new, gloomy connotations creeping upon the word freedom and how bleak it is to feel that one can no longer fail to address it, “‘Never / write a poem about anything that needs a poem / about it,’ wrote Richard Hugo. Dick, he thinks, / times change.” Still, the tone of the section returns to the vulnerability of the speaker, where the band plays in his memory, in “Born to Be Wild”:

    Ken, Tom, Fred, and I preferred to be the band,
    since bands stood taller by virtue of standing
    on wobbly lunchroom tables we made a stage.
    Bands might play “Born to Be Wild” six times
    a night and still not have the song by heart.

We listen with the speaker, and share the youthful awkwardness alongside him as an adult who is now grown with children of his own.

Other poems in the third section echo the voices of American staples such as “Independence Day,” and “Frontier,” albeit without any stereotypes the reader may expect. But, “A Burn So Bad It Requires Ice” picks up the call to action in a less understated manner than “American Freedom” with the lines, “now there’s a carrot ruining history, don’t / we need more words whose melodies can’t / mean their meanings—pulchritude, for one?” It’s not that the openness dissipates, however. In “Time Out” the speaker takes respite from the intensity and noise of the world in a yoga class. As we find in his other works, Cramer highlights a vulnerable irony, which allows the reader to listen to what he will not share with the yoga class: “in my head: I feel in touch with others when afraid / my kids will die before me. Some shared. Not me.”

Though the themes seem to move away from political climate in America, Cramer continues the call to the reader to listen with the first poem of section four, “An Invitation.” “Look through this hole in a stone wall / at the man in his bloated overcoat,” laying bare a malaise of existence, and then deepening this self-deprecation by calling out the self for its lies, like in the couplets of “The Benevolence of the Butcher”:

    Two witches, catty-corner, run
    a crystal shop. Self is the artful

    lies it tells itself, Mind is no more
    than neural chuck
[. . .]

Cramer titles several poems in section four in such a way as to conjure and announce their speakers, such as “Sewage Has Its Say” and “Orphic,” which calls to mind Orpheus with his musical prowess and entrancing voice. “Tinnitus Song” lightly echoes the haunting voices of Cramer’s previous collection from 2012, Clangings, with the line “no remedies. Strategies only.” Like Clangings, where  the speaker must grapple with mental themes, in “Tinnitus Song” the speaker admits there is no cure for the sounds he must endure again and again: “but this needling / sticks in the groove of Psycho’s soundtrack: // mind turned brain; brain, skull.”

This blend of distant speaker and personal speaker juxtaposes in section four with “Two Poems in Memory of Wayne Brown,” the Jamaican poet, professor, and chief editor of Jamaica Observer’s Literary Supplement, among many other accolades; and then with “Bohemia Lies by the Sea,” which adapts Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem, “Böhmen liegt am Meer.” In this last poem of the collection, the speaker becomes energetically overcome by the sea with a final two lines culminating with what moves towards, not what should be listened to, but perhaps, should be rhetorically questioned: “holding and held by nothing, allowed only to watch // the shore of my choice, from the questionable sea.”

Steven Cramer’s Listen serves as command, pleading, response, and vulnerable receptor of his speakers’ observations. Sometimes these roles of the speaker are deeply personal, and at other times they inspire the reader to become an analytical onlooker. We seem to be past and present with the poet, experiencing private moments and disparaging self-commentary with such a relatable tone, one feels compelled to smile, sometimes even laugh, with understanding. Cramer mixes these with political commentary and an artistic investigation of listening in all its forms. Listen calls us to be aware, and in the questioning that occurs from attentiveness, asks us to listen more fully.

Louder Birds

by Angela Voras-Hills
(LSU Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Katherine Hollander

In Angela Voras-Hills’s exciting first book, Louder Birds, we encounter a world of wonder and unease, an acutely yet fantastically midwestern landscape teeming with life and seething with quiet danger. The poems that construct this world are sharp and exact, tart and rigorous. Admirably strict and spare formally, they are also self-critical, featuring an innocent and sometimes bewildered “I” who is never overindulged by the speaker. In this humorous and sometimes brutal book, there is ice fishing, there is Jell-O, there is a pair of wild foxes charmingly named Conclusion and Prudence. There are cornfields and barns, an “I” and a “you,” a grandmother and a baby (sometimes yet unborn), a cat that stalks from poem to poem. There is the threat and actuality of bodily harm, and what feels like an entire Peterson Field Guide’s worth of animals, the majority of them dead. Most importantly, there is a very sure hand, a very confident voice directing the flight and shape of these excellent poems.

The best in the collection—wonders that include “Never Eat a Polar Bear’s Liver,” “Krakow,” “Chateaubriand,” “When We Were Prey to Nothing,” and “In the Beginning”—posit a strange and tender relationship between a sometimes-befuddled subject and her sometimes-broken environment. The speaker is affectionate towards, and alienated from, both the natural and the human (although these poems rightly look askance at that artificial divide). They both confess and celebrate: “we brought guns to the firehouse bake sale,” the speaker in “Bake Sales” tells us, “we caught the carpet-mouse, left him / asleep in a box with crayoned windows.” In this poem, as in a number of others, childhood is charged with relish and menace. In winter, “We raced to the front porch to lick / the icicle hanging from gutter to ground,” and in summer, children are given “five dollars for a Dixie cup full” of lemonade by men who, perhaps friendly, perhaps sinister, then “[drive] away waving, their lips wet.”

In “On Earth as It Is in Heaven,” a jubilant mother rides her motorcycle to Las Vegas and drinks “cocktails in the sun” just days after cancer treatment, but this triumph is placed next to a childhood memory of a grandfather whose “friend learned he had brain cancer and shot himself.” His widow is unconsoled by floral arrangements, prayer, or “ham and potato casserole” in a church basement, but still, and in the face of all this, the family stocks its freezer with abundant fish from the same lake “my grandpa landed his plane on.” In the wonderful “Maps of Places Drawn to Scale,” “a van flips on an exit ramp” and provides the occasion for a meditation on how birth, death, and community are different in small towns and large cities:  

                                                     [ … ] At a Chinese buffet,
                                 Death is stuffing her cheeks
                    with crab rangoons, while a family
      stands behind her with empty plates. Nobody stuck
                    to the vinyl booth finds ‘You will suffer’
                                inside their cookie, but it’s implied

These poems—funny, sad, unflinching—are typical of the collection in the way they productively commingle ordinary but authentic pleasure, flawed human connection, and the threats of death and harm.

This threat of harm runs through the collection like barbed wire through a field. When it works, it is part of the rigor that infuses the book, giving it a powerful shrewdness and frugality—though the images of violence, particularly that visited upon animals, can sometimes feel grotesque. We encounter a drain full of dead eels fed upon by flies, a dying worm consumed by millipedes, a field of crow parts crunching underfoot, two separate bleeding rabbits, and a doe that “flipped / over our hood and dragged her back legs / across the highway into the woods.” This violence is often effective. For example, the car-struck doe appears in the beautiful “Controlled Burn,” along with a dead but still-speaking vole and a “chorus” of living frogs, who advocate on opposite sides of a debate about heaven. In this poem, the question of violence and death is a real question, complex and nuanced, and the contradictory answers are inflected with humility and forbearance.

Similarly, “Preserving” (one of my favorite poems in the book) moves from luscious plenty and human care to bleak humor or worry and back again several times, tracing the preservation of a summer’s worth of lemons to a tumble on winter ice:

              [ … ] When I fall,
            I catch myself with my face.
                        When I fall, I go

                        to the hospital, to make sure
                        the baby is still alive.
            There are so many small things
            to worry about in a large way.

Here, injury and the very real threat of personal loss are tempered by an understanding of the haplessness of human destruction—of the environment and climate, of animals, and of other humans, including a botched death row execution. Toads thrown into a pond by children in the mistaken belief that they are frogs will still drown, regardless of the children’s good intentions, but nevertheless “we can’t blame them for not knowing / what swims, what sinks, what floats.”

At other times the proliferation of physical harm approaches gratuitousness, what it represents or portends unclear. Instances of mundane or believable injury (the pregnant woman’s fall or the doe struck by the car) are joined by more fantastical ones (a speaker who paints the mouths of strangers shut with glue, or one who spontaneously “slit[s] the skin” of ermines “to warm my neck”). These two sorts of violence—fantastical and mundane—are both adroitly conjured, but they sometimes seem to undermine one another, making it harder to take either variety with the seriousness it demands. Instructions toward an ethics of violence—how should we understand this? Should we stop it? Can we, and how?—are not forthcoming. This perhaps weakens the collection, but it is also part of its spell. It feels of a piece with the half-imaginary midwestern world Voras-Hills conjures so well; like the real Midwest, it feels plain, clear, and very, very confusing, intolerant of obfuscation and mysticism but also profoundly obscure, profoundly mysterious in its total refusal to offer explanations—if you belonged, the poems both demonstrate and lament, fondly concede and stubbornly protest, you’d already know. This is itself an incantation (assisted by the poems’ consistently oracular titles, like “Wait in the Bathtub and It Will Carry You”), and the spell works. But there are moments, too, when we might wish for a little more mercy, a little more clarity.

Yet it is clear that Voras-Hills is a poet of seriousness and talent, one whose vision is attentive, unsparing, and, in the end, compassionate. In the very first poem in the book, she presents us with a girl “holding a plywood sign that reads: / zucchini / and God / in red paint,” tells us that “her hair snarls in the wind / and rain, but she doesn’t notice. Like any sign,” Voras-Hills reminds us, “it’s difficult to know how seriously to take it.” This difficulty, this question of seriousness, these signs—these are the worthy subjects of her poetic scrutiny. And there are no easy answers. But the poet’s precision, the beauty of her language, and her comfort with the obscure and the unknowable offer, if not a rescue, a reprieve. “For now, the puddle remains / unnamed,” she tells us, “so it is not yet a disaster.”


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Worship the Pig

by Gaylord Brewer
(Red Hen Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Star Coulbrooke

This could be called a book of odes, of praise songs, of quests punctuated with wry asides. Of poems saying not what the poet starts out to say, but what the poems say instead. Take the introductory poem, “When It’s Done Right,” the play on Mary Oliver’s dictum that “happiness, // when it’s done right, / is a kind of holiness.” This poet of worship has “enraged / with joy” the “flies and chiggers” that leave “welts on ankles.” He tames the “lunging dragon” of snowmelt on the mountain to “a kitten in a necktie.” He compares the “cough of a tractor engine” to the “plaintive caw of raven,” and proclaims the “dull day ahead / free of usefulness,” all to get at something important, something portentous. Which, when he gets down to it, has been “happily forgotten.” Instead, the poem has already said what it needed to say. This kind of happiness, the giving-up of poetry to its own holiness (salted with a little blasphemy) is what keeps us reading.

“Worship the Pig,” as title poem, lends itself succulently to praise, singing of the “Holy loin, blessed shoulder,” “Sacrament / of rib, ham, jowl, and hock,” the “sweet white fat, well salted.” Even the slaughter and burning succumb to such human longing that the process from pasture to table becomes a state of grace. At the end of it all, “we” (granted, not everyone, but those who’ve read on, appreciating the wit and wonder of the words even if they don’t eat pork), “eat in thanks, pig hallelujah.”

The praiseworthy pig appears in one other poem, “Solution to a Morning of Little Possibility: Frying Bacon.” As an ode, it begins by setting a scene, moves into a sort of prayer, imagines/imparts value on the object of desire, and ends with a sense of one’s life having been altered.

The scene begins with the object of desire being prepared by characters akin to altar boys:

    Get the big skillet from its hook,
    peel off one unguent strip at a time,
    butchered and cured
    down the road by some old boys
    who worship the pig,
    and load that thing up
    over medium-high heat.

Moving into the prayer, hands and mouths forming the supplication:

    Get your hands greasy, deep
    in the pores, stand over it
    working the rhythms until
    your glasses steam,
    your tongue’s wagging in a wet mouth.

Now the desired object, adored, deified:

    Bacon takes care of bacon,
    the unctuous agency of pork,
    the holy salt-flesh and sweet-fat
    better than Jesus
    and Elvis rolled together.

Finally, an alteration, a transformation, an urgency that decries the normal state of being, that transcends the ordinary:

    Get the whole house smelling good,
    the dog on high alert.
    Damn it, son. This may be
    the best day of your wasted life.

Need we say, in the spirit of James Wright “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” that the poet has drawn from the best of his forebears to craft this ode for all of us who love a good meal? It doesn’t matter that our tastes are worlds apart; whatever we prepare with our own hands and partake of with relish and gratefulness is worthy of such an ode.

Robert Hass, in his 446-page A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, devotes nearly a hundred of those pages to the ode. “The word in ancient Greek,” says Hass, “meant ‘song.’” The form evolved from “longish” lyric poems with complex emotional thoughts to less formal free-verse poems and praise poems, pausing for the romantic odes of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Hass quotes M.H. Abrams describing the ode as “an inward journey,” which involves the eventual transformation or alteration referred to in the bacon poem above.

Here is a praise song not about food or pork (though it does mention breakfast at one point), but about parents, and the poet’s take on their aging process. The poem starts with a scene, which is nearly fully described in the title, “On a Clear, Hot morning in Brazil, Balcony Overlooking Mountain and Sea, I Think of My Parents in Kentucky.”   

The title scene continues with the parents waking in their home after not enough sleep, going to the bathroom, making coffee and “their first adjustments to the day’s pain,” as they talk about “their youngest son’s unending restlessness.” The description continues with his father’s “twisted wrists,” “deafness,” and “shuffling frailty,” and his mother’s “swollen ankles” and “cold that won’t leave.” The poem has now turned to the inward journey of the poet’s song, in which he questions his intentions and transfers the anger-stage of his own grief to the reader at the same time:

    Why am I telling you all of this, these intimacies
    that break my heart and have broken theirs,
    this sadness shading every gesture, that turns
    paradise into a senseless rebuke? Listen, this poem
    is none of your goddamn business. Nor the paltry
    options of the day ahead. Forget joy. How about
    any distraction to kill an hour, to hold back the walls?

Hass writes that the praise poem comes out of “litany and prayer” (the litany of parental ills and broken hearts), with the beginning “initiated by desire or dissent” (the poet’s desire to share his parent’s intimacies with readers while dismissing them at the same time). The middle section can be variable, according to Hass, but might name the object of desire, imagination, or value. In this case, is it the parents? Or the poem? Or perhaps the audience the poet pretends to dismiss?

The final section points toward asking a favor from the object or power the poem has elaborated on. This poem seems to do the opposite, as readers are told, “I don’t want you knowing any of it, or your opinion.” He doesn’t want “your sympathy” for this “unbearable cocktail of helplessness.” After all, he asks, isn’t this “the oldest story in the world, and the most banal?”

    Sure. Until it’s yours, these two you love dearly,
    sixty-five years together with hardly a night apart,
    whom you miss already as they leave you step by step.
    We’ll see how tough you are, when the time comes.

In the end, as the poet is transformed, so too are his readers. He’s speaking to them through his experience, but he is also speaking to himself through them. The ode has shaped itself into what it needs to say and be through the craft of a canny poet.

The poet’s craft extends throughout the book, in every poem, from the confessions of a self-remonstrating animal lover to the comedic delight of life in a foreign country, to the sweet and sorrowful admonishments of humanity as it revels in the sheer joy of paradox “in this big-ass world,” “full of romp and circumstance.” This book of odes, “Done Right,” spans continents and topics in its journey to a holy kind of happiness, though certain readers may at times be advised to apply a grain of salt. For anyone invested in the succulent nature of poetry, this is praiseworthy work.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Cairn: New and Selected

by Peggy Shumaker
(Red Hen Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley

The title of Peggy Shumaker’s Cairn: New and Selected suggests a book that will offer direction and reflection and perhaps homage. This is only fitting, since cairns are manmade stacks of stones used since prehistoric times as navigational aids on land and sea as well as for monuments, burial sites, and prayer. In this, her eighth book, Shumaker stacks words to serve as messenger and guidepost for our reading while she explores topics including nature, myth, friendship, parents, growing up in Arizona, and landing in Alaska as an adult, where among other honors, she served as Poet Laureate 2010–2012.

Shumaker’s latest collection begins with “New Poems” where “Parenthood Unplanned” tells in blunt poetic lines of parents who were “mismatched // spectacularly” for marriage. Without sentimentality, these poems poignantly describe several colorful, flawed characters who populated a woman’s youth. Shumaker pays homage to women starting out in challenging circumstances, such as a mother described in her youth as “that brilliant // ragged girl.” The poem closes with a feminist plea, particularly for women like the girl who became the mother, “let women live. // Let women be.” Because of the lyrical prose memoir at the end of the book, these poems that come earlier in the collection seem personal and striking.

The first large section, “Placing Our Feet with Care on This Earth,” is full of poems regarding another poet who suffered a severe stroke that impacted her communication skills. I was fascinated with these poems because of my own training as a speech-language pathologist. In “Shape-Shifters,” Shumaker expands from personal concern and observation of the patient’s disability to a more abstract question, one of grief:

    word-parts tongue whipped
    till she’s giving voice to shards,

    shattered sounds not yet
    nor ever connected.

    Why? The best guesses
    still guesses, microscopic.
    Who are we without sounds
    someone we love can translate

    into us,
    into what we know

    of ourselves?

These poems honor recovery as the fellow poet works to regain her life after the stroke. In “A Meditation,” Shumaker writes of the woman as she regains mobility, “come closer. Ask your foot to widen / as it meets the floor.” As the woman relearns communication skills, the poet writes, “touch your tongue / to your teeth” and finally, “Relax / until language remembers you.”

Recovery and resilience are recurring themes in the book as the poems describe a complicated childhood, filled with, at the least, neglect. This section speaks to a woman’s effort, strength, and healing. “Commonplace Miracles” begins “thanks for impatience / married to dogged will, // gratitude for grit.”

The next section, “Sparks,” represents an ekphrastic collaboration between Shumaker and Alaskan artist Kesler Woodward, who created their respective poetry and paintings in response to one another’s work. The partnership culminated in a 2015 exhibition at the Alaska Humanities Forum in Anchorage. Woodward’s boreal forest paintings are rendered in crisp color in the pages of Cairn.

In “Geology of Wonder,” Shumaker celebrates forces of nature as well as a relationship forged by a friendship with Eva Saulitis, a poet and marine biologist who died of cancer in 2016. The first verse begins, “shaped by forces way underneath,” and ends “this mountain changes each breath.” Such lines equate attributes of nature with characteristics of those she loves in a kind of elegiac magic. Shumaker pays homage to long relationships with short poetic lines, finding solace in repetition, and the mountain, where:

    When we’re on it,
    our focus shifts
    to scree underfoot,
    to a shady cornice
    overhanging our steps,
    to a patch of lichen

In a later section, “Impossible Grace,” the poem “Eva’s Cairn” speaks about a basket of blossoms, how “orange yellow fuchsia white, gather / beside the cairn stacked up / to honor our friend.”  This poem refers to a Valentine’s Day trek on the big island of Hawaii to create a memorial cairn in Eva’s honor. Once again, stones act as monument, messenger, and guidepost.

Various poems throughout the book lead a reader to ask how a person develops resilience. One answer is suggested in “The Story of Light.” We read about a woman “who first touched fire / to a hollow stone filled with seal oil,” how in her youth, the elders let the woman raise an orphaned seal pup. The poem ends with a taste of Shumaker’s use of rhyme, assonance, and repetition, all enveloped within metaphor:

    The pup lifted her nose, licked
    salt from seven stars, and slipped
    light back among silvers and chum
    light among ghostly belugas
    swimming far north to offer themselves.

Many of Shumaker’s poems are entrenched in place, such as “The Run of Silvers,” set in Alaska’s Resurrection Bay. We watch salmon, “their potent ballet—muscular / dazzling leaps in the blinding / sparkle of an air they can’t breathe.” Indeed, these poems pack a descriptive and metaphorical punch.

Shumaker uses anaphora well. A perfect example is the beginning of verses in “Each Rise, Each Hollow,” in which she infuses a loving relationship with a healing cadence:

    You have taken me
       fifty feet under, swimming
          with eagle rays, while
             humpbacks above us
                sang their way south

    You have shown me the ancient madrona
         healed over barbed wire
            nailed decades ago to red bark

Weaving human story within and beside nature poems, Shumaker uses naming of people and birds as blessings. We read of swallows, tanagers, toucans, and macaws; as well as trees, mountains, and other wildlife. One poem, “Genesis, Quetzal,” resonates with earlier poems of loved ones transitioning to death. It ends:
    When you push off,
    earth gasps and sighs.
    Your wings stir
    root aromas tangled
    underfoot. When you push off,
    cloud and sky
    reshape around you.
    When you push off,
    a new world spins.

Shumaker’s book ends with prose—short memoir pieces from her book Just Breathe Normally. Some harrowing, many sad, the memoirs form a cohesive, engaging narrative of her youth. The memoir affirms that much of the prior poetry was biographical, that the speaker survived, thrived, and has contributed much to the world.

The book begins with poems about friends who deal with major medical setbacks. The surprise bookend comes toward the conclusion of the prose memoir when Shumaker tells of experiencing severe injuries from a bicycle/ATV accident.  Symbolically, in “Día de los Muertos, Whidbey Island,” Shumaker and her husband “choose Day of the Dead for our first post-wreck ride.”

They take deep breaths attempting to regain balance on two wheels, a moment that makes the reader hold their breath until the book ends joyfully, “we push off, wobbly, into the rest of our lives.” In that moment, all the themes of Cairn resonate resiliency and recovery along with the nourishment of language and relationship. Shumaker’s collection is a cairn of a book worthy of a slow, celebratory read.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Ain't Never Not Been Black

by Javon Johnson
(Button Poetry, 2020)

Reviewed by Elisa Crawley

In Javon Johnson’s newest collection, Ain't Never Not Been Black, America is choking on blood. Cops are murdering Black children and Black mothers fear their sons might come home “body-bag beautiful” and “a hashtag,” while America erases them. Whether infused with the lament of Black death or the celebration of Black culture, Johnson’s poems scream:

    I want to live in a world
    where the police do not murder Black children.

    Where the police do not murder Black children.
    Where the police do not murder Black children
    Where the police do not murder Black children.

In this collection, Johnson’s America is America, and America has always been cruel to Black lives, a relationship to which Johnson responds in the poem “Blackboys/Cold”: “and isn’t that what being Black is all about / how the world works to reduce you / even if you only want freedom.”

The book is not divided into any sections, though there are many recurring themes: grief, death, displacement, hypocrisy, violence, survival, and family. Some pieces are experimental in form, such as “Black 201,” a poem written as a college course description: “Course Schedule: This course will be mad fluid. This course/ operates on CPT. This is also a lesson in survival.” Others, like “Wishing Well,” look more familiar: “When my mother tells me to get home / safe, her voice is the last coin she owns.”

Throughout the collection, Johnson demonstrates a deep relationship with language and every sentence is masterfully crafted. For example, in the poem “Los Angeles” he combines place with memory: “Los Angeles is a gospel song my grandmother used to sing.” In the poem “America,” nature holds human hatred: “The air was a ‘whites Only’ sign.” The rhythms found in many of the poems is a reminder to the reader that Johnson comes out of the spoken-word tradition. These poems coax the reader to read them aloud, their sounds, and our participation in the poems adding new dimensions to the work. Like in the poem “A Lesson in Proper Sentence Construction,”

    the Black boy could not smile.
    The Black boy could not smile.
    The Black boy could not smile.
    And isn’t that a proper sentence, too?
    Clear and concise. But somehow still
    longer like the sentences
    Black people are given.

Several pieces explore relationships such as that of Malcolm X and his daughter (the night before his assassination), as well as those between uncle and nephew and mother and son. There are many poems that talk about the near, the familial. However, the poems also reveal a consciousness of institutions and power. In the poem “Everything I Know About Gentrification I Learned From My Step/Father, Or When the Cancer Comes,” Johnson infuses the poem with both in his claim that “To gentrify is to take the body / and gut it.”

Perhaps one of the most moving poems of the book is the previously mentioned “America.” In the beginning, the word America is defined as “Black people” and is repeated every few lines accompanied by retellings of (and commentaries on) history.

    America knows that. Knows that
    Lincoln did not free the slaves
    oh, America, the beautiful,
    sleight of hand.

Later, the poem turns to how the country has abused Black people, starkly ending with the lines:

    please remember,
    in this poem
    America was always

In an age where naming dignity for Black life has become a trendy culture for white liberals, in an age that has been like every other age in our history in which Black people are being murdered, Johnson’s lyrical grief shakes the souls of its readers. The collection contains a series of poems titled “Black Famous (A Faux Haiku Series).” Some carry a more serious tone, such as “Black Famous 4” (“No twitter coffins”). Others, more humorous, like “Black Famous 3,” which begins “One day I’ll show up / to see Cats on Broadway […]”

Nonetheless, many of Johnson’s poems commemorate Black joy and resiliency. “I didn’t want to be sad,” Johnson writes in the piece “Black and Happy,” “didn’t want white supremacy / to tell me how to feel again.” Then, later in the poem, there is the declaration, “You cannot kill Blackness; / too much of it is wrapped in unshakeable joy.”