Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Cure for Pain: A Review of
Aisle 228

by Sandra Marchetti
(Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2023) 

Reviewed by Krystal Languell

Poetry is the cure for loneliness. Baseball is the cause. So goes the first section of Sandy Marchetti's Aisle 228. Titled "Losers," this half of the book portrays the trials and tribulations of a fan whose patrilineal inheritance includes allegiance to the "lovable losers" commonly known as the Chicago Cubs. Spare and sharp, Marchetti's work unfurls moments of grief, inviting the reader to feel alongside her speaker. Disappointment needs a witness to carry on. Take the poem “Cross Country,” quoted in its entirety here:
    At 15,000 feet
    and climbing,
    I look down
    from Seat 7A
    into a suburban
    swimming pool
    and feel my
    glasses splash.
    Whenever I
    fly I search
    for the baseball
    There are so many
    in the Midwest
    and you can
    always spot them—
    how the dust plumes,
    how green the grass,
    how there is so much
    good land for them.

The speaker searches for signs that the tie to her beloved game is unbroken. She seeks the same reassurance in the next poem “AM,” in which she turns on the radios in her home to create surround sound. She gathers her squad.
Frequently, Marchetti uses the volta as an opportunity to open a door to the reader. The poem "Praise" describes the movement of a stadium crowd, which sits and stands roughly in unison. The poem ends, "Tell me, / what do you do at church?" creating an opportunity for the reader to compare their own spiritual activity to a series of sporting rituals. Moreover, the form, a loose sonnet, echoes the traditional mood. 
Often, too, Marchetti uses the pronoun "you," though the identity of that "you" varies from one piece to another. "You dictate my stillness / and my bend" evokes a strong sense of physicality. It's a little sexy. And yet this line is directed not at a lover, but at long-time Cubs radio broadcaster Pat Hughes. Marchetti subtly provides the contextualizing images we need to be able to quickly change gears with her. Her reliance on images suggests the book is not driven by character and narrative, despite what you might expect from a book centered on sports. Rather, this collection is driven by emotion—not the mind, but the heart.  
As part of a poetic system, Marchetti's imagery creates surprise; a rabbit leaps out of a hat in the middle of some poems. Later, "Distortion" describes a road trip into Wisconsin with AM radio tuned to the Brewers game:
    The signal glowed 
    fainter with each ray
    disappearing, I was
    northing with Bob Uecker.

Denominalization is a fancy word for what Marchetti does to the word "north" here; you could just call it verbing the noun, too. The line also compactly suggests the image of a car traveling north on an unbending Midwest highway. Marchetti otherwise conforms to conventional grammar, making the moment appear in sharp relief. I could see the bug guts on the windshield as the radio signal faded along with sun. 
Baseball is the cure for loneliness. Poetry is the cause. Writing can be isolating, pulling poets away from our communities and loved ones to toil at our desks. What a welcome diversion the ballpark can be, especially when the home team is doing well. "Winners," the second half of Aisle 228, follows the 2016 Chicago Cubs, who opened a portal to hell by winning the World Series that year. As Obvious Shirts, a new t-shirt company founded by a Cubs fan to proudly state obvious opinions, phrases it: "The greatest game ever played was on a Wednesday in Cleveland." How odd! Communal celebration, alongside a sense of the supernatural, inhabits this section of the book.
Marchetti skillfully renders the emotional rollercoaster of being a fan. The important moments of a game happen quickly. In a double play, "hands work the blur." In a poem about defensive plays, a little magic has to be invited in. There is magic, but crying as well. Myths are busted. As the final play of the World Series concludes, she notes "silencethen / a bursting beat." The em dash and the gerund seem to invoke Emily Dickinson, whose “After great pain, a formal feeling comes–” is resonant with the moment of epiphany. The poem ends, “First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go.” Even though the Dickinson poem illustrates death, it suits the victorious situation well too. Certainly, Cubs fans felt a great pain in the 108-year drought between championships. And stupor definitely followed.
Baseball and poetry offer escape from the quotidian, an opportunity to immerse ourselves in larger, if metaphorical, struggles. Forming a sort of binary star, each also offers a window into the other. Think of the poetic language sports broadcasting has given us in just the last few years, ranging from Marshawn Lynch’s “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” to Thom Brennaman’s “drive into deep left field from Castellanos.” Out of huge data sets in the world of sports, artful moments emerge like precious gems. In Aisle 228, Marchetti uses the Cubs’ historic victory as a lens on the emotional range of a life-long fan. Of the pivotal memories she highlights, many are experienced alone. Readers find that winning and losing can both be lonely, but connecting with other fans is a cure for pain.

Krystal Languell is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Systems Thinking with Flowers (fonograf editions, 2022). She works for a family foundation and in her unpaid time participates in dynamic resource mobilization with and for recently arrived and formerly unhoused folks in Chicago.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Coming into Grace Harbor

by Jan Minich
(Broadstone Books, 2023) 

Reviewed by Kate Kingston

With Jan Minich as your guide, be prepared to hike dry arroyos and see their new life, to pause at the pond’s edge and smell the decay of leaves. Be prepared to raft whitewater, meander alongside snowmelt in desert, inhale the canyons first light, and finally break through the fog “Coming into Grace Harbor.” These poems emerge through water, effervescing with a sense of diffusion, condensation, precipitation. They flow from puddle to pond, from canyon to arroyo, from river to ocean, so that one experiences the fluidity of water alongside its gathering force and its ability to reshape everything it touches as expressed in the poem “When So Little is Left.”
    I hear the power of the wind 
    and water in these canyons
    and out alone on Superior
    one last distinct 
    but distant drum,
It’s as if Minich has picked up the thread Henry David Thoreau wove for us on Walden Pond in 1854: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things / which he can afford to let alone.Minich selected this quote to introduce his book which attests to the premise that nature makes us rich, that honoring each of its components whether it be the black-shelled turtles, the wintering elk, or the dragonflies. From juniper, hemlocks, and giant oaks, to lichened rocks or the blue-green shallows, each poem attests to our environmental richness. Yet in all this beauty there is an underlying tension, a deep concern for environmental impact—carbon footprints, global warning—affecting our wilderness as well as ourselves. This tension resonates in the lines “one last distinct / but distant drum,” warning us of the precarious need for caution. In the same poem, he expresses his concern:  

    I think I would like to die 
    before the coral’s all turned white 
    and the last sharks 
    swim between glass walls
    before the last polar bear has drowned
    and the last cougar’s shot,
    more like Heathcliff at his window now
    than Hayduke with his wrench. 

Again Minich picks up threads woven through our literary consciousness by writers who have preceded us as he engages references to characters from Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (1847) and Edward Abbey’s  Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). Here in 2023, the character is contemporary, a bridge between wildness and what it is to be human. His is a unique, timeless voice that persists through the bedlam of our everyday culture, comparable to the cadence of waves lapping the bow of a boat, waves breaking on shore or scuttling over pebbles. Primarily he appeals to the “silence between waves” to give the reader time to process images that lap at our consciousness. From the last lines in the poem “Following Arroyos” white space between stanzas offers us this silence to pause and absorb a certain truth.    
    we need to know more of the green
    clear-cut for another development
    the junipers we uprooted
    with chains between bulldozers  
    we need to feel for something not human
    to take away our fear of dying
Minich, river guide and naturalist, guides us through current, a steady hand on the pen, his strength anchored in the image, his eye on the surface as he reads the undertow to comprehend what is hidden. This poet’s strength is in his ability to pause and listen, to observe his surroundings in detail, to bring us images that resonate with the voices of nature which he clearly identifies in the poem “Return to Courtland” where he offers us the language of rocks:
    the sudden storms still miles away
    flashing down through arroyos
    the voices of loosening rock
    and rips of being sucked downstream,  
    a dark sound the rocks make
    as they find one another along the bottom.

These poems take us through waterscapes in their seasonal shifting—flood and drought. They take us back to an Ohio childhood of ponds and lakes and onto the waters of Lake Superior. They take us to the San Rafael Swell, the whitewater of the Colorado and Green. Nothing lies still in these poems, not even when “a bell-buoy / at a harbor far away leaves you / with this one last sense / to navigate in the heavy fog.”  This is a voice that walks in solitude, a voice that seeks quiet, speaks through silence, and convinces without argument.

Kate Kingston is the author of five collections of poetry. Her most recent book, The Future Wears Camouflage, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2024. She is the recipient of the Karen Chamberlain Award, the W.D Snodgrass Award for Poetic Endeavor and Excellence, the Ruth Stone Prize, and the Atlanta Review International Publication Prize. Kingston has been awarded fellowships from the Colorado Council on the Arts, Harwood Museum, Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, Ucross, and Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain, among others. Several of her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.