Thursday, March 31, 2005

NEW! Review of Selima Hill

Lou Lou by Selima Hill. Bloodaxe / Dufours, 7.95 pounds.

Reviewed by Robin Geddie

Nobody leaves the ward empty handed--at least not Selima Hill's ward. Her readers leave happily confused with a heaping of pills, Hill's inventive simile, and the comfort of 'Sister.' In her latest book, suggestively titled Lou Lou, Hill returns to the mental institution, transforming the speaker's psychological world into a collection of sinister and amusing verse, allowing plenty of space in the hospital's sterile halls for the “[w]onderland of dreams / . . . that bloom in the night in the heads of the tranquillised sick.”

Hill's verse wanders the rooms of the anonymous institution. Most of the pieces, with several specific exceptions, share one of four titles: “Day-room,” “Night-room,” “Patients' Kitchen,” “Side-room,” and “Office.” Dates distinguish the similarly-titled poems. Even the titles that deviate from these five names indicate the speaker's corporeal location, though her imagination dwells far from the ward. The uniformity is ironic in light of the strange and diverse imagery. Hill's poetic institution is far from the cleanly organized entity it appears to be.

The poems surprise the reader and evade the general expectations associated with mental breakdown. Despite the grave nature of her subject, Hill balances calamity with a twisted sense of humor. The book jacket's cover art emulates the sort of laughs the reader should expect from the book. The photo features a group of piglets racing eagerly to an invisible target. In light of Hill's tone, it is safe to say that the pigs run to unseen slaughter. She effectively avoids the clichés that can afflict tormented poetry; speaking from a tragic perspective, Hill distances her speaker from the disease with a juxtaposition of violence and dry observation, as demonstrated in “Night-room: August 31st”:
Look, she says,
aren't they beautiful?
And so we are--
although we disagree
as they draw the covers over the beautiful scars
of the beautiful necks they probably want to strangle.

The darkest moments are always met with the lightest surveillance, as if Hill is trying to communicate to her readers, “Whether it's mental breakdown or a 'hairy blanket', it's all equally significant.” Lou Lou confronts the reader with awful moments of desperation and hopelessness, and then assuages any discomfort with blithe metonymy.

Hill's fusillade of unbalanced similes treat all objects indiscriminately, as if she is attempting to desensitize the reader to the speaker's unsympathetic reality. The outrageous similes compare unrelated and remote ideas: “abject” patients are “like old frogs / squatting on the feet of their beloved”; the hospital bed is like “a private desert / where even the sand / is made of nothing but ears”; doctors laugh like “dazzled bulls.” An insane arbitrariness unifies the warped tropes. Poetic lunacy permits several redundant similes, as in “Night-room: July 22nd”:
She fills the night with blood
like a mouth
filling up with blood
you can't swallow

The conflicting images that characterize the similes also distinguish the ever-present (and almost omniscient) figure of Sister.

Sister is literally a nurse, providing mental care for the wards' patients; yet her role manifests a greater importance. The speaker's complex description of Sister gives moments of recompense, distraction, and hope. In the misfortunate mind of the speaker, Sister ushers a sense of renewal, possibility, and confusion. One moment, she comments that “[h]er smell alone is a terrible accident / burning rubber” then the next, “how sweet she smells.” Sister assumes a god-like presence in the poetry; she is at once admired and feared by the speaker, from a very childish perspective:
We like the way her hair is stiff
like cacti.
We like the way she's ruthless and severe.
We like the ways she likes us as we are
and not as people think we ought to be.

A figure of authority and a vessel of therapy, the image of Sister is significant in the speaker's labyrinth of thoughts. Almost half, if not more, of the poems are dedicated to Sister's interaction, appearance, and importance. It would be no small surprise if “Lou Lou” was Sister's first name, as the poem's together offer a sort of ode or thank you note to this anonymous nurse. Sister provides relief from the tension and anxiety experienced simultaneously by the patients and the reader.

Hill's innovative associations also provide an escape from the hospital for both the speaker and the reader. Either everything, or nothing at all, is sacred. From a literary perspective, the speaker's capacity to revise her experiences within the ward functions as a synecdoche for poetry's capacity to pervert language. Poetry provides a unique and often twisted perspective, observing, dissecting, and reconstructing life into an unlikely configuration. Poetry, in a literal sense, is insane. Because Hill is such an original writer, her verse is verily unencumbered by the sensitive matter of mental breakdown.

Lou Lou is a unique, hilarious, and fascinating book. Hill replaces the human inclination to dwell on personal grief with her ability to confront, imagine, and escape. As opposed to creating a self-important diary of emotions, Hill allows her command of metaphor and lively description enough liberty to lead the reader down various psychological pathways. The result of her craft is a collection of verse that offers “not a word of thanks” for the institution, begs for no sympathy, and makes no apologies for a darkly comedic consciousness.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Robert Creeley, 1926-2005

NEW! Review of Kevin Prufer

Fallen from a Chariot by Kevin Prufer. Carnegie Mellon University Press, $12.95.

Reviewed by Allison Scott

Death, one of the oldest poetic subjects, and one that has forever inspired a very human combination of fear, sadness, and curiosity, becomes for Kevin Prufer a theme around which he builds unexpected combinations of images that lead the reader on four related journeys that approach, from very different angles, the moment of human mortality as an occasion to examine humanity itself. Fallen from a Chariot, Prufer's third book, explores the concept of falling, of fallen people, lives, empires, and beliefs, by knitting together, at times brilliantly, striking images of beauty and death, ancient greatness and modern destruction, an outward appearance with the insides of things.

The book is divided into four parts, each with its own set of central images that illuminate a different facet of the idea of falling. Part one integrates images of a fatal car accident with images of birds, angels, and a plane crash. Part two pairs the fall of ancient Rome and its emperors with anachronistic moments of modern-day warfare, and part three shifts predominantly to images of water and the sea. The last section starts by returning to the plane crash image and moves on to create other apocalyptic scenes while dealing with questions of god and the afterlife. Certain images, like those of birds and other winged creatures, planes, empires, and questions of identity and position, appear in more than one section, and add to the natural flow and cohesiveness of the work as a whole.

While each of Fallen from a Chariot's four sections has its shining moments and its own merits as it contributes to the overall work, the first half of Prufer's book is more successful than the second half, with the initial section probably standing as the strongest overall. In the first two parts, Prufer uses unique and open-ended imagery created with well-crafted language in poems that build on each other in sequence, connecting to develop a complex relationship of themes. The voice of his poems add as much to the pieces as what is said, as the speaker discovers the poem, and reacts to it, along with the reader. Some of the poems in the second half of the book lose the beauty of that simultaneous revelation and take on a more philosophical tone that leaves the reader wishing for more of the inventive details and descriptions that Prufer has shown he is capable of.

Also in the latter part of the book, the position from which Prufer's approaches his theme is a less creative one, and some of the central subjects and ideas (questions about death and god, loss of youth) are too expected. At times he is able to overcome the familiar subject matter with an original approach, such as his use of the onion imagery in "Youth and the Lie that Goes with It.” However, in part four's “Prayer,” Prufer starts with a very conventional premise--struggling to pray to an absent or seemingly deaf god--and adds to it archaic imagery and word choice, and the stiff sound of rhymed and nearly metered stanzas:
What shall I do if I never can reach him?
The bed is a harlot, all laughter and lace.
My teeth like a riot of bridges and gold
so how can he hear me? And what should I say?

The end result is a poem with very little about it that feels new. Other poems in the second half of the book begin with fresh, engaging images that build and develop as the poem progresses, but unfortunately fall a little short at the end with a clichéd last line, such as the poem “About the Dead,” which ends with the “the very best moment comes when we leave,” which is neither a new idea, nor a new way of saying it, and “Final Instructions,” a forceful and captivating piece in the final section that falters a bit at the end with “as though there were a heaven that waits for us all.”

The places where Prufer's originality shines in full force are parts one and two of Fallen, where his surprising language and imagery lead the reader along a natural development of details accumulating into scenes, people, ideas. The first and title poem begins with one of these details: “There is, first of all, her body,/ and the snow around it.” The voice is one of someone who is following his own thoughts just as the reader is following the poems, grasping at the pieces as they surface and trying to reassemble them. In the next part of the poem, the speaker must resettle himself and retrace his mental steps before continuing:
The snow, of course, from the trees, with the wind.

Or the car and the bridge it fell from, the rail
That like the body is twisted.
                   The broken windshield
From which the body flew and a hand below the belly

The starting over, or repeating, of the description, and the simple, straightforward listing of horrific details puts a beautifully transparent veneer of blunt, blank words in front of an emotional state that is very much in flux, and very much in control of the timing and movement of the poem.

The repetition and overlap of description in the first poem becomes a device Prufer uses quite successfully throughout his book. The second poem, “A Car Has Fallen From a Bridge,” directly echoes the title poem in its second and third stanzas:
And there is the death of the body, which was quick, the body
unaware and cooling against the dash.

Of course, there is snow, which wants so badly just to sleep, sur-
rounding the car and the body where they came to rest.

In addition to further developing the scene of a car accident, “A Car Has Fallen From a Bridge” continues the use of “the body” to describe the woman involved in the accident. The repetition of “the body” in these poems reduces people to objects overtly devoid of specific identities; “the body” becomes a placeholder noun to which other objects and people are related and by which the overall scene is described, as seen earlier in the first poem's line “the rail / that like the body is twisted,” or in a later line of that same poem, “her car / which, unlike the body, steams.”

Just as repetition reveals the emotion behind Prufer's seemingly stoic description, the repetition of the purposely generic “the body” gives the phrase its own kind of ghostly life, an eerie, echoing presence that follows the reader through the poems of the first section until the final poem. In the last poem of the section, “Dissected Bird,” Prufer finally offers a release for “the body” and a relief of the building tension with an acknowledgement of the importance of identity, “a feather to write your name,” as the last line.

Identity is a natural segue into part two of the book, which transports the reader back into ancient Rome. The poems in this section focus on the identity of Romans as a people, and on individual Roman rulers. The section opens with a poem called “My Life with Caesar,” which begins with the image of a blue heron, continuing the bird motif of part one. As the poem continues, the heron is linked with Caesar, and in “the whisper of feathers” comes the phrase: “There is no other king // than Caesar, no other.” The section continues chronologically through famous emperors of Rome, along with intriguing and complex anachronistic diversions into scenes in modern wars and yachts. These emperor poems reveal historical, great men in either first, second, or third person in their sad, private lives, haunted by the phrase “There is no other king than Caesar.”

Just as “the body” created a constant lingering presence in part one, the unattainable Caesar hangs above the failed, fallen, and falling men of part two until the very last poem:
We say it now, in retrospect: We have no other king,

had no other--even when the elms skittered into spring,
when cobbles wore our footsoles thin--

we had no other king but Caesar.

And so part two ends with a similar framing device as part one, returning to where it began, and in both instances the device is very effective in emphasizing loss and failure, while also serving to loop the poems back into the book's central theme. Each of these sections, more than part three and four, has a fluid and subtle evolution of moments, characters, and scenes where images flow into each other, and a body becomes a bird that becomes an angel that becomes a harpy while the bird becomes a plane that becomes a bomber, and then finally, in part four, a bomb. In this way, Prufer is able to ingeniously combine creative and diverse images, settings, and ideas into a work that speaks in a new way to the very old and very human fear of and fascination in failure and death.

NEW! Review of Brian Louis Pearce

Growling by Brian Louis Pearce. Stride Publications.

Reviewed by Jimmy Giesler

In William Butler Yeats' poem, “Politics,” composed specifically as the final poem in his life's collected works, he confesses that although his years brought him great wisdom and skill as a poet, he still longed for his innocent youth. Yeats used his craft to gracefully exit the stage of poetry and said farewell to the craft he loved, and now it seems that Brian Louis Pearce, born in 1933, might be doing the same in Growling.

From the first lines of the first poem to the concluding stanza, these poems scream at time's impatience while quietly asking for the past to return to the present in a unified conclusion to Pearce's life. Growling is divided into twelve sections, each section demanding a specific form in stanza and meter. Seven of these sections are “studies,” while the other five are poems that capture each study's observations and combine them with various topics, including Giacometti, a deadly drought, the importance of memory, and so on.

The first two sections of Growling, “Studies at Sixty-Six” and “Studies at Sixty-Eight,” contain the reader's first experiences with Pearce's struggle of associating his age with the end of his life. “Studies at Sixty-Six” shows Pearce's frantic attempt to understand how his years were spent, presenting dozens of images that gracefully transport the speaker from wars to childhood fantasies and eventually to being “a snatcher of breath, hauled through nostrils too closed.” This section ends with an inconclusive and eerie decomposition of existence, but Pearce manages to brighten the tone with “Studies at Sixty-Eight.” Here the speaker embraces his fall from youth, stating, “The falling feline suffers the less because it doesn't fight its fall.” Pearce also advocates incorporating the act of remembering into the present: “Live once. Remember. Live again but better,” suggesting that fusing the past with the present can alleviate the pain of facing one's mortality. These two sections maintain an inviting atmosphere; Pearce's images follow a bit of an upward curve in their complexity, gradually preparing readers for the more erratic sections that follow.

Growling then proceeds with several sections capturing the memories and ideas that the speaker incorporates into his “better-lived” final years. In “White Water,” for instance, the speaker is rafting down a river, explaining that a guide is present to help anyone who needs it. However, the speaker admits that he'd rather help himself--that falling into the icy water would be worth the rush of escaping danger independent of any sort of “guide.”

“Dry Mass” is a longer poem separated into two parts, “I August, 1995,” and “II September, 1995,” and serves as the epicenter of the collection. Here Pearce describes a dry and dying landscape reminiscent of Eliot's “The Waste Land,” and explains that life dries people's souls similarly. Pearce writes that hope and prayer are merely torture, offering false senses of security that ultimately remain unfulfilling. The only thing that sustains our souls as we search for water, according to Pearce, is the will to love. Pearce's final reward in the second section of “Dry Mass” is an endless storm of water, delivering an overwhelming sense of appreciation for his final years. Although the imagery in this section is a little too similar to that in Eliot's poetry at times, Pearce does manage to make this poem a work of his own by carrying language and ideas presented in the earlier poems, creating a continuous flow as Growling progresses. Already Pearce has gone through a noticeable shift in his consciousness as he rejects his former philosophies and becomes more focused on his new interest in the self.

Pearce returns to his “studies” with “Studies at Seventy: Basso,” in which readers notice an incorporation of fantasy in the speaker's reality. Pearce's images get more complicated in these sections as he increases the number of literary allusions and bold admissions of living in fantasy. He explains his fascination with imagination by sending postcard that reads,
imagination counts.
It's the underlying rail on which we, like
the tram on the other side [not shown], must run:

if in doubt, make it up.

These lines sum up Pearce's ideas throughout Growling. Here Pearce seems perfectly content without knowing the meaning of life.

Finding contentment in the final years of life has obviously been difficult for Brian Louis Pearce, but Growling documents the poet's acknowledgement and acceptance of mortality through cleverly crafted verse. Pearce uses memory not just as a recollection of the past, but also as complementary accessory to the present, a concept similar to Toni Morrison's “rememory” in Beloved. Pearce is not writing poetry that will revolutionize existentialist literature (not that he particularly wants to). Instead, he has created a book of poems expressing a personal struggle to accept death's approach. He closes Growling with a short poem entitled “Bulawayo Bookery,” a moment of final satisfaction for the speaker. Pearce writes that he has simultaneously watched the cockroaches and the clock, a final exclamation of survival as the speaker nears his final moments. This poem closes with an image of a “bicycle pump wriggling across the floor,” perhaps suggesting that the speaker has removed his air supply to initiate the end of his life. If Growling is the final publication of Pearce's career, it is a humble bow and a smirked “farewell.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

NEW! Review of George Szirtes

Reel by George Szirtes. Bloodaxe / Dufour Editions, $23.95.

Reviewed by Kelly Amoth

“To the ghost of childhood and the body of the adult,” so the latest collection of poetry by George Szirtes begins with a self directed inscription that haunts and informs the reading of each poem. Carefully blending the realm of memory and recollection with flashes from the present, Szirtes constructs a world that is enlightened and strengthened by shifts in time and tone. In the opening poem, “Reel,” he writes, “Here all the clocks tell different times. / All the statues point different ways. Film crews / Shoot Budapest for Berlin,” as if to warn the reader that his journey is not linear--it will change mid-step, reverse its direction, and transform into the unexpected.

Following the first four poems and the remembrance of a friend via flashback in “Meeting at Austerlitz,” the book is divided into three sections that are each different movements in memory and thought. The most emotionally driven of the sections is “Flesh: An Early Family History.” With five poems and an eclogue in each of the five divisions, Szirtes ties the remembrances to one another through theme and a seemingly effortless use of terza rima that his dense imagery and guarded tone carefully mask. Focusing on his family, he forgoes sentimentality and writes instead with a keen sense of reality about memories from his past that are personal and often intense. In the stream of these poems, the memories of people, images, and places merge together and then drift apart in a continually changing landscape of consciousness. Each poem exists as another scene from the vault of the family's home movies that captured both the good and the bad. Szirtes does not attempt to hide his memories from the reader, for he cannot hide from them himself. Knowing he can never escape the details of his past, Szirtes writes in “Outside,” “You forget so much. Memory drops away, / its phantom limb still waggling,” but he successfully reattaches his phantom limb of memory in this section to recreate the pains and glories of his childhood, during which he was forced to flee his native Budapest for England with his family and become a refugee at the age of eight.

While the poems of each section are written with a vivid sense of memory, the eclogues that close are more reserved, as if the narrative voice has pulled away from the scene and speaks from a distant vantage point where he is more conscious of the past in lieu of the present. Veering from the norm of a pastoral poem, the two voices of the eclogues that are differentiated by the stanza lettering seem to belong to the past and present before merging to form a unified voice. In the eclogue “Fair Day,” Szirtes, in remembrance of life in Budapest, writes with the perspective of a man whose history is slowing fading:
Everything slips from the books you are reading:
The plot, the descriptions, the fascinating characters,
And the only thing left is the smell of the pages
Or the way they turned over, and the child that once turned them,
Who slips from the book now. Look, look at him slipping,
And the hand on his shoulder, a moon with its planet.

The poems of “Flesh: An Early Family History” envelop the reader with Szirtes's hypnotic style that opens the door into the guarded rooms of his memory. He is a man haunted by the personifications of his mother as a bird and his father as the moon, the desire to forget while in the process of remembering, and the vivid ghosts of the nameless dead who he describes in “Early Music” as having “bloodied faces and emaciated bodies / Resounding through the child, endlessly implicit, // In scales, arpeggios and those awkward studies.” In the section “Secret Languages,” Szirtes's voice reverts to his youth as he is forced to see the world as an outsider. Dedicating an entire section to the memory of his mother, Szirtes reveals his reverence for her and the power of her love in “With nails filed smooth into deep curves” writing, “Her fingers curled into their hearts. The ache / Had found a home where it might live / Forever if her fingers did not break.” Szirtes's father, who leads the family out of Budapest in “My father carries me across a field,” is the object of his admiration and is given his own voice in “Eclogue: Shoes.” Though Szirtes often struggles with his memories, the pleasure of his past emerges through the textual snapshots he creates of his parents.

From the matrix of memory, Szirtes veers into the subconscious realm of dreams in the section “The Dream Hotel.” Like watching the swiftly moving landscape from behind a car window, the poems in the section are narrative flashes of colors and visions in which people and places are temporarily invented before being replaced. Stylistically, Szirtes expands his range and does not maintain a fixed rhyme scheme or length (except in the “Black Sea Sonnets” portion). The poems are as much revealed by their colors as they are concealed, for they are dynamic and constantly change direction just like the mind. Szirtes begins “Turquoise”:
Good to have reached the turquoise age. Not green
not blue but something in between, this
smoky crystalline concentration, clean
as an iceberg, astringent as the kiss
of water on iron

and three stanzas later has changed the meditation entirely: “Our knees are stiff, getting up is a pain. / We take care of our bowels, eat sensibly, / nothing too spicy after nine.” In the realm of Technicolor dreams, Szirtes places himself back into the subconscious of humanity after the purging of his memory-tortured soul in the previous section. Ever in control of the scene, Szirtes allows the reader glimpses into the lives of others before fast-forwarding the extensive poetic movie he is creating, such as in “Zoë and Neil” when he writes with startling precision, “After the baby died it was as if her heart / had been drawn out on a string through her eyes, / and there was no more rest for them, together or apart.” Not only is Szirtes able to capture his personal pain, but he convincingly inserts his voice into the vast canvas of humanity.

The final section, “Accounts,” includes the final kaleidoscope of poems that vary from each other in tone and style. Szirtes shows his versatility in writing on subjects ranging from an art exhibit to a characterization of mythical personalities in “The Morpheus Annotations,” and the sardonic prophecy in the poems of “Decades.” He even reveals his sense of humor in “The Glove Puppet's Inquisition”: “Fancy having a hand up your backside / all your life! To be so filled with Hand / that hand is all and all. / This is a religious proposition.”

With such a diversity of subjects and tones, it is difficult to accurately classify George Szirtes's latest collection; however, the power of memory and its repercussions are undercurrents throughout the very different sections of poetry. Though his familial recollections are sometimes painful, Szirtes writes each poem as a tribute to the past carved in the perspective of the present. His reel of images constantly rotates with flashing images, but he is able to maintain a sense of reality in these recollections, for as he reveals in the title poem, “Here I find lost bits of my heart.”

Monday, March 14, 2005

NEW! Review of Peter Boyle

Museum of Space by Peter Boyle. University of Queensland Press, A$22.95.

Reviewed by Lauren Sillery

Museums are places of open spaces, made of stark, high ceilings and hard floors that send echoes racing around the rooms. Purposely empty of excess furniture and home to an enforced hush, museums are ideally suited for a specific purpose: observation. Not an observation of physical engagement, of the tactile sensations of running your hands across surfaces, but a removed scrutiny, where the observer has to stand away and squint. With few exceptions, one goes to a museum with the aim of gazing at something beautiful, not for holding it in one's hands. With this sentiment in mind, Australian poet Peter Boyle's Museum of Space could not have been more accurately named. The collection has moments of intense beauty and clever description, but it seems to exude an air of separation. These poems do not send messages with the ringing of bells or waving of arms, but rather sit quietly in their corners and allow people to come and gaze upon them.

This calmness and almost meekness in Boyle's poetry are built into his language, in the actual selection of words with the work. For example, in the first and title poem of the collection, “Museum of Space,” Boyle's verbs include “glide,” “become,” “watching,” “vanished,” “looked,” “be,” and “used”--and this only in the first stanza. In none of these phrases is a strong action undertaken or a forceful motion begun. Items and people are acted upon or, when they do act, act in passive ways, as when sitting perfectly still and observing the outside world. Boyle achieves the intended effect, creating a poetry of calmness and tranquility as opposed to something more strident. He does, indeed, make museum pieces of his works: they are lovely and well-made, but placed behind glass.

This gentle, detached language at first made me view the poems of Museum of Space as vague and indecisive. The poetry seemed to shy away from making a stand or a definitive statement. As I read, however, I realized that what I had thought of as wavering between ideas was actually a focus on balance. One of the crucial themes expressed in Museum of Space is equilibrium between opposing ideas. Thus, the answer to the question “Why are water and sand always used to measure time passing?” is that “they must then be one substance--what never gets dry, what never gets wet.” Naturally, Boyle's poetry seems ambiguous, for if the world is a mix of extremes, a poet would be ignoring something important to select only one. Boyle further develops his idea of balance in “The Book of Questions--Reading Edmond Jabès” when he writes, “you construct the fragment s/ into beautiful wholes and at the same time splice jagged edges of noise into your soundscapes. For the beautiful needs the ugly to walk forward.”

This idea of balance between contrasting ideas is evident in more than the content of Museum of Space; it also appears in the style. His poems seem to place phrases that border upon cliché adjacent to lines that border upon genius. Boyle's reliance on overused ideas or phrasing is all the more painful because he is obviously capable of a much more powerful and individual means of expression. Phrases like “the vast tide of now” and “fountain of forgetting” pepper his poetry, as do strange insertions of abstractions, as when he describes “patient” horses “munching on tomorrow.” Instead of seizing hold of thoughts and explaining or implying truths about them, these phrases tend to oversimplify abstractions. The oddity is that Boyle can, indeed, verbalize ideas on these subjects, such as when he describes the problem of ownership by asking “How many names are tied to the one note of music?” His subsequent lapses into clichéd or limited descriptions become more frustrating when all the reader wants to read is the well-turned insight that Boyle evidenced in other places throughout his work.

Given its tendency towards a detached style, Museum of Space risks putting off its reader, of pushing him or her so far away that the book no longer becomes interesting. Yet the collection overall reads engagingly, with enough cleverness and change that the contents of each new poem remain unexpected. One way in which Boyle inserts variation into his collection is in his myriad changes in form and style. Some poems are free verse, while others are prose poems; some are broken into a more structured pattern, and others are more fragmented or stream-of-consciousness; some convey a narrative, and others detail a single conversation. Boyle's efforts to present new formats offer the reader different perspectives on the themes that run throughout the collection. For example, Boyle treats the theme of isolation differently in a poem that asks questions, such as “Window With Reflections,” in which the speaker asks “Who is this man / so strangely lost? / How much must he gather / to find his way to zero?,” than in a piece that focuses on sitting back and describing a person, as in “The Philosopher of Leopards,” of whom “the sadness of a hand that has given up on gesturing / could best approximate her texts.” Alternately, the speakers directly address isolation and the consequences it entails or approach it from a more oblique angle.

Boyle writes most effectively when he breaks from the standard “slightly esoteric free verse poem with artistic line breaks” formula. For example, the poem “Parable of the Two Boxes” comprises a simple back-and-forth, question-and-answer conversation between two unknown speakers. The simplicity of the questions allows Boyle to make smart, concise, and exceedingly effective statements, as when the questioner asks, “Do you see that or hear that?” and the listener replies “Seeing is hearing when things are small enough.” Pieces in which Boyle relates a specific story or event, as opposed to a more obscure happenstance, are also effective in their delivery. “Christ and the Apostles Survey Suburbia” provides a concrete picture of Christ and his twelve loyal followers asking questions door-to-door to “check . . . for the presence of fresh corpses suitable for revival.” The speaker himself “had a question . . . about the spiked hands / but was too nervous to ask it.” The peculiarity of the situation is more approachable due to its grounding in such an annoying real-life occurrence. As a whole, Boyle's work benefits when he focuses on the concrete, or at least on having a concrete reference from which to view the abstract.

In Museum of Space, Boyle states that, somehow, poetry, “among so many images, so many fictions, so many interweavings, so many phrases selected for their delicate balance between too much and too little, between impact and otherness, between leading towards the beautiful and reassuring with the known,” manages to “[fling] open the trance of its own beauty.” This collection of poems seeks for balance and the beauty inherent within it, but shows its beauty through a distant shining, not through a flinging open of words or ideas.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

NEW! Review of Peter Dent

Adversaria by Peter Dent. Stride, £5.95.

Reviewed by Ezekiel Black

Thumbing the pages, one can see that Peter Dent's Adversaria is tightly themed. Every poem contains six unrhymed couplets, minimal punctuation, a hemistich, and is headed by a concise title. Since the line breaks create square blocks of text, the forty poems are similar, almost indistinguishable at first glance. Yet this construction is appropriate considering the brief, three-month period in which it was written. Adversaria is a complete project recording the everyday, a collection of quips, remarks, and miscellany, as Dent says in “Containment Unalloyed?”
Five ladies putting another time to shame
Yet waiting         someone there must be here

To report          on the quieter tones the excited air
In a field that riddles        order with escape

When strict form meets strained diction, Dent captures the tension between poetry and conversation, between “order and escape.” Adversaria is a poetic survey of the chaotic world.

While Dent acclimates to the style, the book develops, mirroring a dialogue. Individuals do not begin conversations immediately, since they must acknowledge certain mores, like greetings. Similarly, Adversaria must recognize tradition before it can realize its goal, before mimicking a conversation. In the beginning, Dent uses anastrophe to honor the history of poetry, a formal introduction, like someone respecting another's past with “Hello. How are you doing?” In “Half-Lives and Playback,” “wind impossible” is inverted; in “Exemptions,” “winter bleak” is inverted; and in “Telegrams,” “things invaluable” is inverted. Before Adversaria can advance, it must slog through formalities. Also, when one begins reading the book, he or she notices the difficulty of the new form. As the reader continues, though, he or she finds a niche, and the novelty dissolves. Notice the shift from an early poem to a later poem (“Perception” and “Intrigue,” respectively): “New seasonal light        to freshen up        my / First is in improbable        clues come last” versus “Neater than needed        all consequence has / Its place        in official or unofficial secrets.” While the first poems are alien, due to their unusual diction, the later poems become comfortable, like a conversation: initially, the exchange is slow, but as the individuals grow accustomed, the discourse becomes engrossing and enriching. The individuals are invested. By the end of Adversaria, the reader will be absorbed.

Since the book chronicles everyday language, it is laden with colloquialisms, including idioms, quotations, oppocoinu, and informal questions. In the first poem, a colloquialism appears, and the trend begins, spanning the entire book. The phrase “true to form,” from “Perception,” is familiar--as if harvested from speech. The idioms continue in later poems with “easy on the eye,” “keep a good eye on,” “make ends meet,” “none the wiser”--basically one for every poem. Overall, the phrases are the base, the touchstones for the otherwise floating text. Without these handles, the reader would be swallowed by the narrative-free, image-driven poetry.

Similarly, quotations, which appear less frequently, nonetheless serve as footholds. While these devices ground the reader, others are confusing, like an uncertain dialogue. When one reads “Till our two heads get together        check // Effects in        'Paradiso' has a ring to it,” he or she notices the oppocoinu, where a work is used by both the subsequent and antecedent lines. The individual could read the excerpt two ways: “Till our two heads get together        check // Effects in 'Paradiso'” or “'Paradiso has a ring to it.” Within these lines, there are two complete sentences, hinged upon the word “Paradiso.” Like hasty or impromptu speech, the sentences spill into each other, without any clear distinction, but this is appropriate given the piecemeal construction of Adversaria. The oppocoinu is not isolated, but runs throughout the book, forging intricate rhetorical turns and a pleasant misunderstanding, always reminiscent of the conversation it parallels. Next are the informal questions. When reading, one will encounter an unexpected question mark. The question itself is not unexpected, but the placement of the mark is, especially when no signals are present (like “who,” “what,” or “when”). An individual might wonder if the move is necessary when a period would suffice, but, again, the book is an appeal to dialogue. In speech, questions are seldom introduced formally, which is evident in Adversaria. Notice the range between these two questions: “Pared down?” and “His / Familiar scale turned around        not failing?” The first question is logical and its form is common, but the second question is curious, almost strained, and would be adequate ending with a period. When individuals speak, they ignore convention, saying exactly what is necessary to convey their meaning, which is exactly what Dent accomplishes in Adversaria.

Monday, March 07, 2005

NEW! Review of Andrew Sant

Tremors by Andrew Sant. Black Pepper, A$ 27.95.

Reviewed by Nicholas Birns

Tremors, handsomely produced by the admirable Black Pepper, contains selections from six of Andrew Sant's books published originally from 1982 to 2002, accompanied by fourteen new, previously unpublished poems. This book makes a strong argument for Sant's stature in contemporary Australian poetry, placing him in the center of one of its most energetic strands. It is surprising to realize how many 'cosmopolitan' poets Australia seems to have. There is, of course, Peter Porter, now granted his Australian identity by critics even though he is a long-term expatriate in London, and, in the younger generation, Peter Rose, Adam Aitken, as well as Sant himself. One might judge this strain in Australia poetry as stemming from A. D. Hope. Yet cosmopolitanism is not the same as classicism, as is shown by the fact that even the committed experimentalism of John Tranter has a cosmopolitan overlay in his work. Nor is it the same as being massively learned and curious. Cosmopolitanism implies a steadiness of tone, an imperturbability. American equivalents (Frederick Feirstein?) would be hard to find. Sant was born in England and individual poems of his are reminiscent of the work od Andrew Motion, Douglas Dunn, Roy Fuller, and James Fenton. Even more, Christopher Reid's blurb makes one give a 'Martian' reading to some of Sant's lines, e.g., “As if the world / is merely an object / whose diversity holidays / in learned journals.” But Britain does not quite have a poet like Sant. New Zealand (the early David Eggleton, perhaps?) and Canada (F. R. Scott?), with introspective lyricism still at the core of their poetic traditions, have very little of this cosmopolitan tradition. (That all of the aforementioned examples are white, male poets raises yet further questions.)_

A pat response to this anomaly of Australian cosmopolitanism would be that although Australia feels so far away from everything, its concerns are so global that cosmopolitanism is the result. But though Sant's concerns traverse the globe, he is firmly anchored in Tasmania. Even when it is not named (as in “Name Of The Island”), the beauty and idiosyncrasy of the Tasmanian landscape underlie the breezy and offhand copiousness of Sant's perspective. But it is a copiousness that includes not only the peaks of Mount Eliza or Mount Wellington but mundane events such as a children's football practice along with kelp harvesters, feeding rosellas, myrtle forests. Pleasure, rather than curiosity, becomes the non-Tasmanian readers' response to the poems. There is jauntiness that pulls us along instead of a kind of gazeteering photorealism, larded with bogus mysticism, which poets writing about 'remote' places so often present to their assumed metropolitan audience. Not fetishized as exotic, Tasmania in Sant's poetry becomes the point from which the rest of the world as well as the full range of mental experience can be probed. In early poems like “Myrtle Forests,” misty landscapes accumulate their own history, which can yet vanish in a gloomy instant.

Over the two decades covered in this volume, there is a definite consistency of form and style. Sant occasionally uses rhyme in his poems, and there is a hilarious sonnet sequence about Giuseppe Belli, the nineteenth century 'poet and Vatican censor' who is played off against the libertinism of twentieth-century Rome. In “Shower Medley,” what could be Sant's credo as a poet is slotted offhandedly into a closing quatrain: “for what's in dams isn't a spot / or flow when it's habitual / Give me extremes of cold or hot / mixed in a mega-ritual.” But the vast majority of Sant's poems are unrhymed, though he is very conscious of form and often uses assonance and other forms of unobtrusive verbal play to stitch his poems together. His lines tend to be short; a ten-syllable line is rare, and is often so casual (“The glistening river the kids notice”) that it 'seems' shorter. In the earlier work, a kind of default mode is the tercet where varying line length allows, and enacts, a flexibility of perception.

“The Behaviour of Plover” is exemplary not only in its close observation but in its reversal of assumptions, as when an intruder disrupts not the plovers' pastoral bliss but their 'refinement.' Similarly, Sant writes poems about fruit preserves and vineyards where the nature/culture dichotomy is pleasingly dissolved. But alongside poems like these, which extract the fullest meaning from one setting, are sequences--on Mount Wellington, on Australia vacationers in Indonesia, on the death of the poet's father--that cover wide ground, and leave much unresolved. Indeed, beneath the smooth textures of Sant's verse is much that is left open. Sant is intrigued by phenomena like fire, soundwaves. transmitters, and telephony which link one place to another (“every insight cross-referenced, interconnected”). These processes through their tremors (hence the book's title) spread currents of feeling or thought rapidly. But they also have the potential to annihilate difference. This seismic responsiveness enables Sant to see beyond what is immediately visible, without going explicitly into any realm of transcendence: the Arctic is seen behind Oslo, the Antarctic behind Tasmania: “South of here there's the sea, freezing /uninhabited islands to home in on.” Fossils are beneath Tasmanian verdancy; caves remain beneath the blue Mediterranean.

Some of Sant's best work is done in his narrative poems. In these, an intriguing motif recurs, that of a woman suddenly emancipated from the former conditions set down by a male partner and mulling her own new options. In “Old Woman in Apple Country” a woman surveys the apple trees that her now-dead and occasionally abusive husband had planted, feeling his presence in every apple that falls yet knowing that the cars rushing by on the road outside are part of a new world that has forgotten him. “Wife Of A Shooter” is a dramatic monologue spoken by a woman whose husband is out shooting. He ignores her as a person, yet if she were a bird she would be his easiest target: “Now flight primes me: / He'd notice first, on a bird, its ring.” In “Westbrooke Banks” Mrs. Irena Pembroke has taken the house once owned by her unloving husband, but belonging ultimately to her own ancestors, and turned it into an inn. She now runs the place, but depends on paying guests, of whom she “suspects the dark.” This is the last line of the poem, and injects a note of instability into what had seemed a static tableau. Sant is fond of using this device to air out his poems, as in the last poem in the book, “Nike at the megaliths,” where musings on ancient structures are interrupted by “a silent jet / splits the sky overhand, like a zip.”

Sant's accomplished, cosmopolitan style gains from repeated exposure. “Pleasure" has been a word much trivialized of late when talking about poetry, but Sant's poems genuinely provide that all-too-rare commodity. Without strain or overeagerness, they delight the reader at the same time as they shake up many of our expectations, including expectations they have initially generated. Tremors should make readers fully aware of Sant's achivement.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

NEW! Review of Cecil Helman

The Other Half of the Dream by Cecil Helman. Quale Press.

Reviewed by Megan R. Summers

Have you ever woken up from a dream, unable to describe the miraculous events that have just transpired in your mind? They are merely images now quickly fading. You don't have the adequate words, the tools of language or description, the proper means to describe the indescribable. Yet Cecil Helman has accomplished just this in his collection of twenty-one prose poems, The Other Half of the Dream. He creates a beautiful blend of the surreal and the mundane, the fantastic and the quotidian. His poems are rooted in commonality, portraying familiar settings and images, but he quickly brings us into the world of his dreams where anything is possible. His is a world of exaggeration, distortion, and creativity.

In his opening poem “Half a cup of coffee,” we are sitting in a café, observing a vicious catfight between two women who are “ripping out each other's hair by the handful.” Two cellists wrestle close to our table. It is a poem of duality and of perspective. Is our imaginary cup half-empty or half-full? It is up to us to decide, and it is also our choice whether to enter this whimsical world or merely to observe from afar.

“That girl on the aeroplane” panders to our innate curiosity as the speaker begins to imagine about the girl sitting next to him on the plane. Is she an exotic beauty with a pet armadillo? Does she dream in “ancient Greek?” Amidst the banality of air travel, it is nice to slip into a world with these scenarios as possibilities.

An ancient map comes to life in “An antique map” and is personified by phrases such as “low, umbilical plains” and “intimate marshes.” We are witness to a living, evolving map of a world. It contains with it memory of travel and journey of the mind and is otherworldly with its “Volcanoes with fires that never melted, ice that never burnt.”

“Sitting alone at her table” is an amorphous beauty, a series of lives revolving around one name--Montanini. One woman embodies “succulent lips like a ripe Spanish tomato,” the history of a husband who was impaled by a clarinet, a tragically elegant criminal, a weeping widow hunted by the paparazzi. It is the dream of a familiar face and all the possibilities it entertains.

“The last waltz of Montanini” is a spectacular and frightening poem where a majestic ship disappears into the depths of the ocean. The imagery is cryptic yet surprisingly beautiful. The ship sinks to its watery grave, while the narrator realizes to his dismay that the “life-belts were made only of painted flour, and the life boats of papier-mâché.” As the ship sinks, it is becoming one with the water and its creatures. The narrator witnesses “Empty eye-sockets already filled with a colony of mussels and sea urchins as they turned towards me.” It is a nightmare realized; yet it is intriguing and picturesque like nightmares often are.

In “Less is more” a guru sits among his offerings, an enlightened presence. He is surrounded by the complications of life--wedding rings, paperwork, and other clutter. He is also surrounded by unique items--glass eyeballs, “anthologies of the dreams of dead orphans, bound in vellum.” He is at the center of awareness, and the narrator slowly surrenders to his simple wisdom.

The world is melting from an overwhelming, sweltering heat in “The ice maiden.” Poets are withering away, and their work is disappearing before their eyes. It is so hot that mirrors melt: “rivulets of their molten silver ran down the walls.” The poets' work is rendered meaningless as words burst into flames: “Love, hate, heart, spice, and even dream, were the first to ignite.” In the end, the narrator and his fellow poets are left with a pure nothingness.

In “Into the underworld,” the final poem of the collection, the author portrays the “fluorescent underworld” that is the subway. It is a mechanical, sterile yet unpredictable world. Passengers have “Eyes like empty windows, without any reflection.” Once again, the poem has a distinctly dreamlike quality.

Cecil Helman's poetry is an overindulgence of the senses. He carefully creates a picture full of intricate detail and well-crafted verse. Although some poems in the collection border on tedious and dull, such as “Aubergine” and “Again and Again,” he takes us into the depths of our subconscious, and his images resonate in our minds. Helman has mastered the task of creating dreams that are familiar yet unique, enchanting yet terrifying.

NEW! Review of John Brehm

Sea of Faith by John Brehm. University of Wisconsin Press, $14.95.

Reviewed by Amelia Heying

“Know thyself,” John Brehm says in “The Inner Life.” Sea of Faith explores what “thyself” is, and invites the reader to do the same, through a series of stories and sketches from a narrator very much in tune with Brehm's own experiences. Highly autobiographical, Sea of Faith comes from a well-published author born and raised in Nebraska and now living in Brooklyn. Both places clearly provide source material for poems such as “The Fence” and “Sound Check, Lower Manhattan,” but the interspersed among their country cousins, and other times the narrator goes deeper than the surface environment of a memory to the thoughts and emotions of it, never distinguishing mountains from skyscrapers (or needing to). The overall impression is that the reader is reading memories loosely suggested by the names of the three sections of Sea of Faith: “Wishful Thinking,” “Love Stories,” and “Falling and Rising.”

These personal conversations to which the reader is privy, however, are not necessarily the traditional explication of events or exploration into present effects of the past, or even the meaning of self. I think Brehm is closest to putting words to his broader purpose in the closing lines of “The Inner Life”:
“Know thyself.” Sure, of course,
you must. But afterwards,
the project is to make yourself
a stranger to yourself once more.

Seeking to familiarize the reader and himself with his thoughts, the narrator takes an informal, conversational tone prone to both frankness and humor. This is not to say that the book is lighthearted and fancy-free; to the contrary, there is a distinct “strangering yourself away” that runs through the poems, both in the occasionally disquieting stories or discussions of death/violence and in what I came to think of as the 'twist' at the end of most of the pieces. Though the tone can never be quite described as bitter, each poem became a version of this self-discovering/strangering cycle “where a man / can ask his one question forever / and never hear an answer.”

“[S]elf-conscious irony” is what Brehm does well. He lets his mind carry to an idea or event from his past, and he picks at the “gloss” of it, finding the unsettling, emotional, or contradictive element and forming the poem in such a way as to maximize its impact. Several poems focus on form as the main complement to effect-maximization, as in “Race,” where the lack of punctuation not only causes the reader to feel hurried and winded (as is done fairly often), but also leads to the possibility of words creating many different phrases and meanings on their own, the phrases alternately identifying with the clauses before and after them:
I can hardly think or stand up straight or give myself over to
the authorities of my heart my knees ache and everywhere
people are killing each other or themselves a favorite thing
for the mentally disturbed here in New York City to do
is push overeager morning subway watchers . . .

Other poems use a biting last line to direct the reader's attention to the important aspect of a metaphor, as in “My Emotions are Like Fish,” in which the predominant metaphor is that the narrator's emotions are like various fish. The important part about these fish is not only their physical attributes and behavioral eccentricities, but that sometimes they swim at the top of the water and
find themselves suddenly

exalted, lifted and flying
through the air, wind-filled,
sunlight-sharpened sky

expanding around them, high
above their proper element--
birdclaws sunk into their backs.

Intellectually, one knows that the only way a normal fish will be suddenly flying is if they're lifted up somehow, but the blunt phrasing of “birdclaws sunk into their backs” sharpens the idea of emotion under the malevolent control of an outsider, not at the behest of the narrator. Brehm's strategic writing and format choices effectively convey the painful demands of life outside the sea--“Sea of Faith” or otherwise.

The title poem combines most of the strongest elements from the book as a whole, though not necessarily better than in other pieces. A truly prodigal piece, “Sea of Faith” is “taught in literature, writing, and philosophy courses” (according to promotional materials) and can be found in several anthologies. The story about a frustrated high school English teacher is funny, but takes the honest and somewhat surprising turn of realizing that he envies the innocence of youth and ignorance, marveling at the ability to exist in a real Sea of Faith and
                 emerge again
able to believe in everything, faithful
and unafraid to ask even the simplest of questions,
happy to have them simply answered.

From the rest of Sea of Faith, as in the title poem itself, the narrator seems to know he has “been betrayed,” first by himself and then by something else, perhaps the trickery of the modern world which has led him to believe that figurative language talks about “things that don't exist”--and that anyone who believes otherwise deserves to drown in a “Sea of Ignorance.”

Saturday, March 05, 2005

NEW! Review of Joanne Merriam

The Glaze From Breaking by Joanne Merriam. Stride, £7.50

Reviewed by Alicia Higginbotham

Joanne Merriam's first collection of poems exploits the theme of absence defining space. She titles the collection The Glaze From Breaking and compliments this title with a cover picture of shoes being fired in a kiln. Just as shoes are bronzed to remind us of what used to fill them, Merriam's poetry is her reminder of someone once present. To emphasize absence, Merriam uses a lot of empty space in the book. The pages are stark white; most of her poems only cover one third of the page, with many being only one or two lines.

The Glaze From Breaking is divided into three parts. In the first section, “explosion of wings,” Merriam uses bird flight as imagery to emphasize absence in her life. Aside from a few trite uses of butterflies (“somewhere a caterpillar becomes a butterfly”), these snapshots of an old relationship are touched with a special flightiness that lends to Merriam's sense of loss. This flightiness is a bit overbearing by the end of the section, though, and after floating through her thoughts, I am slightly airsick and longing for ground.

The second section is the most sparsely written, containing primarily three- and four-line poems. Merriam structures the narratives around the months of the year, as the title “calendar of dreams” suggests. Here she claims we are all in darkness in January, drowning in August, and sleeping through December. The flightiness of her first pages is left behind, but even on the ground, wind and fog remain prevalent forces:
October: “tamaracks bow in the wind, in formal wear.”
November: “realize the reason so many trees have branches only on one side of the trunk is the forceful winds of the moon. mute fog.”
December: “snow blows through the window, which won't close.”

She documents the wind's dominance in nature, concluding with her own loss to its will.

The final section, “feathers into cloth,” crosses from poetry into prose. Each piece is an explication of a moment in Merriam's past. Her memories go back to childhood and family rather than past relationships. This regression is the final landing in her descent from flight, but rather than being grounded, the poet is overwhelmed. She views things too closely, using words like “atoms” and “electrons,” and describes her vision like a Seurat painting. She is looking so closely at things now that they are pixelated, and the book ends “I can't say what I found.”

Merriam's entire collection uses silence to give her work an eerie feel of helplessness. Silence is a kidnapper of communication, and Merriam suffocates us in the inability to express, as though “[m]outh sealed in nectar, silence lies dormant on my tongue.” The second of “Eight Ways To Think About Happiness” is as “[a] silence that could swallow our whole lives.” In “February,” “surely someone will say what we keep quiet.” In “July,” Merriam dreams that she “awoke to find my sheets covered with writing, unable to speak, and then I woke.” She can communicate in her dreams by writing, but still then there is no sound. In “December,” “the mic stays on despite our silences.” Merriam remembers her relationship as a suffocating interaction under the weight of no communication.

Merriam emerges in the third section with noise, almost like a drowning victim gasping for breath. The first stanza of the first poem in this section (“With Every Step”) contains actual quoted dialogue. In this same poem, Merriam writes “Sometime in 1974 I say my first word. I babble so much anyway that nobody notices.” Then in the next poem, “Every Day 600 Miles Further From Home,” she relates “[t]he water despairing of the weight of itself falls into the lake, making a sound like the crowd at a stadium.”

As she revels in the comforts of home, we see that Merriam hasn't always suffered the intense feeling of silent repression, and in “Personal,” when she once again reminisces about her relationship, we get a clear juxtaposition of herself and the ex-love. Merriam finally makes a judgment, instead of simply recalling a memory. She calls her lover “You: the language of trains, the shuddering against the track and the endless wailing warning of approach” whereas she is “Me: the wailing of the train going on for so long it acquires the quality of silence.” We understand she felt an overwhelming desire to communicate, and her lover invalidated her need.

Merriam's obsessions include more than wings and silence, though. She witnessed a hurricane in Nova Scotia, and her awe of rain, wind, and destruction becomes evident: “Remember eyes. Yours. His. The hurricane's. The iris closes, and the train is littered with people.” Another running theme is her connection of anything to glass. People break like glass, broken bits of glass litter the mind, and rose petals shatter like glass shards. Merriam interweaves all of these images beautifully, but repetitively. Through the three sections of her book, several poems are mirrors of themselves. Two poems document flashes of past events, one from “explosion of wings” and one from “feathers into cloth,” both using the same “back in this year” introduction to each line. In two other poems from the same two sections, an exact line is almost duplicated: In “Tighten to Bruise” (part 5) “a tactile memory real as salt, as soap, as ashes,” then in “Here” (part 2), Merriam writes of “soap to touch, salt to taste, / ashes to call you home.”

The paragraphs of “feathers into cloth” restate what was more poetically and succinctly said in the previous pages. Her images are sharp and vivid, so that when they recur, you will notice. Altogether, the book provides a journey through relationship recovery, though for Merriam, the lesson is less is more.

NEW! Review of Curtis Bauer

Fence Line by Curtis Bauer. BkMk Press, $13.95.

Reviewed by Heather Toohill

Just looking at the cover of Curtis Bauer's first book, Fence Line, gives the reader an immediate feel of what this book is all about. Bauer's work is consumed by boundaries and borders. He uses “fence” imagery in an obvious way when speaking of his childhood and his return as an adult to Iowa and to the farming culture, and more subtly throughout the book when speaking of geographical borders. He also expands the image to describe the “fences” we may use to shield ourselves from others and the barriers between generations and cultures.

One of the main topics of Bauer's poems is growing up in the Midwest. His unique stories and images make these poems both personal to Bauer and accessible to the reader. He focuses on relationships with his male family members and dedicates the first poem of the book, “A Fence Line Running Through It,” to describing the way he was taught to work around the family farm.

Bauer also includes many poems about love in Fence Line. In “A Splinter Becoming a Burning Plank,” he captures the innocence and anxiety of a first kiss: “like the night twenty years before / when you sat in a ditch with a girl / and two other boys and waited your turn / for a kiss.” He is also masterful at writing about more mature love without making it clichéd or unrealistic: “I'd look north toward Minnesota / wishing I could see the girl I thought I loved / to tell her how the stars looked further south.” In “I'll Say It This Way,” Bauer lists all the things his lover is, and while this strategy is not unusual, the objects--a new pair of shoes, an obituary, radio static--are.

In his poems, Bauer can connect strangers in a way so natural that it seems almost inevitable. In “The Cats of Fuchosa,” he starts in a grocery store, focusing on the owner, and then moves outside to a woman, then the man beside her, and so on until the reader has been connected with every character in the scene. His ability to move a reader into all these places and people without losing them, as well as his ability to do so without sacrificing the momentum or pace of the poem, is impressive. The motion from place to place and person to person seems effortless. He's also masterful at twisting back in a poem and re-examining each situation as he makes new discoveries. Bauer's poems can take on a “walking tour” feel. In many of his poems he moves the reader from street to street, describing everything. This fresh story-telling style gives the audience a vivid picture of where they are in Bauer's world.

Bauer also focuses on his adult return to his hometown. After spending time in other countries, Iowa seems both suffocating and comforting to Bauer, as in “Imaginary Homecoming”:
If you stand here you can see the barn.
You can see it from every point on these two hundred acres,
but this spot is the closest.

Here's a fence post--use your imagination--
that used to be a corner post
for all the fences on this farm.

There's a lot of focus on “becoming” a certain man or woman in this book. At times he uses it to describe someone's potential or maturing: “Somewhere // in this I became the man who took / the hand of the woman you became.” And other times he asks the reader to “become” a person in a scene, “Today you are a woman beside a man / at the end of that street.” Bauer also focuses on people's identities before they have undergone some sort of change, as in “Breakfast with the Neighbors”:
a woman and a nude
man without a laugh track
falling out of love and forgetting
the words and tears that kept us
awake the night before, or
who they were
before they fell asleep

Bauer's first book is fresh and thoughtful, speaking across the fence to all audiences. Fence Line does not need to be flashy or bold; it grabs the reader's attention with its sincerity and maturity.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

From the Department of Faint Praise: Vendler on Ashbery

Follow the link above for Helen Vendler's review of Ashbery's latest in the March 7 issue of The New Republic.

Vendler seems fond of the sweeping statement that nevertheless crumbles with the lightest pressure. She's particularly culpable of this in the essays in her books. But this review has a few moments:

"Ashbery's experiments have not always succeeded." Really? Which writer's experiments have "always succeeded"? What's the point of that paragraph-opening sentence? This: "Not everyone was convinced that the dual streams of consciousness (two separate columns running parallel down the page) of 'Litany' could really be read as one, or remembered well enough to modify each other." Ah, so if "everyone" "was convinced" that "Litany" worked, then we'd be somewhere else, wouldn't we? Of course, the "not everyone" means that if a single person--Vendler, perhaps?--wasn't convinced, then it just doesn't work.

Further down: "the trouble with superficial ways of making new is that they leave out the old. Ashbery keeps the old in--through allusion, echo, and the revival of perennial topics--and therefore can 'communicate ideas' after all." So the communication of ideas requires "the old." "making new" does not equal "communicat[ing] ideas." Uh, okay.

Toward the end: "I wish that all the poems in Where Shall I Wander were understandable to me on the spot." Why? Because of her deadline at TNR? Because the Oscars were coming on?

Though I mostly agree with its first half, the review's final sentence is just weird, as if two separate thoughts were fused together from two different sentences: "'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world." How about "Right-wing zealots need to be voted out of office if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world"? Or "'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are to escape the tyranny of popular taste"? I don't like my versions either, but they at least make more sense.

Vendler does make some good (if not particularly original) points and provides some historical/contextual information and a general sense of the book. And I was struck by the humility in this paragraph:

"I may be mistaken (I have been so before) in my synopses, since Ashbery--with his resolve against statement bearing the burden of a poem--would always rather present a symbolic whole than offer a propositional argument. Still, I have offered these synopses to show that Ashbery does make sense if we can tune our mind to his wavelength--something I am not always able to do, but which is exhilarating when that precarious harmony of minds is reached. Ashbery suggests, he does not assert. His readers are left to skate along the polished surfaces of his text, seeing images, bumping into pieces of diction, flashed at by paradoxes, speeding through tone after tone, as the atmosphere of the poem darkens or brightens."  

But I also wonder how healthy it is for a critic to seek "that precarious harmony of minds" with a poet she is reviewing. That seems like an anti-intellectual approach based on a kind of sympathy for the poet/poetry that refuses detachment; in fact, it makes detachment a flaw in the critic's apparatus while implying that only poets whose wavelengths Vendler can access are worth writing about. And all of this is in the service of convincing us that "Ashbery does make sense if ..." Do we still need critics to tell us that "Ashbery does make sense" ... "if"?

At least they didn't assign the book to Adam Kirsch. Then we'd be in an altogether different department.