Saturday, June 22, 2019

A World-Class Poetry Journal in Marin: Nostos

As the new poet laureate of Marin County California, my project is "Poetry as Connection." I won't elaborate on all that might entail over the coming two years, but one thing I'm doing is making as many personal connections as I can with poets, as well as people and organizations in Marin that read and support poetry.

A few weeks ago I met with Lawrence Tjernell, editor of Nostos, a relatively new literary journal published in Marin. This post is a brief summary of what I learned from Tjernell about Nostos, and a review of its latest issue: Volume II, Number 2 (2018).

Those of you who know your literary history will remember that in Greek Nostos refers to a hero, such as Odysseus, returning home by sea. The name is an apt one. Tjernell is a former professor of literature at San Jose State University, and has long dreamed of founding a literary journal that brings serious literature by local and national authors to the page. After visiting with this knowledgable teacher, and reading this 3rd issue that demonstrates his exacting editorial skills, I am impressed with what he has accomplished in a short time. And I'm convinced that the erudition evident in this issue is only the beginning of what he will accomplish over time.

Each issue of Nostos is themed. The theme of this issue is "familial"-- the relationships between and among father / son / mother / daughter. Tjernell could not have picked a more appropriate series of poems than Louise Gluck's Telemachus poems to open with. Rebecca Foust, Marin Poet Laureate Emerita, writes of them in the foreword:

The poems by Louise Gluck in this issue of Nostos are from Meadowlands, a collection that looks at The Odyssey in a new way, embodying Penelope and Odysseus in a contemporary marriage conversation resonant with the domestic minutiae bickering that can overlay fundamental and tragic conflict...Gluck show[s] that her themes of love, grief, and loss are timeless and universal.

The first seven of Gluck's eight poems are from the point of view of Telemachus, each speaking to a different facet of his experience as the son of an adulterous, absent, hero father and a courageous, albeit stoic, distant, and in-denial, mother. Telemachus' detachment, guilt, kindness, dilemma, fantasy, confession, and burden are examined in turn.

In "Telemachus' Kindness" we learn that instead of blaming his parents for his trials: "...in practical terms, hav[ing] no father; [and having a] mother / [who] lived at her loom hypothesizing / husband's erotic life," Telemachus "...gradually / realized no child on that island had / a different story...." Gluck ends the poem with these lines that resound throughout the entire series: "I can look at my parents / impartially and pity the both: I hope / always to be able to pity them."

The eighth poem, "Reunion," is in omniscient third person.  After returning home and killing Penelope's suitors Odysseus motions for Telemachus to leave. Standing before Penelope,

...he tells her
nothing of those years, choosing to speak instead
exclusively of small things, as would be
the habit of a man and woman long together:
once she sees who he is, she will know what he's done.
And as he speaks, ah,
tenderly he touches her forearm.

It is with a tender touch that Tjernell reaches out to readers of Nostos, giving them credit for their familiarity with and appreciation of the growing literary canon, without presenting material so obscure or opaque as to lose their interest--above all, quietly assuming their longstanding love of the written word. And there is much to love in the stories and poems by these authors, a complete list of which appears at the end of this review. Most of them, if not residents of northern California, have roots there.

Six poems appear by Rebecca Foust, each honoring an iconic family image. In "Mom's Canoe" the poet remembers the life of a mother and a canoe, each with poignant images that inform one another. "Remember how it glowed like honey in summer / rubbed with beeswax and turpentine / against leaks, cracks, weather and time." And then later in the poem and later in the life of mother and canoe: "I still see you rising from water to sky, / paddle held high, / river drops limning its edge." And then later still: "Parting the current, you slip / silently through the evening shadows. / You, birdsong, watering, slanting light, / following river bend, swallowed from sight."

All of Foust's poems are noteworthy. In "No Longer Medusa" the poet positions the transition from the time "I turned men to adamantine / with a glance" to when "I am alive / all night with fear for you, undone / by your sweet, milky breath, / the bobcat tufts on your ears, / your pink ribbon gums" with the birth of a daughter, "...my mirror / the chink in my armor." In "Preparation for Pirouette," "Hangfire," "Ice Skating at Night," and "fearsome & wondrous," Foust uses no less gorgeous diction and spot-on imagery to connect deeply with readers, both cognitively and emotionally.

Before reading Nostos, I knew Lisa Rappoport as a letterpress printer creating poetry broadsides under the imprint Littoral Press. Now I know her as a poet, equally capable of working in free verse as in form. Her "Coffee Cake" presents lines of rumination between recipe directions to give readers not only the ingredients of, no doubt, a family recipe, but the recipe for a family: "...powdery memories of your mother's kitchen, / entire, fragmented, smashed, a mishmash of love, regret cracked hope, nourishment bestowed / and withheld, acrid white dust. Leaven[ed] with / 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder, for levity, even / chemically induced; for ease, / whatever is light, what rises, what floats."

Her final poem of four, "Proud Flesh," is a Shakespearian sonnet depicting a daughter as "the scar of parents, not their child." Instead of a hero's journey that ends in either redemption or utter loss, Rappoport's character approaches the final couplet with "By speaking now I hope to find a way / to soften angry edges, or atone," setting up the qualified resolution: "so healed or not, the proud flesh and its ache / hold life beyond that long ago mistake."

Tjernell doesn't make a false step or a wrong turn in his journey from Gluck's account of the trials of an ancient Greek family through the voice of Telemachus to the trials of a modern California family in the aftermath of a divorce precipitated by an affair, complete with custody problems, power plays, the burning down of the house where they used to all live, and the ensuing trial in "Disneyland Dad," a short story by Heather Altfeld, and the journal's final piece.

Along the way, the editor guides us seamlessly through multiple genres on an obviously predetermined route, while treading so lightly as to make us feel we are voyeurs looking in on the private lives of families different enough from ours in regards to their superficial trappings to be interesting, but similar enough in the depths of their pathologies and ecstasies, to be hauntingly familiar. The following are particularly emblematic of this process.

In Javier Zamora's "Then, It Was So," a father, age 19,  speaks of the agony of leaving his family to find a better life for them all.

To tell you I was leaving
I waited and waited
rethinking first sentences in my sleep,
I didn't sleep,
and my heart was a watermelon
split each night Outside,
3 a.m. was the same as bats
and you were our kerosene lamp.

Zamora's "Postpartum" is a lamentation by a mom, age 18, that begins:

My son's in the other room. This little
burlap sack of rice came out yellow,
some deficiency, got incubated, hasn't
stopped crying--his father wasn't there,
he was "out fishing."

And then ends with:

Maybe he hears, I wish he hears my moans
when he's on to of his whores.
Like I don't know. I am crazy, but not
estupida. If I catch him, me las va pager.
Me las va pagar, that dipshit
deep in debt over a fishing boat
he can't catch nothing in. My son
won't drink from me. I pump breasts,
rub sugar and honey on them,
why won't he drink from me?

In Troy Jollimore's "The Arrow Man" we meet Nate, stuck in a going nowhere relationship whose difficulty in meeting people or making new relationships presents itself as people confusing him with the actor who used to play a vampire on the TV show, The Undead Chronicles. Or worse, as the vampire himself.

In the second of Lorna Stevens's diptychs, Cross Purposes, two child-like renderings of a house is overlaid on itself as if in four dimensions, implying the passage of time. Centered in each are two sentences set at right angles, intersecting at the "A" shared by the middle word,"WAS." In the first image: "BEN WAS SORRY" (vertical), and "MOM WAS ANGRY" (horizontal). In the second: "BEN WAS SAD (vertical), and "MOM WAS SORRY (horizontal). Afterimages of these sentences fade into the background as echoes or reverberations.

Who doesn't remember stories from their parents about when and how they met, as in the opening lines to David Rollinson's "Watching Dance with the Dancers?"

I always knew there was dancing.
My parents danced the ballroom dances:
my handsome father with his black,
slick hair and his pencil thin black mustache,
my pretty mother with her Andrews Sisters hair
and shapely calves--they
could dress up beautifully and go out dancing to "peg o' my
Heart,"
their cocktails on a white tablecloth
at their table near the bandstand.
Somehow, I got to be there.

Who has not accused their parents or has been accused by a child of ruining their lives, so well documented by Meryl Natchez in "Theodicy" / or How Evil Enters the World. After what seems a lifetime of sleep deprivation and crying, and giving up the pleasures of being a childless adult,

...they learn how to walk,
to swim, to read, and you've paid for the orthodontist

and endured the teenage years, and paid for college and
helped out with grad school and they're launched,

with their own lives, their own ways of salting meat
and slicing it, their own partners and opinions,

here they are, flawed human beings with adult problems
for which it turns out you are the cause.

Finally, to celebrate what may be an appropriate universal response to our families--natural or otherwise--and to the words and images of these poets and writers and artists about them, here are the final lines of Karen Poppy's poem, "On Your Birthday."

Rain dampens the leaves, lacquers their mottled beauty.
I touch them as if they were slick skin
And swallow in their swollen scent.

Their veins open to the air,
Spread through their star-shaped bodies,
Glistening fire on my hands.

Such temporal brilliance.

Come winter, leaves under snow,
My teeth cold, and the air strongly mineral,
I will say your name
Against the pure, colorless sky.

Such temporal brilliance...I will say your name...

The name is Nostos. The editor is Lawrence Tjernell. The contributors are listed below.

Contributors to Vol. II, Number 2 

Louise Gluck's collection The Wild Iris won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1993. The author of twelve books of poetry, she teaches at Yale University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Born in El Salvador, Javier Zamora published his first collection of poems, Unaccompanied, in 2017 (Copper Canyon Press). He is the co-founder of "Undocupoets," an advocacy group calling on publishers to extend grants and first-book contest awards to writers with DACA status or Temporary Protected Status.

Rebecca Foust's books include Paradise Drive (2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry), reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Georgia, Harvard, and Hudson Reviews. She is Poet Laureate Emerita of Marin County, Poetry Editor for Women's Voices for Change, and an Assistant Editor and Team Leader reading fiction for Narrative Magazine.

Lisa Rapport is a letterpress printer and book artist, creating artist's books and poetry broadsides under the imprint Littoral Press, as well as a book designer and poet. Her poetry collection, Penumbra, was recently published by Longship Press.

Troy Jollimore is the author of three books of poems: Tom Thomson in Purgatory (2006), At Lake Scugog (2011), and Syllabus of Errors (2015). He teaches at CSU, Chico.

Lorna Stevens is a mixed media artist whose work has been acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, di Rosa, the New York Public Library, and Numakanai Sculpture Garden, and the SF MOMA Research Library. She teaches collage and sculpture at City College of San Francisco.

Keleigh Friedrich received an MFA in writing from Mills College in 2009, where her thesis won the Amanda Davis MFA Scholarship Award. For the last 12 years she has served as a volunteer for the Awareness Institute. She lives in Northern California.

David Rollison moved to San Francisco in the late summer of 1963 to study with Kay Boyle, John Gardner, Leonard Wolf, Jack Golbert, and others. His recent collection is Ghost Poems & Wetland Ballads, and he has published several poems in early editions of Nostos. 

James Tipton is the author of Annette Vallon, A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008), based on the true story of William Wordsworth's great love. Tipton is also a poet. Gary Snyder called Tipton's book of poetry, Sacred Places, "keen, taut, and skillful."

Grace Marie Grafton has published six collection of poetry. The most recent, Jester, was published by Hip Pocket Press. Ms. Grafton taught with CA Poets in the Schools, earning twelve CA Arts Council grants for her teaching programs.

Meryl Natchez's most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian: Poems From the Stray Dog Cafe: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev. Her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001. Meryl is a board member of Marin Poetry Center.

Sharon Pretti works as a medical social worker at Laguna Honda Hospital where she also runs a poetry group for seniors and disabled adults. Her work has appeared in Spillway, Calyx, MARGIE, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Comstock Review, The Healing Muse and other journals.

Karen Poppy has work published or forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, ArLiJo, Wallace Stevens Journal, and Blue Unicorn. She has recently compiled her first poetry collection, written her first novel, and is at work on her second novel.

Joanne Esser writes poetry and nonfiction in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A teacher of young children for over thirty years, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University and published a chapbook of poems, I Have Always Wanted Lightening (Finishing Line Press, 2012).

Heather Altfeld is a poet and essayist. Her first book of poetry, The Disappearing Theatre, won the Poets at Work Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. "Disneyland Dad" is her first short story to be published since 1997. Heather teaches at CSU, Chico.

Editor's Note: Themes of future issues include "East Wind" (The influence of Asian art and literature on Western writing), and "Loss." For more about Nostos and Longship Press, click WEBSITE.

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