Monday, December 23, 2013

Thirteen Best Poetry Books I read in 2013: El Dorado by Peter Campion

I read a lot of poetry collections in 2013.  In addition to the fifty-some-odd published books, I read two-hundred unpublished manuscripts, searching, along with the other editors of Trio House Press, for the best work that we could find to publish.  I found a lot of good poems in more books that I have time to list or write about.  But far fewer books impressed me as complete works, every poem earning its place in the manuscript, contributing to the larger work as if it were one long poem, as well as standing on its own.  I've come up with thirteen books that did it for me.  They were not all released in 2013 (some were), but that's when I got around to reading (or re-reading) them.

Here are the books.  After the list is a brief review of one of them, Peter Campion's El Dorado.  In the next twelve posts, I will review the remaining books.  Perhaps you've read some of them.  Perhaps you'd like to do your own list.  Feel free to join in on the comment section.  Note:  I've already written about some of them, and in those cases, I'll be elaborating on what I have taken (or can take) from them for my own work.  They are listed in the approximate order that I read them, beginning with a copy of the original issue of Awake which I read in January (and re-read when I purchased my copy reissued by Carnegie Mellon), and ending with El Dorado, which I just finished today.

My Thirteen Best Poetry Books Read in 2013

Awake by Dorianne Laux
Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman
Holding Company by Major Jackson
Blue Rust by Joseph Millar
Gospel Night by Michael Waters
Throat Singing by Susan Cohen
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
Inventing Constellations by Al Maginnes
No Other Paradise by Kurt Brown
The Double Truth by Chard DeNiord
Eiko & Koma by Forrest Gander
Listening Long and Late by Peter Everwine
El Dorado by Peter Campion

Readers of this blog should know that I'm a huge fan of Peter Campion.  But placing El Dorado on my top thirteen list for 2013 was far from automatic.  It earned it's way from the very first (title) poem, where I recognized Campion's voice--tight, understated, lyrical, narrative, with virtuosic metaphorical sense--as one that I trusted.  If I didn't know better, "El Dorado" might have distanced itself from me in its opening lines with the very accessibility of its diction, the cool reporting of the trauma of an accident involving a family where

safe on the shoulder . . . she leaned against me
gripping our son as the cruiser
strobed blue and red

there came the helplessness    the bare
nerve shudder giving up to air

so in those moments
"I" was this person with my name and also no one

so remembering
                           crumpled steel and
sun on the silos for miles beyond us

I can make no connection

But, true to form, Campion makes a move that shows his readers the connection between the existential angst of being "this person with my name and also no one" and the ancient story of El Dorado, of

                         how a man
clambered from caves where days he dwelt alone
and tribesmen came anointing him
with balsam gum then
sputtering gold dust
through wooden tubes all over him

He walked the talus to the lake where a raft awaited
braziers lavishing shine on the heaped gold

At the center of the lake he scattered
handfuls of gold to the water
and returning to the shore
he doused himself
so colors elusive as the coins and squiggles
on the dorsal of a trout

fell to the cratered basin    treasure
the invaders found
vanishing always to wild interior

fell as the tribesmen
bellowed through jaguar masks


and then another move back to the present:

No one along the breakdown lane in northern Iowa
dressed as a jaguar

No one dripped with gold

But that shiver of surrender
flooding my chest
                            that tremble of unclenching muscle

stranded in the miles of soybean fields
between one home we left and one we'd never seen

In the remainder of the poem, Campion muses on the reflections that shine between ancient ritual and modern life by showing "wife and son," "the houses," "the billboard above [them] . . . even [his] own skin//shin[ing]"

. . . with the promise
there was nothing more than this
train of moments

streaming through air
                                   everything gathering
light to its contours
before it disappears

With the beginning lines of this section, Campion introduces "Ancient Story" as the first of three themes I found in this work; with these last two lines he brings in "Appearance/Disappearance" as a second theme.  The third, "Inside/Outside," creeps up on its readers as subtly as the curvature of a sixty-page-long mobius strip, beginning with only the slightest hint of an inward/outward tilt in this opening poem: "crumpled steel and/sun on the silos," the "clamber[ing] from caves," the "treasure/the invaders found/vanishing always to wild interior," and "surrender/flooding my chest," as examples. This interior/exterior motif grows from the interaction between the first two themes, poem after poem, until it declares itself in "1986: Recurring Dream."

 The dream was that the wilderness snaked up
against the house.   Except the wilderness
    was inside.  Which meant inside the house
       was the outside. . . 

The delight of reading El Dorado is found in both the ingenious way these three themes dance with one another throughout the collection, and with Campion's typical gorgeous language and spot-on metaphors.  "Elegy With Television," a four-part, seven-page poem, is emblematic of this complexity within a singular vision.  Witness the following lines selected from section II which intertwine the theme of interior/exterior with the theme of the (ancient) story, introduced in section I, a story of "Auntie Wisdom" who had "In her ranch house/wedged to a wicker cabinet, her TV/[that] fluttered above me all the afternoons/my parents dropped me there.  And the stories/up on the screen. . . "

I'm reading scholarship about TV.
The writer claims it streams two ways at once.
It pours the aggregate inside the home
so people of every race and cheetahs
in the Okavango, sales on furniture
and faces of refugees (some flattened ghost
at least in digital particulate)
all overflow the limits of the place
we're watching from.  It also filters out.
The spectacles of public life now shrink
to the console.  And what gets blinkered off
turns easier for power to control.

I've drifted from the theories.  But a trace
of networks cinching us between what screens
we're allowed to see--from the side porch, June heat
still thick at evening: the street lights strung
in forced perspective could be bastions, driven
into whatever's out there as inside
(shivers branching the gut) white heat coils down. 

Long corridors.  A whiff of disinfectant.
The complex she endured the last ten years
until she swallowed the pills she stashed . . . 

And with that last line (of the quote, not of the section), Campion begins stirring in the theme of appearance/disappearance that bubbles up as a question in section III:

. . . These entrances
of others in your life, however long
they stay, and then their disappearances:
I want to ask you is this all, this press
of faces more and more eclipsed to gray
and no great pattern holding us together? . . . 

By the conclusion of section IV, all three themes are mixed together to form new images rising from ancient ones:

. . . (her fingers liver-spotted on a plastic cup
enameled with daisies)
                                     could be preserved

and even her suicide appeared her slicing
through her expected slow occlusion to this
shiver of both arrival and departure

where any other pair of eyes meets yours
in long-remembered but till now forgotten
silent, articulate, animal glimmers.

And it snapped off.  No world behind the world.
Only the forced perspective corridor.

Only the crawl of numbers on the screens.

And hours later, like a dream but clear:
solidity of strapped-in bodies.  Snoring.

Out the window near Wichita, blue lines
of streetlights ascended from the snow.

Campion's knack for introduction and amplification of themes, pacing, and poem placement are never better demonstrated than in the ultimate poem of the collection, "Dandelions."  In it, the three-way marriage of ancient story, interior vs. exterior, and presence vs. disappearance is consummated.  The "small shock/of emptiness" that was born in the opening poem, that grew throughout the collection, comes to full maturity in

. . . this pure luxuriance to feel
the pull of dirt
                       again: sense mist uncurling
          to reveal
no architecture hidden behind the world

except the stories that we make unfolding:
as if our sole real power
                                       were the power
                    of children holding
this flower that is a weed that is a flower.

In El Dorado, Peter Campion, the poet outside the poems he creates, makes connections that his "I" inside its poems cannot.  These connections are as old as humanity, and as young as a child begging his father to "stay no stay/no Daddy just a minute."  The question Campion puts to us all is "Will we fully reside in the only minute we have?"  El Dorado can transform our minds and our hearts to be capable of exactly that.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Alley Cat Books Hosts Four Poetry Lions

Last night, Alley Cat Books in the San Francisco Mission District (, was host to "The Shadows Have Their Say: A Night of Poetry featuring Forrest Gander, Alejandro Murguia, Chard deNiord, and Peter Everwine."  Based on the number of poetry readers compared with those of other genres, some would say that poetry itself lives in the shadows of the literary world. But last night these four poetry lions roared in the full daylight of not only contemporary American Poetry, but in the blazing heat of modern World Literature, as well. Gander graciously spent most of his allotted time reading poems by other poets, such as the Spanish poet, Antonio Gamoneda, and Latin American poets from Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America which he, Gander, edited; Murguia read from his work and from the work of others in both Spanish and English, and reminded us of the relationship of poetry to the other literary and fine arts; DeNiord told the story of interviewing Ruth Stone as she lay in bed for three years before she finally rose to try on a hat for her daughter, and read from his new book of interviews with her and other major American poets, Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs; and Peter Everwine brought the lyrical wisdom typical of his work, acknowledging Po Chui as a major influence.

But the highest moments for me occurred in the reading of the poets' own work.

DeNiord read poems from his latest book, The Double Truth and from his new, yet unreleased, manuscript, Interstate, celebrating poetry's ability to make beauty out of sound and meaning out of mystery--both in the context of good story--to a degree only possible at the height of a poet's powers. Witness this passage from "The Golden Herd," a poem about the poet leaving his desk to investigate the possible reason for the disruptive frantic mooing of cows in the meadow:

. . . for something had to be wrong the way
they were lowing so loud in the distance
as if to sound the alarm of locusts or coyotes.
As if they were the golden herd of Apollo
and Odysseus's men had just arrived to slaughter them.
But there they were as usual in their huddle,
except for one who had wandered off
and was grazing by the beaver pond in a calm,
eternal manner. What could I know
of their bovine moods, that calculus that lay
embedded in the marrow of their skulls
like a problem beyond my solving, their sudden
explosive bellowing for what appeared to be no reason,
as if they needed no reason as a reason for bellowing
at nothing on this otherwise peaceful, April morning?

Before last night, I had not heard Alajandro Murguia read. It is so fitting that the new Poet Laureate of San Francsico is not only an excellent writer of lyrical, substantive poetry, but a superb reader of his work (and the work of others), as well. Murguia has deep roots in the San Francisco poetry scene through his mentors Jack Hirschman, Bob Kauffman, and others, his living in The Mission District, his teaching at San Francisco State, as well as the rhythms and content of his poems that do not fall into the ruts of rehashing the poetry of the 50's and 60's or making poetry that is in the service of any agenda other than the continuing restoration of our spiritual health and of poetry itself. His poetry is new wine in old wineskins, that will continue to ferment for the healing of our times. Unfortunately for the attendees of this reading, his newest book, Stray Poems was not yet available for the reading, and so I don't have a poem that he read to share with readers. However, it will be available soon through City Lights Bookstore. In addition, today, December 14, his personal collection of the postcards of Guillermo Kahlo can be viewed at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Library, Jewett Gallery, Lower Level. At 2:00 p.m. in the Koret Auditorium, there will be the Virgin of Guadalupe Celebration: Featuring Aztec Dancers, and you may meet Alajandro Murguia, and experience his vitality first hand.

I have been a fan of Forrest Gander for some time, having read Torn Awake several years ago. Many times I have been disappointed upon hearing a poet read, whose work I've enjoyed. This was not the case with Gander. His graciousness, his intellect, his vital voice, infused all of the text he read with an  insistent gravitas that demanded not only my mental attention, but the investment of my entire self into the language and thought of the poems, as well as into some kind of action as a result of hearing them. His reading brought to mind a passage of scripture from my childhood: "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only." By example, Gander seemed to be saying "Be ye doers of poetry, not just hearers only."  The highlight of the all too short fifteen minutes that Gander took was the reading of his poem "Entanglement" from his new chapbook, Eiko & Koma. I learned that Eiko and Koma Otake are a dance duo that perform a unique "theatre of stillness"--performances lasting as long as eight hours that take viewers "out of time and out of their own bodies," as Gander puts it. "Entanglement" is a gorgeous poem that enacts one of the performances with the gesture of reversing the lines midway through and repeating them to the end, providing a new context for each line, each word, each stanza. I will not repeat the entire poem here, but only share the first and last stanzas as true sample of Gander's moving and virtuosic work:


And begin to emerge.  From their
long float.  From cellars of sleep.
Here on the earth's wet
set.  Hair and leaves mixed
with leaves and hair.  Vision sheared
to make room for vision.
Two figures and
the caesura of
longing.  Bound by what is
unwritten.  Unwakened . . . 

. . . Their eyes done in, bound
by.  What is unwritten?  Two figures.
And the caesura of longing.
Vision shears away
to make room for vision.  Leaves
and hair mixed with hair
and leaves.  Here
on the earth's wet set.  From
cellars of sleep, from their
long float.  And begin
to emerge.

I met Peter Everwine in 2007 at a reading in New Hampshire.  I found him to be one of the kindest people I've ever met.  Without a trace of self-promotion or self-importance, this established poet--with way too little recognition by the greater poetry community--took the time to listen to my plans for my MFA Thesis and make suggestions.  (One was that I pick up the phone and call Philip Levine to ask him about Larry Levis--which I was hesitant to do, but finally did, and found Levine to be as generous with his time as Everwine.)  Most poets in their 8th decade (if they even make it that far), are not even writing, or have their best work behind them.  Peter Everwine's mature poetry is better than ever, and that we get to drink it from a transparent, crystal character and full, life-rounded voice is nothing less than divine.  I close with the ultimate poem from his latest collection Listening Long and Late (2013):

Aubade In Autumn

This morning, from under the floor boards
of the room in which I write,
Lawrence the handyman is singing the blues
in a soft falsetto as he works, the words
unclear, though surely one of them is 'love,'
lugging its shadow of sadness into song.
I don't want to think about sadness;
there's never a lack of it.
I want to sit quietly for a while
and listen to my father making
a joyful sound unto his mirror
as he shaves--slap of razor
against the strop, the familiar rasp of his voice
singing his favorite hymn, but faint now,
coming from so far back in time:
"Oh, come to the church in the wildwood . . . "
my father, who had no faith, but loved
how the long, ascending syllable of 'wild'
echoed from the walls in celebration
as the morning opened around him . . . 
as now it opens around me, the light shifting
in the leaf-fall of the pear tree and across
the bedraggled backyard roses
that I have been careless of
but brighten the air, nevertheless.
Who am I, if not one who listens
for words to stir from the silences they keep?
Love is the ground note; we cannot do
without it or the sorrow of its changes.
"Come to the wildwood, love,
Oh, to the wiiild wood" as the morning deepens,
and from a branch in the cedar tree a small bird
quickens his song into the blue reaches of heaven--
"hey sweetie sweetie hey."

Kudos to Marguerite Munoz, event organizer, and Alley Cat Books for bringing together these capacious voices for one of the best poetry readings I've been to in San Francisco in several years.

And, of course, to these four lions, roaring in the light!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

And The Spell Widens Even More . . .

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop at Reed College in Portland Oregon! I had been looking for a new direction for my work, and I found it under the guidance of my workshop leader, Dorianne Laux, our fantastic class of poets, and the inspiration provided by the entire staff of Tin House--especially the example set by Matthew Dickman of being both an artist in community with all of his "brothers and sisters" and a terrific poet. In the next few weeks, I will share salient features of my experience, but for right now, let me get the ball rolling by mentioning two books you have to read, if you have not yet read them: Awake by Dorianne Laux and Mayakovsky's Revolver by Matthew Dickman.

Awake is a reissue of Dorianne's first book, originally published in 1990 (selected and blurbed by Philip Levine), and now reissued by Carnegie Mellon Press. It ranks as an essential document in the history of 20th century American poetry, and if you haven't read it you must! In his introduction, Levine writes of Laux that "she has a stunning eye for the way the world actually looks, and when it is looking good, she is there to record it:"

I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.

This passage, from "On the Back Porch," is true sample of the many joyful poems in the collection. You will want to return to Awake again and again. Thank you to Carnegie Mellon that we can.

No less lyrical, although at times more dark, are the poems of Matthew Dickman, a former student of Laux, in Mayakovsky's Revolver. Section II is a lengthy elegy to his older brother, dead at his own hand at a young age. It is, however, surrounded by the joy of living and loving, as evidenced in these lines from "Getting It Right," one of my favorites:

Your ankles make me want to party,
want to sit and beg and roll over
under a pair of riding boots with your ankles
hidden inside, sweating beneath the black-tooled leather,
they make me wish it was my birthday
so I could blow out their candles, have them hung
over my shoulders like two bags
full of money. Your ankles are two monster-truck engines
but smaller and lighter and sexier
than a saucer with warm milk licking the outside edge.
They make me want to sing, make me
want to take them home and feed them pasta,
I want to punish them for being bad
and then hold them all night and say I'm sorry, sugar, darling,
it will never happen again, not
in a million years.

Matthew Dickman's poetry does the same thing for me.

Two small examples of the power and tenderness I experienced in Portland.

And if you didn't know, you can hear Dorianne Laux and her husband, Joseph Millar, read this Saturday night, 6:30 PM, in San Francisco at The Emerald Tablet, 30 Fresno St.

I'll definitely be there to "widen the spell . . . "

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Throat Singing by Susan Cohen

What a delight to attend a terrific reading by a local (bay area) poet that I know, who has just published her first book. Throat Singing surpasses its blurb by Chana Bloch, who claims that "The music of Susan Cohen's poems is close to that of Coleman Hawkins, the jazz saxophonist who could make honey sting / and gravel sing." For Cohen does not merely write (and convincingly read) narrative poems that sing, but has established herself as a poet of substance with this perfect-pitch work that delivers just the right amounts of redemption and longing--temporarily sating our appetite for connection with our deepest selves, but moving outward toward a horizon that promises ever-increasing challenges to our identity.

Cohen immediately sets the tone with the title poem, "Throat Singing:"

Throat Singing

he can make his bass
notes rumble with the pulse
of hoofbeats on the Steppes

while his larynx also squeezes
the freakish whistle of thin air
heard in the highest passes

and his words ride hard rasping
where have you gone my ponies
where have you gone my country

as he scrapes his hopes together
across the chords
tensed in his throat

but so much straining
as he oscillates the octave
between what he has and what he wants

drives his blood until the veins
leather to reins around his neck
and throat singers die young

with the effort of singing
so many notes at once so much
longing wears out their hearts

Navigating through a life stalked by death--by falling tree limbs in "Under Trees," by the momentum of history in "That Year I Read Anne Frank's Diary," by cancer in "At The Radiation Clinic," by dementia in "My Mother's Future, Named,"--the poet continues singing poems that both ruminate and paint images about our entropic existence, poems that take care, like we are warned, "not to startle a grizzly--but if you do-- / to wave your arms above your head/and calmly speak, so that the bear / does not mistake you for a caribou, / which wanders mutely, and with no imagination."

Cohen's poems are replete with imagination; see "The Woman Who Feels No Fear" about a woman that doctors reported had a brain anomaly that left her without the capacity to feel fear, "Playful Abstract Painter, 79" about a painter who "Once . . . licked a Vermeer at the Frick / to taste the colors," "Rewriting War and Peace" which summarizes the entire novel in eighteen two-word lines, after the epigraph "'Drops Dripped' is the shortest sentence in War and Peace."

And these poems never stop moving--not merely blindly away from emptiness like the dog swimming in circles to keep from drowning in "Iraq War Blues," but toward a real, if only temporal, happiness. Like the happiness that comes from reading them.

The Most You Can Hope For

"Wanting and dissatisfaction
are the main ingredients
of happiness - Ruth Stone, 'Wanting'"

Mix salt of tears, salt of the sea-womb, salt
of blood lively with your pulse.

For fidelity, snip rosemary. Crush
till pungent with pining. Add sweet basil,

because the Mediterranean is only semi-arid,
which may be the most you can hope for.

Pick a lemon that's brilliant, avoid the palest
yellow of caution or cowardice. Sugar it--

you're after the sweet and sour taste
of contradiction on your tongue.

You're making hope, which won't exist
without dissatisfaction. You're making life,

which fattens on hope. Avoid blandness,
avoid bitterness. When you're making happiness:

Don't ever stop to test for doneness.

Susan--never stop writing poems like these in your debut book, and I'll never stop reading them!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Inventing Constellations: Al Maginnes

I first heard the expression "to subvert the reader's expectations" as a goal of writing poetry from Suzanne Buffam in a craft class on collage and collaboration at Columbia College Chicago. It seemed then, and still does, a delightful way of expressing the element of surprise accomplished by many better poets, usually in a turn of an image or thought within the poem (or the manuscript), a path that one might not have been able to predict but, once followed, could not be imagined any other way and remain poetry. ("Do I contract myself?" says Whitman, "very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.")

Al Maginnes's latest collection, Inventing Constellations, is a book that entered my awareness from a very favorable review by Paul Scott August, so my expectations were high even before I had read the opening poem, "The Definitions." But I was totally unprepared for both the beauty and utility of the discreet blocks of text introducing seminal concepts and images, soon to be scattered like legos throughout the rooms of a family's home that could be your own--legos shaped not too dissimilar to the ones you can still purchase at any store, but different enough that the structures built with them could not be duplicated with the standard set.

Here are the first eight (out of seventeen) "verses" of "The Definitions:"

"This thing is for life," says the movie crime boss to the one just
inducted into "the family" in a spooky ritual involving blood and
candles. The only light burning in this room is the TV, the sound
turned low to let my family sleep. "For life," echoes the just made


The root of "family" is the Latin familia, which meant servants to a


My daughter brings home drawings of our family, the three of us
with arms protruding from our heads, eyes too large to blink.

Sometimes she colors her face darker because "I'm brown and
you're pink."


A blog I stumble across calls adoptive parents thieves. I type nine
paragraphs in reply, delete them all.


A family is music: Kingston Trio songs sung off-key, a father's
favorite radio station, the soundtrack to South Pacific. It's "turn that

down" and "you call that music?" It is a mother and father in the kitchen
dancing to a song they forgot they loved.


In 1788 "family man" was slang for a thief.


A family is a flock of butterflies whispering over an afternoon
lawn, a herd of water buffalo knee-deep in river mud, a pride of
lions chewing soft meat.


Her first day with us, she wept so endlessly I would have called
back all the lawyers, the foster mother, erased the small mountain
of forms, wiped our faces from our passports to let her sleep quiet
in the place she knew. Now she asks the story of that day, prompts
us to insert details left out from the last telling until the story is
exactly as she wants to hear it.


With a title like Inventing Constellations, readers are forewarned that these poems will insert details left out from [some] telling, but I was not prepared for how powerful the poems would be with just a slight tweak to the details normally conveyed about our shared reality, a process that I compare to Maginnes's description of multiple universes in "The Consolation of Endless Universes:"

In one theory, there are universes
lined on either side of this one,
each such a slight variation
of its neighbor you have to squint
to see the difference, like a street
where my brother lived, its line
of white houses so alike I found
his house only be seeing his car.

But if you wander too many
universes beyond what you know,
you arrive somewhere you don't recognize
such as the universe where
your mother and father do not meet,
worlds of black skies and gods
more terribly present or absent than any
who claim dominion here.

Another theory says each decision
gives birth to a reality in which
a different decision was made,
a rainbow of universes erupting
from each gesture. Some of these
are too easy to imagine
like the one in which my best friend
from junior high is reading

about my arrests and the time
I will have to serve. I woke
a few mornings ago, his name
a smoke-wisp hanging in
the empty corridor of some dream.
A few minutes of clicking
through the internet showed me
the picture taken the last time

he went to prison. A list
of arrests and sentences told me
enough to fill in the years since
he and I shoplifted cigarettes.
The consolation of endless universes
is that somewhere he is living
a life that makes him as happy
as my life makes me, even while

I wonder again how I escaped,
how I am the one allowed to walk free
inside this, the one universe
where I can change anything.

By contrast, "Inventing Constellations" contains those poems that shine with light so horrific that we are barely able to bear them, bringing to mind Rilke's definition of beauty as being "the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear," or Maginnes's own lines (from "Blindfold"): ". . . In this world,/beauty and terror coax the same tears,/the voice of fear has no words,/[where] the victim's face is a trophy."

Maybe the blindfold is not meant
as kindness for the condemned
like the choice of a final meal
or the last cigarette, a pleasure
meant to block awareness
of what's coming. Instead it keeps
the living from seeing how
the eyes throttle with light
or glaze at the moment of impact
before the body empties into death.
In this age of performance, even an autopsy,
final audition of the body's efficiency,
is theater. A TV doctor explains
how the flanges of the famous chest
are opened like curtains, the routines
of the reliable duo, systole and diastole,
the shuttle cocking of artery and vein,
the blood's drifting clouds of toxins
all are measured and named,
no chance for curtain call
or final bow. In the film
I found on the internet and watched
because I started and could not stop
the killers, not the condemned, wore masks.
He knelt before them as they read
their proclamations in a language
he was captive long enough to know
in fragments. His face a blank
of pure misery, glossed with sweat,
his hair twisted and on end,
some composure kept him still.
Perhaps he'd seen enough movies,
was American enough to believe
in last-second rescues, the hero
who kicks in the door, guns blazing.
Maybe he believed this
routine humiliation between
tea and afternoon prayers,
a ritual meant to be so frightening
that when water was thrown on him
or he was kicked, their laughter
let him breathe once more.
But the reading ended and one
of the masked men produced a long knife.
What followed was neither swift
nor spectacular. Bodies wrestled
across the floor. Deep inside the scrum
started noise too high-pitched to be a scream,
noise I'd never heard a human make.
When the head was displayed,
it was no longer human, but something
molded from plastic and left too long
in the back seat of a car on a hot day.
If you watch this once, you will not
watch it again. In this world,
beauty and terror coax the same tears,
the voice of fear has no words,
the victim's face is a trophy.
But morning still happens.
I get up, make coffee, walk the dog, things
I can do with my eyes closed.
Not until I read the paper or listen
to the news does the world take shape.
Some refuse the blindfold,
but most are grateful for darkness
granted by a cloth so ordinary
it might have dried last night's dishes,
then wiped the empty table free
of crumbs and ashes.

Buried in the deep-sky images of Maginnes's poems are the same points of light found in other poets' work: family, parenthood, work, survival, the cosmos, music, faith, jazz, birds, bridges, beauty, fear . . .

Like some ancient seer, however, Maginnes connects the dots as if for the first time, creating a mythos for the 21st century that embraces all histories, knowing that none of them will endure:

. . . if I've learned anything in this life, it's how easily
memory misfires, how what we thought safe forever

crumbles in slow flame, curls into husk of ash.
There is too much to remember. And each day enacts

its own erasures, a name wiped clean, an address gone
without our knowledge from the unlocked vault.

But if Maginnes can't find in his vision a place for permanence, he makes up for it with a lyrical intensity that is nothing less than astonishing:

I don't want to lose the face of my daughter confronting
her first mango at one, perched on a merry-go-round

at two. In the clouds might be as good a place as any
for things we love and can no longer touch,

but I want my hands here, on the things I love
a little while longer. Tonight, the moon, bright

as a token, a coin ripe for the amnesia
of the slot machine, hovers in a sky wiped

clear of clouds. And from somewhere, the long drone
of a place descending, a load of bodies delivered

to earth, visible a while loner, exhaling a sky
that has already forgotten they were there.

The first problem with "Inventing Constellations" is that when you begin underlining lines worth re-reading, or starring poems to share with fellow-poets, you end up with a book completely underlined and marked, unable to adequately share its value without duplicating it in its entirely. Like the constellations themselves, even a cursory knowledge of the book requires that every poem, every visible star, be viewed in relation to every other one. The second problem, if you're a poet, is that after reading this book, there are another 32 poems looking over your shoulder every time you sit down to write. Fortunately, instead of shrinking the possibilities, like the dark energy that mysteriously propels all matter outward at an every-increasing speed, Maginnes's magic leaves us with an expanded universe of creative possibilities, showing us multiple paths to subverting expectations as we invent our own constellations of of images and thoughts.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Shape of the Ineffable: Michael Waters

I embrace all modes of poetry, but I am predisposed toward a poetry with the purpose of forwarding language itself. Whether intentional or emerging, closed or open, traditional or nonce, end-rhymed/metered or free-verse--none of those categories are primary--what is important to me is that there is some kind of structure that provides parameters, within which I can trust the poem enough to be liberated inside myself to experience, if only partly--and it's all partly--the ineffable. If that doesn't happen somewhere in the poem, then the writer should have chosen another linguistic medium--fiction or drama. But to try to achieve a transcendental experience by attempting to remove structure from language (even if that were possible), just leaves me cold.

Therefore, it is not surprising that I have some of my most emotional moments reading Michael Waters. His four poems in the the September/October (2012) issue of American Poetry Review are spot-on in creating a liturgy that both celebrates and mourns the arc from childhood to fatherhood, from wild youth to accomplished maturity, from what is codified in history's personal memory, marching through storms of entropy toward a horizon, albeit shrinking with each tic of the second hand, that always lies beyond.

In three of the four poems in this quartet, Waters uses his typical syllabic prosody (pentameter) to tic off units of collapsing time in the life of a father ("Dominoes"), a son ("Tic Tac Toe"), and a child of the sixties reflecting upon love's rejections and self-acceptance ("Sixties Sonnet"). The third in the series, "Old School," perfectly matches adolescent angst and unpredictability with lines that consistently perform "rolling stops" through their ten syllable stop signs like the driver in the poem "wrestl[ing] the Camaro with one fist & popp[ing] / Handfuls of pills . . ."

In "Dominoes," Waters writes in staggered lines that enact the swerve and sway of falling dominoes: "We set them up to flip them down, made them / Fall with a flapping sound--whirr of an ace / Slapped by circling spokes as the boy biked by, / Or the wound-up skirr of the hummingird / Jazzing like fire above honeysuckle." Waters's metaphorical sense is virtuosic, both in these opening lines, as well as with its final "I knelt with my father to watch death flow."

In "Tic Tac Tow"--my personal favorite (as well as Waters's, according to a recent email from the author)--the son of "Dominoes" is now watching his own death play out in a game with his own four-year-old son in the lines "I let him win once more, my wobbly O's / Each a contracting galaxy, ready // To be rid of me. Futureless father . . . / While a fathergone future gyres his way." And then come the final two lines that touch the horrific "otherness" of our old friend, Death, in the midst of its familiarity: first a line of symbols (two of which I do not even have on my keyboard)--3 swastikas that the son's X's have resembled, and 3 crosses, followed by "XXX O."--ten in all, of course. Then the killer ultimate line: "No symbol he pencils can make me stay." Total number of lines? Thirteen.

"Sixties Sonnet" is a perfect blend of familiar form (fourteen lines of end-rhymed--or end-near-rhymed--pentameter), with Waters's signature, witty dialogue and muscular diction, as in the following lines:

"You're cute," smiled Denise, breaking up with me,
"But cute is all you'll ever be."

Denise who was so wrongwrongwrong, I miss
Our Woodstock nights, half-a-million thumb-flicked

Bics coaxed to climax by God's thwapping bass,
Hissing soppy Oms against the cloudmass.

The tweak that Waters makes on this sonnet may seem at first sight something of a gimmick--a single first line repeated as the last, "I have become handsome in my old age." Much is being communicated, however, with this gesture--not only the obvious cyclical nature of these poems, and the characters who inhabit them, but a subtle romantic note sounded at the end of both the poem and the short collection, rife with inevitable death, without hope for a life beyond. Waters is a master of craft, and he would not allow chance to dictate the placement of this line, standing alone after six couplets, the final two of which are

I forgive Sly and the Family Stone.
I slept through Santana, Dreaming future

Exes who might love me despite my rage.
I have grown lonesome in my afflictions.

In fact, speaking of final lines, the final lines of each poem taken together form an arc that does exactly what I aspire to in my writing and in my life--they provide a framework in which the ineffable can be experienced:

"I knelt with my father to watch death flow."

"No symbol he pencils can make me stay."

"Pierced, & fucked up, [he] bowed his shaven skull & wept."

"I have become handsome in my old age."

Michael, not only is your writing handsome, it's suppleness and increasing vitality within an aging frame guarantees that neither it, nor you, will ever grow old.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Addition to the Reading List: Kathleen Graber

I had not read Kathleen Graber, but I needed nothing more than the opening poem in the September/October issue of American Poetry Review to place her book, The Eternal City, on my 2013 reading list.

America (Peaches)

America, if you think I could do better by you,
I have no doubt. Though I stoop conscientiously
to pick up my dog's waste from the grass
with black biodegradable bags. And lest you suspect
some pretension, know my dog was one at the shelter
no one else would take. He is fat & lazy,
& I coud do better by him as well, though
I do not know if a long walk in the park
in 97 degree heat is a good idea. Please cue
a Presidential sound-bite to reassure me
all hearts are more resilient than I think. I confess
it would have been a moral error to have embraced him
if I did not have the means to keep him fed. But
I am writing tonight because there is something wrong
with your peaches. The ones from the supermarket
were so soft & cheap--half the cost of the ones
sold by the local farm--but the flesh near the pit
was so bitter & green. It is a fruit like the mind
we are making together: both overripe & immature.
Trust me, I still have the simple tastes you gave me:
I am delighted by the common robins & cardinals,
the way they set the trees at dusk aflame. Thank you
for Tuesday's reliable trash collection. If you are
constellated somehow a little bit inside
each of your people, I am sorry that there is more
& more of you lately I do not understand.
Sometimes I want simply to sit alone a long time
in silence. American, you must want this too.

(from American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct, 2012)

But then I read three more of her poems in the same issue of APR, along with her interview, and I was hooked.

Essential Poets & Artists

If you look at her entry in the Poetry Foundation website, you will find that Graber, "after years of teaching high school English, was inspired while leading a class field trip to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival to begin writing poems." What the article does not tell you (but you might guess if you read her work), is who makes up her blood lines--her essential poets and artists (in addition to her own students) who were catalysts to her epiphanies that fuel her poems. The interview that follows her poems in the same issue of APR does just that. Here is a sampling from her answer to the question "Can you talk about how you came to write the particular kind of poems you write?"

I learned to write a certain sort of poem by teaching composition and the personal essay. . . there were three instances over a span of about five years in which my mind became clear to itself. . .the earliest one was my first vision of a Cornell box. . . I was looking at a visual analog for the poems I wanted to write. . . The second moment came when I opened Larry Levis's collection Winter Stars randomly for the first time in a bookstore that was sadly going out of business. Standing there in an aisle, I read the line "Perhaps the ankle of a horse is holy." The third was reading Walter Benjamin. He described an idea he called "nonsensuous similitude." This is a likeness between things that is not dependent upon any sensory similarity but on another kind of kinship. This gave me a term for what Cornell and Levis were able to perceive and manipulate.

As part of a follow up to the same topic, Graber continues . . .

I think the two most important poets for me are Larry Levis and Charles Wright. . . I came to poetry through the front door, the doorway of contemporary poetry, and Levis showed me a way to put the associative mind to work and Wright gave me permission to think on the page. I think my poems are actually quite derivative of theirs in many ways. I do get some tonal and thematic distance, though, as a result of the gender difference.

Image and Thought

In her answer above, Graber provides the concepts to explain why I am taken with her work (it modulates between image and thought), and in the final sentence to her interview, provides the language to refine those concepts--"precise" and "accurate" thought, and "beautiful execution" of lasting images--in part, because of their "emotion[al]" charge.

In the following lines, image and thought dance with one another without either one leading or being led. Who does not resonate with the thought "I am writing tonight because there is something wrong," and who can forget the image of those peaches: "The ones from the supermarket/. . . so soft & cheap--half the cost of the ones/sold by the local farm . . . the flesh near the pit/so bitter & green?" But try to pull apart the idea from the image in "a fruit like the mind/we are making together: both overripe & immature" and all you get is mushy juice. That's the precision, the art, the poem.

I'm not sure how these ideas will play out in her book, but I'm very excited about reading it with them in mind. And with an open mind to be surprised by anything. That's one of the reasons' I'm adding her to my list.

The Widening Spell

The other reason is less rational--I "feel" that Graber is a part of "the family," part of "the widening spell"--not only from her poems and her interview, but because of who she likes, as well--not only Larry Levis, whose finding holiness in the ankle of a horse is emblematic of his genius of binding images to unlikely language, creating unpredictable lines and poems, but Charles Wright, whose first seven lines to "In Praise of Thomas Hardy" catch him thinking aloud on the page:

Each second the earth is struck hard
by four and a half pounds of sunlight.
Each second.
Try to imagine that.
No wonder deep shade is what the soul longs for,
And not, as we always thought, the light.
No wonder the inner life is dark.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Ground Zero:" Notes on Formulating my 2013 Reading List While Reading Sharon Doubiago

In another blogpost I wrote that reading and writing were like breathing in and breathing out--it's difficult to do one for very long without the other. One of my new year's resolutions is to read more. I devoted almost all of the additional time I gained in 2012 to writing, and not much to additional reading. So in 2013 I'm taking my own advice.

It's not that my time spent writing was not productive (I produced more work, had more of it published and given recognition in 2012 than in any year of the last ten--culminating in hearing last week that a chapbook of mine, Altar Call, will be published in February), nor that I spent no time at all reading (I probably averaged a book a week or more), but I want to make sure that I'm getting enough caloric intake for my output, and that I"m getting the highest possible quality of poetry in my diet, with enough variety that I don't miss out on any ingredients essential for maximum creativity.

The first step was to make a reading list for the year. I'm still in the process, but what I've done for the past five days is to read one poet a day (in chronological order) from Contemporary American Poetry, one chapter a day from Waldman's Vow to Poetry, and several pages a day from books on my shelf I've neglected for a while--the first of which has been Sharon Doubiago's Love on the Streets--her selected poems from each of five of her books.

My plan is to look up all of the poets I don't know or haven't read from Vow to Poetry and each of the sixty-six poets (all of whom I do know) from CAP and, based upon the sampling I make, list books that I want to read, allowing myself to add other books by free association or by bumping into other poets and writers along the journey. By the time I get through Doubiago's book, I should have quite a list compiled for the year. So far on the list:

The Poems of Stanley Kunitz 1928-1978
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke
I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
The Hunger Moon by Marge Piercy

These books are not necessarily the books I recommend that you read, but they do seem to be calling to me where I am in my reading/writing pilgrimage. Berssenbrugge, for example, is known as a "language poet," whose work resists narrative--a style I do not easily write about, or usually bring to my own work. But in listening to her read some of her poems, and in hearing her speak of dividing her time between New York and New Mexico--about which she says in answer to a question from Charles Bernstein about what she finds to do there (in NM), that she "shuts her gate, reads, sets up her work, and writes her poems"--I find a connection which I want to explore.

Marge Piercy, another poet whose work I did not know prior to this week, on the other hand, is one whose work is inexorably intertwined with story. Objects and experiences are the units of her poems, and the measure of their value is their "usefulness." She reminds us that the beauty of a vase in a museum is always tied to how much water it can hold.

This practical side to her is at once obvious when one deals with her personally. After reading her poems in CAM, I happily discovered that she is a facebook friend of mine. I sent her a brief message about her poem, "A Work of Artifice," about how a "bonsai tree/in the attractive pot/could have grown eighty feet tall/on the side of a mountain/till split by lightning./But a gardener/carefully pruned it./It is nine inches high." Near the end of the poem, she gives readers a tasty epithet. I wanted to acknowledge the obvious craft that went into the poem, which brought about the following exchange:

ME: Such a great poem for so many reasons--the form enacting the content, the tight, clipped lines, the spot-on tone, the truths that hold up: "With living creatures/one must begin very early/to dwarf their growth . . ." I'm working through Contemporary American Poetry. Today is your day, and your section is an oasis. Thanks. TL

MP: Thanks. But why not use something more recent? like from The Crooked inheritance or The hunger moon.

I know that this poem is "beautiful," she seemed to be saying, but there are many more poems of mine that are more "useful." I like that sensibility. And the fact that after over five decades of writing she is still creating excellent work makes me want to discover how she does it. But, Piercy would shrug it off and tell me that what she does is not that uncommon, that she's just doing what she's supposed to do--as in the title of one of her poems--"To Be Of Use," which opens with the following lines:

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

Me, too, Marge. Me, too.

And so, while I'm amassing my reading list for 2013 (other books are on it--actual books sent to me from fellow and fella poets--you know who you are--that I look forward to--thank you very much--and about which I will comment in due time), I'm not waiting for it to be finalized in order to begin reading--I'm just jumping right in with Sharon Dubiago's Love on the Streets. I've read most of the book, but never straight through. And never with my current mindset, so it seems like a first read. A bonus is that I get to hear Doubiago read next Tuesday night, right here in Mill Valley at Sweetwater (8:00 PM for any of you who might live in northern California). Here is section one of "Ground Zero" from Psyche Drives the Coast (1990):


We met on an evening in July
in one of the old taverns of this town,
two poets, unable to write, newly arrived,
hunted and haunted. For me,
the escape. For you,
the return.

You said you would show me
the Olympic Peninsula.

The road was overgrown.
In the headlights of your car I cleared the trees.
The cabin was vandalized, gutted,
the twenty-six oddshaped windows
opening onto the Strait, the Sound, Canada, and all the northern sky
shot out. The sink, the pump, the stoves,
even the doors, stolen.
You wandered around, then out to the deck,
seeming to forget me in the debris.

Victoria, the only human light,
shimmered on the foreign shore.
I heard the groan of a fishing boat below the bluff,
a strange cry from the woods, like a woman,
your ex-wife, the children.

We lay on a narrow mattress in the loft,
amidst bullet shells, beer cans, mold and glass,
the cold, hard bed of delinquent teenagers.

The moon was a broken boat through the bullet-shattered skylight.
We told each other.
First words. I said
one night stand. You said ground zero.
I said I lost my children, my lover.
You said submarine, fucking vandals.
I said kids with no place to go, kids forbidden
to love. You said holocaust. Apocalypse.
I pulled you over on me. The volcano erupted.
The world turned to ash. I cried
love cannot be gutted.
The moon, the stars, the giant trees watched
through a bullet hole.