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  In addition to the fifty-some-odd published books, I read two-hundred unpublished manuscripts, searching, along with the other editors of Trio House Press, for the best work that we could find to publish.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!