Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Resolution: To Read The Books I Own

You enter a writing contest. There is a reading fee. Whether or not you win, place, or lose, you receive a subscription to the journal. Most of the time you lose. But the journal always comes. You glance at the winning poem or story. No time now, but you'll leave it on your desk and read it soon. A week later it's still there, untouched, in your way. You put it with all the other unread journals crammed into a drawer or a closet.

Or you attend a reading. Perhaps you are one of the featured readers. Or not. Either way, you come home with multiple signed volumes you have the best intentions of reading. The books join your unread journals.

I have so many journals and books that I have not read, that I decided one of my New Year's resolutions is not to buy any more books until I have either read what I have, or read enough of the volume to know I don't want to finish it. Then I will donate what I don't want to keep, opening up space and budget for more books.

I began early working on my New Year's resolution. In the past week, I have read all the poems in the latest issues of Salamander and Rattle. I always read with a pencil in hand. The benefit of this New Year's resolution is that it feeds into another one--to post more regularly on this blog. And so, I begin with a summary of some of the poems I like in Salamander #47, and why...

I define liking a poem by answering yes to the question, "Would I take the time to read this poem again?" Of the sixty-six poems in the most recent issue of Salamander, I would (and did) re-read ten poems by seven poets. While I don't feel it ethical to reproduce all ten poems in their entirety, since the issue is just out, I will list them below, and illustrate why I think three of my favorite deserve multiple readings. The one exception to not posting the entire poem is Rebecca Foust's "Guernica." I know Becky personally, and have received permission to reproduce her poem here it in its entirety. I will also reproduce all seven of the poets' bios so readers may locate additional work by them.

1. "The Waking Life" by Heather Christle

I am immediately attracted to this poem because it is in tercets. Tercets, if they broadcast correctly, signal for me that the poem will not be tidy and will not end with a bow tied around it. The odd number of lines, hopefully, will cause the poem to lean into the blank space between each stanza, and propel all aspects of the poem forward with results that subvert readers' expectations in some way. In that regard, and others, this poem does not disappoint.

Witness the first three and two-thirds stanzas:

It is rare for a person to enter
a castle, but common for him
to die there. Often enough

I feed the wrong meter.
One bird will raise another's
and think nothing. I raise

my head and am astonished
by the window's absolute
and complicated green,

the opposite of the wrong
suitcase's impassive empty

I love the enjambed line of the first stanza, how "Often enough" looks backwards to it being "rare for a person to enter / a castle, but uncommon for him / to die there," as well as setting up a tension we experience in the space that follows, and that is resolved with the first line of the next stanza: "I feed the wrong meter." This line not only satisfies, but also provides more mystery, as "feed[ing] the wrong meter" can be understood in multiple ways. One can see it as paying for someone else's (or a broken, etc.) parking space, or as playing into the wrong meter of a poem or dance or song. 

I'm sure there are other understandings that can be gleaned from this deceptively simple line. In a similar way, each stanza or some part of each stanza provides a resolution to a previous dissonance, or satisfies a previous question, while creating a new dissonance or asking a new question. 

I am also a sucker for sound work, and this poem has plenty of musical language that chimes--"rare/ there," "enter/meter/another's," "green/wrong," are just a few examples. Later in the poem, we encounter "hands/them," "clutch/perch," and "talons/one."

Every time I read "The Waking Life," I am awakened to new ways that Christle has heightened the language in her gorgeous poem.

2."Self-portrait" by Joshua Martin

This poem's structure is simple--a 34-line, single stanza that lists the images needed to be applied to a canvas to accurately portray the poet. But the images themselves are striking, beginning "with coffee grounds and leaves," adding "the reedmace-colored whiskey / [his] grandfather hid in his overcoat, the pistol-black taffy that melted / in [his] grandmother's Buick / that summer my father married Catholic." Martin continues brushing on the language, ending the poem with the strongest lines of all: 

my birth mother from the hard maroon
dirt in that West Virginia cemetery
of the broken pale cherub
and let her scream into the canvas
until paint curves into eyes
and a boy's cheekbones break
into the night like a dirt road
cutting through pine, and have nobody
come down that road for as long
as she works, not even my father
with his blue shirt shadowed 
by sweat, the wind pulling his collar
as if to say, you cannot get there,
here where the bloodroot opens
and crow-song purples the trees.

The father's "blue shirt shadowed / by sweat, the wind pulling his collar," and the "here where the bloodroot opens / and crow-song purples the trees," are images that will remain with me long after I forget the title of this poem or the name of the poet. I love when a poem ends with its strongest lines. As Dorianne Laux says, "In poetry, there is no such thing as denoue-fucking-ment!"

3. "Guernica" by Rebecca Foust

Foust has two poems in issue #47, and both deserve recognition (see below), but the one that serves my purpose in illustrating seamless marriage of content and form is her smart villanelle, "Guernica," based on Picasso's large oil painting with the same name, depicting the suffering and death of animals and people due to the Nazi bombing of Guernica.

Do you still look and see that it is good?
You spoke, then saw what you'd wrought.
We are the monster in the mirror, God,

your world made of words. Let there be untied
sky from earth and sea, night from light,
and you looked and saw that it was good.

With spit and a fistful of dust, you made
the first man. Then to make Eve, took him apart.
You made everything, even the mirror, God

and it's all carnage. A cell cleaves to breed.
Before one war ends, the next one will start,
then the next--still looking? Still good?--

and the eyes that weep for spilled blood
are set in a head that plots the next slaughter.
A monster. Picasso's vexed mirror. O God,

how will you judge the quick and the dead
when the dead include this child for a martyr?
Can you really still look and say it is good?
The monster's in your mirror; it's you, God.

The poem's irreverent tone is perfect in light of the horrors of war--not only in this war, but in all the wars--"Before one war ends, the next one will start." And this repetitive truth of history is enacted with the repeated lines that the villanelle keeps cycling, each time with modifications to match the increasing numbers of victims, and more inhumane ways humans devise to kill. Line one ("Do you still look and see that it is good?) morphs into "and you looked and saw that it was good," and then "then the next--still looking? Still good?'--," and finally into "Can you really still look and say it is good?" Likewise, line three ("We are the monster in the mirror, God,"), becomes "You made everything, even the mirror, God," and "A monster. Picasso's vexed mirror. O God," and finally the complete shift of responsibility: "The monster's in your mirror; it's you, God."

This is not the first time that Foust has written virtuosic poetry, where form is elevated to the status of voice, not only echoing the content, but conveying meaning in a deeper way than can be achieved with words alone, the diction becoming almost a translation of form's unspoken language, thus achieving what Matthew Zapruder speaks of in his book, Why Poetry, as "saying the unsayable." In Foust's most recent full-length collection, Paradise Drive, she successfully utilizes the sonnet form throughout to present short scenes of a longer, connected narrative, charting her main character's quest for meaning. (To read my review of Paradise Drive in South 85 Journal click HERE.)

Each time I read "Guernica," I can say that it is not only "good," but better and better, as I bring more to it with each reading.

Based on the samples of their work found in this issue of Salamander, I will search out additional work by these poets. And I encourage you, if you haven't already, to read the entire issue #47. I would be interested to see how many of the poems you find there you would choose for your "best" list, and whether or not our lists overlap. In the mean time, enjoy your new year, and stay tuned for more posts soon!

My favorite poems in Salamander #47, listed in order of appearance:

1. "The Waking Life" by Heather Christle (page 21)

Heather Christle is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Heliopause (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). Her first work of nonfiction, The Crying Book, will be out from Catapult in 2019.

2. "Nailing the Steps for a Tree Fort" by Jacob Lindberg (page 25)

Jacob Lindberg is an MFA student at the University of Arkansas. He serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Up North Lit. His poetry can be found in Rattle, cream city review, River Styx, and others.

3. "Elegy to my Family" by Steven Cramer (page 28)

Steven Cramer is the author of five poetry books, most recently Clangings (Sarabande, 2012). Recipient of an NEA fellowship and two Massachusetts Cultural Council grants, he founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University.

4. "Compline" and "Guernica" by Rebecca Foust (pages 44-45)

Rebecca Foust's books include Paradise Drive, reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. Recent recognitions include the Cavafy Prize, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Lascaux Flash Fiction Prize and the ALR Fiction Prize.

5. "At Land's End" and "Snapshots" by Gail Mazur (pages 60-62)

Gail Mazur is author of seven poetry collections, including They Can't Take That Away from Me, finalist for the National Book Award, Zeppo's First Wife, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, Figures in a Landscape, and Forbidden City. Her eighth book, Land's End: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming.

6. "Self-portrait" by Joshua Martin (page 64)

Joshua Martin is a doctoral student at Georgia State University. He has published poems in Tupelo Quarterly, Nashville Review, Raleigh Review, The Cortland Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook Passing Through Meat Camp was a finalist in the 2015 Jacob Press Chapbook Contest.

7. "From a Tree above the Liffey" and "On a Collage by Peter Sacks" by Fred Marchant (pages 100-102)

Fred Marchant is the author of five books of poetry, the most recent of which is Said Not Said (Graywolf Press, 2017). Earlier books include The Looking House, Full Moon Boat, House on Water, House in Air, and Tipping Point, the latter reissued by The Word Works in a twentieth anniversary second edition. Marchant is also the editor of Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, and the founding director of the Suffolk University Poetry Center in Boston.