Thursday, April 18, 2019

Cathryn Shea: Backpack Full of Leaves

In Cathryn Shea's Backpack Full of Leaves the poet is not sure about the location of her voice in relation to others, but it doesn't matter, she still hears "the rendering voice of the storm." And even though she inhabits a world of powerful sensate experience, she is given only clues as to its nature.

A Poet I Read at Night

I'm in there somewhere, not lost
but no map and no cell,
exact location not important
because I'm in a different century
anyway, and there's a blizzard
cloaking Arizona before Advent
was invented. The sky in its azure
vestment hides from the whiteout,
a choir of mute dromedaries
beds down away from Siberian
hunters drunk on potato vodka.
(One is the ancestor of a czar.)
Venison turns on a spit
in a hirsute shrine,
the rendering voice of the storm
all hallowed in the interstice
between whiskers.

Sifting through Shea's backpack of leaves--I love the reference to Whitman and Larry Levis--the reader is struck with the inventiveness with which the poet creates an explanation for her world. Illusions and reflections of reality are given poetic priority over "plain clouds" and "still trees." Instead of a representation of the world, Shea's art creates a narrative, not of understanding, but of a blessing on what is pieced together, the "seeds of thought, / ...from bird feeders" by the mind. She does not attempt to transform "the deceit" or "the illusion of a perch / look[ing] safe at twilight," but in order to "know the self," she "look[s] to the oak" to construct an explanation that may, or may not, be accurate. The reader infers again, that it doesn't matter, it's the inventiveness of constructing that explanation, and its consistency that makes it a valid world, parallel to the reality from which it grows.


How plain the clouds
this evening. How still
the trees.
The mind pecks
at seeds of thought,
from bird feeders
clipped to the clothesline.

Let the deceit
of the kitchen window's
shiny glass
continue its reflection
of branches.
The illusion of a perch
looks safe at twilight.

When I want to know
the self, I look to the oak,
study its bark,
toothed leaves, and galls.
I pretend to understand
growth rings.

In her title poem, the poet perhaps gives her readers the most insight into what she has collected on her quest, a language pilfered from innumerable sources, as disparate as the literary canon she identifies elsewhere and the oft referred to magazines and newspapers, used to call out the pervasive falseness in the world. As in all of Shea's poems, the poet's lens assists the reader's peripheral vision to brighten the dim light on the edges, "like the 4:00 o'clock splash / in the backyard bird bath," or the "button noes and lilliputian nails / just born to a distant cousin,"--important because "something there seems real," more real than a center that may not hold.

Here's My Backpack Full of Leaves

I steal words from magazines and newspapers
like a magpie falsely accused
by the BBC of stealing shiny baubles.
I stole the word "backpack"
and then packed it full
of pilfered "leaves"
instead of troubles.

Nothing that happens in California is real.
I stole "California" so I could feel
something's real in this state. Loving
sneaks into my limbic monkey plumage
and makes me wonder more.
Like the 4:00 o'clock splash
in the backyard bird bath.
Something there seems real.

And something good that would
cheer up anyone: a baby girl
just born to a distant cousin.
Her button nose and lilliputian nails.
And my cat
is why I have a cat.

That final stanza is emblematic of what is found in Shea's backpack: details from a world "that would / cheer up anyone," rendered in a musical language that causes readers to "feel something[ ] real." And we are better readers and better poets for having sifted through the "leaves" of her book.

Cathryn Shea resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the author of the chapbooks "The Secrets Hidden in a Pear Tree" and "It's Raining Lullabies," both from dancing girl press. [Thank you, Kristy Bowen!] Cathryn's poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, New Orleans Review, Gargoyle, Tar River Review, Tinderbox, Permafrost, Rust + Moth, and other journals. Her poetry has been nominated for Sundress Publication's Best of the Net. Cathryn served as editor for Marin Poetry Center Anthology and volunteers there. See and @cathy_shea on Twitter.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

David Watts: Having and Keeping

In Having and Keeping (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2017),  David Watts writes lyrical narrative poems about people and events that, undoubtedly, matter to him most, piercing not only memory's smoke, but also reality's skin with keen-edged words that probe a "father...made / of dust and intelligence," a "mother...made from music and culture," a soldier brother, " deep in camouflage / even his blue eyes // are like cinders." Less hazy with time are his poignant poems that give us one son's epithets like, "I remember things behind things," and his other son's answers to father's calls. A lover is "beautiful / in the manner in which there is so much beauty / it almost cancels itself." But above all, or inside or both--who knows?--is the observer, the universe become conscious, the poet, the "Man at the Window:"

He stands at the window baffled
by pleasure and how brief it is.
Pleasure followed by the memory
of pleasure. Light
then dark with a splinter
left in. Something like that.
The woman in the chair is reading,
drinking tea in the ground glass
haze of evening.
The sudden swell he feels
watching her
illuminates the past she spent
getting to this place:
a lover who left, perhaps. Time
setting her kitchen in order, or maybe
gathering artichokes from the field.
The moment opens in a diorama
of impermanence, seeping away
at the edges even as it is breathed
into vision the first time. He holds out
his arms. He wants this moment
in the body, to feel there
the pleasure it holds, and then
whatever it is that pleasure
leaves behind,
which is all he can keep.
The strange quality of light
dissolving like smoke in air,
slipping away
in the sun's diminishing gaze.

Life's simple pleasures--the music of "the forest hum[ming]. / Even the Johnson grass sque[eking] / as it grows," the work of "driving nails / with the same muscles / that lost baseballs over West Texas outfields," and a hundred more--are contrasted with memory's "imperfect forgetting." Here are two passages that are true sample of the poet's musings on memory and its role in life and art. The first are closing lines from "Broken Jar."

...I'd like to think
what memory wants us
to think, sitting securely
on its fence post
lifting particles of light
from the broken jar.
But the world is beyond us
even as we live inside it--
The sun comes and goes.
The moon breathes and circles us
with reflected light,
while the soul holds the body
carefully in its arms
as we walk through the perforated dark.

I Tie Knots in the Strings of Memory

and tighten them against forgetting.

They cannot imitate her hungry look,
eyes glazed, lips parted, but they prevent
imperfect forgetting. With my fingers
I choose what I own of the past,
arranging flashes of light
the way a movie wants to be told,
part accuracy, part fiction,
part what the body wants to keep
of its bumblings in this world,
late at night when it pans the past
for gold, the lines tangling and un-
tangling in the swift undertow
of the strong passing current.

Many poems in this collection can be seen as ars poetica. Indeed, Watts is masterful "with [his] fingers, choos[ing what] to keep / of its bumblings in this world, / late at night when it pans the past / for gold, the lines tangling and un- / tangling in the swift undertow / of the strong passing current." Panning the past for gold, would be a spot-on subtitle for this collection.

Many poems in this collection can be seen as Staffordesque. Deceptively simple lines belie deep truths. The final poem informs us "How to Survive the Cold." "Shovel a path," the poet says, "to the storm cellar." And while you're there, absorb "the lava red glow / of raspberries." "Gather wood from the shed," we are told, because "Winter is only waiting for you / to build a fire." After you "Prop your feet to [it],"

Then settle for the long evening.
Read a poem. Sing a hymn.
How many years has spring listened
for your distant song?

Pick any poem from this masterful collection, and you may inhabit this poem. We have waited forever for David Watts's songs. And we are so happy they have arrived, heralding a spring beyond any winter our world is capable of delivering.

David Watts grew up in Texas, thus the scattered references throughout [Having and Keeping] to the characteristics of the terrain and subtle tonalities that capture the personalities of the people there. The "can do" attitude that characterized his family helped him to move forward into many fields, medicine, classical music, scientific invention, radio, and television hosting and production, and finally, after mid-life, to become a poet and a writer.

His literary credits include seven books of poetry, two collections of short stories, a mystery novel, a best-selling western and several essays. He has received awards in academics, medical excellence, television production and for the quality of his writing. He is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco and Professor of Poetry at the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco. He lives in California with his wife and two sons.

Reproduced from the "About the Author" page in Having and Keeping.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Joan Baranow: In The Next Life

Editor's Note: As of this month, I am the new (sixth) Poet Laureate of Marin County, California. My project for the next two years will be "Poetry as Connection." I intend to serve the poets of Marin by helping them connect with other poets, and with a wider audience and readership. One way of accomplishing that will be to publish reviews of as many books published 2019-2021 by Marin poets, as I possibly can. This is the first in the series--a review of In The Next Life (Poetic Matrix Press, 2019), by Joan Baranow. (See Joan's bio below.)

Like Baranow, many poets take their readers on journeys to other worlds. Melana Morling, for example, in her opening poem to Astoria (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006) begins: "If there is another world, / I think you can take a cab there, / or ride your old bicycle / down Junction Blvd." I love Morling's proximity of transcendence, and how, throughout her collection, she journeys there via the ordinary.

However, in Baranow's new collection, In The Next Life (Poetic Matrix Press, 2019), the poet assures us that we need not even leave our rooms to experience the totality of existence, because all worlds are available through poetry. And the worlds she selects to show us with her poems possess delightful divergencies that are rigorously probed with both the precise language of science and the ineffable language of poetry. In her poem, "Ars Poetica," after exploring the relationship between poetry, prosody, and people ("Why do words, when chimed, make you weep?"), she states:

And so...
(a deft ellipsis brings me back)

to gravity, my theme.
Or beauty? Both, like train cars
coupling, pinky finger-linked for miles.

Pain and joy--
even atoms want their mates.
Though also unpredictable:

nerves, like lightning, have their own agendas.

When there's much to say you close the door.

You type it up then write back into it.

What you're looking for--
a canteen flung in road dust,
a neighbor with a crowbar
splintering the door--

you can't help but swear

somewhere, between the lines, it's there.

Baranow knows about negative capability--Keats's ability to hold two diametrically opposed positions simultaneously--and her poems never forget this capacity either, illustrated above with those  wonderful "train cars...pinky finger-linked," and that "Pain and [italics mine] joy--"

In her opening poem, "Believing," the poet makes it clear that she lines up with modernism, the idea that the solution to humanity's problems lies within humanity's inherent capabilities:

I believe in wrapping the baby in the blanket.
I believe in the father jingling his keys.

I believe in forgiving the one who dented the car,
the daughter who lost her new shoes.

I believe in recess at school, reasonable roads,
neighbors who sleep late on Saturdays,
who lend you eggs for the cake.

I believe in sharing the cake.

I believe in symphonies and rock concerts.
Otherwise, small groups will do--
poetry readings and the like.

I believe in nature's wallop, floodwaters,
wild lilies, the slipperiness of minutes,
the usual moon and tides.

But the poet also makes it clear that she stands in the shadow of Whitman's "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself."

I believe, too, in the mania of the many--
countries counting munitions,
subtracting soldiers from the list.

I believe nothing will change this.
Not prayer, nor uniformed officers.

Peace and terror forever,
like the heart's swell and cramp,
like our wish to rescue the vanishing wolves.

The joy of reading Baranow's poems is found, in part, by experiencing poetry that is connected to the canon, but that also has its own unique metaphorical sensibility, the same kind of sensibility I wrote about in my previous post about Alicia Ostriker and Peter Campion. (See "Poet Pairings: Alicia Ostriker and Peter Campion," 2-10-19.) Her poems are not simply rife with gorgeous metaphors, connecting disparate elements, representing all things in this world in a new light, but Baranow has also created an entirely new world--hinting throughout her book of a "next life" that holds worlds both mimetic and anti-mimetic, where art mimics life, and life mimics art--"a world without edges, reflective, // like looking into a spoon / at your own / estranged features."

At Eye Level

Gnats like being eye to eye,
unlike bees and flies and,
well, most creatures.

On a bench you'll be surprised
by a passing squirrel's
dropped seeds, half an acorn

gnawed through the middle.
A fly might light on
an open book,

but he's otherwise occupied.
Those frogs along the water's rim,
one looking that way,

one another, rest there
like old men
(minus arthritis).

And fish! What do they see
of trees and sky
but a world without edges, reflective,

like looking into a spoon
at your own
estranged features?

Baranow ups the emotional stakes as her poems progress from these tantalizing hints to more direct statements, culminating in the title poem and its neighbors in section three. Witness her investigation into the relationship between the realities of nature and art in "From This Distance:"

An ant clambers onto my sandal,
strikes out across my toe,
is joined by others like water

sucked through a straw.
Is it awe I want to feel?
Am I supposed to know

about these furry-edged leaves
whose berries are bluing?
To my left an aspen snapped

at the waist. Several here
have avalanched
as if with sappy brains

they've judged their own heft
and heaved over. We can't be everywhere
though to touch a particle

alone in space
jars another. Even an eight-year-old
can see the empty swing

sway. But this is simple.
Explain instead the moth's physics,
its unsteady flight

dipping and doubling
back with blind, frenetic tack
though it sees

with fifty more eyes
than ours. What am I asking?
The sun grows the shadows,

I'm tired of the strict music in my head,
"the wind's entreaties,"
which are not the wind's

but my own grief
gasping its speech, poetry's

Distrust. Distrust.
Pick the bee's legs of their pollen.
Thrust your hand down

a snake's throat. Wheel yourself
into the operating room.
Watch how lovingly they scrape

the bodies out. Cough up
something sick. Is this it?
What? Have we finished

gnawing our bones?
Have I?
An ant is dragging

a dead larva
three times its size towards me.
I know that you know that

but I won't stop the words.
They are beating out the --O--
briefest pilot light. Inferno.

In the final two stanzas, the poet's logic is inescapable. Even though she "know[s] that you know that [an ant can drag a dead larva three times its size], [she] won't stop the words." Poetry, and by extension, art, has as much ontological priority, and as much vulnerability to extinction, as the physical world--the "briefest pilot light. Inferno."

But the purpose of these poems is not didactic. Although much can be learned from them, they are not primarily instructive in nature. They celebrate this life--all that it contains--and whatever comes next. Here then is the title poem, "In the Next Life." Read it aloud to experience all of its gorgeous, musical language, allow it to connect previously unconnected synapses, and to reinforce those neural pathways that bring delight and hope!

In the Next Life

You'll slip into the ocean's
inky dungeons, reborn
as a two-ton squid,
or reappear as that same
mosquito you squashed
while hiking through
New Jersey's pine barrens.
You'll feel your should squeeze
into Rush Limbaugh's manic
descendant, a baseball cap
distributor for the northeast coast,
a man who fled home
only to find himself pawning
the slim sliver necklace
his grandmother had given him.
You might be snow packed
into a girl's acrylic mitten
or a taste bud
as she licks the snow.
You may wince while clipped
from the dictator's mustache
or shine in the small
jar of polish his wife likes.
If asked, I'd choose something
simple, more mute
than my present incarnation,
to return as a wild strip
of loosestrife I glimpsed once
while riding up front in a truck,
or else a June bug
stuck to a screen, mating.
I'd like to try being
a breeze that touches the hot
cheeks of a bawling infant,
to enter her lungs
and cool the cramped
muscle of her heart.
Think of it--someday
your flesh will feed
stinkbug and jewel weed.
may your spirit tumble
in the moist tower
of a troublesome

Joan Baranow is the author of Living Apart and two poetry chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Gettysburg Review, Spillway, and elsewhere. A VCCA fellow and member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, she founded and directs the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Dominican University of CA. With her husband, David Watts, she produced the PBS documentary HealingWords: Poetry & Medicine. Her feature-length documentary, The Time We Have, presents an intimate portrait of a young woman facing terminal illness.