Sunday, February 11, 2024

IT BEGAN, by Michael Jemal

 

IT BEGAN, Michael Jemal. Blue Light Press, 2024, 15 pages, paperback, BlueLightPress@aol.com

 

Poetry chapbooks are intended to be small jewels, each poem a facet of material cut from the same slab of language, reflecting light from a slightly different perspective. At times, poems find their way into the manuscript because they are favorites of the poet or because the poet doesn’t have enough material on the main theme to flesh out the book. Not so with It Began by Michael Jemal. Each poem not only begins with the anaphora “It began…” but the “it” that is introduced at the beginning of each poem becomes a Rorschach test, interpreted by each reader according their background—in their living, their reading, and—if a writer—their own work.  

As a poet, as well as a reader, I find that each poem can be an ars poetica—a poem about poetry itself—as well as a poem about love—love for writing or any other life-changing endeavor, or love for a person. Thus, in the Prologue, the first line can become “[writing poetry] began when I accidentally / stepped on your left foot / and you broke / into a million excuses.” It can just as easily become [Our relationship began] when I accidentally / stepped on your left foot…” This first stanza develops themes of both love and writing so that the final stanza yields a conclusion to either one: “I have so many stories in my pocket / I need to unwind. / Have you ever seen / inside the body / of a meaningful thought. / There are so many shades of despair, / I’m almost ready to shout.”

            The tight focus of “It began” that begins each poem also allows for a capaciousness of subject matter, but the poems themselves provide cues for what each “it” may be without intruding into the reader’s private interpretations and by never closing a poem in a neat, tidy bow, but rather always leaving room for mystery. “It Began 1,” for example, ends with “There was no way to know / when I opened the door to the bathroom / and stood in front of [a] mirror / I would wonder / who was looking at me.” “It Began 9,” beginning with “It began after the divorce,” ends with “Different people do different things. / Take anything you want, take it all I say. / We are what we don’t throw away,” once again leaving the poem open at the end. And in “Epilogue” (“It began when I went to the mailbox”) the poem ends with “Inside the envelope sheets of blank copy paper / stapled together / as if it were a novella I needed / to meditate on, / rethink the characters / and keep track of their frailties. / Characters who needed to find /their own way to the epilogue / despite how lost they were. / That much I am certain,” leaves a wide bandwidth on the dial of what the narrator is not certain.

            The power of these poems lies, in part, with the reader’s expectations being subverted by their enjambments and unlikely pairings of words—in the case of “Prologue,” adjectives with nouns, and verbs with objects of prepositions.

            It began when I accidentally

            stepped on your left foot

            and you broke

            into a million excuses.

 

            Breaking (pun intended) line three after “broke” is a gesture that changes everything in the poem and puts the reader off-guard for the remainder of the poem after reading the line “into a million excuses.” The next couplet does not disappoint with “What good is love without a few / hazard lights flashing.” Later, the lover morphs into the writer with:

            I’ve been patching myself together

            for years.

            I’m brand new.

 

            If I put on my best pants

            will you dance with me tonight.

            I have so many stories in my pocket

            I need to unwind.

            Have you ever seen

            inside the body

            of a meaningful thought.

            There are so many shades of despair,

            I’m almost ready to shout.

            The entire book’s structure can be said to alternate between language either more conducive to love or to writing, without squeezing out the possibility of the other—both in poem order and in the order of stanzas within the poem. Poems 4 through 9, e.g., are ostensibly about love, beginning with the opening lines “It began as a nightmare / When every time I tried to whisper / into the ear of the woman beside me / wisteria leaves flew out my mouth” and concluding with these final lines from “It Began 9” about divorce:

            What’s worse than being told

            you are not loved.

            It’s like falling to the ground

            after you’re already on the ground

            or giving up your wants

            to hold onto everything you’ve ever wanted.

            Different people do different things.

            Take anything you want, take it all I say.

            We are what we don’t throw away.

After this series of poems about love, we have the following opening lines to “It Began 10”:

            It began when I received

            a postcard from myself

            “There are no miracles” it read,

            “without strings attached.”

Poems 11, 12, and 13 (Epilogue) continue this theme of writing after the divorce with lines such as “It began when I accidentally / walked into a room full of strangers / who used bandaids for hatchet wounds” (from “It Began 11”); “…I’ve promised myself I’d change, / become a better man. / Someone who will consider / experiences as an irreplaceable / puzzle piece to his life. / A man with a dependable door / on the back of his head / that won’t easily open…;” and finally in the epilogue, a return to interpretation that can easily hold both writing and love and any other thing that one might be passionate about:

            Epilogue

            It began when I went to the mailbox

            and found a manila envelope from you.

            How did you find me, I gave up

            my name years ago

            when it was still possible to become yourself,

            despite the many disappointments.

 

            Inside the envelope

            sheets of blank copy paper

            stapled together

            as if it were a novella I needed

            to meditate on,

            rethink the characters

            and keep track of their frailties.

            Characters who needed to find

            their own way to the epilogue

            despite how lost they were.

            That much I am certain.

 

            It Began is indeed a tiny jewel box of glimmering poems that not only please but make us want more. We can only hope that this chapbook is true sample of what is to come from this poet whose poems are rendered with perfect timing and a voice we can immediately trust—that future readers will write about Michael Jemal’s work — “It began” with a small chapbook that was the beginning of a poet’s significant contribution to the canon of 21st century poetry.

 

           

 

 

 

           

           

 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

CATALOGUE OF SURPRISES by Dorothy Wall

Blue Light Press, 2023, 81 pages, $20.00 paperback, BlueLightPress@aol.com




Throughout her newly released poetry collection, Dorothy Wall demonstrates the ability to fuse language both concrete (e.g., “refrigerator on the freeway” and a “baby born in [a] bomb shelter,”) as well as abstract (e.g. “hope,” “absurdity” and, as in the title poem, “surprises,” “plans,” “accidents,” and “acquisitions.”) This range from nominalism to idealism, where many times along the continuum words intersect both worlds (as in “shelter”), is an earmark of Wall’s work in this collection, making it appealing to both die-hard students of post-modern poetry and the occasional reader who needs tone and conversational language in order to stay with it.

            On the concrete end of the spectrum is a poem like “Not Today,” where practically all of the abstractions appear in the title, early lines and final lines, the remaining narrative being comprised of imagery appealing directly to the senses.

           

            While damage unmoors and upends,

            we go to the pool. I don’t swim,

I watch, a glaring water-light my granddaughter

            dives under, hair streaming and sleek.

            It’s easy here. Water chlorine-clean,

            untouched by brown torrents gushing,

            waterfall heavy, through Kentucky streets,

tearing into basements, taking down houses,

            power lines, SUVs like the house of cards they are.

            The truth, the wet truth. In Pakistan a deluge

            devours hillsides, houses, lives. Maldives’ beaches

            disappear, gigantic bites. Here a shimmer

            of blue popsicle puddles on cement.

            Child voices in splashy play.

                                    A reckoning hovers

            above the gleaming water like an Old Testament

            prophet scolding and hurricane huge, ready to

            bind us in his furious arms.

Eventually. Not today.

 

 

At the other pole is a poem like “Where to Find Hope”:

 

                        “The phrenologists already knew that hope was situated

                        in the prefrontal cortex: ‘in front of conscientiousness,

                        and behind marvelousness, being elongated in the direction

                        of the ears.’”

                                    “Electrified,” by Elif Batuman, The New Yorker,

                                                                                                April 6, 2015

 

            Clearly I’ve been searching all the wrong places

            trekking through uncertainty, lost

            in absurdity.

 

            My fingertips wander to the precise spot, massaging scalp

            like a clairvoyant her crystal or a mother her baby’s

            fontanelle, still open

 

            Skeptical self, please believe in the possible

 

                        against evidence

            Everyone’s tired of the news, fill my head

            with something else

 

            a map clear as a phrenologist’s staked claim

                        giving us not only discovery

                                    but faith. I don’t need

 

            answers, just beginnings, like that infant

                        newly swum up from its bath

                                    of stem cells that can be anything

                        heal anything

 

            that swarm to where they belong

            doing what they’re meant to

                                                unbewildered

 

            their orchestrated flood, like hope

                        changing

                                    what they touch

            in the beginning.

            What we do next is what matters.

 

            Even though “Where to Find Hope” is filled with as many abstractions as appear in any poem of the book, (e.g. “uncertainty, absurdity, skeptical, discovery, faith,” and “hope”), they are counter-balanced with “fingertips, scalp, crystal, stem cells” and other palpable language, allowing the poem to serve as a conduit between the right brain and the left—utilizing language to bridge the gap between this world and another.

            Many poems are structured in couplets, a fitting form for the lyrical narratives that populate the book. In “Hemingway Puts Down His Gun,” Wall lays down a prosody against which to measure her poems—and her poems do not disappoint.

            I read the story somewhere, how each day

            he tried to stop writing when he knew

 

            what came next

 

            As long as words, strong as a rope

            hauled him into another day

 

            he knew he’d keep going

            If you ever thought words can’t save us

 

            think again: a string of words

            a suspension bridge

 

            a rope we’ve tied ourselves to

            above the chasm

 

            You’d think I’d understand this rope-pulled

            undertaking, this aerial act, but I don’t

 

            this trusting at the edge that requires

            trusting yourself, now that’s

 

            scary. Below the river flits from green

            to blue, darker at the bend

 

            where words end

            until

           

In terms of length, poems vary from the nine-line “All the Ghosts” to the three-page “How to Survive” dedicated to the poet’s great-grandfather Frank Thomas Wall, “who twice lost his mind, the second time after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927”—from the epigraph. The title poem, “Catalogue of Surprises” is emblematic of the longer poems. It deals with viral illness and provides a four-fold structure with its divisions of “Catalogue of Surprises,” “Catalogue of Plans,” “Catalogue of Accidents,” and “Catalogue of Acquisitions.” There is a metaphorical sensibility to this poem that parallels the tone of the entire collection. “What happens in a house / doesn’t stay in a house” are the poem’s opening lines. The enjambment works perfectly to both look backwards as a question and forwards as one answer:

…It’s the wanderings

within I didn’t expect,

cellular shifting, these guests

that stay, altering the body

like a birthmark or your

children. What happened?

A virus flew into my mouth,

burrowing, roaming,

remaking my world.

 

“Catalogue of Surprises” is an ars poetica in disguise, with its Richard Hugo-like wisdom for writing as “…everything accidental… / everything. No plan. Who could / plan what we end up with? /Haphazard as a virus that takes / any portal as invitation to settle / …to root, survive.” In the final section, “Catalogue of Acquisitions,” the poet continues her imagery layered between illness and the compulsion to write, reminding one of an interview question posed to Robert Creeley about the meaning of his poems which he answered by pointing to how he didn’t understand his children, and why would one presume to understand one’s poems: “…I haven’t figured out wholeness / or these visitors that stay,” answers Wall to the question of “What happened?” “Perhaps that viral virility / puffers down with time / dulled and senescent / its mark fading. Perhaps / we’ll grow used to / each other, until our needs / coincide and I can’t discern / the stranger inside.”

            In this collection, Dorothy Wall gives us a glimpse of her “stranger inside” and we learn that hers is no different from the strangers inside us that surprise in spite of all our plans. In the end, they help Wall acquire “…a string of words / a suspension bridge // a rope we’ve tied ourselves to / above the chasm.” If we pay attention to these poems, they can instruct us how to do the same—both in our lives and in our writing lives.

            Catalogue of Surprises is capacious in scope of themes, and yet never seems to depart from core issues dealt with in the canon over the centuries. I am certain that newcomers to poetry, as well as informed readers and writers of poetry, will enjoy this book’s fresh diction, unexpected syntax, and substantive material for many years to come.  



Dorothy Wall is author of Identity Theory: New and Selected Poems (Blue Light Press) and Encounters with the Invisible: Unseen Illness, Controversy, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Southern Methodist University Press), and coauthor of Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net, and her poems and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, Cimarron Review, Eastern Iowa Review and others. She has taught poetry and fiction writing at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley Extension. Visit her at www.dorothywall.com.