Monday, May 20, 2024

What Do You Think? by Ken Weir


WHAT DO YOU THINK?, Ken Weir. Austin Macauley Publishers, New York, NY, 2023, 137 pages, $19.95, paperback.


Modern poetry began with the shift from an either / or mentality to a more ubiquitous both / and. Precursors to that inclusiveness include Blake—his capacity to see unity in diversity, as in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”—and Keats’ negative capability, not only an ability to simultaneously hold contradictory thoughts but to embrace the uncertainty about them. Of course, Dickinson and Whitman ushered in modern poetry—Dickinson’s unconventional use of dashes, e.g., offered constant oppositional assertions, and paved the way for later poets to experiment with craft and content. And Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself” is practically a watchword for twentieth century American poetry. Much twenty-first century poetry coming from MFA programs today, seems to be an expression of pre-determined views rather than operating in the tradition that these poets began—one of discovery rather than of expression. Ken Weir’s What Do You Think harkens back to a time when poets worked within a multiverse of views and challenged readers to take an active role in the poem’s re-creation as it was read and spoken.

            Appropriate to Weir’s task, he quotes Oliver Cromwell in his introduction, setting the stage for his approach to poetry as inquiry: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” In the 17th century, when Cromwell, in a letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland penned these words, Copernicus and Gallileo had come under harsh censure by the church and in the end, their books that promoted heliocentrism were banned and burned—as Weir’s would have been in that century, particularly because of his poems that begin with science facts and riff on them, such as “Conceit.”

We stand on this planet,

one amongst billions,

as sand on the shore,


Beyond the nearest star

the universe expands

through millions of light years.


For 300,000 years

(the flare of a match),

Homo sapiens imagined we came from the Sun,

from Mount Olympus,

or a personal God,

who listens to our every plea.


Prosaic as it may be,

we emerged from the sea

and return to the earth.


            The collection is divided into five sections: Transience; Medicine and Science; Religion and Politics; Aging, Love and Family; and History and Remembrance. “Conceit” is from the Transience section and is emblematic of Weir’s layered poems—conceit working both as the prominent metaphor of expansiveness as sand throughout the poem, denoting the billions of planets in our universe and connoting the endless possibilities for conjuring the origins of our existence, as well as the common meaning of conceit as self-centeredness. Another poem from section I utilizing concrete imagery and particularity to flesh out its title is “The Shards of Time.”


The dinosaur that stands fossilized

Upon my desk, ran on the earth

200 million years ago.

In the terrain of papers and pens,

She is reunited with

The ammonites and trilobites


That populated her world.

Homo sapiens, a species

A thousand-fold younger,

Now steers the ark.

On whose desk will we rest

A million years hence?


In this poem, even more so than in “Conceit,” Weir’s talent for rendering the actual feeling of experience connects with his ability to make lines and sentences their own forms of experience. I mean that, along with the accuracy and fidelity of a first-rate realist, Weir has an entirely unique metaphorical imagination—allowing him to honor and render the mysteries as well as the facts of personal and collective life.


            The best poems in this collection maintain that unity of two elements that are usually at odds: both the abstract feelings and the concrete details of experience. “Breakfast Time” is another such poem, utilizing concrete images of “Juncos,” “A hairy woodpecker” and “A Cooper’s hawk,” contrasted with editorials in the daily newspaper. In addition, Weir’s timing is flawless, in delivering his knock-out-punch of the last line.


The editorials are benign.

Juncos forage in the snow,

below the brimming feeder.

A hairy woodpecker pecks

staccato on the oak.

A Cooper’s hawk plunges down,

feathers drift across

my window; time to read

the obituaries.


Death sprouts from the natural world as any other observation, and is as non-threatening, although as surprising as in actual experience—reminiscent of the voice of William Stafford. Other noteworthy poems in this collection are “Volatility” (from section II, Medicine and Science), “Gene Pool” and “If You Have These” from section IV, Aging, Love and Family. In “Volatility,” Weir makes wonderful music with half-rhymes and near-rhymes:


Despite the cold, the sun

feels warm upon my back.

The feeder’s full and on the ground

the small-cap juncos peck.

Should I spread the wealth,

kick sunflower seed below?

But no, emerging markets urge

the flight to Southern climes.


Yet wait, there’s thistle seed

awasting and dividends to

pluck before we fly.

Perhaps a short diversion North

in search of golden grains?

The NASDAQ and the sun’s still high,

why have the faint-hearts fled?

The high-flying indices plunge down;

their talons tear my nest apart.


“Emerging / urge,” “wait / awasting,” “there’s / thistle,” “diversion / search,”—even the regular use of “the” (“the cold, the sun” and “The feeder’s…the ground”) sing their own meanings to us throughout the poem, so that the final line is delivered with even greater intensity, once again enacting the poem’s abstract title in one final stroke of concrete metaphor.


      In “Gene Pool,” the final lines of the first of two stanzas create a strong metaphorical image of the list of evidences of an intelligent woman with “…all stacked / in the library of her mind.” To parallel, the final lines of stanza two speak of the unstacking of memories with disease:


Later, it seemed, she

could no longer find

the right shelf. Rummaged

around to recall those

who had eaten at her table

the previous night.

My Mother had…what’s his name?

You know…that…

that disease.


“If You Have These” is a list poem of aspiration experiences the poet has for his son that intimates a swelling tide toward the final section with, particularly with its final line.


The smell of turf smoke,

roar of Atlantic rollers,

the splash of purple heather,

blaze of orange montbretia,

the dark promise of blackberries,

the crackle of grasshoppers,

keeping of a gull

or rasp of the crows,

the hand of a man who knew your father,

the laughter of friends,

the silence of the full moon,

the stone on which

my brothers sat,


I have no more to give.


            In What Do You Think, Ken Weir has inserted himself into the poetic cannon with poems of craft, intellectual substance, and emotional connection that all poets and lovers of poetry would do well to read. They look backwards to the 20th century’s broad field of ideation and possibility, without attempting to make up readers’ minds or hearts about what is, what is important, and why—a fresh approach to age-old questions in the midst of the culture wars of the 21st century. I’m convinced that poems like “The Shards of Time,” “Conceit,” and “If You Have These,” among others, will captivate and move their readers for many years to come.


I close with the collection’s antepenultimate poem, “Ready or Not” which brings to mind Whitman’s final words from Song of Myself: “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place, search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you”:


I go ahead,

down by the lake,

where the white squirrel nests

and the wood-ducks dive

I will be waiting.


In early Spring,

when the ice crackles

on the frozen shore,

you will hear my voice

when the wild geese call.


Ken Weir was born in Ireland during the Second World War. He went to school in England (Oundle), got his BA at Oxford (Pembroke College), and his medical degrees (BM. BCh. and DM) were also from Oxford. His clinical training in cardiology was at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, where he and his wife, Elizabeth V. Pearman, first met. His research training was at the CVP Lab of the University of Colorado in Denver, as a Fulbright scholar. His clinical, research, and teaching careers have been at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and the University of Minnesota Medical School. He has edited 11 scientific books and is an author of over 200 scientific papers but these poems, which have been written in the Twin Cities over the last twenty years, are his first volume of poetry.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

A Slight Thing, Happiness by Joan Baranow


A SLIGHT THING, HAPPINESS, Joan Baranow. Saint Julian Press, Houston, Texas, 2022, 70 pages, $18, paperback.

In A Slight Thing, Happiness, Joan Baranow bears witness to the fragile nature of happiness with a linguistic lens that celebrates the beauty found along its spectrum. It is the “small things with or without wings” that Baranow most celebrates, telling their stories with striking images that prowl and haunt this collection of passionately-crafted poems.

            Divided into four parts, the opening poem of each section could serve as its title. The first, “That Summer,” sets the stage for a baby—conceived, we later learn, with a surgical procedure. The poem opens with images of uncertainty:



            Cobalt. Rust. A heave of fog

            sliding across the sand.


            Fog in the manzanita.


            A flower like goldenrod put forth

            its yellow pearls.

            We posed nearby, where the wooden steps


            left the parking lot.

            The camera lens kept the edges in. Ocean. Cliffs.


            A coastal summer. Before the baby

            had being.

            The seeds inside the shrubbery were neutral.


These lines describe both an actual and an emotional landscape—“Fog in the manzanita” points toward the uncertainty of would-be parents “posing nearby,” their world view framing and focusing on a limited view, while “seeds inside” a human body only obey natural law. Other poems in this section trace the beginning and development of the child in vivid and gorgeous language. “Feeding the Son Born Premature,” the final poem in this section, is emblematic of Baranow’s insistently energetic diction, alive with growing tension and partial resolution. It opens with:

                                                …the story

            about the starving Chinese family

            in which the father chewed the few

            grains left, then put them

            into his baby’s mouth.

            I tell my son, “It’s good, good,”

            and move his hand to the fork,

            his solid 2-year weight on my lap.


And then the closing lines reveal the paradox of living in the present, aware that life can be taken at any moment:


            Once when home he slept so deeply

            I couldn’t wake him

            and shook him the way I shouldn’t,

            shouting his urgent name

            until he opened his aggrieved eyes.

            And so I watch, as I must,

            as he eats the gold rice

            glazed with fat, make sure he has

            as much as he wants.


             Section II begins with “An Old Story” about Snow White’s stepmother ingesting a heart—“Each piece tough and delicious, her body enter[ing] mine”—presaging the theme of death inherent in birth and life.  In “Close Calls,” Baranow’s five-month-old falls face down onto the floor, her four-year-old falls into a swimming pool: “Close calls, the fractions of accidents, / the young man brushing broken / windshield glass from his jacket, / the surgeon who nearly nicks the femoral nerve, / even I, seven months gone, days away from seizure, / saved by the OB who said, ‘It’s time / to get that baby out.’ Close calls.” Baranow’s virtuosic word choices are again on display in these closing lines:

            What are they but rehearsals for the real thing?

            Under the rush of gratitude,

            of falling to our shaking knees,

            we know—there will be a next time

            without reprieve or rescue, the cancer

            will split its capsule, the driver won’t swerve.

            On that day prayers are dust in your mouth.

            You’ll remember Job’s wife, curled weeping

            on a frayed rug in a corner of that cursed room.


The prayers as “dust in your mouth” is a layered image, bringing to language’s surface the burying of us all—“dust to dust”—and the return of the “frayed rug” brings back the earlier image of the infant falling onto the floor rug in the same way that humanity in its infancy fell from grace in Eden and bore the curse of death. In these poems, death may result from tragic human error or natural causes, or a combination of both. In “Diagnosis,” death “puncture[s] from inside, / tumors escalating / like pent gasses through O-rings, / organs exploding under the skin.” In both space craft and the hapless woman, death fully blooms: “Nothing to do but drive home / and make the terrible calls.”

Section III returns readers to the beauty of beauty (rather than Rilke’s beauty as “only the beginning of terror we are barely able to endure”) with the light-hearted poem, “Things He Said”—he being a son: “He said he’d run out of dream power. / He’d see if I had any extra. / He wanted to floor his room with sod / to plant bamboo / and why couldn’t he spread sod on the floor?” The poem ends with humorous lines spoken by the child beyond his years: “When his father said to watch out for those / Paris Hilton types, / he said, So you have some experience with that? // He said call me Inside the Rainbow.” The son who speaks in “Beautiful” also demonstrates a child’s ability to perceive beauty in what we adults take for granted. The child’s Blakean “doors of perception” have not yet clouded over.

            Section IV begins with “Traveling Through,” bringing forward all of the trials and difficulties in the midst of happinesses and resolves—not into ultimate bliss or even hope, but rather into acceptance. In “Sanctuary,” Baranow hints at how she learns from her mother’s efforts to find happiness: “You chose a place hard to get to—23 miles to the gulf from Old Town, past longleaf pines and wiregrass marsh.” After a description of the sparse interior—“Two rooms and a bathroom up on stilts. A hot pot for coffee”—and an ominous exterior full of alien beauty “with skittery palmetto bugs under the garbage bin. Spanish moss snapped on bald cypress, crepe myrtle, cabbage palms, your own curve of canal, a single banana tree. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. Magnolia blossoms like white doves nested among rusty leaves”—Baranow brings the poem to the climax of the book:

You believed people were made for happiness. My last visit there, you kept your cheer despite the growth, undiagnosed. After you died, we found Christmas gifts still wrapped among the clutter.


“Watching the Red Squirrels” underscores the main theme of the book, that we must live in the present because that’s all we have, and the beauty we find there includes happiness as one of the most precarious of states, albeit one of the best. Spending an afternoon with relatives, watching with amusement a squirrel attempting to get into a bird feeder, Baranow concludes:

It was one of those afternoons

that remains in memory.

A slight thing, happiness.


In A Slight Thing, Happiness, Baranow has given us in superb narrative lyrical poems a more complete picture of happiness than lesser poets would dare, without fear of sentimentality in celebrating poignant moments and without shying away from the underbelly of loss that eats away at all existence, making these poems all the more precious. The straightforward forms and organization of the book support the unblinking eye and unwavering voice of this poet writing in her fully developed voice. Reading this book will be no slight thing in the context of your lives—the living one and the writing one.

Joan Baranow is the author of In the Next Life, Living Apart, and two poetry chapbooks. Her collection, Reading Szymborska in a Time of Plague, won the 2021 Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. A fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and member of the Community of Writers, she founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Dominican University of CA. With her husband David Watts she produced the PBS documentary Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. Her feature-length documentary, The Time We Have, presents an intimate portrait of a teenager facing terminal illness.