The Human Eye and the Trauma of the “I”: A Review of Boy with Thorn (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Kelly Michels
Rickey Laurentiis’ debut collection, Boy with Thorn is a testament to survival and the imagination’s dual ability to make and unmake the world. Chosen by Terrance Hayes as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Boy with Thorn is an intimate introduction to a poet of exceptional lyrical virtuosity coupled with an unrelenting ability to fully inhabit a cultural lens while intelligently interrogating it. It is a timely collection, a phenomenological meditation on the racism, homophobia, and violence so embedded in our cultural landscape, a violence that inescapably forms the identity of the body while simultaneously attempting to destroy it.
The body cannot be separated from the historical ramifications of place, and this recognition haunts the text, often given voice through pastoral intimacy. For example, the first poem in the book, “Conditions for the Southern Gothic,” is a surreal indictment of the disembodied Southern landscape:
Therefore, my head was kingless.
I was a head alone, moaning in a wet black field.
I was like any of those deserter slaves
whose graves are just the pikes raised for their heads, reshackled, blue
and plain as fear.
Here, the speaker becomes a head “moaning in a wet black field.” The line, taken alone, is reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough,” but Laurentiis reclaims the imagist text within a southern context. Rather than a lively subway station bustling into the bough of a budding tree, the perceptual conflation of the image is one of isolation and death. The monosyllabic “wet black field” does not just suggest a water clogged heaviness, it also suggests the haunting finality of the body deserted in the southern landscape.
The image of water and swamp land is repeated throughout the book, culminating in the single prose poem of the collection, “No Ararat.” Taking place in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the poem has no outward image of water, and yet the feeling of drowning is achieved in the perceptual density and repetition within the prose:
Awful hollering. I slept through that hollering. Wind in awe of earth. I
woke up. You might as well go back, my grandmother said. You done
slept through most of it. I woke up. She was laughing.
This overwhelming cascade of short sentences and shifts in perception evolve into a final unsettling vision when the speaker sees the Dome:
In the distance, the Dome. Bright. White as a burning eye. It had
the permanency of a mountain—as where Noah landed. My God, I
whispered. The radio said there is no god.
This last line, in particular, epitomizes the physical and spiritual abandonment of the body within the landscape. Ultimately, there is no biblical salvation of higher ground, no Ararat of rescue, certainly not in “the Dome. Bright. White as a burning eye.”
Furthermore, the concept of the “eye” as an agent of creation and destruction, something capable of great art while also representing the oppressive force of the outside gaze upon the body, is explored deftly throughout the poems. Take, for example, the first stanza of “Black Gentleman”:
There are eyes, glasses even, but still he can’t see
What the world sees seeing him.
They know an image of him they themselves created.
He knows his own: fine-lined from foot to finger,
each limb adjusted, because its had to…
Here, Laurentiis directly tackles the social construction of the black body, the body that is both made and unmade within the outside gaze while simultaneously conveying the self’s urgency to exist in this liminal space.
If there is any redemption to be had in this book, it is in the poetic act of embodiment, the ability to strip the image back down to the essential, to take the power away from the socially constructed gaze and give power back to the image itself. Take, for example, the poem, “Mood Indigo,” where the speaker grieves for a tree:
Aren’t they lonely? Don’t they feel
somehow cheated, somehow violated? Here
is my body for you to use and also protect—that
was their contract with the birds…
While the tree symbolically encapsulates the violence of lynching and the construction of the black body through the white, colonial gaze, at its core, the tree is a living thing, feared not for what it is, but for what it signifies. As a result, it is an example of how the natural is made unnatural through the act of being seen, just as the black body is. What Laurentiis does exceptionally well is unmask this duality, sometimes by the poet’s full inhabitation of the very thing that is feared.
The gaze is further interrogated with Laurentiis’ use of ekphrastic poems throughout the book, from a meditation on Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Black Iris” to the poem that ends the book, inspired by a Greco-Roman sculpture dating back to 50 BC. What becomes intriguing about these poems is the self-referential, Escher-like strange loop that is achieved when the gazed upon becomes the gazer. For example, in “Vanitas with Negro Boy” based on a seventeenth century oil painting by David Bailly, Laurentiis writes:
It’s true: his face, his boyhood even
(And what is my boyhood, and where is it from?)
would fade if not for the rope of attention
yanked glittering across that face. Look.
This is my painting, my version of the Dutch
stilleven. I am trying to write obsession
into it, and can. Open your eyes. Don’t run.
Vanitas, from the Latin for “emptiness,”
“meaninglessness”—but what nothing can exist
if thought does, if drawn likeness of a bone
In this poem, the speaker both identifies with the subject in the painting while implicating himself within the act of gazing. The speaker’s eye is a “rope” that is “yanked” across the face of the subject. The rope becomes a vehicle that both ties the gazer to the gazed upon while simultaneously imposing the formidable power of the gazer over the objectified subject of its attention with the word “yanked.” However, the artist’s eye ultimately rescues the object from the oblivion of history, where the “likeness of a bone” exists beyond “meaninglessness.”
Throughout Rickey Laurentiis’ Boy with Thorn, the reader becomes acutely aware of the duality of the imaginary, an imaginary that acts as an inflictor of pain while remaining the only voice pain has. It is both the confiscation of the body and the only chance of making the body real in an increasingly unreal world. If, as Elaine Scarry observes, “pain only becomes an intentional state once it is brought into relation with the objectifying power of the imagination,” in the final poem of the collection, Laurentiis makes the body real through the physical object of the thorn.
This was his body, his body
He shut the thorn up in his foot, and told his foot
In the end, the sheer force and empathetic agility of the poetic imagination serves to disempower the socially constructed imaginary by making the “unseen” tangible. In a world riddled with violence and racial tensions and a cultural environment increasingly obsessed with visual objectification, the poetic eye, with its ability to probe beyond the surface and give voice to it, is perhaps our only salvation. For this reason, Boy with Thorn is a triumphant debut collection. It is an intelligent, thought-provoking, and utterly necessary book that probes the violence inherent within the act of being seen (and unseen) while seeking ways to survive and transcend it.
Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press), by Lauren K. Alleyne, reviewed by Lindsay King-Miller, originally printed in Muzzle
Lauren K. Alleyne’s first collection of poetry, Difficult Fruit transcribes the love and trauma that shape a woman’s life, searching for definitions of womanhood through relationships, the body, and history. The “difficult fruit” of the book’s title, grown through adversity and struggle, represents hard-won self-knowledge and a powerful sense of identity. Scattered throughout are epistolary poems to various incarnations of the poet’s younger self–Seven, Fourteen, Eighteen–serving as reminders that “womanhood” is not stable; it is created and recreated day by day, constantly shifting, growing, transforming.
The first piece in the collection, “Ask No Questions,” lays out a sort of ars poetica for the book: “Let me unbury my gods in secret / and rebind them to my prayers, / my necessary guilt.” The purpose of this collection is not for the poet to lay herself bare, not to invite the reader to explore every psychological nook and cranny; it is to reveal and conceal at once, to “confess to the carrying of secrets.” In a culture that almost fetishizes the confessional, especially when it comes to art created by women, it is refreshing when Alleyne reminds the reader that she is still in control. You don’t have an all-access pass. She decides how much you get to see.
Difficult Fruit is divided into three sections that reenact a coming of age, guiding the reader from the fear and disorientation that often mark the end of childhood to the understanding and acceptance of true maturity. The book’s first section centers on themes of loss, suffering, and trauma, portraying the journey into womanhood as a sort of gauntlet. In “Eighteen,” Alleyne writes of an encounter that begins as a dance between desire and fear, then shatters into violence, ending in destruction: “Here is fire and fire and fire. Skins of flame. Walls of flame. / There is no turning here; here you learn how to burn.” As in Alleyne’s other letters to younger selves, the distinction between “you” and the speaker of the poem creates a sense of distance, but does not soften the impact of the poem’s devastation.
In another poem, also titled “Eighteen,” from which the collection gets its title, Alleyne describes the aftermath of rape to her younger self:
18, we will carry our dark, we will
birth ourselves again and again; we will
tend our gardens, harvest the difficult fruit;
we will apprentice ourselves to the work,
and learn the language that will allow us
to summon our own angels.
Here, the repetition of “we will” has a meditative quality, a determination underscored by the collaboration of the poet’s past and current selves in the pronoun “we.” The past and future work alongside each other, but are not the same; the differences between them cannot be elided. These poems acknowledge that, while full reversal of the damage done is impossible, healing can still be attained, and naming the hurts allows the speaker to “summon [her] own angels.” This is not a shallow gesture toward redemption, but a genuine transformation.
While both poems titled “Eighteen” explore deeply personal loss–of safety, of trust–Difficult Fruit explores tragedy on a broader social scale as well. In “How It Touches Us,” Alleyne describes the death of a friend in childhood, “the awful realization/that all laws of matter must hold true, and she was gone.” The acceptance of mortality is another difficult fruit that must be tended. This is also true in “John White Defends,” one of the few poems inDifficult Fruit not written from Alleyne’s own perspective. Here, she writes in the voice of the eponymous White, a black man convicted of shooting a white teenager who was threatening his son. The title of the poem has multiple potential meanings–is White defending his actions, his home, his family?
Here, as well as in the poem “The Hoodie Stands Witness,” about the death of Trayvon Martin, the poet contemplates not just mortality but the layers of power, violence, and oppression that shape racial identities in the United States. Alleyne’s poems elegantly express in few words that these acts of violence are not random; they are the inevitable fruit of the soil that grew them. “I should have known/there would be a reckoning,” she writes in White’s voice.
Just as Alleyne’s loss is not one-dimensional, neither is her love. The second section of Difficult Fruit explores multifaceted passion that is both creative and destructive, both comforting and thrilling. In “Love in G Major” she describes a love “that charms good sense / into sweet, burning madness,” but in “That the Body Wants,” desire has faded to “slow horses wearying across this distance.” Coming on the heels of Alleyne’s exploration of devastation and healing, these depictions of romance are tinted by the knowledge of how badly a person can be hurt. Although the poems don’t follow a straightforward chronology, there is a sense of accruing wisdom, layers of experience overlapping to form meaning. In “Thirty,” Alleyne writes, “[M]aybe older and wiser is just learning / how to put yourself in your own good hands.” If there’s a love story here in the traditional sense (the beloved is found, lost, found again), it’s not between a woman and a man, but between a woman and her own identity, her own self-determination.
In its final section, Difficult Fruit takes a more contemplative view of womanhood than the previous two-thirds, offering a broader scope through which to examine the self, the body, love, and fate. This section in particular is ruled by the tension between the poet’s older and younger selves, as in “Fourteen,” where Alleyne writes, “Let us not tell her of wither. / Let her turn her best face to the sky.” The poet (and the reader) has already seen what wither has to offer, what cruel faces the sky may make in return. The arrangement of the poems around these themes and in this order offers the reader optimism tempered by a heavy and haunting knowledge.
Alleyne’s language throughout the collection is elegant and fluid; her poems have few sharp edges, few jarring or discordant moments, but move with certainty from one powerful emotion to the next. Yet for all its steadfastness, it still has the power to surprise, as in “A Ghazal for the Body,” when she writes “So many words for the dead, / you say. There is no synonym for this: the living body.” The emotion, unexpectedly powerful, lingers long after the book is finished. These poems are the kind of fruit that leaves stains on the lips and fingers.
In a recent talk on poetics, Alan Shapiro used a Zen parable to distinguish two kinds of relationships between poet and subject, writer and reader: In one the poet directs our eye toward the moon by calling attention to his helpful and guiding finger. In the other, the finger disappears, and we stare undistracted at the moon. Noel Crook is the second kind of writer. A daring sensibility combined with an omnivorous curiosity and a thorough but lightly worn mastery of craft combine to make her prize-winning Salt Moon as fine a book of poetry as has appeared in years.
In the opening section, “Dark Country,” we move back and forth between Crook’s native Texas and her home in North Carolina. The first poem, “Big Sky,” sets the tone for the entire book, its openness to the full range of experience, the absence of romanticizing detail:
Give me sun-stunted
scrub oaks rooted in rock and shaped like
bad hearts …
the colors of cataclysm, the singular
solace of canyon wrens, their strafed
ululations, and, in a cartwheel of azure,
the lone buzzard wheeling and waiting.
The richness of language here is characteristic of Crook. As fully as any poet in recent memory, she follows Yeats’s injunction that she who “sings a lasting song, / thinks in a marrow-bone.” Again and again, she discovers the apt and startling image: The “tiny xylophones of vertebra” after an owl’s kill, a “black widow fisted / and gleaming,” an Atlantic storm “leisurely dragging its / malignant heart toward shore,” two boys “gibbering / in that twin-speak that would light up your spine,” a mystic in Istanbul with “eyes the color of gunpowder, the fortunes / at his feet like a basket of bullets,” a child lying in the “knifed light” of a hospital room. Every poem contains comparable passages of lyric intensity, what Martin Amis calls the “instantly unforgettable.” Like weathered rock, Crook’s work gives a sense of having been formed over a long period, under great pressure—every inessential stripped away.
Violence, vulnerability, and a palpable sense of evil pervade Crook’s work. Although she frequently writes about family, her poems eschew the conventionally “domestic” and instead reveal affinities with Cormac McCarthy and the English philosopher John Gray. These are not poems intended to comfort. Indeed, they bring to mind Rilke’s comment that “Works of art are always products of having-been-in-danger, or of having gone to the end of an experience when one can go no further.”
Crook forges her poems in these areas of danger and extremity. In “The Twins,” for example, two young boys—Crook’s neighbors—kill their parents with guns they’ve been given as birthday gifts. “Storm” recounts a trip to the pediatric ER, her daughter “gone partially blind / in math class, her right arm dead.” The haunting “Skull” opens with a sense of malice—a far cry from Whitman’s comrades on the open road:
Why did the owner of the black van
parked outside the Snack & Pack have a skull
hanging from his rearview mirror?
My children did not notice
but it eyed them through dark sockets,
sighed through hollows of its slack jaw.
Having opened with a menacing question, Crook closes with an equally menacing answer, one that finds an internal correlate to the external violence.
… all night I consider my options, my own
black capacities: the baseball bat
nestled in the toy chest, its satisfying
weight and heft; a claw hammer gleaming
in the toolbox; in the kitchen, the cool handle
of a butcher knife that fits the palm like an answer.
This ferocious maternal protectiveness recurs in a number of poems. In the sonnet “Lice” for example, the mother is “an executioner,” laying out the dead “side by side on the counter tiles.” And in “Matilda Lockhart, Age 13, Abducted by Comanches,” we see the consequences of a lapse in such vigilance. The repeatedly tortured child is found “half-starved, tied to a wagon wheel / on some muddy street in Bexar.” Again, in “War Photo,” Crook presents the ritual bathing of dead girl “arms raised as if to Allah” as her mother stares at the camera, her dark eyes “saying to thousands, / millions of eyes, every eye on earth, / Look. This is what it is.”
Crook’s depictions of Eros call to mind Michael Ondjaatje’s “the heart is an organ of fire,” so movingly does she write about desire as a force at once exalting and annihilating. In “Helen” she examines what “no one ever mentions,” how Paris “parted her thighs / with his knee and took her; / why she let herself be taken.” The poem closes with an instantly memorable image: Helen “secreted in the ship’s hull / … as it slammed the waves toward Troy.” Elsewhere Crook speaks of “wild hungers I can and cannot fathom,” of a time when “my own need undid me,” of owning “the indelicacies of desire.”
In “Smith Canyon” the speaker walks alone in the wake of a romantic loss, imagining “the warm sun whitening / my bones, the curve of my spine / another decoration on the limestone floor.” And in “Notes from a Salt Flat Prisoner”—selected for Best New Poets 2014—the exiled speaker thinks of her lover and “reconfigures / the purple shadows in the struts of your / ribs, your tongue in my mouth like pure fire.”
Crook also deftly reveals the way benign or picturesque surfaces can disguise malignant foundations, exposing what Betty Adcock calls “the backward whole embrace” of history. In “The Slaves,” she finds their graveyard untended and forgotten on her own property and recognizes the futility of her initial aim of tidying them up:
No, let them have their confusion,
the ribs slow deliverance through red clay
into cattails—at the creek’s bank
the blooming of teeth
in the grass.
In “House” she discovers that “slaves / had built the place … / fourteen unnamed field hands” and that the walls are “swollen with stories” of death, the “slow crumbling / of marriages, little treacheries of brothers.” The speaker imagines all these voices “confabulating behind the plaster” and closes with a vision of the house returning to ruin. Her simple description of a cloudless sky deserves comparison with Larkin’s “High Windows”:
I … half-dream how someday
the house will fall, victim of a faulty wire
or deserted in some end-of-world
disaster, the wind lifting its tin lid for rain,
thin laths loosening, all our stories
sliding into mud—and how maybe it will stand
for a while like this, a dark skeleton
against the pines, marker only for those
who moved silent over pitched joists,
matching and joining the beams,
the ring of hammers rising
into blue, immaculate sky.
Crook begins “Turner’s Suns” with an epigraph from the painter: “It is only when we are no longer fearful that we begin to create.” One finishes Salt Moon with the sense that we have been in the hands of a brave writer, one who refuses to hide behind the shield of irony or the obfuscations of erudition. A sense of urgency drives every poem in the book. Each begins, as Mark Doty says the best poems do, in a cry; they end with a devastating power that is difficult to overstate. Her final description of a Turner painting is representative:
To stand beneath one is to know a little
of what it is to raise your face to the thing
that could take you in an instant, not
to ask for its mercy but to open your palms
and show it your throat.
A superb description of the sublime in art, these lines apply equally well to the experience of reading Salt Moon.
The River, by Jane Clarke, reviewed by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Reprinted from The Dublin Review of Books
The famous line from Heraclitus, starting “We cannot step twice into the same river …”, which serves as epigraph to Jane Clarke’s first collection, gives notice that the title is not only to be read with the literal grain. There are literal treatments of bodies of water, lake and river, especially the river Suck, a major tributary of the Shannon that flows through Roscommon and east Galway.
… We could look
As far as the next bend or out to the island,
Speckled with yellow iris, bordered with sedge.
Here is moving water easily shifting, as it does, in the direction of metaphor, while keeping its dimensions and presence. In “Dusk”, “the bell across the river / telling us it’s time to walk with sacks // of oats to wooden troughs in the Hill Field” celebrates the literal and substantial but cannot evade a barely dulled metaphysical resonance. In “Against the Flow”, the salmon’s upstream journey is not overly portentous in the imagining, as the poet attends closely to the geography of the stream:
… through riffles and deeps,
millraces that churn in spate,
over sheets of granite, across weirs,
into rapids that thunder-pound …
In “Epithalamium”, the stream becomes explicitly an image of a life as journey. “Where the River Deepens” and the title poem, “The River”, closing off the collection, are more sombrely freighted with the mystery of the generations.
The ordering of poems could be more suggestive. The first one, “Honey”, about a beloved sheepdog that is handed over to be shot after having turned sheep-killer, is a respectable, realistic piece; but it seems wrong as the opener for the collection. With other meditations on rural hardness and softness it may represent a phase of the poet’s growth, or a stratum that is revisited. But her scrupulous, unaffected acceptance of country living as her theme is one of the things that give this book its strength. The realities of farm and family life, its human and animal closeness (a wife smelling her husband’s jacket, “cigarettes, silage and Brylcreem”; “breathing clouds” of Friesian cows) enliven many of the poems with their texture, their feeling of being grounded in life. In others, the natural world seems less familiar, appears as the object of a wondering gaze, as in a poem about moths, “The Catch”:
Soon after dawn I crept barefoot
to watch the catch, their hindwings tucked
under forewings, asleep …
The voice is sometimes a persona, as in “Inheritance”, sometimes its urgency asks to be heard as the poet’s own, as with “For Michael”. All of her poems are written in clear, unpretentious language that is sometimes rather overcompressed, as if the “and” we use so readily in speech was felt not to have earned its keep. “I folded my life into his // bore him two girls, four boys” (“The Price”) this not uncommon way of writing verse makes a frivolous reader wonder if the poet is afraid of being charged by the keystroke. We are urged to cultivate the monosyllabic and the factual and it is on the whole good advice, but too much tight packaging can make passages in a poem read like lists.
Another kind of packaging may also be due to the influence of the workshop culture. I freely admit to a prejudice against the exercises in writing pantoum, villanelle, ghazal or sestina, which may enable bonding among groups of students. I have a strong feeling that a poem should find its form as an individual writing enterprise and that a poet should find her voice as she moves through the forest of subjects that want to be written about and words and shapes that offer themselves. For some poets the frisky games played by these exotic forms are utterly seductive and transform their writing but I can’t in the case of Jane Clarke make out just why “On the Boat” should take the shape of a pantoum or “Who owns the field?” of a villanelle. I am inclined to hold the publisher responsible for glossing “callows” and “flaggers”, the meaning of both being quite clear from their context. Is nobody to have the pleasure of guessing at the meaning of an unfamiliar word in a poem any more?
The virtues of Jane Clarke’s writing include a broad sympathy that never usurps the voice of the other, that guides the reader to understanding and respect; a pleasure in ingenious objects and crafts that is deftly transmitted; and a clarity which does not deny mystery but makes room for it. Sometimes the imagery of landscape, of rowan and celandine, can seem to be trying to shine too much light into the closed places of the heart, but there are many poems that admirably call our attention to the inexplicable, lightly as in “Back of an envelope”, more gently disturbing in two poems on facing pages, and the gap between them, “Cows at Dugort” and “Among the Cows” the first a faithful capturing of the animals’ behaviour, the second full of the weight of absence:
Her father knew where to find her;
she liked to stand among the cows …
When her mother died
her father wore his grief the way
he wore his Sunday suit,
as if it belonged to someone else.
She would listen to the calves
calling for days when weaned
until their voices, exhausted,
faded like mists from the fields.
The River(Bloodaxe Books) is an achieved first collection that amply shows what this poet can do. I am impatient to see what she does next.
Working Voices (St. Andrews Press), by Thomas Heffernan: Social Consciousness for All, reviewed by Nina Derek
In his recent book, Working Voices, Thomas Heffernan presents an impressive collection of sonnets that give voice to the intimate reflections of working people.
Each poem is presented as a monologue, and as a collection, the poems are both ambitious and quirky. Heffernan speaks the lives of working persons found in virtually every socioeconomic class and industry: juggler, engineer, waitress, banker, oboist, mail-carrier, model, hit man, librarian, pallbearer, laundry lady, and billionaire.
The book begins with a prefatory note in which Heffernan shares his concern for social justice that weaves the collection together. Heffernan is an acclaimed author, one who has received numerous awards, including the Atlantic National Collegiate Award for Essay, a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowship in Poetry and Fiction from the Southern Arts Federation, the Roanoke-Chowan Award, the Kusamakura Grand Prize, and the Sam Regan Award. His egalitarian sympathies are such that they highlight “our need of progressive policy.” Heffernan speaks through characters with backgrounds as diverse as those of the narrators in the following two poems, “A Different Billionaire” and “Hairdresser.”
In “A Different Billionaire,” Heffernan breaks the stereotype of the greedy rich and offers readers a fair-minded- rich-guy’s philosophy in a broken but yet well-interpreted English Sonnet. His billionaire’s voice is far more sincere than defensive or ironic.
A DIFFERENT BILLIONAIRE
I don’t bother with having a huge house,
let alone half a dozen. I may be
“worth billions” as the phrase goes, but am I
my money or am I myself? My grouse?
False beliefs. Like, the rich are job-makers.
The fact: we spend a fraction of our money.
But when middle and lower people buy,
their money circulates – to grocery stores,
landlords, gas stations, thrift shops, goes the cash
they have to live. When half a country’s wealth
is owned by half a hundred people the health
of the body politic is bound to crash.
The common good or the common worse is
what’s ahead, betwixt and between to choose.
In “Hairdresser,” Heffernan offers a Petrarchan Sonnet in the voice of a speaker who styles hair. Again, readers are met by a first-person account of a life lived through one’s work. Important questions—involving the extent to which we become our occupations and how what we do determines the lives we live—lurk behind this and Heffernan’s other poems. Yet Heffernan is rhetorically skillful in that such questions are seldom raised directly. Instead, he concerns himself with authentically inhabiting the lives he depicts.
Of the two, men are fussier, harder
to please. But not one has ever cried, not
here, anyway, after I finished a cut.
My friend, she permed this woman with this hair
that wouldn’t perm. She tried stronger solution,
everything came out wrong, right out in hanks.
Hysteria is terrible, no thanks
for trying, or for your good intention.
I think it’s the bad economy, why
people want to sue for stuff like that.
Our costs go up, we have to be insured.
Make it so my ears don’t stick out, make it
flat in back, says a man. A woman might say,
I don’t care what you do, just make me look good.
Ultimately, these are poems not of tragic lives but of lives affirmed. They are portraits, and they are also much, much more. These poems speak of lives that are complex and credible, and particularly remarkable in Heffernan’s Working Voices is his chameleon-like ability to slip into minds, voices, and identities outside his own. The ability to negotiate the inner lives of so many different people while keeping to the sonnet form requires both a mastery of poetic craft and a capacity for sincere and sympathetic introspection. Heffernan’s “Working Voices” demonstrates that its author has both.
In This Maybe Best of All Possible Worlds (Future Cycle Press), by William Page, reviewed by Aoife Lyall
Everyone has an opinion about what poetry is, and should be, with definitions of poetry as plentiful as those for ‘love’, ‘friendship’, and ‘family’. These viewpoints often stem from educational, cultural, and societal influences and, in the case of poets, we are afforded the opportunity to see if these beliefs successfully manifest in their writing.
In this, Page’s fifth collection of poetry, he considers his relationship with the art in ‘Ars Poetica’.
I know what poems are supposed to be,
a reflection of a snowbird in ice, not
the bird’s feathers and hollow bones
that lift it up into the invisible air.
Not wind, but the likeness of wind.
Not the fusillade of kneeling pistons raising
and lowering themselves in raving prayers,
their exhaust gases pushed like thunder
back into the chambers of silence. The hint
must be subtle as sound of an unseen wheel turning.
There must be a slight lean into the curve of words,
nothing like rubber’s concrete squeal; the hard road
must be traveled with the gentleness of a light breeze.
Speech cannot be louder than a clear whisper.
Movement must be a single ear of corn’s silken tassel
faintly touching the down of a young girl’s arm.
But I must speak bluntly. I must direct this to you
while you’re here, must tell you the world is not made
of cotton candy. Even the bird’s soft sky is hard
to traverse, requiring strong wings.
Art requires the hammer become the nail.
Page uses the poem to dismiss the intangible, and at times absent, nature of poetry. Poetry, he tells us, should not be a diluted reflection of an abstract experience, a medium of mere witness and record. Page wants to communicate, in so far as art can (and here Page is clearly stating that it can), the actual, the experienced. Even when speaking ‘bluntly’ Page uses metaphor to explain himself, drawing an important distinction between the purple prose of the ‘ear of corn’s silken tassel’ that lacks purpose and conviction, and the striking declaration for artistic embodiment in ‘Art requires the hammer become the nail’.
By placing ‘Ars Poetica’ halfway through the collection, Page leaves the reader free to experience his earlier poems without this ideological input. Once ‘Ars Poetica’ is read, the desire arises to re-visit these poems, to ensure Page’s words express his artistic standing. By actively inviting this added layer of scrutiny, which continues throughout the collection, Page demonstrates true confidence in his work, and creates an engaging experiential dialogue with the reader.
Page is not interested in telling his readers what to think. This is made abundantly clear in the collection’s first poem ‘This is not’:
This Is Not
This is not about sad mothers.
It’s not about a swirling Roman candle’s
orange and blue balls of fire bursting
in crimson waves in a startled sky.
The small-boned boy does not float easily
in the blue water lapping against the white
pool’s sides. You may think of a tall privet,
weeping among green foliage of others.
This could be one that holds a nest
of speckled eggs whose fate may be ours.
But this is not our concern.
This is not about fathers. It’s not
of rasping steel of roller skates,
the smell of oil on bearings
or the sun glancing from such
rapid turnings many years before.
The translucent skin shed by the bull snake
sheds no light on this.
Sons and daughters don’t figure
in this. This is not about a hard birth
or an easy death, not attesting
to the snow quietly melting under its surface.
Not showing the deliberate flowing
of candle wax under the tongue of flame.
This is to show us the still fly resting
on the window, its wings miraculously thin.
The range of topics Page dismisses in this poem means that a single definition of what the collection is going to be about is impossible to formulate; the reader must simply read on. Page clearly wants us to consider what is not discussed; the ratio of what this poem ‘is’ and ‘is not’ about demonstrates his belief in the expansive, and inclusive, nature of the unsaid in poetry.
Page’s expectations of poetry may also be applied to the role of the reader: it is not sufficient for us to simply read the poem; he wants us to discern, through our own experiences, what his poetry is for; for each reader to find individual meaning in each poem, and, from there, to discern the integral unity or unities that bind the collection together.
True to form, Page speaks ‘bluntly’ in the collection’s final poem:
Standing on Edge
Once you get used to the idea
the world is a terrible place,
it’s not so bad.
I stand them in a circle
on the breakfast room table.
Copper and silver, little monoliths
of Mammon. Some days the world
looks so beautiful
I almost forget it’s only
a series of broken stones
standing on the boiling
lake of Earth’s core.
Every day is as precarious
as these pieces of change
I’ve stood on edge.
And we’ve no more
knowledge of the future
than falling coins’ prescience
of heads or tails. But dime
dumb or penny silly,
I count my life a fortune.
Throughout this collection, Page goes to great lengths to tell us what things are not; things that have not been thought or done, said or remembered. This concept becomes so ingrained that when Page declares ‘the world is a terrible place’, the reader’s first reaction is ‘No, it is not’. When he says that the world is nothing more than ‘a series of broken stones’, we think ‘No, it is not’. By the end of the collection the reader has learned, not to simply read the poems, but to read around them, to create conversations, to look for what is not being said. In that, this is a collection worth speaking with, and speaking about.
Utter (Peepal Tree Press), by Vahni Capildeo, reviewed by Michael Dennis, reprinted from michaeldennispoet.blogspot.com
Vahni Capildeo’s Utter is poetry two cultures removed from my own and yet it speaks to me with a vibrancy as taut as the strings of violin. Capildeo is a chameleon in these pages. Utter shows a full range of poetic styles and a writer in full control of a rather limitless voice.
These carefully constructed poems are as delicate as a heavy man navigating thin ice, as confident as the fox slinking away with the cackling bird in its’ maw.
Aux Bibliotheques Aux Antilles
Straightway dropped, still vertical, into a shadow parallel
to other shadows, I appeared to stand above, substantial,
a manifest husk that you, your khaki and navy, address
But look, only one corner is worm-eaten,
my red binding holds most of my yellowed pages together,
you can follow the story which is torn in several places
but in such ways that destruction becomes a second story,
one to love, meddled too with chocolate prints from a baby past.
Good sir, with a long reading list, no translator, and wrong change,
will you pick me?
The risk that you change your mind is mine, not yours:
pick me, and you are irretrievable;
hell is already.
Myself dropped through the floor of myself,
you, broken out of leaf,
mistrustful, pithy, four-dimensioned.
I would be stuck with that.
A lifetime with one who reads me,
by whom I am not seen.
The multifarious integrity of pomegranates.
Sharing a hell with you no king and I almost queen.
From poem to poem in this collection there is a consistent tone, an ongoing level of discourse that is captivating – but it comes from any of the myriad of voices Capildeo has captured. Each voice has its’ own distinct rhythm, texture, pulse.
Each of Capildeo’s voices understands that it all comes at a cost, whatever voice holds forth, another is suppressed. There is plenty of humour in Utter, it just always comes at a cost.
The Critic In His Natural Habitat
“You see to be serious about literature. Have you ever considered
writing up some of these thoughts of yours? A poet like you could
bring a fresh perspective to criticism. People would appreciate that.
You needn’t worry: they wouldn’t expect scholarship. My book came
out last year. You don’t want me to bore you with that. It’s just an in-
depth study of darkness and the imagination in the seventeenth
century. The seventeenth century might not be your cup of tea. Oh,
is that your book? I’m afraid I don’t read much contemporary poetry.
Will you give me a copy? Only if you have one to spare, of course, Sultry
photo! I’m never sure about books-with-author-photos. The rail
station photobooth? Really? You don’t write for The Time Literary
Supplement, do you? Dorina recently did a brilliant review of Tricia’s
edition of Gussie’s translations of Brazilian slum poetry composed in
Spanish by a French guy who taught on an art history course here, oh,
donkeys’ years ago.
I don’t remember his name.
He lived in one of those nice houses. Haven’t you read them? You
read Italian don’t you? I’ll send you the reference if I can remember
to find the time to send it. You wouldn’t believe how busy I am. End-
of-term exams bang in the middle of barbecue duty. And the family
insists on their five days in Cornwall. I’m so desperate to get back to
my research. Madness! A nightmare! Merciless. But I’d like to See
You Again… May I See You Again? (Gracie! Put on the wash, I need
my brown corduroy trousers for tomorrow). Sorry.
Oh. You’re going away?”
There isn’t necessarily any justice in Vahni Capildeo’s poetic world, these poems reflect the realities of a corrupt and cynical world.
For Jo Groiser
The sea needs no ornament.
She adorns herself with herself
and is herself our wreckage.
Unspontaneous as disbelief
the island combusting
— every sunset, despite the mist,
such mist, so very missed, chances
ourselves plunged in sunset
forever lying off the coast.
The railroad makes straight the house.
No names for you pass muster.
I wrote gods’ names in the sand.
First I tried to hide it from itself.
The I tried to hide it from myself.
I tried quite hard to hide it from you,
even when we knew that was no use.
After all this hiding, no surprise
it’s like a thing in translation:
eggshell-shy. A thumb’s worth of glory,
nesting near the coastlines of your palm.
Vahni Capildeo’s fifth book of poetry is a mature work for serious readers of poetry and it is full of abundant rewards. Trinidad to London to Ottawa is a long reach for a book of poetry. Very glad to meet the most loquacious Vahni Capildeo.