Books Received & Acknowledged
Don Wentworth, Yield to the Willow, Six Gallery Press.
I am often asked who my favorite poets are. I usually reply, “Well, what day of the week is it?” These things change often, as we discover new and more amazing writers. The same goes for writers-who-have-influenced my work. Probably the only poet who remains a constant on my list is the Boston "Zen" poet, Cid Corman, who relocated to Japan and lived there for the rest of his life with a Japanese wife so he could be closer to the place and the ideas that altered and formed his creative life. I recall when I read his Sun Rock Man, about time spent in Italy, and published, by New Directions, that this was the kind of writer I would like to be. His work was concise, charged, honed to essentials and as his work progressed, to became as lean as only the most well formed haiku can be. His epic collections Of Vol. 1 and 2, 3, and now, 4 and 5, are philosophically acute, wryly humorous and always full of a joy for life and all of creation. So when I say that Don’s new collection is the most substantial book of short poetry I have read since the passing of Cid Corman, it is the highest kind of praise I can bestow.
All the elements that made Corman’s work so complete and wonderful, are present in Wentworth’s substantial, 200 plus pages, book. Beginning with the marvelous piece:
“this too, shall pass-
living day to day”
recalls Corman at his best in my favorite of his books, living, dying. As the poet, lives, writes and observes, he is also forced to cope with the very real specter of dying as his poems dealing his struggle with cancer clearly show. This reader hopes that the book does not serve as an epitaph as with the tradition of Japanese Death Poems but as a celebration of life, of which death serves as a part.
Mary Biddinger, Saint Monica,
O Holy Insurgency,
A Sunny Place with Adequate Water. All published by Black Lawrence.
I received these books as a package so I will endeavor to comment on them together. One thing you can say for sure about Mary Biddinger, she is very catholic writer. Rarely is anything in these books about what they appear to be about. Through verbal sleights of hand, she writes these convoluted, elliptical, but somehow, whole and satisfying poems, that arrive at places you rarely could have anticipated at the beginning of the piece.
The most straightforward of these three book, is the first, Saint Monica. When I say straight forward, I use the term guardedly. We learn that Saint Monica is the patron saint of: “abuse victims, alcoholics, alcoholism, difficult marriages, disappointing children, homemakers, housewives, married women, mothers,victims of adultery, victims of unfaithfulness, victims of verbal abuse, widows and wives.” I think it would be fair to say that this explanation of who the saint is, is a guide to the themes explored in this short, but highly entertaining chapbook. To say that the manner in which she chooses to explicate these issues, in unique ways would not be a disservice to the poet or the poems. A random sampling of titles gives you an idea of her unusual perspective: St Monica of the Gauze, ….of the Thaw, ….Composes a Five-Paragraph Essay on Girard’s Theory of Triangular Desire,….Listens to “Freebird” for the First Time,…..Wishes on the Wrong Star.
Both O Holy Insurgency and A Sunny Place with Adequate Water employ a similar, sometimes mind boggling, compilation of arresting themes, not necessarily relative one to the other, grouping phrases and sentences to arrive at something astonishing. If I read the latter correctly, the main themes of the book have to do with aspects of profane and secular love. In some ways she is like the metaphysical poets with multi-layered, often punning, elaborate word games. I continually found myself saying there is no way this technique can work but the more I read, the more I became convinced that not only could it, but it does.
The latter book’s title suggests to me a kind of domestic normalcy, a kind of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, if old Fred lived on a Street of Crocodiles in a place like Kathryn Davis’s recent novel of overlapping existences, Duplex. To use one of her metaphorical conceits, it’s like a coin operated footlocker in some busy railway station of the mind that once opened, unleashes a kind of Pandora’s Box of fantastic creatures. While there is much to admire, even be in awe of in these poems, the technique sometimes becomes both fraught and over reaching, ultimately unsatisfying. There seems to be a disturbing trend among certain cliques of young academic writers, to throw together mind boggling images and expect them to add up to something, based solely on their existence in conjunction with each other ,without clear rhyme or reason for their being there in the first place (on sound and originality only). I would say that Biddinger mostly avoids this trap and in ,well over 160 pages, between these two books, proves herself a formidable voice in modern poetry.
The Maybe I Am Not Qualified to Review These Books Section:
Doug Blazek, Aperture Mirror, Edition Muta.
A friend gave me this book with the admission, “I couldn’t make heads or tails out of any of this.” I assured him I would give it a shot. It became clear, right off, I wasn’t making any more headway than he did. The first piece in a serial poem makes an oblique reference to fluxus, which I came to assume meant this work was meant to be viewed in the vein of that movement of poetic thought. I confess to not being on board with, or enthused by, the Fluxus folks. After seeing a group reading of various Fluxi (is that the plural? is there a plural? who knows?) the only immediate reaction I could give when asked was, “A little of that goes a long way.” A lot of it goes right past me.
A few words about the contents. I hesitate to say poems, because there is no sense, no “meaning” to these, though they look like poems, there are occasional arresting images but these seem to happen by chance. There is structure, but trying to find a unified field of reference by sound, seemed impossible. I will say that the cover, color collage was really cool.
That Mr. Blazek should be recognized for his contributions to the outsider poetry movement from way back when mimeo was The Thing in poetry, is a given. Apparently, these poems are reworking of older poems in new forms. Okay, fine, if that works for you, great. It doesn’t work for me.
I was also struck by the many illustrations in the center of this book which appear to be photographs of nothing. The pieces range from smudges to random streaks of what I assume to be light and other stuff, which struck me as having the emotional content and visual impact of static. In this, they are the perfect accompaniment to the poetry.
Matthea Harvey, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Graywolf.
This collection, I originally called it a “thing” because it didn’t appear to be like any other book of poetry I had ever seen before, confounded this reader. I am in general agreement with critics who considered Harvey’s three prior books as being innovative, highly original, truly exciting pieces of intellectual and poetic brilliance. This one however has all the hallmarks of a gimmick. The sections range from erasures, another “form” of writing I don’t get, to sculpted blocks with stuff inside them, clever little illustrated narratives , and virtual whatnots that seems determined to draw upon popular culture and produce a kind of arty well, thing, of it. I guess I am neither cool enough, or ironic enough, to get on board with this kind of display of bookmaking and writing. Maybe if I lived and worked in New York and made the cultural scene, I would be rhapsodic about this clever piece of well whatnot, thingness. But I am not. Far be it from me to criticize a poet who deservedly won the coolest poetry prize of all, The Kingsley Tufts, one hundred thousand dollar award. This thing just doesn’t work for me.
On the very large plus side in this section is Yuko Otomo’s Study (Ugly Duckling Press). Otomo is so well versed, so far beyond my meager familiarity with the fine arts, that I don’t feel qualified to feel anything but total respect and awe of her ability to bring such a diverse grouping of art forms to life. This is the ultimate book, at least that I have seen, for people who revere the ekphrastic form. Furthermore, these poems are not merely reactive or descriptive, but project often deeply personal reflections. The presentation is clean and easy to read with lots of white space. A hearty bravo to the poet and the press.
Back in the Comfort Zone:
T.K. Splake, Long White Memories.
What can I say about Splake? Maybe the late cabbie poet Dave Church said it best when he remarked that Splake,” had more energy than a hive full of angry hornets.” I guess when you are battling “rat bastard time” you have to keep driving fast and hard and that’s what Splake does here. I heard yesterday, early Fall as I write this, that Upper Peninsula got “slammed: big time with snow. The long white, of course, refers to the all pervading Siberian Winters beyond imagining to those of us outlanders below the Mackinaw Bridge. Splake eases us into the great White North with some short, clipped poems, like small, Alberta Clippers before the siege of real snow that comes later in the longer, often darker poems. The battle is not only against the elements, but it is the process of life itself, of aging, and of loneliness, as affairs of the heart end badly and companionship becomes harder, then virtually impossible to find. It is a lonely existence but not one without rewards. The irrepressible poet’s latest collection shows just what a real reward is: poems for the heart that touches us all.
Helen Vitoria, Corn Exchange, Wild Chestnut Press.
The cover of this book sent a subliminal suggestion that this was not your typical idyllic country farm, but something like the Merrill Field, a place where dead bodies turn up on a fairly regular basis. I’ve never read or seen Children of the Corn but if they needed a back up field, this one is probably available for a modest fee. Field of Dream ball players need not apply.
All silliness aside, Helen Vitoria, a poet previously unknown to me, is an accomplished poet who handles a variety of styles with ease. Her work ranges from experimental forms to the deeply personal narrative with equally as satisfying results. I found this book in serendipitous way at an ongoing library book sale on an island off the coast of Rhode Island and read it straight through without expecting much at the beginning, but was totally engaged by the end. Sometimes the greatest gifts are the most unexpected ones.
John Yamrus, Alchemy, Epic Rites.
Yamrus has been around, seemingly, forever. His highly conversational, no bullshit, unadorned style provides us with a few details of the poet’s life one of which is his first collection was published in 1970. Some 45 years later, here he is, still slaving away in the poetry trenches, more alive and full of gumption today than most people are in their coming of age years. Alchemy is an appropriate title as this collection, one that he has billed as his best, is filled with a seemingly effortless grasp of the poetic form he has chosen, a no nonsense, direct poetics of short clipped liens that read like a cross between Todd Moore and Charles Bukowski on an ornery day. Make no mistake about it, though, Yamrus is his own man and he doesn’t care who knows it. One of my favorite, really short poems, quoted in full, is the following,i
What the poet is suggesting here, as he does repeatedly throughout this ample collection of close to two hundred pages is, don’t try to file me, spindle me, mutilate me or compare me to a group or groups of writers. Yamrus is a group of one and is he has a poetic philosophy it can be summed up in his poem Jesus Christ!
on two wheels
In addition to the poems, this book has a highly readable introduction, which is more of an appreciation than a delectation or examination of the author’s finer points. A poet who ascribes to the poem quoted above, needs none. In your face, grotesque artistry by Janne Karlsson compliment the poems.
John Sweet, The Century of Dreaming Monsters, Lummox Press.
Sweet’s chapbook is the first winner of, what promises to be an annual competition, with winners chosen by the press’s editor in chief, R.D. Armstrong , from entrants to the competition from submissions to his annual anthology, now in its third year of publication. Sweet addresses the reader in an unadorned, relentless voice, that ranges from depressed to really depressed, to depressed beyond belief. While it is not difficult to imagine Sweet sitting at a bar at last call, still wearing his sunglasses firing down a pint of Stout with a Jameson’s depth charge, ready for another morning watching the sun gradually come up, in between bouts of creativity at the keyboard. Despite these forlorn images, one could easily imagine Sweet listening to Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits , “It’s four in the morning, the end of December, New York is cold/I’m writing you now to see if your better/ New York is cold but I like where I’m living/There’s music on Clinton Street, all through the evening….” and there is music in Sweet’s words, dark music and all of it in a minor key, some of it so heart achingly real and expressive, it threatens to take your breath away.
Karen Skolfield, Frost in the Low Areas, Zone 3 Press.
Skolfield walks that incredibly tight line between darkest black humor and dead serious. It’s a tough balancing act but she is more than able enough to manage it. Rarely can a poet take something so ordinary as school Art Project , the making of a papier mache earth and turn it into a, much deserved, award winning poem, with universal implications.
Much of Skolfield’s work is family oriented, evoking her two children and husband, as the center of both her actual and metaphorical universe. The poem ”Skeleton Key” could be read as a primer for children, some of her best, most visceral pieces, are framed as explanations of objects and things, to children, often in ways that are totally unexpected: deceptive or inaccurate but always for a reason that expands both your knowledge of the world she is inhabiting. In the poem “Chiromancy” the narrator deflects the reader and her children from the horrific injury she has accidently inflicted upon herself while cutting an avocado. Rather than addressing the issue of the wound, she hides her hand under the table and tells the children, “Did you know that knife is one of those funny words that starts with a silent k…” Her poem “Ode to the Fan” is an ingenious exercise in amelioration of a standard household appliance, “The only thing I smuggled from my parents’ house.” Through an expansion of details and incidents the fan achieves an almost mythic quality. Skolfield left her parents house to join the service for seven years as an enlistee, a time she said she loved. At the reading of selections from this book she promised a new series of poems derived from the Army Training manual. The one included in this book, “Army Smart Book: On Being Lost” is both hilarious and scary. I’ll quote the first couple of lines to give a flavor of the situation of a soldier in basic training by the book:“Step #1: Berate yourself for not taking a buddy to go pee.
Step#2: Don’t panic. You may choose to a)yell and wake up one of the other girls or b)stay quiet, embarrassed to speak. With option b), move deeper into the woods.
#3:It’s your first time away from home.
#4:When your toes hit the ocean, you’ll know you’re screwed……..”
Rob Cook, Asking My Liver for Forgiveness, Rain Mountain Press.
It is one thing to read a book and offer a critical judgment of that book as an object, separate from the creator, on the other hand, that approach denies the obvious, but all too real fact that the author is a person. This is a problematic book, almost impossible to review. Cook is suffering from a dread ailment that has infected his liver, the cause of which is somewhat nebulous, but essentially, unimportant. The fact is, the person is now a prisoner of the failing organ. The poet’s attempts to externalize the liver, to imbue it with a quality and life of its own, is an ambitious one. At their best, some poems manage the odd, surreal sense of dual existence, a kind of twilit zone of odd juxtapositions, in search of a clear resolution, which may or may not be the health of the organ (the body). The reader is both inside and out, as the poet is, in this strange new world. Other times, though, poems feel unrealized and unable to complete the journey out into this world but perhaps, that is the point after all. This is an extraordinary collection, a testimony of a man at war with his body and trying to make sense of it and carry on. On a purely practical level, I would have included the afterword as a preface. The reader absolutely must have some knowledge of the situation the poet is trying to make sense of and define. I knew the general outline but many readers will not and in a work as unconventional and as challenging as this one, the reader needs a guide to help lead the way.
Mea Culpa Department:
I owe Alexis Ivy an apology on two counts for my review of her book A Romance with Small Time Crooks. First for the Godawful typo in the title where I write Crocks instead of Crooks.
And second for my literal reading of the book. I confess to sometimes falling into the trap of taking a piece on face value and ignoring, hammer to the thumb, obvious clues that I should do otherwise. The clue I ignored was the Romance in the title, which suggests all too plainly, that this is a tale, a noir, a fiction not a, this-happened-to-me tale. Regardless of my egregious mistakes and careless proof reading, I stand by my contention that the book is terrific; an exciting read especially for this who like gritty “realism” in their reading material. So Alexis, if you read this, please forgive me.
The Not Poetry Review:
A.D. Winans, Dead Lions, Punk Hostage Press.
Anyone who has been around the small press publishing scene knows the name A.D. Winans. Furthermore, if it happened in the North Beach Scene in the last, say, fifty years or so, Winans was there and knew the people involved intimately. This brief memoir is divided into four section, each one dedicated to a different writer. Three of the writers are poets and one is the screenwriter/ novelist, Alva Bessie, one of the lesser known victims of the McCarthy black listing purges in the 50’s. The poet sections are Jack Micheline, Bob Kaufmann, and the last and longest, Bukowski. Each piece, written as separate essays, but collected here for the first time, and appropriately so, provide a vivid first hand reminiscence of the intersecting of Winans lives with theirs. All of them vivid, all of them real and alive once again in the hand of a deft chronicler of the age.
Back to Poetry Review:
Paul B. Roth, Long Way Back to the End, Rain Mountain Press.
I’m not sure if there is a definitive definition of exactly what prose poetry is. Even more difficult, to define just what good prose poetry is. Maybe all we can do is stick with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition for what he thought pornography was, “I know it when I see it.” I will offer a few stipulations I think apply to the making of excellent prose poems: that there be a heightened sense of reality, often surreal, with a strong, sensual language with odd juxtapositions. Perhaps, the ultimate master of the prose poem the late, lamented, Russell Edson, who could blow your socks off, with the strangest, craziest pairings of bizarre incongruities, yielding a kind of Kafkaesque universality. His almost fairy tale like characters seemed more than real that, in attempting to describe what he does, it seems impossible, elusive, and crazily allusive, in ways that just couldn’t possibly work. Roth doesn’t quite go to those far ends of the spectrum, but what he does is keep us in that’special place where every moment, every place he describes, seems electrically charged. Sometimes his world feels remote and impersonal, as if we are dropped into a bad dream of endless impossibilities becoming tangible, and then, we are startled awake, to find that what we have experienced, is not a dream at all but life itself. There is a strong sense of sorrow and loss to these poems, as if the attainable is just out of reach or had been grasped, let go, and is now impossible to retrieve. This is a brief, spare collection, almost Spartan in the use of language, but this only serves to heighten the intensity. Not a word or a phrase wasted, and that, in itself, is a rarity.
Leslie Anne Mcilroy, Slag, Main Street Rag.
Leslie is angry, no that is not strong enough, Leslie is extremely pissed off, at the rape culture that pervades the country today. Living in a city, as Leslie does, where the star football player’s idea of dating before marriage was picking out a young woman, having his posse hold her powerless while he had his way with her, and then throwing money at her after to prevent charges from being filed. This is a documented fact, so small wonder, as a mother of a young teenage girl Leslie is, both horrified and angry, about what men do to women against their will. This is a vital work of vibrant poetry that touches upon other subjects equally as topical as the one she is most concerned with.
Michael Miller, The First Thing Mastered, Tebot Bach.
Miller’s work is a highly lyrical journey through the cycle of life beginning with the (presumably) author’s birth, through childhood and the intervening years leading up to the birth of his own child. The tone is expertly controlled with expressive language that makes the reader feel as if this is a poet sure of his voice and in complete control of his material. Rarely, as in the poems: “Waking,” “Prize,” “Gift”, “Boy at the Backyard Pond”, “Four and Half” and others that followed, is childhood so keenly observed and rendered. The childhood poems brought to mind Joyce’s exquisite story, “Araby”, one of the finest, complete, expressions of childhood experience I can think of. Miller shows continually throughout this collection that one man’s experiences, while not overtly extraordinary, is the stuff of Art.
Alexis Fancher, How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and other heart stab poems, Sybaritic Press.
I think I would not be going out on a limb to declare that Alexis would not be a Wallflower at the Orgy. In fact, she would be in the middle, perhaps part of a daisy chain of mixed sexes enjoying the hell out of whatever was happening now, or what came down later on.
Her poetry is decidedly adult in nature, decidedly not, for those squeamish about matters sexual. But to categorize her as only an erotic poet does her skill as a writer and observer of character, an injustice. Granted her observations verge on over-the-double-yellow-lines into sleaziness, she is as unsparing in her self-examination, as she is of her, erstwhile and, often inconstant, lovers. In addition to these consistently tough, in your-face-poems, the book is copiously illustrated by a wide variety of excellent photographs taken by the author.
Benevolent Bird Press recently distributed its, roughly, annual packet including two lovely poetry pamphlets of six pages: Wafer and Wine by Paulette Swaryzfager and the Water Bill by Martha Deeds, and two chapbooks: Howard J Kogen, General Store Poems, crisp narratives about the poet assimilating himself into a new, rural community through encounters at the local gathering spot, the eponymous general store. Marcas W. O. Brianin (Mark O’Brien), Lenticular Memories are family memories refracted through a lens of memory described by the poet as “epigenetic family poems is many things, fuzzy and focused, conscious and unconscious, muscular and deeply rooted….”
Bouncy House by Michael Estabrook, Green Zone Editions. Whimsical, often amusing poems from the daily life of the poet, often evoking his beloved wife and extended family. Amusing, wry and clearly spoken, in everyday language, without poetic pretentions.
Laurel Speer, Kirsten Poems, special Geryon Edition. This compact group of collected poems were written over decades about the poet’s daughter. This small, heartfelt collection is a celebration and a memorial for a child who died young after many years of debilitating illnesses. It is a rare memorial that truly commemorates a life lived, of a cherished child, without overt sentiment or breast beating grief. With pictures by the author.
R.D. Armstrong, Tools of the Trade, LostCasa de Cinco Editions. Armstrong was a working man in the trades until illness made him unable to work. The poems in this brief collection celebrate the working man, the unions, in the spirit of Joe Hill, organizer and unionist and general trouble maker for the bosses. Included in this selection is the stirring winner of the Joe Hill Poetry Prize, “Post Hole Digger”. Workers of the World Unite!
John Crouse, Sonnets, Phrygian Press. What can I say about a book that resembles the sonnet form only in that each poem is fourteen lines. After reading the first selection, and skimming the rest, the reader is aware than the title is a misnomer (joke?) and should have been Anti-sonnets. In fact, calling it Anti-sonnets would have given the collection a reason for existing. As it stands it is a collection of clever, unrelated phrases, without pretense of formulating sense or meaning. Crouse has been publishing formal verse of this and, other kinds, often in blocks that look like word search jumble puzzles, without real words inside to be ferreted out, which are extended sentences, I guess, that is something of a challenge to read. I know I have never finished one. (also a joke?). I mean after awhile trying to read words pushed together in block form without spacing or punctuation they might as well all be symbols or passwords to computer files. Regardless of intent, the joke grows thin after a few lines, and redundant after a few more, and therein lies the tale.
W.E. Butts, Story and Luck Last Poems, Adastra Press. Yet another of the ongoing, handmade book project by publisher and poet Gary Metras. These final works represent uncollected pieces in Butts’ signature, lively, acutely observant, poetically precise, style. A fitting final poetic statement from a terrific poet.
Caleb Curtiss, A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us, Black Lawrence Press (winner of their annual chapbook competition). The poems in this collection range from the oblique and stylistically unusual, to a visceral, plain spoken, personally painful statements, about the sudden, violent death of a beloved sister (intentional suicide or car crash victim? no one will ever know for sure). The intentionally oblique poems, seem to me unnecessarily obscure and self-defeating, reducing the subject to a construct, instead of a felt thing, as in the heart breaking Self Portrait poems. Despite my reservation about the unnecessary, overly poetic pieces, perhaps, I am just too obtuse to appreciate the effort. Regardless, this is a collection well worth reading as it is clearly written from a sense of deep loss and love.
Gary Metras, The Moon in the Pool, Presa Press. This is the latest volume of an ongoing project to bring work of long established but under recognized poets, into print. While not specifically a selected poems, many of these were written over a long period of time, representing some of Gary’s finest work. Of special interest is the long, opening poem, “Seven Stones for Seven Poems” with an epigram from Theodore Roethke that says, “the stony garden of the spirit grows.” This collection shows that Metras’ is still growing, will, hopefully continues to grow, write (and print amazing handmade books) for a long time to come.
John Campbell, Anvil O’Malley Writes and Having Writ Moved On. The octogenarian poet John Campbell makes no claim to poetic depth or profundity in his work. As his brief bio relates, he came to poetry late in life and clearly enjoys playing around with words. The title is a homage to Omar Khayyam and a celebration of life often in witty, almost epigrammatical lines. Campbell does offer the aspiring poet one piece of sage advice, “Start early.” Indeed.
Gene McCormick, C’est la Vie. Our estimable Artist in Residence's recent visit to Paris in twenty-one numbered poems is lavishly illustrated by paintings of the Parisian scene. Unable to visit Paris? Read Gene’s book and he’ll take you there. It’s the next best thing to a real trip and a whole lot less expensive. Contact the magazine for details how you can make this collection your own or direct inquiries to Gene McCormick, PO Box 51, Wayne Il 60184.
Self Indulgent Review Quote from a review of my book by Arnold Skemer in his “mostly” poetry journal ZYX on Books of the Dead: A Memoir with Poetry:
“The images are horrific, starting off with his going through his mother’s death room at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women at 30 East 30th Street in Manhattan Room 641. His central purpose as the search for legal and financial documents in this ruin of her existence. It’s all a descent into madness with evidence of his mother’s deranged beliefs. Insanity has its funny side to those who are not emotionally connected to it. Catlin’s adventures in Room 641, wandering through the wreck of her life in this mare’s nest of psychosis has is moments, of her “raging manifestos,” an amanuensis for the beyond real, of abstruse wisdoms that make no sense, “Palimpsestuous texts. Scribblings in many hands/ all her own but fragmented/ in so many pieces none could/be called a true voice.” A crazy woman, “living in the attic of her mind.” Whether he liked it or not, all this hanged the way he came to know things. Life was transformed and her vision of it skewed his perceptions. He had to transport himself out of this cavern of hell and lunacy. There’s more here, much more, that can be summarized in a brief review, of the madness of the world that surround us and impinges in our own blood ties, that singes our nostrils with its sharp sensations, its awful presence.”