Books Received & Acknowledged
Joan Colby, Carnival, Future Cycle Press, futurecycle.org, available in paperback $15.95 and as a kindle book, 103 pages, 2016.
Joan Colby never fails to amaze and amuse. Her latest superb book, Carnival, is no exception. The opening and concluding sections, specifically deal with circus life, focusing on one aspect of the show: the sword swallower, the cooch dancer, cotton candy and so on, creating a collage of the larger circus experience.
Each poem is self-contained but together they form a mosaic of life “under the big tent” even when some of that life is outside the tent itself. Sideshows, the middle section, deviates somewhat thematically, shifting focus to mythic creatures (Medusa), fairy tale characters (Little Red Riding Hood), fictional characters (Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn), supernatural (zombies, vampires), all sharing a common aura of mystery. She slyly inserts Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary, The Pied Piper of Hamlin, and the final poem of the book, Circus Maximus, which makes you question all that you have read before.
Yes there is gaiety, laughter, and an almost manic energy to the circus experience but beneath the façade there is the lurking fear, a sense of real menace. Aren’t most fairy tales dark and, well, grim? Isn’t nonsense poetry basically unrestrained violence? Isn’t the Pied Piper a parent’s worst nightmare, a charismatic charmer luring their children away from home to what unknown, awful fate? If you don’t know what Circus Maximus is look it up. And reread Carnival as I am now.
Ruth Bavetta, Flour, Water, Salt, Future Cycle Press, futurecycle.org available in paperback $15.95 and as a kindle book, 73 pages, 2016.
As the title suggests, Flour, Water, Salt, is an unabashedly domestic book, often centering on the kitchen, where the poet makes homemade bread using the title ingredients. You don’t have to be married for 45 years or so as I have been, to find these poems are a delight to read. If you have been in a long-term relationship, so much the better. I don’t mean to suggest that Bavetta is just some little old lady, come late to poetry, who feels driven to sum up a life time of nothing much. Quite the contrary. She is a poet of deft skills and has an almost uncanny ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. Quoted below is a poem I read my wife (of 46 years) before she made us an appetizer of an orange and fennel salad.
When I was a kid we called it finocchio
and my mom bought it at the Italian grocery
or we picked it where it grew wild
in the empty lots of Los Angeles.
Now I buy it at my local market, the one
known for its gourmet stock.
They call it “sweet anise.”
I guess they think their customers
can’t pronounce finocchio.
The other day a sweet young thing
rang up my groceries.
“Oh,” she said, swinging the soft green plumes,
the sensuous white bulb,
into a plain brown paper bag,
I will never see fennel again, or sweet anise, without recalling this poem. Poetry is where you find it: sometimes at home, sometimes in the grocery store. Not everyone can find it, but Bavetta certainly is one of the rare ones who can find poetry wherever she is.
Dave Roskos, Lyrical Grain, Doggerel Chaff, & Pedestrian Preoccupations, Cat in the Sun Press, 5 Edgewood Road, Binghamton, N.Y. 13903, 165 pages, 2016 no price listed.
What can you say about a book which has perhaps the coolest and most appropriate blurb of all times, “Lots of bullshit, a few good lines.” The blurb, obviously not specifically for this book, is by long dead Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. Still, it seems to sum up Dave Roskos work completely. I would give him credit for more than a few good lines and less bullshit than Ginsburg probably had in mind. Specifically, Roskos poems on his social work suggests that, it is not the degree that makes someone a social worker, it is the heart and soul the worker puts into his work with people, that makes him one. All of the, usually short poems, on that subject are spot on, as are his poems on the horrors and evils of addiction. You know Dave has been there and you are thankful that he made it through the abyss and back, to continue writing, living and just getting on with it. Roskos, is a long-time editor and small press wizard from the old school of and there are damn few of us left. All hail the survivors! Illustrations by the dynamic duo, Angela Mark and Michael Shores, plus Loring Hughes and the author’s wife, collagist Jen Denford, compliment that poems.
All Hail the Queen
So sue me. I broke my vow to not read, write about, or otherwise concern myself with anything by the Queen of the small presses writes. I hereby brak my vow. I admit, I was sucked in by the title of her new book from Transcendent Zero Press, # Alive Like a Loaded Gun. That the book has nothing to do with the title should not be a surprise to anyone who has read her work in the past. I know I wasn’t surprised, but I admit, I was a trifle disappointed in a not-as-advertised way. But, then, I should have known better. It is the Queen after all.
Rather than write a review of the book itself, I am going to write an All Purpose Review as: Let’s face it, all of her books are of a kind, show no real depth of understanding, nor progress as a writer. Perish the thought! She hasn’t been ordained the Queen of the small presses for nothing; she is above reproach, and menial tasks such as culling a manuscript, editing, and discriminating between bad and good. One wonders if, at this late stage of her career, she can make such discriminations. So rather than denigrate a book that is neither as bad or as good as many of her efforts, and thereby insult the press, which is a small, financially strained one, I will enumerate 10 cardinal points that apply to most all her recent books published in the last 30 or so years (which I have read the bulk of, though not all). These points will, no doubt, apply to all future ones, as well. And there will be more books. You can count on it because The Queen is all about persistence and “productivity”. She must have a garage or two full of unpublished poems in manuscript by now. This is not an exaggeration.
In writing this essay, and devising the title for it, I will draw upon two seminal essays by Mark Twain: “Fenimore Cooper Literary Offenses” and “The Awfulness of the German Language”. I undertake this explication knowing full well that no writer resists analysis more effectively than The Queen. That a book was written by the late Hugh Fox, for which he received his Doctorate in Literature, is a testimony to his prowess as a thinker and his sense of humor. This is a man who wrote as Connie Fox in ways that made one appreciate the breadth of his perverse sense of humor and perspective. That Lyn Lifshin: A Critical Study remains a book that is laugh out loud funny, even at times hysterically so, as he stretches points to fit a theoretical construct. A Critical Study is lasting tribute to just how far you can stretch the limits of academic studies and not get caught faking it.
The Awfulness of Lyn Lifshin’s Literary Offenses
1-Never use one word when many will do. Say, guys who play sports for athlete, that always works or October 31st for Halloween or well any multi-phrases that could be summed up in one word.
2- Misplace your modifiers. Modifiers are best used after the word modified, often to hilarious results. Leave them dangling, those are the best. Also, whenever possible do not check your spell check for mistakes like being lost in the dessert (a favored typo). Which happened more often than you might think. Spell margarita wrong, three different ways, in one online book.
3-Rememeber to make all of your poems read just like every other poem you have ever written in the same style. Include, what reads like seventy different drafts for one poem, in a book. Always use to same analogies: rose scented, onyx colored, velvet touch........and whenever possible reference your mother, denigrate your sister and your ex...... And why oh why didn’t you change your name back to your maiden one when you obviously hated being married to that guy so much? Is this because you are half-assed feminist (which you are, and by which I mean, not a committed one, just one who picks and chooses what suits her at any given time) or is it because you are too lazy to go through the legal process or strictly for professional reasons? Whatever. You could have changed it when you started out like a normal person, but you did not. And while we’re on the subject, how did that defamation suit you sister filed against you go? And please, oh please stop lamenting about the daughter you didn’t have: You Chose not to have children. Isn’t that why you got divorced in the first place?
4-Remember when you are writing about someone or something else, it’s always about you.
5-Never, ever put a whole compound word in one poetic line. This is a violation of some sort rule that makes sense only to you: Thou shalt break all compound words in two so that the reader must be startled by the abruptness of the break and recalibrate. It is not just jarring, it is annoying. Allowing publication of poems that have words being left off the end so they don’t make any sense (see online book I believe since taken down by the press). And allow those spell check errors. They create ambiguity in the reader’s mind (an actual thought shared by the poet: one with an editor, the other with your humble reviewer) I assert strongly this is not ambiguous, it is careless and confusing.
6-Always use the first-person voice. Always,without fail, in every instance because see 4.
7-When stuck for phrase or a subject, steal. Once upon a time I was much taken with her book Blue Tattoo, until I read a review on Amazon that suggested most of those poems were lifted wholesale from a book and the movie “Shoah”. I began watching the movie, and while I have not read the book, don’t even recall the title, I knew he was right. After all she once told me that she used to watch movies up to ten hours at a time during the marathon typing sessions of her notebooks. As it takes her roughly two minutes to write a poem, as a rule, tops, she has lots of poems to type (see garage full of manuscripts) I have seen write this way with my own eyes. One no longer wonders at the volume of her output or the similarity to it. And familiarity of it. She often quoted Eliot about great artists stealing but she missed the implication, the most important part, they don’t get caught as she has. (or make it integral to the work you have created, ie .“The Wasteland”). Caught, more than once, I might add. I am not making this up.
8-Never write one or two poems on a subject when you can write hundreds, thousands even. When we still spoke, she mentioned to me that she was having a great deal of trouble editing Licorice Daughter down to a size the press could print. I asked her how many was that? Well it was 1,200 to start with but I’ve got it down to five or six hundred now.....If you need an example of beating a subject to death read her “horsey” books.
9-When you can’t make up your mind which version of a poem you want to print include the exact same poem in two different forms, varying line lengths, but changing nothing else, in the same book. I counted four times that happened in the hash tag book, though the editor acknowledged only two.
10-Continue your quest to write the perfect bad poem (see 8) Every collection must have at least one nearly perfect, absolutely terrible poem. with bad grammar, improper syntax, laughable analogies, and perverse reasoning, so jumbled no one could unravel it’s meaning. I refer you to page 25 in the most recent book for the poem “Ice Maiden’s 232 SOS. It maybe my imagination and I am too unmotivated to go up into my unheated attic to find the book for the perfect example of a book with schizophrenia (partially edited by the editor/publisher, totally unedited by the poet) where the Ice Maiden’s appeared previously. Or their cousin’s. See 3
Editor’s note I braved the icy fingers of death into the attic and found the book with the ice Maiden’s in it. It is called Desire and if tables of contents can be believed (not always a sure thing with Lyn) most of Icy poems appeared previously in that book, without citation, in hash tag. (which is not unusual as she is very cavalier about citations as with everything else. To be fait to the publisher she is noted for sending out bizarre, hastily, even haphazard assembled manuscripts).
Further, if you must read The Queen, read her poems quickly, because they can deceive you into thinking they are much better than they are. They are like cotton candy, so much fluff, immediately gratifying, but they don’t last. One wonders how good she might have been, she has considerable poetic gifts, if she restrained herself or employed an editor.
Ah, and whenever possible use a photo of yourself that is so unrepresentative of what you look like now, as to be laughable . Yes, it was catty of me, decades ago, when I first observed that she always used a photograph of herself that was almost thirty years old. Now it is ridiculous to observe that that same photo is fifty years old. After all, consider, in her words that I am “a schlub”, “a non-entity who didn’t make it”, “who is trying to ruin her career” ( ed. note. contradiction in terms?) I leave ruining her legacy that to herself. She is doing a fine job without my help.
The Notorious Nine:
Far and away the worst book of poetry ever by a so-called major publishing phenomena, is:
1-When a Cat Dies. This is the perfect example of less is more. Told as journal of days after a beloved pet does. Yes it is sad, I have grieved the loss of an animal, cats especially, but you need to get over it. Sixty plus poems of this is an assault with the written word and should be prosecuted.
Editor’s note: I double checked the Kitty book and it is 21 days of journal entries of mourning but the page count was correct. My sentiments remains unchanged.
2-For the Roses. This paean to Joni Mitchell is an insult to a great singer, song writer, and performer. Stop with the Roses. Stop repeating yourself. Just stop.
3-Ballroom- Okay, cool, Lyn dances. Obsessively (is there any other way for her to do anything?) It is a laudable enterprise hurting no one (you can see her tango on her website. It is almost as funny as it sounds. While it is remarkable that someone of her advanced age can tango, it comes off as dress-up/make believe posing of a perpetual adolescent. Check out her photo album of her in a pink mini reading at Caffe Lena a few years ago. (That is if she hasn’t removed it yet. A sensible person would.) This book has the notorious seventy plus drafts for one poem that works pretty well ( #69). Do not indulge in this nonsense.
4-Secretariat: The Red Freak, Barbara Beyond Brokenness, The Licorice Daughter These are the major race horsey books. I list them in descending order which corresponds to the reverse order in which they were published. By the time you get to Secretariat, if you can make it that far, you are screaming Enough! Basta ! No Mas!
5-Marilyn Monroe, all the Barbie Books, Madonna Books...... I pick Marilyn first because it is the most unique of all creations, an unintentional self-parody. I know Lyn can’t help inserting herself into the lives of strong, notable women in order to boost her self-esteem. Really, it would be so much easier on everyone if she just grew up.
6-Jesus Christ Live and in the Flesh. Blasphemous is the first word that comes to mind. This is the premier example of making more judicious choices in your persona poems. This would be the worst choice possible.
7-To All the Poet’s Who Touched Me- This book makes the list for one reason: it promises so much and delivers so little. The first couple of poems show a strong concept, decent execution, and a vivid imagination. But then she beats the idea to pulp with a sledge hammer and then drives over it in her car to make sure that is dead. Poetic road kill.
8-Katrina. It isn’t enough that Lyn has to insert herself into the lives of notable women and girls, here she appropriates a natural disaster. Some people have no boundaries. (See Malala, a book I refuse to read as she rips off the title of an anthology she was in, to muddy the publishing waters. Not to mention it is unseemly to even think of her acting in the name of a true international hero. She has a distressing habit of appropriating news items and people, such as The Unabomber, for personal poetic gain, not caring that there are people who are still affected by him in a personal way. David Kaczynski, the Unabomber ‘s brother, has written a wonderful, heartfelt memoir, of his moral and personal crisis dealing with the understanding of his brother’s actions and realizing he had no viable choice but to turn him in before he could injure more people. Choices and decisions Lyn could not understand as she is too busy appropriating other people’s pain and latching on to other people glory, like some kind of poetic moray eel . Lifshin’s flippant usage of the voice/person of Unabomber is offensive. Malala is in the same league as this. I have read several of the poems that are included in the collection in the aforementioned anthology and elsewhere).
9- Hitchcock Hotel, a kindle book. Here the poet gracelessly appropriates the Hitchcock person in particular his movie, “The Birds”. We get the idea he has an unhealthy obsession with blondes. We do not need twenty-three poems expounding on this well known fact. By the end of this collection we wish the poet had been pecked to death instead of Suzanne Pleshette.
Of special note two of her book should win awards for worst covers ever. By far the worst is The Madonna Who Shifts for Herself (a cover, to be fair, she did not approve before book publication) which features a person who looks like Tiny Tim,” the singer” with a hangover, and no ukulele, shifting a car. And Blue Dust, New Mexico, an otherwise decent book, in her spare, descriptive phase she does so well in Rooms and the Shaker poems, with what appears to be a gleaming razor blade affixed to a finger resting on a steering wheel. Closer inspection reveals it is a ring, somewhere New Mexico.
On a more positive note:
Our Art editor, Gene McCormick has just released his latest collection, Obsessions available from Middle Island Press PO Box 354 West Union, WV, 26456 or at firstname.lastname@example.org for $16, 111 pages, 2016.
In the publisher’s promotional flyer Gene describes his book as a novel, a short story, a book-length narrative poem. All apply equally well. The book is, as he says, what the author wants to call it. I see Obsessions in the poetic novel category, a “genre” I have been fascinated with for years.
The first modern example of poetry sequences as novel I was taken by was, Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, a novel, written in the 80’s, about the 60’s, in sonnets. Many sonnets, Hundreds of pages worth. Imagine my skepticism when I heard that description. I read the book straight through and was struck by his command of the form, the integration of all the necessary elements of narrative: character development, advancing plot lines and a clear resolution. Several years later, I returned to the book to see of my initial impressions were correct and indeed they were.
I read other impressive, international, collections over the years. One was Freddy Neptune, by Les Murray, and ugly, often distressing, and not always successful, book length narrative of Australians during World War I. I could not enter into the world of Anne Carson’s, Red an Autobiography and Red, though, believe me, I tried several times. It was just, for the lack of a better phrase, too much style. I was more taken with Michael Ondaatje’s, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and later, Coming Through the Slaughter which could be described as novels in collage using poetry as prime narrative element. Anne Carson would chime in again with a related effort, Nox, which is more of a memoir than a novel, of her wayward brother’s life but relates directly to the collage style. Perhaps, the work that Gene’s Obsessions reminded me most of was Canadian poet Cathy Porter, whose Monkey’s Paw is a true noir, a mystery told in spare language with all the elements of a good novel or black and white movie form the 40’s and the 50’s. But McCormick has one talent, one abiding narrative trick that is not a trick at all, that Porter does not have: he is a visual artist and he writes like one.
Consequently, I see Obsessions as a series of Still Lives with People, animated by a strong, if languid, (world weary) first person, narrative voice. We see everything through the eyes of this man of indeterminate age (mature) who appears rootless and disconnected from everything but his routines. These routines, well, obsessively, bring him into contact with a series of women who shape the narrative content of this book.
I have described McCormick’s work in terms of the artist Edward Hopper and this is particularly relevant in this book. If you think it is impossible to structure a work of art on a series of images you haven’t seen Chris Marker’s move “La Jetee” (later re-imagined as “12 Monkeys”. “La Jetee” is a short subject told completely in still photos that has a definite beginning, middle and an end. Also clear character development, plot and resolution) and you haven’t read this book.
Consider the scenes as Hopper paintings (or better as McCormick’s):
A 7-11 in the rain. Dull gray with neon, water dripping from an overhang, a parked car in the foreground, fogged windows.
Along-the-side-of-an-outside-of a major urban-area highway strip mall. Blur of cars caught in time. Deciduous trees alongside the road all leaves gone. Gray skies.
Inside the 7-11- : A guy in a bomber jacket by the coffee machine filling his to-go cup. All the stuff on the counter that goes with it. The edge of the counter where a not quite old Indian lady stands. The pull rack snacks, rows of cigarettes on the wall. All the stuff of 7-11’s everywhere for all time.
Later: A Wal-Mart parking lot. Drizzle.
In the same mini-mall as the box store: Chinese restaurant, Kinkos, Consignment store.....
And nothing out of the ordinary happens.
No gun shots.
Some occasional, almost sex.
A public park on major holidays.
Chance encounter with a woman that may not be a chance encounter, is in fact a set-up for something.
One concrete image succeeding another in black and white.
And in color.
The reader can see the images unfolding as they happen. Subliminally, viscerally, vividly. This is a remarkable work. Call it what you want, I call it a remarkable achievement, a must for all serious readers.
Lenny Della Rocca, Blood and Gypsies, Anaphora Literary Press, Anaphoraliterary.com, 61 pages, no price listed, 2016.
Lenny’s book is divided into two sections, the longer, more compelling “Blood” and a second, “Gypsies.” As might be expected the “Blood” section is about his extended family and what a colorful bunch they are! The poems here are engaging, amusing, and affectionate. The “Gypsies” section feels less involved on a personal level going for weightier themes often of a topical nature. All in all, Della Rocca comes off as a guy you’d like to sit around with over a large, rich meal, with plenty of red wine and maybe a grappa or two after.
Ally Malinenko, How to Be an American, Six Gallery Press, contact the author at allymalinenko.com for more publishing information, 95 pages, no price listed, 2015.
You know those guys with baseball caps turned backwards crowding the TV lens fingers up thrust in a number 1 gesture? or the folks at Trump Rallies shouting at lines of protestors, “This is white power looks like”? or the section the stands at every international sporting event shouting, USA USA USA? or at political rallies waving American flags proud to be sons and daughters of America Love it or Leave it scions from the 60’s? They’re all in here. So are the ones that spell “America Is Are Country”...read it and weep or laugh out loud. It all depends upon how you look at it, doesn’t it?
R.D. Armstrong, Tracking the Rabbit, Poetry and Musings, Lummox Press, Lummoxpress.com, 34 pages, 2016, $12.
This brief collection centers around the phone call the poet receives telling of the death of the his father. Although he was elderly, suffering from vascular dementia, and not expected to last, the call, when it comes, is a shock. Having had more than a couple of those myself, I can say with authority, that the author’s recriminations of not having spent enough time with his father, of feeling guilty, about not being a good enough son, and, last but by no means, least denial. These are all common reactions and meaningful ones. The central metaphor referred to in the title comes from a post death dream about a rabbit which seems to be intertwined with thoughts about his father’s passing. The image resonates throughout the collection in various, mysterious ways, and is reinforced in photographs interspersed throughout the chapbook. This is a thoughtful, sensitive look at the saddest fate of the human condition; mortality, and our, inevitable, intimate relationship with the end.
Elizabeth J. Colen, What Weaponry, Black Lawrence Press, blacklawrecnepress.com, 81 pages, 2016, $15.95
I am always intrigued by the concept of “poem novels”, sequences that have the heft and weight of a distinctly prose form,(see McCormick review) though with the compressed succinctness of poetry. Colen’s intriguing collection works on both fronts: a progressive narrative made of distinctly separate prose poems that add up to a complete book. Don’t expect lots of character development or spacious scenic descriptions, as the two narrators appear to be living in a kind of near-dream state surrounded by threatening neighbors, a hostile environment and a feeling of general paranoia. The effect is as weird as it is extraordinary, and worth a second reading for the texture of it and a third for the language. This is a unique work and re-enforces the truism even paranoid’s fears can be justified.
Meghan Provitello, Notes at the End of the World, Black Lawrence Press, blacklawrencepress.com, $8,95, 46 pages, 2016.
This is one of those rare books that lifts you up by the seat of your pants on page one and won’t put you down until you’ve reached the end. The reader is compelled forward, hurtling along at a breakneck pace, until you arrive at the finish breathless and wanting more. So why not go back and read this brief collection again at a more relaxed pace, as I did? Provitello gets inside your head by removing the cortex, picking out cells one by one, and replacing them with inventive new ones that are uniquely her own. And now they are part of you. Exciting stuff. No wonder Meghan won a Black Lawrence Chapbook Award.
Mike James, Peddler’s Blues, Main Street Rag Publishing Co., Mainstreetrag.com. $14, 64 pages, 2015.
Peddler’s Blues is rooted in place but in a more general way than Bavetta’s book is. The place for James is more of an area he thinks of as Home. His Dad quit the mill to work on his own and when that didn’t work out, he was welcomed back to the mill, as he always said he would be, but at much less optimal shift. The message is clear: we are glad you’re back but don’t even think about leaving again. Of course, he can’t and won’t. James is a thoughtful man and a clear-eyed observant, as all good poet’s must be. He also has a sense of humor, “Quick Baths” displays a fine wit in aphoristic bits, thought he humor has a slightly jagged edge as “Poem with a Few Gray Hairs” and “The Big Fat Book of Baby Names” show. Whether James is sitting on the back porch at dusk, having a beer or two, or thinking of a farm in Winter, Mike is always a poet whose time it is a pleasure to share.
Carol Frost, Entwined: Three Lyric Sequences. Tupelo Press, Tupelopress.org, $16.95, 122 pages, 2015
A short review for a big book. The three sequences could be seen as wholly independent of each other as they differ so completely, stylistically. The first sequence, “Voyage to a Black Point” is spare, luminous, allusive, and elusive. She seems to be, equally, searching for a new source of light (inspiration) and a tour of hell, depending upon which reading you prefer. Both work. Florida as a metaphor for Hell works for me but I get the luminous part as well.
The second section is “Abstractions” which seems to deal with the theme of adultery and family. I say “seems” as the poems are oblique to the point of downright obfuscation as far as personal details are concerned. Frost is well-known for her reserve in this regard, but maybe you just have had to be there. Or, maybe, I just don’t get it, but these seem very distant emotionally while, one suspects, they are anything but.
There is no such confusion in the masterful third sequence, “Apiary”. The poet’s mother is suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s, and is slowly deteriorating. The broken pieces of her life come and go, as she loses touch with everything she held dear, until nothing is left but fragments like broken kaleidoscope pieces in the sun. The poet’s pain is acute and we feel it deeply.
Francine Witte, Not All Fires Burn the Same, Slipstream, Slipstreampress.com, $10, 32 pages, 2016.
Witte’s book won the longstanding Slipstream annual chapbook contest in 2015 with a series of crisp, lively narrative pieces, the kind the magazine has been known for, for over 30 years. As might be expected in poems taken for life, some are humorous, some are quite personal and close to the edge. Witte appears to be the kind of person who takes more than a few risks in her life as well as in her poetry. You have cheating husbands who do a lot more on their bowling night out than knock down pins, a 12-year-old who was gang raped, and the mover’s wife wondering who the man is she married:
At night, her husband comes home, sinewy
and smudged, drops himself down
on the couch like a heavy carton.
Of course, he is taped shut, but she
can’t help but wonder what’s inside.
Thoughts of other women, purchase orders,
back supports, or maybe a flash of their
first night together here, him cradling her over
the threshold when the future stared back
at them like a blank, unfurnished room.
from “The Mover’s Wife”
Elizabeth Wurz, Cuttings, Blast Furnace Press, blacstfurnacepress.com, 27 pages, $11, 2016.
There is only one major flaw with this book; the print is tiny. I mean really small. So old folks, such as myself,with tired eyes, reliant on glasses, practically have to use a magnifying glass in a good, direct light, to read this very good collection. Wurz writes about her closest relationships, beginning with her father, with whom she had a close but somewhat adversarial relationship. How adversarial is implied in her father’s reaction to her and her partner having a child and bring the child up in a same sex relationship. The bridge poem, in twelve parts, describes her interactions with an aging, now deceased grandmother. The poet discovers family heirlooms after her death and gives these once cherished objects, a new life with her partner, the woman she loves. Transitioning from burying the dead, to building a new home, is like raising new plants from the cuttings of old ones, is the central theme of the remaining poems in the collection. Many of these are deliberately, and often frankly, erotic. Cuttings is the first print chapbook in a new series being launched by Blast Furnace which has maintained a strong presence online for several years.
Arnold Skemer, The School of Zeno, Phrygian Press, 58-09 205th Street, Bayside, N.Y. 11364, 18 pages, $6, 2016.
Arnold’s small collection is a no frills chapbook, the thirteenth in a series that began over 30 years ago. Skemer is the long-time editor and proprietor of the press. He also edits a small, fold out, print journal, ZYX, that began as a forum for the editor’s acerbic, no bull reviews plus essays on the current state of whatever is on his mind. Generally speaking, essay topics relate to the current state of poetics, in both the small and large presses, which Skemer finds full of hypocrisy, high mindedness, and self-serving egotism. You couldn’t go far wrong promoting this point of view. Roughly two decades ago, Arnold shifted the focus of ZYX to include more poetry than prose. By way of context, I have an early chapbook in the series, ESP, and have been a regular contributor of poetry to ZYX.
While I am not well versed in the complexities of Greek Philosophy in general, and the school of Zeno, in particular, I do know that paradoxes are a central focus of these thinkers. I think it would be safe to say that Arnold is contrarian and these poems reflect that. He is a man of wide learning, who seriously thinks about, and considers his craft in both poetry and prose. One area, that I have undervalued, in our long-standing correspondence, is an extremely sly sense of humor. There are times when I cannot tell if Skemer if being satiric or promoting a deeply considered point of view. With this little series of poems, I must conclude, maybe it is both at the same time. I may be way too literal to truly judge this collection, especially when he flirts with autobiography in “The Collector of Philosophers”, to amusing results. These are not easy, melodic poems. The lines are tinged with philosophical ruminations and dense language. The fact that some appeared in the Paradoxism suggests philosophical/mathematical inclinations in a mock serious context. Paradox is the key word here; this book is a paradox, life is a paradox, and the review reduces all to its barest facts, an absurdity.
Gary Kizer, Dead Man Writing, Gravida, checks to Lyn Savitt 264 Walden Street, East Meadow, N.Y. 11940. $12.50 unpaged roughly 50 pages, 2016.
This collection is an extremely limited edition of 40, is in celebration of the poet surviving a near fatal stroke that he was given little chance to survive. The poems about Kizer’s early life depict actions that lead to a lengthy conviction for serious crimes, moved me the most. A visit in prison from a childhood friend, now a priest, who was shunned by all but the poet, leads to a rare sense of community. Kizer’s regrets are many: missing the birth of a son, who dies young, that he never, freely, gets to interact with, his missing being with women, the intense isolation, are all heartfelt, and extremely well wrought work. Apparently, Kizer made a life for himself after prison and this collection is proof that after an incarceration for crimes committed in youth, a time of celebration in old age, is still possible.
Zeina Hashem Beck, 3 Arabi Song, Rattle, rattle.com, $6, 39 pages 2016.
I tried hard not to like this book but in the end I succumbed to the momentum of the poet’s lyrical evocation of life under the gun in the Middle East and beyond. My initial objections were mostly personal ones: strange line endings,which I feel would be better served beginning a new line, poetic forms which generally feel forced to me but are mostly appropriate here, and pages of notes you really need to read to appreciate the context. If the poet’s job is to convince the reader with her voice, then Beck is a true poet as she lived up to the editorial note, “It’s (3 Arabi Songs) a tribute to the Arab world and Arab singers, to refugees and refusal, to hope and home, to sorrow and song. Like no other collection we’ve read, these poems feel absolutely necessary.” This chapbook won the first annual Rattle chapbook contest and deservedly so.
Jennifer Lagier, Camille Abroad, Future Cycle Press, futurecycle.org. , $10.95, 35 pages, 2016.
Jennifer continues her saga of the modern, empowered woman taking her show on the road to Europe, mostly in Spain. While she is intent on asserting herself, as a liberated woman of a certain age, drinking, having sex, and generally enjoying the pleasures of the flesh, all is not pisco sours and flan. In Spain the streets are commandeered by heavily armed paratrooper types, giving the place an air of a police state, suggesting, the future will look like this and future may be now. And older age is a nasty bitch. She confesses every part of her body has its own doctor. The body she used to take for granted now aches, but she is neither discourage nor cowed. Sex is fine, mature sex, with experienced, appreciative partners. Good wine, and the occasional cocktail, is an adequate replacement for over indulgence on whatever made you high. Camille Abroad is the work of fine poet at the top of her powers and all readers, not just women, can enjoy the journey with Camille.
Special Recognition Reviews
Anyone who reads as much poetry as I do, expects to come across maybe one or two exceptional books a year, if that. Last year there was Robin Coste Lewis’s National Book Award Winner, Voyage of the Sable Venus. Her tour de force is, literally, a stunning book, evokes the horrors of slavery in personal terms, in genre bending ways . The second, core section of three, is created from titles of works of art throughout history all, in some way, commenting on the bodies of women. Amazing stuff.
Look, Solmaz Sharif, Graywolf Press, www,graywolfpress.org., $16, 98 pages, 2016.
It seemed inconceivable that anyone would come close to emulating a book like Coste Lewis’s but Solmaz Sharif does in her debut work, Look. Rather than delve into the History of Art the way Coste Lewis does, Sharif employs definitions from a dictionary of the US Department of Defense to assemble these extraordinary poems. These are poems that derive from remote cold, hard “fact”, bureaucratic language but have deep emotional content if on by contrast. Continually Sharif evokes the horror everyday life in the battle zone of Iran. The surface of these poems have a descriptive, matter of fact façade, but Sharif rips the outer layers off and reveals the beating hearts within. Not one of these poems fails the reader.
from Free Mail
My DUMMY, my DUMP,
FENDER and FIREBALL,
where are you now?
TOO LATE to remember
what I meant to write.
In the fifties,
people carried cards
with conversation topics
appropriate to fallout shelters
and Whites Only signs.
I steer through hills of windmills
and an AIRFIELD OF BOMBERS,
pigeon nests gathering
in the quiet engines.
On You Tube, Blackwater
agents MOP UP
from a Najaf roof
like their staving off
zombies. “Fucking niggers”
one says. He reloads
as some let their barrels cool
against the ledge.
He cried when he saw
the video, His boys claim
he’s not a racist. Love,
I’ve started to say such
senseless things: “I know
where he is coming from”
and I’m just doing my job.”
Make no mistake about it, these are poems of witness and of involvement. She refuses to look away and she dares you not to as well.
Michael Salcman, with photos by Lynn Silverman, A Prague Spring, Before & After, Evening Street Press, eveningstreetpress.com, 98 pages, $25, 2016.
To say these exquisite, often poems of mourning, were simply poems of witness undervalues the roll of memory. By recalling his family history, Jews in Europe, in Prague specifically, Salcman performs an act of preservation. Yes, they are mournful, how could they not be, given all those senseless acts of murder and terror inspired by racial hate. By making these acts, these people real as individuals with a history, with families as a living, breathing presence, lives, and histories Salcman makes the reader involved, part of the process of remembering, of loving and living. These poems are the truest an act of love. We must not forget the tragedies that so scarred and ruined generations of his, and countless other families. I would be remiss to not note that Salcman cannot contain himself at times in feeling a justifiable, all too human, rage against the oppressing murdering Nazis. There is no forgiving the hateful slaughter of innocents. A lesser poet would have give in to the temptation to hate more than he loves but this poet is better man than that.
Lynn Silverman’s photos compliment the poems, the places Salcman visits in the city, as he contemplates the past and what these places mean to him now. While reading this book, I continually recalled an exhibit of photographs I saw in the 80’s by Roman Vishniac (that I believe was called Vishniac’s Jews). It is one of only two exhibits that made me openly shed tears in public (the other being Requiem, Photographs by Photographers Killed in Vietnam) All those innocent children in the Warsaw ghetto, their families, their lives soon to be obliterated and all that remains are these photographs. In a way Salcman’s poems speak of his family the way those photographs spoke for the dead Jews of Warsaw. A few sentences cannot do justice to what Salcman has accomplished in this remarkable book. Anyone who has the slightest compassion for the plight of that completely lost generation should read and own.
C. D. Wright, The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All, Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org, $18, 135 pages, 2016.
Wright’s epic title is apt, as this is an epic poem, in small pieces, with recurring themes, images, and ideas that are, in some way, related to the title. For example, The Farolito, is the bar where The Counsel goes to meet his end in Under the Volcano. Wright returns to the book in various contexts throughout the sequence noting the least the life style guide contained in Lowry’s book is one to be shunned at all cost. She asserts, and I agree, is one of the greatest novels ever written sharing, as it does, many of the devices with Ulysses taking place on a single day, Day of the Dead in Mexico . The Box Store is, as might be expected, the ultimate, soul destroying retailer Wal Mart. She considers it a blighter of worlds and landscapes everywhere and is sure to be coming soon, near you. The Poet is the “author” who could be, and often is, a stand by for all poets and writers. I could go on. I leave it to you to read this far-reaching book in order to savor its complexity, it’s wit, and humor, and the liveliness of its imagination. Wright was one of those intellects you marvel at the breadth of, and what she did with this knowledge. Her tragic, sudden, unexpected death, deprives the world of one of the truly great writers of our time.
I should note that Wright openly refers to a mentor for this work, which I would not be out of line in suggesting, is an epic poem for our time. That mentor would be Evan Connell. Connell is best known for his bestselling biography of Custer and for the dual, fictional portraits of the Bridges, Mr. and Mrs., which should be required reading for all student of the American Novel (especially Mrs. Bridges). What is less known, and was only pointed out to me a couple of years ago by D.E Steward, was Connell wrote a two part epic poem, A Compass Rose and Notes from a Bottle Found on a Beach in Carmel These poems cover the breadth of human knowledge from antiquity to the present time in brief sentences. To say that Connell was a man of immense learning is an understatement of the highest degree. He had an astonishing range of understanding and what he learned from all his reading (in pre-Internet information gathering age) was that man is basically a craven, stupid, war mongering animal, prone to making the most grievous errors imaginable. To say Connell was a cynic would be selling him short. It seems to me he, was much more than that and that, Essentially, his pessimism was a well-earned understanding and as modern history is proving, once again, correct. If Connell wrote the great epic of the second half of the twentieth century, and I believe he did, Wright may just have written one for this century. Wright may have had more cause for optimism that Connell did but they are true, creative soulmates .
One last truly notable collection I scored by happenstance. I was reading through the recent issue of Cave Wall poetry magazine and the first five poems were by someone previously unknown to me, Jessica Jacobs. From the titles of four of her poems included in that issue, it was apparent she was writing about Georgia O’Keeffe and I thought, Oh my, another pastiche. By the second poems I was checking her bio notes to find out if she had collected the poems and luckily she had.
Jessica Jacobs, Pelvis with Distance, White Pine Press, white pine.org, $16., 133 pages, 2015.
Evoking the spirit of place, of space, of the texture of the artist’s work, Jacobs literally brings herself to the place where O’Keeffe lived and worked in New Mexico. A month of solitude in a cabin with her dog for a companion, she seeks and successfully finds the spirit that inhabits the work of the artist. At once personal, reflecting on her solitude, her wife, her sense of self and a biographical recreation of O’Keeffe’s development as a woman and as an artist. The two are inseparable and the work is incomparable; both the poet’s and the artist’s.
Thomas H. Smith, aka T.K. Splake. DVD. Green Stones, redjacketmedia.com , 2016, approximately 10 minutes.
Those of you who read Misfit know we have been, and remain, in awe of the compulsively fecund imagination and outpouring of creative work of the fisher king of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. T.K. Splake. Over the years our Mr. Smith has produced a number of DVD of him reading in the wild, so to speak, all over the UP. Viewers can see Tom reading in the woods, while fishing the big two hearted or on the cliffs overlooking Lake Superior. Some of the footage is downright exquisite as you would expect from a man whose photo essays are as remarkable as his poetry.
In Green Stones, Splake hikes off into the woods outside of Calumet and discovers a cave. The brief sections of the poem, evoke a spirit of the place, a creative mythic spirit that imbues the places with an extra dimension for the artist. As Splake is an inveterate hiker even as he approaches the ninth decade of his life and has a close spiritual relationship with the land. And her he does and Eshleman and actually gets down into a cave and reads the latter portions of the poem to light cast by, what appears to be, a cigarette lighter. The poem closes in darkness and all you hear is water dripping in the cave. I wrote to him after my first viewing of green stones and said, “Tell me you didn’t go down inside that cave and do that reading.” He didn’t reply, directly. You just know he did go down there.
The Red Wolf Journal online recently published a chapbook of former contributor, Therese Broderick’s, Green-Weak. Told in the three sections, Broderick recalls her deceased parents in sections one and three with poems that grieve their loss, as well as, rejoicing and celebrating their lives. The center section is a quirky, stylistically interesting journal of sorts, ruminating on the joys of cutting her lawn with a pair of scissors. I strongly suggest checking this collection out and best of all, it is absolutely free of charge.
Two coffee table book sized journals are worth an extended look.
Lummox Five is jam packed with an excellent, diverse selection of poetry, essays, reviews and interviews. And when Is ay jammed packed I mean 250 oversized pages worth poets such as late Mike Adams, Pris Campbell, Grace Cavalieri, Kyle Laws, Alexis Rhone Fancher, Tony Moffeit, John Sweet and, literally a hundred or so more. Essays include several fascinating pieces by Christopher Buckley, Robert Modiano’s I Never Liked Pablo Neruda, a piece sure to piss off legions of fans and Charles Plymell on his time with The Beats, all of whom he knew and hung with. There is an interview with John Sweet and one with John Guth. A section devoted to chapbook winner and runners up and illustrations throughout. A truly professional job in both content and production. Price is $25 plus postage from Lummoxpress.com
Lowdown, 2016, Robert M. Zoschke ed, Street Corner Press, 10781 Birchwood Drive, Sister Bay, WI. 10781 54234, $30 plus ph.
Another huge coffee table compilation featuring a myriad of color photographs by T.K. Splake, Diane Robinson and others. Art by the late, great Norb Blei, Mark Hartenbach, Gene McCormick. Killer cover photo of Merle Haggard (back issue has an original work of art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and art inside by him as well). Not mention dozens of poems by the liked of Antler, John Bennett, Nicosia, Splake, S.A Griffith, Rossiter and others, myself included. This volume may be sold out and if it is, you’ve missed a great collection. Anyone who cares about terrific independent publishing should, at least, contact RZ about back issues. You will not be disappointed.