Books Received, Reviewed, Acknowledged
Bunkong Tuon, And So I was Blessed, NYQ Books, www.myq.org.The NEW York Quarterly Foundation, Inc. PO Box 2015, Old Chelsea Station, NY, NY 10113 LCN # 2017948480,
97 pages, 2017, $15.95
Waiting for Your Arrival
Last night a green dragon
rose from the ocean’s blue water.
Wings spread wide to keep
us cool against the sun’s rays.
A quiet joy flutters in
our chests as we wait.
There is nothing accidental about the inclusion of this poem as the preface to Tuon’s second, excellent, book of poems. It evokes the arrival of the family’s first child, Stella, to whom the book is dedicated. If nothing else, Tuon is a poet who is all about family. His life story is not a simple journey from a foreign country (Cambodia)but an escape from a brutal, totalitarian regime marked by a genocidal wrath. Both of his parents perished and Tuon was carried to safety, literally, on the back of his grandmother. They spent years in a refugee camp, working with a sponsor and then gaining approval to enter our country. It is the kind of journey that our forty-fifth president would like to prevent from ever happening again. Why? Because Asian people don’t look like us. It seems as simple as that.
If survival is a blessing, and I believe Tuon’s life, poetry and family, prove that it is, Tuon has been blessed in a multitude of ways. The child is a blessing (she is as beautiful in person as she is in the author’s photo.) His extended family, those who managed to escape and emigrate and begin anew, are blessed to be here, instead of left behind in the Killing Fields. The memory of his grandmother, who saved him, nurtured him, and loved him during difficult times when assimilation into an often unforgiving, bullying culture, was difficult, is as deep as it is essential to his new life. As a child, he suffered taunts for being “Chinese” (?!), for being shy and different. As he was neither physically imposing nor aggressive and assertive, his life was often difficult in a particularly American way. Finding a way forward, where he might fit in was challenging as well. Then he discovered poetry. In particular, Charles Bukowski.
It is hard to imagine two more different personalities than Bukowski’s and Tuon’s. Where Bukowski was rowdy, self-aggrandizing, blow heart boozer and womanizer, Tuon is mild mannered, soft spoken and self-contained. Choose any two poems at random by either poet and the differences are readily apparent. What Bukowski did have, that Tuon lacked, was a sense of direction and purpose he found through self-expression. This became a goal for Tuon leading him to develop, over the years, a strong, lean, precise narrative style that avoids bombast. His lines are clean, clear, well defined, often personal, but never written in a self-serving way. Both tell stories, albeit, radically different ones.
In And I Was So Blessed,Tuon details his journeys to Vietnam. The first was to visit with, and commune with, his father’s remaining family. Secondly, he travels in his professional capacity as Dr. Tuon, literature Professor at Union College, as a mentor for a group of college students. Meeting with his father’s family is difficult, often perplexing and bewildering, if only for the language barriers, but mostly, as the surviving first born of his progenitor. The kind of attention he receives from his relatives, sometimes borders on reverence, is both strange and comforting. He is not used to the kind of attention he receives but finds some solace in being able to reclaim something of his father.
The later trip is undertaken with some trepidation given he will be away from his wife and newborn child for some weeks. Throw in the responsibility of overseeing a group of college students, thousands of miles from home, and you have the perfect recipe for stress. What could go wrong with ferrying about 20 something year old college students in a foreign country? Just about everything. Luckily the students are responsible, they bond well, and are genuinely engaged as students. The trip is mostly a success as the poems in section III show. Still, no matter where he is, or what he is doing, Tuon’s thoughts return home to his daughter. We are, at the end as we were at beginning, blessed with a child to carry on after us. What could be more important and satisfying than that?
Rebecca Schumejda, Our One-Way Street, NYQ Books, www.nyq.org, 168 pages, 2017, $18.95.
Readers of Rebecca’s two most recent, substantial books, Cadillac Men and Waiting at the Dead End Diner, will not be surprised by the breadth and depth of her new book. Turning her attention from the characters (and I do mean character) who used to frequent the pool hall Rebecca owned with her husband and her experiences waiting in a diner, she turns her attention to home. In Our One Way Street, the poet observes, and writes about, living in a working class neighborhood. As someone who has spent his adult life in a similar environment, I can say, with authority, that it is the neighbors who make life interesting. You can almost hear Joe Friday and his partner Gannon, visiting a house nearby, after the incident (there are always incidents), and saying, “Just the facts.” The facts include, increased 24-hour one stop shopping traffic at the local drug dealers, much yelling and screaming, after the latest all night binge went bad, the men grilling on weekends, gathering together to drink beer, while the women watch the children and complain about how irresponsible the men are. And you don’t doubt for a minute that they are total losers and men would be lost without the women. People move away, new bodies move in to replace them. And the cycle continues.
Even though Bill’s wife
is long gone,
the annuals she planted
still come up to remind Bill
of what he has lost.
This afternoon after polishing off
a twelve pack,
he takes out his weed-whacker,
walks over to the flowers
and pauses there
with the blade hovering
just above the petals.
There is a novelistic quality to these three books: characters are developed, revisited and their stories are told. The narrator is the poet and she is clear-eyed and non-judgmental; sees all and maintain a balanced, if wry, point of view about the foibles of human existence.
Manning the Machines
Since someone has to man
the machines tomorrow,
and that someone is my husband.
we only have one glass
of cheap champagne
and pass out before the ball drops,
only to be awoke by
New Year’s fireworks
and Terry screaming,
Oh crap, I think that one landed
on Mark and Becky’s roof.
Schumejda revisits some of the characters from the previous books, including the randy waitress Joelene and a Cadillac Man who has found a new home in a bar with a pool table. The feeling is like visiting with old friends you haven’t seen in awhile. And that nothing ever changes, more like Winesburg, Ohio than Peyton Place. Not tawdry or sleazy but, “just the facts.”
As I bring out my garbage cans,
I overhear Nina’s screaming
You don’t get it! as she pounces
off the porch and heads toward Broadway.
Mary stands on the porch for a minute
then turns around and goes inside-
All our intentions are colorful balloons
that slip away from our fingers and drift away.
M. Scott Douglass, Just Passing Through, Paycock Press, 3819 North 13th Street, Arlington, VA 22201, www.gargoylemagazine.com, 95 pages, 2017, $14
Scott is not the kind of biker that conjures images of the “Born to Be Wild” era, but is more of a free spirit who likes the wind in his hair, the sun on his face, and the open road. The bike is a manner of conveyance more than it is an extension of the self. This makes for some highly observant, well-spoken, often darkly humorous, narrative poems.
It’s not all fair weather and clear sailing on the road. Anyone who has ridden, knows there are winged flying objects to contend with, the terrors of bad weather, wet roads, or slick pavements. Night riding is always an adventure if only because other drivers don’t see you. Or pretend not to. The statistics speak for themselves.
But ride on Scott does: he stops in bars and confront young girls who see him as a harmless old man good for a few drinks, attends poetry reading in a biker bar where a sultry reader captivates everyone with more than words, and he narrowly avoids the consequences of a drug deal gone wrong in neighboring room of a Quality Inn. Ultimately, what makes this book an excellent read, is there is always a surprise waiting for you around the next turn. No matter how well you know the road or the poet, life throws a surprise at you.
from You Know These Roads
Exit signs you pass post the names
of towns, roads, route numbers etched
into your memory in Day-Glo paint,
a distance in miles you translate
into seasons, events, years gone by;
people populating pages
in an unscripted journal
of an unplotted journey
toward an unknown destination
with mile markers as captions to hint
at what came before or waits ahead
Each road implies one thing,
your rearview mirror another
Mike James, Crows in the Jukebox, Bottom Dog Press, PO Box 425. Huron, OH 44839 Lsmithdog.com, 101 pages, 2017, $16-
First off , I love the title of this book. After a quarter of a century or so, working in places that I could accurately describe as, Jukebox Hell, I could have used a murder of crows to kill the damn thing. I found a pitcher of Guinness, liberally applied, does wonders for making the noise go away. Until the next time. The machine maintenance people hate that. You haven’t lived until you’ve woken up the afternoon after a closing shift with blood leaking out of your ears. But I digress.
Mike James’s book inhabits the kind of places that have jukeboxes. He revels in stories of family, friends and mentors known over the years. He offers revelations of a deeply personal nature, such as his father was a remote and dedicated drunk. There is a touching elegy of Franz Wright, a poet I met briefly, who was known to be an internet troll, and who I found to be even less amenable than James’s portrait of his father. Still the poem is deeply felt and effective,
For Franz Wright
of you carried words
on a tin cup
think they were
say a blessing
as he ate
the words you had left
until your body hurt
so you wished
it was no
until your heart, quite naturally,
blossomed into wings.
A fine elegy for a remarkable poet (no matter what personal impressions were.)There are dozens of stories here of eccentrics, friend and neighbors, all of whom have a particular, earthy quality about them. These poems are often wry, mostly non-judgmental, and fundamentally human in the best possible way. If there is hope for the human race, and sometimes we have good cause to wonder, it is in the kind of poetry that James writes and the people he has met.
Madelyn Garner, Hum of Our Blood, Three: A Taos Press: www.3taospress.com, 99pages, 2017, $24
We live in a time where an attorney general of the United States wants to re-criminalize homosexual behavior, where a child molester and former judge can run for the US Senate and has asserted that Trannies are not people, and where the president of the United States is an accused (and guilty until proven innocent) sex offender. Against this background of moving backward, and ignoring all the societal changes of the last 50 years, Garner has written a moving elegy of her son who died during the AIDS epidemic. There are no apologies (and there shouldn’t be) for a lifestyle that goes against this oppressive, holier than thou, do as I say, not as I do, hypocrisy. The bottom line is: dead is dead and grief, real, poignant, deep in the bones grief, a mother’s love for her unconventional son, is grief.
The most difficult themes to express clearly, without rancor or cloying sentimentality, is love in its many forms. Whether it be love of another person or love of a child, only the best of the self-contained artist can manage this. And Garner does this with grace and dignity. By the time you reach the book’s conclusion, see a photographic portrait of her son in the prime of his all-too-brief life, you feel a measure of her pain at his loss. All that potential, that talent that he had to give, that he gave, gone. But by no means forgotten
from First Person in the World
For months scientists sleuth his preferences,
his starry chemistry,
root an stem of his genealogy.
Then day of the sucker punch-
dreaded holocaustian string of numbers
slamming him back
into the land of antiretroviral acronyms:
that spell terminal.
Charles Rammelkamp, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, Main Street Rag, www.MainStreetRag.com, 45 pages, $12-, 2017
Rammelkamp is a master of the historically based poetic cycle. He has tackled the charismatic Populist William Jennings Bryan (American Zeitgeist) the mysterious spy Mata Hari (Mata Hari: Eye of the Day), missionaries in a leper colony in Vietnam which also included a related section on balloon bombs over California in World War 2 (Fusen Bakudan). Now he explores the little known history of disguised as men women in the British navy during the 18th and 19th centuries. The result of his examination is both fascinating and compelling.
The book is divided into three sections: Wives, Prostitutes and Transvestites. None of these women, even when serving heroically as nurses, even as warriors, ever received full credit for their contributions. Women’s roles in society of that times was very clearly defined and if they deviated from the norm, they would have to resort to trickery and disguise. A woman, as the first two sections showed, were either wives or whores. Regardless, life on board was rarely a happy one as the concluding line to “Loss” shows,
“But my Nigel fell overboard
when he and the crew were lowering the sail;
there was such a panic we might sink,
they let my poor husband drown rather than risk
the loss of the entire ship, some three hundred of us,
and even though Captain Dillon praised us women
for saving the ship
all the accolades and honors of the British navy
could never console me for my loss.”
That women might also join the lines of fighters, ferrying ammunition to the big guns this role was unthinkable so when they contributed just that, it was as if they were never on the front lines. If a husband was killed, the wife was basically superfluous, had no real role afterwards. If a prostitute was brought on board, she as at the mercy of her patron, which usually meant she was no more than badly used sex slave to her master and anyone he chose to share her with.
“Biggest mistake of my life,
following Anselm on board the Metamorphosis
At the public-house he’d made my head spin
with his tales of life in the south sea islands,
picking fruit right off the trees,
barefoot on the beaches,
life just one long stay at the Albion Hotel
down in Brighton and Hove.
But once we set sail I was at his mercy,
depending upon him to share his food and his hammock.”
(from "Emma Griffiths Goes to Sea”)
Perhaps the most fascinating section of the three is the Transvestite one. An able-bodied sailor is discovered when he/ she is about to be flogged and repeatedly gang raped the rest of the voyage, another is admired for her abilities as a sailor by a fellow seaman who learns her secret but does not reveal it, a series of poems about one Christopher Hughes concludes with an ironic twist involving a disability pension earned as woman after a career working as a man.
“But I liked my life as man-
the independence a woman could never enjoy-
and I continued to live as Christopher Hughes
finding occasional work as a house carpenter in Kensington,
where I now lived, nobody to know my past,
but with Mary Higgins’ twenty pounds a year as a cushion.”
(from “Christopher Hughes in Retirement”)
Francine Witte, Café Crazy, Kelsay Books, Aldrich Books, www.kelsaybooks.com., 76 pages, 2018, $14
Francine’s latest collection begins with a faithless husband returning home, asking for forgiveness after an indiscretion, more than likely, one of many, a reconciliation that even the poet/ wife, knows will be temporary. This is a book where loss is always one night away, where an early bowling night means the new girlfriend has been dropped ( or he has been dropped by the girlfriend). Furtive cell phone calls abruptly ended, surreptitious text messages, almost surely can mean only one thing. The poet is no fool, recognizes the hope of salvaging something from a relationship that was once was good, is probably futile, but she soldiers on and is hurt again. As a friend once said about his brother’s divorce, “She said she was playing softball, but he found out it was actually hardball.” Bowling night, softball, what’s the difference?
A second relationship is explored in detail, one with a lover named Charley who feels like a cipher, a total self-involved loser she has no illusions about. He is more of a foil than a real person,
He tries, he really does
and in the summer twilight,
he leans on a stranger’s car,
near perfect angle, smoke angels
rising above his head.
You don’t smoke, Charley,
I tell him, but he’s too deep
in character now, He simple sneers
and flicks the lighted butt into
(from "When Charley Goes James Dean On Me")
Charley’s sins, his faults, his short comings are laid bare. He is eviscerated in the way a real lover rarely, if ever, could be. Still, when he leaves, there is a vacancy that cannot be filled. Like her father’s absence: her mother trying to mask her tears chopping onions, is devastating. The way the poet feels: used and abandoned,
Now, you pick up a carton of milk,
check the expiration. Good for another day.
Outside, the girl is probably texting back
What’s wrong, or What did I do? He will
tell her nothing, the way he’ll be
telling you’re a month from now.
You feel her humiliation, the inevitability of it, and her helplessness. I saw a marriage unravel once in public. It was an ugly thing. The husband rambling on and on, more drunk than he should have been on one two before dinner cocktails, saying how it was great to be out with a lovely wife of 25 years on a Saturday night. That there was nothing like family on and on....until the wife cut him off in mid-sentence and said, “I’ve had enough . I don’t need to be humiliated in public by you. In private is bad enough. All those excuses I had to come up with to friends who asked how you were and who said they had seen you around town when you were supposed to be away for business. Trying to let me know what you were really up to, without coming right out and saying it. The wife is always the last to know. And all those credit card receipts I was supposed to not find in your pants pocket in the wash. And the Jack Daniels bottles in the back of the clothes closet. Was I not supposed to find those? Didn’t you ever wonder where the empties went? Didn’t you think I ever cleaned? The she turned to me asked how much we owed. Said you were very nice.” Left me a large tip and left him sitting there with his nearly empty drink.
I’d been ignoring him and been polite to her. It was going to be a long night, with or without the breaking point. I felt for her. Wanted to run out in the parking lot and hold her for a minute but, of course, I couldn’t do that. All I could do was share her story in a poem. Francine knows exactly how that woman felt. How the young women, with their assorted man troubles arriving in the Café felt in the wonderful, final title poem feel.
It’s Friday afternoon,
prime time for heartache. All the men who said
they’d call, and Saturday’s looking to be one long
and lone bitch. The door swings open, and three
girls sulk in, swollen eyes and new to these parts.
Ruby simply flicks them the onceover. And when
they sit down at the counter, she doesn’t bother
with a menu. She knows exactly what they’ll have.
(from Café Crazy)
These poems are harsh and real but there is a deft sense of humor and a strong woman’s voice sustaining the work all the way to the inevitable, bitter end. The poet may be down but she is most definitely not out.
Taylor Mali, The Whetting Stone, Rattle Foundation,12411 Ventura Blvd. Studio City, CA. 91604 www.rattle.com. 28 pages, 2017 $7-
Mali, better known for his performance poetry than his individual poems, won the highly competitive 2017 Rattle Chapbook Contest. If you have never seen him perform, check out any number of You Tube videos of him reciting, “What Do Teachers Make”. You won’t be disappointed (says the father of teachers, as Mali once was himself). The Whetting Stone is a deeply personal book of another kind, the suicide of the poet’s first wife, the guilt feelings, the horror, the mixed emotions of love gone horribly wrong, are all here. It is an unflinching, well tuned, small book, not for the faint of heart.
Laurel Speer, Three Women in San Francisco, contact the poet at PO Box 12220, Tucson, AZ, 85732-2220, 20 pages, 2017 $4-
Speer is a long time, venerable small press regular from as far back as the 60’s. Anyone familiar with her singular, ironic, or should I say, sardonic wit, will not be disappointed in her annual pamphlet of poems, Speer no longer submits, so any selection of her work is a treat. Two poems in this outstanding collection stand out for me, both about her late daughter, Kirstin who died way too young: “Bringing My New Born Home from St John’s One Day in April” and “When My Daughter Died.” These two poems are worth the modest price of the collection and should be on every readers’ top ten list for the year. They are on mine.
Christine Lavant (translated by David Chorlton) Shatter the Bell in My Ear: Selected Poems of Christine Lavant, The Bitter Oleander Press, 4983 Tall Oaks Drive, Fayetteville, N.Y. 13066-9766, dual language 117 pages, $18.00 2017
It is difficult for me to put a collection like this one into a proper context. I have a sense of Lavant as a poet as somewhere between John Clare and George Trakl, with elements of both, but a strange, individual expressiveness, not present in either. Lavant personifies nature in a way that suggests a kind of Animism, a transcendental relationship with Nature, that gives her life meaning. Despite her perceived near state of grace, her world seems off, isolated and lonely, nearly to the point of withdrawal. Perversely, perhaps, I found myself drawn to her oddness as an outsider, which I doubt is the point of her work. This collection represents an effort by the Press to reverse the trend of publishers who are shying away from anything remotely foreign. The translation represents years of hard work by the translator and both publisher and translator, should be commended for their efforts.
Steve Henn, Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year, Wolfson Press, contact wolfson.iusb.edu, 95 pages (with artist notes), 2017, $15-
Steve Henn is a regular guy. He’s a single dad of four, a high school English teacher, likes good craft beer (and, sometimes, not so good discount beer). He is often at a loss making small talk, especially with attractive women, which makes him shy by definition, a potentially endearing trait in a 38-year-old man. He’s had some rough patches that including two stays in an institution to deal with mental issues and an extremely complicated divorce. Most of all, he is a proud dad as these poems and his decision to have his kids illustrate his book show. Two of his daughters consented to offer their thoughts on what was going through their minds when they created their work for this collection. A first to my knowledge. What you see in the bio is what you get in the poems. If that is your cup of tea, fine read on. If not move on to something else. I felt at home in Henn’s living room and there is no reason why anyone else shouldn’t be as well.
On the completely other end of the scale, maybe off the scale and orbiting earth is
This oversized, illustrated with many “revealing” photos, and a truly unique font calculated to drive most people insane, is billed as a novel told in poems. I guess what it is, is a sci fi/futuristic/fantasy/ novel, of sorts, in the mode of William S. Burroughs. A flipped-out Burroughs, that is, reveling in aggressively obtuse, erotic situations. In this world, sexuality, seems to have become fluid: robots are taking over everything, especially sexual congress and there seems to be a lot of S/M going on in futuristic dungeons. Everyone seems to be having a wild time, especially the bots and the consenting adult women, in various stages of bondage, the subject being the context of the man photographs that illustrate the written work. Decidedly not for everyone’s taste. If you can get by the font and you enjoy Burroughs, this may work for you. I assure you I may have missed perfectly obvious things to people who are into fringe lifestyles which I am most decidedly, not into. For instance: maybe those aren’t studio dungeons but orgone boxes. Burroughs liked Orgone boxes for self-stimulation along with his Steely Dan. (No not the musical group, the dildo Burroughs called Steely Dan, that the group appropriated the name from.) Nothing would surprise me. Once you’ve entered the sperm bot universe just about anything is possible.
Al Markowitz, Balk, Partisan Press PO Box 11417 Norfolk VA 23517, 100 pages, 2017, $15-
Balk, could just as easily have been titled, Resist, as resisting is what all these poems are about. Most were published in Markowitz’s journal, The Blue Collar Review, a magazine that has long upheld the points of view of the working stiff and has opposed the owners who act as oppressors. That is the big corporations, the government and hostile world powers. I could select any number of situations described, in mostly general terms, of this struggle that have no specific reference points to date them to a particular administration. The tragic thing about this is, these situations, the working person finds himself, or herself, involved in, is not evolving. On the contrary, working conditions basically, remain the same, through All the recent presidential administrations. Though, of course, The Trump administration has shown signs of surpassing all previous ones in its callous disregard for the average citizen, the working people who elected him, and the planet at large. That is why we need books like Balk and magazines like Blue Collar. While Markowitz clearly recognizes that the plights and complaints of the average person. We must never give up. We must resist. Balk, is not explicitly polemical, in the sense of mindless repetitions of meaningless talking points, but clearly articulates the struggle Americans are confronted with on a daily basis in a human and personal way.
Larry Rogers, Live Free or Croak, Golden Antelope Press, 715 E. McPherson, Kirksville, MO, 63501 53 pages, 2017 $14.95
It is difficult to say whether Rogers is a singer/songwriter who writes poetry or a poet who writes and performs songs. As Rogers sent me his latest book and a tape of his latest album, I would say Both. Equally. It would not be unfair to say that Rogers is a down home country boy, though his songs have a country vibe (not of the my wife left and took the dog and I miss my dog variety but are carefully crafted lyrics) they are not simplistic but convey a universal appeal. Yes, people are on probation, a never-going-to-make-it prospect signs with the baseball Giants and autographs his baseball card, people shop exclusively at Walmart, or meet in the town saloon to discuss why we haven’t seen the woman in question for so long, as in the title poem. I used to know people who fit all those categories when I worked in an urban bar. And there is humor, as in the aforementioned poem, often of the black sort: funny yet not so funny. We’ll Live forever until we don’t.
I sympathize with the kid.
nipples are all his mother ever gave him;
his old man gave him less.
Wayne F. Burke, Poems From the Planet Crouton, Epic Rites (Punk Chapbook Series 2017) www.treekillerink.com, not paginated (22 roughly) No price listed
If you are looking for poetry with attitude, Burke will provide you all you need and then some. These poems span the poet’s youth, to his checkered career as an adult. The opening poem, about a guy out on the town and looking for all the trouble he could get into on Veteran’s Day. This individual reminded me of the guy who wandered into my bar one Summer night, as drunk as any human being I had ever seen mostly upright in my life, and when denied a drink, asked for a job application instead. If it got him out of the place, why not? I gave him one. He left. Shoot. Score!
The character in Burke’s poem, “Slip” is that kind of guy. Might even be my guy. I must admit that I was skeptical of his ten-year-old self in the poem “Eclipsed”, describing a graphic sexual encounter with a friend’s mother, but the image of the psycho third grade teacher wielding a ruler like the wrath of God on earth more than made up for it. I can’t say the same for the revenge porn poem “Rusty” where a man sniper kills neighbors for waking him up. Yes, it was inconsiderate, how they did it, but we live in time where even the least likely scenario of the vilest, murderous kind, is all too real. It’s like Tarantino at his worst, which is about as bad as it gets in movies, not strictly in it for the gore assuming of course, the director isn’t. I assume the poet isn’t either. Still, given the presumed intent of the series, which has a figure on the back cover flipping the bird at the world, the poem fits the gesture.
Tim Suermondt, The World Doesn’t Know You, www.pinyon-publishing.com, 78 pages, 2017, $16-
Tim’s book could be summed up in a one phrase: a man finds unexpected happiness in a fairly late in life marriage to the near-perfect woman. Who could not like a nice guy for being happy? And happy he is to write fine poems about a satisfying life doing things with the love of his life, going to baseball games with a friend, shooting hoops and recalling days of yore when the body responded much better to the physical demands of sports and writing these poems. One of my favorite poems in this collection I will quote in full below,
A Very Short Love List
A row of buttons on a dress.
A book next to the roses
On the nightstand.
A bird on the windowsill,
The carelessly drawn blinds.
A man and a woman
But softly as monks.
A very white winter in Harlem,
Many years ago.
Tim Suermondt effectively proves there is more to life (and poetry) than an excessive life style, the wringing of hands and the baring of souls, the strum and drang of modern life.
Darren Demaree, A Fire Without Light, Nixes Mate, PO Box 1179, Allston MA 02134, nixesmate.pub/books 59 pages, 2017 $10 ?
Demaree has created a world, a kind of alternative universe the is an almost Ohio in a place Formerly Known as the United States. These are my words, not his but effectively that is where this fine, frighteningly urgent collection is coming from. We are standing on the edge of an abyss deciding whether to jump in or hope for rescue from a treacherous foothold on life as we once knew it. To Demaree, this is a Hobbesian Choice. Or as Paul Simon wrote, “every way you look at this you lose.”
In short, crisp, no nonsense language, all titled “A Fire Without Light plus a number) these approximately 85 prose poems hammer home the point not only are we not in Kansas anymore, or Ohio, or any place that we could recognize, but in Trumplandia, and it is an awful, soul sucking, dystopian nightmare for example:
“ I think we can just distract the son-of-a-bitch with some
shiny shit. we can do that for four years. We could buy
him. Why don’t we just pay the man? That’s what he wants.”
from A Fire Without Light #15
“We need our leaders to not be dragons. Wrong. We’re all dragons
now. We need to learn what to do with all this fire.”
“I’m willing to call him the sun (he’ll never be the sun),
if he’s willing to let Sandra Cisneros make all of his
decisions. She’ll have him resign, but before all of that
she would make him sell pumpkins in the desert for a year.”
“The apocalypse isn’t coming. We’re going to have to
deal with all of this. An ending would be too easy.”
Darren Demaree is dealing with it as best he can with these poems. So should we.
Daniel Crocker, Shit House Rat, Spartan Press, spartanpress.kc.com, 84 pages, 2017, $?
I missed the signs early on in this deceptive, brutally self-revelatory, excoriation of the self. Maybe I was taken in by expecting a familiar round of booze and trash talking between the poet and his best buddy, poet Nate Graziano, a familiar trope from earlier collections by Crocker. I misunderstood the interior monologue, apparently with imaginary friends from Sesame Street, most often Snuffleupagus, that commented on poems and foreshadowed work later in the book. I relaxed my critical facility. (It is a fault of mine, I admit it, especially when reading a hundred or so poetry books a year.) Then a poem about Kurt Cobain, yeah, well, I am on record as having said, “Everyone of a certain age (even me) has a Cobain poem.” So what? Even the previous to Cobain, Sling Blade poem, didn’t alert me to dangers ahead. When I got to the partially repressed memory of being sexual assaulted as a child, by an older cousin, I asked myself: “What have I been missing?” Reading this book was becoming like one of those conversations I had in a bar, on more than one occasion, about a friend or acquaintance who had killed himself, “What did we miss?” And as we looked back, if we were honest with ourselves, all the signs were there, and we just didn’t look hard enough or were afraid to notice them. Dan Crocker’s book is like that. This is not a casual observation either but relevant to Crocker’s often highly stressed state of mind.
So I went to the beginning and started reading again. And I thought when was the last time you read poems with an interior monologue that is both commentary and part of the poems? Maybe never. The imaginary friend seems to shift for me, from the Sesame Street focus: Big Bird, Snuffy, Elmo, to includes the reader, the author, all of us as, as part of one large show happening in the poet’s head. And it isn’t pretty. The visuals are like those “arty” death scenes in “The Wild Bunch” or the end of “Bonnie and Clyde” which were somehow beautiful, despite the implicit warning: There is no Romance in death, especially a violent one. The cover by, I assume, the author’s daughter, also suggests a kind of fantasy. But it is more like years spent on the couch trying to work out all the ugliness of a life of conflict, sexual confusion, borderline madness, and suicide ideation.
The missing piece of the title is, of course, Crazy as a shit house rat. I assume the missing word is meant to apply to the poet. Yes, Crocker is crazy in his own way, but who isn’t? He has a loving family, and he has made something wonderful out of the ugliness he has experienced. The foreshadowed bad thing that happens at the end is cancer, the cancer of addiction. You have the very real sense that Crocker has been there, done that, and survived. What more can you ask of poet, of a person, than to relate what he saw, so the rest of us might miss the pits he fell into. Thank you, Dan.
Received and Recommended:
Carol H Jewell, Hits and Misses, Clare Songbirds Publishing House 140 Cottage Street, Auburn, N.Y. 13021 www.ClareSongbirdspub.com, 33 pages, 2017, $10
These are professionally produced chapbook of often formal poems by Queen on the Pantoum’s, Carol Jewell. Of special interest to admirers of the form is a Cento Pantoum and, for a real challenge, a pantoum made of lines from pantoums.
Tom Corrado, buttdialing Ubers and other sonnetized shorts, screen dump 301-350, and proems, swimming in happenstance press contact the author at email@example.com, no prices, pages not numbered. Range from roughly 25 pages to 50 or so.
If you put Tom’s writer’s journal, all his thoughts and musings about books read, lines leftover, projects for written work, and anything else that came to mind, into a blender add a bottle of Jack Daniels, some whiskey sour mix, the assorted lyrics to a odd lot of songs spanning the 60’s to the present (ranging from Mary Hopkins to Bob Dylan) turn it on high, you might end up with a smoothie. Or you might end up with one of these books. I was especially drawn to the screen dump where literary references abound, extended and, groan out loud, puns dominate. Ultimately, authorial wisdom rules the day.
Freudian slips or elaborate puns? Both? Neither? The signifier and the signified? Polymorphous perversity. All of this and more. Remember those early Bob Dylan liner notes that read like a mishmash of Woody Guthrie, French Surrealists: Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire? And the lyrics of those epic songs like “Sad eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. Tom does. Check these out. You won’t be sorry.
James Duncan, We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine, Unknown Press, for more information contact www.jameshduncan.com. 94 pages, 2017, $12
The bulk of Duncan’s latest collection deals with two life defining themes: cancer and its treatment, and the stigma of growing up poor and being labeled trailer trash. These are mostly brief prose poems, heavily weighted towards the prose. They show that, despite the traumas of early life, a failed marriage later on, a variety of unsatisfying jobs, a man can survive and bring focus to his life. One assumes, given the dedication to his mother, that having a supporting, loving parent, is a major factor in his growth and maturity, enabling to write the poems he now does. The strongest piece, in my estimation, is “Ghost Train” where the young man, in a failing marriage, contemplates a job in a green house picking tomatoes. It is both sad and revealing. The poet achieves an unexpected understanding of himself and his life he had not previously been aware of that does not bode well for his present tense relationship. Duncan says in his bio that “Somewhere inside of him is a twelve-year old kid reading books in bed long after lights-out, sure to be tired for school the next days.” And these are the poems this grown up kid would write.
Paul Pines, Gathering Sparks, Marsh Hawk Press, PO Box 206 East Rockaway NY 11518 www.marshhawkpress.org. 98 pages, 2017 $18
Gathering Sparks is something of a collaborative effort between the poet and his collage artist friend, Douglas Leichter, whose altered post cards add an effusion of quirky spiritualism to Pines’ deeply meditative poems. One senses this book is a summing up of the philosophical beliefs of the elder, wise poet facing end of life times. It is neither, disheartening nor bleak. His views are enhanced by his sense that we are all part of a Jungian universe of Collective Consciousness. We may pass from the flesh but we are embodied in the vast presence, the sprit and the mind and all the accumulated knowledge of living. This is, simply, an artful, in both senses of the word, presentation; great mindful poetry enhanced by visionary collages showing that a simple object may be made into something beautiful through the considered application of an artist’s hand and eye.
Diana Goetsch, In America, www.rattle.com./chapbooks , 35 pages, 2017 $7-
Rattle continues its fine series of chapbooks into its second year with In America. As with Crocker’s book, this is a collection fraught with difficulties but of a more specific, singular kind that Crocker’s. Diana Goetsch, formerly known as Doug Goetsch, has transitioned and the process was at least as difficult as one could imagine. Probably the most revealing, uncomfortable description of body shaming I have ever read, is her telling of a body search at an airport where she was forced to feel less than human. Not only was she shamed and humiliated, but she was made to feel like an alien species, as the security people debated whether there should be a different sex person checking the top half of her body and the lower half. So begins “In America”, the title poem of this remarkable collection. Goetsch explores sexual longings when she was a male, affinity for androgynous personalities such as David Bowie and well, just how strange it is to live in a world where you can never completely feel included whether as a man or as a woman.
Eric Greinke and Alison Stone, Masterplan, Presa Press, PO Box 792, Rockford, MI 49341 www.presapress.com., 80 pages $13.95
The cover of this highly stylized collaboration, by two first rate poets, is of a rock guitarist being showered with sparks, from an exploding TV, falling from a ladder, impelled into oblivion by an unseen person wielding a sledge hammer. Not only is this an effective image but it conveys the sense of boundary shattering poems these two poets create together. Work ranges from short, five line, “Little Novels” (from an idea by the venerable Kirby Congdon) to longer, full blown, and mind bending, longer poems. Some are funny, some are serious to the extreme and all are challenging, highlighting the seamless application of the poet’s art. It is unclear who did what and how and that is how it should be. Of the four out of six collaboration Greinke has created that I have seen all of, this one seems to me to be the ultimate achievement. Anyone interested in the collaborationist’s art will want to own this book.
Lummox #6 ed. R.D. Armstrong, Lummox Press, PO Box 5301 San Pedro CA 90733 www.lummoxpress.com/lc/ 213 pages, 2017 $25
This coffee table sized, slick annual is simply as good an overview of the alternative poetry scene as there is. There are well over a hundred poets represented (including me) reviews, short memoirs, interviews, essays, of some flash fiction. The essays introduced me, in depth, to the overlooked by Americans, Canadian poet, Al Purdy, who is a joy to read. Charles Plymell offers an essay rant on Trump that is spot on. In addition to the wide selection of poems from regular contributors, there is a feature section of poetry contest winners which are always notable for their variety. This brief overview hardly encompasses the scope of the book. I have been recommending this annual for a number of years now and hope to continue doing so
Chiron Review, Michael Hathaway among others, 522 E. South Avenue, St John, KS 67576-2212 www.chironreview.com 48 a year, 4 issues year.
Each issue is an anthology of upwards of 175 pages or prose and poetry (mostly poetry) with selected illustration. The most recent issue #109 had a series of fascinating period photos by W.R. Gray and a 50’s style sci fi pulp magazine cover titled The Gods Hate Kansas. This quarterly is easily the must-read anthology of a wide range of known and unknown poets working today in America. From its humble beginnings as a simple, newspaper called Kindred Spirit, that was succeeded by another, more ambitious newspaper foldout Chiron featuring, occasional reviews, interviews and poetry, to its current form, Chiron remains a solid, go to book for poets and people who just love to read what is happening now in the scene. It has been an honor and a privilege to be associated with the magazine in all three forms in the past and, hopefully, will be, well into the future.
Received (and Finally Making it to the Top of the Piles):
Michael Meyerhofer, What to Do If You Are Buried Alive
Maxine Chernoff, Cinema
Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Jared Smith, Shadows Within the Roaring Fork