Saturday, August 6, 2016

ONLY, NOT ONLY

Review by Martin Abramson
ONLY, NOT ONLY
By Francine Witte
Finishing Line Press, KY
$12.00, 28pp, Paper

                  Except for Sylvia Plath, I can’t remember when a woman poet communicated so poignantly her love for the wrong man. Poem after poem expresses the loneliness and hopelessness of desertion. Yet, in the subtlety and artistry of Ms. Witte’s literary handiwork, the total effect is not sorrow but a kind of pleasure: the pleasure of discovery. Organized into free verse stanzas, these poems, while feeling conversational, have the sure rhythm and strong meter of iambic pentameter sonnets. The poem, Dream Lover, is tensed between opposite poles of desire and renunciation:

                   All those nights I wanted John
                   to call. See how good? See
                   how really good I can quit you?

                  But he didn’t listen. Or call.
                   Just shows up in a dream last week
                   with the past slung over his shoulder,
                   Sinatra-style. This time I’ll be
                   different. No fists.

She notes in The room wants to know:
                
                    The Room Wants to Know
                     where you go every night…
                     and why the mirror takes you
                     back every chance it gets.

In Moment, her despair enlarges:

                     One day, you’re alone,
                     and a moment opens up
                     wide as a white beach
                     where anything can happen

                     only nothing does.

In Not Only:

                       I deserve better, she said,
                     as she billowed a blanket
                     above the bed that was only
                     half-slept in.

And in Woman and Silence:

                                                   Now Woman 

                       eats alone, and when Silence shows up,
                       faithful, like it does every night, 

                       Woman offers it a chair.

In Still in the Laundromat, thinking about laundry and her first love:

                         I must loosen the cling   
                         one sleeve has around another,  
                         and as I do, I think how tangling
                         and untangling involve the same motions.

A Flood offers a metaphor for her predicament, as she sits on the roof, her house completely submerged:

                          All her belongings
                         clean now, and silent
                         beneath her.

                         All she has left
                         is to wait for her man
                         to come sailing home
                         on the back of a door.


In, Party, 1991, we first meet John:

                                                                      …John struts in,
                         new face, eyelids sloped   
                         like a suicide run. He fires
                         up a Marlboro, blows out steam, not smoke.
                         Soon, we’re dancing a foxtrot…

                         God, it’s a sin  
                         to want a man
                         I don’t even know.
                         But I’m breathing Marllboro
                         Fumes…
                                                 John’s all man-sweat  
                          and leather. Insanity perfume.

The author, in Only, believes herself finally free of him:

                            Today, I watched your outline
                           blurring against the landscape     
                           as you were painted back
                           into the world.

                             …I heard
                             the sound of a wound
                             beginning to knit.

But It Could Happen suggests a relapse:

                                                      …I thought
                            this was over, this universe where
                            you are the weather…

                                             …But running from you
                            is a strange direction, like the moon
                            spinning into the velvet dark.

The last poem, Now That You’re Gone, suggests a final cure: “I am practicing/ living without you.”

                              Once, last week
                            I wiped your face
                            from the early morning
                            glass. By then,
                            you were nothing
                            but a thin frost,
                            easy as dew to remove.

“Or maybe,” she adds, “that too was a dream.” The poems are not dated, so I can’t tell you whether the author’s feeling of emptiness in Moment is a result of her renunciation in Now That You’re Gone. But whatever the chronology, Ms. Witte certainly wears her rue with a difference.
                Ms. Witte is acutely aware of the supernatural forces behind natural phenomena as well. “There’s a thunder to everyday events/ that rolls so steadily, we block it out.” She sees her man engulfed in a tornado with her in Twister, and creates an ironic synthesis: “We started circling until centrifugal force/ pinned us up against opposite sides.

                               …we must have past (sic)
                            each other a thousand times as
                            we spun round and
                            round and round…

In One Night the Moon Runs Out of Patience, the moon humorously announces that she doesn’t care “how you pine away by her light” or “the tides or Chinese calendars”. She’s tired of “earth tilt, and sun/ pushing her out of the sky.” She wants to “make the crops grow’ and “…do the circuit,/ Oprah, Larry, Jay.”

                              In a sort of ode to the sun, I seen you, Sun, the author portrays the sun’s shifting roles in her life: when fugitive rays find her in the subway, or slick through a Venetian blind; when her mother “…left us like a pile/ of clothes she was giving away…” Even in a country setting, the sun curving “around the back/ of a mountain”, she suspects treachery: “…I know how you/ could shine on me and stretch/ me flat against the field;” but succumbs, letting the sun “stroke/ me sweet and bleach my brain/ till all I know is/ warm, so warm, so warm…”

Ms.Witte ties it all up with in evocation of time in Clock.

                                                       I am watching the clock
                         As it stretches its hands to a future that waves
                         from the back of a truck.
                         …
                                                     …then there’s this
                         minute unable to stand still long enough and a clock
                         steady in the sky of my kitchen wall
                         keeping time as if anything really could.

Francine Witte has certainly frozen some poignant moments for us, given us a deeply affecting gaze into the workings of her mind and delighted us even as she tolled the bells of sadness. It’s been a pleasure reviewing the work of such a gifted poet and I look forward to following her promising career in future.



                          


                                  




Friday, October 23, 2015

Review by Martin Abramson
PAINTING THE EGRET’S ECHO
By Patty Dickson Pieczka
The Bitter Oleander Press 2013 Fayettville, NY
$16.00, 81 pp, Paper

Reprinted from Book/Mark, Summer 2015


                It’s rare for a weary reviewer to be sent a book with a delight on almost every page and Painting the egret’s echo delights me no end. Mrs. Pieczka (pronounced PYECH-ka) writes in free verse stanzas sans rhyme, but with every other poetic device. Indeed, a good many of her poems are about words and writing itself. From “The Lineage of Ink”:

                          Ink lurks in the blood,
                        learning secrets.
                        …
                        Hieroglyphs and calligraphy
                                wind their cursive tongues
                        to feed on goat hide,
                                clay or papyrus scrolls,
to drink the phrases
                        that nourish a ravenous pen.
In “A Winter Poem”                                       
                        Soup stock boils in the kitchen
                        this snow-laced afternoon.

                        The poem begins with a page of steam.
                        My fingers squeak across its window…
                       
In Polish, sounds
                        purl like water in tiny
                        rivulets, a diphthong drops
                        from the mourning dove’s beak,
                        wings opening to the sun.

Nature imagery is everywhere:

                        Tonight I become the forest
                        and weave my hair into vines…

Or

                        This morning a ram’s skull
                        Rose in the east…

She
                        lifts a finch’s feather
                        and becomes weightless,
                        floats to the crown
                                   
                        of a hickory and finds
                        that her hollow bones
                        can whistle like flutes.
                       
And finds:
                                …a world beneath soil
among constellations             
of bulbs, potatoes,
a sky of onions.

The heat of “A Jalapeno” inspires an image of “a prairie surviving/ only when its grasses are grazed/ by fire that chews through purple/ mallow and lemon mint…”

Or:
                        Leaves scattering through
                        the tunnel of trees
                        ripple grass with their
                        shadows…

In “Rose Madder” the poet lists dyes for her boiling vat: “bloodroot/and larkspur…goldenrod…oak galls…woad…saffron near the foot of the ginko…sumac and indigo…”



Many poems describe a lover:

                        Your dream spills out
                        and trails fireflies
                        along a curve of evening
                        winding toward night.

From “Drinking the Moon”: “She traces the hollow/ of his throat, as though/ her fingertips/ might discern the truth/ in his words.”

In “Tradewinds”, at a tropical wedding where “The ocean plays a calypso/ of wave-splash and clicking shells…”

                          Saronged guests wing an ivory
                          whirlwind of rice that clings to him

                          in a flash of glinting sun. In the
                          wedding photos, he is already gone.

After a breakup in “Finale”

                          I no longer wore the negligee woven
                          from sultry wisps of his breath. It hung,

                          dissolving in the closet
                          with the bones of our first touch.

From the woman who receives Van Gogh’s ear:

                        What emptiness feeds
                        your martyred hunger
                        to offer me

                        this fleshy curl
                        of bass clef that drips
                        its lowest notes in blood…


Some poems have medical themes as in ”The Diagnosis” which “slides/ from my doctor’s pen,/   an inky snake…” follows through her daily routines and “winds around me…” at night.  “A Curvature of Bone” sees the spine as a “rock strewn path” “partially covered with sand…and threaded together/ with tenuous ligaments”.
“Voices of Touch” is a moving evocation of Helen Keller’s sensory world.
“Rocky Bluff” brings déjà vu to a familiar valley before history where “…I will return…/when I am       wearing/ different bones.”
“Pieces of Winter” etches a world where wind plays icicles “like a xylophone” and

                                    As we walk the frozen
                                    shoreline, snow memorizes
                                    the shapes of our boots
                                    our immortality…
I hope it’s not sexist to observe that these poems have the delicacy and sensitivity that clearly identify them as a woman’s handiwork. And this is by no means to dismiss them as anything less than superbly crafted literary emanations. As a man, I have often wondered about the workings of the female mind, and I’m grateful to admit that reading Mrs. Pieczka’s oeuvre may be as close as I can get to its mysteries.     









Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Master of Leaves by Murray Silverstein

With permission of Book/Mark a Quarterly Small Press Review.
   Winter-2015                                      
Review by Martin Abramson
MASTER OF LEAVES:  By Murray Silverstein
Sixteen Rivers Press
San Francisco, CA
$16.00, 91 pp, Paper


                          Murray Silverstein's style is a breezy, casual, off- the-cuff affair that gets quite chummy with the reader. Of course, a chum is a friend with whom one can speak his mind without fear of criticism. But alas, the reviewer, hard hearted cynics that he is, may assume no such intimacy. If a line like
                    hummingbird at the fuchsia---suck away, pal.
offends him to the soul, what can he do but hold it up and hope the reader agrees.
Not that Mr. Silverstein's collection is replete with such examples, but the style would seem to encourage them, and not always felicitously. The same poem, “The Constant”, refers to the speed of light and asks, "why, in the famous equation, must it be squared) it's already the speed of light?" The question is disingenuous as the poet shows later that he's perfectly aware that mass figures in the equation. The poem is a conceit which describes the body of a woman as a physical constant, tossing Einstein in for corroboration. To be sure, the poem contains some lovely descriptive lines: "but there's the heat, that feral almost- chocolate smell/ and twigs of cedar—twiglets---tangled in your hair." But there's also simplistic philosophy: "We're hit/ with a double whammy in this life: sex and other people." Maybe a single whammy. Doesn't  "other people," certain ones, include the subject of sex?
Mother is "Mother Goose" in which a mother's despair at the loss of her daughter to sudden elopement is nicely set
            against the indifference of the geese: "...my mother sat
            down/ in a chair she never sat in, and wouldn't speak..." While the geese, ". . .steadfastly fly-                                 floating across the sky.. ." are unheedful.
The poet's world has changed, but
               ...what is that to the geese?
             ... Tell me, if you know, I say we can never know, but we can ask...
             the lyric mind
              was made to ask. But what is that mind to the geese?
Two poems that are similar in theme are "Here Went the Egret" and  "Song of the Field." The latter recalls "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in lines like: "The song of the field is the buzz of the mind..." and "To enter the mind, enter the field." In "Here Went the Egret," the speaker digs a pond and stocks it with fish only to watch his aquarium emptied by an egret. But, forgetting pond and fish, the poet is awed by the power of the egret (as was Hopkins at a windhover) "...stroking the morning, erotics of air, as up/ and over me she glides..."
Both poems suggest that the closest we can come to reality is by an apotheosis of, or even by entering into the consciousness of a bird. This one ends with the poet who:
             ... dug the pond, bought the fish,
             Thought there was me, the egret, the fish, but no,
                                                           there is only the egret.
"Song of the Field," after descending from the mind to the man, to the field, to the edge of the field, to the woods and to the caw of the crow, concludes: "...to enter the woods, you must enter the crow."
Mr. Silverstein often pays homage to authors and artists he admires. In "Lunch with Saul Bellow," he quizzes the novelist as Dante did Virgil. "...how is love lavished?" "why is it lavished?" "...love itself is spun! From what?" The poet gets reasonably straight answers thus far, but the remainder of the poem dissolves into forest sounds;  "hoo-hoo-coo:" literary advice: "build a house/ of stories, tangled with other stories" and cryptic pronouncements: "sadness the marrow of the want bone."
The poem, "In Scarlet Town" invokes Bob Dylan's song, Vermeer's Young Woman at a Window with a Pitcher, Moby Dick, and Beethoven. It's a kind of culturally comprehensive comment on guilt, betrayal, escape and remorse summed up by the penultimate line," Mistakes were made and all is lost," but things are partially redeemed in the final image of the Vermeer: "Let me call your attention to her lips."
In "Self-Portrait," Mr. Silverstein once again plays physics off against art, referencing the discovery of the God particle with Rembrandt's painting. The trillionth of a second glow of the Higgs boson is mirrored in "...the tiny drop of white in the black pools" of the artist's eyes; and in "'...the glowing speck of silver I on the head of his cane..."
In two lengthy poems, "The Poison, The Cure" and "What is Man? " Mr. Silverstein brings Joyce and Dostoyevsky into the mix in the persons of Prince Myshkin and Molly Bloom. The first poem is more or less sexually oriented. The second is considerably darker involving dogs, leashes, pain and Ulysses.
"The Wheeled Blade" is probably the most overtly erotic poem in the book. The poet and a friend, baking pizzas, remember Judy Sharfman from years past, whose father ran the Hebrew school;  who would ...open her legs on her back on the grass and then snap them shut." It was his initiation to the female body. And the grown boys, marveling that she'd subsequently become a rabbi, comingle her with the Bible: "wordstream from the cuntspring" and "Torah within the Torah."
The title poem, is probably the best in this collection. The first of twelve sections describes insects on a late summer evening. "...a gnat storm is rising, a-jitter/ like a worried thought..." Water Walkers or Jesus bugs, don't walk so much as "dimple, and drift' on water.. .or they hump the water... sparks of manic desiring..."
In the second section, the October sun blasts the plum "turning its jam-dark leaves/ to pale-green moons." The third section centers on the autumn leaves. As the writer gathers them and crushes them underfoot, the leaves speak of their perceptions:
                Great master, our alphabet's an agony
                 of spine, a crazed ecstatic branching after light.-
The heliotropic leaves turn to the red south but wonder about Northern darkness and why lovers are impatient for the night.
The fourth section is commentary on the third in conference with "the Interior Gal."  They parse the aspects of light in a manner reminiscent of Jackson Mac Low's Light Poems:  “There's light and the endless craving of light to see itself and, ...light itself is made/ she said, of light-eviscerated plums.”
Section 5 is a meditation on death occasioned by the funeral of a friendly neighbor. The fall mirrors her death:  "...taking its toll. Golden a moment, then blown, rainy/ taking until the turn, the turn the tolling turns..."
Section 6 recalls lovers "on the lawn that sophomore spring: "   "Just out of jail and all over each other." But the episode ends in emptiness:  "The leaves falling, and then the rain."
Section 7, December Light, is fashioned in free verse as is most of these poems, but not without meter, variations within meter and internal rhyme. I will leave close analysis of Mr. Silverstein's complex scansion to those more erudite, and suffice myself with a long quote from this beautiful piece:
                ...what is, December 1, is light
              through the fog and slowly gaining on the neighbor's red-                                                                                       tipped maple                                                                                                                                                                 as if a cloud were an ember.

Inside the window, the same light gathers
in the hour-shaped glass centered on the sill, its bouquet
of red tulips and pale, feathered grass—whose stems
he can see are becoming translucent
the one light
through all.

Skipping to section 10, the January departure of the sun eviscerates the landscape                    
              And words, those tokens of joy the world offered once,
                     are beginning to disappear
                      into the things they've named'
                     becoming the tears in things...
And the penultimate section, 1 1, February Sky, takes the poet back to the dreary, typical city landscape in February, with the bearded religious loony, the couple on the steps of the middle school and the rain.
But with late March in Section 12, we feel "the fragrant breeze, so undeserved/ everything budding early." And we hear:
                     ...a children 's song! Sung by the living
                     to all that are gone, with verses, refrain—the silence
                     under the plum, blossoming, everything showered in light.
I'm constrained to admit a grudging admiration for Mr. Silverstein's work. He goes his own way, devising his own rules along it; but if uniqueness and honest path finding are exemplars of important poetry, these efforts surely fit the bill.
Martin Abramson is a poet, critic, author of four books, and a regular contributor to Book/Mark



Friday, February 13, 2015

Royal Shakespeare Company's Hamlet 2009

On the Royal Shakespeare Company's TV Production of Hamlet: 2009.
    Hamlet is probably the single most powerful fusion of words and situation in the language, and I believe the Royal Shakespeare Company's television version featuring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart is the best production. Two examples:                                                                            
    Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
    Ophelia: No, my lord.
    Hamlet: I mean my head upon your lap. ...
    Ophelia: Aye, my lord.

    Hamlet: Or did you think I meant country matters?
    Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
    Hamlet: That's a fair thought, to lie between maid's legs.                                                                       

    In every version I've seen, Hamlet reads line 5 more or less normally. But Tennant, knowing what bawdy Elizabethan audiences appreciated, says: "Or did you think I meant CUNT...ry matters?" Brilliant and authentic.
    In every version, Olivier, Gielgud et al., Claudius reacts to the play-within-the play by rushing off screaming for light. But Patrick Stewart understands that Kings don't panic. Especially since Hamlet, by his crudely pointed remarks has made the "trap" quite obvious. He gets up calmly, walks over to Hamlet, stares into his eyes and shakes his head from side to side. This gesture from a king can only betoken death.                                                                                    The whole interpretation of the play leans strongly to the Freudian side. Hamlet's anguish before he sees the ghost is over his mother's hasty marriage.  There's no "Hyperion to a Satyr" adulation of his father at this point. In speaking to Horatio of his father, in this version, Hamlet simply states:"He was a man etc." With no heroic stress on 'man'. In fact, the casting of Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and the ghost is meant to emphasize the idea that they pretty much looked alike. Which was possibly one factor in Gertrude's acceptance of him. This version sees Hamlet as a high-strung adolescent whose Oedipal predisposition is suddenly inflamed by his hallucination of the ghost whose his accusations against Claudius fulfill Hamlet's terror. (Yes, others have seen the ghost, thrown in to please the groundlings, but it's Hamlet's fury that animates the play; just as the witches in Macbeth only trigger Macbeth's overweening ambition but do not cause it.)  And, of course, Hamlet's fixation on his mother is given an appropriate degree of frenzy in the bedroom scene.                                                                        

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dreams

Dreams: martin abramson

When we're awake, we remember our dreams in fragments, if at all. When we dream, we remember our waking lives in fragments, if at all. (I know there are exceptions.) The main difference is that the waking mind can reflect on it's existence and even ask if it's dreaming. In dreams we assume we're awake and seldom ask if we're dreaming. I've had dreams of times, places and people I've never experienced on earth. And I've had dreams of times, places and personages who definitely never existed on earth. Does this have implications for the "Many Worlds" theory of Everett? Comments welcome.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

REVIEW: by Martin Abramson
SPLITTING HARD GROUND
By Marilyn Stablein
La Alameda Press
Albuquerque, New Mexico
$12.00, 78 pp. Paper

With permission of Book/Mark a Quarterly Small Press Review.
                                          Issue: Winter/Spring 2012

                        To this reviewer, Marilyn Stablein’s métier is essentially prose poetry. Almost any of her poems would read quite reasonably as paragraphs. But they wouldn’t be nearly as good. The author is very deliberate about linage, spacing, phrasing, enjambment and other factors that affect which words we read, the order in which we read them and their cumulative impact. Her metric deliberations make a world of difference.

                             At the burning ghat
                             bodies hover atop wood
                          stacked four feet high.
                          The eldest son lights the pyre.

                           Each line, brief and concise, gives us another essential detail. Each detail delivers a separate impact. Then in line 4, a culminating trope of greater significance is accorded greater metric scope. The next three stanzas describe the hunger of the flames which consume first the red silk coverings and then the limbs. Scavengers comb the ashes for gold fillings. Finally “an old woman /sadhu…steals a burning log” to boil her rice, which sets the stage for two lines of stunning force:
                                       Only Mataji cooks
                                    with bones of the dead.

                             Reading SPLITTING HARD GROUND, one easily forms the impression of a Beatnik poet wandering the courts and alleys of the world. From New York to Nepal; from Juarez to Varanasi; from Kathmandu to far-flung, unnamed rivers and seashores. In “Transient,” she speaks of a time when “A backpack is my pillow…Roadmaps are talismans…” and continues, “I’ve been gone so long/ one year thrusts into another/ like snowdrops in a winter’s thaw…No one recognizes me/  I’m a transient in my home town”.

                                Everywhere she goes, the naturalist-poet collects the detritus of wildlife and civilization.

                                         These carapace shells, dried seed
                                         pods, and red earth fill glass jars
                                         in my studio. Assemblages house
                                         aged bones, skulls, bugs, dismembered
                                         doll’s limbs. River rocks, wild herbs…

                                    When a friend gives her a partially de-fleshed hog’s head, she sets it out to cure “in a humid New York summer…” Three years later, the skull still cures.
                                         In different ways, each of these poems celebrates the seasons, the sensuous profligacy of gardens or the quiet pleasures of winter evenings. And the most moving of them conflate the fertility of nature with memories of a dead son, an avid gardener. In “Heirloom,” a seed catalog once sent to her son ignites memories:

                                                By a pinion fire I dream
                                                of summer, peaches simmer
                                                on the stove.
                                                                        …I’ll plant
                                                 A garden for you, Mom.
                                                 In the backyard.”

The simple pathos of these poems is overwhelming.

                                                On top of the bookcase…
                                                            wrapped in a delicate
                                                Japanese silk scarf, hand painted
                                                with scenes of cranes and curly
                                                foam tipped waves, rests Willie’s box.

                                                Wild pheasant feathers gathered
                                                In the woods and a few shells decorate the top.
                                                Is it a present or an art work?
                                                my poet friend Janice asks.
                                                My son’s ashes, I tell her,
                                                I like to keep him near.
                                   
                                    “The Water Carriers” is dedicated to Willie.

                                                All love is memorable.
                                                Some only for the pain.

                                    It’s a six-part poem centered on various forms of water. Walking in the surge at the Bay of Fundy, the poet meditates on how “…the first {surge of love} sets a precedent to measure by “even though a lifetime is but a blink of Brahma’s eye”. Part 3 is a moving hymn to the lost child.

                                                Water blasts ahead
                                                pounds the earth, shreds
                                                my heart to bits of
wayward shells, knotted
kelp, stranded sea creatures.
                                               
                            “The Sorrow of Captivity” provides graphic details of Morocco, Marrakesh and villages in the Atlas Mountains not likely to be found in travelogues. The poems tell of thieving ravens, mice and monkeys in locales like Benares where “I recycled everything” and olive oil was poured in empty beer bottles. Ms. Stablein takes us on scavenger hunts in poems like “Salvage” where she finds memories among treasures in trash bins: a Mexican hat; a hippie tie-dyed dress; two baskets; a garden trellis and an “aviator’s scarf like the one Peter/ loved me in…so Isadora Duncan…”
                              And we too find treasures amid the travel journals and bric-a-brac of an adventurous and often painful life: deep memories; exquisite imagery and graceful music. The physical book itself rewards us, set in Perpetua typeface and neatly packaged by La Alameda Press between glossy covers with a stunning photo of the Rio Grande Gorge on the front. SPLITTING HARD GROUND delights and saturates all our senses. Enthusiastically recommended.