Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Kingdom of Possibilities

The Kingdom of Possibilities by Tim Mayo
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

The Kingdom of Possibilities
Mayapple Press
Paperback, 70 pages
ISBN: 978-0932412-76-8

Such plain short poems (most only one page) and such simple titles (“The Beautiful Woman,” “The Last Gift”) … and so complex! Each poem is a Zen puzzle: dense, elliptical: often presenting the ambiguity of a crossword clue: verb? noun? adjective? We know there’s something happening here, and we want desperately to grasp it; but it keeps moving just out of sight like shelves in the sheep’s shop in Looking Glass world. Eventually, we begin to suspect that imparting complete understanding is not the author’s purpose; that he has deliberately left out the trail blazes because, in offering a only a partial image, he compels us to supply the missing portions ourselves, from the only place they can be found … our own experience.

We cannot say of any of these poems, “Been there, done that”, and dismiss it. Because the poem has changed the experience … if only by virtue of a unique clutch of words. Talking to himself in Mot Juste, Mr. Mayo wishes he could snip the narrative at the place where the “spirit of what you have struggled to articulate/ hardens/ like consonants around the illusive vowels/ of your life---”. “The Fisherman on the Screen” subtly explains:

The trick is in the line. How you cast back, letting
it unfurl behind you---then forward, rolling its
bight and loop so it alights on target, invisible,
kissing the surface right above your fish.

Mayo wants the “line’s back and forth… to always/ balance all that’s ever been behind you---with all that will ever be…” In “A Reflective Voice” Mayo adds:

Now I write in a visual way
showing the clear words
all at once, not as words
but forms upon a surface…

The first poem “How It Comes to You” displays Mr. Mayo’s style immediately. Like “The Road Not Taken”, it presents baffling choices that scholars could debate for years. Only instead of roads in a wood, we have trains in a subway station.

“The Beautiful Woman” tells us “beauty is an emotion from which desire splurges/ like a prodigal” and shows how the effects of that emotion can leave a woman scarred for life.

“The Story You Never Read” is the one about:

… the poet
who died from pushing a pencil, piercing
the drum of his ear to touch, indelibly
that small, delicate place in the brain

where perception and living converged…

Mayo’s incredibly tactile filmstrip of a snake slowly swallowing a frog in “The Frog and the Snake” brings death to his mind and particularly the death of the narrator’s mother by her own hand (perhaps with the pearl-handled pistol of “Waltzing Through”). And like Camus’ Stranger, he feels nothing. This is our first clue to circumstances of the narrator’s life as repeated in several poems: raised by adoptive parents; never knowing the real ones. The first realization of this, described in “Name” tells of a “ripping apart” when told the truth about his origins, causing a dislocation that defamiliarized the face in the mirror “to whom each day/ I offered my razored hand”.

Lacking a past, the narrator lives in the ‘eternal present’ of “The Last Gift”. He inhabits a ‘kingdom of possibilities’ imagining all the scenarios of what his life could have been. He speculates on the imagined duality of motherhood in “Two Mothers”. In “Honey” he stands before his mother’s grave where she rests “as if waiting for some sweet yes I never/ said” while “A few plots over, a mower buzzes in the heat/ like a bee working the flowers for its queen”. In “Father Poem” he meditates on the futility of searching for a father whom, even if found, could only turn out to be a shallow bumpkin. In “Nineteen Forty-Five” the narrator imagines his parents, “the strangers I have wanted to know my whole life”, conceiving him in an automatic physical act--- and he tosses them “once again, from my mind/ never asking that which is too late to answer”.

In several hunting poems, Mayo eschews the sentimentality one might attach to the death of animals and concentrates on the precise mechanics of killing and the banality of death.

In Flamants Roses, he describes flamingoes frozen in ice like ‘Rose Flames’ that could not “melt nor dance themselves free, their gawky beaks/ clacking, scratching the ice like useless castanets”. In “The Counterfeit Seal”, the speaker reads the dissolution of his own marriage in the carved medallion of a warrior saying farewell to his wife: leaving “for something he deemed more important than love”. And this loss is epitomized in “The Confessional Poet’s Confession” where, in the agony of remorseful desire, the distraught husband stipulates exactly how he drove his wife away.

In “I, Lazarus”, the eponymous hero tells people all the fictional malarkey about the afterlife they yearn to hear while whispering the truth they don’t want to hear: that “the blessing of life/ was the body”.

“The Word in the Story” is a compelling contrast of the narrator’s eventual understanding of the past---after having squeezed its throat “until you felt/ a gasp coughing up through its craw” --- with the incomprehensibility of the present “that escapes like the air/ in the palm of your hand as your fist/ tightens…”

In “At a Walmart in Southern New Hampshire”, Mayo both pays his respects to Whitman and updates Ginsberg. It’s a worthy addition. And, continuing the Americana theme, “Bright Yellow Stab” paints a vivid image of a summer day’s cookout:

…all the backyard sprinklers spritz us with rainbows…

Soon the foosh
and belch of the barbecue will swell into the air,
Then comes hot-dog time, the mustard of it all,
while the burgers sweat it out on the grill,
and you and I lie hunky-dory in the long chairs

just fine…until we hear that twitch of cubes rattling
like a cold music we will never know how to sing

Hey folks, this is really good stuff! There are intriguing poems about women: girlfriends, lovers, wives… and a good deal of moving confessional biography…all up to the very high standards Mr. Mayo has set himself and maintained, poem after poem, with memorable success.

Reviewed by Martin Abramson.
Poets’ Quarterly | Winter 2011.

Silent Music

Silent Music by Richard Bronson
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

Silent Music
Padishah Press
Perfect Paperback, 91 pages
ISBN 978-0-9776405-2-2

For many years I watched Richard Bronson’s poetic development from awkward beginnings, through years of tireless work-shopping and saw how diligently he pursued his craft and how honed and polished his work became. So I take considerable pleasure in introducing a worthy successor to his well-received first chapbook, Search for Oz; namely, his latest collection: Silent Music.

If one is to compare Mr. Bronson with other physicians who turned to writing later in life, one might cite resemblances to the linguistic experiments of William Carlos Williams or the intense social concerns of the French author, Jean Reverzy. But Mr. Bronson has his own version of “No ideas but in things,” his own style, as meticulous as Williams’; and his own views of history, as driven as Reverzy’s.

Silent Music contains four sections beginning with a series of poems devoted to images of childhood along with sketches of parents and relatives. The charming “Tootle” is a touching moment of infancy; “The Good Son”, a scene of childhood anguish and humiliation; “Atom Drill” depicts the terrors of nuclear war reflected in the eyes of school children. “The Mouth of the Dragon” shows a time when the author narrowly escaped death (as most of us have at one time or another) and was shocked into awareness of life’s fragility; “My Uncle Jerry” is about the oaf whom we all remember as the in-law who pinched us, cracked our knuckles or threw us into a lake to help us learn to swim. Other poems in this section depict touching images of the author’s workaholic dad, and perfectionist mom, snapped at different stages of their lives.

Topics that repeatedly command the poet’s attention include religion, politics, war, people, love, medicine, music, time, nature, and travel. Several poems overlap two or more of these topics.

“Jones Beach” conveys the sudden sweetness of a first date when everything goes right.

A mist off the sea touched our skin
----bare arms and legs----
and we laughed,
while the surf rushed
along rock jetties.

“Imperfect Knowledge” dramatizes the medical shortcomings of an earlier age when the poet’s doctor-father allows a shoe store to x-ray his son’s feet; subsequently the father is himself felled by overwork, and a second heart attack (precipitated perhaps by those little red estrogen pills). “The Dinner Party” emanates vibrant acoustical chords, and poses a tantalizing puzzle concerning the identity of an unseen guest. “Perfect” describes the punctilious care a woman, presumably the poet’s mother, takes in the execution of domestic duties: shopping, homemaking etc. This is then compared to her later appearance in a nursing home.

…Her gait precarious,
Though her mind is clear.
She still wears heels---
It is her way---
Though death lurks with every fall.

“The Time Eaters” is a wide-spectrum study of time--geological, archaeological, biological and biblical. Other poems treat the concept of time: “At Tewksbury Abbey”; “Summer Solstice”; “Indian Summer”; “2001” and “Anniversary”. “Mount Zion”, the name of a Jewish cemetery, examines the ritual and reality of modern burial. “Continental Drift” depicts what happens to so many marriages as the years roll by:

We’ve lived in a private United Nations,
our own Security Council,
each with absolute veto power.
It has served us well these forty years---

“Fugue” explores parallel universes in which family members avoid decisions that resulted in tragedy or premature death. I tuned into this piece personally on many levels.

Mr. Bronson’s meditations on the horrors perpetrated by humans upon one another include precise medical sadism and general atrocities. “A Portrait of Otto Dix” depicts the appalling conditions of surgery in an earlier age (Google: “Hans Koch Urologist” to see the painting itself.); “Terminal Velocity” supplies a view of NYC through the eyes of someone falling in slow motion from a window of the Twin Towers; “Cura Te Ipsum”, is an ironic self-justification by Josef Mengele. Others in this group include: “Cry, Oh Cry Dafur”; “Flag Day at Hudson” and “Anthrax”.

Lest I give the impression that Silent Music is top heavy with intellectual fare, let me close with some instances of the spell binding lyric imagery found throughout the book. From “Passage”:

He rode on a river of steel
through a cave of night.
Lights of little towns winked welcome,
were gone.

From “Driving Home…”:

Houses catch fire in failing light
as the day dies---

From “Indian Summer 2001”:

The Sun has crossed the sky
Touched dark, still water.

Only the pale moon
gazes harshly
from its empty place
at the closing of an age.

From “Wind Singer”:

The strings and winds are like two peoples
who speak the same language
but rarely congregate

except in formal, prearranged meetings.

From “The Secret of Vilcabamba”:

Rose petals, red drifting over cobblestones…

From “Satori”:

White butterflies, prayers on folded paper
festoon trees…

I leave the reader to explore the many other treasures of this collection. Whether speculating on religion, music, nature or distant lands, Mr. Bronson’s sharp eye and appreciation for detail are always compelling. Even more significant are the empathic depths, and subtle shades of color, which set off these skillfully wrought verbal objects. Mr. Bronson’s Silent Music is sure to reverberate loudly in your mind now and far into the future.

Specimen poems from an earlier collection: Search for Oz by Richard Bronson may be found here.

Reviewed by Martin Abramson.
Poets’ Quarterly | Winter 2011.

Designed by Free CSS Templates

Open Slowly

Open Slowly by Dayle Furlong
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

Open Slowly
Tightrope Books,75p
ISBN 978-0-9783351-3-7

Dayle Furlong has presented us with a bouquet of glowing love poems; some transparent, most translucent and a few, opaque. And clinging to each of these vivid flowers, like jeweled insects or diamond dewdrops, are striking images to bring delight even when, occasionally, the sense of the poem escapes us.

… the plum-coloured sky
rolls through, the sparked vein of lightning rips and tumbles like a
gambler’s die…

…we’ll live like lazy flies
swirling in the hot syrup

Leaves lie in piles¾
a blazing circus of decay.

I’ll yell at the sun for
bull-fighting with clouds

the water’s ebb a puppy’s tongue
panting in quick spasms.

a heron emerges
from the inky forest
¾eggshell gray, blue
folded paper toy in flight¾

Open Slowly. The title suggests many implications embedded in the text: the slow growth of awareness in childhood; the slow blossoming of adolescent sexuality; the slow opening to adult love; and the slow recognition of the past entangled with the deep foliage of memory.

Characteristic of the first and last is “Past Flesh”, where the author remembers her father:

I’d bury my face in the nape of his neck
snuggle into the warm, sweet-smelling flesh.

Her mother, buttoning a sweater:

her hands, steaming and soapy, plump and round,
smelt tart and crisp from the green apple dish detergent.

Her wet fingers climbed clumsily up the row of buttons
slipping like insects on wet stones.

A teenage infatuation could be the theme of “Romance Brief”:

a summertime fling
heartbreak in autumn.

… I turn to you, feel you clutch
my hand¾a rhythmic heartbeat¾
our torsos cling to one another
on park benches like vines

On a sinister note, child-molestation is remembered as seen through a child’s eyes in “Say Uncle”:

Under his thumb, she
pleaded, bribed, begged,
desperation choking her face cherry red
when I refused to go in the basement,
fear of spiders and fingers
keeping me above ground.

The word “fingers” informs us that the speaking child had some vague idea of what was happening, but could do no more against adult authority than protect herself.

In an intriguing conceit on calligraphy called “Own Hands, the author is “Tired of gazing down this self-same spot/ the end of a pen” as her writings clamor for fame and attention; “anything to wipe the ink from their faces”. She sits “hunched over, head in palms/ bleeding elsewhere”(not on the paper).

Some of the most sensual of Ms. Furlong’s love poems include:

“Bound”, where we find the lovers in

encircling light
eyes flashing, hair flying
openings new, whole: unique.

… crevices deep, filled with
rubbed colour, blushing at the edges

“Litany of Desire”, where

My lips shed skin
in crisps
if only to love you

… you will enjoy me as
blessed and savage
as I tumble head first into you

And “Tangled”, where

I lie like a minnow
let you gulp me in
expel me at high tide

Insects, flowers and birds are among Ms. Furlong’s favorite subjects: viz “For All Their Fluttering”; “Flies”; “In the Butterfly Garden”; “In the Hummingbird Garden”; “A Single Pink Rose”; “Lovers Hunched”; “Smoked Out”; “City Sparrows” and “Scattered”.

Other poems evoke people and situations. “You Were Here” captures the taste and feel of competition between young girls for a Tom Sawyer type playmate. “Experiments with the Living” projects and introjects an early sweetheart who, is fantasized into the present.

…if you were to extort the present from me…
what future could we imagine?

…I remember hours spent sitting on
swing sets as the breeze turned colder than
the ice cream…

now inquiries are embargoes

In “Tonic and Brevity”, the poet contrasts childhood dreams of adulthood: “I’d wear pretty dresses/ and meet men from big cities”; with reality: “free from growing pains in knees/ and the shame of cheap sneakers”.

In Canada, winters are harsh, and spring is the long yearned-for season; several poems reflect this desire. A lovely daguerreotype of the city in deepest winter is etched in “Blue Lips”.

feet burn with the itch of cold
as street cars break down, collide
while buses and trucks
amble by awash in
cement tones

“Bare” describes a tree denuded by winter winds and just such a skeletal tree is transformed into a bride in “The Ceremony” as blizzards spin a snowy nuptial veil over its branches. In “The Thaw”, the speaker and a friend, hoping to urge spring on, sit on a freezing porch.

the chai latte is hot
and the cinnamon clumps
together at the bottom in cliques

In “Lazy Eye” thawed puddles on the sidewalk, like “icy eyelids melted”, presage warmth that has not quite arrived.

Among the scattered gems of this collection are gritty, realistic poems that describe people. There’s a poem to a statue; one to a prairie storm and a good many that express the author’s feelings about experiences with friends, lovers and children. All are styled in free verse with strong metric and rhythmic energy. Descriptions are sharply focused and finely detailed. This chapbook is as rewarding as it is challenging, and the challenge greatly enhances the reward.

The Apocalypse Tapestries

The Apocalypse Tapestries by John Taylor
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

The Apocalypse Tapestries
Xenos Books, 126 pages
ISBN 1-879378-51-5

The dramatic poetry and prose offered in John Taylor’s recent collection is composed of recurring themes that weave through the poems like threads in the same tapestry that provides this dramatic series with both stage sets and overarching proscenium. The Apocalypse Tapestry itself, situated in the Château d’Angers, is 103 meters long and comprises 67 surviving scenes of the Apocalypse that supposedly precedes the Day of Judgment. Obviously, one major theme of the book is religion; by turns, desired, cherished and repudiated by the author. There is little doubt that John the poet identifies with John the Apostle who is shown, as commanded by the angels, standing in many panels taking copious notes and recording events. The poet even asks for a blue coat like John’s.

Tapestry weaver, shuttle the knotted and tangled threads
of my life into a harmonious pattern.
Weave me a coat like the one John wore--blue, blue¾as he
peered into the dark stand of oak.

Many of the pieces allude to the author’s despair as foreshadowed in the prefatory quote from Bonnefoy: “See, all the paths you went along are closed now…”. In “Chosen” he wonders if his humility caused him to be singled out or if his feeling of being chosen suggest the sin of pride. This sort of tension is not just theological speculation but a source of real anguish for Mr. Taylor. Part of the evidence of his special status stems from surviving dangerous feats as a boy and also from deliberately placing himself in peril in the worst slums of several cities. The maturing author searches for secular answers, and finds no transcendence in science and only despair in mathematics. But in “Secretum” he sees splendor in the present moment, a feeling reinforced by the last line of “Matter”: “You were alive./ C’est tout.”

In “John’s Nightmare”, the author questions a bronze, godlike statue who shows him a heptagon of stars spinning in mid air and directs him to a table laden with the “… dizzying crisscrossing of a palimpsest¾obscure oracles running through accounting legers, calendars, battle reports…” In order to interpret them, John would have to give up his own writings. He wonders: “Would I sacrifice my own words in a search for His?” In the end, of course, the author has chosen his own work, and in “Notes on Composition”, he relates how he writes, figuratively with two hands, one always selecting the true line “the just and genuine one…”. In choosing the best hand, he must frequently change, delete, pare back and sometimes start all over again to remain on the right path.

In “Seeking Song”, the poet envies heroes who change the world through direct action, like the blackbird, the knight or “the angel with blood-stained wings”. He can only lead Pegasus through “the calm water of words”, his given métier, “ever tempted to grip the dangling reins”.

In “Thereness”, the poet seeks to test the idea of ‘presence’, which has been pursued by generations of French poets and phenomenologists, by leaning out over the sill of a high window. But he’s stymied by an inner voice that warns, “Not too far”. He admires the white egret, the “sudden strawberries” and “the fragile poppy waving from the ditch”, and asks, “Who needs further signs, confirmations?” But the same fear as before prevents him from wading across a glacial pool in “Depths and Surfaces” as he ponders the deep drop-off in the middle. In “Betweenness”, he sees himself between earth and epiphany, always half way. If he manages to achieve momentary wholeness, he is immediately halved, and halved again, eventually being left a splinter. He cries: “Oh Lord, let me divide myself no further. I am now but a splinter of the beam.” He dares not assume “Victory” in the poem so titled as the hope of it has “…nearly destroyed me”.

Many of the pieces are written a propos of places Mr. Taylor visits: Étretat, Champtocé, Varades, Ancenis, Oudon. In each of these sites, the pilgrim finds signs that signal the direction and meaning of his life.

The book includes many prose pieces set in italics but also enclosed in quotes. These seem to be verbatim reports from all sorts of people: waiters, artists, prostitutes, deserted mothers, fishermen, soldiers, innkeepers and so on. They are often dramatic, capturing the phrasing and idiom of the speaker with uncanny accuracy. But the entrees are also politically relevant often identifying societal problems. A few of these prose pieces are in italics without quotes and seem to present instances of the author himself speaking candidly in his own voice. Of the former, there is “The Son of the Scholar of Keats”, a young runaway whose professor father is characterized by his favorite phrase, “As it were”. In “Fleeing” a wife deserted with two female children struggles for years to support them, living hand-to-mouth and finally deserts them in turn, eventually opening a restaurant (which fails) with a bloke named Nigel. After hitchhiking around Europe, she ends up in Samos where she ends the story: “As to my girls… I have entrusted them to God.”

“The Waiter” describes the footsore, fatiguing day of a server in a café who spends his days catering to tourists “desperate for alcohol and sex” and goes home to read Greek poetry. Similarly, “Spooky’s Life” is the story of another deserted woman who winds up as a prostitute in a gentlemen’s bar. Besides doing it in English and Dutch, she …”can wank a man off in Spanish, Italian, German”. She remarks, “On a given week, I would end up doing about everything two human bodies can do to each other sexually”. In retirement, she also finds a home in Samos.

On a more exalted level, “You Have To Approach” is a moving evocation of an artist’s spiritual preparation before applying his paintbrush.

Of the latter type of prose piece, where the poet speaks candidly in his own voice, there’s “C’s Discouragement” which describes the author’s deceased friend identified only by the letter ‘C’. In memory, the friend’s black mood, mirrored in espressos, is incited by the hopelessness that has dried up his creative powers. “Between us fell a silence that I can still feel (this morning…)”. “The Mirror” describes an eventful stroll through the Eros-Markt in Hamburg. “Into John’s World” shows a young boy (John himself or an avatar) raptly working on a drawing to create, Daedalus-like,“a maze from which he, the artist, might not be able to escape.”

The concept of ascension, pointing to the synonymy of mountain climbing and faith, forms another leitmotif of this collection. “Ascending” poses the climber-pilgrim’s problem when he reaches that point in the trail where he must either attempt extremely dangerous slopes represented by pieces of loose shale, or turn back to safety. He decides go on for the reward of seeing Lac Clair with its promise of “clarity, luminosity”. He attains it but, after the erosion of time, forgets the memory of its clarity and thinks of it, ironically, as Lac Noir. In “The Useless Signpost” he comes across an uprooted signpost and realizes:

You have to determine
the right path
by the slope

up for the rest of your life.

In “Iter Inceptum” (the journey begins) the poet again sees himself on an ascending road, this time outpaced by others who chide him for taking the “scenic route”. As a “wanderer” he has a better view, and greater perspective, but still doubts himself: “And what good to others, even to yourself/ is a view?” But he perseveres knowing that “You have to choose/ the once chosen path again/ and again”. “The Citadel” recollects the speaker’s high palace of refuge attained by vanquishing the powers of Babylon. But this memory only appears centuries later when Babylon, the citadel and all their treasures have crumbled to dust. Always the self-negating victory. The eagle, symbolic of sacred power, sometimes fills the sky in “Eagles of Fortune and Misfortune”, but sometimes there is only “an empty, eagle-flown sky”. The author pleads along with men in Hell to be devoured by God, as the marmot by the eagle’s babies, rather than burn forever”. But the pendulum swings back in “This Dust”, set in the Nevada desert; the writer notes how dust, in the biblical sense of primordial material, can bring forth life in the form of “tufts of blue sage… and tumbleweed”.

In “Taming the Beast of the Sea”, Mr. Taylor once again identifies Satan with the Beast of the Apocalypse depicted in the tapestry. At first, the thought that the ‘beast’ is woven of lamb’s wool prompts laughter, but the demonic archetype cannot be laughed away. It still terrifies; yet the pen can slow its approach and (for the moment) walking away dispels fear. But the terror revisits in “Flames and Fingertips”; a meditation on death, cremation and, by extension, the flames of hell.

In “Galah” a sun-worshipping nudist imagines herself impregnated by the sun’s rays. In “The Adoration of the Beast”, hedonists follow their sensual pursuits, but are struck (as Amfortas) with incurable sicknesses. As medicines fail and they pray for a divine cure; still, they continue to sin and cavort as “The stars above us swirled like poor Van Gogh’s cornflowers”.

These poems, in their deeply felt, yet despairingly questioned, sense of faith, take their place with the likes of Vaughan, Herbert, Hopkins and Eliot in the canon of searing and inspiring religious poetry. John Taylor’s mastery of words and power of imagination surmount any qualms over religious orientation, or for that matter, mere atheism. Of course, there’s much more to report about this incredibly rich collection, but space prevents. Suffice it to say that the poems are “there”¾not in splinters¾but in wholeness, completion and clarity. The pilgrim has achieved apotheosis.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Easy Marks by Gail White

Easy Marks by Gail Whit
Reviewed in PoetsQuarterly.com by Martin Abramson

Easy Marks
David Robert Books
Chapbook, 75 pages
ISBN 978193499900066


I must say these poems are a delight. What a treat to be able to laugh at poems with conventional dark, even tragic subjects, handled with such unconventional lightness and irony. And while I sometimes frown on rhyme, I cheerfully stipulate that, in Ms. White’s hands, it serves to wonderfully emphasize the fun:

My brain is on a shopping spree,
The birthday of my life has come!
Because my love is such a jerk
And finally I’ve dumped the bum.

After pillorying road hogs and iPod wielding diners, she writes:

Friends, I’m no longer saying this for fun.
Road rage has made me rampage through the town.
I’m out of Prozac, and I have a gun.
So would you kindly put your cell phone down?

But (semi) seriously folks, there’s plenty of heavy heartbreak and remorse in these poems; some with a wistful touch, some in straight pain. The last of the four sections, “Elegies,” includes epitaphs for dead wives, husbands and friends. The poet even writes a script for her own cremation in “My Funeral”. Often Ms. White speaks with the voice of the dead as in the villanelle, “Her Ghost”:

I’m here beside you, but it’s not the same.
I’m out of time, although I’m still in space.
If only you would call me by my name,

I’d step out like a portrait from its frame
And we could look each other in the face.

Often the dead speakers are real people: Christina Rossetti, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, of course, Dorothy Parker. Sometimes they’re fictional or Biblical: Queen Gertrude, Eve, Jonah, Mary Magdalene. There’s commentary on mythology and religion, especially Christianity from which the author seems more than partially lapsed. Little of which is politic while some is scathingly sarcastic as in “Cloakroom Talk at the Council of Chalcedon,” where the church fathers cynically vote to elevate Mary to the Trinity in order to court Egyptians and Ephesians who demand a substitute for the Great Mother figures of Isis and Demeter. In “Pentecost”, the spread of Christianity replaces a host of pagan gods with “The ultimate loathing: one / monotheist for another”. In “Lapsed Catholic Watches the Super Bowl”, the nebulous purity of the saved is contrasted with the joys of apostates who “crawl / from tree to tree … longing for fruits out of reach” until they realize “that Christ wasn’t counting the tacos / and Budweiser was good for the soul”. Reflecting on her life in “A Chapter of Proverbs”, Ms. White lists various lessons starting with the quotidian “Never clean a freezer with an ice pick,” but gets increasingly grim, going on to “Sooner or later/ the stock market always comes down” and ending with: “Whatever you’re going to die of is already in you, / And science does not have a cure”.

A recurring theme treats of the poet’s mother’s disappointment at her daughter’s plainness paired with the preference of not-too-bright men for big bosoms. Both complaints are included in “My Personal Recollections of Not Being Asked to the Prom”; a neat little sonnet with the sestet:

And my poor mom who never bought a fluffy
ball gown or showed me how to dress my hair—
she must have wondered where she got this stuffy
daughter. She didn’t say it, but her stare
asked whether genes or nurture were to blame.
(But I got married, Mother, all the same.)

Sweet revenge, indeed! Most of the poems in this collection either sympathize with wronged women or skewer the immorality of men. De Beauvoir complains about Sartre’s annual affairs; Rossetti’s wife grumbles that he only sees his ideal image and not her; Gertrude gripes that Claudius ignores her requests; Eve laments that Adam is “thicker than a coconut”; and husbands take the rap for the suicidal urges of Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf. Mary Magdalene, who was denied a place at the table after Jesus’ death is revenged by the widow in “Post Diagnosis” who, when her husband succumbs to cancer, gets to decide who receives each of their shared possessions as she cheerfully annexes his closet space.

Ms.White often makes her highly personalized points through fairy tales. Because she loves animals, Beauty likes the Beast, who is “kindly natured though his face is grim” and “won’t risk children who might look like him.” “Snow White at Fifty” realizes that ‘ever after’ goes by sooner than we think. And as revolt simmers behind the palace walls, she wonders: “Whatever made me think / that ‘childless’ was the same as ‘young’”? These and many other dark streaks of pigment tinge the procession of portraits presented by Ms. White, so I would not leave the impression that Easy Marks is sheer comedy. But the overall tone of the book is upbeat as is Fra Angelica who turns from scenes of horror in Last Judgment, “to paint the angel whose bare, shapely foot / begins the dance that keeps eternal time.”

And in a defining note from “Christmas on Rhodes”:

But tides recede: I know this moment’s worth.
If love of beauty were the same as faith,
I’d walk in heaven with my feet on earth.

Martin Abramson, a Jones Fellowship recipient at Stanford, studied poetry with Yvor Winters. He has taught in New York and California. Publications include several chapbooks, all out of print but collected on his website at:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Paths to Contemporary French Literature by John Taylor

By permission of Book/Mark, a Quarterly Small Press Review

Review by Martin Abramson
Paths to Contemporary French Literature, Vols. 1,2.
By John Taylor
Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Vol 1 $44.95, 358 pp, Cloth (2005)
Vol 2 $39.95, 381 pp, Cloth (2007)
(Both available in Paperback and eBook format.)

John Taylor’s recent study, Into the Heart of European Poetry, was reviewed to enthusiastic applause in these pages (Fall/Winter 08-09) so it is with great pleasure that the same critic turns to Mr. Taylor’s earlier publication, the two volume guide: Paths to Contemporary French Literature. And let me state at the outset that while Mr. Taylors’s work will be used as a research tool, a reference source and a classroom text, it can be equally well approached as a vast, non-fiction novel. Having been originally penned as a series of feature articles for various reviews and periodicals, these essays were not authored to the exclusive demands of academia, but always kept the general reader in mind. Mr. Taylor surveys his subjects, knitting their lives together within networks of literary influences and personal relationships so that every piece is a sort of holographic mirror of the whole. While for scholars, these volumes will be a source of information and enlightenment, for some general readers they will be closer to page-turners (all 638 pages!) affording them entrée into panoramic vistas they might never otherwise get to view.
Between the two volumes, over 100 authors are introduced and I won’t have to remind readers of Into the Heart of European Poetry how thoroughly each one is researched and presented. The subjects’ lives, souls and places in French literature are fully revealed. Mr. Taylor reads, relates and explains their major (and many minor) works. The degree of reading and analysis that goes into any one of these studies could comprise a decade’s labor for an ordinary scholar, but Mr. Taylor takes it in stride. However, fear not; everything cited in the original French is also translated into English.
As this reader experienced the books, Volume 1 was more methodical, disciplined and densely knit than its successor. Volume 2 seemed more relaxed and adventuresome, subject to wider swings of imagination and stylistic liberty. While both are powerful experiences, one feels a heightened sense of plaisire du texte in Vol. II.
Having been an indifferent student of high school French (pace Miss Sebrée, Mr. Fried), I obviously can’t presume to second-guess anything asserted by the likes of John Taylor where textual interpretation is concerned. What I can do is to quote those places where his comments are particularly moving or informative. All the examples from the books, whether enclosed in quotations or not, are derived from Mr. Taylor’s comments.

On Jacques Rćda: His work “tenders friendship to all sorts of past poets (as well as to modest craftsmen, erudite wine merchants and passing girls with sea-gray eyes)”. He will “pun discreetly, lifting a weary expression from the colloquial idiom and setting it down in a context that makes it burst open with significance, rather like the ‘bubbling cool milk’ he imagines emanating from’ acacia blossoms’”. As do most chapters, the Réda essay comes with an excellent summary of the author’s critical reception.
Taylor tells us that Charles-Albert Cingria “spent much of his life in France, especially in Paris, where he led an impecunious existence in a garret on the rue Bonaparte”. “…the details of his prose can be savored like a buffet of rare delicacies.” “His disregard for classical storytelling turns many short pieces into rambling personal essays, a genre that has lately come into fashion in American literature.”
Henri Calet coined popular phrases used by people who had never heard of him e.g. “Don’t shake me, I’m full of tears”.
George L. Godeau penned enthralling vignettes of everyday life. Réda called it the poetry of “what happens when nothing happens”. His subjects remind us of Doisneau’s photographs of average citizens.
Gil Jouanard yokes poetry and science together in crafted pieces that can resemble prose poems or personal essays. Concentrating on the presence of ordinary things, he states that “any instant” is suitable for experiencing the “inexhaustible savor of the world”. Taylor praises Jouanard as a meticulous literary stylist.
The minimalist, Zen-like meditations of Gérard Macé are validated, but so is his short novel entirely structured around a minor detail in the life of the man who deciphered the Rosetta stone.
Illustrating his contention that modern French literature tends to be like diary or journal-writing, Taylor turns to Pierre Autin-Grenier: “From his earliest collections, Jours anciens (1986) Chroniques des faits (1992) and Histoires Secrèts (1982), Autin-Grenier began exploring the lassitude that overwhelms the soul when one has comprehended too precociously man’s ultimate destination: the grave”. He is a master of gallows humor whose marvelously constructed sentences beg to be read aloud”.
Jean Reverzy, a medical doctor who became a best-selling author, and whose autobiographical prose evokes Conrad and Proust, died young, at forty-five.
“An entire dictionary of quotations,” Taylor observes, “could be compiled from (Nicolas) Bouvier’s striking phrases. ‘The bedrock of existence,’ he concludes after a final blissful moment in Turkey, “is made up…of moments…when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love’.
The prose of Patrick Drevet is “hauntingly melodious and vertiginously precise”. His “butterfly hunting thus forms an intricate metaphor involving the ephemerality of beauty, the fleetingness of time, the omnipresence death” and “the solitude of childhood”.
(Pierre) Bergounioux has been “acutely attentive to the destruction”, by the modern era, “of the archaic rural lifestyles that persisted in parts of France…” He has devoted, in Proustian detail, “some thirty-five literary works to (depicting) his hometown and native region”. He “investigates”… “the sociological, psychological, geographical, even ontological ‘ruptures’ wrought by the 20th century, especially with regards to the”…”rural civilization of Limousin”. Like Joyce, Bergounioux strives to forge the uncreated conscience of his race.
In his “multi-layered, maze-like writing”… “(Louis-René) des Forêts introduces a stunning author-within-a-character-within-a-character” complexity into a story called, “The Children’s Dormitory”. p.96) His novel Le Bavard portrays a blabbermouth who cannot stop talking “about his drunken attempts to win the favors of a prostitute at a dance hall”.
Jean-Philippe Salabreuil’s style is described as having “syntax so intricately constructed that lines or sentences can often be construed in alternate ways, depending on the breathing stops made by the reader”. In his “astonished language”… “every poem…forms a slowly turning kaleidoscope of stunning images and complex meanings”.
Mr. Taylor describes Hélène Cixous’ literary obsession with her father; Nathalie Sarraute’s debt to Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Flaubert; Jouve whose subtle colorations challenge the translator; Marguerite Duras author of the international best seller, The Lover; Albert Cohen who “sets language ablaze” in the timeless masterpiece, Belle du Seigneur; Pierre Guyotat whose intensely sexual and physical subconscious collages reach unbearable limits of language; Jacques Roubaud the algebraist whose writing entwines “experienced feelings, memory and perceived reality” with vertiginous mathematical and logical constructs; the elegiac ultimately tragic deliberations of Claude Esteban; the Kafkaesque visions of Louis Calaferte who dares to explore the sexual passions of females in The Way It Works with Women; the puzzles, palindromes and cryptography of George Perec; Patrick Modiano whose “enigmatic, interconnected series of novels chart original paths between fiction and autobiography”; Sarah Kofman’s tragic history of loss during WWII and ultimate suicide; Marcel Cohen whose memories of the Holocaust “revives, with force and subtlety, notions of the writer as witness”; the evolution of Marie Redonnet, associated with the New Novelists, whose typical heroine is a woman “who must come to grips with her destiny and heal her relationship to life in a devastated world’; Roland Barthes whose popularity and huge influence cannot be ignored any more than can his contradictions, errors and pontificating; Julien Gracq, whose reputation was huge in France but had not made it across the Atlantic when this book was published, (they have since been recognized through many English translations); “protean poet and artist Henri Michaux”; Yves Bonnefoy whose life’s work “centered on the elusive concept of ‘presence’”; Philippe Jaccottet whose Paysages avec figures absentes “offers keys to one of the deepest, most scrupulous poetic oeuvres of our time”; Silvia Baron Supervielle who, in her adopted tongue of French, “focused on that key twentieth-century question: exile”.
Independent sections of this volume take time out to explore major literary movements such as the New Novel and the New Fiction. P.218-228. The interested reader is referred to Jean-Luc Moreau’s “manifesto-cum-anthology, La Nouvelle Fiction” for …”the most ambitious theoretical attempt since Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Pour un nouveau roman (1963) to define the affinities and literary aspirations of a group of French writers”. Many foreign writers who gained recognition creating literature in the French language are also discussed. Volume I concludes with a lengthy chapter on the problems Americans encounter in reading contemporary French poetry. Taylor cites the pervasive influence of French literature on writers like Eliot and Pound but regrets the fact that subsequent to WW II, the two schools of poetry have drifted so far apart as to be of little interest to one another. While Americans tended to follow W.C.William’s dictum: no ideas but in things; the French took a wider more associative view and given Europe’s metaphysical heritage, reached more often for the ineffable than the concrete.
Eyeing the limits of this periodical and the patience of its always benevolent editor, Ms. Kronenberg, I perforce turn now to Volume 2.

The second volume, which is more candid and personalized than the first, begins with a sentimental visit-cum-interview with the ninety-seven year old Nathalie Serraute, who would pass away two years later. The descriptions of her home, her warmth and her idiosyncrasies are sketched with great tenderness. Taylor’s discussion with Mme Serraute ranged from publications to French pronunciations to problems of foreign-born citizens as well as to literary influences and opinions. We are grateful that Mr. Taylor has shared this moving experience with us.
In the next chapter, “The Pilgrimage to Saint-Florent-le-Vieil”, Mr. Taylor repeats the visit-interview experience, this time with Julien Gracq. Again, personal observations and biographical detail are woven into discussion of the author’s writings and opinions. Only reading the accounts of these extended visits can convey the multi-dimensional portraits they disclose.
The next chapter, which treats of humor and fantasy, introduces Jean Tardieu’s whimsical series concerning Dr. Froeppel in which the reader is unable to decide whether the speaker is Froeppel or Tardieu because the author has deliberately muddied the waters. Pierre Autin-Grenier is revisited in Vol.II for a particular analysis of black humor illustrated in a trilogy beginning with L’Éternité est inutile which I assume means eternity (or philosophizing about eternity) is useless. Other humorous portraits include the “dead-serious double-entendres” of Ghérasim Luca; the farce of Cordebard which depicts “darker elements of French history”; the slashing anti-establishment attacks by Louis Aragon; the bubbling-over humor of Raymond Queneau and the theatre of the absurd slapstick of Christian Gailly and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. All in the ribald spirit of Rabelais and Molière. Taylor sees an analogy with Musil’s Man Without Qualities in Toussaint’s Monsieur, an everyman to whom ridiculous things just happen as in the works of Sartre, Kafka and Camus, among others. Philippe Delerm’s modest collection of articles, The First Gulp of Beer and Other Miniscule Essays rocketed to the top of the best seller list with topics like shelling peas, pocket knives, spending evenings at home, gathering blackberries and wearing a pullover in autumn.
In another sentimental digression, Mr. Taylor along with his family traverse the national highways and thread the Massif Central on their way to La Chapelle-d’Angillon, birthplace of Alain-Fournier, author of the legendary fable of coming-of-age and first love, Le Grand Meaulnes, a French classic. Their pilgrimage uncovers both the atmosphere of Alain-Fournier’s native soil and many insights into his work
Like the poets he admires, Mr. Taylor has a deeply felt love of everything French. He always takes the trouble to explain to non-speakers the endless nuances of meaning in common expressions. He even points out some variants in W.S. Merwin’s translation of Jean Follain’s poems.
In another chapter, Mr. Taylor’s spotlight focuses on François Bon who writes about the “anonymous not-quite-down-and-out” city dwellers who inhabit the high-rise, low rent apartment complexes of Paris’ outlying suburbs. Many of his stories take a theatrical approach to the depiction of crime. His novel, Daewoo, describes the effect of a Japanese TV factory on the local French community with Zola-esque realism.
In another informative intermezzo, Mt. Taylor discusses the differences between Shakespeare and Racine by way of Yves Bonnefoy’s translations. And still another section treats of French poets from the Caribbean including Aimé Césaire, Léon Demas, Léopold Sédar Senghor and others of the so-called “Négritude” movement. Also…the volume’s final chapter offers an in-depth comparison of French and American poetry which, while it supplies a wealth of information, is too dense and detailed for this writer even to attempt to summarize.
Others covered in this volume include Louis Calaferte who interweaves biblical exegesis and morality with prose and poetry whose self-excavation “reminds one of seers, shamans and other prophets of divine lunacy”; Pascal Quignard the contents of whose series of novels beginning with Les Ombres errants (Wandering Shades) are intricately analyzed in a long paragraph on page 200 which deserves the attention of any student; Michèle Desbordes author of historical-biographical novels; Catherine Pozzi, remembered more for her liaison with Valéry than for her passionate stories and poetry;
Pierre Klossowski who claimed to fabricate simulacra and was influenced by classical antiquity in The Baphomet; Claude Louis-Combet a lapsed seminarian who imagines the ultimate in sacrilegious pornography; Guy Debord, student revolutionary and founder of the International Situationist Movement; autobiographer and essayist, Marguerite Yourcenar; Emmanuel Bove, translated by Handke and admired by Beckett and Rilke; Irène Némirovsky who wrote about occupied France and whose novel, Suite français won the Renaudot Prize sixty years after she perished in Auschwitz; Pierre Guyotat whose topics of slavery, prostitution and torture stuns, shocks and disgusts; and finally, an essay on Samuel Beckett which treats the subject’s contradictions, character and biography rather than providing an analysis of his works.
In conclusion, I can only repeat in essence what I observed about Into the Heart of European Poetry. For the student of modern French literature, and for those not fluent in the language, there exists no better general introduction, than John Taylor’s Paths to Contemporary French Literature. These two volumes (soon to be joined by a third) provide all the orientation, compass-references, and landmarks required to begin a personal expedition into the forests, valleys and mountain ranges of modern French literature.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Into The Heart of European Poetry by John Taylor

REVIEW OF: Into the Heart of European Poetry by John Taylor. Transaction Publishers 2008. 405 pages. No price listed. First Published in Book/Mark 2008-09
Review by Martin Abramson

With permission of Book/Mark a small press review.

In this weighty volume, Mr. Taylor has endeavored to encapsulate the works of a host of contemporary poets hailing from at least seventeen European nations. Taylor’s scholarship in this regard is astonishing if not monumental. He has written what amounts to dozens of biographico-critical essays treating the chosen writers. The poets are arranged in sections by country. To name a few: Josep Pla (Spain), Eugenio Montale (Italy), Georgios Vizyenos (Greece), Peter Handke (Germany), Czeslaw Milosz (Poland), Joseph Brodsky (Russia), Jacques Reda (France). These are names we might be likely to recognize from reading about those countries. But Mr. Taylor covers many other unfamiliar names from those countries as well as from smaller nations such as Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina---poets whose names we probably haven’t heard and couldn’t pronounce if we had (e.g. “Elias Papadimitrakopoulos”).
These essays are not mere “appreciations” of a few books or poems. They are densely referenced studies that place the subjects and their works in the context of literary precursors and contemporaries as well as in their historical settings. Taylor reads the major languages and knows enough philology to savor the idioms of less mainstream tongues. He comments on available translations and cross-references poets and authors from different nations and traditions. He injects personal responses to the works and describes their influence upon his own life and cultural growth. Form, style, philosophy and critical acceptance or lack of it in his subjects are covered in detail. The essays are certainly as thorough as can be expected in the few pages each is allotted. But there’s more.
Taylor’s commentaries follow his travels around Europe in search of the authors and their works. We accompany him on expeditions (often fruitless) to apartment houses, parks and bridges in Ljubljana . We search bookstores and libraries for poets who have tantalized him in lines briefly quoted by others. We exalt with him over the discovery of new, dazzling artifacts of a poet murdered by the regime or lost to exile.
In my humble opinion, Mr. Taylor’s opus is a masterwork of its kind. It displays the sort of authority that only vast knowledge and extensive scholarship can achieve. As a reference or resource for understanding modern poetry or selecting a poet for comprehensive study, it’s ideal. As a way of scanning a huge cross-section of European culture via the critical acumen and interpretive sensitivities of a true humanist, it is a precious discovery.

BOOK REVIEW: Shadowplay by Clare Asquith

Shadowplay, The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith. Perseus Books (Cambridge, MA, 2005) 348 pp. Reviewed by Martin Abramson: First Published in Book/Mark, Summer 2008

With permission of Book/Mark, a small press review.

While every study of his work takes into account the powerful conflict in Shakespeare’s life between the old Catholic religion outlawed by Henry VIII and the new state-sanctioned brand of Protestantism, only Shadowplay goes so far as to detect pro-Catholic codes secretly seeded everywhere in the plays and to demonstrate this conflict as the overriding theme of the works.
Ms. Asquith’s thesis is anything but baseless considering Shakespeare’s Catholic-leaning family , recusant Stratford neighbors and powerful Catholic friends and patrons including Lord Strange, Essex and Southampton. Moreover, her documentation is voluminous, minutely detailed and strategically supported throughout by historical record.
She argues that Shakespeare, a nominal Protestant, secretly sympathized with the persecuted Catholics, anguished over their exile, torture and martyrdom and sought to support their cause through the plays by employing psychological persuasion to cause Elizabeth, (and then James I) to heal the nation by allowing religious freedom to both groups.
Ms. Asquith finds key words, significant dates, portentous places, meaningful proper nouns, reverberant names shot through the plays like seeds in a pomegranate. Again and again she is able to link particular plays to specific historic actions. Moving chronologically from play to play, Ms. Asquith, without devaluing traditional interpretations, reinterprets each play according to a political code that underlies the surface action as layer masks beneath modern edited photos. It is the very essence of her thesis that Shakespeare composed on two equally important levels: one, the apparent surface: comedy and tragedy that was immortal in its own right--- successful on its own terms---charming the establishment with fantastic virtuosity; and, two, the under-layer, a network of hidden cues, references and allusions designed to be spotted and appreciated by Catholic sympathizers in every audience.
Asquith’s analysis of Hamlet, for example, is truly unique. She shows how closely Hamlet resembles Sir Phillip Sidney---a nominal Protestant with deep Catholic sympathies who was never able to speak out against the government. According to Ms. Asquith, Hamlet’s famous indecisiveness characterizes that of thousands of Englishmen who longed for the return of the Universal Church but would not take action. Some who, like Claudius, repented but would not surrender his ill-gotten gains, were enjoying lands and houses expropriated from the Catholic church.
I have considered citing other examples but finally rejected the idea. It would be like naming a few random stars as a perspective on the vastness of the night sky. The overwhelming power of Shadowplay is precisely in the cumulative impact of hundreds of instances that interlock as inevitably as the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Isolated examples would be as meaningful as a few puzzle pieces that happen to fit together but show almost nothing of the picture. Suffice it to say that I have been totally convinced by Ms. Asquith’s thesis. In dozens of instances, her clues clarify lines that were otherwise obscure. Over and over I experienced that “aha” emotion at finally understanding why Shakespeare used those words in that speech.
I believe the Shadowplay is an authentic landmark in Shakespeare scholarship; however, I must note that the preponderance of critical opinion disagrees. So allow me an alternative point of view. The book has a fascination that would hold even if every reference were proven false. In short, if Shadowplay were shown to be a work of pure fiction, I would still enthusiastically recommend it to every Shakespeare scholar and literary detective who loves a great mystery.

BOOK REVIEW: Romantic Actors and Bardolatry by Celestine Woo

REVIEW: By Martin Abramson

Romantic Actors and Bardolatry: Performing Shakespeare from Garrick to Kean by Celestine Woo, Studies in Shakespeare Vol. 16, Peter Lang 2008, 209 pp. $69.95. First published in Book/Mark, Spring 2009

First published in Book/Mark, a small press review.

The average Shakespeare buff can probably name a few of the principal actors in the plays as originally staged: Burbage, Kempe, Armin, Alleyn. And most can supply even more examples of Shakesperian stars of contemporary theater and cinema, e.g. Olivier, Evans, Gielgud, Wells, Burton, Scofield, Branagh, Plowright, Thompson and Dench. But for most of us the existence of Shakesperian actors of the middle-period, the 18th and 19th centuries, occupies a hazy era during which Thomas Bowdler “expurgated” the plays in the interest of modesty and the huge field of Shakespearean scholarship was in its infancy.
Celestine Woo’s study of the four major actors of the middle period, therefore, is not merely needed in itself, but serves to clarify a closely related sociological question: How did Shakespeare become a national institution? How did he become an icon gaining undisputed recognition as England’s greatest writer?
The answer lies in the stage techniques and popular publicizing methods of four actors: Garrick, Kemble, Siddons and Kean. These talents brought the Bard down from an upper class Parnassus to the burgeoning middle-class who were soon quoting the memorable lines they heard proclaimed on the stage.
Ms. Woo, an English Professor at SUNY Hartsdale, arranges her subjects chronologically beginning with David Garrick whose fame caused mid-eighteenth century England to be called, “The Age of Garrick”. As Ms. Woo points out, Garrick was the first to redefine Shakespeare in a manner that produced the reverential attitude and the “bardolatry” that began to turn Shakespeare into the cultural phenomenon, marketing device and cottage industry he has become. As Shakespeare’s greatest interpreter, Garrick was inseparably part of the Shakespeare worship he inspired.
As an actor, Garrick displaced the “old style” of acting which was predominantly aural, depending on vocal power to do most of the heavy lifting while the actor assumed a static pose meant to illustrate the appropriate feeling. Soliloquies were called “points” and always declaimed in a particular manner with specific gestures or tableaux. Garrick discarded the dignity and solemnity of the old style replacing it with an emphasis on the visual aspects, introducing mobility and plasticity of facial expression to the mix. Rather than relying mainly on voice and pose to interpret a character, the audience could tell from facial clues and physical gesture what emotion was evoked. The mobility of Garrick’s features astounded 18th century audiences. After a century of the glacial “old style” theater, the effect of Garrick’s innovations can hardly be exaggerated. These effects were heightened by a new emphasis on costumes and stage business. Garrick promoted himself by promoting and advertising Shakespeare in an endless variety of ways culminating in a Shakespeare “Jubilee” in 1769 held at Stratford. The event, worthy of a P.T. Barnum, encompassed plays, poetry, souvenirs, concerts, fireworks, a horse-race and a masked ball among myriad other promotional gimmicks. It was the earliest transformation of Stratford on Avon into a Shakespearean shrine.
Other innovations included better lighting and more elaborate scenery and costumes. Garrick also instituted late-afternoon performances and enforced more dignified behavior in traditionally rowdy audiences.
Garrick’s immediate heir and successor was John Philip Kemble whose acting career stretched from 1783 to 1817; he combined physique, dignity and heroism to command the contemporary stage. He and his sister, Sarah, were part of a well-known theatrical family. He continued and advanced upon Garrick’s emphasis on costume and scenery. Choosing artistry over naturalness, Kemble increased the separation of stage from audience, simplified stage business, coached supporting actors and understood the power of ensemble acting over the mystique of individual stardom.
Kemble realized the era’s thirst for a theater that probed the psyche in exploring human character. He augmented Garrick’s “points” with vocal and visual hints to a character’s state of mind. This was in keeping with the beginnings of Romantic interiority, which saw actors delving more deeply into the emotional motivations of their roles. Kemble was taking the first small steps on the path to “method” acting. He didn’t hesitate to edit Shakespeare in order to cut out material he considered extraneous to a unifying effect. (It should be pointed out that modern directors of film and television productions also feel free to alter the original plays in deference to time limitations and contemporary tastes.) Kemble favored art over artifice and, as Hamlet, he gained Samuel Johnson’s praise for greeting the ghost calmly without the melodramatic effusions of Garrick. Because of his emphasis on artistry and scholarship, Kemble was blamed by contemporary critics for not being sufficiently emotional. He seemed to lack the spontaneity to do comedy well. But his overall effect was to increase the authority of theatre by directing all stage elements toward producing the impact of a unified impression on the viewer.
If anything Kemble’s sister Sarah Siddons had an even more powerful effect on the public and was perhaps the first acknowledged goddess of the stage. By foregrounding women’s issues in her performances and highlighting real feminine qualities in her characterizations, she drew a much larger female audience to the theater. She is credited with making gender a essential component of Shakespearean scholarship. Her total immersion in a role was another step toward the “method” and enabled her to eclipse her brother’s fame. Her ability to humanize Lady Macbeth who had been previously played as the epitome of pure evil, impressed contemporary critics. Her interpretations influenced critical judgment of Shakespeare’s women for generations. Ms. Woo supplies abundant examples of these qualities as well as a colorful portrayal of Siddon’s acting brilliance and the semi-deification she won as a consequence.
Ms. Woo’s final subject, Edmund Kean, merits the longest chapter which describes the most colorful and paradoxical of the four persons studied. More than any of the others, Kean had an electrical effect often likened to actual bolts of lightning. Portrayal of a more humanized Shylock launched his career in a manner analogous to Sarah Siddon’s sympathetic interpretation of Lady Macbeth. Kean generated an adoring cult as had Siddons and the deep impression he made on auditors like Keats and Hazlitt influenced the course of English literature and criticism…much of which is extensively set forth in these pages. Kean triumphed in productions of King Lear, Richard III and most notably Coriolanus by bringing a passion and sense of humanity to the roles that struck Byron as “Life—nature—truth…”
Ms. Woo serves up a critical-biographical-historical delight that clearly demonstrates the success of these actors in planting the seeds of the deification of Shakespeare that blossomed into full flower thereafter. Her clear, graceful prose style will please the casual reader while the book’s extensive notes and bibliography will satisfy the most exacting scholar.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Dune Heath by Allen Planz

Dune Heath, Selected Poems by Allen Planz. Canio’s Editions 1997, paper 118pp. $15.
Review by Martin Abramson, first published in Book/Mark, Summer 2006

Because I believe my friend Allen Planz to be one of the best American poets of the 20th century, this essay will not be in any sense a critique of his work. It will be somewhere between appreciation and homage. The only criticism I will mention now, at the outset, will be of Allen’s editors or proof readers who left some typos and syntactically meaningless constructs for the reader to stumble over. And to be fair, mayhap the author was not an ideally cooperative agent in this respect. But the gratitude we owe to Canio’s Editions merely for collecting and preserving these poems in their original form must vastly outweigh the cost of a few errors. As with Shakespeare’s folios, we leave it to future scholars to wrangle over fine points in the text.

Allen Planz is arguably the finest sea poet since Melville because, like Melville, his material comes from working much of his life on ships. But as with Melville, to categorize Planz as a “sea poet” is to miss the universality of his oeuvre. He is also the acerbic social critic of his bayside town and fishing port, Sag Harbor. He is endlessly the lover and mythologizer of woman. He is a tireless advocate for the environment and a saddened chronicler of local and global pollution. He is the earthy, brass tacks commentator of the contemporary scene. His ocean and beach-based poems, with their incredible knowledge of marine biology and zoology, achieve what people have been awaiting since the publication of C.P. Snow’s, The Two Cultures: the fusion of science and art into an alloy wherein each strengthens the other.

“I know what’s up on the continental shelf,” begins ‘Mariculture’ p.99. “A gyre has sheared the thermocline and plankton/ sweet as grass blooms on the edge.” If the hallmark of literary greatness is mastery of language, Planz has it in spades. Nor need I hunt about this book for examples. They spring up anywhere I look:

...steel and tarmac stun tiderips
along these beaches once stitched by hurricane (p.33)

This/ is the salt marsh, brackish
yielding mineral to the sea
& one woman against gold going over
sings wet to the hips
of her task, harvesting
cherrystone quahog scallop (p.24)

Wind backing into the northeast
burrs new buds of the basswood.
Deer faint forward
to the edge of the swamp.

brightening. Spring
vanishing. (p.62)

We named our child for the mountain laurel
that blooms flush with the spring (p.41)

Captain Planz’ subjects are wind, in its restless searching; sea in its mystery and minutia; fog and the phantoms it conceals; sand and marsh and the life that thrives amid them; shorelines, shore side cities and their endless give and take with the sea; women, spiritually soaring, sexually dense, liquid, sun hot; the compass rose parsing the earth’s magnetic and geographic fields; the constellations that have guided sailors from antique times; the planets that have provided our myths and calendars; the earth’s geologic history and existential present.
And all of these expressed in metaphors of harsh, masculine roughness; of people known to one who has sailed and worked in all weathers and who, in his later years, still works the fishing boats by day and sleeps over a garage by night as often as not with a woman next to him. Planz, the exuberant poet-adventurer: often struggling with his doppelganger, the Zen acolyte who studies and meditates with Peter Mathiessen.

My Village Under a Northeaster (p.52)

Driven wild, nunbuoys spindle in the rip.
Hogchokers flop on shore, nearly airborne
on bladderwort and sputnik weed still bearing rock.
Spoondrift raze riprap where no one walks
but one gull drunk from riding updrafts.

In the fishing station, our hearts pump piss.
Mclaine curses the weather that whiskey
raises with the wind and the dead.


But now I remember the pain
when I called you nogood sunovabitch
for what you wrote of Vietnam
and Mcclaine and the Baymen swayed into silence
and you started talking of your death,
so soon to come, and of mine, scare
dividing flesh from flesh. village
from nation. Where’s the guys who’d rather
fish than drink, John? Where the hell’s
when widows and whalemen face the sea?

If lines like that don’t stir your heart, you were raised in a different universe than I. And a poet who can find joy in the animus mundi even amid the junk and detritus of civilization, is one whose spiritual power cannot be minimized.

When a man dies, a bird is born
underwater... (p.31)

If these poems are to be interpreted at all, I’m not the one to do it. They exist like a forest of oaks. Each tree being exactly what it is, infinitely complex, yet without ambiguity. Each branch, leaf, flower and fruit perfectly formed: a kind of magic realism, flawless beyond critique. Perhaps this is why the scholars have circumvented them: all one can do is read them, experience their beauty and their power and gaze out to the horizon, pondering.

The sea is sweet
when read at night
full of the light of its own invention.
If next solstice you face Atlantis
you’ll water overfalling water,
the cliffs and terraces of the continental shelf
inverted over the horizon, a starry archipelago north
and a delta of fog fainting as you look at
no fata morgana but the mayan likeness
of canyonlands underwater ten thousand years. (p.114)

BOOK REVIEW: Out Here by Joseph K. McNeilly

OUT HERE by Joseph Keller McNeilly, alicejamesbooks, Farmington, ME, $17.00, 192 pp.

Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Spring 2002

When the talk turns to family
you dart your eyes, turn
skittish, and bolt into the cracks
of our conversation
like a lizard flushed from his sunning spot
on the garden wall, your tail twitching
as you slither into the pauses, the dark
and the cool and the safe
between stone words.
Molt, p.127

The man has a way with words. However much he may paint himself as a grizzled, leathery desperado, his poems are honest, four-square structures each as perfect in every detail as any model sailing ship, terrarium or HO train setup sporting a 1st Prize ribbon at the county fair. From the evocative illustration on the cover to the last poem on page 176, you get your money’s worth and then some from this beautifully constructed book. I finished it with both my brain and scrotum engorged, each with its own ambrosia. The fine workmanship of the poems holds, preserves and decants its emotional freight like vintage wine. It’s comforting to run across a mature, seasoned poetic talent whose pages don’t cause us to wince at awkward phrases, solecisms and poor scansion. These poems have been polished and honed to a fine edge, yet they retain the sturdy, oaken honesty of houses that will stand the storms of time. They have earned the right to speak, even to sing about things witnessed and dreamt.
] Writing in a serious, masculine voice, McNeilly talks of everyday occurrences in rural towns, surrounding fields and shores. His verse has the rhetorical tone of a litany, seldom lifting to the lyrical but never relaxing into plain prose except where appropriate. Dressed in worn denims and scuffed shoes, the verse often has the cadence of a farmhand teaching the new guy to string fences or run the harvester. But it’s poetry all right. While there’s no shortage of brilliant imagery and metaphor, the domination of ideas is what leads us hurrying along an ascending path in each poem, making us impatient to attain the full complement of meaning it bears. This is what makes it so difficult to quote individual lines; every atom of every poem is an inextricable element of the totality. Its power comes from the totality and can seem like a chloroformed butterfly if set apart.
These are story-poems that reflect lives mostly blasted by time and circumstance, but still harboring some obscure plenitude of grace. Examples could include the eleven, shabby parishioners in Sunday filing out of a moribund country church at daybreak; the migrant worker pedaling his decrepit bicycle in His Pedal Go Click, Click, Click; the mother relentlessly watering her zinnias in The Semiotics of Flowers, or the diner waitress whose “elbow reached for heaven” as she poured coffee in Common Ground.
McNeilly often writes of the infirmities of age; the betrayal of once smoothly-running muscle, of brittle joints and clenching prostate. Perhaps he plays the old age card a bit too hard at a youthfully rugged fifty-one (if the photo at the back is anything to judge by) especially considering all those seething erotic poems set in the present tense. But this is merely the quibble of a sixty-seven year old reviewer who would love to regain his 51-year self. Of course, any poem certainly has the right to don whatever persona it chooses.
McNeilly’s knack of creating synergy by tying disparate things together is apparent in a piece like, Of the Princess, the Automobile and Bad Art, where he uses the death of Princess Diana as a springboard for an analysis of the automobile as an example of artistic abortion: “this grotesque boxy thing on wheels” in which we move “in a slow sea of such boxes/ to our work”. It’s a fine poem, but dragging Michael Jackson in as an example of such ugliness is hard to forgive. I hope he’ll edit this out in future editions.
The book is filled with people: ordinary, everyday, tragic specimens drawn from any small town or city you care to name. In the poem, A Dirty Little Secret, McNeilly revels in the obscene fleshiness and vulgar handicrafts of a country fair. Other poems depict the torments and ecstasies of childhood: Saving Acts of the Imagination stands out particularly in this respect. Many poems dwell on women the writer has known or lusted after: most notably, in so many passionate poems, his wife. There are wonderful poems about the subtlety of memory such as Macondo, which speaks of “clicking blue grass/ in a hot brown field/ stored for fifty years/ in a neuron”. Many allude to the difficulty of contacting other human beings and the empty exercises we indulge in to escape the pain of isolation; one such, he is honest enough to acknowledge, is writing poetry. McNeilly never elides the ugly aspects of life: gross eating habits, unpleasant body parts and bodily functions, freaks, monsters and grotesques swarm through the book. But he softens the attack somewhat by being hardest on himself as in Class Comes Calling, where he enumerates more petty, felonious and vile things about himself than I need to know about anybody. He teaches us about what life should be in pace and posture through poems like Looking Down; Man,Walking; and In the Manner of Lions.
I hope this rather superficial smattering of images will lead some readers to go deeper into the dense fabric of Out Here. It leads us out into the blinding light of the real world as few books can. It deserves our attention and richly rewards the effort.

Review by Martin Abramson

BOOK REVIEW: Temporary Apprehensions: Poems by Patric Pepper

Temporary Apprehensions: Poems by Patric Pepper. Washington Writers’ Publishing House, Washington, DC, 2005, 61pp. $12

Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Spring 2006

The glossy reproduction of Rousseau’s Rendezvous in the Forest that adorns the cover of this collection is probably worth the price of admission alone. There’s even a poetic tribute to the artist inside. It’s a good poem and there are many others in this (dare I say) slender volume. For example, Ground Zero p.33, is a nearly perfect sonnet in which the author describes himself as ‘second rate’ and goes on to prove the opposite. Mr. Pepper is one of the few formalist poets who uses form out of mastery rather than curiosity. His use of form is prefigured by the material, not the reverse, and varied when appropriate. One of the strongest poems: Words for Weldon p.17, uses rhyme and meter flexibly but with stunning effect. He describes some crows, identifying their ‘tattered song’ with what I take to be the rough and impoverished life of his friend Weldon Kees; and clinching the merged metaphor with consummate skill:

And lacking your finesse,
they nonetheless will sing their big crude truth—
though not today, as the day you didn’t sing,
but flew from the Golden Gate,
no word or wing.

But formalism doesn’t always work in Mr. Pepper’s favor. He is sometimes harmed by random reinforcement. Knowing that he frequently uses rhyme and meter in conventional ways sets us up to anticipate their appearance throughout, but we are often jarringly disappointed. A good example is Sunday p.59. Stanza 1 sets up a pattern of 4-foot lines. Stanza 2 shifts suddenly to pentameter in the first 3 lines and then to unaccented prose in lines 4 and 5. Stanza 3 wanders all over the place. Mr. Pepper also sprinkles internal rhymes passim: room/groom; money/honey; tune/soon; bread/weds; which, again, create anticipatory disappointment when we find no end-rhymes.
The poems in this collection, while well worth reading, are too often marred by faults of form and/or diction. In Yearbook p.54, Peppers lulls us pleasingly with perfect rhymes in the sestet, then in the octave hits us with the jarring: chagrin/children; kiss/axis. Accentual mayhem. Otherwise pleasing poems are brought down by single bad lines: e.g. In The Mist p.51, the last line is not merely innocuous, but also unrelated to the preceding description. And I’m tempted to bring up the same ‘last-line’ problem with Channing Street p.39, an otherwise moving poem, but ...“oh same, oh same, oh joy tonight.” The irony is the author’s not the reader’s who is still resonating to killer lines like, “Some teenage boys in baggy pants,/slow as turtles, quick as ants”.
10:00 P.M. p.42, is a lovely double study of evening, with a fine ending couplet:

Our open doors will close by twelve o’clock;
we’ll fill with dreams as silence fills the block.

But the unjustified violence of the second line had prejudiced me against the rest. “...blasting bolts of laughter down the lawn.”
For those whose lovers have been gone for months or years, the author’s soulful whining about his wife’s one-night absence in While You Were Away at the Cape.58, seems a poor excuse for another average villanelle. But in the same (open) vein, Breakup p.56, shows authentic feeling in fine lines that build to a powerful, cumulative impact. The tragedy of impending estrangement is symbolized by the German shepherd –a cohesive force in the relationship—to whom the author addresses his displaced plea:

She woke amid their things, and the dog stretched.
The family portrait, which he had overdrawn,

beamed back the morning sun as any day:
her golden bangs, his brown cowled eyes, detatched;
their shepherd’s mouth agape and panting, Stay!

And still on this topic, The Truck Driver’s Husband; A Letter p.47, is a poignant update of The River Merchant’s Wife that never hits a false note.

Some poems should have been dropped altogether: I could list Interview with a Lump of Coal and Life’s a Picnic as obvious choices. But having inoculated you, dear reader, for the worst, I take pleasure in pointing out the best.
Chagall’s The Rooster p.60, is a perfect achievement that enhances the art-work, sexual love and the sonnet form. The colors of the poem, like those of Chagall, are intoxicating.
The Dancing Hat p.5, is a chilling foreshadowing of doom. In a dream of death, a dancing Tai Chi instructor gives a friend a hat: “a manless, gamboling hat, and only answer/ for David’s strangely real, impromptu cancer.”
The Judas Tree p.12, is a distinguished work as noted by R. Espillat on the back cover. Ground Zero p.33, is a powerful poem that merges the author’s first experience reading his poetry at a Tribeca gathering with the close-by horror of 9/11. When a fellow poet says, “You guys were great”, Pepper writes

But I don’t feel that great, too old to fight,
too mad to love my enemies as Jesus
preached, too wise to hate, too scared to focus
on stuff, except for this: the poetry of night,
and us, benumbed that day at the abyss,
which didn’t Stevens call the nothing that is?

Wallace Stevens seems to be an important influence on Pepper’s work. In Marcus Aurelius at Carnumtum p.27, he does his predecessor proud in a deceptively simple, philosophical analysis of death. “All things,” he begins, “are less/ complicated than they seem./...Death does not caress,/nor inflict. You cross the stream...” (Unfortunately, Pepper’s stabs at philosophy are not all as successful. Reading Kant Again p.24, doesn’t do much for modern life or Kant.)
I found the return of adults to a childhood home in A Pittsburgh Ballade p.53, quite moving:

After the church, with trembly gown-up will,
you took me home to 93 North Euclid,
the “3” crooked, the steps crumbling. Ill-
ness wracked the shingles, gutters, porch and yard.

Maintenance Mechanic p.38, is a flawless miniature oil-painting of a back-country working man. In D.C. p.36, the author has compressed a full-length autobiography into 19 lines. He chooses to live in the nation’s capitol not in spite of tawdriness and terror ...“but because of it.” Very strong.
The Brilliant Ticks p10, reveals a ready sense of humor abetted by a deft hand at rhyming quatrains. And in Paving Parking Lots p.8, evidently dedicated to Whitman, the poet takes so much pleasure in “tattooed arms rippling from/ their sleeves”, “glistening black/necks” and “godly muscles,/ gorgeous shoulders”, one wonders if the thrill is all Walt’s.
At any rate, I’ve enjoyed my exposure to this collection and look forward to subsequent publications by this talented poet, with the single reservation that he wield the editorial pencil a bit more stringently next time.


BOOK REVIEW: The Gifts and Thefts by David Staudt

REVIEW By Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Fall-Winter 2003-04

David Staudt’s The Gifts and Thefts, 2001 The Backwaters Press, 3502 N 52nd St., Omaha, NE 68104-3506, Tel. 402-451-4052. www.thebackwaterspress.homestead.com. 102pp.

David Staudt’s prize-winning collection is divided into five sections each marked by a large asterisk styled as a compass-rose. The first section describes the early years and his entangled memories of them. He recalls visiting his mother in a hospital:

A woman that light and that long in bed
becomes less body than relief:
a woman of wood in raised relief

He daydreams of adventure watching bed sheets “blow and lift on their lines”. They become “Wet white sails of the Niña, the Pinta”. Mom pulls the “clothespins apart/ with her teeth, a sailor on a rolling deck,/ rigging her family’s bedclothes”. In Souls, the old nun teaching the lives of saints is more afraid of binomials than of the school hoods. During the first snow, she takes the kindergarten class out to a “fenced-in/ playground no bigger than a carport” telling them to “Pretend you are the top of a mountain”. As they stare upward, they feel

“dizziness when snowflakes stop mid-air,
and the body starts falling into sky.
Then she tells the children how their souls
will feel, returning to heaven.

Other poems in this section speak of the poet’s father, neighbors, local dogs, his asthma: “…sliding into bed he’d start to drown,/ rousing to the weary little music/ raled through the pipes of his bronchi”. He describes his work on area farms and orchards and his fascination with the factories whose fiery lights and controlled chaos he tried to photograph. He revels in the local color of ethnic superstitions and ever-present ancestral ghosts: “Those whitetail doe in the street/tonight, who’s to say it isn’t/Emmy and Jenny, pausing then/wheeling in our parking light’s glow…”

The next section deals with nature and here we find some of the most ethereal and even metaphysical works in this volume. This is from Red Sumac:

I find a Shiloh in oak woods
a peace place razed by riversilt…
the pale trees halftwist northward,
tuned to the light from Polaris

But the natural context is set within and captured by the markers of civilization which counterpoise it. Here’s Staudt’s “jar in Tennessee”.

…as if all geography turned
around a hillside south of Vestal,
where the feedcorn sags through a post
rail fence, the rails have not moved
for fifty years, and a puzzled
hawk drifts to a stop in the sky
without a draft to tend her either way.

These images strike like lightning flashes. “A celery salt of rust and powdered moth/parts glitters in the cattails…” And they just keep coming: “…the lights snap on,/triggered by the smallest shift to red/in amber weeds along a drainage ditch.”

…mugwort and chicory crack
our roads, creeks dry up in garlic
and even cornstalk’s rebel cobs
sprout purple kernels.

These poems have the uncanny power to make me long for a lost farm-country world I have never experienced. “On Fall Creek herons/ lift their oars and pull hard overhead/ for deeper water.” Bear in mind, I’m just skimming the foam at the crests of these waves. For an example of a natural portrait whose precision and clarity approaches perfection, I would point to Little Brown Bat. A modest subject but then, so

was To a Mouse. The poem’s unity and coherence are so remarkable I refuse to diminish it by tearing out some lines. It’s a work of genius. Let it stand.

The next section gives us some fine portraits of women, never abstractly romantic, but real, solid women in their actual surroundings. In Trick we have:
The winter’s last thunderstorm
pummels south Los Angeles.
All the car alarms trip off:
a passing front, a crime burst.

…Your moist, salt weight
pins me with regret.

There’s strong sexuality in this group. As from Cold:

Touching her, he wonders how she
can bear the heat of her own breasts.
…Even her dress, hung over the chair,
could keep his bedroom warm for days.

On an amusement park ride with a teenage girl he realizes that shared thrills can lead to uninvited passion: the girl’s mother, anxiously watching, “knows the hardest most fugitive loves/ are born in a moment of amusement.”
From White Acre: “In Pusan I’ll pay a Korean girl/ what she asks for her hips, her limp back,/ the couple of filthy words she thinks/ all servicemen adore.”

In the section simply entitled: Two, there are poems reflecting the author’s experiences during his eight-year stint in the Navy as sailor and submariner. In Deep Depths, the poet conflates an accident at sea with the feared image of his father seen in childhood. From Running Ultra Quiet, we have:

I sat outboard the turbines on midwatch,
The whole crew asleep,
The boat like a man dreaming,
Under black tons.

In the last two sections, Staudt returns to familiar themes

introduced earlier: rural and farmland life; tin-shack townships in America’s back-mountain country; snowy winters; couples fighting in shiny Chryslers; hopeless wives; the boredom of dogs; the agony of hooked fish; family tragedy; tragic people; old time religion; spiritual isolation. All of it ending with the mother’s death.

…we’ve fed the wild geese at home
from our hands, those durable engines
of continental flight…
Late tonight, your heart will batter itself
to pieces trying to fly out with them.

For twenty
more nights we would watch the procession
of sine waves roll across her monitor,
those ardent crests…
crumbling and deforming in the darkness,
as an ocean of silent disappointments
threw its lasts waves down in protest.

These are passionate and powerful poems that drag the bloody organs out of life’s body displaying the love, the cruelty and everything in-between. These are profound works but don’t search them for blue heavens. They stand in the midst of those somber witnesses that see the world as it is and tell it so:

Mounting our empty beds at night we heard
the dirt already raining on the rooftop.

BOOK REVIEW: Part Mirth, Part Murder, by Dan Giancola

Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Summer 2007

by Dan Giancola.
Street Press, New York, 2006
$12.00, 56 pp, Paper

Dan Giancola, who has worked summers as a laborer, carpenter, clerk, and caretaker among a multitude of manual jobs; and spent the school years as instructor and now professor at colleges in Eastern Long Island, thoroughly refutes the old canard about those who teach. The poetic mastery Mr. Giancola demonstrated in his previous collection, Songs from the Army of the Working Stiffs, are, like fine wine, aged and matured in the present volume.
As the title suggests, the poems are grouped in two sections labeled respectively Mirth and Murder. They are separated by an intermezzo called Bedtime Suite in which the author expresses the tenderness and profundity of fatherhood. However, as I have a limited space to review this book, I propose to begin with the last and to my mind, the most moving section, Murder.
The philosopher Giles Deleuze writes of “philosophy at the edge of chaos” and later extends the concept to writing at the edge of chaos. He is not so much interested in formal systems of language, as in the areas where it deterritorializes, frays and breaks apart; seeing this as a productive, affirmative process that makes new thinking possible, rather than a destructive mechanism. He values the edges where language stutters and begins to fragment because in so doing, it opens into the universe of dark energy (my interpretation) which flows into the writing, illuminating and energizing it. These are processes which Mr. Giancola understands very well and uses to signal advantage in his best poems.
Elegy for Dan Murray, set during a memorial reading in a noisy bar, illustrates this:

our voices wander
like lost explorers
through your poems
and die in the din
the amp croaks a final syllable

In Labor Day, the lawn of a beach house slopes down…

below a flag yanking
its lanyard like a guard dog
on the deck a telescope
poses like a heron.


Overhead a cormorant
a dark thought passing…

In What Do You Know About Corpses and Gold?:

Day lilies send forth flames
on slender green wicks
that gutter at dusk

January is the poem and the month…

when lovers
tally their hurt
on spreadsheets of fog

Meditation on a Moon Jelly is a minor miracle that begs comparison with Moore’s Octopus and Bishop‘s The Fish. The poetic camera, with all its intricate lenses perfectly aligned, focuses on this nearly transparent organism and finds in its crystal vacancy and exfoliate “cellophane” pulsations, a mandala for the silence of a preconscious world.

They gather light
like ice & disappear, itinerant
oracles portending clarity’s emptiness,
zen ciphers even gulls eschew.

And Mr. Giancola effortlessly repeats this feat with poems like Slugs, Ecology and Vivarium: studies that peer deeply into the universe of living things and ferret out the secret filaments of experience. Ecology is a perfect example. In complexity, Giancola finds Mozartian simplicity: “A vine’s aim? Climb.” And so they do with the sole purpose of strangling a tree. And after they are hewn down and strewn around…

on the yard’s green page
they scribble winter…
in loopy script
that’s all too human

In The Gate, the sleeping poet, tracking through wilderness runs across a rustic gate that in dream’s frustration evades his every effort to pass. Reminiscent of the Kafka story of a man who waits his entire life for a door to open, it symbolizes a crime that needs atonement: to whit, the youthful killing of a deer with bow and arrow. It is only by entering in imagination, the actual bleeding wound he had inflicted, that the author is able to pass through the gate, learn “what man I was” and find “a world to live in.”
In Eels, we witness a boy’s earliest memories of a mother-goddess

barefoot with bucket & spear
on barnacle rocks, singing
of her life as a bird, as a fish
in that world out of which
we are born

The Oak “grows in the wind,/taking the shape/of its trouble”. Indeed, the profusion and precision of natural imagery throughout this collection would be stunning even without the insights and revelations to which they point.
In the first section, Mirth, Mr. Giancola indulges his interests and ordinary experiences. There are some pieces that focus on athletics such as Little League and The Beehive which describes the dangerous exhilaration of mountain climbing. Others are clearly physical: Sciatica, which elevates the clinical to the mystical; Sunbather and The Fat War, both ironic studies of physical vanity, in the former, leading to cancerous horror. Crowns, examines an unpleasant visit to the dentist again inspiring a confession of vanity and fear of aging. In Haircut, the poet’s youthful visage with abundant hair and ponytail, mocks his tonsure which he orders cut to the bone thus hiding his receding hairline, only to reveal “my father’s face”. We share the commuter’s experience on that Machiavellian form of transportation portrayed in: Riding the Long Island Railroad.
There are some scathing sketches of people as in Neighbor, wherein a lonely woman is epitomized by the riding mower that constitutes her raison d‘etre; or Terrible Swift Sword which dramatizes the plight of a district piano teacher whose long-rehearsed fourth-grade chorus barely mumbles the chosen ode before an audience of snickering parents. In Passion Party at the Broken Down Valise, a harrowing slide show of drunken people are seen trying to have fun and hook-up at a bar “to end a month of loneliness”. There follows a grostesque display of sex-dolls, dildoes and erotica. It’s Long Island’s corner of The Waste Land.
It goes without saying, that an English professor who teaches creative writing will employ all the poetic techniques with old-hand mastery. They are woven into the warp and woof of these poems and I leave it to the reader to tease them out. Ditto the diction. The true joy of these poems lies elsewhere…in the ironic but accurate depiction of gullible people trying to adjust to modern modalities, in the author’s personal confessions with which the reader cannot help but empathize…but pre-eminently in the brilliant fusion of image and idea which generates the explosive power we like to call inspiration.