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. 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.

BOOK REVIEW: Cat City by B.J. Cassidy

Cat City by B.J. Cassidy, Northport, NY 2002, 43 pages. (Self-published chap-book: available from author at 631-261-6505: $5 ea.) Review first published in Book/Mark, Spring-Summer 2002-03

Reviewed by Martin Abramson

Bonnie Cassidy has given us one of the most delightful collections of cat poems since Old Possum. From her cat-patrolled ramparts overlooking Long Island Sound, she has stirred up a magical, mewling brew made up of two parts love and one part exasperation. And to spice up the mix, she has sprinkled in vignettes and encounters from her life.
Like Eliot’s cats, Ms.Cassidy’s have individual personalities e.g. Pooka, a mischief maker probably related to Eliot’s McCavity. Or Calphurnia, so obsessed with flowers that she’ll habitually knock vases off shelves just to smell the lilacs and azaleas. Then there’s the savage Miss Kitty and the elusive Ghost Cat with his “blue glass eyes”. But B.J. goes Eliot one better in the very personal relationships she maintains with her feline family:

she blends
into my flesh
she is
not a lover
but somehow loves me
when others do not


…my cat
in my bed
even as I write this
she is climbing on my chest
rubbing her face against mine
and purring


only the cat understands me
as she tries to enter
my mouth
this is a divine mystery

Over and over, Ms. Cassidy catches the mystical feline essence of her subject.

Silent tiger
stalking toward nirvana
your footsteps silent
your breath silent
an aura about you
silent and silence

…the storm wind
moans in ecstasy
yes yes
swirling and gusting
and the feral cat cries
at the front door
“let me in”

Miss Kitty is coming
to hunt and to feast
and no one is safe
from the claws and the teeth

But the true wonder of this book lies, as in all fine poetry, in the loveliness of the line and the luster of the image. The grey cat is “…invisible at night/mistaken for shadows/in the sun”. And: “…like a white whale/a big tom cat/appears in the side yard”. Or: “the crows are entering the trees/they talk to each other/about the cats”. Or:

who could replicate the
sleeping cat
from a blueprint
while scientists follow
the dots
a red cardinal flashes
against the pale leaves


we used to have a ghost cat
in the hall way
small and black
he would lie
curled up
till you reached out
to pet him
then he’d fade
now my son says he’s back

Ms.Cassidy is particularly skillful in suggesting the interaction of men with cats. In “News Flash” a businessman steals millions, escapes to Florida with two cats and dies of drink. At Key West, Hemingway’s cats accompany “the black man/with the drum” by “caterwauling”. And in the title poem, her cats sense that “the man smells/of smoke/fire saltwater/fish/when he comes/to my bed”. (Hmmm, that sounds like a certain, celebrated, maritime poet who lives in these parts, but I do not hypothesize.)
The truth is that no collocation of brief excerpts can really connote the atmospheric mystery, idiosyncratic humor and elemental strength of these poems. They need to be read in their entirety, each a complete and moving moment, each amplified by the preceding and following poems as well as by the continuity of the entire collection. The poet is like the cat in that:

I sing because I must
there is no contemplation
no musing in my songs
they spring
from endless wells
of bottomless
unfulfilled yearnings…

in deep woods at sunrise
under the boardwalk
I sing

BOOK REVIEW: Condo; A poem, by James Boring

REVIEW by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark,Fall-Winter 2006-07

Condo: a Poem, by James Boring. 2006, Lit Pot Press,Oceanside, CA Inc. 59pp. $10.00

In this modern art gallery of portraits eviscerating the residents of a senior citizen community, Jim Boring calls them as he sees them; and brother, can he see them! The shocking cover photo of a naked, middle aged woman with an unreconstructed mastectomy should tell us that there is to be no merciful soft-focus or blurring of the age-lines in this collection. Each poem begins with the number of an apartment and in a few incredibly deft strokes, lays bare the story behind each door.


She walks ahead of him
Carrying the bag of beans
Deference to his solitary nature
He looks up from time to time
Her broad bottom rolling before him
Reminds him of the way.

Sometimes the author alludes to a Florida setting: “Look at these birds/ White as there is no other word for it snow/ With their long curved beaks and their legs/ With the kneecaps on backwards” (Ibises). “In the Parking Lot” notes the EMS truck that responds to a late night emergency: “The heavy throbbing of the engine/ Mocks the poor heart it rescues”. They’re all here: the old man with his voices, the vet who broods on the absurdity of his wartime experience, the Holocaust survivor, the aimless widow, the faithful caretaker, the neighborhood watcher, the grandma primping for a date, the couples living in mutual misery. All done in a conversational, street-wise argot that cradles tender personal emotions in thick, but strangely gentle workman’s gloves.
Some poems look back on lifetimes, others snapshot momentary tableaux. Some wonder about lost feelings, some marvel at feelings that remain. From the Rabbi trying to say something meaningful about a deceased person he never knew, to the old heads nodding in dark corners, death pervades this book; sometimes as the enemy, often as an expected friend. These poems are about the wreckage left by death as well as the dread of its approach.

He slumps small in the wheelchair
A boneless bag his head
Limp on his shoulder
Hands between his legs

But there is such astonishing tenderness as well:

Once in a while he asks for my breast
He doesn’t just take it he asks for it

I lean down to him lying in my lap
Over an old child softly sucking.

The power of simplicity never had a more able advocate:

Unit 201

The Widowed Second Wife

I know he loved me best
He told me so
She was so cold

He loved the things I did
He told me so
I did them for him

My mouth meant more to him
He told me so
My breasts my heart

He did not think of her
He told me so

I think of her.

If that poem took you to as deep a level as it did me, you will find much beauty and wonderment in Condo.

TRANSLATIONS: Some notes on translation (by m.a..)

Translations, Translations.

Paul Valéry is pretty much out of reach for those not fluent in French language and culture, but William H.Gass gives us deep insights in The World Within the Word.

For example: the chambermaid whose presence the poet barely registers as she quietly tends to his rooms, moves “as glass passes through sunlight/ without trembling the balance of my thought”

Comme passé le verre au travers du soliel
Et de la raison pure épargne l’appareil.

Gass tells us that in “The Rower,” Valéry imagines, in the water, “objects and their reflections…to be like the images of burning which smoked the walls of Plato’s cave…The boat’s prow is urged to divide the world which seems painted in the water, shattering its calm so that of such a massive stillness no memory will remain.”

And, in the same poem (in David Paul’s version) the poet describes floating into the sunlight from beneath the darkness of a bridge:

the mind
Lowers its sensitive suns, its ready eyelids,
Until with a leap that clothes me with jewels
I plunge into the disdain of all that idle azure.

And (switching lingos) when Catullus says: “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love, and value at one penny the murmurs of disapproving old men.” Tom Stoppard recasts the last clause:

“and not give tuppence for the mutterence of old men’s tut-tutterence.” (‘The Invention of Love’)

Now that’s translatin!

BOOK REVIEW: Psychic Killed by Train, by Ron Overton

Psychic Killed by Train, by Ron Overton. Published 2002 by Hanging Loose Press, 231 Wyckoff St., B’klyn, NY 11217. 111 pages. $13.00.
Reviewed by Martin Abramson. First published in Book/Mark, a small press review.

Out of sheer inertia, I had put off work on a new review for this periodical for months, and that hiatus would have extended indefinitely if Mindy hadn’t wildly upped the ante by sending me Ron Overton’s Psychic Killed by Train. I was immediately arrested by topics as vivid and lurid as the six o’clock news itself. Fragmented strips of murder, mischief and mayhem ripped from papers and broadcasts provide key metaphors and pulsating details that Overton projects into a mirror-maze of reflections and introspections, simultaneously weaving them into jazz tapestries. Wanting to write about these fascinating inventions was more of an involuntary reflex than a conscious decision.
Mr. Overton’s poems evoke the modern zeitgeist touching on subjects that range from subways to jet planes, Moscow to Mexico, Big Sur to 68th Street, baseball to traffic jams, private eyes to politicians. I could write a more extensive introductory appreciation of this work, but I’d only be rephrasing the astute observations of Mr.Asekoff found on the back cover. Accordingly, I will simply pick out a representative bouquet of poems and try to describe why I admire them.
In Real Life the layout of Los Angeles viewed from a ‘chopper following O.J.’s Bronco is the over-arching metaphor. Pieces of the reporter’s comments are ‘lifted’ to key into the poet’s final response:

as you can see
it's too dark to see

O yes
O yes

In Chemical Intervention images of crime and social disintegration fuse with modern maladies and the drugs we use to treat them. It all causes the “ringing in my ears” and makes the author worry about how much of the outside chaos is filtering through his “blood/brain barrier” bringing terror, guilt and perhaps, madness.
In Traffic Report, New York area mayhem, centering on the Long Island Expressway (the L.I.E.) and extending out to a chemical fire engulfing I-80 in New Jersey, lists the carnage of crashes, fires and jack-knifed tractor-trailer tie-ups across the landscape; all serving to delineate a claustrophobic hell of bumper-to-bumper gridlock that blocks any hope of anyone reaching a destination.
Weather Channel flawlessly merges the psyches of the weather reporters with their subject-matter: “…celebrities of rain and wind shear” they wish us no harm but cannot prevent the sparkle in their eyes as they report a hurricane “rollicking in circles just east of the Leeward Islands”. Formerly high school nonentities who spent their free time in the library or the audio-visual club, they are now heroes of the storm who venture…

riding the whitecaps of prophecy,
striding spindrift reefs and archipelagoes,
they implore us to stay inside,
to huddle tightly
beneath the homeroom desk.

In Animal Planet the poet’s own inadequacies (“as usual, I’ve arrived too late”) are coupled with the downward fluctuations of the elephant population leading to a sense of doom for the latter and failure for the former. The elephants are overrun by civilization, their “old ritual, gutted of meaning--/ their swaying mass, their passivity, like huge clouds/ bumping the ground on a windless day.”
In 1 Dead 1 Injured, the poet goes contrapuntal quoting the news report of a collision, with the gory medical facts told in the odd lines, and, in the even, a narrator contemplating the (severed?) hands of a victim who had been a gifted pianist. The great power of this poem is in the manner in which the even and odd lines complement and comment on one another. After a few readings, the separate themes vanish and the piece is easily read as a continuous, monophonic, richly harmonic line of music.
In Semiotics, the linked formalisms of business deals and cars jockeying for position on the road prepares us, with a sense of dread, for the polite “bespectacled clerk…who meticulously stores/the body parts/ in the Westinghouse”.
In Why Tom Continually Runs After Jerry,” a long list of desultory reasons like: “Because of natural selection”; “Because some things never change”; “Because of dialectical materialism”; culminate in a stunning dénouement:

Because in the stopping and the stillness, he feels a black wind on his

Because in the stopping is the end of it
Because in the stillness is the end of it

What begins as a light-hearted movie critique of the 1940’s ambiance of Moon Over Miami, devolves into a mournful premonition of what those stars, movies, Miami and the country itself would become in later decades.
Noir, a dark foray into fatalism.
For the contemplative baseball fan, Baseball, Again should push all the right buttons. But if that’s not enough, one can forge onward to Future Considerations, Baseball I and Baseball II. On a related topic, Do You Have Prince Albert in a Can? revives memory-wisps of childhood summers and baseball cards packed in with “pink slabs of gum”.
The sports finale comes in the poem, Memorabilia. Covering hockey, baseball and football, it segues into the freakish and fantastic. The “Catalogue of Absence” treats of “records not broken, games played only in the imagination”. We are offered other bizarre mementoes like a “tear… from the Dead Eyes of Shoeless Joe Jackson.” “Bleak,” the author admits, “…but surely a Token preferred against/ the Shutout of Nothingness,/ the empty & abandoned Stadium of our Dreams.”
In A Man of the World, Overton presents a personal fantasy version of the debonair Parisian he would sometimes like to be. “…heavily accented/ always a cigarette dangling/ from its lip…” Seductive, but the sophistication rests on a vast foundation of bones; otherwise known as the history of Europe.
I sometimes skip a poem’s title and plunge right into the text. And I was glad to have done so for the poem on page 76 which Overton “found” in Warburton’s The Beginning of Writing::

Sumerians invent envelope

Rock art in Eastern Spain ceases
Phoenicians invent first complete alphabet
Picture writing appears suddenly in China

Chinese develop mail delivery system

And the title?---You’ve got Mail.

In a sense, all the works in this book are ‘found’, but a few are presented verbatim with any commentary or the need for it. Overton’s photocopy of a very early draft of Frost’s, Fire and Ice, complete with handwritten marginal notes and scansion marks, shows how immensely far the finished, flawless gem can be from the first amalgams of rock and pebble that are destined to produce it.
I’ll take subtle humor over broad anytime, which is why I like a poem called Compleynte: a scathing note penned by a wife? lover? which seems to explode the relationship; the last lines of the note predict that the author “will probably use it/ in some goddamn poem---” And these are also the last lines of the poem.
I hope these few examples will serve to express my pleasure in exploring this fine collection and will convince my readers to do likewise. Ron Overton keeps one finger on the pulse of the times and the other on the heart of being. If you like your philosophy set in city streets and served on paper plates with soda and hotdogs bought from a pushcart, this collection is a true banquet.

BOOK REVIEW: Kentucky Swami by Tim Skeen

BOOK REVIEW by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Winter 2002-03

KENTUCKY SWAMI by Tim Skeen. BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2001. ISBN 1-886157-33-2. 75 pages.

In his Ciardi Prize-winning debut collection, Tim Skeen is writing solidly in the tradition of E.A.Robinson, Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg Ohio. But the poems of Kentucky Swami are even sparer, more meticulously factual and more flatly reportorial than those predecessors. However, this doesn’t mean that we ever get the whole story. Skeen gives us only those vital fragments needed to make his point, and the point of each poem may be social, philosophical, symbolic or all of the above. Many of these pieces don’t bother to name their human subjects. Some merely identify the main character as an uncle, brother or friend. Several concern the poet’s father.
These are rock-hard pieces chipped from the tough lives of poor people: they depict an American wasteland of ruptured pipes, junk cars, bad luck and “poverty, poverty, poverty”. They celebrate people who work hard all their lives, fight America’s wars, get cheated out of their pensions, lose their old age to work-related diseases and still find gems of pleasure in among the ruins. There are few ‘poetic lines’ to quote here; rather the poetry of each piece exudes from its totality like a drop of amber on a maple branch.
To mention a few of Skeen’s ‘people poems,’ How I Got My Name sketches with a few deft strokes, the life of Juanita, a victim of repeated episodes of bad luck, who brought the poet’s mother a handful of timothy grass telling her to name her son after it. The Voice of a Woman with One Lung, describes the screams of someone whose throat cancer has condemned her to emit sounds through a tiny aperture in her neck. The causes of her condition in Pall Malls, black coffee and digitalis are hinted at. She is buried with a “light blue scarf/ the color of smoke around the hole/ in her throat”.
Skeen recalls throwing a baseball, as a boy, with Elton Maynard an embittered alcoholic who pitches the ball harder and farther with each exchange. Tim never finds the ball that soars over his head into the deep grasses, just as he is unable to find his way to the funeral after Elton is laid low by bourbon.
Kentucky Swami speaks of the physical traumas that change people’s lives as in, Scar, or Systemic Lupus. The first is a woman’s memento of a caesarian birth; the second a condition that both sickens a woman but also seems to fuel her boundless energy. Nola outlives parents, brothers, children and pets. The butterfly on her face is indicative of the life-force blazing through her. “The rash is only the body’s way/ of holding onto fire”.
In one of the most impressive pieces in this book—Patrick Lowell Putnam’s Monologue— the writer seems to adopt the persona of an Agent Sanitaire for the Belgian Red Cross in Africa. (Skeen was a Red Cross volunteer in Appalachia for ten years.) The crisis of a native woman’s breech-birth is used to explore Skeen’s relationship with his physician father and the strict Boston heritage which he represented. This is rejected in favor of the freedom and reality found in Africa. Even “the woman from/ the New Yorker…wasn’t shocked that I’d taken a native wife…but that I had three wives”. But some Westerners get it. The King and Queen of Belgium join him for a night of “dancing with the pygmies, eating wild mushrooms/ honey, smoking marijuana, yodeling!”
Most of the ‘people poems’ in this volume comment on social problems, deal with personal relationships or blend the twain. Of the former, we may list: Strike; Graphite; The Instructor at the Police Academy Teaches the Come-Along; Signing Up For Unemployment Benefits; Gameday Saturday Afternoon; Jehovah’s Witnesses; The American Red Cross; Directions to the Otter Creek Correctional Facility; A Commonwealth of Kentucky #2 Pencil; War Memorial in Wheelwright, Kentucky; At the Gulf War Veteran’s Funeral; To Another Student Who Forgot to Put His Name on His Paper; Public Works; and The Masonry Professor at the Community College. Of the latter: Tongue; Biljana; Rural; For My Wife on Our Six-Week Anniversary; The Lancaster Room; She Asks If I Love Her; The Unmet Needs; To Our Unborn Child; Translation of a Mathematical Equation Which I Found on a Blackboard; and For the Record. I shall leave it to the reader to ferret out those in the blended category.
Beyond these, there are a few pieces that frankly deal with eternal questions such as 1Place Denfert-Rochereau; nature poems such as The Sunken Garden; and some found poems like, Buck Owens and His Buckaroos in Japan.
There’s humor in this book, usually bitter-sweet as in Safe-T-Man, a poem about an inflatable male figure a woman can sit in her car next to her to project the idea that she’s not alone. But the menace of modern society hovers in the background of this work just as it does in 9800 Franklin Avenue where the finding of a severed bird-wing “opened on a rock/ like a handkerchief left/ to dry in the sun,” clouds the atmosphere of trust and security that had sustained a neighborhood.
While this is not the place to critique individual poems at length, many are certainly worth the effort. This poet may not strive for quotable tidbits, but he doesn’t hesitate to serve up bloody meat on a platter as he does when describing the brutal love-hate relationship between him and his brother as children in, She Asks If I Love Her. Each wearing one boxing glove, the brothers would beat each other bloody and end up hugging tenderly. The stunning answer to the wife’s question as posed in the title, and referring to the struggling brothers, is found in the last line: “I have come to mistrust any subsequent version”. Kentucky Swami doesn’t try to sell us any sort of romanticized window-dressing. These are poems you can trust.


BOOK REVIEW: Zero Gravity by Eric Gamalinda

Review: Zero Gravity by Eric Gamalinda, alicejamesbooks, Farmington, ME, 78 pp, $11.95
Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Fall-Winter 2001

Eric Gamalinda is about as good a poet as I’ve come across among those sub lunar talents seemingly within a few galactic miles of the likes of Yeats or Stevens. And, not to disparage Mr. Gamalinda, the number of such truly impressive poets seems to increase frighteningly and on a weekly basis. While there’s no such thing as too many fine poets, where will we get the time to read them all?
But in the case of Mr. Gamalinda we must surely make the time. His present collection, Zero Gravity, is so consistently original, striking and even shocking that his standing at the very top of the really good new poets is beyond dispute. Almost every line of almost every poem is memorable. It makes a reviewer’s task more difficult when his attempt to cite outstanding lines leads inexorably toward quoting the whole book. But let me make a start.
Mr. Gamalinda’s gaze exposes the world’s cities and landscapes bathed in a super-real light that emanates from and points back toward the realms of spirit
…the sky is a membrane
in an angel’s skull,
trees talk to each other at night,
ice is water in a state of silence,
the embryo listens to everything we say.
In “You Can Choose Your Afterlife,” a minor masterpiece, Mr. Gamalinda explores the strange heavens of the T’boli who assign afterlives according to ways of death. Death by the sword leads the soul into a red world where you are welcomed
with the tintinnabulation
of copper bells
Suicides inherit a land “where everything sways/ even in sleep”. As the poem sweeps to its climax this metaphor is movingly interwoven with the memory of a friend who, even in death, was always “one step ahead”. In a remarkable poem that Eliot might have penned between The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday, Gamalinda seeks all that has been lost “in a source that is more blue/than anyone has ever seen”. In Blue, Kind of, imagery pours forth with astonishing splendor:
The moon at daytime
still thick with honey and minerals,
the flood tide of rare
and malleable metal.
After a bucolic intermezzo invoking the earthy wholesomeness of a shepherd with goats and dog, the author returns to
…the time of miracles
when all we need to know
will be revealed in dreams,
in water, in the desert,
in arteries, in stones.

We will understand
the persistence of trees
and the agony of rivers

…and in our poverty
there will be much to give
and more light than we can imagine.
In Buddha’s Bone, Gamalinda plays with the notion that chaos and chance are the ruling leitmotifs of this world.
heaven is in the effortless storm
of frangipani…
The ancients “learn to revere the places/where time and destiny drop them off/like lost luggage”. Yet in playing our endless tennis game with chaos, we manage to maintain some semblance of a pattern…of a home.
It’s as if we were taking turns
holding sentry over the world,
lest it change too drastically in our sleep.
Somewhere in the Far East, the author sits near a payphone thinking of calling his lover on the other side of the world as the sun “a bowl of saffron light/spills into a river of jade and mud”.The coin in his hand “carries your voice like a charm”. “Distance is something we learn to live with.”
Maybe I’ll be lucky and not miss my train
There are no maps there
and no schedules to guide me.
In trying to communicate his wonderment of life itself, Mr. Gamalinda constantly pushes language into ceremonies of innocence. He wants to send us the silence of an explosion of fireflies that rise in the gloaming. He asks if the disintegrating weave of an abandoned bird’s nest contains memories of lost sunlight.
I want to send you
this silence
This little volume is replete with images…archetypes almost…that will incorporate themselves into your life. The battered mother and the son waiting at the station for the train that will help them escape the father…and will later return them to him. The subway busker, her guitar case “an open palm/of frayed blue satin”. The couple in Afghanistan stoned to death for adultery. Lorca on a street in Granada. It is filled with mysteriously spellbinding poems like Uqbaresque, Five Tango Sensations and Definition of Flamenco in 245 Words. Poems whose perfect synthesis and unity defies quotation. Social consciousness here takes the long view seeing not only the pathetic poverty of the beggar in Memory is Not a Privilege of the Poor, but the shadows of memory that surround her. Amorphous shadows of happy memories that we might help her reconstruct, except that we walk away. All these gifts Zero Gravity brings us because “the angels tremble from so much beauty…and rain remembers nothing”.

Reviewed by Martin Abramson

BOOK REVIEW: Of This World, by Joseph Stroud

REVIEW: Of This World, by Joseph Stroud. Copper Canyon Press, Washington 2009, 359pp. $18.00 at

Review first published in Book/Mark, Fall 2009

Joseph Stroud is a great poet whose scope is both vertical and horizontal. He goes everywhere and sees everything, noticing insects, birds, animals, trees and flowers, calling them by their names and placing them in their natural settings. He wanders cities, mountains, forests and islands giving us their very presence as though we are standing by his side. He speaks of people, politics, love and war but always in the particular, showing their effects on the landscape and the individual. He supremely communicates the mystical thereness of things, the existential mystery of objects pulsating within their contexts, the spiritual aura surrounding the most commonplace artifacts.
The first section of this compendium of previously published and new works is called Suite for the Common and is composed of six-line, free-verse poems, two to a page. They constitute a perfect introduction to Stroud’s world as they illustrate in miniature, his seemingly endless fascination with all the dimensions of life and all the scenes of the world. My references up to page 44 cover this section. The second section, Passing Through, includes pp. 47-96. The reader intrigued enough to acquire the book may follow page references to the other six sections.
What is the source of that magic whereby Stroud defies the usual surfeit attendant upon reading large doses of poetry? What motivated me to keep turning all 351 pages? As a reviewer, I didn’t need to read the entire book twice to write an appreciation. I persisted because these poems have the intensity and human interest of a great novel. The ingredients Stroud mixes to distill his addictive brew are hypnotic. The recipe includes:

The seamless merging of the natural world with the mystical:

The yellow jacket keeps crashing against the pane
Trying to get out…
To the dead, paradise is the sidewalk you stroll down
Looking in windows, humming, stopping for coffee. p.4

Minute and flawless observations of nature:

Late spring and the nasturtiums are behaving themselves, just poking
Their leaves over the flower box. But I know it won’t be long now—
…soon they’ll make a break for it, soon
the tendrils will bolt across the deck, swarming toward light. p.8

Suddenly there was Ellen’s favorite hen shrieking
and rising into the air clutched in the single talon of a hawk. p.9

…those iris
rising as blue flames out of the earth. p.21

…Inside the pear there’s a paradise
We will never know, our only hint the sweetness of its taste. p.40

In a half-tomato:

…autumn’s city,
with its bloody seed-shine of canals,
bridges, tiny boats, a labyrinth
surrounding at the center the great palace
of emptiness. p.93

Sinister mushrooms show:

delicate gills, stalks the
color of salmon flesh, odor of storms and autumn.
“Taste And See” p.161

His uncanny descriptions of death as in “My Father Died” p.14:

…There is a great machine
in the blackness that dismantles one moment
from the next. It makes the sound of the heart
but is heartless.

The disillusionment of time as understood by Tibetan monks:

…there’s a festival… where monks
carve the delicate Buddha paradise from blocks
of frozen butter. At dawn, amid the chanting,
among prayer wheels and dragon masks,
is tossed into the fire, and all our butter dreams
rush out in flames.

And the martyrdom in, “Lazarus in Varanasi”.

From a pyre on the burning ghat
a corpse slowly sits up in the flames.
As if remembering something important. p.25

The fatalism of “Reading Joyce in Winter” p. 171:

I can hear snow falling over the Spur
over Burnside and the Hawk
falling across my life
filling the hours the days
where someday I will become
one of the shades
the snow drifting out of the night

Or “Venom” p.195:

The doctor said melanoma
and all the doors into the bright mornings
began slamming shut.

In “Bible” p.202, Stroud symbolizes death through the struggle of living
creatures to survive: “the spider-crab, the field mouse, the snake,
the scorpion…”

And the heron

is Lord of the Apocalypse stalking across the pool,
choosing and stabbing: This one. That one.
My chosen ones.

Pages 74-89 feature poems written from Vietnam which meticulously
chronicle the language, landscape, artifacts and life of the people.
They also rehearse the shameful tale of the U.S. war against that
country and the long-term scars that remain.

Stroud’s Borgesian forays often explore the reflexive as when, traveling in Europe, fleeing his father’s death, he imagines himself inside Don Quixote and asks for someone to please, “Close the book. Leave me there.” p.15
While viewing Death’s legions massacring the victims of plague in
Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death, he observes:

Like everyone, I search for myself among the living
The ones fleeing, among those trying to escape the canvas. p.15

…The path leads into the woods to the house
where the old woman invites you to admire her oven.
Don’t go! We plead—we who have been cooked
and eaten, we who sit here gripping our forks and knives. p.22

When asked by Robert Bly if he had seen his late friend John Logan in

No, I said. John and I were friends in this life.
And I miss him. I miss him even in my dreams. p.35

“ Homage to the Word-Hoard” p.138, feels like free association
but is a tribute to the power and pathos of language.
“The Old Poets Home” p.140, extols and caricatures old
master poets while lambasting some modern ones.

Vivid tableaux perfectly capture the mood of a moment as in “After
The Opera” p.28. Or in “Reading Wallace Stevens” p.35:

…two does pass through the sunlight
and through shadows between the pines,
disappearing among the colors they are,
appearing among the colors they are not.

“Feral” p.49, is reminiscent of the empty streets of de Chirico.
Stroud describes a plaza in Spain, silent, under a blazing noon
sun, where he sits eating goat cheese, olives, bread and black figs.

He grapples with the confusions of love Five years into his marriage, he thinks he understands love, but as he watches a foreign film that suddenly switches from subtitles to dubbed English, he thought for an instant that he understood Romanian”. p.17
More snapshots of love:

I never saw the oriole in the green leaves, just a flash of gold.
Do you think the morning won’t come when you’ll wake alone? p.38

Hitomaro, weeping, could not sweep
all the leaves falling on his wife’s grave. p.20

The sun pours down honey over the bodies of lovers
who make of their bed a small boat that rocks in the sea
of morning… p.41

The jingling from her anklets stops
Her lover, tired, rolls onto his back
And now the room chimes
with the sound of tiny bells
from the belt around her waist
Versions from Sanskrit & Tamil p.112

“Homage to Doo-wop” p.137, shows how the first awkward slow dance
at a teenage birthday party lead much later to:

…how I would hold the other through the night
and across the years, holding on for love and dear life,
for solace and kindness, learning the dance as we go,
learning from those first, awkward, shuffling steps,
that sweetness and doo-wop back at the beginning.

The poet’s confrontations with human cruelty fill his imagery of the Spanish conquest of the Mayan empire: p.24:

…no priest can read the signs.
…--now these strangers with beards and pale eyes.
Prepare now for whips and fire and blood and sorrow and sorrow.

Similarly, Celan on the holocaust: p.25

Can you find the key for the encryption
of his mother’s execution? How do you write
out of Auschwitz?
…a boot full of brain kicked out in the rain.

Stroud can write a novel in a paragraph. In “Elsewhere” p.218 he sketches his parents’ dysfunctional marriage; in “Knots” p. 219, he portrays his demanding father; in “A Story from the Fifties” a neighbor woman throws stones at her own house and subsequently disappears; in “How Green the Leaves” p.222, a bipolar friend sits in a chair for days with a knife in his lap. Stroud finds a metaphor for the friend’s situation in a plant being slowly consumed by colonies of tiny insects.

The section named Plainsong tells of the poet’s boyhood, his grandfather, his
boyhood friends, experiences with nature, the first kiss,the girl friends, a one-night love affair in North Beach, the end of marriage and, repeatedly, the pleasure of ordinary miracles:

There’s a poetry to this life
no one will be able to write.
The horses come down the mountain at dusk.
We’ve all seen this. But who gives thanks?

The nine poems of Backyard Suite p.257 describe local animals with
microscopic attention to details of color and form. P.277. …with
meadowlarks/ singing on the wires/ the song of one/ entering the song/ of
another. On p.268, “Oh Yes” chronicles the coming of winter and its effects
on body and soul:

…now we’re in for it, everything’s slamming shut,
closing shop, the leaves on the cottonwood are crying
fuck it and letting go in the wind, the cold/ is coming…

Stroud seems to have wandered everywhere always minutely observing and registering the sense of distant lands: Andalucía, Siena, Ayacucho, Kárpathos (and the Greek Isles), Santo Domingo, Samoa, Bali, Vietnam, Machu Picchu, Singapore,
Jalalabad. Here’s a description of the Golden Triangle:

…it’s in the triangle, you know, bandit country, guerrillas, opium
fields, no-man’s land, no borders, you can’t tell if you’re in Laos,
Burma, China, Thailand, Vietnam, nobody knows and nobody

Along with modern poets and thinkers, he has studied poets and works of many different times and cultures: Man’yōshū, Lu Yu, the Kokinshū, Rumi, Lady Izumi, Radulfus Glaber, Issa, Machado, Li Po, Confucius, Praxilla of Sikyon, Han-Shan, Cavafy, Rambaud de Vaqueiràs to name a few.

A translation from the Japanese: p.104

Dawn in the imperial city
I hear the swish of oars
and remember those fishing girls
from long ago

Among Stroud’s most profound works are the “Praise Poems” pp.121-14
It is here, from the perspective of old age, that he flashes upon striking
memories of lovers, friends, nature, and youth while confronting the
imminence of death.

I have tried to suggest the richness of Stroud’s imagery. But the true reward awaits those who obtain the book and discover on every page and every line the magic poetry was created to yield.
We are left with the portrait of a man who loved both the pleasures of home and the strangeness of travel. One who has the sensitivity to appreciate the former and to wonder at the latter. One who celebrates the spiritual mystery of life even as he handles its bare, bloody physicality and expresses it all in poems.

BOOK REVIEW: Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright

BOOK REVIEW: Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright
1998 Copper Canyon Press, 111 pp. $14.00
Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Fall 2005

“Deepstep” is memory, is deep time; is epiphany; is birth/death; is a Wizard of Oz tornado within whose funnel whirl vignettes and voices of a lifetime. Deepstep Come Shining is an odyssey if not an epic whose thousands of mirrored facets cause it to deconstruct itself in ways that preserve the truth of experience while shattering the stiles of syntax.
A car moving through “magnolialight” in the rural South, the Deep South. We know this thanks to obvious clues: boiled peanuts, Videlia onions, cling peaches, fireworks, red ants, Spanish moss, alligators¾ items often followed by the question: “Now do you know where you are.” This question is the first indication that we are also inside a detective story, following clues scattered all over the landscape; but so is the author following, often herself surprised, as fingerprints suddenly appear in the text, and she reacts to them: “Did you know a ghost has hair”

The narrator presses her head against a cool window remembering a white piano on a black marble floor, “mute swan in a dark room”. But who shot the piano? Who killed the mother? Much later we learn that someone put a pillow over her mother’s head and shot her…the piano strings reverberating to the blast. Violence is never far beneath the surface of shimmering metaphor.

For example: life and death aspects of the spectrum are fused into a fetal tragedy caused by and repudiated by power:

“The baby sister of the color photographer had a baby girl in the hills. Born with scooped-out sockets in the head. Born near the tracks they sprayed with Agent Orange. The railroad’s denials, ditto the army’s.”

Vision and blindness: poles of sight. Photographers, projectionists, writing with light: sensory-clusters with which the poet searches the roots of language. “Peeping into the unseen/Beautiful things fill every vacancy.”

“Once the eye is enucleated. Would you replace it with wood, ivory, bone,
shell, or a precious stone. Who invented the glass eye. Guess. The Vene-
tians. Of course.”

“Inside the iris of time, the iridescent dreaming kicks in. Turn off that
stupid damn machine.”

But there’s no turning off the machine. It runs the length of the book, flinging out starbursts of symbols and images. You can spend several months trying to weave together the scraps, strips and threads into a realistic tapestry; or you can take this reviewer’s lazy alternative of just wandering through Wright’s jungle of metaphors continuously charmed by the figuration and transfiguration of leitmotifs.

Who is the Boneman who keeps a bobcat in a cage? Who is the Snakeman who walked a six-point stag through the pecan orchard? Who is the swamp doctor whose advice you’d better heed whether you’re a believer or not? Who’s Thrasher who has a lapdog in his freezer? Who’s Moss? Who’s Louise? Who’s Clyde? Cf: Stetson, Mr. Eugenides, Hakagawa, Fraulein von Kulp. There are dogs and chickens, blind horses and one-eyed cats. As we read, Wright’s universe quickly fills with mythic personae and variegated fauna.
But even as she glories in the miraculous beauty of the landscape, Wright must constantly parry images of affliction and civil corruption, the soulless laws of the state and the constant pressure of religion:


Love it Leave Love it Leave it Love it Leave it Love it Leave it Love it Leave it

As the poem moves on, we learn more and more about the narrator’s life: a brief, hopeless romance; a baby is born; “I started to write/I feel lost here/and I’m going to go home”; “As a child I was a kleptomaniac”; “The contours of a man were horrible to her.” Hints, allusions, suggestions: you can put them together in a thousand different ways. But the impact is always maximal.

“When lightning hit the mute swan. In all her glory. The
students were traumatized…She exploded. Her five cygnets
sizzled on the surface.”

I certainly make no claims of understanding this poem. I believe that it involves sight and blindness, searing relationships, a murder, a catastrophic fire, the unwrapping of bandages from a hand, an eye, the heart. The rest, like the fire, is “opaque and revelatory, ceaselessly burning”; as baffling as the gray strip of computer symbols adorning the back cover and many inside pages; but like a pinwheel of sparklers, tossing off enough great lines to make the reputations of ten minor poets.
So I can only suggest the incredible richness of this book: the multiple voices each speaking in his or her unique diction and dialect; the ‘found’ poetry scattered broad-shot throughout; the many moods of the speaker, expressed now in farmyard twang, now in Southern belle refinement, now in literary quotation. I trust that my readers have gathered by now that I think C.D. Wright a remarkable, amazing and very great poet. One of the best employing the language today. A phenomenon. And I don’t say that lightly.

BOOK REVIEW: Angle of Yaw, by Ben Lerner

Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Summer 2009

Angle of Yaw
By Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington
$15.00, 127pp, Paper 2006

NOTE: This collection is divided into five sections. No poems within the sections are given titles. Most of the short poems are in the two sections that share the book’s title. Here, I will identify them solely by their page numbers. And lest you assume that the many highlights I quote give you these best of this book, let me assure you emphatically that these gems are only pale reflections of the contexts that contain them. In addition, the reader will observe that this reviewer is not only quoting the text directly, but is also roving through the book at will gluing together separate items to form composite metaphors. He cannot resist the torrent of implications that beckon at every turn. He’s not trying to improve on the poet’s words, only responding to them. Somehow he hopes Mr. Lerner will approve.

Very occasionally a collection of poems is so wildly evocative, it forces the reviewer to wax poetical just to give the reader a hint of its flavor. Angle of Yaw is such a collection…and then some! Your Zen atmospheres and muted revelations are all very well, but give me a poet who speaks for the present age of electronic hallucinations, computerized crowd control and multi-media sleight of mind. Deploying puns, wordplay, TV ads, Tee-Shirt mottoes, speeches, tautologies and common parlance, Lerner exposes the archaeology and etiology of our civilization from silent films to Grand Theft Auto. All are turned in a kaleidoscope of purest abstraction and meaningful nonsense. Lerner is a daredevil who “places his head in the camera,” p.21, and experiences the orderly chaos of things; he charts the traces of a civilization whose collective unconscious, like the half-time patterns of marching bands, are best discerned from the blimp which reflects them to the populace abroad revealing the substance of their dreams, p.23. Lerner splits and riffles his deck of words into a magical sequence of juxtapositions in which disparate ideas, seemingly by accident, fall into perfect arrangements as the phonebook and Bible are merged. What follows is an antipasto of memorable snapshots from the book. Organization is haphazard, catch-as-catch-can, and largely non-existent.

The poet expects to be “convicted on the strength of his indifference to conviction,” p.95. In the hospice, analogy is likened to hypermetropia and “carpets are the color of migraine’. p.94.
How does Proust write? p.24. How does the eye read? Before the invention of movies, did anybody move? p.34 Does invention have a father? Ibid. “In an age of mechanical reproduction, is any sin original?” Ibid. How much of free will is conditioned reflex? When you slip the dogs of Pavlov, war is inevitable. Video games “allow you to select the angle from which you view the action, inspiring a rash of high school massacres,” p.18. In order to “match the plywood finish…we must either be stained or invisible,” p.19.

We are told how “an era of polarized light…has divided the community into subdistances” and cartoons: “…the rabbit has run out of landscape and plugged the shotgun with his finger”p.108. In the legerdemain of Tom and
Jerry, the duck flattened by a frying pan becomes the frying pan. “Open your eyes,” warns Lerner, “you’re still holding the dynamite” p.30.

“The law’s long arm cannot support its heavy hand” p.38
“Does this blood make me look fat? Ibid.
“Tongue worries tooth. Repetition worries referent.” p.52
“When you shatter a store window, you see your own image in the glass.”
“No means no. So does yes.” p.40
“As if you could choose between loving and leaving the weather.” p.43
A zombie workforce sleeps standing up in closed Murphy beds. p.53
“History, screams Hamsun, the junior senator from Wisconsin, will
vindicate my mustache.” p.55
“…an Abraham doll with realistic trembling.” p.57
In a tropism called history, the dark crowd (which doesn’t interact with
light) exerts a gravitational effect on the visible crowd. p.71
“The very existence of concealed space constitutes an ambush. An
abrupt change in sentence structure turns our fire friendly…There is
no describing a weapon that spreads white space.” p.79.
A meditation on physics and faith. p.72
A cure for phobias. p.73

“Women have no desire to travel in outer space. When men have forced (it) the results have been disastrous…The first woman in space is still there.” p.80.
About sensory perception: “The sixth sense…is the ability to perceive the loss of other senses; we have lost this sense.” p.85.
“In my honor they will one day name and electrify a chair. p.88
Black is the new black. Ibid.
“Angels are absences in the snow…” “When it thaws, they will stand up and search for the children they have known.” p.93

To claim that Lerner’s poems demonstrate ingenious genius is redundant. They are frankly uncanny. I can’t begin to describe the profusion of verbo-logico-cultural mots, anti-mots, knots, plots, linguistic tangles and credible non-sequiturs embedded everywhere in this book. “We busy ourselves with what exceeds description.” Lerner scatters consistent inconsistencies all over. On p.45 a private definition of art. On p.44, the sorrow of the astronaut. On p. 49, the serial killer mocks a detective by dumping his victims in a smiley face pattern which greets the investigator every morning with a grimace of red tacks on a map.
p.51 Explores art, color and cameras.
p.111 speaks of health, physical and spiritual.
p.112 describes, “…cutting an adjective and tucking it behind the reader’s
ear like a flower”.
On p.114, The aircraft orients its position employing a “a system of measure
anchored by the apparent daily motion of stars that no longer exist.”

The concluding long poem, Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan, and a few of the shorter poems are essentially political in nature. The author holds a degree in political theory from Brown University. The short poems include a nod to Melville: “I come from a long line of…communards who would prefer not to.” p.96
“Our bombs are dropped from such altitudes our wars have ended by the time they reach their targets.” p.100
The government provides “an infinite progression of final frontiers designed to distract the public from its chest wound”, and further on, with appropriate amour propre: “We will not just sit here being mooned insists the president”. p.102.
The Reagan poems are replete with ironic images of Reagan’s America where the author vows to shoot himself only in self–defense. Where, “Your life isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on”. p.121. Where “meanings detonate at preset depths”. And by way of encouragement, the poet observes: “If you had been hypnotized, silly, you wouldn’t know it”. p.122.
Twenty-One Gun Salute ends with a flurry of pointed asides:

“Let them eat snow.”
“Tear down this wall.”
“Is this thing on?”

The section marked: Didactic Elegy contains several sad and strangely beautiful longer poems commemorating the collapse of the Twin Towers by interlacing the event with an extended set of variations on art, poetry, criticism, interpretation, perception and economics. This work, in its depth and profundity deserves many separate critical essays none of which may be attempted here. Suffice it to say that in reading it, one is aware of distant but audible echoes of Four Quartets, a masterpiece with which Didactic Elegy merits serious comparison.