Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Kingdom of Possibilities

The Kingdom of Possibilities by Tim Mayo
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

where perception and living converged…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…all the backyard sprinklers spritz us with rainbows…

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

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

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

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

Silent Music

Silent Music by Richard Bronson
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From “Driving Home…”:

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

From “Indian Summer 2001”:

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

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

From “Wind Singer”:

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

except in formal, prearranged meetings.

From “The Secret of Vilcabamba”:

Rose petals, red drifting over cobblestones…

From “Satori”:

White butterflies, prayers on folded paper
festoon trees…

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

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

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

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Open Slowly

Open Slowly by Dayle Furlong
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

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

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

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

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

Leaves lie in piles¾
a blazing circus of decay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her mother, buttoning a sweater:

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

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

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

a summertime fling
heartbreak in autumn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bound”, where we find the lovers in

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

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

“Litany of Desire”, where

My lips shed skin
in crisps
if only to love you

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

And “Tangled”, where

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

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

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

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

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

now inquiries are embargoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Apocalypse Tapestries

The Apocalypse Tapestries by John Taylor
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have to determine
the right path
by the slope

up for the rest of your life.

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

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

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

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