Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Dreams: martin abramson

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The simple pathos of these poems is overwhelming.

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

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

                                                All love is memorable.
                                                Some only for the pain.

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

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

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Josph Stroud, Of This World

BOOK REVIEW: Of This World, by Joseph Stroud

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

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

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 poetry.

Anthony Guilbert and John DeCarlo

Review by Martin Abramson
By Wayne Guilbert, 35pp
Walking Through Lebanon
By John DeCarlo, 39pp
The Mighty Rogue Press
Boulder, Colorado
Paper, $10.00  each

By permission of Book/Mark Quarterly

                             Back in the bad old days of the 90’s, there was a hulking, independent printer in the Wm.Blake tradition, called Anthony Guilbert whose Karma Dog Press brought such luminous poets as Vince Clemente to the public’s attention. Today, Guilbert is back and just as much the maverick, his Mighty Rogue Press opening with a double salvo of two fascinating chapbooks. Without having space for full-scale reviews, let me venture a comment or two.
                 Wayne Guilbert’s Magma-Mystic combines the native chants of Ginsberg and Snyder with the wisdom of Rumi and the freewheeling exuberance of Willard Gellis. He explores the paleontology of Colorado which he relates vividly to his own history. In poems like “Medicine Chant for My Legs”, “A Dine Canyon Teaching”, “Box-Canyon Morning”, and “Analog Rumi-Jazz”, Mr. Gilbert displays the extraordinary power of disciplined language when merged with the bardic barbaric yawp. It’s well worth the modest ten buck toll.
                  John DeCarlo’s Walking Through Lebanon ranges much further geopolitically in more conventional free verse. His slide-show projects scenes of peace as well as images of war-torn places littered with suffering people. Of the former, we have “Return to Eden”, “Sunset  at Ponte Vecchio” and “The Spice of Life”. The dark scenes are more numerous and usually tied to specific places, like the city of Berlin in “Lingering Motion” or Iraq in “After the Invasion”, or Lebanon in the title poem, or Peru in “In the Land of the Golden Inca”. Mr. DeCarlo magnifies the power of his poems by linking them to autobiographical experiences. His language is spare and precise for maximum impact, yet the poet never loses control of the music and meter of his lines. Walking Through Lebanon together with Magma-Mystic constitute an auspicious debut for The Mighty Rogue Press and leave our appetites whetted for future productions.

Child Sings in the Womb

Review by Martin Abramson
By Patrick Lawler.
Bitter Oleander Press, New York
$18.00, 136 pp, Paper

By permission of Book/Mark Quarterly.                 

                Mr. Lawler’s poetry is endlessly, complexly, multiversely evocative. All of which may or may not amount to greatness; but which, to this writer, rates far higher than a good deal of modern poetry considered great by authors and their cliques.
                 The work is a Joycean pastiche of images, suggestions, implications, impulses, jokes and wordplay that serve as a bright gloss over dark engravings. The titles tell half the story:  Man Killed by Static Cling, Dead Couple Wed at Their Funeral, Sweethearts Vanish in Tunnel of Love, Woman Receives Letter from Joan of Arc, Preacher Explodes during Sermon and so on. Funny titles. Serious poems.
                   Mr. Lawler’s topics run from the Greek philosophers through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to theoretical physics and hit a great many heavy topics along the way. Aside from the Kierkegaard-Nietzsche letters, Dear Bose-Einstein Condensate is the strongest piece of the collection. The slowing of thoughts in his mother’s Alzheimer’s frozen mind is compared to the slowing of light in the condensate (a state of matter cooled to near absolute zero). The mother’s mental lethargy is contrasted with the chaos of thoughts in the speaker’s brain “…when the head is overly full of memories, / and they push against the inner walls of the skull, / and they keep pushing until they dent the head, until they pop/ it out like a banged kettle.”

                   The observation that all the cells of our bodies are replaced at regular intervals,  fuels a running gag in which the author assumes the personae of noted poets: “I changed my name to Robert Bly” “I changed my name to Mark Strand” I didn’t tell you I changed my name to Adrienne Rich,” “Just ignore the W.S.Merwin name tag.”  But the personality disorder is clear: “My Inner Child was adopted by a dysfunctional family.” “I am part cracked mask, part rearing horse, part whittled flute.”  “In group therapy, I look around/ and I am alone”

                     I feel like a tightrope walker. Oh, I have a net. That’s not the problem. What
                      I’m missing is the rope.

And interspersed with all this are the author’s sexual fantasies centering on an unnamed woman whom he never gets around to approaching: “Sex will shake us to our erotic roots. Fire will spill from our openings.”
                     In the longest effort of this collection, Dear Neitszche/ Love Kierkegaard, Mr. Lawler regales us with a sequence of letters from K to N filled with philosophical allusions: “Fear and Mumbling” “You give them Eternal Recurrence, and they say, ‘Haven’t we heard that before?’” “Oh Fred, you are so silly. Doing your death-thing with Divinity” “I am in the middle of writing the definitive book. Possible titles: Neither/Nor; Both/And.” “Berkeley was there. Kept bumping into furniture.” “Out of emptiness we emerge into new emptiness.” Which is apropos of a line from another poem, Dear Blank:

                                        “Blank is to blank as blank is to blank.”

N’s cursive according to K: “Your script is blotchy. Big cloudy pieces of ink like a coming storm“

                                There’s plenty of verbo-philosophical slapstick: “I tell you Zeno isn’t going anywhere.” “Get Uber it, I say.” “One of us is named Sisyphus, and one of us is named Stone.” “I’m not just another pretty word.” “I used to dance for the Army at military funerals, / I was a tap dancer.” You get the idea.
                             The first part of the book consists of poems in the same vein except that they are set up to stretch from margin to margin with large gaps between words and phrases. A nod to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, I suppose. I find the form distracting, but I guess I’m too ‘old school’ to appreciate it. There are also playful typographical variations of cases and the idiosyncratic convention of beginning each title with the word “dear”. 
                             A dessert of delicious humor ends the book in the form of another epistolary poem wherein the author banters emails with a Nigerian internet scammer who is trying to get his bank account number. Addressing him as, “Dearest Akeem,” Mr. Lawler maunders on about his own dead father, his psychotic student, his girlfriends, God, and, ironically, the pleasure he anticipates in spending the $475,000 Akeem will be paying him for keeping Akeem’s $9.5 million in his personal account. A humane but barbed put-on of an online criminal.  
                              Patrick Lawler serves up steak, caviar and popcorn; all cooked to a turn, in this elegant collection. The underlying themes of desperation, disorientation and mental breakdown preclude enjoyment of the humor unclouded by sorrow and regret; but the voracious reader comes away from Child Sings in the Womb feeling well fed indeed.