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Category Archives: American Poetry

Words Become Ashes: An Offering by Cindy Rinne (Bamboo Dart Press)

Words Become Ashes: An Offering by Cindy Rinne (Bamboo Dart Press)

Cindy Rinne’s Words Become Ashes: An Offering is in part a reaction to the pandemic and in part a spiritual guidebook to healing from it. Rinne is a poet and fiber artist who designs clothing and wall hangings among other objects of art. This collection highlights her poetry and fiber art, and both discuss the ways that she has worked through this time of pain. She is a deeply spiritual person whose work seems to be guided by Buddhist philosophy.

One of the ways that Rinne has found strength is through her art, which is an emotional link to those women who have come before her. She writes about the strange phenomenon of natural places being closed. She is cut off from these places that feed her spirit. In “The Forest Is Closed,” she writes of a national park being shut down because of the quarantine, but she imagines a meeting with women who have shaped her:

. . . Underneath the masks

reveal a blond woman floating. My grandmother

I never knew? She crochets a coverlet, a cross,

Shows me other women crafting by hand” (15).

If she cannot have the connection to the forest right now, she does have a connection to the natural world through a history that she continues with her art. In “Dear Flood Plain,” she does find a connection to the natural world by sneaking onto a floodplain where no houses can be built but is still cut off from her. “I arrived when you were called ‘Private Property Keep Out.’ I sneak under the chain and listen to eucalyptus, greet the sunrise over the mountain and take three deep breaths as my arms reach above my head” (19). In this passage, she is giving us one way through the pandemic and life’s problems generally, and that is a connection to the natural world.

     Rinne also writes about turning everyday activities into a meditation that brings healing and calm. She writes, “Night cream, vitamins, lavender oil, and brush teeth. Then stretch my back across a large exercise ball. . . Stretch and bow before ceramic Buddha with thoughts of thankfulness for another day. Blow out candles. Smoke drifts to ceiling leaving lines like spider webs. Read about a small shoreline bird. Lights out” (43). In this poem and others like it, we are given an insight into how she turns chores into ritual meditation that works for her. She is not exhorting us to follow what she does. She is simply allowing us into her life to show what works for her. It is up to us if we want to do something similar.

     Words Become Ashes: An Offering is as its title suggests a kind of prayer in and of itself. These are words meant to move the spirit, and for me they do. They offer hope in a time that has been so bleak for me.

John Brantingham 23rd July 2021

Parallel Movement of the Hands by John Ashbery (Carcanet Press)

Parallel Movement of the Hands by John Ashbery (Carcanet Press)

This, first off, is a work of posthumous reconstruction of five coherent but unfinished pieces at various levels of progression that Ashbery’s assistant of some years Emily Skillings managed to put together. So we are lacking the author’s intended ideas for book length presentation of these works.

I think however we do get quite a strong sense of the poet’s voice here, albeit that any narrative elements might be in a stage of incompletion. Ashbery of course is renowned as a key member of the core New York school along with Frank O’Hara, whose career was cut short, James Schuyler, with whom Ashbery wrote A Nest of Ninnies, and Kenneth Koch. He completed a large number of French translations, and was many years involved in art criticism. 

The design of the book has a certain logic to it, wherein probably the most substantive pieces start and conclude it, so that we begin with the long six part poem ‘The History of Photography’, which, Ashbery being Ashbery, isn’t entirely about photography.

It is worth citing briefly Skilling’s epigraph, which includes the expression by Ashbery that ‘we can dream safely in our environment because art has set soft, invisible limits to it.’ (pxv, p169). This doubtless helped Ashbery’s will to experimentation and unorthodoxy, but I think this kind of ‘invisible safety’ is a mite questionable.

When Ashbery is in full flow he seems to come up with long fluent lines, unlike the briskly lean variety of O’Hara. He could not be described as a formalist; and there are occasional noticings of disjunction as well as surrealist touches.

‘Photography’ in its 6 parts takes a little while to warm up, but by the third section I’d say we’re arriving at something approaching Ashbery’s typical voice. Here we find

                                                                        ‘What I buy

                        I pass around; all are unbidden to this feast

                        of the every-day, so I can hear its

                        partial music just as a bird sings

                        out of reach, within the edge of a forest.’ (p16) 

This sounds almost Whitmanesque. But Ashbery’s poetry is of a more terse, frisky variety, no doubt also more cerebral, rather less Falstaffian. 

Emily Skillings’ very insightful introduction offers a very useful commentary on these pieces. So that if Ashbery takes something from Whitman, there are also smatterings of perhaps Auden too. The departure from Whitman may be owing to what Skillings identifies as his interest and leaning toward not so much hesitation as tentativeness, a certain thinking on one’s feet. This she cites from some of Ashbery’s art criticism. So we have Ashbery saying,-

‘The artists of the world can be divided into two groups: those who organize and premeditate, and those who accept the tentative, the whatever-happens-along. And though neither method is inherently superior…I probably prefer more works of art that fall in the latter category.’ (cited pxlii)

This is possibly part too of what makes Ashbery’s work so American and New York school.

For all his flowing lines nonetheless I sense Ashbery as a writer much in control of his material. There are for instance line endings that are curt and contained rather than flowing on, a fairly sure footed quality with that sense that he knows what he is about. Nonetheless the first person singular is much absent, and there is never anything resembling Lowell or confessionalism. Ashbery has indeed sometimes been proposed as a precursor of the rather objectified Language school. And that is much part of his extraordinary originality, in the sense that this strange mix of styles we get from him is peculiarly much his own. 

But there are limits to this. Ashbery does, agreed, seem to be language driven, and in that sense the experiential roots of his poetry are rather muted. At the same time he’s always been very conscious of pictorial models.

Another writer Ashbery resembles to an extent is Wallace Stevens, and in his more relaxed modes there do seem points of comparison there. Because Ashbery can convince himself of ‘invisible safety’ he is content to lay down his guard here and there, which no doubt is how we get books of poetry with such titles as Houseboat Days or The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery’s undeniable seriousness is not at all heavy handed and he plainly enjoys following the play of the language.

This playfulness or even ‘softness’ of an amount of Ashbery’s writing may either engage or not; were he a South American he leans much closer to a Neruda than a Vallejo, though with a much more restrained quality of intimacy. Skillings appropriately dedicates this volume to Ashbery’s long term partner David Kermani. As Ashbery concludes ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’, ‘Thereafter/ foils drooped./ That’s what I thought he said,/ trespassing.// It won’t be entirely winter.’ (p80) which reminds me among other things of the title of that Stevens’ collection Transport to Summer. Not quite a case of ‘poetry doesn’t change anything’ as with Auden, but there perhaps is not a developed sense of political or social consciousness here, though perhaps we do not expect that of poetry. If unlike Lowell, certainly unlike a Ginsberg besides. But that said this poetry is highly original and does plough its own furrow quite to effect.

Clark Allison 7th July 2021

Let Us Now Praise Ordinary Things by Kareem Tayyar (Arroyo Seco Press)

Let Us Now Praise Ordinary Things by Kareem Tayyar (Arroyo Seco Press)

Kareem Tayyar’s Let Us Now Praise Ordinary Things is an extraordinary collection that discusses how one can find fulfilling and long term joy through a balanced understanding of how to appreciate simple things against a backdrop of pain. I have long admired Tayyar’s work and his approach to life. It is not easy to write about appreciating life, and he is able to do so without becoming preachy or treacly. Instead, he looks into the essence of things and moments to understand them for what they are. He doesn’t ignore pain; in fact, he acknowledges it. What he dwells on, however, are the moments between moments that constitute joy. The final line of the collection sums up this philosophy well: “After all, there is so much to praise, and so little time” (103). For him, death is a fact and that lends an urgency to his appreciation of those moments that comes before it.

     Much of this is a pure appreciation for art in all its forms. He is someone who loves classic rock of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and his discussion of it reminds me of the work of the late Gerald Locklin, who was one of Tayyar’s early mentors. Both have a casual voice that draws out what is extraordinary about the artists and the experience of encountering their music. In “On the Rolling Stones,” for example, he acknowledges what so many people love about the band, but highlights what people often forget, which is their potential for sensitivity. He writes, “they have written one of the most sensitive, vulnerable, and downright gorgeous songs ever committed to record: ‘Winter,’ which is the kind of ballad Wordsworth would have written had he come along in the age of electricity” (47). He goes on to allow his readers to enjoy the nostalgia of an old rock band, but also to draw out what we might have forgotten or never known about them. He discusses many musicians in this way including Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, but he certainly does not stop with popular musicians but classical music, jazz, Impressionist painters like Monet and Michaelangelo and writers like Shakespeare and Hemingway. Like his mentor, he does not limit his mind or creativity but allows himself to follow any line of thought that appeals to him.

     He also allows himself to explore the more spiritual dimension of small pleasures. In “On Dogs,” he demonstrates how powerful those moments can be. Here, he longs for a dog, “just so long as he is as much of a healer as Hero, a black labrador whom, upon arrival, pulled a close friend out of an extended depression that she has never fallen back into” (41). The small pleasure of being with a dog can lead to joy if someone is awake to it. In “On the Small Mandarins I Purchased at the Market this Afternoon,” he writes, “these mandarins are really something, small enough to double as Christmas ornaments, sweet enough to make ice cream seem hopelessly dull by comparison, and filling enough to make me believe that I could subsist entirely on them and nothing else for the rest of my life” (97). He often allows himself to dwell on these small kinds of pleasures.

     Anyone has a long history of pain and a great deal of pain to come, but Tayyar has found his way through that pain. He, like Kurt Vonnegut before him, offers us in this collection the day to day attitude that can make life a much better state to be in.

John Brantingham 26th June 2021

Now Voyager by Cynthia Anderson & Susan Abbott (Cholla Needles Press)

Now Voyager by Cynthia Anderson & Susan Abbott (Cholla Needles Press)

Now Voyager is a collaborative project as part of Cholla Needles’ series of books that combine art and poetry and have included poets and artists like Cindy Rinne, Kendall Johnson, and David Chorlton. Anderson’s poetry is illustrated by Abbott’s art and the result is poems that are enhanced by the surreal nature of Abbott’s watercolor paintings and paintings that are given spiritual context by Anderson’s poetry. Anderson, who lives in the deserts of California near Joshua Tree National Park captures the reality of living in this wild and extraordinary place. Her poetry is at once a journey into the mystical as it is an appreciation for the natural world  and her relationship to it.

     Anderson’s poetry is not universally positive; she takes a look at her own carbon footprint and anxiety about living in the desert where too many resources are being consumed by the people who love living outside the boundary of the city. The prose poem “Future Archaeology” imagines a future where anthropologists look over the remains of her community. A narrator describe the destruction of society:

The water was what kept the desert alive. When it ran out, the locals had no choice but to get in their cars and drive away — heading for the coast, where the water wars began. There’s nothing here worth further study, we’ve seen it all before . . . We’ll let the desert bury this town, let the sandstorms do their work.

However, if these passages and others like them present a hopeless vision of the future of humanity, it is hopeful for the future of nature. Here the desert is the most powerful force. It is not, thankfully, the desert that people have destroyed. They have only destroyed themselves, and the desert takes back what should not have been there in the first place. 

     While there are anxieties about her effect on the natural world, the heart of this collection is her joy for the beauty of the natural world. In “Early Earth,” she describes our planet when it was young:

         From deep space

         the view is clear —

         hardly a cloud

         to hide the surface.

         . . . 

         Already life pulls 

         nitrogen from air

         to build the biosphere

There is a love here not just of the earth as an object of beauty but for the science of it that has created our world. She blends mystical and scientific throughout so there seems to be no difference between the two. The chemistry of the earth, the physics that go into it are seen as magical.

     Cholla Needles has created a community of artists and writers to the east of Los Angeles that should be recognized and commended. It is a group of people who are working in collaboration to build something bigger than individual books. They are forming a new vision of the desert and its people.

John Brantingham 25th June 2021

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Kate Durbin’s work has been compared to Kafka’s and Beckett’s in its approach to the surreal, and her new book Hoarder’s certainly captures what is absurd in the culture of spectacle that is evident in the AE network’s television show, Hoarders. The reality show episodes focus on a single person or perhaps a couple who feel compelled to hoard objects. These objects come out of a culture based on the idea that consumerism solves problems and brings joy and gives us a voyeuristic look at the result of what is essentially someone’s mental illness. Durbin’s prose poems mix what the participants say about themselves as she describes what the camera is showing. The result is commentary on why they consume what they do and what we are consuming spiritually through our viewership. It is an exceptionally powerful collection that left me often sick to my stomach and moved powerfully by the humanity that the collection seems to suggest we return to. 

     For me, the most compelling poems are those where the people profiled clearly need help or they will suffer physically from their hoarding. For example, she writes about Alice, who takes in cats to care for but is not able to do so. Alice has stopped cleaning up after her cats who relieve themselves in her house. Here, Durbin uses italics when quoting and regular type to describe the camera work. She writes:

I feel awful, I’m a failure and that’s how my whole life has been one fresh shit among old shits.

My cats probably have worms, they probably have ear mites, there’s probably feline leukemia, feline AIDS running through black kitten whose hind legs won’t work lurching across the floor

I had a kitten and there was so much ammonia in the air that its eyeballs popped out grey cat with its eyes crusted shut.

I don’t even know how this started hiking boots under the bed, soles thick with shit (102-103).

Here and elsewhere, the characters profiled on the television show seem to be calling out for help, but their needs are ignored. Instead of providing help, we are asked to indulge in the spectacle of the moment. 

     Underlying the collection is a discussion of what this kind of culture is doing to the environment. After all, these are people reacting to trauma, whose society has told them that if they purchase more and more things they will heal themselves. In 2001, the president went so far as to say that consumerism was an act of patriotism that fought against terrorism. The sheer weight of the objects described is overwhelming. One couple has so many books that the floorboards are beginning to bend. Another woman keeps tapes from 40 years of compulsively recording television. Most people have objects that would seem random except for the commonality that they are meant to bring pleasure. There is very little here that has a function. Mostly they are objects like Barbie Dolls and other toys no one can play with now gathering around them.

     Kate Durbin’s Hoarders is incisive and brilliant. I could call it surreal, but it accurately captures what is on the screen, and the way we have been asked to view other people. 

John Brantingham 8th June 2021

Building Stonehenge by Marc Maurus (Arroyo Seco Press)

Building Stonehenge by Marc Maurus (Arroyo Seco Press)

     Marc Maurus’s Building Stonehenge is revealing and vulnerable in the way that Kevin Ridgeway and T. Anders Carson’s is, allowing his readers to have access to the complex interior life that many people hold secret. It is a work that comes not so much out of a suicide attempt, but at the vitality and life that followed it. Maurus intentionally drove into a concrete barrier at sixty miles an hour without an air bag or a seat belt and lived but experienced extensive brain damage. His doctors told him that his only possible path forward to recovery was by reading constantly, which he did, and against the odds, that treatment worked. What followed was a period of exceptional creativity, introspection, and even joy, and these poems are a result of that time. On my first reading of the collection, I thought of “The Day My Life Stood Still” (51) as the central poem of the collection because it describes his injury and cause of it. I think that was a mistake however. I think what is central to the collection is what brought him back to happiness and healing.

     Healing came out of a time when he read every moment that he was awake, and certain authors, especially Beat poets like Kerouac and Ginsberg, found their way through several of these poems. He has a gratitude for them. He constructs the cento “Timothy Leary’s Dead” out of a number of sources, but relying on these poets for key lines and understanding to his meaning. What he creates is not simple nostalgia, but a way of reseeing the old ideas and reapplying them to our world now. He does not reference only these writers by any means. They just seem central to his thinking. His poems convey a broad sensibility and a good deal of reading the books that he loved. Because of his brain injury, he would read these books again and again, and to me it feels like they have become a part of who he is and how he filters experience. This is not a bad filter.

     Another theme that runs through the book is a kind of call to humanity and to recognize that everyone is deserving of the human experience. Now that he is in recovery, he is able to hold a job, and one of those is as an ice cream man. He describes a moment when he gives a child who has little money an ice cream. This basic kind of dignity seems to be the mission that all of his reading has led him to. He inspects his own complicity in the poor race relations of the United States and looks to himself to improve, showing others a way forward. He praises those who do good and exhorts us to do the same. For me it functioned as a reminder of what kindness is and how to express it.

     It is no surprise that constant reading leads to kindness. Anyone who reads deeply knows that it helps to develop empathy. I think the great take away from the collection for me was that reading and thinking deeply leads people to their best selves. It has certainly let Maurus in a positive direction.

John Brantingham 4th June 2021

Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson (Bloomsbury)

Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson (Bloomsbury)

First off, I think this is a good book to argue, feel and think against. There are some highly perceptive close readings here of the likes of O’Hara, Graham and Guest. What’s missing is any overt theory or credo, so for instance nary a mention of Language poetry or the Movement. Wilkinson does not try hard to justify his candidates for reading, intimating for instance that he was quite taken by Shelley’s poetry, of which disapproved, while at high school (p2) Wilkinson maintains that he perceives a need to think and respond ‘ahistorically’, although some enterprising student might be able to put together a chronology. There is little here earlier than Shelley and the choices are highly individualist. A near contemporary WS Graham is one bellwether.

There is nonetheless a kind of tacit theory here. Wilkinson is aware, for instance of Drew Milne’s radical ecopoetry, what’s been dubbed a ‘lichen Marxism’. Wilkinson takes on this notion of ecopoetic grounding, and feels we need to attach poetry to the breath, where Olson comes up, and the stony, wherein we have Adrian Stokes. An empathy say for old stones might seem elusive and inconsequential, but Wilkinson I’d say just about makes a case for it. Stone is the most intransigent and ingrained aspect of landscape.

As signposters each chapter, of ten, comes with a prefatory summary. Chapters 1 and 10 probably provide the better all round guidance. This at times can veer to the haphazard as, eg, what does Barbara Guest have to do with Frank O’Hara or Adrian Stokes, other than that they have caught John Wilkinson’s astute, if sometimes fervid imagination?

It is in Chapter 10 I think that one finds Wilkinson getting closer to staking out his perspective and inclinations, as –

            ‘The silence of the text prepares for the poem’s voice. As for my voice it will be engulfed in the             event, in the ‘abstract act’, as act is engulfed in abstraction and as abstraction gives rise to act.             Such coming-together…’ (p234)

Needless to say, Wilkinson is foremostly a poet, and quite an accomplished, challenging one before turning his hand to criticism or essay. The book in a sense joins other efforts by noted poet critics to establish their prerogative or world view, from Eliot’s Selected Essays to Auden’s Secondary Worlds to Davie’s Under Briggflatts to Geoffrey Hill’s Critical Writings. I might suggest that Wilkinson is less the traditionalist, more the progressive, with his Cambridge school leanings, and that on a certain level he has occupied and demarcated ground that is beyond these estimable precursors, albeit that he is unwilling to venture any chronological analysis or synthesis, but that then may be highly symptomatic of these global times we live in.

Strangely I sometimes feel as if I’ve been there, and certainly Marjorie Perloff set about a thorough critique of O’Hara that no doubt exceeds this in its depth and range of comprehension. But on the other hand one would not catch Perloff discussing Shelley nor probably WS Graham in quite this way.

Wilkinson, I tend to feel, is mapping out a space, a hopefully reliable space, from which we can view and apprise ourselves of developments in ecopoetry and lyric poetry. The sheer depth of range is foolish to dismiss. If Wilkinson is right such notions as dwelling or territory are apt to become more relevant even than they have been. Not just stony ground, but for the ‘breath’, wherein we have the instigation of Olson’s Projective Verse allied to place through myth. I’d say then that this is vital poetic criticism, quite at the cutting edge as much as anything comparable that might complement or counter it. Careful reading I’d say definitely leads to a sometimes searching reconsideration of what it is that we want or expect our poetry to do.

Clark Allison May 21st 2021

Slow Walk Home by Young Dawkins (Red Squirrel Press)

Slow Walk Home by Young Dawkins (Red Squirrel Press)

There is a pilgrimage of sorts in Young Dawkins’ writing of these poems and it is evident in reception of them as audience in both hearing them read by the poet and in reading them from the page. That the poems are biographical there is little doubt. 

Restlessness is arrested over and over by the poet’s recognition of ‘isness’ in the circumstances from which each poem has its evocation, ‘saying it as it goes’ as Robert Creeley once said, culminating in a collection that is ever-looking through one situation to the next.

The place Young Dawkins is in search is not defined geographically, although it ultimately manifest itself so, but in the ‘Slow Walk Home’ to himself and where his ‘heart finds rest’, to quote Robert Duncan.

He is witness to and speaks out of moments of disconnection as in the poem ‘Radio’ where he finds himself astronaut-like, searching for attachment through tenuous radio messages.

            Sometimes late at night

            I play with my radio,

            trying to tune in the dead.

            A nine-band Panasonic,

            ears on the world,

            AM, FM and Shortwave.

            I believe this is how

            those gone will reach me,

            …

            Old friends will find me,

            maybe my mother;

            I keep my radio on.

There is no piteousness in the poem. It’s a situation in which the poet finds himself on repeated occasions – his radio tweaking another endeavour, not only in his search for home but in discovering a definition of home – the last line a disclosure of his openness.

Poems in this collection often lay bare unhappiness as contributory to life as much as pleasure and cameo them in close association.

In many of the poems, there is deceptively delivered lightness yet one that remains reverential to the seriousness of a circumstance – in style, more caring than laconic.

Friendships / relationships are key to this collection.

Dawkins picks up the importance of his male bonding in poems ‘Going Up’ and ‘Fishing With The Dead’, both concerning his buddy, Billy Hoops; Billy signposted again in the poem ‘Letters’, in which Billy is an agent of unification in Dawkins’ lapsed friendship with Malcolm. Billy is there in ‘Sporting Life’ and ‘The Secret To Trout’ – an outdoorsman, a rugged friend, home-spun philosopher and an indelible character.

Elsewhere are poems reflecting the poet’s concern with family, writing colleagues, journalists – he spent many years and travels being a journalist before engagement in academic life as a university lecturer.

The influence of Beat poets is well-drawn but subtly so: Kerouac and Ginsberg are written-in, as is jazz.

Dawkins’ is a seasoned performer of poems to music, notably jazz, and it is the gentle swing of language and phrasing that is at the very heart of his poetry: it is profoundly musical.

In the elegantly anecdotal poem, ‘Billy Collins And My Lousy Poetry Career’, Dawkins relates a reading with the one-time USA Poet Laureate -there is a murmur of likeness in both the styles of Dawkins and Collins. Certainly both advocate and write poetry that ‘often has two subjects, the starting subject and then the discovered subject’ (Collins) and both often write private poetry they want the public to read. 

Young Dawkins has lived in many places in USA but later in life found employment and

‘a home’ in Scotland, establishing himself there for several years. It was also there he met his wife and wholeness to that he had sought for many years.

However, that was not to be the end of the story to ‘Slow Walk Home’. He now lives in Hobart with his wife and son where the final poem in the collection places every important piece in its place. 

Young Dawkins’ imperative is met and it’s here in this generous collection of poems.

By way of friends and relationships he has navigated to a geographical and spiritual place and condition he can finally say is home.

Ric Hool May 20th 2021

This Is Not Your Moon by Matthew Woodman (Holding Dissolve Press)

This Is Not Your Moon by Matthew Woodman (Holding Dissolve Press)

Creative writing educators so often caution their students against writing poems about the moon because those poems can easily descend into cliche that doing so has become a kind of cliche. Given the content and approach to This Is Not Your Moon, it’s no surprise that Matthew Woodman has written an entire collection of poems about the moon. There is something of Charles Simic, John Berryman, and William Carlos Williams in his work, but there is something beyond these writers too, a critical eye that has anyone who reads his work questioning the basis of how we see the world. The essence of this collection is incongruity; much of it is an investigation of different instances of reification and suggesting that we should escape the falseness of our thinking.

     One of the fallacious beliefs that This Is Not Your Moon returns to often is the idea of permanence. Nothing is solid. That which we base our lives upon is at best temporary, and often does not actually exist, but it’s easy to ascribe a permanence. For example in “Tidal Friction (The Moon Moves from Earth at the Same Speed Our Fingernails Grow),” he speaks to the moon:

                        If you won’t slacken the axis,

            if you won’t arrest the greater distance

            or explain the irregularities,

            we can’t have you circulate the children,

            we can’t have you illuminate the lovers,

            we can’t have you wreath our intimacy (15).

Here, he juxtaposes the human need for regularity with the fact that nothing truly has regularity, not even the moon. There are irregularities in its orbit and it is currently moving slowly away. But the speaker of the poem demands stability from the moon, feels terrified without that stability. Of course, instability is both terrifying and a part of the human condition as he points out in “Eternal Returns” when he meditates on the death of a loved one: 

            Warning: Objects in the night sky are more

            distant than they appear.

                                                The same applies

            to those you love (44).

Like the moon we are not permanent, and we are bound to leave whether we want to or not.

     Woodman is not, however, positioning himself as someone with the answers; one of the points of the books is that we are all seeking a kind of knowledge that will never be given to us, and such is the case in the poem, “Bright Jawbreaker, I Do Salute You,” where he grapples with a question about the nature of the human experience, the fact that we do not retain the same number of bones through our existence.

            At birth, we are the sum of two-hundred

            seventy bones.

                                                By adulthood, we have

            lost sixty-four, the someday plunder.

            What happened to them? (10).

Not even our bodies are solid, and this lack of solidity, he finds disturbing and difficult. 

     This questioning gets to the root of what he is doing here. The questions he poses, about the nature of life, death and the universe, are the difficult ones that we build elaborate structures to protect ourselves from. Rather than buy into the reification meant to shelter us from existential pain and loss, he heads straight into it.

John Brantingham 9th May 2021

The Low Passions by Anders Carlson-Wee (W.W. Norton & Company)

The Low Passions by Anders Carlson-Wee (W.W. Norton & Company)

Anders Carlson-Wee’s newest collection The Low Passions reframes some of the conventional American views of poverty and wealth much in the same way that Charles Bukowski, FrancEye, and Kevin Ridgeway have. In this collection, he asks us to reevaluate our conceptions of poverty and wealth, and also simply allows us to see the day to day lives of the people around us. At times, his work reminds me of all of these authors, and of Kerouac too, especially as he travels, but he is doing something beyond them as well, updating them, showing us what life is currently for so many people.

     Much of what Carlson-Wee reveals is what it takes to survive well. In “Asking for Work at Flathead Bible,” he works for a pastor as a “floater,” doing the work that he is asked to do on a day-to-day basis, and never knowing what is coming next. “It was easier to adapt than you’d think. / If I had a hammer in my hand, I pulled nails. / If I had a sheet, I found the corner” (28). Adaptation and dignity are two of the basic components of the collection. He finds ways to survive, and he thrives in those places. The people he meets have dignity as well. When his cousin passes away, he and his family find a way to bury him with the kind of honor he deserves. It’s hard to raise the money, so they find ways to make the burial more affordable: “And someone from Odegard / Funeral Home . . . gave us permission to come a day early / and dig the hole” (74). This kind of basic decency, from the diggers and the funeral home, is part of what I love about the collection. It’s often a primer on being human.

     Carlson-Wee also gives us a perspective of what it means not to be kind, not to be human. “Mark” sums up this perspective well when he writes, “Some say / we’re still on the way to human” (67). There are people with power in this collection who help others and there are people with power who try to destroy others. Perhaps, the character who will stay with me the longest is from “To the Rail Cop at Rathdrum.” Here, an officer catches the narrator trespassing in the railyard and warming himself with a fire. There is no thought of the idea that he might need the fire to survive. He simply handcuffs the narrator to a piling, and then tries to trick and manipulate the narrator into giving up his brother to be arrested too, assuming that someone else is probably with him. He threatens the narrator and tries to get him to betray his companion, all for the relatively minor crime of trespassing.

     The Low Passions is an exceptionally insightful look into the bad and good of human nature, and I was pleased to be involved with Carlson-Wee’s consciousness for the day. The vision he has given me asks me to look and relook at the people around me.

John Brantingham 28th April 2021

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