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Category Archives: American Poetry

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

This book is a quartet of slow, accumulative, long prose poems that touch on landscape, personal experience, geography, and philosophy. Sectioned and/or paragraphed, they gradually build up encounters with ‘Landscapes. Subtle shiftings of reality.’ These shiftings come from attention to detail, consideration of change, the seasons, the weather, how the light falls, and of how humans engage with the world around them.

Moorhead is interested in her own place in things, and in place itself, willing to be both scientific and emotional, rational and speculative, and to grapple with the unknown, in an attempt to allow ‘this existence to be full’. This fullness of experience, of course, means dealing with ups and downs, winter and summer, light and dark, the desired-for and the unwelcome. Death and mortality are part of nature, as is longing, absence, memory and anticipation; our own stories make sense of our lives, and ‘[f]ables frame the day’. Moorhead is well aware that ‘[t]his insistence on recollection alters the perception of light, changes the angle, lifts the dark shades to a brighter hue’, and she willingly brings that self-awareness to her texts.

But her self, her ego if you prefer, is pushed to the background throughout this writing. Moorhead gazes outwards, sits still and observes, walks and watches. She is well travelled and well aware of ecological damage and devastation, in fact it informs her work, but her work is mostly sitting still, looking and thinking about what she can see, and putting it in to language. ‘Sometimes’, she writes, ‘the day itself wobbles, sometimes everything wobbles, oscillates, shimmers and shivers along some axis that isn’t readily apparent.’ 

She attempts to explain how history, geography and language – ‘remarks’ – ‘have a way of escaping […] perhaps dissolving into what people call thin air, the substanceless extension of lived space.’ Moorhead is busy trying to document what is missing, push beyond the surface of the world into the past, the now, and the elsewhere, but ‘[t]he physical world preserves its mystery’ and only ‘fragile words linger’, perhaps not for long.

Much as Moorhead does her best to watch and understand, think and engage, she admits that ‘[t]he hallucinatory boundaries are unclear; illusion, mirage, hope and expectation reek havoc with the mind.’ We cannot escape what we have done and are doing, our shared responsibility, or leave our assumptions and wishes, our selves, behind: ‘flesh is slow to absorb what flickers across the mind’. But in this wonderful book Moorhead attempts to ‘narrow the gap between lost reflection and the insistent weight of the body’, to earth herself and us in time and place, the very now of where and how we live.

Rupert Loydell 14th May 2022

The Pact by Jennifer Militello (Shearsman Books)

The Pact by Jennifer Militello (Shearsman Books)

A pact with a shattered self, disassembled by a violent reality and expressed in fragmented lines, is thoroughly investigated in Jennifer Militello’s fifth collection. It is a wasteland but the fragments do not shore up against the poet’s ruins, as in T.S. Eliot’s poems; instead, they expose the destruction which is irreversible and total. The individual is lost, a wreck; she is empty, a zombie ‘covered in soot’. There is no going back and ‘nothing can be done’ – the only possibility is describing this condition. Love and relationships are dissected in an accumulation of images that explore the topic from all sides, revealing a dark centre that is reduced to smithereens which are scattered around. ‘Love is all you need’, the dedication at the beginning of the book sings, echoing the Beatles’ song, but this remark is ironic and is denied in the narratives of the poems in the collection. Love as affection and a fulfilling relationship is unattainable, delusional and disappointing. It is often described as its opposite, that is, hate, and it causes anger and frustration as well as violent reactions. 

      Militello’s impeccable lines express this contradictory and multifaceted concept of love in fragmented verses in which frequent full stops break the pressing rhythm of the lines and repetitions that are produced using devices such as anaphora and epiphora that reiterate and develop her thoughts:

Hatred is the new love. Rage is right. Touch 

is touch. The collars of the coat, turned down,

point up. The corners of our hearts are smoothed

with rough. Our glass breaks slick, our teeth

rip soft. The mollusc of me, shell-less.

[…]

Let us empty. Let us alone. Madness

is our happiness. Sadness is our home.               (‘Oxymoronic Love’)

I brace: we hit the wall, we slam the brakes. You are 

the maw, the clamp, the rake. Bootlace, foothold,

briefcase, bass. I claw the window, claw the grate.

You snap the whip and clasp the gate. I want it now, 

the great escape.       (‘&’)

     The use of alliteration, enumeration and hyperbole is also frequent; these stylistic devices not only emphasise the skilfulness of the poet but also underline the profundity of her reasoning. She uses a plenitude of thought-provoking imageries that involve the reader in an oxymoronic and often contradictory reality in which opposites do not coexist in harmony but clash with one another. The use of the enjambments together with unusual line breaks reflect this sense of contradiction in the structure of her lyrics. It is a violent reality on the brink of a precipice, in constant evolution and always under investigation. 

     The adventure is daring and risky. The fragility of the self is shamelessly exposed with its losses and flaws in the apparently unconnected arguments and in the vulnerability of the edible body. Cannibalism seems to be part of our humanity; ‘we crave meat’, feast on others’ blood, ‘taste’ their bodies by biting and licking their flesh. The references to the Last Supper and to the Eucharist point to the sacrifice that is implied in love relations. 

     Love can therefore be described in different ways; it protects and heals but also has destructive qualities. The passage through sacrifice and death seems inevitable and is perhaps necessary, but there is no sense of transcendence, only temporary annihilation. This concept is symbolised in the figure of the Nkisi Nkondi, a traditional figure of the Congo. It is usually represented as a wooden sculpture into which people hammer nails or blades to release their anger and frustration, and it mediates against violent forces. It is similar to the figure depicting the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, who is pierced by the arrows of his Roman persecutors and is eventually celebrated as a healer. The saint accepts the wounds in an extreme act of love that is above all a sacrifice and violence perpetrated against an innocent. This violent death is also evoked in the stations of the cross in the poem ‘Idolatry’. In this poem, the confrontation between the two lovers hurts and they ‘bleed secretly, silently’. The relationship may bring a renewal, but it is hard to achieve. Eventually, love is considered a lie:

My collar is my lover’s death.

I wear it heavy. I wear it 

hellish as a home or shell,

hollow as a wreck.

[…]

[…] I want him to live, but we do not 

fit. I want him to live,

but I writhe and twist and

an animal in me lies down

on its side and withers to bone

through our time-lapsed lips.         (‘Electric Fence’)

      The nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ at the end of the poem ‘The Pact’ suggests tense and unsettling relationships with family members, such as siblings, and especially with her mother. These feelings are also expressed in the sibling series and in the poems ‘Dear Hiss’ and ‘My Mother is in Antarctica’. The lyrics are twisted; ‘pretty maids all in a row’ becomes ‘all the daughters caught in their rows’, pointing not only to contradictions but also to constrictions and maybe abuse. 

      The final poem, ‘Ode to Love’, seems to open up to a more hopeful vision. However, the scenario is still unsettling, with its ‘complexities or cries’. The final ‘Hush’ that ‘must be soothed. Has a snag. Has a bleed. A drape’ does not seem to bring reconciliation. The apparently reassuring image of the heron is turned upside down in the final line, ‘a wide bottom perfect with fish.’ Militello traces until the end of the collection her relentless exploration of love that is vital in human relations and part of our effort to survive. Irony and violence permeate the poems and are expressed in unexpected and compelling imageries that render her vision challenging and exceptional. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 27th April 2022

On Becoming a Poet edited by Susan Terris (Marsh Hawk Press)

On Becoming a Poet edited by Susan Terris (Marsh Hawk Press)

Although this book is subtitled ‘Essential Information About the Writing Craft’, it’s actually more a collection of 25 autobiographical musings from a collection of American poets. That’s quite a relief: I wasn’t looking forward to a how-to-write manual, nor anything that suggested poets were born or relied on muses and inspiration for their work.

What we do have is a mostly enjoyable anthology of people looking back at what informed and encouraged them to start and keep writing. Sheila E. Murphy focuses on the music of language, linking it to the ever-present music in her childhood home. Geoffrey O’Brien wittily deconstructs a nursery rhyme, Philip F. Clark discusses how to ‘sustain wonder’, Burt Kimmelman links it all back to Black Mountain poetics, and Lynne Thompson writes about how her ‘journey to becoming a writer was inspired by my father’, a nice contrast to Denise Low’s discussion of ‘The Womanly Lineage of Writerly Mentors’, which celebrates her feminist teacher Mrs. Sullivan.

David Lehman is a little bit more schoolmasterly, with some sections of his work instructing the reader what to do, but it’s mostly sensible if slightly obvious stuff, such as ‘Write any time, any place. Take a little notebook with you. Jot down possible titles, overheard phrases, unexpected similes.’ More useful is his recognition that poetry is no different to and is informed by other genres:

   Write prose. All the writing you do helps all the other writing
   you do. Learn the prose virtues of economy, directness, and
   clarity. Good journalism or nonfiction writing or speech writing
   or technical writing can help your poetry. Writing to an editor’s
   specifications, on deadline, with a tight word-count, is a sort of 
   discipline not unlike writing poems […]

He’s also astute enough to point out that ‘poetry is not the whole of one’s life, it is a part of it’.

Personally, my two favourite parts of the book are both interviews. Arthur Sze discusses ‘Revealing and Revelling in Complexity’ and declares that he loves ‘the intensity and power of language, and imagination that all come together in poetry.’ He also discusses clarity and the use of specialist language, multiculturalism, science and poetry, and writing with ‘openness and risk’. Jane Hirshfield has to answer some dodgy lines of questioning about inspiration, influences and – worst of all – ‘poetic voice’, but mostly keeps coming back to what she calls ‘deepened language’ and wanting her ‘poems to be stranger’. I’m less convinced by her aspiration to use poetry to make ‘a more full human person’, although I note her hesitant ‘perhaps’ earlier in the sentence.

This feels like a rather old-fashioned anthology, from the rather clunky cover design and disingenuous blurb and Introduction, to the insistence on traditional publishing and the volume’s overall confessional, or autobiographical, approach to things. There is little mention of performance, visual poetics, digital publishing or experimental processes and poetics. Mostly it is as though the late 20th Century has not happened to the poets here, although I know for a fact it has! It would be good to see another volume that focussed on younger writers, what they make with language, and why they do so.

Rupert Loydell 15th April 2022

Through a Grainy Landscape by Millicent Borges Accardi (New Meridian)

Through a Grainy Landscape by Millicent Borges Accardi (New Meridian)

Millicent Borges Accardi’s Through a Grainy Landscape is part of a subgenre written by immigrants and their descendants from Portugal in the United States. This poetry and prose includes the work of Frank X. Gaspar (who wrote the foreword to Accardi’s book), Brian Sousa, Sam Periera and many others. Accardi’s work is filled with a beautiful longing for what she has lost in her family’s transition to the United States. Those who have immigrated have gained a level of financial security but Accardi shows how some long for the culture and world they have lost and left behind.

     Part of what the narrator faces as an immigrant is scarcity of resources or a built in support system, so she and her family are forced to make do and figure out a new cultural landscape that is often hostile. In “The Graphics of Home,” she describes how far the family stretches every resource, even clothing, eventually after passing it around from friends to family, tearing it apart and selling or reusing all of it.

            Whatever was left, was sold

            by the pound, wrapped and rolled into

            giant cloth balls, sold to the rag man

            who made his rounds in the neighborhood

            all oily and urgent and smiling as if

            his soul were a miracle of naturalized

            birth. (48)

Those around her family seem to be blessed with not only a social safety net but with the confidence that goes with feeling that they are a part of the larger culture. Their poverty is present and difficult, but the status of being an outsider is what matters. Even simple tasks are tests of their lives. 

            You hummed the slow fado 

            music under your breath

            and considered a time where 

walking home was not a test

of fixing life. (39)

Every moment can be difficult in a new and complex landscape. Even walking here tests them.

     But it is not just being an outsider that tests and harms those who have immigrated to the new country; Accardi also explores the idea of loss of the individual self as they become more acculturated.

            We were in disguise, afraid of the

            serenity we might never feel, the horror

            of telling the truth. Existing in a variety

            of lost stages of fitting in and awkward 

            strength. We knew vices, deception

            and the way our imaginations were

            helpless to fight against the

            anonymity of what is called America. (28)

She is getting at an essential truth of the country. America often prides itself in being “a melting pot” of cultures, but the truth is that the dominant culture often strives consciously and unconsciously to make the new citizens change who they are and how they act to fit in and disappear. Her collection is often an exposition of how that happens and the anxiety and even terror of losing one’s identity. She describes cultural touchstones and a way of life for people who had been fishers.

     Millicent Borges Accardi’s Through a Grainy Landscape captures a mood and a feeling brilliantly. I am not an immigrant myself, so I doubt I can fully grasp the complexity of what she is doing, but this is a nuanced look at humanity, and it is exceptionally well done.

John Brantingham 8th April 2022

City On The Second Floor by Matt Sedillo (Flower Song Press)

City On The Second Floor by Matt Sedillo (Flower Song Press)

Matt Sedillo’s City on the Second Floor is a bit of a departure stylistically for Sedillo. Sedillo, who has worked with Los Angeles poets like Luis Rodriguez, David Romero, and Luivette Resto, often deals with the profound historical inequities of people, especially people of color, in the United States. This newest collection is less a discussion of how history affects us and how those forces continue to tread upon the poor and more of a sociological approach to these same factors. He looks at the ways in which the country is designed to keep marginalized people in a permanent state of poverty, and how the national morality is designed to denigrate those who need help.

            The titular poem, “City on the Second Floor,” is a discussion of how Los Angeles is really two cities and those without wealth will never be allowed on the second floor where the power resides. He writes:

            Here 

In the space between 

Worker and destination

Conversation spins profit 

And no one moves without reason 

And no one speaks without purpose 

Here 

The word is stillborn 

A commodity 

And the world dies anew.

This is the heart of the collection. Where previous collections have focused on history, his newest work talks about how systemic inequity functions. These are not hopeless so much as they are angry about the institutions that continue poverty. 

     He focuses a number of poems on higher education, especially the community college system which does not serve its population well, and creates inequality for most of its faculty. Most of the faculty on these campuses are adjunct professors without any job protection or health benefits, and without rehire rights, so their jobs might disappear on a whim. The people most likely to remain in these positions are people of color. In his persona poem, “Adjunct Professor,” Sedillo writes from the point of view of a Mexican-American professor of English:

Early westward visionary and pioneer

                        Of land speculation

                                                And underpaying Mexicans

                                                            A tradition to which my labor

                                                Is accustomed

             And a practice to which  my employers

                                   Both prior and current  

                                                            Have proven themselves   

Not only to be among the grandest of enthusiasts

But also, the most ardent of practitioners.  

The educational system keeps the professor in a state of permanent poverty with the promise that he might at some time get a tenure track job that never comes. Students in this system are equally at risk. He highlights this in “To Serve Hispanics” when he references how college administrations have debated whether to help the nearly twenty percent of their students who are unhoused every year:

            Boards of trustees

Debating

Safe spaces

For students

To sleep in

Parking lots

Perchance to dream

Of a way of life

Many colleges have argued about whether they should allow students who sleep in their cars to sleep in college parking lots. Most have not allowed this, forcing their students to find other ways to make it through the night.

     Sedillo of course does not limit himself to these institutions. His criticism is widespread and fights against a society that would try to keep its people in their place. It is a collection filled with anger and calls to arms. 

John Brantingham 22nd March 2022

Revolutionary Letters by Diana Di Prima (Silver Press)

Revolutionary Letters by Diana Di Prima (Silver Press)

This new U.K. edition of Revolutionary Letters gathers up fifty years of Di Prima’s anarchic and insightful series of poems which she started writing back in 1968. Moving to New York City in the 1950s she embedded herself in the alternative culture of the Beatniks in Greenwich Village before embracing the Black Panther movement, drugs, feminism, counterculture politics, direct action, and what we now call small press publishing.

The book contains freeform rants, comments upon topical events, advice to friends and/or would-be revolutionaries, lists, cynicism, utopian ideologues and utopian dreams. Somewhat surprisingly, alongside the down-to-earth survival techniques she shares there is also the presence of the spiritual weaving through her work alongside questioning insight:

   You cannot write a single line w/ out a cosmology

   a cosmogony

   laid out, before all eyes

   […]

   There is no way out of the spiritual battle

   the war is the war against the imagination

   you can’t sign up as a conscientious objector.          (‘Revolutionary Letter #75’)

   As soon as we submit

   to a system based on causality, linear time

   we submit, again, to the old values, plunge again

   into slavery.                                                              (‘Revolutionary Letter #51’)

At other times, however, she is jubilantly optimistic and proclaimative:

   I will not rest

   till we walk free & fearless on the earth

   each doing in the manner of his blood

   & tribe, peaceful in the free air             (‘Revolutionary Letter #20’)

Other poems offer dialogue with other poets – be they famous or unknown, or immediate responses to local (the NYC police clearing Tompkins Park of the homeless, her neighbours’ need for money or food) and international events such as 9/11, The Gulf War, or The Occupy movement:

   Occupy the planet

   the Oceans

   as well

               as the Land

   Mind is unlimited

   Can go anywhere

   Occupy the Night Sky,

   Mother Nuit

   Occupy your breath

   Your Body & remember

   We are one Body

   Occupy with Love                   (‘Revolutionary Letter #108’)

I like the fact Di Prima is often angry, sometimes anti-technology (‘did you ever try to email chicken soup?’) informative and instructive, and that her work includes both elation and despair. She cuts through the crap of political rhetoric, points out what is important in society – be that local or international, and reminds us that we can change the world as individuals, starting with where we live, how we live and who we live with or next to. It’s easy to be cynical about poems as a container of comment or narrative, let alone as a catalyst for revolution, but it’s also good to be reminded that words do affect us and can inspire, effect and facilitate change.

Di Prima’s work, like that of Adrian Mitchell, Kenneth Patchen and Julian Beck, can often be labelled simplistic and obvious, naive and unnuanced, but as I numbly watch the bombs fall on Ukraine and wonder what on earth I can do, it’s good to be reminded as a writer that poetry can matter:

   What matters:

                            the memory

   of the poem

                            taking root in

   thousands

                            of minds…           (‘Revolutionary Letter #110’)

Rupert Loydell 9th March 2022

Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

Michael Palmer has been widely lauded for his voluminous body of work.  He may be considered a poet’s poet whose output exhibits a dynamic range, even within a single volume such as his latest collection, Little Elegies for Sister Satan.  Palmer has defied categorization.  The litany of adjectives that come to mind in describing this shape-shifter’s work might variably include cerebral, philosophical, allusive, and surreal.  Some of his lines are sprinkled with religious references; politically charged observations about child soldiers are on hand, and even the odd scatological turn of phrase.  Unusual, to say the least, is a book a poetry mentioning the Higgs boson in the same line as the Knave of Hearts.  He also can be tongue-in-cheek, yet even several of his stray thoughts and lighter aphoristic poems showcase mastery.  Palmer’s lines are typically populated by eye-widening turns of phrase delivered with musical sensibility.  His use of rhythm and meter mimics that of a virtuosic percussionist, and he will often deftly dust a poem with rhyme and half-rhyme sweet to the ear.

Throughout this collection, and especially among the poems in the last section, Palmer is acutely aware of his poetic heritage.  He is, in fact, in dialog with his forbears.  In this volume these include Han Shan, as well as Fernando Pessoa (and his fictional poetic heteronym, Alberto Caeiro).  In one poem Han Shan converses with T.S. Eliot as if they were two poetic slivers or ‘selves’ of Palmer, one of whom prods the other (with a tip of the hat to Prufrock): ‘So let us go then, / you and I, to / that place where / there is no time.’  Palmer’s eclectic poetic and artistic influences are consistent with the refractoriness of his work to easy pigeon-holing of his work.  Epigraphs from Osip Mandelstam and Zbigniew Herbert are to be found, as well as the names of numerous artists, writers, and intellectuals – the reflection of an omnivorous mind.  In one poem, for example, we find a reference to Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.  Several shadows have loomed over Palmer’s career, including Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, but the list is likely endless.  

Little Elegies for Sister Satan, although no stranger to the occasional surrealist poem, such as ‘The Cats of Cremona,’ is, perhaps, most notable for the ambitious and lengthy titular sequence, with which it opens.  This suite, ‘Little Elegies for Sister Satan,’ consists of eleven elegies and three ‘commentaries.’ It might be claimed that, in this cycle of poems, one poet holds the greatest sway, namely Wallace Stevens.  While Stevens was an inveterate atheist (until, possibly, shortly before his death), he wrote of ‘The Necessary Angel,’ the human constructs of reality that inform poetry.  Here, however, in Palmer’s opening sequence, we have, rather than an angel, ‘Sister Satan’ who serves as a symbol for the false promise of language.  

Both Stevens and Palmer are preoccupied with poetics and, particularly, the inadequacies of the written word.  Stevens, despite his capacious intellect and poetic gifts, ultimately had to content himself with notes toward a supreme fiction, cognizant as he was of the vast crevasse between reality and our human imaginings of it.  Stevens’ later ‘hibernal’ poems speak of a cold and sparse reality, ten times removed from our fabricated renderings of the world we inhabit.  In fact, in Stevens’ ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,’ we find these telling lines: ‘I should name you flatly . . .  / Check your evasions, hold you to yourself. / . . . You / Become the soft-footed phantom, the irrational / Distortion, however fragrant, however dear.’  In ‘Add this to Rhetoric,’ Stevens speaks of ‘evading metaphor.’  This poet understood the limits of poetry.  The irreparable schism between reality and the imagination, and our inability to completely understand or capture the true essence of things in language, led Stevens, I think, to a write a despondent couplet in his poem, ‘The Plain Sense of Things,’ as he contemplated mortality and the value of his oeuvre toward the end of his career:  ‘A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition / In a repetitiousness of men and flies.’ 

In the Eleventh Elegy in Palmer’s suite, ‘Little Elegies for Sister Satan,’ affinities between Stevens and Palmer become clear.  We are told, that ‘the sea is an abecedarium.’  Neither this sea nor the sisterhood of Sister Satan (Poetry) saves or comforts the poet-narrator.   ‘Words don’t mean anything’ and the poet must wait.  For what, precisely?  The supreme fiction?  The poet continues to wait endlessly, of course: ‘. . . And I waited in the alphabet’s shadow, waited . . . for the words to reveal their names.’  Still, toward the end of the poem, the poet must contend with a world inhabited by ‘two suns and two moons’: reality and the dull mirror of the world expressed in language.  Twins that can never be reconciled.  

Later in Palmer’s collection, a poet is likened to a ‘prophet with no tongue’.  At times, given the limitations of language, he favors silence over speech.  Palmer believes the words we use are flawed, but, in ‘Solunar Tables,’ they appear to be all we possess: ‘our alphabets without end / that spell themselves / and weave themselves / into a trembling web as the poem.’  The gossamer-like insubstantiality of the poem, foregrounded here, takes on a beauty of its own, rooted, in part, in its transience in the arc of the universe.  Many other outstanding poems fill these pages, such as ‘The Bell’ (an ode to a trumpeter, who, like the poet, knows that the tune “must come out wrong / such is song) and ‘Pillows of Stone.’  Some might argue that Palmer’s work is ‘difficult,’ but almost all the poems in his latest collection carry interpretable meaning, which may be nuanced.  Active reader participation is, however, advised if the marrow of these poems is to be savored. 

David Sahner 5th March 2022

And So The Wind Was Born by Gina Duran (Flowersong Press)

And So The Wind Was Born by Gina Duran (Flowersong Press)

Gina Duran’s . . . And So The Wind Was Born from Flowersong Press, a publisher specializing in the voices of new poets along the border of the United States and Mexico like David Romero, Sarah Joy Thompson, and Matt Sedillo. It is a collection of poetry and flash nonfiction that exist in a borderland in a number of ways. In this collection, Duran comes to terms with dealing with generational trauma, a culture that has ill-defined her identity, and a desire to understand who she is after she has lost a daughter.

As a person on the outside of the dominant culture, the poet is queer and Hispanic, Duran establishes how to understand herself in a world that tries to oversimplify and control her. She describes awakening to who she is out of a religious and patriarchal society through a process of pain. It is only after she attempted suicide that she achieved clarity about her sexuality:

. . . There I was: young,

thin, sexually confused, a woman afraid to leave

            her straight life, an a girl who still obeyed

            her mom. I begged my then god for forgiveness

            as I wandered into a new life. (22)

This new life gives her the ability to live without lies, without trying to conform to a culture that wants to force her to be something she is not so it can control her. After this moment, her reminiscences of relationships are positive and healthy:

            I think back when I held your hand

            and you kissed me on the busy street

            cars fluttered the chiffon of your skirt. (29)

She essentially goes from being out of step with herself and lost to finding whom she needs to be and how to see herself.

            This collection is not, however, purely a story of coming out but a discussion of loss as well, the loss of her daughter. 

My eyes were cracked like the windshief of a totaled car, while my daughter drifted deep into the woods. But many of her belongings sat in my garage — in boxes marked Mercedes’ Shit.

And that’s how I knew Mercedes wasn’t coming back.

So I gathered everything I could and cleaned up the mess. I practiced breathing until a tornado swooped me up from the mangled mess into her vortex and I became more. (74)

This is a collection in part about becoming more than how her loss defines her. It is about a number of things, but by the end of the collection, Duran shows how she is able to create a life based on positivity, action, and love in a world that has struggled to take those things from her. This is a collection of hope and seeing beyond limitations and pain. This point-of-view is extraordinary given that she is dealing with generational trauma. She discusses how the pain she and her daughter feel is in part an extension of her mother’s:

            I am also breath and radiating particle

            A child born on the marina

            held in the arms of a woman who suffered

            abuse like mine. (40)

Her pain and abuse is generational, and this book is in part a quest to find a way around that trauma to break this cycle that seems unending.

            . . . And So The Wind Was Born is relevant, I think to so many of our experiences. It is so easy for us to define ourselves and each other in simplistic social terms, but Duran has shown us the dangers of that through her own suicide attempt. She also shows us the way through that in the joy that she creates for others and herself.

John Brantingham 10th February 2022

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

This massive book (580 pages) is a collection of ‘essays on the poet’s novel’, which takes a look at contemporaneous and (mostly 20th Century) historical prose works written by poets. Most are written by poets, so we have an anthology of poet’s critical prose about other poets’ fiction.

I can’t pretend I know all of the critics or the authors and texts under discussion; even the many names I do know, I often haven’t read the works being considered. Yet these essays are open, inclusive and discursive enough to not only encourage me to find and read many of these works, but also to offer themselves as both experimental writing and as informed and more generalised contextualisation and discussion.

That is these essays are informed by and embedded within a sense of poetry and its playfulness, liquidity and experiment, with a particular focus on the works poets have chosen to produce as ‘novels’. Not prose poetry, but novels: fictional prose, although the book starts with a brief section on the ‘Verse Novel’ where texts by Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson and Alice Notley are discussed and the fourth section includes ‘Prose Poem’ as part of its more elongated title.

Others of the seven sections are more intriguing and open to interpretation: ‘Genre Mash-Ups’, considers work by Barbara Guest, Gwendolyn Brooks and Gertrude Stein and others; ‘Metamorphic / Distance / Aural Address / Wandering’ could perhaps include anything, but its selection of author subjects includes Sebald, Pessoam Lewis Carroll and Leslie Scapalino; whilst Langston Hughes, Michael Ondaatje and Keith Waldrop are amongst those who feature in ‘Portrait / Documentary / Representation / Palimpsest’.

Some questions re-occur – usually with different answers. Why would a poet adopt prose? How does prose differ from poetry?  (‘Why does a poet choose another language to write a novel?’ asks Vincent Broqua.) Do we read poets’ novels with different expectations? What about narrative, authenticity, plot and momentum? Interiority and lyricism? And what genre is the poet’s novel?

Abigail Lang, writing about ‘Jacques Roubard’s poets’ prose, gets to the heart of the matter for me, suggesting that ‘[i]f poetry and prose are maintained as distinct, they can enter into a productive conversation’. Whether engaged in close reading, philosophical discussion, literary discourse or theoretical deconstruction, this book articulates and extends that conversation. It is a challenging, focussed and exciting read.

Rupert Loydell 28th January 2022

Samara by Graham Mort Illustrations by Claire Jefferson (4Word Press)

Samara by Graham Mort Illustrations by Claire Jefferson (4Word Press)

The name Samara evokes different intriguing meanings. It refers to a winged seed and is a girl’s name in Arabic and Hebrew that translates as ‘under the protection of God’. It is also the name of ancient Iraqi and Russian cities and is linked to prayers and poetry too, that is, it has a spiritual quality. In the title poem the connection with the natural world, the sycamore tree where the children play, whose ‘seeds whirled to/chance existence’, the ‘insect wing’ and ‘brooched ladybirds’ creates the context. Humans are part of nature in a relationship that is enduring but also in danger. We are taken into this ‘vortex of air’ that is indefinable but also points ‘above us […] with its long climb to heaven.’ The allusion to a possibly more harmonious dimension in which humans and nature merge in an empathic relationship with animals seems to be crucial in this short collection.

      The poems were written over several years and have been illustrated more recently by Claire Jefferson, a retired interior designer based in South West France, who is the artist in residence at The High Window, an online magazine, and is also a poet writing under the pseudonym Stella Wulf. According to Jefferson, ‘painting is the poetry of sight, poetry is the painting of insight’; she believes that they are therefore connected in an artistic comprehensive vision, as they are in this collection. Graham Mort is an award-winning writer and emeritus professor of creative writing at Lancaster University who has published ten collections of poetry and three collections of short fiction; the latest is Like Fado and other stories (Salt, 2021). He has also worked for international writing development projects.

     Mort’s work questions the human condition, emphasising relationships between individuals and the animal world that propose more inclusive alternatives. The poems in the collection focus on different aspects of flora and fauna that are connected in some way to human reality. Humans and non-humans interweave both in the pictures and in the poems, which move awayfrom traditional prosody and experiment in rhythm and sounds. The images reflect and describe the poems in a figurative way and were probably realised after the composition of the collection. They provide a visual background that sets the scene rather than tell the story. Indeed, the expressions of the animals depicted in the pictures are human-like; they speak to the viewer in a significant way, emphasising the dynamic element present in language:

A diamond-tip shard

                of flint, a jade arrowhead

flirted under the saffron

                trumpet of courgette

flowers just beyond my

                 brogue’s print on dark

rotted soil; hatched

                 from the ragged spawn

a cold spring let into

                 our pond; now amphibious,

lunged, miniature;              (‘Froglet’)

     The structure and the rhythm of the lines reflect the sudden appearance of the little frog, its swift movements and its mysterious yet alluring presence. The complex, spiralling use of enjambments suggests sensations rather than descriptions. The result is musical and lively; it is a vital force that speaks of fierce survival. The cycle of loss and renewal occurs in a language that records shape-shifting movements and vanishing entities; they are expressed in a powerful poetic voice which goes beyond time and space and is always fresh and thought-provoking:

Grey-backed,

             bronze-finned,

platinum-scaled,

              sculling water clouds

when sediment

               scuffs up,

gills raking out

               oxygen to their

chilled blood.                     (‘Carp at Meyral’)

     A new beginning seems to be envisaged in the poem ‘First Born’ despite our migrant vanishing nature that is ‘lost before the dark.’ This condition is existential as well as contingent in an open ending that is not final but implies more connections and possible communions between humans and non-humans. This reading is based on attentive observations and a creative interpretation of the natural world and of the significance of our presence in it. A possible new harmony is envisaged that does not exclude questioning and dramatic aspects but always implies inclusiveness. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 9th January 2022

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