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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

Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive Edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books)

Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive Edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books)

Perhaps going against the grain, for a book with a more popular following, indeed maybe people who don’t often read poetry, rather than for its critical reception I’ve found this book quite vital and engaged and indeed, to my ears, broaching new ground for poetry’s place including in the quite diverse market of anthologies, a Bloodaxe specialism.

Arguably Neil Astley’s now four volumes of the Staying Alive series, from 2002, is the most impacting mainstream venture in poetry publishing possibly since the Hughes/Heaney Rattle Bag. The emphasis here as there is on the single poem. Rattle Bag was organised alphabetically by poem title. I’d say thankfully Astley has not done so and the poems here are arranged thematically under ten headings with a poets’ index. 

I think a difficulty arises in pitching either too high or low. Readers might have high expectations of these poems, but they are very human with human qualities and flaws, hardly the Psalms of David. I think a little time and poring over the book makes that all too apparent.

Having ten sections to contend with I think is actually a merit. Each comes with a short editorial introduction. Speaking of first and last I think the opening is a little underachieved, the conclusion nearly persuasive once we get to it.

So, very briefly, Tom Leonard (d2018) first up presents us with,-

            not to be complicit

            not to accept everyone else is silent it must be alright

            not to keep one’s mouth shut to hold onto one’s job

            not to accept public language as cover and decoy   (beginning ‘Being a Human Being’, p22)

This is something of a call to the creative impulse to remain critical and engaged, ie not just parrot what we’re taught or told but to use our independent faculties. It does seem to me a mite understated, but actually on going through the rest of the book it holds up remarkably well. This is something of the sense of what it says ‘to be human’.

The book actually covers a great deal of humanist ground, with a stress on empathy and relating and recognising those relational qualities in poems that deal with how we think and feel. Astley chooses to end with the poet Nick Drake and the ecocrisis, with a poem called ‘The Future’, though Astley adroitly names this section with the question mark, ‘The Future?’. 

            Think of me not as a wish or a nightmare

            but as a story you have to tell yourselves   (p499)

A standout I think is ‘Conversations about Home’ by Warsan Shire, and her prose poem has some remarkable lines like ‘Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.’ (p419) This is from section 8 called ‘Roots and Routes’ which has those resonances of where we feel we belong.

An excessively critical voice would doubtless deride some of these efforts as too populist and accessible, not enough craft on offer. But there are very reputable poets here besides, like Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Vahni Capildeo, Ruth Padel and James Berry, one could go on. If I have some modest misgiving it is perhaps that the emphasis on poems not books speaks a little to the very contemporary and the fleeting foreground of awareness, although perhaps reading some of the fine poems on exhibit here might lead the inquisitive further to books by the collected, comingling authors.

Clark Allison 30th April 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

The English Strain (Shearsman Books) by Robert Sheppard & Bad Idea (KFS Press) by Robert Sheppard

The English Strain (Shearsman Books) by Robert Sheppard & Bad Idea (KFS Press) by Robert Sheppard

This, I’d say, is uniquely charged, recondite poetry that both hovers over and sharply reenvisages the English sonnet in a nearly scholarly way, but is also remarkably engaging, bawdy, risqué and contemporary. The two books are complementary and contribute to a trilogy, full title English Strain, of which the pending British Standards marks the third part.

The effort is marked by interwoven threads, as it were. The roots of the project pertain to the rewriting, dubbing or transposing of sonnets, setting up with Petrarch’s third, reproduced here, but thence moving on to other notables of the English form: Wyatt, Surrey, Milton, Charlotte Smith and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for the Shearsman volume, and Michael Drayton, rather underrated, for Bad Idea.

The whole is a highly unusual combination of ribaldry and finesse. It’s also pretty much all in the sonnet form of the Petrarchan variety, which for all its stateliness risks being overcome by farce; there are lookin parts for contemporary politicians such as Theresa May and Boris Johnson. There is a brooding disquiet about what is fairly uncompromisingly seen as the folly of Brexit.

But more than that it is nonetheless just an indulgent pleasure to read, and the sifting through or romp via historical progress tends to keep it all on the rails. Try for instance,-

            Petrarchan petting! At the end of the poem he gives her away

            like an evil relative at a shot-gun wedding. I wish he’d done

            something with this poem. I wish I’d done something

            with my life, like jousting or a tourney             (p91)

where the irreverent mockery looms apparent. 

It is pleasing also and appropriate that English Strain moves chronologically, with the opening epigraph from Drayton.-

            My muse is rightly of the English straine,

            That cannot long one fashion intertaine.      (p6)

I’d say what we find is a considerable amount of libidinal energy and direction hewn according to the formal model of the sonnet form, so we get a fascinating mixture of the eruptive and the contained coterminously. There’s also a good amount not just of Westminster politics here but also gender relational controversies, which might be particularly fitting given the sonnet’s role as a mode for finding courtly favour. And a mite unlike Boccaccio, Petrarch was often studious and exacting, that is that the form must have it to the end. It is as if Sheppard is addressing this language by testing how suitable and appropriate it is to our times, which indeed it remains so, or not far off, perhaps more Machiavelli than Dante, however. It is a very effective trawl through history. But Sheppard throughout is agile, not easily pinned down. He is also adept at inhabiting a variety of poeticising voices, so that the Charlotte Smith, say, is just as fluent and persuasive as the few Milton poems here. Would Woolf’s Orlando be too wild a comparison, although Flush is in Sheppard’s bibliography? An obvious source book framing the issues here is also the Reality Street Book of Sonnets. I think then that this is very accomplished poetry at the innovative end of things, reworking literary contemporaneity with the irrefutable force of historical embeddedness.

Clark Allison 27th April 2021

The Problem of the Many by Timothy Donnelly (Picador)

The Problem of the Many by Timothy Donnelly (Picador)

‘Deep in the brain of invertebrates, the pineal gland gets its name from/ its resemblance to a pinecone.’ ‘In German, a Kepler makes hoods.’ ‘Pandora’s box was just a jar/ before Erasmus mangled it.’ This is poetry that tells you things; that’s about the world in general rather than about individual relationships, full of biology, ancient history and philosophy, and written in long sentences in long prosy lines in long poems in a portly volume of 198 pages. Where much contemporary free verse cuts and cuts, such super-expansiveness can feel oddly original. 

The poems themselves leap outlandishly from Alexander to umbels to Whitesnake, via Isaiah, glyphosate, Hobbes, Zeno’s paradox and milkweed. Similes, rather than being merely decorative, usually shunt the poem in a new direction: ‘White birches lean/ through a mist like plastic drinking straws, the same/ kind a tribesman from Papua New Guinea […]’ and we’re off among the anthropologists. Nor can the speaker resist telling you extra facts as if in parentheses: ‘Canada’s/ Bank Island, Earth’s twenty-fourth largest island, upon which […]’. Self-corrections and hard-to-parse sentences act as if he’s working out his thoughts while talking to you and not always getting them clear: 

We want what we don’t know, or what we know of mostly

through a long furnaceous rumbling lack of it composes

piecewise into numbers the choir of our never having 

had it sings

The skill, then, is not only in manipulating such an offbeat style, but also in deploying techniques that would make this potentially difficult, garrulous and haphazard voice appealing. So the speaker regularly reassures you, in asides, of his friendly mundanity: ‘Looking at it [i.e. Kircher’s calculation on the number of bricks in the Tower of Babel] now, between loads of laundry […]’. Yes, while doing all this heavy thinking, he’s going to the laundromat, taking an Uber, getting home exhausted from work, washing the dishes, just like us. Meanwhile, balancing the references to Jean Baudrillard, Wallace Stevens and Plato’s Phaedo, there’s plenty of down-home Americana: bobolink, Dairy Queen, burlap, True Value, popsicles… The overall effect is of a genial, ordinarily confused persona with enthusiasms for vanilla, lapis lazuli or cyan Powerade, and frustrations from his limited options in the face of pollution and world politics:

On average 130 Yemeni children died each day last year

of extreme hunger and disease. A Saudi blockade on seaports

stops the ships delivering aid.

What’s more, these combinations of the local and global, the quotidian and high-flown, form the theme as well as the rhetorical strategy. One major aspect is the way we poison the world in order to produce comestibles that then poison us. ‘What you’ve done to my popcorn, my popcorn/ does to me.’ The last poem contains a relentless list of extinct animals, sometimes matching their extinction dates with those of pop trivia:

…the last [golden toad] was seen on May 15, 1989, the week 

Bon Jovi’s ‘I’ll Be There For You’ topped Billboard’s Top 100.

Then it dropped to three.

The wry despair isn’t the whole story, however. There are smart metaphors and fun with classical epic: ‘I sing/ the body mac and cheese, deep-fried’. There are odes that address Diet Mountain Dew, lichen, Earth’s first living cell (‘first living cell, what have you got to say for yourself/ now?’) and a pesticide/GM company (‘at what point do you suspect a versified address/ to you begins to take the place/ of legitimate action?’); a poem of recursive similes; and one written as Nebuchadnezzar using the royal ‘we’ (‘we’re working on ourself tonight’). Plus an overarching message about how beauty and imagination keep you going, despite it all. Evidently, it’s not just its size that’s made it a poetry blockbuster. 

Guy Russell 20th April 2021

Purgatory Has an Address by Romaine Wahington (Bamboo Dart Press)

Purgatory Has an Address by Romaine Wahington (Bamboo Dart Press)

Romaine Washington’s Purgatory Has an Address is Bamboo Dart Press’s newest release. This new imprint of Pelekinesis Press publishes many poets and writers from Inland California like Stephanie Barbe Hammer, Cindy Rinne, Kendall Johnson, and Dennis Callaci; Washington’s newest poetry collection shows why they focus on the overlooked writing of that region of the United States. Purgatory Has an Address is an emotionally sensitive look at the purgatories that people live through, often suggesting a strategy for those times that has worked for the poet. This collection that looks at the pain of the world might have easily ended with a kind of cynical hopelessness. Instead, Washington’s work is life affirming and suggests the kind of courage that it takes to be alive.

     The poem “Saguaro” is emblematic of this hope as it discusses the way saguaro cacti seed and take root in the harsh climate of the desert, and it works as a metaphor for the toughness a person needs when facing the difficulties of life.

I take root 

where the ground is

hard and angry

spits the sun

back in its face

drought drenched

tap root i

burrow beyond

ancestral bones

to anchor 

a sturdy revoir

of hope (26).

Time and again, this strength seen in this cactus in the face of cruelty is offered as the way to survive and even find purpose and meaning in those purgatory times of our lives. Early in the book, childhood with all its isolation is met with defiance. As we move through the book, all aspects of life are met with this determination until she explores the aging of her parents and her parenting in a world that is dangerous and racist toward her son.

     She explores the idea and need for community while also showing us why community can seem beyond a person’s reach. One of the central journeys of the collection is the search for her missing biological parents. She is searching for people who have no name and did not name her. She cannot even look for herself. She becomes so isolated that “the clerk tells me to wait / for my number to be called / right now i am a number” (24). She is stripped of her essential humanity, and she is unsuccessful in finding her birth parents. However, she is not unsuccessful in creating family and community. She has a son and adoptive parents whom she loves. She moves to Inland California, which is hot and filled with cows, and the Santa Ana Winds, similar to the sirocco, that she calls “the devil’s breath.” While others often complain about it, she writes, “If it weren’t for the devil’s breath, / I’d never know where we are, and / Just how beautiful” (62). These words are the last lines of the collections, and they summarize what I love about the collection: how she is able to take something that seems objectively difficult and horrible and find the way through by finding its beauty.

     Washington’s work is life affirming and poignant. Purgatory to her is to be a place. Whether that place becomes one of torment is determined by the strength we have when facing it.

John Brantingham 18th April 2021

Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road With Friends (A Freedom Books)

Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road With Friends (A Freedom Books)

Marshall Deerfield’s Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road with Friends is part of a larger project that mixes haiku and haibun to create an ongoing travel narrative over multiple volumes. It comes out of a tradition from writers like Basho, Snyder, and Kerouac, but it has its own environmentalist edge prompted by what we have learned about the destruction of the natural environment and how the American West, which is the focus of this collection, is being transformed by forces like drought, climate change, and the pine bark beetle. However, it is not only a look at the destruction of the west; it is much more a celebration of how life can be lived with a kind of joy on the road. Marshall Deerfield edited the volume, and it is filled with his work and the work of his friends as they engage is these road trips.

            What struck me immediately is how this feels like the volume that might have been written by a side character in Jack Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums. It has that kind of enthusiasm for life and travel. Some of my favorite haiku in this vein are:

            Clouds billow outward

            sifting rain from vapor’d chaff

            cliffs left unexposed (136).

            Volcanic bellies

            water so cold that it stings

            an anomaly (80).

            A lake so blue that

            jumping in feels like falling

            down into the sky (78).

There is a joy here for nature that is infectious. With the haibun, these haiku create a narrative of young people going into the new American West to find what remains to take pleasure in. Much of what we have read in older works that have the same kind of approach is gone. Times have changed and we have lost that world. Deerfield is trying to find what is there now and how to lose himself in these places.

            Deerfield also makes the point of discussing the environmental destruction that continues to plague the American West. As they drive through Texas, he writes, “This is the Gulf of Mexico. To get here, I had to ride through a literal ring of fire made up of oil refineries with their smoke stacks spewing blue, green, and red flames up into the heavens” (18). He also discusses the rise of the pine bark beetle. The beetle is a creature that lives in all pines and has for a very long time. By itself, it is not a problem, but drought, climate change and the overproduction of trees because of bad fire policy has caused the beetle to turn forests into places of tree death. In most western forests currently millions of trees stand dead and brown sprinkled among living trees. Deerfield writes,

As an ecoactivist, I never thought a forest’s demise would come from inside of it. These pine bark beetles are unlike any bulldozer or logging caravan. Chaining yourself to a tree to protect it has no use if the tree is being eaten alive from within (102).

In this, Deerfield expresses the frustration of the environmentalist raised on Edward Abbey but facing the reality that it is not just one person or company harming the natural world. It is a way of life that cannot be easily amended.

            Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road with Friends is a balm for me now in this time when I cannot travel because of the quarantine. It helps me to live through his journeys and it brings me back to my own.

John Brantingham 4th April 2021

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

Karen Jones’s heartbreaking flash fiction collection, When It’s Called Not Making Love, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction which specializes in flash fiction authors and has published writers like Meg Pokrass, Diane Simons, and Jude Higgens. Jones’s collection takes a look at adolescent and young adult sexuality from the point of view of Bernadette, someone who is on the outside because she is considered overweight and just a little different. Jones is a master of point-of-view and draws us into Bernadette’s interior life allowing us to live in the awkward body of someone who wants and needs love but does not know exactly how to engage meaningfully with other people. It is an exceptional collection showing how people are at the same time used and rejected sexually and what that does to the psyche.

The most powerful flash piece for me was the final and titular story. In it, we are given three moments with three young men who have sex with Bernadette from behind, so they do not have to look her in the eye. They brag of the numbers of their sexual conquests, and she tells each they are her first in an attempt to elicit a stronger emotional reaction from them. The problem is in the way that these boys look at her and in how she sees herself as undeserving or incapable of having a fulfilling emotional experience involving sex. It ends with the line, “Maybe someday another boy would like her enough to look her in the eye while he fucked her. Maybe she’d even call it making love” (38). The difference between making love and getting fucked is the key concept of the story and collection. Bernadette does not seem to know how to achieve love, so she settles for what she can get. Of course, this is the key problem for many of us when we are young and are just trying love out. She captures that problem so well, and she had me musing about my own youthful fumblings toward emotion.

Her awkwardness in her own body is her defining characteristic in her world. Early in the collection, she begins a friendship with a girl named Jenny, whom everyone thinks is superior. Her grandmother tells the main character, “‘She’s half the size of you and twice as smart  . . . And so pretty. Why can’t you have silky hair like hers? Why are you such a lump of a girl, Bernadette?’” (3). This is a social condition that we are all aware of, but Jones does an exceptional job of drawing out what it means to be a human being who is seen as an insufficient accessory. This expectation that she is Jenny’s accessory and a bad one at that drives her early sexual encounters where she is often offered sexually to a friend so that Jenny can get the boy or the experience she wants. She is abused and neglected. She is a person capable of exceptional emotional range and she is denied the chance to have those emotions.

When It’s Called Not Making Love captures so well the pain of young people who want a kind of physical perfection and think they will never have it. It also captures the trap of thinking of this world in terms of perfection and imperfection.

John Brantingham 29th March 2021

The Sound Recordist by Seán Street (Maytree Press)

The Sound Recordist by Seán Street (Maytree Press)

The Sound Recordist, Seán Street’s sequence published by Maytree Press, is a distillation of many things he has written previously about sound in his poetry collections and the series of non-fiction books brought out by Palgrave Macmillan and Routledge. In these publications are key words that find their poetic echoes as themes and images in The Sound Recordist – interaction, identity, silence, time, memory, place, preservation, time and the ever-present past.

The theme of echoes, the need for echoes, is a constant in all Seán Street’s work, whether poetry or prose. In ‘Wild Track’ the ‘sound/ of air’ is ‘going on round us.’ It is ‘the moment happening’ in the ‘Perfect acoustic silence’ of a ‘blank empty room filled with/ possibility’. All around is ‘wide transparent space’ and here are layers of sound, the ‘inaudible threads’ (‘Microphone’) where ‘meaning lies between things.’ (‘Notes on Using the Studio’). In this ambience are signals ‘on the edge of things’ which emerge gradually like ‘Notes on dim staves’ (‘Early Show’). All one needs to do is be attentive, wait for triggers of memory and the ‘pauses in silence,’ accept that humans are sonic beings as both transmitters and receivers, and become what Seán Street has described elsewhere as ‘ear-witnesses.’

Several poems in The Sound Recordist emphasise sound as language, the interplay between the sounds of syllables and an imagination that creates a soundscape from the sonic resonances of words to create atmosphere and a sense of place. ‘Reel to Reel’ has the image of ‘language quietly singing to itself,/ the sound of its thought awaiting its second speaking/ … its proper nouns and verbs exact after all this time.’ A striking poem in The Sound Recordist is ‘At the Grodzka Gate’ where time zones touch and interact ‘Through the plain grey prose/of the everyday/that stands side by side/ with the unspeakable, and ‘you hold out a pen/to me, fingers touch/ and you become words.’

Other areas of the arts are also part of this essential relationship with sound. ‘Listening to Miles Davis in the Cardiac Ward’, for example, is an evocative poem is which music blends with the recovery process as the ‘singing of the morphine’s/honey through the cannula/finds entrances to dark worlds,/lights bright pathways out of some.’ In ‘A Trick of the Light’ an old Van Morrison tune sung by ‘Someone somewhere across suburbia’ is a memory trigger, a trick of sound, ‘A place to be when the place is elsewhere’ because ‘it’s what music does.’ The cover image of ‘Evening Stillness’ by the artist Paula Dunn is ideal for The Sound Recordist, while in ‘Memory in a Hallway’ John Singer Sargent’s ‘perfected brush stroke’ of a Venetian Interior is ‘the art of pure translucency,/ open doors reflecting water.’ A reference elsewhere to ‘The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel’ by Louis Daguerre enhances the haunted atmosphere of a building where even the echoes have died.

‘Time and Light’ is a particularly evocative poem in Seán Street’s The Sound Recordist adding, as it does, another dimension to the soundscapes already created in this sequence. Sound has now become one of the mysteries of light/hidden and trapped’ while light in its turn will ‘impersonate sound’ and ‘Time’ moves ‘beyond flesh into air’. Everything now is caught in shadows – the ‘layered time’ of

vegetation where angels flew, fleeting
punctum of a flash on altar stone
and the wound of a place’s lost past healed.

Mandy Pannett 20th March 2021

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Ranney Campbell’s Pimp comes out of a direct, narrative, unblinking tradition that includes artists like Kevin Ridgeway, Gerald Locklin, Patti Smith, and Fred Exley. These are poems drawn out of the latest period of Campbell’s life when she decided to change her life by quitting her job and moving to California as a way to break away from the traditions and limitations that she found in St. Louis, Missouri. She has found a way to express herself with a narrative clarity that speaks her truths.
Her work comes often from a memory of exploitation, which she might be angry about, but does not draw her into self-pity. “In Them Days” for example, she recalls a relationship with a man who

owned a Mercedes
dealership, how he loved
his beautiful things

I was most prized
living art
up in Alta Loma

snow
in the foothills

me
in the Jacuzzi

with those high-priced prostitutes
brought to party
when sales was good
any certain day (33).

Her work throughout has the ability to draw a picture and suggest arguments and conclusion with quick images and a couple of perfect words. We are left to ponder the implication of what it means to be a woman who is chosen to party with prostitutes. In “The Boys come,” she draws on a previous time when men simply demanded of her with no thought of reciprocity:

when they came across Gert,
they got lucky.
when they came across me,
they got stitches (12).

This collection is not by any means stuck in her past; it is equally about this new life that she is building for herself and how she came to be where she is. Her move from the Midwest and her longing to get to the West away from its humidity and to the dryness of the deserts is shown in her prose poem “Burn Off.” “Red desert. Tan desert. I don’t care. Can’t stand it here. All the trees and green and weeds and humidity and people so slowed and dull with Midwestern demands on me . . . Sticky thickness manner oppression offends my innards” (35). This reminds me so much of the themes that run through a lot of Locklin’s work. For him the East was a place of pointless oppression, and for Campbell it is Missouri, but both find a freedom to be themselves in California. For both of them, California seems to be the place where they can find the authenticity of their true selves. For Campbell, it has allowed for this book which is an expression of emotions in a style that she did not feel welcome writing in St. Louis.

Campbell’s book is the kind of work that I love to see coming out of Los Angeles. Stylistically it is what I have grown up with without being a kind of imitation of previous work. It is her own work, informed by an MFA from her hometown but innovated through the life she is pursuing in the West.

John Brantingham 3rd March 2021

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