Through Celtic Eyes: Patricia Carragon on Susan Maurer’s Maerchen


Maerchen, Susan H. Maurer, Maverick Duck Press, 2008

Mythology, colored by Druid shamans, inspired Susan H. Maurer to document her poetic journey, Maerchen. Like a Celtic design, Maurer’s thirteen poems weave the past into the 21st Century. Her fascination with Celtic history began in the basement of the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village, New York, where she read about the Celts and Druids in The Encyclopedia of Religion. Although the facts of this edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion were questionable according to a revised edition, learning about the myths and poetic traditions sent Maurer on her Celtic quest.

While sitting on a porch in Kennebunkport, Maine, Maurer meditated on the music of Brahms and the rustling branches of a two-hundred-year-old tree. Mesmerized by music and Nature, she heard her muse calling. On her return trip to New York, Maurer transformed her magical experience into Maerchen. As you peruse her words, you will understand Maurer’s love of trees and her dislike of cutting them down for religious celebration. She writes:

Good things push up from the earth to feed us…
The seasons, barbarically waste pines to decorate
Them, tarting them up in the process
Making them ugly which they were not in the forest
Where we still worship
Rockefeller Center’s shed on
Needles from a silenced giant god

According to Celtic legend, trees were a vital part of their tradition, and thus sacred like poetry and music. The two-hundred-year-old tree and the music of Brahms are protagonists here, as well as the author’s need to relive her journey through Celtic eyes. However, you will soon learn that Maurer’s quest is not for religion, but for respect of Nature without succumbing to myth or dogma. She is a modern woman with a desire to question and a need for reason, balancing intelligence with artistry. We do not know the actual identity of Maurer’s muse. But in Nemeton, she hints that the tree back in Kennebunkport might be it:

I could consider
I am steadied by the
Broad-based Giant beside me.
There may be some similarity in
Our patterns of respiration.
I may feel we breathe in time. The tree may not.
Its leafy reach four stories high
Exceeds my grasp. The tree may be
Telling me this story.

Susan H. Maurer transcends mythology and breathes reason and drama into Maerchen. Maurer is an enlightened storyteller and the tree back in Kennebunkport must have told her these stories.

*

Patricia Carragon is a New York City writer and poet. Her publications include Best Poem, BigCityLit, CLWN WR, Clockwise Cat, Danse Macabre, Ditch Poetry, First Literary Review-East, Inertia, Lips, MÖBIUS The Poetry Magazine, Marymark Press, Maintenant, Mad Hatters’ Review, The Mom Egg, New Verse News, The Toronto Quarterly, Word Salad, and more. She is the author of Journey to the Center of My Mind (Rogue Scholars Press). She is a member of Brevitas, a group dedicated to short poems. She hosts and curates the Brooklyn-based Brownstone Poets and is the editor of the annual anthology. Her latest book is Urban Haiku and More (Fierce Grace Press).

We’re All Here: Joy Leftow on Charles Butler’s 39 Poems


39 Poems, Charles J. Butler, No Shirt Press, 2010

Reading through the 39 Poems brought to mind Hitchcock’s movie, The 39 Steps because each poem stretches the reader and the page towards the next poem and set of steps without explaining where he is going. Also the poems on the pages of the book are laid out in emulation of climbing up and down steps so that while reading I felt like I was skipping steps. Each poem relates to life’s struggles; the various ways love affects us and how meaningful respect is. He writes about everyday things moving us up and down steps lyrically and emotionally.

Butler describes how one can be oblivious to a murder and walk across bloodstains on our big city streets without recognizing them in the book’s first poem, Crimson Stroll. Suddenly while stepping over the red brown stains, the author recognizes it for what it is, seeing a stark vivid beauty of someone’s life bled out on the streets.

Someone’s life bled out
At your feet
Think on it
Times you bled
Times you made others bleed
Look on it
Big dark path on 8th ave
Brooklyn side
in your way

look on it
the fuel that moves us all
dried out on a dirty sidewalk
who bled …

are they dead
look at it
a dark stain
it’s almost…
beautiful
a bit of Canada flashes up your neck
and ears
back in the world you move around it
and move on
wishing for cold rain
to wash away the stain human sin
most of all
your own

We’re all here – all human and suffering – and this is the grist for this author to describe how we’re all the same and different at the same time, but he wants to show us that we have the capacity to be and do more that drives us and of course this is what drives this poet to create poetry. The stains our lives create must contain beauty otherwise why do we exist? Butler’s struggle is to align himself with the humanity in all of us, despite the murder the chaos, the beauty the differences between rich and poor, black and white, and he struggles with it all, climbing up and down, retreating and coming to terms with wrongs and rights and even the grays and imperfections.

The problem is that our climbing stretching and reaching is never done. You go up you descend and then you begin all over again because that’s the way life is, it’s never done until you’re done – or dead and gone – is more like it – or if you’re a quitter. Butler is no quitter and no matter how far down he’s gone – he bounces back to reexamine his roots and the course of his life, fighting to stay in touch with his spiritual side. This spiritual side is at the root of Butler’s talent, as he controls his anger hurt and humiliation when he’s experienced racism. For any of you who have never experienced racism, normal is a good place to start to understand what it’s about when you get stopped on the street because of the color of your skin:

nature of the beast
now
I’m not gonna say I’ve lost
count o’the many times I’ve been blackstopped
but
it’s more than a few
remember
I’m 16
walkin’ on a bed-stuy street
goin’ noplace fast
blue n’ white rolls up on me
unis pile out …
nicely they ask me if I’m carryin’
a gun
nicely I say no
nicely
they ask if I would submit
to a search
mind you they don’t have
to ask me
a goddamn thing
and they know it
I know it
An’ the brother
watchin’ this
who wishes right now
he was
someplace else
knows
it
nicely
I say
go ahead

I can relate to this struggle and suffering. All my life as a Jew and especially in my childhood I was called a Christ killer. The recent advent of the Mel Gibson movie and his ensuing drunk arrest and slurred comment about Jews brought it home to me again. But this is a tactic of the upper echelon. They want to keep us all at each other’s throats so we will keep our busy bee status and keep making the rich richer. It’s a means of control and humiliation and it makes us hurt. Mr. Butler knows this hurt intimately and writes about it poignantly.

39 Poems cover a range of experiences; awareness of the haves and have-nots, racism, love, hurt, abandonment and loss, and more importantly the urge to understand and come to terms with it and explain what it’s all about. After all this everyday stuff is the mesh of our lives. The ability to sublimate sets humans apart from other species, to take our hurts and pain and transcend them for the greater good – to create beauty in ugliness is the work Mr. Butler attends to.

In DMV rag, Butler speaks for all of us who have ever been to the DMV,

We’re in the dmv now
Hundreds of black
And brown faces
some whites
all of them wanna be someplace else
but here we are …
it’s all mad
gotta be
half the world is on fire an’
the other is on line waiting for their number to be called
lookin’ for a place t’ sit
an empty seat
is like
fool’s gold

Don’t we all feel like this when we visit official offices, public school registration, social security, Medicaid, even the closed down US passport passport bureaus, and welfare’s the worst. I have a poem about it called, “Welfare’s Still A Bitch!”

The searching and questioning never stop just like in the movie The 39 Steps, there is always another side to examine to analyze understand and conquer. His poems speak to maturity and growth and show how youth and mistakes although unavoidable are only part of climbing and descending those steps, a poem for each step. In word one baby, Butler explains why a writer writes,

why
write?
writing since he was eleven
thru good days
and dark times
the pain of living
the come hither call
of death
and madness inbetween
even hung ‘em up for a time
didn’t last
why write?
he’s free

Is the author describing himself here or is he speaking for everyone? We all know writers write about what they know and well, … if they write about what they don’t know … everybody knows that doesn’t work. Artists from time immemorial have been known to describe angst which often spurs their creative urges. Does every writer experience angst? I can’t speak for every artist. Many writers have spoken and written about their angst yet angst alone doesn’t make a man an artist. There is some other indistinguishable indefinable something that inspires a writer to create, that makes his writings stand out among others, something that prods him to spend his time writing while others commune, have sex, watch tv or do other things while writing remains a lonely task which takes time.

Words don’t miraculously appear on the page. Writing is what gives Butler the freedom he speaks of above. His words create a freedom that exists nowhere else around in our world and he helps the reader to feel it too. Through that freedom we see what he sees; a stark world filled with fertility and barrenness that provides us not only with a place to survive but a place to grow and thrive. The growth in Butler’s poetry and words inspires me too. I recommend 39 Poems sincerely and without any reservation.

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Leftow is a double alumna from Columbia U with a second Master’s from CCNY in creative writing. Her blog has over 30000 facebook followers and 175 google followers and can be relished at: http://joyleftowsblog.blogspot.com. She’s been featured on Rockland Internet Radio, Indie Feed, Jazz Poetry Café and Everything Goes. For the past two years Leftow has been working on a series of bluetry. Leftow’s honesty and openness may astonish you or embarrass you, but she promises not to bore you. Her book, A Spot of Bleach, is available at Amazon.

Depressing & Gorgeous: Joe Sullivan on Daniel Tobin’s Belated Heavens


Belated Heavens, Daniel Tobin, Four Way Books, 2010

Daniel Tobin’s Belated Heavens is a visceral, masculine work of poetry rooted in the elements of the earth, depressing and gorgeous. It is heavy metal, not inert gas. Though the language may invoke visions, these are visions of earthbound horrors in many cases. There’s little ethereal joy here. There’s mainly consternation and questioning. Statements of the nature of nature. But the work eventually evolves into an acceptance of earthly bonds and a hope of transcending them, even if modestly.

The collection begins with the quote from Christian theologian Jacob Boehme: “We see the external world of stars and four elements, in which human beings and all creatures live. This neither is nor is called God. God certainly dwells in it, but the external world does not grasp Him. We also see how light shines in darkness and darkness does not grasp light, yet dwells in the other. We also have an example of this in the four elements, which in their origin are only one element that is neither hot nor cold, dry nor wet, and yet, by its movement, it divides itself into four characteristics, into fire, air, water and earth.”

This sets the tone: Tobin will be examining and attempting to translate into emotion the elemental of the earth. And like the four elements of ancient times, his book is divided into four sections: In the Neighborhood’s Throat, Fine Dust Sifting, Falling Upward and Bound Raiment. From these, it’s plain that he’ll begin at the very bottom, in a subterranean way, and work his way up, until ascension—though he actually stops just short of it. He knows only death with certainty and has questions about what comes after, whether it may be truly blissful or simply a continuation.

What’s most striking in this work is the way Tobin deals with everyday occurrences. He goes between these and more extreme moments of humanity with equal importance. In the book’s first and second sections, he includes several poems about rats. “Intruders” deals with a commonplace invasion of a mouse into the cupboard and its eventual capture, in a profound statement of power and guilt:

There he was, brown glass bead eyes looking up

at us as though we were gods, and we were,

his hammered frame caught in the clamp’s stirrup,

his terrified paws scrabbling tunnels of air

when I carried him, trap and all, to the bag

whose wide, rearing mouth swallowed his fear

like forethought. Though forty years ago,

it wasn’t him but me suddenly alert

to small eyes watching, vague steps on the pillow

that startled me awake, I think now, like a spirit

come in stealth to whisper the momentous,

then, turning back, thought the better of it.

 Then later, in the same section, in “The Shrine,” the rats have become like holy men for carrying land mines into their holes:

Down in their burrow under the battlefield

The rats have crowded, surging, ashen,

Spurred like a congregation of monks arrayed

For the secret rite performed by an elect

They know themselves to be, inquisitive snouts

Tasting the earth and its seepage of bones.

They hauled it here, dank temple underground,

Dragged it through grass risen from the dead…

 In the book’s second section, “Financial Statements Eaten By Rats” again paints the rats as intruders, whose remnants give them away but also put them on the same level with the world of men:

Nothing left but this black bullion,

these dots of blithe shit trailing

across the floor like decimals…

In the second section, too, Tobin moves into the more extraordinary realm of humanity and human violence with the death of an executioner in “The Executioner’s Memoirs” about the Frenchman Anatole Deibler, who executed 400 people. He kept a meticulous record of these in his notebook, then one day died of a heart attack on a train platform on his way to work:

Pates, noggins, crania,

brain-pans, domes

of thought, each one

fell for you in the blink

of God’s eye

into the basket,

until that morning

your heart

cleaved itself

while the rail hummed

like a razor along

the underground…

 The burning at the stake of the heretic is in the fourth section’s “Giordano Bruno In Flames,” and it reflects vividly man’s lingering savagery:

A breeze’s aftermath of sizzled flesh

licked the strafed cobbles of Campo di Fiori,

bore on its serpent’s back winding through brush

the last whiff of Bruno, heretical meat

Four centuries have burned, each one a wick,

consuming its essence like kerosene

since your screams—you must have screamed—erupted,

and the Roman dogs picked over your bones.

 Also in the final section, Tobin changes gear slightly, reflecting negatively on the suffering of life and the hope of restful death in “The Wheel”:

A pilgrim pitched along the blind, human track.

The stoned soul mired in its ghost-life of needs.

Who in their right mind would want to come back

To the self and its burdens, thoughts like bees

That fashion the teeming comb and its hive,

The stoned soul mired in its ghost life of needs?

Finally, mercifully, he concludes the book with “As Angels In Some Brighter Dreams,” which paints heaven as a Brooklyn luncheonette for his parents and many others. It’s far from an idealized heaven, but good enough:

Even you gone into a world of light,

Or some metaphysical luncheonette

That smells in death of your shop’s mélange—

Cheeseburger, brisket, baba ganouj.

It’s seven a.m. in eternity.

Egg on a roll, a doughnut and coffee…

The ghost commuters queue at the counter

And then:

Of the neighborhood dead eating breakfast

I might see against the iridescent haze

Of your ancient plate glass windowpanes

My parents easing into their booth,

Regular as clockwork or ritual,

Though they wouldn’t see me, still corporeal,

On my stool-perch beside the chalk specials.

How strange to know death made them happy.

How rich they’d seem like the others, Sally,

Who look pleased this modest heaven is all

As they crowd in, ordering the usual.

*


A dance magazine editor by day, Joe Sullivan is author of a novel, Three Thirds, and recent fiction and poetry in Monkeybicycle, Poets/Artists, Red Dragonfly and Overflow. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his family.

Stunningly Beautiful Poems: David Atkinson on Sarah McKinstry-Brown’s Cradling Monsoons


Cradling Monsoons, Sarah McKinstry-Brown, Blue Light Press, 2010

When I say that the poems in Sarah McKinstry-Brown’s newest collection, Cradling Monsoons, are stunning, I mean that quite literally.  I use stunning in its incarnation as a verb as opposed to its more exaggerative adjectival form.  These richly introspective, elegantly velveteen poems are filled with moments that took my breath away. Right near the beginning, in the poem “Origami Girl,” I ran across the lines:

They say you’re an origami girl,

Guided by men’s strange hands.

Yesterday, you were a fish,

Today, you resemble a rose.  Tomorrow

Your mother will knock on the bathroom door

to find you blue

in the face.

I shook my head and stared at the lines I’d just read, marveling.  It took me an effort to move myself away from that poem.  Then I made sure that no one would disturb me in my quiet reading place, wanting nothing that could possibly interrupt, and read the rest of the collection. I blocked off the rest of the world as I read, because the moments like the one above kept happening.  In “Flowering” I found:

Mother sits across from me,

and the silence we share is tender,

falling off the bone.

In the cellar, her heart

sulks green, hard,

inaudible, her

aorta stumped

by my flowering.

I was a bulb

meant for quicksand, the vacuum

in the doctor’s precise hand,

not the wetlands of her womb.

and waiting for me in “The Other Side of the Story” were the words:

There are days I want to sail

into a new area code in a baby-blue Chevy,

windows rolled down, the wind and Lucinda Williams

blowing through my hair.  When that dream stales,

I cross the Atlantic, find myself lounging naked, smoking

on a balcony in Prague.  Trouble is

I’m getting old enough to know

that the balcony and the Chevy

don’t exist.

I encountered image after image that knocked the wind out of me.  Quite literally, the poems stunned me.  Over and over.  It felt something like delightful sucker punches to the solar plexus. These moments stunned me because at the same time that they were softly reminiscent, I was surprised by emotionally jagged edges.  The origami girl who yesterday was a fish and today resembles a rose will be found blue in the face tomorrow when her mother knocks at the bathroom door.  The slipping back in forth in the poems between pleasure and pain seems to mirror the way that life is almost never purely light or purely dark, but rather a blend of the two that makes us have to drink the poison in order to also get the nourishment.  The poems surprised me in the genuineness of the emotion I felt while reading, the way that the lines turned in directions I did not expect but in reflection could not picture going any other way.

It is true that I found approachable the apparent simplicity of these poems which center on daily life topics such as family connections (both in the faded past and the more gritty present), freedom dreams, loss, motherhood, and so on.  After all, the poems came at me directly, not hiding behind excessive ornamentation or unnecessary complexity.  However, that is not to say that these poems did not also attack.  Once they drew me in, the poems really worked me over before turning me loose again.  That unhurried velveteen elegance lulled me unsuspecting, and then proceeded to set me aflame.

I greatly enjoyed reading Cradling Monsoons.  I think it is a compelling beautiful collection from a poet whom I now expect to deliver even more marvelous wonders the future.

*

David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver. He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska as well as a BA in English, a BS in computer science, and a JD. His stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Fine Lines, Gently Read Literature, The Nebraska Lawyer, and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. The website dedicated to his writing is davidsatkinsonwriting.com

Deliver Certainty: Amy Henry on Manoel de Barros’s Birds for a Demolition


Birds for a Demolition, Manoel de Barros, Translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010

“Poetry is to flap without wings.”

Birds for a Demolition is a compilation of a variety of poetry styles by Manoel de Barros, with some arranged more formally in stanzas and others appearing as short proverbs. A repeating topic is his early life in Brazil, in a region called the Pantanal. His small town and his childhood home next to a river clearly holds significance. He talks about the river often, and even uses the word as a verb at times. His voice is both somber and humorous, and when he gets a bit nostalgic, he reveals both.

In Invented Memoir II, he writes of his birthday as a boy, when his mother had no gift to give him. So she gave him a river.

…The same river that had always passed behind our house.
I liked the gift more than if it had been candy from the peddler.
My brother pouted, he liked the river as well.
Our mother promised him he’d get a tree for his birthday.
A tree covered in birds.
I heard this promise and thought it was fine.
The birds would spend the day on the banks of my river.
At night, they’d sleep in my brother’s tree.
My brother teased that his present got flowers in September.
And a river doesn’t get flowers!
I told him a tree doesn’t get piranhas.
What united us was swimming naked in the river with the herons.
In this regard, our life was a caress.

Apparently, the river was something he held on to, both as a personal touchstone and a poetic motif.  While the poetry within this covers almost 50 years of his work, the focus remains much the same. Vines, lizards, adobe buildings, trees, and even ants are woven into more serious topics. In Ants,

I didn’t need to read Saint Paul, Saint Augustine,
Saint Jerome, or Thomas of Aquinas,
Not even Saint Francis of Assisi—
To arrive at God.
Ants showed him to me.

(I have a doctorate in ants).

In just these six lines he does two things: reveals his inferred truth regarding life and creation, yet throws in a twist of humor with his doctorate remark. This pattern of mixing the serious with the blithe makes the collection much more vibrant and appealing. He does this in short proverbs in “The Book of Nothing”:

There are many serious ways to say nothing, but only poetry is true.

My dawn is going to open at dusk.

To have more certainty I have to know more imperfections.

I wanted to be read by stones.

Words hide me without much care.

Wherever I am not, words find me.

There are histories so true that at times it seems they are invented.

I want the word that fits in the beak of a small bird.

Note that the proverb style he uses above uses large breaks of space (caesuras or caesurae??) to give you time to stop and reflect rather than move quickly through the verses. Lastly, he applies a paragraph form to some self-deprecating words of explanation in a section called “Desiring to Be“:  “I write an archaic Manoel-esque idiolect (Idiolect is the dialect idiots use to speak to the walls and with the flies.)  I need to upset meanings.  Purposelessness is healthier than solemnity.  (To cleanse a certain solemnity from words, I use manure.)…The cerebral touches in my writing are just a precaution to avoid succumbing to the temptation to make myself less foolish than others.  I am highly regarded for my foolishness.  Of this I deliver certainty.”

We’re in this together, at least we should be: Tammi McCune on Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full


Words for Empty and Words for Full, Bob Hicok, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010

This review refers to the Kindle Edition

In Words for Empty and Words for Full, Bob Hicok widens his wildly associative and quirkily humorous style to tackle large and messy issues of contemporary American life. In ruminations on our ailing economy and endless state of war, on the ravages of cancer and violence, as well as the ebb and flow of relationships, Hicok doesn’t tread new ground as much as he extends beyond the intimacy and wonder at the ordinary of his previous work. In his customary leaps of logic and long, unconstrained lines punctuated with wordplay, pop-culture, pie charts and even a crudely-drawn map, Hicok shares our concerns and leads us on a winding but insightful journey through the hows and whys of our bad-news-filled days. The poems in this most recent book, his sixth, are the art of a more mature, smartly humorous and humane poet than was revealed in earlier collections.

Hicok’s poetry layers associative flow and image on a narrative base and with a conversational voice confronts real life. A range of knowledge, from astronomy and myth to linguistics and philosophy, appeals to our intellectual side, while Hicok’s compassion for people and passion for peace embraces our shared human experience:

…doesn’t it seem

like every second, if you stop, has this whole life

inside it that is so completely yours,

it would die without you dying to never be

without it? I want to live to be three hundred

and sixty two.

(“Kinesis”)

A colleague at Virginia Tech teases that Hicok is becoming famous, for a poet, and besides his many awards (Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, Pushcart Prize, etc.) and the number and speed at which he publishes, Hicok’s poems are readable and likeable because they are accessible, but also imaginative and surprising; because they confront our difficult realities, but are playful; because they are emotional — hence human — but not sentimental; because they are intelligent, but unpretentious; and because they are socially engaged, but personal.

Although he’s now ensconced in academia as an associate professor at Virginia Tech, Hicok previously spent 20 years in the automotive industry in Michigan, while writing poems. As in his other collections, Hicok’s wife, parents and dog make appearances in Words. In the opening poem, “In these times,” he uses his own family to engage our struggling economy: “My sister’s out of work and my brother’s/out of work and my other brother’s/out of work.”  Intoning the frustration and wide reach of the current recession, the poem voices for many in this situation, “could you, I don’t know, maybe send me,/ I hate to ask, a few bucks?”  The poem’s conclusion compels us, especially those of us who have “never had to make that call,” to compassion and even to aid:

… I’m only praying

you listen to the theory

that how we get to be alone

is how we work to be together, since there are stars

inside your thumb, your breath,

and how you say yes or no is how they shine

or burn out.

Hicok‘s poems draw us in with their large vision and genuine concern for our world and for America’s soul — not in a preachy way, but in a “hey, we are all (lost) in this together” way. He regrets our tragic, numerable failures, but finds a glimmer of hope in connection and in change. In “Foreign Dispatch,“ the election of America‘s first African-American president inspires him to think “of exclusion…/that there’s less of it now, more ways in, more places/to enter.”

Sometimes the cup is half empty, sometimes half full. Though we are lost, we are not without hope. Working beyond narrative and with an insistence on things — cows, clouds and aardvarks, the sky, stars, and Michigan — Hicok reflects with wordplay, weirdness and weight on our multiple battlefields, serial killers, sex, politics and the Holocaust, and with care, some prodding, and often humor, we arrive somewhere around “hope, I have hope, somehow/hope.”  (“Meditation on a false spring”)

Hicok’s tempered optimism is also evident in “Go ____” in which he invokes the rally cap, a turning inside out of your favorite baseball team’s cap to “presto” a change in luck:

Say it is possible that I hate you.

Say it is possible that I love you.

Say that we’re going to vanish and we know we’re going to vanish

but we haven’t vanished yet and we know we haven’t vanished yet.

What this leaves is time — another inning, a near-infinity

of generations, of fucking things up

and fucking toward knowing more than we know now.

Words is divided into four sections. The first, third and fourth sections encompass bank bailouts, global warming, dying languages, the weather, abortion, gorillas and more. Humor surfaces especially when Hicok delves into discomfort: “We were doing algebra then each other then cocaine/then aerobics broke out like acne/upon our thin souls and my point is/we need a better phrase than shit happens.”

At times, Hicok’s associations lead to ramblings, losing us in an insistent “I,“ but despite these few distractions and a tendency toward dark moments, he exhibits a sensitive eye for relationships, as in the beautiful love poem “A wedding night”:

…she will breathe all of these

when she leans over him, drapes his face

with the night of her hair, the curve of her

falling to all sides, from a center, from a moon,

from an asking, from a giving, from now on.

The second section of Words gathers eight poems about the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. The shooter Seung-Hui Cho was in one of Hicok’s writing workshops. In these poems, Hicok writes of and through grief, asks the painful questions, and voices guilt and anger, “… Maybe I should have shot the kid/and then myself given the math. 2 < 33.”   One of the most powerful images in the book is a vision that reappears as Hicok tries to “go on” with daily life: “I’ll sense a parent some states away/dropping to the floor… .”

Words is more than ponderings and more than further examples of Hicok’s skill at beginning here, surprising us around to there, and then bringing us back a bit sideways of where we started. As in his previous work, the poems of Words reach for understanding of our lives and times, but beyond understanding and critique, these poems call for accountability in how we care for each other and our world. Words calls us to connection and to action without being pedantic: “The only answer I want when the night taps me on the shoulder/and asks, did you try, is yes, yes sir, hard and double hard/and harder still.”

These poems emphasize the essentialness of language to our humanity. Language distinguishes us from the animals, but more importantly separates us from the monsters. For Hicok, the Virginia Tech shooter’s “un-saying,” his inability or refusal to communicate, especially when contrasted with his recorded ravings, is central to his character and his horrific acts.  As Hicok concludes in the book’s final poem, “A Primer“: “Let us all be from somewhere./Let us tell each other everything we can.”

Words attempts to articulate the poet’s job in society, and many of the poems speak directly of the act of writing. “Watchful“ allows us to witness the writing and revising within the poem itself, and we are included in the process —  ours and the poet‘s work as parallel:

this isn’t an ars poetica — it’s what we do,

all we do, essentially, that dogs do not,

butterflies do not; see a thing and draw it

to another thing, make them clash and kiss, knit, gather.

Although Hicok confesses some doubt regarding his job in “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,”

I promised myself

I wasn’t going to do this, no one listens

to this kind of poem anyway

it might as well be a sermon or the side

of a cereal box …

we are reading Hicok’s kind of poetry, and hopefully we are listening and will consider closely Words for Empty and Words for Full’s call for connection.

*

Tammi McCune currently lives in Hyderabad, India.

Unusual Vision of Tradition & Individual Talent: Tony Trigilio on Aaron Belz’s Lovely, Raspberry


Lovely, Raspberry, Aaron Belz, Persea, 2010

“The roses this June will be different roses,” writes James Schuyler his long poem, “Hymn to Life.” The line is a simple enough assertion of the cyclical rituals of spring to be unremarkable. But like much of Schuyler’s representations of the everyday, the emotional stakes of the poem are at their highest precisely when they seem unremarkable. These will be different roses, Schuyler writes in the next line, “Even though you cut an armful and come in saying, ‘Here are the roses,’ / As though the same blooms had come back, white freaked with red / And heavily scented” (215). In Schuyler’s poems, nothing of course is too mundane to be rendered in precise physical detail; through our immersion in the ordinary we experience the emotional complexity and gentle weirdness that arises from the tactile world. Schuyler is a key poet for mapping the wonderfully tilted world of Aaron Belz’s poems. It is easy to call Belz’s poems strange—which they are—but this only partially explains his work. Like Schuyler, Belz is a poet who absorbs the unremarkable particulars of dailiness and makes the quotidian radiant. In both poets’ work, the everyday is praised, a deliberate hymn of sorts, and then immediately complicated. The emotional and intellectual tangle of the everyday is valued because it is experiential, not discursive, and because it is for these poets undeniably tender. And what makes the poem linger is the way strangeness undergirds the ordinary—the way, for instance, Schuyler’s roses are “white freaked with red” and their presence in the room “heavily scented.”

The poems in Belz’s second collection, Lovely, Raspberry, pivot on a deliberate paradox in which the everyday is both mundane and luminous. At times it seems no ideas really inhere in things, as in the beginning of “Ginkgoes”: “It was a weird weekend weatherwise. / Stuff touched down, from funnels to hail kernels” (13). The purposefully unpoetic “-wise” suffix in “Gingkoes” crucially anchors the opening line and cinches its breezy alliteration, yet the poem shirks particularity in its rendering of the weather maelstrom of the second line as mere “Stuff” from the sky. The coyness of Belz’s deliberately unpoetic poetics barely flashes before revealing the poem’s complex interconnected relationships. Within the language-play of “Ginkgoes,” a serious love affair grows, wearies, and dies—the kind of “Stuff” that has touched down for centuries from poets. Belz is a poet of minute specificity, too, as in “Beard Beard,” which fixes itself so determinedly on the particular that it could seem unable to move past its hermetically sealed close-up of the “strange mustache” that remains of the speaker’s shaved goatee (15). Yet the poem’s deft manipulation of tradition suggests that much more is at stake than an ironic dramatization of the uncanny, as “Beard Beard” builds toward a final, iambic stanza that yearns to reverse chronological time and repair what love and loss shave off our lives.

It doesn’t take long to see a delightful bait-and-switch at work in Lovely, Raspberry—luring readers with weirdness to illustrate just how “normal” the strange can be. Some of the first poems in the book, such as “Critique,” “The Love-Hat Relationship,” and “My Chiquita,” begin as if they were smart-alecky one-offs or extended puns. But Belz’s unadorned (and hilarious) phrasing draws the reader into the increasingly nuanced world of each poem—a world in which, significantly, the poet is more concerned with the lives of others than with demonstrating his own wit. “My advice to young people is to like hats but not love them,” the speaker of “The Love-Hat Relationship” explains. “Try having like-hat relationships with one another. / See if you can find something interesting about / the personality of the person whose hat you like” (3). As in poems such as “In Verity” or “Looking at Ducks,” the speaker’s seemingly languid self-interest masks a deep curiosity about, and intimacy with, the external world. Belz is a poet of interdependence, rooting for the collective as he lingers on the integrity of the private individual.

As in his first book, The Bird Hoverer, Belz is drawn to ordinary people at the same time he seems to praise the aloof singularity of celebrity culture. Hollywood stars and celebrity politicians ascend beyond us, it seems, until Belz reveals that we are all “waiting / for the same bus,” inhaling the same diesel fumes as the celebrity who boards the next bus (17). Celebrity culture imposes its self-interested muses upon us in this volume, but these muses eventually are as accessible as one’s fellow bus riders. The speakers in Belz’s poems actually are spurred into imaginative production by the presence of stars: the aura of another’s stardom seems to make us stall, but, as in “Asking Al Gore About the Muse,” this initial passivity is actually a prelude to art-making. As he ascends into the bus, Gore “casts a glance over his shoulder as if / to say, aren’t you coming darling?” but the speaker of the poem decides to stay behind at the bus stop to make something more lasting than the ersatz productions of celebrity spectacle (17).

Like The Bird Hoverer, this volume has no use for a mythologized, abstracted muse. Instead, the poems fuse ironic distance and Romantic earnestness, reminding us how concrete the imagination was for the Romantics and how concretely the imagination talks back to us as postmoderns. Belz’s idea of the canon is one in which we quarrel over cocktails with celebrities—and at times with poets—and kiss their cheeks on the way out. This isn’t evasion masked by glibness, as can be the case sometimes in contemporary poetry. Instead, it is an act of glibness in the service of a more serious purpose—as if, like Frank O’Hara, the poet suddenly discovered “that if [he] wanted to [he] could use the telephone instead of writing the poem,” a realization that of course leads him back into the poem with an even greater commitment to it (O’Hara 499). Marjorie Perloff reminds us that “beneath the bravado, O’Hara is quite serious” (26). What seems like bravado in O’Hara’s “Personism” is, for Belz, a faith that the internal voice of the Romantic imagination manifests outwardly as talkiness and conversationalism, as in his version of “The Waste Land”:

If I had been T.S. Eliot, I wouldn’t have written ‘The Waste Land.’
As myself, however, I do plan to write it, but not with a typewriter,
and I will never turn it over to Ezra Pound’s manic red pen.
In fact, I will not even publish ‘The Waste Land.’ Instead,
I’ll whisper it to white doves that constantly appear at my window
wearing bib overalls and green mesh trucker caps, the ones
chewing bits of hay and sighing that they’ve had a scant harvest. (53)

As if preferring the telephone to the writing of a poem, the speaker vows to “whisper” the poem to the white doves outside his window rather than publish it. The tendency with such a poet is to seize immediately upon the humorous, but Belz’s humor depends on its commitment to plausibly realistic detail rather than just to one-liners or gags. Wearing overalls and trucker caps in a poem otherwise saturated with irony, the doves might seem anthropomorphized upper-middle-class hipsters slumming at a bar drinking PBRs. But in Belz’s “The Waste Land,” these doves instead are truly listening. They are part of the speaker’s bizarre journey backward from Eliot to Chaucer, where he passes out wine “to the dames of Kent with the expectation / that they would get really drunk and try to pants me” (53). They are, in short, peers, whether as mythic doves “sighing that they’ve had a scant harvest” or as the women of Chaucer “pantsing” the speaker “as the Kentish stars winked down at us” (53). Much the same is at work in “Tilling Charles Reznikoff’s Back Yard,” where the speaker’s nurturing of artistic influence produces “cartoony animals” that leave him “look[ing] like a startled duck” (27). Where Pound demanded cold “commerce” with his artistic inheritance in “A Pact”—and confessed his attitude was like “a grown child / Who has had a pig-headed father”—Belz’s relationship with his precursors is, in contrast, playful rather than anxious, and relational rather than competitive (Pound 27).

In the world of Lovely, Raspberry, our poems are as serious and nonchalant as our telephone calls. They must be protected from Ezra Pound’s “manic red pen,” and they are meant for a non-hierarchical audience of peers. And in Belz’s unusual vision of tradition and individual talent, we get pantsed by these peers before we could even consider picking up our manic red pens and correcting them on matters of poetics, history, or canon formation. When we return to our sources—for inspiration, for a cohesive tradition, for a secure sense of self—we find instead a provisional unity always undone and remade, a mutual re-tilling of shared soil, like the ongoing (and utterly ordinary) relationship between the self and its world: “Every human body faces the same basic challenge: / What to do with all those sensory impulses” (44).

Works Cited
Belz, Aaron. The Bird Hoverer. Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX, 2007.
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald
Allen. Berkeley, U of California P, 1995. 498-99.
Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.
Pound, Ezra. The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1957.
Schuyler, James. Collected Poems. New York: The Noonday P, 1993.

*

Tony Trigilio’s newest book is the poetry collection Historic Diary (BlazeVOX Books, 2011). With Tim Prchal, he co-edited Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (Rutgers University Press, 2008). He is a member of the core poetry faculty at Columbia College Chicago and co-edits Court Green.

The Vividness of the Particular: Cherie Walsh on Sally Rosen Kindred’s No Eden


No Eden, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mayapple Press, 2011

In No Eden, Sally Rosen Kindred’s first collection, the poems’ various speakers find themselves in “broken weather, broken story.”  We find Eve in fallen exile, Noah in the hold of the ark—poems of midrash, in Alicia Ostriker’s sense of the word, as Kindred discovers for these  old stories new imagistic and emotional content.  Kindred weaves her midrash with poems spoken by a contemporary woman remembering her girlhood, where her alcoholic mother shapes weather and story, and with poems that take place in the adult life of that speaker.  The midrash works both as correlative for the poems about the family and, importantly, as fully imagined poetry on its own.  The relationship is metonymic rather than metaphoric;  that is, within the whole of the collection the associations between and among the poems are rich and multiple rather than singular and algebraic.

“Noah Waiting, Not Praying,” for example, moves with a kind of psychological integrity through images and details also fully integral to the material itself.  The poem begins, “What a darkness, to be favored/like this, to be/hurling birds up into/the botched sky,” and deepens from there, lingering with and turning over the images, revealing their wholeness and illustrating the character’s state of mind.  Noah hasn’t asked for this “burden/starless and rough/as gopher wood,” but has loved God for creation and even “for the window/on the ark, where sky/could open us before we cast/our best music through.”  This rewriting of “hurling birds” shows the power of the image as Kindred stays with it, allowing it to show more of itself and its evocations even as it develops the portrait of the speaker.  “Noah’s Wife Remembers” imagines its character forty years after the flood, talking to a selectively interested granddaughter who is planting almond trees.  The poem as it develops its speaker seems preoccupied with relationship and portraiture, but in the last five lines the imagery shifts, surprisingly, to the almond itself, an image referring to the larger story even as it takes on its own symbolism.  This symbolism, in turn, constitutes the culmination of the poem:

What I love

are the brown bodies of almonds,

the sweet wrath of my thumb knowing what’s inside

and wanting the strength to split their knotted souls

and lift the safe meat out.

This is a fairly stunning move, where the image of the almond, germane but different, latent until this point, bears the entire emotional weight of the poem.

Other factors in the poem, too, add to the surprise of the poem’s shift to this image.  In general, Kindred’s attention to the music and the density of language, always translucent, comprehensible, though sometimes chunky with modification, has the reader paying attention to each line, rather than speeding through language to follow narration, even in poems with strong narrative elements.  In this poem the rising water “spun into bruised shades” and “unravel[ed] the gold skins of grain”;  the speaker goes into her house and “return[s] with a secret fist” that the granddaughter uncurls.  The reader is vulnerable to surprise because she is absorbed in this language, the richness of this telling.  In an even more narrative poem such as “Vespiary”—where the contemporary speaker as a girl remembers her mother’s response to the stinging of a neighborhood dog by wasps—where the story moves swiftly, the language remains full and sonorous.  The dog’s

limp fur heaves with spent deadly stars.

Wasps hum and fall from the black rabble

of his back:  moon skin, crumbled legs.  Some are dead

but thrumming, some roll and break

their wings in the acids of his withered belly.

In this passage, as throughout, the success of the language rests both on diction and music as well as the poems’ measured use of syntax, sometimes held together by anaphora, sometimes by a mix of long and short sentences.

On the level of line, too, the poems mix enjambment and end-stopping, making for a line I associate with Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, an influence I hear in this way and others in the present collection, but which originates in William Carlos Williams:  the line ending posits a secondary reading that does not carry the correct denotative meaning but creates a tension effective within the poem.  “Raisin” uses this device:  “they were hard and warm.  As your teeth break the skin/what weeps forth is fog and mud.”  Certainly, in a poem about childhood and new realizations of suffering, the image of “teeth break[ing] the skin,” i.e., teething, makes emotional sense, but the literal meaning is about biting a raisin.  I hear the influence of Glück in lines like this one and in lines bookended by the same word, as in this one, from “Second Mother”:  “his pitch, his call is his/waking.”  Kindred makes this bookending her own by using it sparingly and in concert with other local tropes.  Line, then, is another way the poet is able to create or relax tension or establish pacing.  In other poems, Kindred chooses short sentences and largely end-stopped lines to make for an emotional effect, and she uses point of view to establish pacing, as in “My Body at Thirty is a Dark House”:

Old house, crowded with drooping stars,

keening under rainwater, where is your hard chair?

Weren’t there once wings in the glass?

I don’t know this place.  The stairs green into night.

I’m staggering at the foot, waiting for my hands

to find pine knots coding for the door.

The speaker, here more Plathian than Glückian, uses short sentences to convey emptiness, flatness, while maintaining this poet’s characteristic odd, strong diction:  “green into night,” “pine knots coding for the door,” where “knots” almost puns.  The move from the external description to the speaker’s comment and then to the narration of her relationship with the internal landscape—“I don’t know this place”—shows the careful and effective pacing of the piece.

Compounding the effect of Kindred’s powerful image-sense is the accretive meaning of images as they occur in different contexts throughout the collection.  Some images stay in the family poems—the blue china hen, the hose, the coffee cup, the porch—while others cross over between the midrash poems and the family poems—the apple, the garnets, the ark animals.  All of these, of course, carry their other connotations with them when they travel.  In the family poems the china hen appears first in “Vespiary,” where it symbolizes the suppressed anger of suburban mothers;  then in the “Mary, Full of Grace” section of “Seven Sorrows,” where it becomes a vessel for a maternal suicide note;  and finally in “Yearn,” where the speaker addresses it:

Blue china chicken

at the center, where is your shine?

Take this grief and feed it back to me,

dark burgundy taste of my mother’s soil and sleep.

The image of the garnets, important to the Noah story as the sole givers of (dim, barely adequate) light on the ark, appears again in “Our Liliths” in the “six years/of garnet defeat/in our mother’s womb.”  From other poems and from inherent similarity, we associate the ark with the womb, and the correspondence compounds.  The image appears in the collection’s final poem, “Mercy on Pecos Road”:  “Here my garnet mother lightens and dries…” and we understand how this mother has been a sort of garnet, as we understand the image from the other poems, lighting the way just enough for the daughter to survive.

Kindred’s play with the Noah story gives her images and characters grounding, on one hand, and particularity—or multiple particularities—on the other.  The resonances work multiply, and this multiplicity is powerful:  Noah as survivor, Noah as drinker, “Noah” as the name of the contemporary speaker’s adopted son.  The story is grueling, as a mistaken God destroys creation and then offers “gifts made out of sky.”  The story is also one of which our culture can make a cute motif for crib linens, as the speaker’s baby receives.  Through the poems we look hard at the “Animal Dark” of the Noah story, and by the end of the collection we are easily linking elements of the biblical story to elements of the family story.  Indeed, the long poem “Seven Sorrows” overtly invites us to do so, weaving together as it does, section by section, the stories of biblical figures with the contemporary speaker’s story, all through the contemporary speaker’s voice.  In late poems where the connections are less overt and the reader makes the associations, as in the “Noah’s Wife” poem, compounding images sing.  It is here I marvel at Kindred’s technique, the skill with which she treats her vision in its wholeness and complexity.

Near the end of the collection, poems such as “Our Liliths” and “Seven Sorrows” begin to tell more directly the speaker’s emotions about her experience, to a degree that the speaker’s response, her inferences, become a feature of the end of the collection.  For example, the speaker tells us in “Our Liliths” that the mother’s miscarriages are the “better-off daughters,” and while acknowledging that she “can’t climb all the way to seven” in “Seven Sorrows,” she tells us that “sorrow has mothered me from this day.”  Some readers may recoil from the speaker’s direct expressions of anger and sadness, yet coming at the end of the collection, they both match the emotions of the midrash characters and read as fully human, as the consciousness of pain

comprises part of the human condition, and, indeed, makes pain meaningful.  From the beginning, the speaker has lived the same difficult story, as we know from “In My Seventh Year, I Entered the Cathedral of the Blackbird’s Wing”:

. . . No mother

but I’d found her sleep:

great throbbing,

night-feathered nest

of mercy and devastation.  And I lay

down.  I lay down.

This is, like many first books, a book of the wound;  later, Kindred may write another book, but in this one, the wound is fresh, the poems’ emotions raw and keenly felt—though the craft, as I have described it, and the vision, which feels complete, make for an artistic rendering.

No Eden, while it ends on a note of mercy, is not a book about mercy.  It is about a particular discovery—a set of particular discoveries, which both are and are not the same discovery—of the profound brokenness of the worlds the characters, and the reader, inhabit.  It is a richly imagined and carefully woven assemblage of voices that grow more powerful through their associations with each other.  Both individual poems and the overall structural composition allow for the vividness of the particular even as they allow the primary speaker’s story to open out into emotionally potent archetype.

*

Cherie Walsh has a MA in English from the University of Maryland and, having taught outside the university for 13 years, has returned to complete an MFA in poetry writing.

Grit & Grain: Jeanpaul Ferro on Drake A Lightle’s Self-Inflicted


Self-Inflicted, Drake A. Lightle, Goldfish Press, 2011

The latest release from Goldfish Press is the debut poetry collection, Self-Inflicted, by literary newcomer Drake A. Lightle.  A Missouri native, Lightle takes us on a journey through the nihilism of one man’s own self-destruction, through the despair that besets him as he realizes what truly matters, and finally through the baptism of the redemptive power of a penitent soul.  Self-Inflicted echoes with the haunting turmoil and restless syndrome we find throughout the suburbs of modern day America.  Along Main Street, hope has been substituted with loss and despair.  The ideals of the American family have been replaced with these ostentatious dreams of celebrity and grandeur.  All of this necessitates a pastime of distraction well documented throughout Lightle’s new collection.

Turn on cable TV on any given night and it won’t take you very long to figure out that the new religion of the 21st Century has become our very own escapism.  This new television show stars Oprah Winfrey as Jesus, Charlie Sheen as Dionysus, and Sarah Palin as Voltaire.  People are listening to the scripture and sonnets of these talking heads and then they are going about living their lives on the edge, watching helplessly as their families disintegrate and fall apart; and then they sit there in contemplation wondering why.  With no answer to be found, they then seek out what feels good, so they won’t have to feel bad, even if this only lasts for a few seconds of stardust and high.

In “Sacto Sheraton,” Drake A. Lightle takes us to a hotel bar where our protagonist sits with a woman he is in love with, a married woman perhaps, someone he knows he can never be with in the end, but he wants her no matter the cost:

we’re here with the hipsters

and gangsters,

and yuppie yippie wanksters,

trying to blend in

to the scenery,

you drinking wine,

me drinking vodka,

and thinking about where we really should be,

somewhere else,

In “Ametropia” Lightle confesses: “it was more than a little myopic / to have allowed my heart / and head / to be there / in the first place.”  We all know what we are doing, but we do it anyway.  You cannot get any truer than that.

Throughout Self-Inflicted we find that we are peering in on the soul-tearing confessions of a man who has screwed up big time and is trying everything the streets have to offer in order to make his pain go away.  In “Bug Under the Skin” he confesses: “these thoughts make me itch like junk sickness / make me want to tie up / find a vein / and cotton-cloud oblivion.”  In “USER_DELETED (Monkey Edit: Short Re-Mix)” hope and wonder have completely been vanquished while humanity is simply a tool to be used as a means to an end:

two buildings,

each filled with row after row

of cubicles,

with skies of buzzing florescent light

casting soft whiteness on gray faces

sitting in chairs at desks

in front of more buzzing light

from monitors;

fingers surgically attached to keyboards;

eyes reading words of desperate prayers –

poems and prose and plays and short stories

and novels spilling from the minds of monkeys

banging on keyboards in a virtual zoo –

monkeys searching for truth and meaning

in experience,

meaning of hate and despair and sorrow

and love and hope and bliss;

monkeys freezing in the shadow of the monolith of life

desperate to make sense of it all.

Sometimes life can be a long and darkly lit road.  Everyone thinks they have some kind of answer yet no one really seems to have any answers at all.  Words and emotions are simply props to be used as propaganda now.  There are millions of people on various highways all going somewhere different yet all these passengers want to get home to the very same place.  In the end, Drake A. Lightle sums up this journey through his final homily aptly entitled “Self-Inflicted.”

I’ve embraced my proclivity,

I’ve let it guide me—

like magnetic North guides the compass needle—

through the hazardous and absurdly vain thought

that my will might be stronger than my nature.
I’ve made peace with passion.
You can follow the breadcrumbs.

I’ll follow the blood.
The freeway is still the way home, and it’s time to go.

Self-Inflicted is a superb literary debut full of this grit and grain that usually gets lost within most debuts.  Hopefully we will be hearing a whole lot more from Drake A. Lightle.

*

An 8-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Jéanpaul Ferro’s work has appeared on National Public Radio, Contemporary American Voices, Columbia Review, Emerson Review, Connecticut Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Portland Monthly, The Providence Journal, Arts & Understanding Magazine, and others. He is the author of All The Good Promises (Plowman Press, 1994), Becoming X (BlazeVox Books, 2008), You Know Too Much About Flying Saucers (Thumbscrew Press, 2009), Hemispheres (Maverick Duck Press, 2009) Essendo Morti – Being Dead (Goldfish Press, 2009), nominated for the 2010 Griffin Prize in Poetry; and the forthcoming Jazz (Honest Publishing, 2011).  He is represented by the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency.

Karen Schubert: “Everything Stuck to Her Skin”: Considerations of Gender in the Poetry of Nin Andrews


The poetry of Nin Andrews is a multi-faceted exploration of the experience of being female. Andrews writes as an insider; that is, she writes through the female body, through the persona of a girl evaluating cultural messages, and through a woman in relationship as daughter, mother, lover, wife. In The Book of Orgasms, she gives a playful voice to various aspects of female sexuality. Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane  interrogates the socialization of girls. Her newest book Southern Comfort is an autobiographical series of poems that examines her parents’ marriage and sexuality, the indoctrination girls endured at her Catholic school in Virginia, and the humorous and didactic stories her mother told Nin and her sisters about their emerging womanhood. Andrews works from the local to the global, grounding her stories in specificity yet connecting with broader female themes of relationship, work, humor and meaning. She also works from the global to the local, painting broad strokes and then drawing the reader in – Don’t you see yourself here? Her work is engaging, tough, intimate, tender, devastating, generous, forgiving, and laugh-out-loud funny.

Sex is a recurring theme in Andrews’ poems. Women in particular have a complicated relationship with sex. As girls they are warned away from the dangers. In “Bathing in Your Brother’s Bathwater,” Catholic middle school teacher Miss De Angelo instructs her adolescent girls never to use the same bath water as their teenage brothers. “Even if he doesn’t touch himself,/the water does./And it only takes one./One fast moving whip-tailed sperm./And you know how easy it is to catch a cold,/how quickly that little virus races clear through you./And once that happens,/no one will believe you’re any Virgin Mary,/no matter what you say” (Southern Comfort 9). This kind of indoctrination, however scientifically challenged, lays the groundwork for the female push-pull, attract-repel to sexuality and the sexual experience.

As Andrews girls grow older, they become aware of their longing, their power and their limitations. They also come to understand their relationship with objectification. The poem “Pants” is a metonymical exploration of the idealized female body:

Outside the apartment building a pair of women’s pants are walking away. They are slender pants, carefully tailored pants, sleek black velvet pants, subtle and suggestive pants, pants that are the envy of women whose calves can’t possibly enter such tiny, delicate leg holes, pants that speak of a sylph-like woman, an airy woman, barely a size five, possibly a model or a ballerina who no longer walks on earth while men stare after her hopelessly, while other women, ordinary women, watch and weep and the pants, those sensuous pants, simply sigh. (29 Orgasms)

The breathless hypotaxis feeds a light-headed illogic. The sexual ideal cannot be reached by women or men. Despite being warned about sex in their youth, women long to be desired, but now instead of being restricted by others, they conjure up the prohibitive voices in their own minds. Only the slenderest fraction of women are models or ballerinas, yet in this poem, all women who are not “watch and weep” over their perceived loss of perfection. Men who presumably have or could have access to other, less narrowly defined women also pine. Interestingly, the pants, who “simply sigh,” are unhappy too, perhaps because they are empty and walking away, since so few women fit into them. Or perhaps they realize the absurdity of the system – everyone wants to desire and be desired, yet  our self-imposed category of desirability is stupidly restrictive. It is worth noting that these are women’s pants, and not men’s pants, yet by narrowly focusing on one body type, competing men run up against the same loneliness, only on the flip side.

Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane interrogates the gender role instruction kids grew up with in the 50s and 60s. The pre-Seuss Dick and Jane readers taught schoolchildren much more than reading – it was Dick who played sports and ran with Spot the dog and rescued Puff the kitten. Jane stood by in her blue ruffled dress making monosyllabic exclamations. In Andrews’ re-examination, contemporary gender role values are imposed on the connotated world of white, middle class ‘50s suburbia. In one poem, a young girl named Stephanie writes to Jane, asking why she lets Dick win every single race. “Does he ever come in second, she asked. Didn’t Stephanie know? Jane’s job was to clap so Dick could run fast, to be silly so that Dick could laugh, to cry so Dick could comfort her, to scream oh no, so that Dick could save the day or Puff, the kitten” (23). In the end, however, Jane could not resist the radical feminist belief that women, too, should strive for self-actualization. In the poem “Fantasy Jane” she looks back on her life,

Jane never knew how it happened. Her life, her love, her dreams… What were they? Had she always been just a fantasy, a fantasy of Dick’s? But of which Dick? Was that the question of her life? Her life of so many Dicks. Her father was a Dick, her brother was a Dick, her neighbor and her neighbor’s neighbor and of course her husband, too. (19)

Gender roles are further explored as well as complicated in Andrews’ most autobiographical collection Southern Comfort. The mother wears the pants in this household. After the father spills $105-an-ounce Christian Dior Diorissimo perfume on his favorite suit, he complains to everyone that “he couldn’t comprehend how a sane soul could live with a woman whose bathroom is nothing but a maze of perfumes, powders, lotions, elixirs, pills, douches, palliatives, and God only knows what all else.” (64) He doesn’t get the last word, however. As Andrews observes,

My mother had an instinct for retaliation. She began to inquire of guests at cocktail parties just why it is a man can’t learn to control his aim. After twelve years of marriage, not a morning had passed, she explained, when she had not had to Lysol and wipe up at least one splash from the rim of her toilet bowl or floor… She even began to wonder why some sort of disposable funnel had not been invented by Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, which could be attached to a penis, perhaps with a rubber band or Velcro, and made to conduct the flow neatly into a toilet bowl without mishap. (64)

In the end, a sign goes up on the door: Women Only. She concludes, “In a house of many daughters, the message was clear. My father was not welcome” (64). In both poems, “The Fight” and “Fantasy Jane,” the penis becomes something of a joke, thereby subverting traditional male power. Word play softens the blow, and there is no blood – this time – but it is a theme that weaves in and out of the poems.

Andrews’ mother and father continue to compete, contradict and generally argue their way through the book, and their daughters sometimes have to choose which parent to align with – the northern, fact-stickler mother or the southern, mythmaking father; but in the end, Andrews uses humor and nostalgia to reveal the nature of her relationship to them. In the title poem, which takes place when the mother is away, Andrews and her father stay up late sipping whiskey drinks, even though Andrews is still a small girl. He sits on the couch and reads, and she lies belly-down looking at picture books she’d read “a thousand times,” and pretends that was all there was, “the two of us alone, together, on a summer night” (66).

Things don’t always work out so neatly, though. The collections Why They Grow Wings and Sleeping With Houdini give voice to women who would specialize in flight or other disappearing acts. They have nightmares of drowning or being eaten inside out by tigers. They have suicidal urges and are saved, perhaps by electro-shock, or are not saved. They are seduced away from everything they know, or they hurl themselves at unnoticing strangers. They are left by lovers and fathers. “The Kiss” is about the obsession that follows a break-up. The speaker begins, “At first I thought it would be simple to forget.” But it doesn’t work that way. “Days passed, so many of them, and in each one I saw you again and called your name like a chant, a song, a prayer. Soon I became so used to you, leaving your trace in my mind, like a shadow on the sea, a sea of shadows. Only the birds kept watching, lifting me each morning out of my darkness.” The poem continues to chronicle spiraling despair:

How I envied you, then, and all men like you, who float like milkweed in the wind, wandering through random cities, cities full of houses, houses full of rooms, rooms bleeding light in the darkness, the scope of their thoughtlessness extending infinitely outwards in a shimmering, an envelope of light, before vanishing forever.” (42)

In this poem it is he who seems to disappear, slipped from his underwater chains like Houdini. But that’s the illusion: it’s really she who has vanished, since her retreat into depressive sleeplessness prevents her from being a participant in her own life. Presumably, in the world, the actual world that Andrews inhabits, there are thoughtless women who float like milkweed in wind, but in this poem it is the woman who is left behind collapsing.

Sometimes the loneliness kicks in before anything else can happen. In the poem “Adolescence,” a girl finds her body is changing into something undesirable. Andrews uses the language and imagery of fairy tales (castle at the bottom of the sea), laced with contemporary details (blue jeans and Band-aids).

The winter her body no longer fit, walking felt like swimming in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Everything stuck to her skin: gum wrappers, Band–aids, leaves. How she envied the other girls, especially the kind who turned into birds. They were the ones boys hand–tamed, training them to eat crumbs from their open palms or to sing on cue. What she would have done for a red crest and a sharp beak, for a little square of blue sky to enter her like wings. But it was her role to sink so the others could rise, hers to sleep so the others could dance. If only her legs weren’t too sodden to lift, if only her buttons would unfasten in the water she kept swimming through, and she could extract from the shadow of her breasts a soul as soft as a silk brassiere, beautiful and useless, like a castle at the bottom of the sea. (Why They Grow Wings 23)

This young woman grieves much as the women weeping over the tiny velvet pants. They seem, either temporarily or permanently, to lack the ability to either present themselves as desirable despite their failure to match up with some ideal, or to say to hell with desirability: I’m doing something else with my life. In this way, Andrews shows us that the myth itself is failing women. She is serving in the role of Stephanie, asking if Dick doesn’t ever come in second?

Through humor, exposing taboo, and kicking sacred cows, Andrews shows us the folly of some of our traditional gender assumptions and their limitations for both men and women, with a particular sensitivity to women. She notes in an interview with MiPoesias Magazine that gender bias even slips into the way we read her work. I will give her the last word: “One question I am so often asked is, how can I write like that, meaning how can I write about sex. Don’t I worry that my parents will see? My first answer is no. Let’s face it. Few poets have high visibility. And if that’s ever a problem, then congratulations. And my second answer is, would you be asking me that same question if I were male?”

Works Cited

Andrews, Nin. The Book of Orgasms. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2000.

— . Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane. Washington DC: Web del Sol Association, 2005.

— . Sleeping with Houdini. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd., 2008.

— .  Southern Comfort. Glen Rock, New Jersey : Cavankerry, 2009.

— . Why They Grow Wings Berkeley, California: Silverfish Review Press, 2001.

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Karen Schubert’s poems appear or are forthcoming in MUSE, Jenny, Penguin Review, Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, Redactions and othersHer chapbooks are Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus, forthcoming) and The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House, 2008). Nominated for 2011 Best of the Web, she teaches writing at Youngstown State University.