Between States by Al Maginnes: Limited Edition Chapbook from Main Street Rag


Between States

Poems by Al Maginnes

“Dream what has always been dreamed,/ and nothing changes,” begins one of the poems in Between States. The people in these poems are looking for new dreams and new ways of dreaming. Many of the individuals begin at a place of uncertainty, but refuse to stay there. Over and over, these poems insist that we are not defined by our physical circumstances but by our reaction to those circumstances, what we do, what we say. These poems show how “the need to be heard does not change.” Al Maginnes does not offer easy answers; he understands that we are “puzzled by/ a past we were too quickly part of.” But he does offer the possibility for hope. He recognizes the “invisible music” that binds us, the possibility of “song that flies over/ empty plains of prayer and absence” to let us sing our purest human music.

Richard Krawiec,
author of Breakdown, A Father’s Journey
(Finalist 2009 Indie Awards for Poetry)

Purchase Between States

This Limited Edition chapbook is part of Main Street Rag’s Author’s Choice Chapbook Series. Print run is based entirely on advance sales. Advance Sale Discount price of $3.50 (+ shipping) will be available until May 4. Release/ship date will be May 11.

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The Brands of Immortality Offered: Al Maginnes on Diann Blakely’s Cities of Flesh and the Dead


cities-of-flesh-and-the-dead

Cities of Flesh and the Dead, Diann Blakely, Elixir Press

This has been a difficult review to write. Some poets and some poems are so simply themselves there is little a critic can do to illuminate the poems other than say, “Read these.” One thinks of Donald Justice or Philip Larkin. To this list, I would add Diann Blakely and her wonderful new collection Cities of Flesh and the Dead. This is not to say that there is nothing to praise in Blakely’s new book. Readers can point to the brilliant textures of her language, her supple ease with forms, or the relentless questioning of her poems. Yet, the poems are so complete that critical commentary doesn’t add much.

In Bad Blood, the collection’s opening poem, Blakely begins with the image of a woman who stares “wild eyed” when “death/ That black winged angel/ Appears without warning.” A few lines later, we realize that the woman staring in horror is Janet Leigh in the movie Psycho. Thus, the opening lines of the book present concerns with which the entire collection will wrestle. The collection, Blakely’s third in just under two decades, juxtaposes the mortality of flesh with the brands of immortality offered by art wondering what consolation art can offer us as we busy ourselves with dying. This answer varies from reader to reader and probably from day to day; Blakely is too canny a poet to venture a prescription (“Take two Modiglianis and call me in the morning”). What she does is provide us with a clutch of beautiful and excoriating poems that force us to confront the fact of mortality even as we revel in the beauty of these well-made and crucial poems.

This is tricky territory, and it is also poetry’s oldest battleground. Thoroughly contemporary, these poems align themselves with tradition by utilizing form and meter so craftily that it never calls attention to itself and through a reverence for those already departed. Many of the departed are poets: there are elegies in this book for poets William Matthews and Lynda Hull (both of whom Blakely knew) and remembrances of or dedications to Lorca, Anthony Hecht, Herbert Morris, and Philip Larkin. These deaths are important not only for the way in which they remember and honor the dead but for the way they turn the speaker and the reader of these poems back upon his or her own life. “What is mid-life,” Blakely asks in Itinerary, one of a group of sonnets dedicated to the lavishly talented Lynda Hull, who died in 1994 (readers would do well to seek out a copy of Hull’s Collected Poems, recently published by Graywolf), “when every long distance call/ And letter seems to shriek sad news or loss.”

If poetry is one of the art forms providing some consolation for the writer of these poems, then the others are cinema and music. This is as it should be; most poets of Blakely’s (and my) generation have logged far more time in front of the stereo and the movie screen than seated in opera houses or wandering through art galleries. Thus, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Tina Turner, the anonymous music makers of Memphis and Nashville, and even Pee Wee Herman appear in these pages. But art alone is no consolation; Blakely finds solace in the lives of artists who last. While she calls out to and cries for the ones who died young—the Lynda Hulls and Kurt Cobains—another part of her soul is sustained by the example of artists who last and remain productive. A lovely and harrowing sequence of poems in the voice of Mary Jane Kelly, the last known victim of Jack the Ripper, is dedicated to Anthony Hecht, a poet who remained active and productive until his death. A sonnet about the film Pretty Baby is dedicated to Jerry Wexler, the legendary record producer whose career spanned decades. Even the long life and odd career of Leni Riefenstahl, best known for her films glorifying the Third Reich, provide some hope.

There is more going on here than musings on art and tributes to and thoughts of fallen friends and heroes. At every turn, Blakely’s poems confront what it finally means to be alive. The making of art, of things meant to last beyond the artist’s lifetime, must confront a world that simply does not mean for things to last. In Before the Flood: A Solo from New Orleans, a day trip to that city teeters between disillusionment when confronted by “heat already swathing the narrow smelly streets, their beer joints/ and souvenir shops selling masks half price after Mardi Gras.” Yet the speaker, uneasy among “strippers in round the clock bars” and a man kneeling on a street corner “begging for mercy,” finds a footing when a young mother “dealt tarot cards and told my life story so truly I tipped/ her ten dollars with hands/ that shook, then walked smack into two men swapping envelopes.” If this mix of beauty and danger is typical of New Orleans, it is also emblematic of our lives in the early twenty first century. “How can we belong anywhere except by peeling shrimp/ And drinking cheap beer/ Before divining our way back to our hotels, blurred copies/ of Baudelaire’s poems?” the poet asks. The answer to the dilemma of mortality is to ignore our approaching deaths, of course, to immerse ourselves in the pleasures afforded by strange cities, but beer and poems and whatever works of art bring us pleasure.

Blakely has always been a scrupulous poet, one who works at her own pace, and that craft is rewarded in the fine poems that make up Cities of Flesh and the Dead (it is worth noting that the entire book is a very handsome production). The blend of high and pop art in these poems, the attention to craft, the sheer exuberance and precision of the language make this a book that places Blakely alongside some of the masters she names and pays homage to.

“Poems that Pick and Choose Their Own Path”: Al Maginnes on GC Waldrep’s Disclamor


Disclamor, G.C. Waldrep, BOA Editions

It is difficult to say who is being addressed in the first poem of G.C. Waldrep’s second collection Disclamor. “If I believed you what would change,” asks the poem’s final line followed by the imperative “Tell me.” Until the final lines, the poem reads as a slightly off-kilter description of dusk’s falling, but the introduction of “you” thrusts the poem into new territory as does the observation in the poem’s penultimate line, “The holly plays host to its spare nation.” Given the historical and political territory that some Disclamor’s other poems take on, the choice of the word “nation” is no accident.

Someone coming to Waldrep’s poetry aware of his back story—a PhD in history, the author of the study Southern Workers and the Search for Community, an adult convert to the Amish faith—might be forgiven for expecting a quieter, more narrative poetry. The poems in Disclamor as in Goldbeater’s Skin, Waldrep’s first collection, are edgy, angular, possessed of an itchy energy but tempered by a long view of the human enterprise that rescues them from joining much of the talky, hyperkinetic poetry that has been the vogue in American poetry for the last half dozen or so years.

The armatures of this collection are nine poems collectively entitled “The Batteries,” which were published as a separate chapbook by New Michigan Press. Each of these poems was named for one of the nine gun emplacements at Forts Barry and Cronkhite in Marin County, California. If the first two battery poems—the poems are spread throughout the book rather than grouped together—offer little more than sharp imagery and attention to detail, the third, Battery Mendell seizes our attention with its first line: “This is become  a place of children.” The poem continues:

                   I squat, and with the muscles of my calves

                             suspend my rhythm

                                                —-the dirge, the waltz—-

                                            over these sea cliffs.

 

                   Inheritance, then:

                             that which cannot be refused

                             that which is beyond purpose;

                                      that which is a given,

                                                                   given.

What we inherit and cannot refuse, among other things, is history. And given the setting of these poems, a portion of this inheritance is America’s history of violence. At the poem’s end, Waldrep turns his focus to the children who captured the speaker’s attention at the beginning of the poem. Delighted by the physical structure of the battery, they are unaware of its history. Yet their innocence, if that’s what it is, will not remain undisturbed:

                        They are the warnings we ignore,

                                                          the beacons.

                   They are so hot now we cannot touch them.

                             They will not be held.

Whatever misgivings Waldrep might have about the fate of the children, about the future of this world we have made, he is wise enough not to spell out explicitly or to dwell on. The restless surface of these poems does not allow for lengthy ruminations or for conclusions reached after long thought. “What is written here fades quickly,” Waldrep claims in Battery O’Rorke.

Caught in the tempest of human affairs, it’s sometimes too easy to forget that nature is more permanent than the whims of politics and the conflicts of men. Waldrep proves himself a surprisingly adept, if singular, observer of nature in many of the poems in Disclamor. Unlike many contemporary poets who take nature as their topic, Waldrep does not envision nature without the influence of humankind. In Many of Us Identify With Animals, he begins, “Half a toy being better than/ none. A forest being better than none.”

This juxtaposition of the manmade and abandoned with the forest—one can almost sense its shrinking—continues through the poem: “And the miraculous beauty/ of small objects. A broken comb. Detach’d/ leg of a beetle.” With the debris of nature and man so interwoven, it is inevitable that we ponder the fate of the forest. Again, Waldrep summons the specter of children, these “on their crutches.” As the natural world shrinks, as even the small wild places that once thrived in juxtaposition to human dwellings vanish, one wonders where the generation these children represent or the generations that come after them will go to observe nature.

If Waldrep is a poet who takes on, however obliquely, large and serious matters, it must be noted that he can be a very funny poet as well, although his humor is not the arch slapstick we have come to expect from so-called humorous poets. The comedy in these poems comes from their embrace of the absurd, as in Cosmologies of the Zinniae, when the poem’s speaker addresses a group of “valiant shirts,” thanking them for their courage before he has had a chance to wear them. In Feeding the Pear, we are presented with the dilemma of being required to, yes, feed a pear while trying to keep up with a group of singers.

With so much of our contemporary poetry falling into neatly defined categories, G.C. Waldrep is a poet who seems bent on writing poems that will not settle easily in any camp, that will pick and choose their own path. These are poems that do not yield easily to explication, but, they are poems that reward attention. And they are poems that deserve the attention of anyone curious about what new territories American poetry might have left to explore in this young century.

*

Al Maginnes is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently a chapbook, Dry Glass Blues (Pudding House Publications, 2007) and Ghost Alphabet which won the 2007 White Pine Poetry Prize and will be available in October of 2008. New poems appear or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Green Moutains Review, Terminus, Mid American Review and Southern Poetry Review. He lives in Raleigh, NC and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.