At Once Elegant and Deadly: Joan Biddle on Daniel Johnson’s How to Catch a Falling Knife


Daniel Johnson, How to Catch a Falling Knife, Alice James Books

To enter the world of Daniel Johnson’s How to Catch a Falling Knife is to enter a playful, celebratory, real, and dangerous place. Johnson’s smooth, clear, colloquial verse is familiar and laid-back, constructed into beautiful odes to his hometown, growing up in the Steel Valley, and his family. The clean, pared down diction recreates real life through the lens of time passed. His poems explore something fearful yet warm, familiar. In his homages to childhood, there is always the hint of something sinister, something about to turn. For example, in “My Father, The Small Town Sadist,” Johnson describes laughing at a story his dentist father tells: “I clap and laugh with my mouth / open wide and my head thrown back / til something in the room turns.”

Johnson’s love poems stand out to me the most. In “For Ebele” Johnson writes, “you light / my body like // nineteen rooms / at the water’s edge.” Here, he puts an undefined feeling into the best words he can use to describe it. The image of the nineteen lit rooms at the water’s edge suggests the reflection of light in the water, light multiplied. This image and the short lines not only elicit physical desire but deeper love beyond that, a love that brings life to every part of him.

In “Late for Dinner With Kenji and Yoon,” Johnson creates a love poem out of an ordinary, if not everyday, situation. The speaker observes his wife trim her pubic hair, and this simple act heightens his love. He writes, “[I] joke that I will wear your sex / around my neck as an amulet / when I bike into traffic at dusk, / when I am bodyless, no more / than a blinking white light.” The “pagan keepsake” of her shorn pubic hair becomes a talisman, his only self when his self is not left any longer, when he is without his body. Johnson expresses a depth of love and passion through an unconventional tale; he twists the fairy tale notion around to express simple love in a way it hasn’t been done before. The immediacy of the title grounds the poem, furthering the notion that love is often about little moments, even crude ones.

In “Apt. 2” he again celebrates the small and ordinary. Of moving out of an apartment, he writes, “But it’s not the treelined street I’ll miss— / it’s the bedroom light switch // and the filthy nimbus ringing it.” The latter line is its own stanza, set apart in a poem of couplets. Of all the things the speaker will miss, it is the dirt from fingers turning the light on and off each day. The poem resists change as it represents change, cherishing the old as it moves into the new. It praises the everyday things remembered that are never what one expects.

The title How to Catch a Falling Knife exhibits danger, helplessness, and not knowing how to deal with a tough situation. It also presents a lovely, filmic image, at once elegant and deadly. The title poem “To Catch a Falling Knife” is about faith and doubt, and the line like a knife blade between the two. You must doubt, the poem says, or the falling knife will separate “what you believe, / once and for all, / from what you don’t.” It is a poem of the precariousness of life and death, good and evil, faith and doubt.

“Description of a Badly Drawn Horse” is the first poem I read of Johnson’s when it was reprinted in Poetry Daily. The poem’s willingness to admit failure and unbridled (no pun intended) enthusiasm struck me. The artist in the poem keeps on with his work, even though it is malformed – the horse’s head “squared off and wooden the way an animal’s is not.” The speaker draws a boy who is “smiling. Terribly.” The figure has both a terribly drawn smile and also overflowing and unexplainable enthusiasm for riding this horse. It is how an artist should feel, how a poet sometimes feels when writing, even when the work is bad. It is also how one should feel about life. Smile terribly in the face of what’s gone wrong just as much as what’s gone right.

This celebratory note comes out as well in “Steel Valley Songbook, Volume I,” in which Johnson takes on a scriptural cadence in his praise song for his hometown. This is a happy poem full of memories of undesirable things that somehow end up rosy in hindsight. In the poem, he praises “dead-end signs peppered with buckshot” and “the Cuyahoga caught fire.” He writes, “Praise the sign that reads DANGER: DO NOT WADE, SWIM, OR / FISH HERE! Praise, in jean shorts and ripped concert T-shirts, / the girls who swim anyway.” His list exhibits a joy for the past, things good and things dangerous, things desired and risks taken when one is too young to know better.

Johnson’s poems are unrhymed, and move slowly and deliberately through couplet, triplet, or single stanzas, developing family relationships, referencing the speaker’s father, brother, wife, and others close to him. Some explore death, as in “When It’s Time,” where Johnson writes, “To the rusted bridge I will offer, / Here is my name weighing no more than sunlight, // my height and weight, the blue from my eyes.” In this poem, he exhibits a humble relinquishing of worldly things in the face of death. These things are of no importance in the grander scheme. He offers up his pens and notebook, and sings that he is “the son of a photograph,” until “my voice sounds strange floating / like smoke into cottonwoods.” Writing may remain, but the physical parts of us become meaningless, our names “weighing no more than sunlight.”

*

Joan Biddle is a writer, editor, and English instructor at The University of Memphis in Memphis, TN. She holds an MA from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA from The New School University. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in Half-Drunk Muse, The Yalobusha Review, The Red Booth Review, The Country Dog Review, and Small Spiral Notebook. An audio podcast of Biddle reading her poetry can be found on apostrophecast.com. Her website is joanbiddle.net

Taking All the Secrets with Him: Rick Marlatt on Chad Sweeney’s Parable of Hide and Seek


Parable of Hide and Seek, Chad Sweeney, Alice James Books, 2010

Chad Sweeney is up to some serious mischief in his latest collection, published this fall by Alice James Books. A Parable of Hide and Seek features seamless transitions between narration and metaphor, personification and memory, and reality and fantasy. “Council of Caryatids” is an emblematic piece, in that Sweeney employs playful, unexpected ventures in tone and perspective that illuminate not only logical responses to imaginative stimuli, but also reveal hidden, subtle understandings that speak to larger truths about how language conveys meaning.

Late at night the caryatids
discuss what is behind them.
They face the piazza with its bright water

and strain their eyes sideways
to glimpse each other’s noses.
Listening to the discussion

feels like a cold tremble in the marble.
Gypsies make their accordions weep.
A clubfoot brushes his teeth over the step.

One caryatid says,
A darkness opens behind us
And we are its favorite children. (15)

With relatively simple, tactile images, Sweeney offers a unique conception of perspective that breathes eccentric life and personality into the artificial world. All of this is accomplished in a smoothly organized structure which allows the characters to gradually come to life through the first half of the piece. The third stanza is a crucial point in the poem wherein the pace slows down to a breathless silence, then again gathers energy before launching into its brilliant, addictive conclusion.

Thematically, the collection resists a categorical journey from one place to another; even better, it offers myriad destinations, a plethora of possible realities, of which Sweeney is the orchestrator and guide. Sweeney blends together aspects of consciousness in “The Methodist and his Method” and “Poem,” elements of fiction in “Character Development,” “Rising Action,” and “Establishing a Setting,” urban and industrial landscapes in “The Factory” and “The Auction,” as well as the natural world in “Nocturne” and “Harvest Time while Whale Watching.”

Poem after poem, Sweeney demonstrates the ability to shift tenses, images, directions in the middle of a piece, without altering structure or style. This tactic is visible in “Go to Sleep,” where the speaker’s point of view transfers from third person to first person at the piece’s midpoint. The result is a symbiotic existence between the speaker and the beautifully descriptive environment that has been constructed. “San Francisco” and “Into the Tunnel” explore apocalyptic urban textures that haunt the reader in magical, benevolent ways. While Sweeney’s visions are, at times, drastically disjointed and jarring, the effects are purified by his lines which hum with an unmistakable musicality, a dependable rhythm that intensifies the form that appears to restrain it.

In the title poem, Sweeney’s knack for extremes mixes wonderfully with his quiet brilliance and unmistakable heart. And all of it is on constant display.

I was a junebug found by a vole.
I was a wave ruffled by a wind.

I stood in long bank lines.
I attended the Third Church of the Heretic.

I hid as darkness
diminished by a torch.

I wore glasses and a bowler.
I lay flat as a spill.

I hid as a bullet fired into hay.
I hid as a system of government.

You were my partner in everything.
I lived for you to find me. (22)

Few couplets are able to offer as much profundity and weight with abbreviated lines as those found in this beautiful, nifty piece. Each couplet is a perfectly married pair, an element of the poem that accentuates its themes of counterparts, symbiosis, and relationships. Fittingly, by the poems conclusion, the reader realizes that he is one with the speaker. Those fortunate enough to be familiar with Sweeney’s previous work will see many of these poems as natural progressions from his earlier efforts, yet what is perhaps even more impressive than the visible honing in the poet’s skill, is the balance of a sophisticated style with a genuinely hopeful voice. A Parable of Hide And Seek is a truly terrific gem just aching to be found.

Vagaries of a Violent World: Sarah Sousa on Kevin Goodan’s Winter Tenor


Kevin Goodan, Winter Tenor, Alice James Books

In a series of untitled, haiku-spare poems, Kevin Goodan’s second collection Winter Tenor reads like an ode to nature. Not the beauty of flower and birdsong alone, but the landscape and reality of suffering on, presumably, a New England farm. Goodan lived on a farm in western Massachusetts at the publication of his first book. This is Frost’s New England, skewed, and with an intense light focused on the harsher elements of “Pigeon blood drying on the shit-spreader” and “crushed/ heads of kittens found mewling in the spaces between bales.” Readers unfamiliar with the violence of a working farm where animals are raised for meat and profit and are often slaughtered on site by the hand that births, doctors and feeds them, will have to reconcile this recurrent image with Goodan’s love letter to his flawed yet beautiful livelihood.

Unencumbered by titles, Goodan engages in a book-length examination of his subject as if he were studying a glass paperweight with a flower pressed between the layers, tilting it this way and that, considering the appearance, the experience, from different angles.

The juxtaposition of what compels yet disturbs the poet is a friction at work within each poem and between the poems. The Whitmanesque anaphora on page six celebrates the human as classifier, the farmer as Lord of his domain, while recognizing the burden inherent in both positions:

To crave what the light does crave
to shelter, to flee
to gain desire of every splayed leaf
to calm cattle, to heat the mare
to coax dead flies back from slumber
to turn the gaze of each opened bud
to ripe the fruit to rot the fruit
and drive down under the earth
to lord a gentle dust
to lend a glancing grace to llamas
to gather dampness from fields
and divide birds
and divide the ewes from slaughter
and raise the corn and bend the wheat
and drive tractors to ruin
burnish the fox, brother the hawk
shed the snake, bloom the weed
and drive all wind diurnal
to blanch the fire and clot the cloud
to husk, to harvest,
sheave and chaff
to choose the bird
and voice the bird
to sing us, veery, into darkness

Goodan’s choice to eliminate punctuation at the end of some poems, contributes to the interconnectedness between the pieces. This litany of the human’s, and more specifically the farmer’s, breakdown of chores: “to ripe the fruit and rot the fruit/ to husk, to harvest” ends with a slight torque of the poet’s use of the word “To”. We begin reading the line “to choose the bird” imagining a literal task as in “to calm cattle” but Goodan continues, qualifying the line with: “and voice the bird”. And here we see him choosing “to sing us, veery, into darkness”, choosing lyricism to soften the darkness as does the haunting and beautiful song of the veery.

Birds flit in and out of the poems and there is a sinister echo of “to choose the bird” midway through the book. Interestingly, it is also at this point that the poet begins to be seen as complicit with the violence around him:

In the burn-barrel wings
and breasts of many birds were glazed and dotted with the crushed
heads of kittens found mewling in the spaces between bales

The poet stands at a remove. The kittens were “found” between the bales and were heaped by some hand into the barrel with the “breasts of many birds”, but the reader is getting wise to the speaker’s role: “to choose the bird.” The sense of being wearied yet compelled by the dark beauty of farm life is revisited throughout the book. Later, the poet writes: “There are things I remember that brought me here, things I wanted to learn”.

Midway through the book, the speaker becomes fully complicit with a god that is not “calmness/ but a stand of birch catching flame”. Notice in the following line and many instances throughout the collection, the way in which birds witness the scene and give voice by singing or chanting. The poet’s relationship with the birds that populate his trees and fields is complicated; he identifies with them, he recognizes their witnessing presence, he silences them by rounding up and burning them. Where “Vesper sparrows flock and chant/ around the ewe kicked to death by mares”, the speaker moves from observing to lifting the body, its blood soaking through his pants and staining his skin, to a confession of sorts:

I hold the Cheviot lamb
that will not feed against my thigh
scratch its neck so it lifts its head
saying random words in a soft voice
until it closes its eyes and I pass
the blade across the neck quick
systolic arcs surge from the kerf
callnotes to the soil I’m not saying

Most readers will pause a beat or two before turning the page. It’s a challenge to remain in Goodan’s camp after this scene. One may think, as I did, who coincidentally live in New England and have experienced the harsh realities of farm life, including burning dead livestock on a bonfire: “Did he have to kill the lamb himself? You can hire people to do that kind of thing” “Is this gratuitous, or for show?” But, I’d suggest that the speaker’s complicity is necessary for the credibility and movement of this collection. There’s really no other direction it can go in. In order for the poet to “sing us, veery, into darkness” he must also enter the darkness. When the page is turned, the reader finds: “The shrike that impales none/ by some obscure faith”. And the rift between what the speaker has done and how he feels about what he has done begins to widen, culminating in the heartbreaking last poem, which places the speaker both inside and outside of the scene, bringing the collection full circle and achieving a sense of culmination:

Who will angel what remains?
winter birds sing in every copse.
Canebrake, unknown star—
old leaves burn
as if maple knew nothing more
than rain. Such fleshly ardour
the dark urge we beatify—
A farmer turns his collar to the flame.
The sun idles down,
a storm makes dark in the east,
I whisper brother,
come near my fire, we who saw
and sought, who bodied
and birded and lit
in the darkness. The corn
and windchill lend parity
to the clay. Llamas tarry the silage.
Will you go as gently to the knives?
The mares maintaining distance from the hedge-ditch.
And if I could sing. Every branch a branch of fire.

This last poem is fittingly set in winter. The speaker takes his place among the mares, the sheep and the kittens as beasts who suffer the vagaries of a violent world and an unpredictable god. “Who will angel what remains?” he asks, recognizing his own impermanence. The poet becomes both the farmer who turns his collar to the flame and the one who whispers “brother,/ come near my fire.” and thus when he asks “Will you go as gently to the knives?” the question is asked of his fellow farmer, of himself and of us all.

*

Sarah Sousa is a poet living in western Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. She received an MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her poems have appeared in literary journals including: Smartish Pace, Spire Press, White Pelican Review, and Amoskeag: The Journal of Southern New Hampshire University, as well as the Maine anthology A Sense of Place.Her poetry manuscript To Stave Off Disaster was a semi-finalist for the 2009 University of Akron Book prize and a finalist for both the 2010 Astrophil Press book prize and 2010 John Ciardi Prize. Her poem “Leaving Maine” was chosen for inclusion in Meridian’s 50 Best New Poets 2010. She has poems in the current issues of Weave, Inertia and Eudaimonia and a poem forthcoming in Clare Magazine of Cardinal Stritch University.

His Name is Donald: Mike Smith on Donald Revell’s The Bitter Withy


The Bitter Withy, Donald Revell, Alice James Books, 2009

Given that it appeared a mere two years after his sublime A Thief of Strings, it is possible to regard Donald Revell’s new collection, The Bitter Withy, as mere addendum to that important book. For if Revell were as much an heir to Wallace Stevens’s publishing practice as he is to Stevens’s lyricism, he might have merely attached the poems of The Bitter Withy to his own very own Harmonium. That would have been a mistake. At once more uniform and less ambitious, but with almost as large an emotional register, if The Bitter Withy is a quieter achievement, it nonetheless perfects the idiom of A Thief of Strings to great advantage in individual poems. And if a majority of readers decide that A Thief of Strings is the more important book, it is equally possible that many will find themselves more intensely moved by the poems of The Bitter Withy. Revell’s gaze is deceptively (un)adorned, and capable of great zooms, inserting or removing tracts of distance. These poems look at the world of human life realistically, palpably nostalgic for old consolations and greater capacities for wonder, consolations and capacities that can be approached now only through submission, a careful and powerful quiet that Revell both achieves and instills.

In fact, it may be that in addition to the greater number of individually successful poems in The Bitter Withy, this new book proves that the proper length and form of this new idiom of Revell’s is the 14-line sonnet that might now more fruitfully be compared to Berryman’s Songs than the late-career sonnets of Berryman’s friend and rival, Robert Lowell, which, for all their loose architecture and looser materials, still seem overly-tied to the pentameter. Like Berryman, Revell has evolved a frame malleable and restrained enough to house this new voice and perspective. The sonnet form dominates The Bitter Withy even more than it did A Thief of Strings, since there are no long poems in this new collection equal in length or ambition to the long poems of its predecessor, especially if you read, as I do, the 14-sonnet cycle for Robert Creeley in that book as “one solid block.”

No, it is the shorter poems in which Revell’s evolved, now unmistakable, voice finds itself most at home and it is the sonnets, in particular, that best showcase the enduring virtues of Revell’s idiom: its friendly and conversational tone, the childlike constructions (which proceed from a renewed emphasis on simplicity and openness to the natural world), the quiet riddling and subdued surprise, the packed (away) metaphors that lead into, most often, generalizations of suffering, belief, and the joy and wonder of mere survival, the challenge and contentment of letting the world just happen. Add to these characteristics the non-sequiters that discomfit rather than amuse, the penchant for direct statement and direct address, and you end up with a voice just sonorous enough that you want to let it get away with saying anything. More often than not, it does. Take for example, the opening lines to “Tools,” the first poem of the collection:

Just at dawn the full moon
In its coin of rainbow
Called my name. I’d been cold…

And then I wasn’t cold anymore.
I have a name, and it isn’t a problem.

It’s effortless how the coin, the basest of tools we call treasure, glosses the rainbow that has no end. The moon has to be full, doesn’t it, for the spell to work? Not just because it catches more of the sun’s rays, but that, in its clockwork precision, it shouts loudest his name. “Tools” introduces one of the most frequent tropes at work in the book. How many of these poems give us one of those “momentary wonders if more briefly now” in which the speaker achieves the (Christ-like) peace of pure reaction to the occurrence of the world? If the world needs him to suffer love, he will suffer. If it needs him to laugh, he will throw back his head.

Probably even greater than sentimentality, the danger these poems flirt with is a flabby kind of flatness. Flatness and the illusion (Berryman?) that anything can be brought in to this form and dealt with equally effortlessly. The poem “Flight,” which, unfortunately, comes early in the collection, succumbs to both of these dangers.

The enormous man selling
Over the airplane telephone while below us
An emptiness made of ten million stones
Of mist (or is it the sun haze,
The exhalation of a star in every stone?)
Prepares his soul and my soul
For heaven and for heavens.
It is 2004 and 140 A.D.
Juvenal’s Satires find America.
No cede malis. We are killing
Everyone not here.

I miss the wonder and the wondering, the witness without the judgment, the capability of this same voice to approach the earnestness and artifice of gospel. I’ll take Mark over Matthew, and not just because he claims to have been there, and I can’t help but contrast this poem with the sublime “Nemesis,” which appears a few pages later.

A man removes the animal from his eye;
And the animal dies—
Reluctant symmetry.
When I was alone I traveled
The entire way around the Earth on snow.
I was fast.

The other side of this coin, though, is one of the chief virtues of Revell’s voice: Its ranginess. The same extended breath can give us everything from dialectical meditations to articulations of devotion and death at home in any Renaissance anthology, to homely and homey poems of miner (minor?) epiphanies to survivor poems that find or fail to find analogies for the human predicament in the natural world. As I said, Revell is an honest heir to Stevens, but also to early Creeley and any number of Elizabethan poets, though there is more of him in Gascoigne than Donne. He is, often in the same poem, occasionally in the same line, political, amorous, post-romantic, bucolic, post-LANGUAGE, realistic, associative, discursive, and most eloquent, perhaps, when communicating religious feeling. In fact, it will be tempting for readers of The Bitter Withy to claim for it a familiar theology in its preoccupation with Judeo-Christian terminology, narratives, and questions; in Revell’s emphasis on solace, however it comes, in his capacity for pity, attraction to redemptions, and in the book’s Wordsworthian intimations of a larger world. But the source of the title poem of the collection, unfortunately one of the least memorable, is a medieval hymn that emphasizes the susceptible humanity of the Christ child, and is decidedly outside the canons, as is St. Eustace’s vision which concludes “The Rabbits,” a close second to “Crickets” (It might be a photo-finish) as the finest longish short poem of the collection. Indeed, the poem and book are attracted to solace, however it comes. The perspective that comes through is of one for whom sitting at the table is a deliberate choice, and enough.

I want to expand on this by looking at three connected poems, almost a triptych, you might say, that occur almost exactly midway through the book: “The Lay of Smoke,” “The Lay of Wood,” and “The Lay of Water.” Here’re some lines from “The Lay of Smoke,” the first of the three poems:

As if we were rabbits
All that’s needed for any heaven
Is death and damage and a ditch

It’s telling of Revell’s survivor’s sense of himself as both body and being in the world that “damage” follows “death,” just as “humiliation” follows “death” in the second poem, “The Lay of Wood.”

Yellowbird, I pray for change…
… … …

Even as each day
The changes prove more terrible,
More set upon death and humiliation
Even the humiliation of mountains.

It’s even more telling that both lists end with the Earth itself. Reading these three poems, I asked myself the last time I’d encountered a better articulation of the problem and persistence of faith than these three poems. Wood, water, and air. The tools and trappings are familiar, but somehow they don’t seem worn out in Revell’s capable hands: wood of the cross, water of life and the promise of renewal, rebirth, and the airiness of the hope of reward. The problem of faith is inescapable, and Revell’s rearticulation and solution in the third poem, “The Lay of Water,” is positively Kierkegaardian:

Love fails and never fails.
Christ couldn’t bear it, but we must.
We must walk on water and through a woodland too.
The actual past weeps from future wounds.
We have children,
And the children live on air.

(A grammarian’s note: The number of punctuated sentences in the first poem is zero. There are nine in the second poem and sixteen in the third. I’m not sorry to say it took me three readings to notice.)

But Revell is sensitive to more than just the role of the natural world in the faulty formation of the human experience of faith. The very next poem, “Under the Rail Way Bridge in Albi,” presents for us both an example of the evocative power of artifact and our capacity for transforming into symbol the things of this world, in this case the composites of a garden scene in a photograph of the “actual past.”

Can you smell it,
Woodsmoke inside the camera?
… … …

I forget the garden waste on fire
Which is happiness, which becomes
Small snow falling across my world.

A transformation (transubstantiation) occurs: The ash of refuse from the lost garden, the “garden I have forgotten” becomes through processes of life and time and art the grace of “small snow falling across my world.” And two pages later, we get another poem on another photograph of snow from the actual past, a poem which approaches pure depiction, further refined, which shows Revell at his spare best, the voice quieted almost to the point of silence:

Snow so very
Small so welcome,
A whited tree
Comes to me.

This is monk’s music, a meditative determination to receive with greater openness and less judgment. And direct observation leads, as it almost always does with Revell, to direct statement:

These are islands,
Imperiled generations
So very small
In their mid-air,
Mid-oceans of air.

… … …

Small as snow,
Death is a window
Open at the beginning,
Open at the very end.

I wonder how many poems Revell would have to write in this new idiom for them to become rote. Eventually, of course, each subsequent poem would diminish its predecessors, but there’s no danger of that yet. Certainly, each one is necessary and welcome in this book. And I am convinced that together they will make one of the more enduring poetries to emerge in the first decade of our still-new century.

Purchase The Bitter Withy

Extracting the Human out of Humane: J. Michael Wahlgren on Carey Salerno’s Shelter


shelter

Shelter, Carey Salerno, Alice James Books

With Carey Salerno’s Shelter, we are introduced to new vocabularies and a new world; an e-room or euthanasia is introduced early in the book and the very elegant titles and wordplay juxtapose with an unfamiliar world for some: the world of animals. The blood and urine oozes as Salerno places elegant words next to the dry words of species and breeds.

There is more than a boring “on all fours” approach to Salerno’s Shelter: a concept of becoming one with the animals and interlocking into their world, their existence, is introduced. Attributing human qualities to animals is one approach that can be used, but the reverse is something rarely touched upon. As Salerno ends her poem “Euthanasia (e-room)” she writes, “We speak with eyes” and when “The sun rides her black back” in the poem “Beach Masque with Dog” there is an interaction between the world of dogs and our world, signified too by the title of this poem.

Salerno uses the couplet the majority of the book to signify togetherness: the world of dogs and other animals and our own world, and their interaction in a shelter. In these pages, the human experience is important, for example, in the poem “Shelter” the protagonist crawls out of the snow and seeks the same shelter.

In the snow, I crawl out

Claw charred earth

—like tundra—

But can’t get at the heart
Before it vanishes

The dogs seek comfort as they “sniff and howl /for shelter / all night.” There is mystery in the world of Salerno. When she uses the term “charred” it’s as if the dogs have pawed away at the earth before “it” eventually disappears. The “it” referring to the impact an animal makes on its keeper’s life or even the shelter itself.

There is a blurred interaction between these “keepers” of the shelter or “keepers of the keys.” For example, Salerno discusses “locking and unlocking the open door” in the poem “Afterlife” wondering in these lines who left these dogs here at the shelter: Who cared for them? Or in the poem “Instead of a Shotgun” an “unaddressed note threading the lock latch Please find home.”

What happens outside of the shelter is also of interest: a missed wedding, getting high outside and becoming paranoid and irresponsible. These ideas introduce a disjointedness which come together in principle with being young and being a teen. There is a need to grow, a need to change. It is the turning of the key that Salerno calls favorable: “Yes, we’re still waiting / to revisit, at night, the immutable scrolls we inked,/ stacked neatly on shelves, each name locked, a chain/ link door.” (“The Unlit Seam”)

These lines are symbolic of change: moving from one home to another home, or moving from irresponsibility to responsibility. The speaking with eyes, takes another form, as Salerno uses words which create new worlds, to introduce the death of animals and the seeking of a painless death.

As the blood oozes, Salerno paints a brief picture of returning to the place where we leave our mark. We also leave our scent (to use the dog analogy). But the most powerful image is “each name locked”; the idea of minimizing someone or some “thing” down to just a name. This can be interpreted to intend some positive or negative. It could be the power of words or even extracting the human out of humane that Salerno is referring to. This caring for animals and the shelter we seek becomes a universal. It becomes a lasting image of this book which makes Salerno’s Shelter, written in a poised and humane manner, a keeper.

The Past Still Remains: J. Michael Wahlgren on Idra Novey’s The Next Country


the-next-country

The Next Country, Idra Novey, Alice James Books

There is a certain jadedness implied from one time to another, from one place to another in Idra Novey’s debut poetry collection, The Next Country. With a simple lexicon and the introduction of objects, people and places, Novey paints a bittersweet situation which rides upon the past. The rhymes are punctual and apropos, one of which carries from the poem Property,
From his bedroom,
Neruda saw a painted board

Wash ashore, chipped
And blue, soggy from the sea.
to the poem Trans,
To speak of origins requires mastery
Of the verb to be. I used to be, for example
A little unwieldy. What an organ,
People said. To play me well
Demanded both hands & feet.

With a constant method of hiding & revealing, similar to Neruda’s desk from the sea, this book almost whispers the words to the reader. The process of revealing within The Next Country is a method used by Novey to lure the reader into a hopeful “next“: whether a broken automobile will run, whether or not a man will become successful, whether an octopus’ seventh arm will refasten.
Within the book, there remains an unseen.

So much grows on the unseen face.
(from From the Small Book of Returns)

…we’d missed into the unseen.
(from Maddox Road)
A bittersweet-like situation of leaving one’s origin to find another place is present. It doesn’t specify whether this place, traveled to by automobile, or by foot, is a better place, just that it remains another place. Hands and fingers, mouths and hallucinogenic berries are all objects handled by Novey. Though at an arm’s length, the taste of berries (“we lick at our fingers”) and a burning book (“the smell still in her hair) are prevalent images which hint at the importance of the past. Is there a sense of hope in the book‘s future?

What Novey is hinting at is that, no, there isn’t a sense of hope until one experiences it oneself. The moment that someone lives in (“My everything as symbol, though probably of nothing new”) and one’s surroundings define the reality of the situation. The reality of the situation begins as strange. The symbol here and an important image in the book is the slipping of one’s hand into another father’s palm,
Where you slipped your hand
Once
Into the palm
Of somebody else’s father.
If there is an elixir in this book, there’s someone else waiting for it, not you. The father here is symbolic. It is representative of a new country. When Novey tackles the fields, this sense of hope becomes alive. The past and present unite in Novey’s words (“For a second, you are everywhere / you have ever been”). A sense of strangeness remains.

Though we end with an image of roaming the fields, the past still remains. There is no burying, doing away with, burning, etc. the past. It is as tangible as a girl’s hair, or as potent as a hallucinogenic berry. As The Next Country whispers its words (“We’ve started now to whisper, strangers still. To settle on meanings, to speak again”) in one of the later poems in the book, At Some Point After We Sealed the Windows, the “speaking again” remains undefined; but it does not remain unseen. There are strange words that have come about and meanings which imply a bitter past. Novey tells it as it is: a history of brokenness and a hope of becoming complete.