What’s Going On Here?: David James on Liana Quill and Christopher Salerno

Fifty Poems, Liana Quill, Mississippi Review Press, 2010

Minimum Heroic, Christopher Salerno, Mississippi Review Press, 2010

Two books crossed my desk this week, award winners in the Mississippi Review Poetry Series: Fifty Poems by Liana Quill and Minimum Heroic by Christopher Salerno. Attractive, appealing, well-designed, these books called out to me to read them. When I began to read, I was dumbfounded. Okay, I’m old. I’m at a point in my writing/teaching career (code words for “I’ve been around and don’t give a damn”) where I can write negative reviews. Nobody really knows me and I’ve always been on the outskirts of the poetry scene. However, I’m widely read and I’ve cultivated my own particular aesthetic values, influenced heavily by James Wright, Anne Sexton, Richard Hugo, Galway Kinnell, Stephen Dunn, Sharon Olds, Ron Koertge, James Tate, and, of course, many others. This may explain my confusion as I read these new books.

First, let’s review Fifty Poems. Quill gives us fifty very short poems, haiku-like, in fifty pages. The longest poem is ten words. Other than providing some interesting examples of assonance, alliteration and consonance, the poems carry little to no meaning, power, emotional impact or insight. Here are six examples:

Nevada              brother’s keeper

camel-glow           over             circle
towhee-ed pieces:             lesser-linen
in a box.             nested.

iris whole             repentance:
gap packed—twig and soil

change for

1615 Cortland Road                       bent,

pigeon-eaves,           and candle
call a name.           lit
absolution parted

She ends, with:

wire-tap feet
cut blue.

woodscott, and
hooked chance

Perhaps my desire to be moved in some elemental human way by poetry is my downfall, but these brief snippets leave me cold and flat. I am certainly not biased against short work, like haikus. A good haiku can shed light on the world and be full of tension. But Fifty Poems, read as a whole group, one through fifty, bewilders me. How did this manuscript win a national book award from an esteemed academic press?

The other book, Minimum Heroic, by Christopher Salerno, is baffling in other ways. The poems look like typical poems until I read them. Again, let me curse my archaic indulgence in wanting poetry to enlighten and/or order the world for me. I want the poem to “touch” me through sound and meaning, not confuse and irritate me. Here is one of many examples, “Parks, Recreation”:

Except for clearing the land by fire,
not much is legal.

To create tension, debris lay
on one third of an acre.

I’m wrong. This bottle was left here
by kids. They are more

afraid of you than you are of them,
and lay flat as a banner

for soldiers flying over.
We put our blanket down in the fog.

Our kite holds a mirror to nature.
We’re dead. Our days are

pressed into slides. I must be coming
down with something—

you are standing right there
in the clearing:

tight white headband, racket
between your thighs.

When I’m wrong, a blush
awakens in the sky.

It seems as if words are placed together precisely because they combine to mean nothing coherent. It’s as if the poet said, “Let’s place these uncommon images with these uncommon words and hope someone or something will create meaning out of them.” Maybe some readers can, but I can’t. No matter how many times I read these poems, I come away lost. Here’s another Salerno poem:

receive the jolt
of roosting.

The rent was good.
They said it on the radio.
We watched the TV.

Capillaries of the pink cheek.
Flowers in gun barrels.

The rent was good? Whose rent? What did they say on the radio? Every line in this poem confuses me more than the previous one.

There are at least three possible explanations for my disconnect with Fifty Poems and Minimum Heroic. The first focuses on aesthetics. I have a different value system for poetry; my assumptions about what a good poem should do vary dramatically from the ideas of these poets (and judges). This is a legitimate difference of opinion and neither of us is wrong or right (actually, time will determine the truth). Secondly, I am not hip or young enough to understand the quality work in these books. In other words, I’m blind and over-the-hill, which may be true. And lastly, the poems in these award-winning books might just be mediocre poetry, mistakenly selected for publication. This option presumes that errors were made by many in the process of reading and selecting. In my heart of hearts, I pray for the first explanation.

David James teaches at Oakland Community College. His most recent book, She Dances Like Mussolini, was published by March Street Press in 2009. His one-act plays have been produced California, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York.

These Are No Temporary Stars: David James on Keith Taylor’s If the World Becomes So Bright

Keith Taylor, If the World Becomes So Bright, Wayne State University Press, 2009

Many fine poets have written about nature and its grand symbolic importance—Ted Kooser, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, John Haines, and James Wright, to name a few. With this book, If the World Becomes So Bright, Keith Taylor joins this tradition and adds to it. Taylor is at home in these poems set in the woods, on islands, on rivers and lakes, resting on the sides of mountains. As he says in the final prose poem, after watching a cow moose swim in the bay before dawn, “I would like to be cold and clearheaded about these events, but it is hard not to take them as signs.” These poems, blossoming with flowers and birds and weather, carry with them the shadows of signs from a poet’s observant eye.

Many of the poems in this beautiful collection deal with loss, aging, the temporary nature of life as we know it. The first section, “Conditions,” consists of twelve short poems starting with “If I …” The poet muses on what his life would be like if he forgot everything, if he sat still forever, if he had gone bad, if he could see his daughter projected into the future.

The rest of the book contains poems that stun us back to the here and now. They’re quiet, unassuming poems that gently turn the reader toward a great horned owl near a Wendy’s, or into the wind where we smell the “sour odor of skunk,” or back to 1936, to watch his father’s revelation that would “sustain him through that century of doubt.” These are not flashy, in-our-face poems. These are poems that settle deeply into our lives and brains, into the core of our being. For example, in “Outside,” Taylor muses on the idea of fate, but realizes,

…I can’t turn one thing into any
other: the solitary bittern’s call
rising from the marsh at dusk remains
the echoing call of one secretive bird
hidden behind a forest of dry rushes.
It is what it is and would be that
without my eyes or ears or my ability
to name it and find its place on any map.

If the World Becomes So Bright is a book of quiet epiphanies rising up in the backyard, in the crows outside, against the spruce trees, at the campsite. I believe Keith Taylor’s voice. I trust what he sees, what he hears. When he writes, “two spotted sandpipers fly by,” I know he’s telling me the absolute truth.

My advice? Take a warm afternoon, sit under a silver maple, and read If the World Becomes So Bright. The poems will grow on you like “purple lapsand rosebay.” And when you’re done reading them, you will, as Keith Taylor does so aptly, “call it all a kind of wisdom.”

Purchase If The World Becomes So Bright


David James teaches at Oakland Community College.  His most recent book, She Dances Like Mussolini, was published by March Street Press in 2009.  His one-act plays have been produced from coast to coast.

A Long Time Coming: David James on Marc Sheehan’s Vengeful Hymns

Marc Sheehan, Vengeful Hymns, Ashland Poetry Press

It’s encouraging to see a second book, Vengeful Hymns, from Marc Sheehan, published eleven years after his first book, Greatest Hits. In this day and age of rapid-fire publication, usually for purposes of employment and tenure, it’s refreshing to hear the voice of a man who is writing for the sake of it, not for a promotion or the next job interview.

In this Richard Snyder Poetry Prize book from Ashland University, Sheehan writes to set his life and experiences, past and present, into some form of order and meaning. You actually hear his thinking process in poems, like you would from an observant friend confiding to you in public, as in “Dancing through Nebraska”:

These are the kind of thoughts that haunt you

when you stop the truck to piss and consider
how full of Nebraska Nebraska is,
how there are people who live without regret

even in Nebraska! They say
“I just can’t see being blue,” and
“That’s just water under the bridge.”

To think on these things helps to bring
the soul into a state of grace—
and the body with another hour’s drive to Wyoming.

Most of these poems have a midwestern feel to them, or at least a rural feel, sprinkled with intelligence and a sense of loss. Whether Sheehan’s writing about Ireland or Michigan or Texas, his attention to the common detail of his landscape makes these poems real:

On the cliffs outside Kilkee, County Clare,
fresh rivulets falling to the sea
are lifted by the wind and driven inland
back over the narrow road running between
private fields and a strip of common land. (Genealogy)


A few abandoned beach chairs, half-hidden
by dune-grass, wait for a final visit
from their vacation home owners, busy now
with earning my envy. (A Postelection Walk along the Lake)


The weather has turned warm suddenly, melting
the snowbanks, driving sap in maple, herding deer
along their annual, mysterious path. (Vernal Equinox near the 45th Parallel)

But when Sheehan ties this concrete imagery to deep emotion, his work shines into the core of our hearts. He does this in poems like “For John Fahey,” “A Field Guide to the Native Emotions of Michigan,” “A Note on Rejection,” and “Some Notes Concerning Love and Hemmings Motor News.” My favorite poem, “Alter Ego,” is a story about a man taking his aging mother with dementia out to eat in a small town diner. Here’s the end of the poem:

We’re sitting almost exactly where there used
to be a phone booth that had a dimpled tin
interior that looked as if someone with
a miniature ball-peen hammer had
tried desperately to hammer his way out,
ignoring the booth’s neatly folding glass door.
I ignore it, too, and the intervening
years, so I can use it as a fitting
room to don an unlikely superhero
uniform to save my mother from
the effects of the kryptonite of time,
forgetting I am not immune myself.
Let me report, therefore, in my mild-
mannered way, that I brandished a napkin
like a paper cape to wipe my mother’s chin,
having no other powers at my command.

Vengeful Hymns is a serious, touching book full of familiar details given to us in surprising images. It’s rare for me to read a new book containing so many good and moving poems. It’s obvious that Sheehan has been honing his craft for over three decades. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another eleven years for his next book.