Mark Lamoureux on the At Hand Poetry Chapbook Series from Bright Hill Press



The Lily Poems, Liz Rosenberg, Bright Hill Press, 2008



Haywire, Rachel Contrenti Flynn, Bright Hill Press, 2009

Skunk Night Sonnets, Daniel Waters, Bright Hill Press, 2009

The Wooden Bowl, Sharon Ruetenik, Bright Hill Press, 2009

The Bright Hill Press At Hand Poetry Chapbook series consists of a series of pocket-sized, perfect bound volumes with full-color glossy covers. The formal regularity of the texts suggests that the volumes are meant to be taken as a whole. The format calls to mind the series of young-adult and fantasy novels I collected as a child, diligently assembling each discrete block of five or six similarly-sized and designed volumes on the shelf and diligently making my way through narratives which, in retrospect, were somewhat alarming but also comforting in their similarity. Likewise, the formal regularity of this series bespeaks an overall aesthetic affinity, at least amongst the four volumes I examined: The Lily Poems by Liz Rosenberg, Haywire by Rachel Contrenti Flynn, Skunk Night Sonnets by Daniel Waters and The Wooden Bowl by Sharon Ruetenik. These poems are mostly elegiac narratives; there is even a narrative vein in Waters’ sonnets. They are predominately left-justified, conventionally parsed and punctuated explorations of traditional subjects: motherhood, death, pregnancy, God, nature and desire. Readers looking for this treatment and these subjects will not be disappointed by this series; readers looking for a wider range of form, subject or register are likely to find the series’ consistency cloying. Insofar as editorial projects are concerned, the series seems to reliably deliver fine examples of the style of work that fall within its parameters.

Liz Rosenburg’s The Lily Poems offers a series of short narratives recording experiences surrounding her adoption of a child from China. The poems offer a focused, quotidian chronicle of these events in straightforward English diction. The mother’s voice here is heartfelt and genuine and new parents will undoubtedly relate to moments that are familiar to all parents of young children: “She rides the dogs / till they groan and sit. / She does not recognize her face / in the mirror, calls it baby.” The author looks to a singular experience—the adoption of a child from another culture—and renders it universal—the feelings of parents vis-à-vis the development of young children generally. This approach offsets what would appear to be the book’s greatest flaw, which is not addressing the singular socio-cultural aspects of such a situation. Certain moments are uncomfortably colonial: “the next day , not knowing / how close she came to a life without ice cream.” The book’s territory is emotional, however, and so the political is eschewed for the personal. Such relationships between parent and child are necessarily comprised of pinnacles and flaws, ergo this work is no different.

Rachel Contrenti Flynn’s Haywire presents Midwestern-Gothic vignettes from the life of a young woman hailing from said region. The book’s sense of place is palpable, and there is a satisfying balance of nostalgia and pathos at work in the poems—“Sometimes I’m sure there’s a woman / patient and tired on the porch / offering me / fresh milk in earthenware mug. . . But mostly the birds inside terrify me / with their frantic ruckus.” Despite her overall narrativity, Flynn is content with the occasional enigma, “Please live. I have dreams without reason” and “O shadow that does not change. / O burst of flying.” These moments help to diffuse what could be an overwhelming weight of confession, moreso than the gloss on fondue, presumably included to lighten the mood of the collection. The volume’s pathos, however, is its most satisfying element. Flynn’s figurative language is likewise at its best when it is slightly off-kilter, such as when a strand of yarn in a young girl’s hair “pokes out / like a dog’s dick: senseless and happy and seen.” Contrapuntally to Rosenburg’s bliss, Flynn offers a view of motherhood that is more vertiginous: “When they took / you out of my body, the emptiness / gleamed and clicked.”

Despite its titular reference to Robert Lowell and its setting of, presumably, Martha’s Vineyard, Daniel Waters’ Skunk Night Sonnets is a collection of traditional sonnets from a narrator not so possessed of Lowell’s doomed Brahmanism. Waters elects to remain steadfastly true to the time-worn conventions to admirable effect. Each sonnet fans its wings handsomely on its hinge, the traditional transmutation-game they play is reliably satisfying. Unlike some contemporary writers employing an unaltered traditional sonnet form, Waters understands the conceptual underpinnings developed by Shakespeare and others. Bishop-like adumbrations of animals provide interesting observations, specific treatments of dawn, death and love unfold to interesting results. In particular, “The Question of Children,” from the perspective of an aging, childless man is intensely moving and a sterling example of the traditional form’s power to invigorate singularly contemporary themes. Other moments are less convincing, and sometimes too unexaminedly middle-class: the author nearly kills a catbird speeding to the gym, proselytizes on the dangers of white sugar and beef. Indeed, these poems are best when they most strictly conform to the traditional broad abstractions of the sonnet; the collection’s success in referencing this lineage even renders details which could otherwise be too anachronistically precious—capitalization of “Death,” “Winter,” “Creation” and the like—reasonable.

Sharon Ruetnik’s The Wooden Bowl is organized into sections referencing a specific place real or imagined “Eden,” “Sparta,” “The Faraway Kingdom,” “Versailles,” “Peking,” “Bologna,” “Kansas and Oz” and “Almost Heaven.” Each of these sections features a narrative related, usually historically or canonically with the location in question. Some of these are in the mode of “modern retelling,” Eve and Adam give birth to a Rottweiler-breeding, cigarette-smoking Cain; others offer a “what happened after” extension of the original narrative, Dorothy settles down and confronts life in Kansas post-Oz (“Auntie Em would not allow Dorothy to study / stenography or strain her eyes reading / long books;” the most successful invent unique narratives unrelated to any source materials, a Pekinese tells its story to a royal Borzoi. Reconstruction as opposed to deconstruction is the rubric she employs in approaching this familiar material. Some readers will enjoy the witty, sometimes bawdy retelling of well-known narratives and historical moments, others may find the well-worn subject matter overly familiar and Ruetnik’s treatment of them unremarkable.

The At Hand Poetry Chapbook series, while not particularly challenging or innovative, offers an array of accessible chapbooks, whose ties to the Confessional and Deep-Image movements is readily apparent. Readers compelled by this tradition will find some interesting limbs of that tree, whereas those searching for something else are not likely to find it in this series. The volumes’ small size, cheap price and relatively conversational diction would make them excellent pedagogical tools for teaching an entry-level class about the American literary tributaries that these books have commerce with, allowing students to engage with the discrete chapbooks as cohesive volumes, rather than individual poems without the pressure of working with an entire full-length collection.

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Mark Lamoureux lives in Astoria, NY.  His second full-length collection, Spectre, will be released in August 2010 by Black Radish Books.  His first full-length collection, Astrometry Orgonon was published by BlazeVOX books in 2008.  He is the author of 5 chapbooks: Poem Stripped of Artifice (winner of the New School 2007 Chapbooks Contest), Traceland, 29 Cheeseburgers, Film Poems and City/Temple. His work has been published in print and online in Fourteen Hills, Fence, Mustachioed, miPoesias, Jubilat, Denver Quarterly, Conduit, Lungfull!, Carve Poems, Coconut, GutCult and many others. In 2006 he started Cy Gist Press, a micropress focusing on ekphrastic poetry.

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Mark Lamoureux on four Cervena Barva Press Chapbooks


Ten Songs from Bulgaria, Linda Nemec Foster, Cervena Barva Press

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Isolate Flecks, Kevin Gallagher, Cervena Barva Press

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The News Today, George Held, Cervena Barva Press

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A Cure for Suicide, Larissa Shmailo, Cervena Barva Press

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I first became acquainted with Cervena Barva Press through Kevin Gallagher, an author from my own press, who sent me a copy of his Cervena Barva chapbook Isolate Flecks. One of the great things about being an editor of a small press without an editorial hierarchy is that one is the sole arbiter of what gets published, allowing for a very personal array of material. If the author is dead in the 21st century, the editor most certainly is not, with present home-printing and POD technology making it easier than ever before to run a small press out of one’s very own garret, attic, coldwater flat, trailer or apartment. Consequently, small publishing ventures allow us to look into the singular tastes of their respective editors.

Some choose to hone a very specific editorial aesthetic, publishing works that highlight a particular facet of the art, whereas other editors operate primarily by whimsy, publishing whatever disparate works catch their eye and appeal to them. It is the former editorial program I most enjoy, and the one from which I approach my own endeavors at Cy Gist press. Likewise, this seems to be the operating principle of Gloria Mindock, editor of Cervena Barva Press, at least among the chapbooks I have had the opportunity to read: Ten Songs from Bulgaria by Linda Nemec Foster, Isolate Flecks by Kevin Gallagher, The News Today by George Held and A Cure for Suicide by Larissa Shmailo. The presentation of these books is utilitarian and no-nonsense; they are half-letter fold, saddle-stapled chaps with various photographs and/or paintings for cover art. The general aesthetic of the poems is likewise straight-ahead—with the authors employing parse-able syntax and generally left-justified lines. Within this general framework, however, there is considerable diversity amongst these various authors.

Ten Songs from Bulgaria is a series of ten-line ekphrastic poems based on the photographs of Bulgarian photographer Jacko Vassilev. An initial reading without having seen the photographs offered a sometimes lyric, sometimes narrative, always “realistic” glimpse of a continuum filled with history, abstraction and melancholy—the mood I often receive from black and white photographs from Eastern Europe. Within each ten lines an explicit story is told—of dancing bears, the patron saint of pilots, and young shepherds in front of old churches. “Pure art beyond your imagination,” as Foster says in “Cry of Freedom.” Ekphrasic work is best experience alongside its visual counterpart, so I looked up the photographs, which, luckily, all seemed to come from a 2005 Harpers’ Magazine feature. Looked at alongside the photographs, the poems provided a melancholy soundtrack to Vassilev’s sad, expressionistic images. Human eyes stare out at the viewer in many of the photographs, and the poems seem likewise sentient and inhabited. As with all good ekphrastic work, these poems and photographs illuminate each other—like the moon is lit by the sun. It is unfortunate that the small press form and intellectual property laws prohibit the presentation of ekphrastic work alongside its “source” material, since this is the best way to experience such work, and this chapbook is no exception. However, the poems also succeed admirably on their own, and call forth a gloaming mood similar to that of the dimly lit photographs, assisted also by the grey paper stock upon which the chapbook is printed.

Isolate Flecks showcases Gallagher’s compelling narrativity that never uses its transparency as a crutch. A poet of considerable range, he is always satisfying—be it in straightforward, almost nostalgic reminiscences of childhood as in “Luis Tiant Fan Club Album” and “The Kid’s Economy,” or in more abstract moments like “No Parade”: “Under confetti / Of paper records // Stacked mattresses / A mess of peas.” Gallagher’s narrative poems are true songs of New England, which seem to enigmatically capture the essence of the region and its ghosts such as Gloucester’s whose “Gill nets hover the ocean floor / like long volleyball nets.” Likewise, Gallagher casts his nets wide and turns up a menagerie of compelling stories and images at once easily recognizable and mysterious.

At 46 pages, Larissa Shmailo’s A Cure for Suicide pushes the limits of the chapbook size; Shmailo pushes a number of other limits while she’s at it. Seemingly like its author, the small book is a handful. These poems cut a singular figure, obsessed with and at the same time afraid of intimacy. At times brief and breathless and at others expansive and frenetic, Shmailo seems to be in constant motion, “I stutter like an old gun: / Take me / Know / The fast love of my hair.” While at times these poems’ excesses can be cloying, they seem to accomplish their intended effect of leaving the reader bewildered and somewhat breathless. A Cure for Suicide gets considerable mileage out of the lyric ‘I,’ but could have benefited from some slight editing or more frequent variation of pace or pronoun for the sake of counterpoint, such as some of the book’s more atypical, but most satisfying—the sparsely-verbed “Harlem Line” and “Exorcism (Found Poem)”’s quasi-religious litanies, and a few fewer femme-fatale relationship autopsies of the order of “Personal” and “Abortion Hallucination.” Overall, however, the book’s compelling moments outnumber its overly familiar ones.

George Held’s book of ripped-from-the-headlines poems, The News Today does what you expect it to. Held is irate about the things that we educated liberals have been irate about since the 1970’s, with the requisite amount of world weary Baby-Boomer self-consciousness (“We showed up again, our hope as threadbare / As the clothes of the oldest Lefties on parade.”) woven in to assure the reader that the author is not being, like, utopian or something. The News Today is most satisfying in its least-expected and most empathic moments—offering human kindness to the erstwhile astronaut in “Nowacked” or cutting Britney Spears some slack in “O Britney.” It is least satisfying at those times where it offers odes to what seems to be a freshman composition textbook with “big” talking points such as GLOBAL WARMING (“The Glacier and the Canary”) VIOLENCE IN SCHOOLS (“Home Made”) and PATRIOTISM (“Patriotism”). Held is an author content to wear his heart and his politics on his sleeve, but the book’s strongest moments are its most ambiguous—such as the weirdly could-be-perturbed-could-be-into-it rhymed couplets of “Be My Pet” (“Wear a collar, like a collie / Be my lap dog and my dolly”) or the aforementioned “O Britney.”

There should be enough for any reader to laud or lambaste as I have here amongst Cervena Barva’s formidable catalog. Mindock’s editorial eye seems to have something for everyone and the press is inspirational in its apparent doggedness in tough times. Amidst a climate of general nebulousness, any one of these scrappy little (mostly) straight-forward books offers a bit of contrapuntal saltiness to the sweet or a porthole in the general opacity and are certainly worth taking a look at no matter what one’s aesthetic allegiances are.