Slip Back Into Living: Glenda Burgess on JW Marshall’s Meaning A Cloud

Meaning a Cloud, J. W. Marshall, Oberlin College Press, 2008

“Seeing form with the whole body and mind, Hearing sound with the whole body and mind, One understands It intimately,” wrote Eihei Dogen, the Thirteenth Century Zen philosopher. J.W. Marshall’s Meaning a Cloud, winner of the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, welds raw experience to essential meaning in an unpretentious and unvarnished book of poems born from his own collision with the violent accidental, it’s aftermath, and the path through love and death he then follows.

The man is as thoughtful and spare as his poetry. I shared a meal with Marshall following the 2008 Get Lit! Literary Festival in Spokane, Washington, and the topics of conversation ranged from the relative obscurity of poetry in the national mind, to the interpretation of a poem by a reader as it differs from the poet’s. Marshall is co-owner of Open Books, a poetry bookstore in Seattle, Washington. It was his firm conviction that a poem, once given, belongs to the reader. Poetry is often a glance sideways into understanding, a glance into a mirror provided by the poet. The open spaces within the poet’s words ferry our minds into linkages that are deeply personal. The poem tosses a pebble in the pond and the ripples carry their own resonance. Marshall’s book, Meaning a Cloud, eviscerates our human need for precision in the obscure, exploring the emotional truth of physical pain, bodily dependency, the comfort of the quotidian and the indelible nature of habit. The love left within death.

In the three sections of Meaning a Cloud, “Blue Mouth,” “Where Else,” and “Taken With,” Marshall walks the trauma of violent injury, of confusion and the unknotting of the disordered mind. The poems are spare, of distinct imagery, simple words pressed into new meaning. In the poem “The Nightshift Nurse Brought Her Shoes to Work in a Paper Bag” Marshall writes, “…And I really did love how her professional shoes ached out loud like seagulls in the hall when she walked and that with the phone chimes sometimes and the elevator bell sometimes and sometimes my voice that needed her more that called nurse out to her but I know really wasn’t calling her but was calling nurse because of how calling nurse felt how righteous and pathetic it felt to call nurse from a dark room into a lit hall. What with all that I loved the sound of her shoes the shoes she put on for work that answered me.”

The poems progress through the regrouping of body and mind and Marshall writes of the new understandings that come with pain and recovery. He writes of the immediate paring down of his life in “Medic One” …“My saviors/ (because air must circulate)/ cut my clothing off—/No attachments.” This stark observation then segues into “Bare Tree at Green Lake,” in which Marshall offers us this, “What they call wood, call branches,/ I call leaves-asleep, call/ requisite thwarts.” Marshall is at his most bittersweet in those poems in which he writes of the slip back into living from which he feels alien and uncertain. “April” is but a three-line poem, a loose Haiku of nuance. The words frame the ache with which he now observes life, “Reading while walking/a fist of cherry blossoms/ punished her.”

In the last section of the book, Marshall moves more freely within his words, threading a strong and vivid connection between living and dying and love. His mother’s death anchors the center of the long poem that comprises “Taken With.” Marshall writes of his mother’s last breath, “Imagine how a rock becomes complete.” Never sentimental, never pitying, the language of J. W. Marshall’s book of poems is a plainspoken exploration of the fragility of existence itself, and in its fierce allegiance to the present, a song to the moment.

Purchase Meaning A Cloud

True Lines Not Mere Sentences: Renee Ashley on Dennis Hinrichsen’s Kurosawa’s Dog


Dennis Hinrichsen, Kurosawa’s Dog, Oberlin College Press

**some of the poetry quoted below has had its formatting altered**

Here’s the image that spans the second, and last, section break in Hinrichsen’s “Crazy Horse Mountain” which appears near the end of his new, his fifth, collection, Kurosawa’s Dog:

Just now, the moon


has let fly its glass horse
over the Dakotas…

It’s not only a memorable image—so visual I don’t think I’ll ever forget it—but its placements are brilliant, a subtle verbal land- and skyscape of its tenor and vehicle. The sections, enjambed and tightly packed, allow for the clean separation of tenor and vehicle, of subject from verb, all three line enjambments themselves breaking at their nouns, the splitting of “the moon” from its terrestrial image “its glass horse” by a delicate little sun-like dingbat (much more delicate and suggestive than the asterisk I’ve used here), and “moon” hovering over “horse” as though the moon is keeping just a few steps ahead. And that only begins to point out the characteristic web of intricacies that Hinrichsen weaves into this vital and surprising book.

When you pull back a bit, you realize that this same passage is a manifestation of one of the three-step stanzas (in various formations) that Hinrichsen frequently favors and uses, as he does all his formattings, to exquisite advantage. The stanza that preceded this one:

hail dotting the body, rider shaken so fiercely
his loose hair
was the wing of a hawk…

And the two that followed:

filling the campsite with arctic light,
though the air
is 90, and the tent

is folding like my mind
with the wind.
Sometimes lying down so flat

Hinrichsen’s lines are true lines not mere sentences broken into bits – the piece is packed with image and speed. There’s no rhetorical bagginess, no slack to slow the poem down or fill in the cracks; Hinrichsen makes the reader lean into each line and then even more steeply into the next without pause.

The volume is nearly bookended by “Bresson’s Donkey,” an allusion to Bresson’s film Au Hasard Balthazar and the title poem, “Kurosawa’s Dog,”a reference to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. “Bresson’s Donkey” begins, again with Hinrichsen’s three-step stanzas, like this:

I could believe in Jesus if there were an animal
to be beaten
down, all

that bagpipe braying from the gut’s
spiritual core
hauling some Boschian tower of hay

Animals, spirit, and allusion run rich throughout the volume which treats, either directly or indirectly, the death of the narrator’s father; the “Boschian” allusion summons up even more visions of what is tightly packed and grotesque. The poem’s about the experience of taking it in, the great abstractions that hide in the shade of emblem and metaphor. Here is the beginning of “Kurosawa’s Dog”:

Even though he’s dead, my father dreams repeatedly
of the Eisenhower era.
The clarity of fresh concrete spanning the Great Plains.

Hinrichsen has a seemingly infallible sense of formatting and the use of white space. Here’s the first eight lines of “Lion and Gin,” a poem, as opposed to his triadic stanzas, that maintains a rigid left margin and is presented in a solid block:

I pet my father like some big cat a hunter has set on the ground,
though I am in Iowa now and not the Great Rift Valley
and what I sense as tent canvas flapping, thick with waterproofing,
is cheap cotton
choked with starch.
Still, he is a lion on the gurney.
I talk a little to make sure he’s dead.

Just slightly looser, these lines need their proximities; the air of his three-steps would shatter its effect. There’s more here between the here and the there of the images. These lines need the rolling quality of the singular stanza unbroken by the white pause. The reader here passes through many more gates, many more levels of entry, to get to the impact point—important gates, and gates that keep throwing the reader forward because of the suspense caused by what is being withheld. Hinrichsen doesn’t give the reader a chance to focus his attention outside the poem, but forces that attention with its built-in sense of urgency to reach the pay-off. The nuance and tonal coloring comes from what follows the seemingly simple subject-verb-object beginning, “I pet my father.” In this short, seven-line beginning, the steps of remove, or what I call the gates, work like this: First gate: the word like which sets us one remove away from the thing itself. The second gate: some big cat. Then, moving to third gate, another remove: a hunter. The fourth gate, the action of that hunter, has set on the ground, one step further. The fifth gate: though which gives us a little twist in the road. Sixth gate: I am in Iowa now. Seventh gate: and not the Great Rift Valley, which twists again. Eighth gate: and what I sense moves us again, this time into the interior. Ninth gate: as tent canvas flapping, the simile that pushes us into the figurative again. Tenth gate: thick with waterproofing, expanding on the diversion. Eleventh gate: is cheap cotton, another step of diversion. And another, the twelfth gate: choked with starch.

Now notice that the eleventh and twelfth gates are one-to-a-line and the lines themselves are far shorter than the ones that come before. Why? Because, I’m certain, “is cheap cotton choked with starch” is k-sound and ch-sound heavy. Putting it all on a single line would draw attention to it as such (“Look how many c’s I can put in a line!) —a potential bad move in a poem that’s sounding natural despite its compression. Separating those two lines lets the “cheap” and the “choked” work together without tangling our tongues; it puts an emphasis on “choked” at the beginning of the twelfth line, playing beautifully into the death theme but via displacement to the “cotton.” By the time we get to the thirteenth gate, that Still, we’re ready for the final turn back around to the beginning. Our ears and our attentions have been brought to a near halt by the two short lines and that still is like a graceful turn to what we don’t expect at the fourteenth gate: he is a lion on the gurney. There’s a little slow-down again at the fifteenth gate: “I talk a little,” a little making-us-wait, and then the point of it all, and the sixteenth gate: “to make sure he’s dead.” A sort of periodic sentence approach to the dispersal of vital information.

That’s impressive.

Hinrichsen is a masterful poet with an exquisite ear and the capability of rendering the familiar magical. The interplays—the talent and craft demonstrated in this volume—are many-layered, complex, and deeply satisfying. This is work that will hold up to the rereadings and deep scrutiny it will rightly find. Hinrichsen is superb. Kurosawa’s Dog is a longtime companion.


Renée Ashley is the author of four volumes of poetry–Salt (Brittingham Prize in Poetry, University of Wisconsin Press), The Various Reasons of Light, The Revisionist’s Dream, and Basic Heart (X. J. Kennedy Prize, Texas Review Press)–as well as a chapbook, The Museum of Lost Wings, and a novel, Someplace Like This. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and is on the core faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-residency Program in Creative Writing.