Dilemma of Navigation by Nicole Cartwright Denison


 

Melissa Fondakowski

Impatiens

The Sow’s Ear Press, 2002

25 pages

 

Set against the literal gardening landscape and the figurative feminine forest, Melissa Fondakowski’s 2001 Sow’s Ear Press winning chapbook Impatiens details the longing for independence, the struggle of self-assertion and the fine art of reconciling an innate desire for connections both physical and spiritual.

 

The collection speaks in evocative language throughout insisting we recognize truth “as those things that happen to someone else” (“Planes That I am in Do Not Crash”). This acknowledgement of the otherness of ourselves and relationship to those both near and far in the geography of our lives serves as a major conceit throughout the work and also allows Fondakowski’s mastery at personalizing allusion to fully awaken senses of the tightroped acceptance and denial of self-identity.

 

Revealed in varying manners of scientific and theological topography, the course is deftly maneuvered and the title’s irony becomes fully emblematic of the omnipresent dilemma of navigation: the non-existence of the other within reach within the realm, a desire for an awakening of another I, another us:

on her side, she hopes for sleep

as if she’s someone else

love lost like land (“Selfsame”)

 

***

I asked about the name. . .

                                               and wondered

how a plant could be impatient (“Windowbox”)

 

 

The spiritual precept of a faith in abiding love is also well-traveled terrain throughout the poem such as “Worship”, “Jordan”, “Gethsemane” and “Eve.” In these last two poems the divine’s role is manifested in the speaker’s relationship to the natural and physical worlds, serving as a legend to the map of sexual exploration and actualization, of the declaration of our bodies and our longing as something wholly given as gifts, and curses:

You’re best in seersucker and under me,

the firmament our tarpaulin n the garden (“Gethsemane”)

 

***

. . . in the dream hours after we part

 

I become Adam, alluvial and nascent, waking

under a firmament certain with birds.

 

 

I care nothing for save to leave.

This is the malady in Eve.(“Eve”)

 

 

A sibling theme throughout the work is exploring the obverse of non-existence, or self-negation: that of an embracing which exists solely in the tangible world, and the aftermath when our tenuous hold on the perceived vanishes. The arc of poems echo the idea in the language of ebb & flow, of  “pulling back” and with wrenching emphasis on distance. With the poems “Windowbox” and “The Fattest Tree, Love” the exploration of distance’s impact on the I’s proximity are explored to detail those memories, thoughts which comprise our deepest senses of connection and belonging:

                        Her work was slow and deliberate;

she would not let me practice:

I could only watch listening

to her recite the planting instructions

as if I was to store them up. . .” (“Windowbox”)

 

 

 

Drawing from such varied inspirations as the ubiquitous yellowed Polaroid to Tomas Transtromer, Fondakowski’s poems enhance the conceit of the quiet that is almost said, almost shared in yearning for the true self’s emergence. Redolent with stylized reference, amid an undercurrent of approach-avoidance-acceptance, Impatiens works as an alchemy of nature and nurture: those environmental and biological factors that converge with eerie prescience precipitating the blooming.

 

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Nicole Cartwright Denison is the author of Recovering the Body (dancing girl press, 2007) and lives on a trout farm in the mountains of western North Carolina. Her work is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review and WOMB and has appeared in ECTOPLASMIC NECROPOLIS, tattoo highway, Poetry Midwest, Alba, eight-octaves, elimae, The CommonLine Project, reimagining place: ecotone’s blog and others.

 

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The Caedmon Room III


Editor’s Note: Nate Pritts is the author of Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX) & the recent chapbook Shrug (MSR Press).  His new book, Honorary Astronaut, will be out from Ghost Road Press in the fall of 2008.  The editor of H_NGM_N, Nate works in advertising.  You can find him online at http://www.natepritts.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Erica Kaufman, Censory Impulse.

Big Game Books

http://www.reenhead.com/biggame/biggame.html

 

 

The self is accumulated, constructed by the thoughts & actions of our life as it is lived, & Kaufman is able to present this quotidian reality as anything but thanks to the shockingly clear & unadorned language of the poems in her book Censory Impulse.  Here, the reader confronts a speaker whose consciousness evolves in a traceable way, & in a process that is deeply human:

 

                        so let’s talk.  about something.

                        deep and wonderful.

                                                                        (4.3)

 

You can almost hear the rush of childish enthusiasm in the first sentence, that pure drive for communication, clarified with an equally naïve suggested topic (“something”).  What drives this book far into your head where it can resonate with the weight & essence of its sheer accuracy is its piercing clarity.  All we need to do is talk, just talk, & it will be “deep and wonderful.”

 

These kinds of insights abound in Censory Impulse, which makes the book more like a reminder than news from the frontline.  I’m more comfortable here than I am in most books, because there is a way in which I become the speaker.  Without an overwhelming “I,” or a syntax aiming more to dazzle than delight, Kaufman is able to create a kind of participatory poetry.  The insights enacted here are mine, too, since they are laid out like math problems with all but the answers chalked in.

An Appropriate Emphasis by Leslie Adrienne Miller


 

Behind my Eyes, Li-Young Lee. Norton. 2008

 

The opening poem in Li-Young Lee’s most recent collection, Behind my Eyes, ends with the lines “While all bodies share/ the same fate, all voices do not,” an appropriate emphasis for a book that comes with a CD of the author reading his own poems.  Lee’s work falls into the interesting gap between poetry for the page and poetry in performance; though most poets writing now know their poems will have a voiced life even as they are prepared for the page first, Lee seems to understand that the spoken is essential and contemporaneous with the written.  His headlong embrace of the concept of death is stopped short by the living voice, and he understands that the immortality traditionally courted in the form of the printed word is transformed wholly by the fact of poet as virtual presence.

 

Lee’s work in this book, consistent with that of previous books, appears on the page, but lives best and longest in the ear.  He knows that his voice is able to supply the rhythm, syntax and counterpoint that the lines on the page do not supply, and though these poems are adequate on the page, they are most fully realized in hearing.  Most of these poems deploy their ideas in rhetorical structures familiar to sermons, political speeches, a Whitmanian insistence on patterns of parallel structure and repetition borrowed from religious texts and delivered by a charismatic figure too possessed with his mission to worry over perfection of diction, image or line integrity.  Rather, Lee’s poems favor aggressive juxtapositions, breath units, and syntactic parallels that drive shifts in tone and focus through the ear as well as the white space of the page. 

 

Many of the poems, for example, favor a question and answer format, as in “Hymn to Childhood” and “Have You Prayed.” Others, like “Immigrant Blues,” and “Mother Deluxe” use a trope of re-naming; in “Mother Deluxe,” the re-naming is constituted from a card game or tarot deck where the cards are all renamed via titles that resemble local news headlines.  In “Immigrant Blues,” the strategy is similar: the “old story from the previous century/ about my father and me” is renamed again and again in the poem with phrases that resemble titles of Psychology Today articles.  In each case, the private and public experiences are deftly juxtaposed and irony is released by the contrasts.

 

A similar strategy employed often in these poems is that of the conversation.  Poems like “Sweet Peace in Time,” involve a first person speaker and a third person responder whose conversation is constantly derailed by an influx of surreal and vaguely spiritual images that ride on the rhetoric of conversation, and ultimately expose the inability of human speech to reach beyond the literal.  The he said/she said conversation format in “Lake Effect,” however, gets tiresome, due to both the repetition of the dialogue tags and the unwavering project of metaphorical renaming.  In combination, these devices are overwhelmingly reiterated corralling rather than releasing the imagination. 

 

Counting is yet another prominent rhetorical strategy of these poems.  “Seven Happy Endings,” for example counts intimate encounters, rooms, and increments of time to examine conceptions of narrative closure or lack thereof.  While “Have You Prayed” counts discrete moments of knowledge: “One:/ I am never finished answering to the dead./ Two: A man is four winds and three fires.” And later begins turns to fractions, “two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief” before ending ominously with “one.” The poems are unrelenting in their quest for intimacy and spiritual connection, and the constant swing between the highly intimate rooms of beloveds and the high rhetoric of public and spiritual realms is a constant pulse in the book’s lyrical travels. 

 

There is a tendency to teeter on the edge of lyric, coupled with a refusal to develop images, ideas or comparisons.  They simply are, and while this oracular renaming can and often does release the spiritual dimensions of utterances, just as often it sidesteps opportunities to explore and develop complexities that have been foregrounded.  Lee is perfectly able to map the territory, but the view is mostly aerial.

In many ways I miss the ability to sustain meditation that we see in the best of Lee’s earlier gems  like “The Gift” or “Eating Alone” where the view is a close-up that refuses to pull back to a level of abstraction until the idea has been detailed into an array of rich complexities.  The poems of Behind My Eyes often pull back too soon in favor of more enigma, and even the lyric intensity of the many renamings cannot save the poems’ tendency to bleed out.  Hearing the poems read, however, mitigates the problem somewhat, since “heard melodies are sweet.”  But to my mind “those unheard” really are sweeter, so on the page, many of these poems fail to make full use of their best moments to get the reader to a place of deeper understanding.  Elemental images like birds, water, song keep reasserting themselves, but are never allowed to expand.  The poems seem to hope that the reader will fill the gaps, but the autobiographical elements that pepper many of the poems hold the reader at some distance and trouble the “deep image” contract the poems seem to favor.

“Seven Marys,” a poem close to the book’s midpoint, comes as a great relief with its shock of address to someone other than the reader or the writer’s self. Here the voiced direct address to “Father John” not only changes up the perspective, but  the repetition of the “seven Marys” until they mutate into multiple Sarahs and Rachels really does push the poem beyond a steady eddy. The enigmatic female figures beautifully and efficiently merge and emerge from each other in the mind of the speaker who desires of them “the fate of My sleep,” “the shape of my destiny.” 

While the poems of section one seem to chronicle the speaker’s childhood troubled by immigration and integration, the poems of the second section are pointedly Biblical.  Some of these, like “Cuckoo Flower on the Witness Stand” are so nakedly personal in their remembrances of childhood religious experience that we long for the enigmatic spaces from section one’s more expansive poems.  Plain language packed into couplets like “I sang in a church choir during one war/ American TV made famous” or “I doodled in the church bulletin on Sundays/ while my father offered the twenty-minute Pastor’s Prayer” clunk along next to more characteristic lyricism like “And speech’s bird/ threads hunger’s needle” burying the latter’s power to resonate.

In the book’s final section, there are poems that seem to undermine or mock the self’s more familiar strategies in the bulk of the book.  “Standard Checklist for Amateur Mystics” welcomes some irony, as does “The Sea With Fish,” which offers a list of phrases that typically launch details of remembered experience familiar in earlier sections of the book,

 

“From now on . . .”

“In that country . . .”

“Were we ever . . .”

So dreaming continued

forward and backward.

 

However, Lee refuses to finish off the sentences, only leaving repeated ellipsis and moving instead to a list of what feel like titles (On the Spot, Hidden Inside Becoming/ Stranger Going Along,/ Blind but Fixed Between Wings That See). Such a decision reduces the structure of the poem to its lowest common denominators, mocking the simplicity of its own formula and calling attention to the fact that the poet himself is aware of the inadequacy of these familiar gestures of language.

 

The final poem in the collection, “Station,” is among the volume’s very finest pieces.  It manages a pleasing balance between Lee’s lyric intensity and his penchant for repetition with mutation, but here the poet provides more durable rhetorical structures as part and parcel of the subject.  Inhabiting a voice from the speakers in a train station announcing arrivals and departures, “Your attention please. Train number 4, The Twentieth Century,” the poem is able to move effortlessly between the heard voice and the imagined voice, and the departures and returns from the realm of the literal are seamlessly integrated:

 

Your attention please.  Train number 66,

Unbidden Song, soon to be

the full heart’s quiet, takes no passengers.

 

“Station” brings the collection’s senses of nostalgia and spiritual journey into clear and satisfying focus. 

 

Please leave your baggage with the attendant

at the window marked: Your Name Sprung from Hiding.

An intrepid perfume is waging our rescue.

You may board at either end of Childhood.

 

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Leslie Adrienne Miller is author of five books of poetry, The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See from Graywolf Press, and Yesterday Had a Man in It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an M.A. from the University of Missouri, and a B.A. from Stephens College.

“Elder’s Alphabet: On Reading Gilgamesh At The Bellagio” by Philip Dacey


 

Karl Elder, Gilgamesh at the Bellagio

The National Poetry Review Press

 

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Ask Karl Elder for a dime and you can

bet he’ll give you a dollar, given the

cold cash of his lines, a bankful of gifts

designed like bills for long currency, his

every reader thankful, the realm’s coin’s

fevered economy of words hot to

grace the ear as fingers count–call it a

hootenanny of vowels and consonants,

ignition by ignis fabulous, sparks

jiving their way home like deep pockets that

“know how far to go too far” (Cocteau)–no

less than everything his purview and

more, the plus ultra of his dreaming tongue,

non-stop surprises like manna landing

on your head, in it, gold visions that yet

play havoc with pomp, poetry as the

quintessence of sublime slapstick, language

revved to revelation, top hat goal of

snowballs syllabically thrown, money

trail that melts into its permanent place,

ultimate vault, the pole a kind of music

voracious in veracity that buys

whole worlds of wonder, never without an

X-factor, source of mystery that says

yes to you-name-it, so give like bucks a

zillion cheers: we’re all richer for this verse.

 

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Philip Dacey is the author of nine full-length books of poems, the latest The New York Postcard Sonnets: A Midwesterner Moves to Manhattan (Rain Mountain Press, 2007), and numerous chapbooks. Two books of his poems appeared in 1999, The Deathbed Playboy (East. Wash. U. Press) and The Paramour of the Moving Air (Quarterly Rev. of Lit.). Previous books of poetry include The Boy Under the Bed (Johns Hopkins, 1981), How I Escaped From the Labyrinth and Other Poems (Carnegie-Mellon, 1977), and Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory (Iowa , 1991).  He has also published books of poems about the painter Thomas Eakins (2004) and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1982).