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.
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.