Dream Cabinet. Ann Fisher-Wirth. San Antonio, Texas: Wings Press, 2012. 85 pp. $16.00, paper. Reviewed by Emma Bolden.
As the title suggests, Dream Cabinet, Ann Fisher-Wirth’s fourth full-length collection of poetry, asks the author to open the door to dream: to those in-between states that blur the boundaries between who we are and who we want to be, between the desires and impulses we can admit and those we refuse to. The first poem, “Slow Rain, October,” serves as a proem, setting up the collection’s themes. Fisher-Wirth invites the reader to “dive into” the interstitial states she will explore: the moment “leaves draw closer” to signal the end of one season and the start of another, the moment “night seeps from the forest” and one day transitions into another. Fisher-Wirth also calls the reader to explore their private experiences of interstitial spaces: sleep, slipping into the unconscious mind, the “[s]weetness of not making the bed today, […] not making / the life today.” In sleep, we unmake what we have made. We cease making what we seek to make. In sleep, the speaker “die[s] now for a little while.” She exists in a space between being and not being. She becomes a stranger to herself, to her family, to her past and her present – “even the family photos / in the Welsh cabinet by the bed are strange to me.” Fisher-Wirth calls the reader to open the door to what we are at our edges, to see more clearly all of our wants and desires, our possibilities and problems, the dreams and nightmares we hide from in our waking lives.
“Slow Rain, October” presents the formula from which the rest of the poems are generated. The collection works the way a fractal image works: each poem presents a similar pattern, showing how our lives, our actions, and our worlds follow patterns on different scales. For instance, in the three lines of “Lullaby,” Fisher-Wirth presents three images, each in a different scale:
Behind the dream the ocean.
Behind the ocean a tern’s egg nested in the sand.
Within the egg a tern riding the waves, sleeping on the waves.
Here, Fisher-Wirth connects the idea of dreaming with the image of ocean to connect the world of the mind, the world we live in, and the world in which we exist before we are born. As in a fractal image, the same patterns, the same boundaries and blurs, exist at different scales.
Fisher-Wirth begins with the worlds inside of us. She calls the reader to dive into the interior ocean of memory, that dark place within us where our pasts and our past selves sleep. In “1982. Sophocles’ Philoctetes in Athens,” the speaker remembers her lover reading by a window as twilight falls and fills the hotel room. He is “swaying, lost inside that suffering,” inside the sadness of his own private world, which Fisher-Wirth will explore in the first section of poems. In the next poem, “1972. Disorder and Early Sorrow,” the speaker seeks to understand our relationship with suffering. Suffering may be painful, but it also “comforts her, / all this heaviness and melancholy.” To escape suffering, the speaker must act, and she must assign meaning to her actions. This solution resembles an equation; the sum of her daily domestic tasks equals order within her life’s disorder: “[a]dd a nectarine, / add making the bed, taking a bath, washing / her hair, there’s her morning.” Night, too, is part of the equation, meaningful in that it is a suspension of routine:
One night she sits till dawn, the door is open,
crickets clamor in the lemon tree,
she is not reading now, just waiting.
Fisher-Wirth presents night, sleep, and dream as states of not-being, of erasure, re-creation, and correction. In “Answers I Did Not Give to the Annulment Questionnaire,” she questions if the erasures possible in sleep are possible in waking life. The speaker meditates on annulment as a contractual erasure and concludes that such things are impossible. Erasing one event would mean erasing every event which led to or followed it: in order to annul her marriage, the priests would have to “[m]ake to nothing now the path that led / to the house next to the chicken farm,” erasing not just the contract binding the couple in marriage but the actual actions and emotions that gave it meaning: “[c]ancel / my guilt cancel / his fist through the wall cancel / my children rocking on their beds.” In the world in which we wake and breathe and act, such cancellations and corrections are impossible. Only in sleep and dream are they allowed, as in “My Dream of the Babies,” in which the speaker returns to her marriage and children and finds “[i]n my dream, at least, no catastrophe: // my love for the babies was so strong.”
Memory also exists as an interstitial state, where the dead remain living. In “From the Spirit of the Dead Father,” the speaker’s father still lives in her memory as “[a] humming / as if hummingbirds / […] a 42 years’ humming.” Though the dead may live, they live as they were: people and events are both unchanging and unchangeable. The speaker remembers when she and her sister “were ordered to go” “[d]own by the stream,” and when they returned, “our mother had already // said goodbye to him” – their father was dead, and remains dead in her memory. There are no cancellations or corrections. Forty-two years later, the speaker states that “I wish you could know me now, father.” She recognizes that this is impossible, as the past cannot change -- the only possible change is in her perception of the past and the meaning she assigns events. Now that she is an adult, she better understands her father as an adult, and is able to wear her love for him “like a cotton dress / washed soft // used to be too big for me.”
This encounter with death alters the course of the poems in the book, as it assigns new meaning to the idea of in-between states – death appears to be the same kind of space as night and sleep, but it is a state from which one will never return. Death, like a mathematical limit, encloses our experience: through sleep and dream, we can approach death, but we cannot reach it and still live. Fisher-Wirth explores the idea of death and the limits it puts on us in “J’ai fait la magique étude du bonheur”: even as a child, the speaker “knew […] none can see God and live.” Nonetheless, she tested the limits of her humanity, bringing her foot down in the tub and “expecting, like Christ, to walk on water.” She wishes to experience transcendence like “Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, / who stood with the Lord in fire / and were not consumed.” These three believers were saved from the fiery furnace by divine intervention; Fisher-Wirth’s speaker experiences neither intervention nor transcendence. The next poem, “Sudden Music,” implies that even if one does experience a transcendent realization of divinity and glory, it’s an experience impossible to describe in human terms. She describes a “boy who spoke only ‘Animal,’” who has “fallen off the world” and into transcendence, into “the whole shebang, mountain lions and pumas, he’s got them / by the balls and they sing from his neck.” The song is nature’s music, but it is also nonsense – “kweeah hoo hoo hoodoo” – all guttural urge spoken and screamed, “all of creation’s sudden music.” True transcendence, where the human meets the divine, cannot be conveyed through language. The same is true of transcendent experiences of the animal and natural world. What we can communicate of our experience is just that: our experience of divinity, of the natural world, not divinity or the natural world itself.
In “What Boat,” Fisher-Wirth shows how we describe the natural world through the lens of our own experiences:
—We say the swallows are rejoicing
because if we could dart and shimmer
and dive and soar as they do, skimming
the air, we would be rejoicing.
In her description of this joyous moment, Fisher-Wirth also describes the sad state of human beings: our lives are, in themselves, in-betweens. We live on this earth, and yet we are not really a part of it, as we stand apart from the natural world. We live, we change, we die – all according to natural processes, which we not only do not understand, we cannot understand. We move in the world as “[t]hese mysterious beings called ‘I,’” as in “Thirty Years After I Left Your Father,” unable to understand either ourselves or our own actions: “‘walk,’ what is that, a way of moving forward.” Nor can we control, as in “Family Gatherings,” what we move towards, “[t]he power that will cast me // like a wad of leaves in the muddy river.” No matter what we do or how we think, “[t]here’s nothing to be done,” as Fisher-Wirth states in “No Vow” – “[t]he world makes you no vow. / Flies want what you offer.” We are flesh, and we will die. Our nature is ultimately transitory, and to live is to move through an earth that we don’t fully inhabit, and which promises us nothing but death.
In the second and third sections of the book, Fisher-Wirth turns to explore how we act and react after such revelations. While the poems in the previous section act as fractal images, the poems in the last two sections bring to mind the related theory of the butterfly effect: the idea that even the smallest action creates change on a global scale. The second section is comprised of a long poem, “Dream Cabinet,” which was featured in an exhibit of ecopoetry. The poem contemplates the question of how a human being should relate to nature. Living in the natural world means in some way changing it in order to survive comfortably: the speaker speaks of Sweden and wonders “[t]o live here all the seasons, be of this place, / like the sea captain buried in the graveyard: // what battening down would it take, to survive its winters?” The speaker wonders how one must change the natural world in order to survive in it; such actions would require an intimate understanding of the natural world, so that one wouldn’t destroy it. The speaker wonders if such understanding is possible. Even artists are unable to accurately understand and represent the natural world: “How to paint water?,” she asks, “the tiny ripples flowing from right to left.”
This is our great dilemma: in order to survive in the world comfortably, we must in some way seek to control nature; however, at the same time, we cannot, by our very nature, understand nature. In this way, we are all like Prospero, attempting to control the powers of nature and promising that we’ll set nature free once we are comfortable. Fisher-Wirth implies that, like Prospero, we too must release Ariel. We too must “drown” our books of magic, “those loops and scrolls / those cross-hatchings and bent sticks.” Instead of controlling the natural world for our own amusement, we must live alongside it and appreciate it for what it is. We cannot keep the bird to sing for us: we must instead accept that “the branch remains, to carry its singing.”
In the third section of the book, Fisher-Wirth cycles through the far-reaching effects of what happens when we act like Prospero, when we refuse to relinquish control. Fisher-Wirth cycles through human cycles of violence, exploring the harm we do to our earth and to each other – and how both, ultimately, harm ourselves. In “BP,” a poem about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Fisher-Wirth constructs a conversation between three voices responding to the spill: found language from the National Commission’s report to the President and from Naomi Klein’s article in The Nation, as well as “our anonymous, collective response.” Again following the fractal mode, Fisher-Wirth moves from images of the tiniest, most invisible victims of the tragedy – “one dragonfly scrubs / its oiled face” – to the general public’s tendency to ignore such events if they don’t directly affect them – “‘It means little to me, a matter of blogs and soundbytes. / Not ordering oysters at the oyster bar.” The poem ends with an apocalyptic image asserting the danger of willful ignorance and of refusing responsibility: “Flames roll over the waters, / lick the legs of our chairs / where we sit sipping coffee.”
In “Army Men,” Fisher-Wirth investigates these issues on both the personal and universal scales by juxtaposing a soldier’s experience in war and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The poem shows how little difference there is in our violence against nature and our violence against other nations, other human beings. Fisher-Wirth describes how a former poetry student, who “joined the ROTC for the scholarship, / why else,” has become a different person, one so constantly haunted that his eye twitches and he cannot eat. In Katrina, the student says, “We lost it all but I was home / in the wreckage and death and nothing. // Just like Iraq, it was great.” Through these chilling words, Fisher-Wirth shows that we are changed for the worse by acts of cruelty – even if we are forced to be cruel, as the soldier was: “I’ve done things that I’m ashamed of,” he says, and then, in the next line, “You do what you gotta do.” Even if you are not the inventor of the act of violence, you become the act of violence, and, like the solider, forever “gaze / into brutal efficiency, into screaming.”
In “La Garde Guéran,” the speaker seeks comfort in the face of cruel tragedy. While traveling in France, she receives word that her son is in crisis. She begins “to light more votives, // more votives, place them in the bank of votives” to pray for his survival, and she is struck by the universality of her circumstances. Personal tragedy means, for the speaker, joining the ranks of the too many others who have experienced the same thing – she has “become any woman, any century, lighting candles for her son.” Sorrow, here, becomes an equalizer, and she becomes an anonymous one of an anonymous many, wondering “how many have begged God to help the children they loved, // and the heavens answered nothing, and still this suffering continues.” Though the heavens remain silent, the earth responds. A woman who is essentially a stranger to her recognizes her grief and “wraps strong arms around me and won’t let me go.” The stranger comforts her -- “she who knows me least // knows what to do” -- and this, Fisher-Wirth suggests, is all that any of us can do. We must have the vision to see each other, every other, as a human being like ourselves, who suffers like ourselves. We must seek to comfort others in their tragedy, as we would be comforted, and we must seek to keep tragedy from them – and just as we treat other human beings, so should we treat all the inhabitants of the earth, and the earth itself.
In “Dry October,” Fisher-Wirth seeks a “strange peace,” a sense of unity. She seeks to learn how to live peacefully among others and the earth, and remembers the Chandogya Upanishad: “Tat tvam asi, the Upanishads preach: That art thou.” / The soul, the All, are one.” The speaker acknowledges in “If Not, Winter—” that she will have, as we all will have, “moments // that fling [her] down.” However, there will also be “the seasons that slowly heal me.” Others may bring us pain, but they will also, as in “It Was Snowing and It Was Going to Snow,” bring us joy by their very existence and the miracle that is our ability to communicate, to empathize, to be close to each other “among all the infinite spaces.” We must cultivate empathy, and we must cultivate patience, and we must learn to love the world and all that is in it. Our wounds will heal if we wait for them to heal, as the speaker does at the end of the book:
Soon night will climb the hill outside the window
where I wait for the white bees to swarm,
surrounding the branches, the house,
surrounding my sleep, scattering their cold pollen again.
Emma Bolden’s work has appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Greensboro Review, Redivider, Copper Nickel, Feminist Studies, The Journal, Guernica, and on Linebreak.org. She is also the author of three chapbooks of poetry: How to Recognize a Lady, published as part of Edge by Edge, the third in Toadlily Press’ Quartet Series; The Mariner’s Wife, published by Finishing Line Press; and The Sad Epistles, published by Dancing Girl Press. Her manuscript, Malificae, was named a semi-finalist for the Perugia Press Prize and a finalist for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University and blogs about writing, velociraptors, and cats at A Century of Nerve (www.emmabolden.com).
Rust Fish. Maya Jewell Zeller. Sandpoint, Idaho: Lost Horse Press, 2011. 77 pp. $15.00, paper. Reviewed by Emma Bolden.
In Rust Fish, her first full-length collection, Maya Jewell Zeller offers a vibrant and verdant series of meditations on the natural world. These poems offer a gorgeous synthesis of lush lyricism, winding and unwinding narratives, and language which at times invites the reader to share in all of the speaker's secrets, at times lets the reader know that such secret-sharing is impossible. Zeller follows in the footsteps of such poets as Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and, as readers, we follow Zeller as our guide as she explores the best and worst of us as human beings: our desire for communion with nature as well as our desire for cruelty, our impulse and instinct for violence. The rust fish itself serves as a potent totem both for Zeller's view of nature and how we place ourselves within it. In the first poem of the collection, the rust fish are fossils which “ride sidewalk / toward river,” evidence of what they once were, “glitz[ing] chrome / under smoke-town moon,” and what they once were to people, who would “look into the fishes' eyes and know / what stone to carve their souls from.” Now, with our imaginative tether to nature severed, the rust fish have lost much of their power. However, a magic still lingers “when constellations whiten / and bang against black,” and the fish rise “as if / they might spawn stars.”
The poems which follow examine human nature – the stone, if you will, from which we all carve our souls. Zeller focuses on childhood, that time which Wordsworth celebrated as innocent, the time in which, he claimed, we are closest to God. Zeller does present children as closer to nature, but this nature is far from Wordsworth's vision of gamboling lambs and celestial light; instead, for Zeller, childhood takes place in a room “raw with its own smallness, / its window-ledge littered” with the “dead / or writhing bodies” of beetles, where a girl drinks powdered milk until her “gums grew numb with clumps of chalky / white, like swallowing quartz-rich sand,” where an eleven year-old watches swallows building a nest and dreams of love as “[b]uilding a home together out of mud,” while her best friend, next to her, deals with a rape: “You use lines you've heard // on Guiding Light: I didn't say no. It hurt, / then he held me. I'm not sure I can go on.”
Suffering and violence is visited upon the children populating these poems, and the children themselves become the harbingers of suffering, of violence. “The Boy President” focuses, at first, on a scene which seems misplaced in this collection for its nostalgic idealism:
When you saw that small boy
down by the railroad tracks bent low,
his whole body focused for once
on some important task, you probably knew
he was lining Lincolnhead pennies
to smash on the iron rails.
The speaker, however, bids the reader to “look closer,” and reveals that “it's not coins but crickets he's lashing / to the tracks, their bodies immobile / and bound in blue fishing line” so there is no chance of escape – an especially chilling detail which illustrates the cruelty inherent in all of us. This instinct appears again and again: a “girl is wriggling her fingers between chafe / and chafe of rope. . . .where her brother and Billy left her / after promising this time she could play.” At the end of the poem, the girl escapes, and the reader feels relief – that is, until they remember that the poem is titled “Revenge” and that the girl's intent is therefore not so innocent as mere escape. Even when Zeller does echo the idyllic Wordsworthian view of childhood, the reverie is suddenly – and irrevocably – smashed. In “Cemetary by an Empty Barn,” the speaker leads us through a tale of a girl who “has a mouse, white / as the blooms of phlox that spot the clay cliff by her house.” She sleeps, and her brother takes the mouse, “stuffs it in a red / plastic Easter egg” which he then tosses “in the air again and again.” The girl finds the egg and the mouse inside it; “The next day her mouse dies.”
What brings this poem beyond a straightforward narrative of childhood cruelty is the nearly magical connection the child feels with the mouse and with nature itself, a theme which plays beautifully throughout Zeller's connection. While her brother throws the mouse in the air, she dreams and “sees the red sphere rise, crack: her white animal / has wings, a horn, a ladder for her to climb.” In transcending the typical relationship between the human and animal world – the mouse is, after all, what “others call a rat” – the girl learns of nature's transcendent power. The poem ends in the girl's graveyard, where she has laid to rest those small and fragile creatures others would merely leave where they found them to decay:
. . . .Look: there are crosses for the chicken
she loved, the kitten, the robin she found, its neck bent from a smack
against glass. And listen, she is singing a tune so sweet
you can smell it. The notes are the phlox that grows along clay,
an aria of warm feathers, white fur.
Out of her love – but also, importantly, her grief -- the girl creates song, and all of nature joins her “to bring her song higher, so even the fish / can feel it rising, shaking their bones in those dark underwater caves.”
And it is this – our ability to feel love, to feel grief – which allows us to transcend our instinct and impulse towards cruelty, to join in the transcendent nature of nature first promised by the rust fish “when constellations whiten.” Zeller posits that this is because a true understanding of nature means an understanding of its dual qualities. Nature is, on one hand, regenerative, lush and verdant and beautiful, a place where we can be immersed as the woman immerses herself in the river in “Her Willapa July,” “up to her belly in moonwater, button-to-button with moon-yellow, that moon swinging her hair around like a cat.” It is the force which courts you, which owns you, which calls “you. / You. / If you'd go to them. / If only you'd go.” On the other hand, nature is forbidding; unlike the natural world of the Romantics, nature exists not to remind us of God but to sustain its own separate existence:
Listen: It can be simple.
This water will fall
wherever it wants to,
like birds from its spray.
There is nothing you can do about it.
It doesn't even know you're here.
In the end, Zeller's collection curls around a complex idea: that balance between these two extremes is impossible. Though we can never be part of nature, and though the natural world cares so little for us as to threaten us, we cannot stop or even deny our desire for oneness with it. In “Foxglove,” Zeller describes her love of these “bells of anger. Each bloom / where once a hemlock stood.” She speaks of, as a child, drinking from the base of the blossoms “like bees drink, giddy and high.” She wonders, in the end, if she would've tasted the flowers had she known how poisonous they were, and concludes that their beauty would have overwhelmed her sense – and, indeed, still does:
Would it have changed
if I knew what I learned later,
how poisonous you are,
how your beauty could burn
my muscle tissue,
choke my circulation?
Again your voice rises.
I take you whole, the purple of you
already in my throat.
Bolden’s chapbooks include How to Recognize a Lady (part of Edge by
Edge, Toadlily Press), The Mariner’s Wife (Finishing Line Press), and
The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press). She was a finalist for the
Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize and for a
Ruth Lily Fellowship. She is an assistant professor of Creative Writing
at Georgia Southern University, and blogs at www.emmabolden.com.
Zara Raab reviews The White Museum, by George Bilgere, Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2010.
It is hard to underestimate the influence Billy Collins, and perhaps certain late night TV commentators, have had on certain segments of the contemporary American poetry scene, and George Bilgere’s charming, witty poems of ordinary life are examples, rather better than most. The “White Museum” of the title poem refers to the brain matter of his aunt’s corpse, lying on the dissecting table under the skilful hands of an organ harvester. But title also evokes the poems “Shine,” about race relations (with whites doomed to the museum of ancient history), and “A Nice Place to Live”:
It’s called being white
and well-off in America,
where it’s all just handed to you
by a nice brown server with no English,
or a white person with bad teeth
and no dental plan. [57, “A Nice Place to Live”]
Bilgere is clever with the details of middle aged, suburban life in the 21st Century, capturing, for example, the fury of sitting in a café with a bunch of people all talking on their cell phones, and in particular the fury incited by the woman “at the next able/with the little blue light on her ear/who has been telling the emptiness in front of her/about her daughter’s bridal shower/in astonishing detail/for the past thirty minutes” [5, “Bridal Shower”]; capturing, too, the invisibility of a middle-aged man to “the smoking hot barista” who serves him a morning bagel.
With consistent smoothness and
attention to the telling detail, Bilgere writes about his father, who wore a
fedora, shaved with a strop and razor, and eventually “took a refreshing
swim/across a large, inviting lake of gin” [7, “Graduates of Western Military Academy”]
and about his wife with “an open blouse, and two cool breasts/from the land of
joy” [62, “Joy”]. He is equally chatty and astute, writing about Galileo, Monet
or the neighbor down the street who works for a tree service and comes home
with “sap on his hands, bits of leaf in his hair”[6, “Ardmore Tree Service”]. In
“Zero,” the narrator wakes to a winter freeze, pours his wife her coffee,
notices the snow-covered barbecue grill outside he’d “neglected to put in the
garage for winter,” and then his wife’s robe, “white and shimmery” [3, “Zero”].
Bilgere links the weather not only to orgasmic phenomena, but, in another poem, to death, imagining “men my age” shoveling snow “all over the city/…having heart attacks in their driveways,//dropping their nice new shovels/with ergonomic handles/that finally did them not good” [9, “Snow”]. Death, every poet’s subject, appears in a eulogy to his aunt and to the city’s lost icons: “the crumbling Coronado,/where Miles Davis used to play,/and the Continental, where the Gershwins/hung out at the Tack Room,/and the abandoned Fox Theater/where she saw Olivier’s Hamlet” [11, “The Fall”].
Bilgere’s titles betoken a complacency and ease: “Take Out the Trash,” the sole remnant of many, enumerated rituals of childhood that have gone the way of trash; “Laundry Chute,” a place not only for dirty socks and underwear, but for all the “lies I’ve told, the big ones/that certain people I love/still carry around like wounds” [13, “Laundry
Chute”]. And once or twice the poet’s complacency bursts right through the irony or wit:
I’m sitting here reading the paper,
feeling warm and satisfied, basically content
with my life and all I have achieved.
[34, “The Ineffable”]
Philip Levine entitled a recent collection of poems “News of the World,” and this would be an apt title for these charming stories from ordinary life. Though The White Museum was published in 2010, the poems, written in a mood of wry optimism, even ebullience, seem to chronicle a time before the Great Recession of 2009, perhaps even before September 2001. The poet, as he addresses his dead father, is a man of a certain age, an undeniably white, middle class man (ready, perhaps, for the museum)
wearing a faded Target swimsuit
made in a Chinese sweatshop,
hanging out at the public pool,
scoping out some hot teen boobs
in the middle of the day,
smack dab in the middle of the work week.
Yes, dad, I know
I’m living in a minor key,
A minor age, you’d probably say. I failed
to grow up. Perhaps you’d find it
pathetic, but I like it here
in his unimaginable future
you never lived to see,
this dress down, come-as-you-are,
hey-it’s no-big-deal kind of a place
If we are not always moved by Bilgere’s poems or provoked to deep thought, we are almost always amused and charmed.
Zara Raab’s most recent book is The Book of Gretel. Swimming the Eel is due out later this year. Her work appears in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, The Dark Horse and Spoon River Poetry Review, with poems scheduled to appear in Evansville Review and River Styx. Her literary reviews and essays appear in Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Rattle on-line, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review and elsewhere. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Joan Biddle reviews All-American Poem, by Matthew Dickman, American Poetry Review, 2008, $14.00
Matthew Dickman is a brave writer whose poems are witty, fun, and risky. He is unafraid to confess, to reveal and revel in transgressions and everyday moments that seem to transcend all others. The poems of All-American Poem center on the simple, physical, pleasurable aspects of life. Dickman lists the things he loves, gives them names and context, and leaves them on the page to radiate their high into whomever picks up this book.
Though coming from similar experiences, unlike his twin brother Michael Dickman, whose poems travel sparely down the page and rest on darker moments and experiences, Matthew Dickman’s verse rambles ecstatically, with no holds barred and no real attempt at form. There are no stanzas, and no extra-creative line breaks. One gets the sense that these words were scratched out in a notebook in much the same form as they appear in the book. Yet they are still good poems, so in-the-moment that they bring you along with them in their waves of gratitude and emotion.
Most poetry classes teach sparseness, getting the most punch in the fewest words, no excess. Dickman does not follow that rule, filling the page with jagged lines of observations and whims. In this way his work is reminiscent of ancient praise songs, not worried with economy of language, but focused on naming and praising things worthy of praise. He touches on all possible aspects of his subject, making it reflect through pages of stream-of-consciousness lines, defiantly filling spaces other poets might leave to the imagination.
This profusion can go a bit too far at times, sneaking into the area of playing with language for the sake of it. An example of this comes at the end of “Slow Dance”, when Dickman concludes: “The orange and orangutan slow dance.” This is the type of playful language I might cut from a draft of a poem. It’s fun, but does it mean anything? Another example is in “Grief,” when he is speaking of the “purple gorilla” that grief is personified as. “I play her favorite Willie Nelson album / because she misses Texas / but I don’t ask why.” Some might say these details add to the charm of his poems, but every part of a poem must mean.
In “Slow Dance,” Dickman staves off mistakes and sad endings with the pleasure of letting go and dancing close with another person. He describes slow dancing with his brother: “and when he turns to dip me / or I step on his foot because we are both leading, / I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer. / The slow dance of what’s to come / and the slow dance of insomnia / pouring across the floor like bath water.” Here Dickman touches on a melancholy subject, but it comes from something beautiful, and he doesn’t dwell on it.
As in all of his poems, he quickly jumps to something related but different, describing his naked lover brushing her teeth: “…the slow dance of ritual is being spit / into the sink.” A few lines later, he writes, “I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed / the front yard,” flipping from the deep to the banal. Later in the poem, he writes, “It is what we should be doing right now. Scraping / for joy.” So the poems ends on a lighter, higher note, imploring the reader to embrace joy, let go and live in the moment as you would in a slow dance.
In “Grief,” Dickman personifies grief as a purple gorilla, to whom he ends up having an unhealthy attraction. He takes a sad subject and makes it funny, makes fun of his relationship with the emotion, regrets how often he’s had to feel it. “Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper, / tells me to write down / everyone I have ever known / and we separate them between the living and the dead / so she can pick each name at random.” The act of remembering those who have died becomes a kind of game. He wrestles with his feelings surrounding grief, and makes a story out of it.
As Grief reads him a name, “I am aware of each syllable / wrapping around the bones like new muscle, / the sound of that person’s body / and how reckless it is, / how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.” He recreates this person he has lost through the slow-moving lines and the description of a body which no longer exists. Now he can only hear the name, the sound it makes; he can no longer see the body or hear the person’s voice. But he can recreate it in his mind, in this poem.
In the book’s final poem “The World is Too Huge to Grasp,” Dickman writes, “I’m not going to / let a little thing like the world stand in my way. / Why should I? I understand it / as much as I understand penguins / and I still go to the zoo.” He joyously names the things we should be focusing on rather than the things of the world. His final note is refreshing, uplifting, taking the weight off of our shoulders. There is no way we can grasp the “ten-zillion things” of the world. We must embrace the miracles right in front of us, right now. These lines also describes his own poems, which don’t let anything stand in their way of stating completely honestly what he sees, feels, hears, and knows of this bright world, this world he likes “in all its incredible forms.”
In “We Are Not Temples” Dickman writes, “I am so much bigger / than in real life.” Expansive and unafraid, Dickman’s poems can make you feel just this way, if you let them.
Joan Biddle is a writer and editor in Memphis, TN. She holds an MA from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA from The New School University. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in Gently Read Literature, Half-Drunk Muse, The Yalobusha Review, The Red Booth Review, The Country Dog Review, and Small Spiral Notebook. An audio podcast of Biddle reading her poetry can be found on apostrophecast.com. Her website is joanbiddle.net.
The truth is that I’m not sure what Walker is up to. And that’s certainly not a bad thing in any book, especially not a book of poems. If nothing else, the shortness of most books of poetry allows for a quick re-reading or four in the time it would take you to complete a novel, and each reading past the first, assuming a good book of poetry, will provide you with new insights.
To extend the truth, I’d have to say there are two different Walkers in this book, the one who writes poems like “Mistaking Windows for Doors” and the one who writes poems like “At the Local Five & Dime.” These are the two poems that open the book, and they’re superficially similar. Here’s the opening to “Mistaking Windows for Doors”:
That was a good day. Forty friends gave me cash. I didn’t write
down how much. I just pocketed the crush and grime
and breathed hallelujah at them. Thank God they finally
believed I had the touch and the face and the pockets. (7)
And here’s the opening to “At the Local Five & Dime”:
The bargain hunters wanted my shirt.
It was a special shirt, made from
elephant hair (bristly) and worm castings (warm)
and the red shoots of saffron pattering the word
NATURE in big red capital letters. (8)
In both poems we have a narrator who is telling us the story, and in each this narrator is guided or threatened by others. The first poem turns around the giving up of worldly possessions while the second turns around the giving up of a shirt, which is to say that one has a certain thematic resonance and the other is an anecdote. An absurd anecdote, to be sure, but an anecdote that is completely constrained by the poem.
I want to break here to say that I love Nicole Walker’s non-fiction. In her essays the narrative voice perfectly captures the absurd and the insane in the world around us, and turns those captured coals into diamonds of description that cut with a precise emotional edge. The notes section of This Noisy Egg is actually a collection of micro-essays that work as prose poems, as good as any poem in the book proper.
And I don’t mean this as a strike against Walker’s book, but more to point out that I’m engaged, and I feel like Walker’s poems are most fully formed, when there is an emotional something at stake, such as with “Mistaking Windows for Doors” or “Bat Boy” or “Bivalves”. These poems don’t necessarily exist outside of the absurdist plane, but there is a quality to the syntax, the line breaks, the voice, that suggests an emotional burden that the poem is carrying for us, gently lifting up the covering tarp, allowing us a glimpse of the figure beneath.
Walker clearly knows how to assemble language into beautiful machines, where phrase interlocks with phrase and image overlays image. However, in a number of the poems here, the machine is built without purpose, a game of language that astounds for its intricacy but is still only a game. Here’s the opening to “Forks”:
What the baby lacks in mystery he makes up for in thoroughness.
The civil snake, who really is nice, when she can be nice,
finds the baby either indulgent or an indulgence. (12)
And what the poems gives us is the detailing of the hypothetical struggle between baby and snake. Sure, there could be meanings read into the epic battle, but the poem doesn’t call for anything outside of itself. It’s a perfect diorama.
The baby chases her. She chases him. Geography reveals them.
She supposes the plumb of the level depends on where they are—
at the Kmart surely the baby wins. Wire traps and hatchets
and probably something called Herp-B-Gone tilt the scales. (12)
Walker’s sense of humor is on fine display, and her imagination reveals this scenario to the reader as a grudge match as epic as that between bear and shark or ninja and pirate. But other than setting up another pop culture meme, what’s the poem to us? To me, I mean. I should probably take ownership here.
Because what I’m getting at is that the division in This Noisy Egg matches one I see in contemporary poetry: that between the poem as a play of words and phrases, usually absurd since language calls forth language without regard to an outside reference, and the poem as a record of an emotion. Contemporary literature – at least the hip kind – is still talked about as the realm of irony only and that authentic emotion is forcibly ejected from residence. The language-play poem is a further evolution since irony has to be referenced to an emotion that’s being distanced from. In these poems I’m left wondering what is it that the poem is about.
Which doesn’t mean that I’m looking for plot. Lisa Olstein has a poem that’s a list of the numbers of birds, but by the end of reading it I’m moved. There’s a sense of moment that draws the reader in, just as you can listen to someone speaking another language and be affected by the emotion of what they’re saying, even if you don’t understand what they’re talking about.
This Noisy Egg is almost evenly split between poems that play and poems that feel. For me, that makes about half of the book a worthwhile read, poems that I return to in order to get something new from them, a deeper understanding, a more complete experience. There is heady language here, and an intense craft at work, and though I’ve lambasted the book for the empty lines filling half of its pages, how can I not expect more from Walker, a writer who can lavish us with this:
I am rich because of my saw and chisel
not for wood to rot
but for I can build up in tree
a high plank
and owl the sky
and needle the moon. (44, “Topography”)
Andrew Kozma received his M.F.A. from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Zoland Poetry, Subtropics, AGNI Online, Comstock Review, Quiddity, and a non-fiction piece has been published by The Iowa Review. His first book of poems, City of Regret, won the Zone 3 First Book Award and was released in 2007.
Joan Biddle reviews Something in the Potato Room, by Heather Cousins. Kore Press, 2009. $14.95
It is rare to come across a book like Heather Cousins’ Something in the Potato Room. A narrative poem told in the first person in a light yet troubled voice, it walks the line between reality and magic, not always revealing which is which.
Disheartened by people and her job—when her boss gave her an application for “Keyboarding I”, the narrator “…folded it into an / origami crane and tucked / it in a jar of yogurt- / covered raisins”—the narrator retreats into a secret room in the basement of a house “the color of lips and toe- / nails” and discovers something which frightens her at first, but which she makes the object of her study and obsession.
Cousins creates a world where there is a thin line between living and dead, where all living things have the potential to terrify, and the buried grow new life—a world where “Life / doesn’t stay still, and / death doesn’t stay still ei- / ther.”
Her precision, detail, and delight in language propel the poem. It becomes a mystery what is animate and what is inanimate. In the library, books “… still maintained / their plant magic,” and she “[vibrates] with the letters, / words, sentences.”
It is a lyric that could be performed—with fast parts and slow parts, nervousness and love, a dramatic arc and rhythm beneath the words. With stanzas arranged in columns in the center of the page, and interspersed with sometimes haunting drawings, Something in the Potato Room is at once mythic and real, funny and profound, beautiful and sad.
is a writer and editor living in Memphis, TN. She holds an MA from Johns
and an MFA from The New School. Joan has been published in Half Drunk
The Yalobusha Review, The Red Booth Review, and Small Spiral
Notebook. An audio podcast of Joan reading her poetry can be found
Anya Groner reviews Blood Ties & Brown Liquor by Sean Hill, University of Georgia Press, 2008. $16.95
Sean Hill’s 2008 debut collection Blood Ties & Brown Liquor explores
the experiences of a fictional African American family across six generations. Taking
place in Hill’s hometown—Milledgeville, Georgia—the poems focus on the life of
Silas Wright, born 1907. Evocative of
both Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah and
Maurice Manning’s Lawrence Booth’s Book
of Visions, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor combines personal experience with
local and historical specificity, aesthetic inquiry with moral imperative. Like Dove and Manning, Hill explores issues
of identity—blackness, imprisonment, slavery and ownership, poverty, the terror
of racial violence, and the creation of family mythology.
The book begins with “Southampton
County, Virginia Aubade 1831” a poem about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion (“Some
whites don’t rise with the sun/having departed in the night… The mockingbird
greets the morning/with many tongues.”). With the exception of this first poem,
the only poem that’s not about the Wright family, Hill relays historical fact
indirectly, privileging individual experience. In the second poem,
“Milledgeville Aubade 1831,” a slave woman imagines her lover, Nathaniel, rounding
up foraging pigs, “Nate’s tin/badge shines on his homespun shirt in this early
light/precious as silver, his freedom, his travel pass,/his way back to me.”
The side by side telling of the simultaneous lives of two enslaved men named
Nat creates uncomfortable resonance. Though slavery is an experience marked by
the absence of choice, Hill’s pairing suggests not only the variation of
experience, but the extremity of free will.
evocative pairing revolves around the 1946 lynching of two young
African-American couples in Monroe, Georgia.
In “Insurance Man 1946,” Silas Wright is told by a traveling salesman to
buy an insurance policy because “Being alive is enough to get you killed./Did
you hear about them folks up in Monroe?/If they hang you from a tree, you’ll
need a will.” The following poem, “Nightmare 1946” splices and distorts the
Insurance Man’s dialogue with Silas’ vision of his own lynching, bringing the
reader into his own haunted consciousness, “Community men each with a broken-bottle
grin/cutting their faces like a welt./If
we hang you, you’ll need a coffin.” Neither poem flinches at brutality, but
Hill’s primary interest is in psychic terror. Not only must Silas confront the
frank possibility of another lynching (his own), he must weigh the market value
placed on his own commoditized fear.
Hill deftly combines his excavation
of the past with emotional lyricism, a strong sense of rhythm, and a rich
texture of form (the book has a blues poem, two villanelles, a Haibun, and a
Tanka). In Milledgeville Haibun, the prose section mimics a beating heart as
the protagonist sneaks into the county jail garden to steal watermelon:
…theirs were the sweetest, so bust
one open, the dull thud just before the crack, and eat the heart and move on to
the next; and he moved on to women and settled eventually on one and finally
busted her with finality, thud before crack, and he measured time raising
sweetest watermelons for a time and time served he returned…
A man’s whole life is summed up in this single, fast-paced sentence. The prose section ends abruptly with a suicide and the two word sentence “Heart stopped.” The form then switches to haiku, the heart beat rhythm starkly absent, the landscape barren, and the tracks on which the man lay down to die suddenly overgrown, his life and death lost amongst weeds, “Old railroad, abandoned—/between crossties trees grow,/ a feral pig roots below branches.”
similar display of rhythmic dexterity, “Learning to Walk” uses a two syllable
line to create the jagged beat of a child’s first steps “I/learned to/walk
in/braces/hobbled/like a/dray an-/imal/or slave.” The quick turn from whimsy to
slavery contains an emotional dropkick typical of many of Hill’s poems. Though
aspects of Hill’s project feel familiar, (think Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family),
his vision transcends the simple narrative of a family over time. The most
poignant (and often violent) turns are couched between descriptions of the
My favorite poem is ‘The State House Aflame 1833.’ In this poem, a slave named Sam wins his freedom but betrays his community. When the slave auction block house catches on fire, (“Water can’t reach the heights/a slave can. Sam’s a bondsman), Sam puts out the fire, risks his life and douses the building. His fellow slaves’ disgust is portrayed through the chanting lyrics of the rap song, “The Roof is on Fire” by Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three, “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire,/We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn,” which constantly interrupts Sam’s freedom story. In this poem, the rap chorus gains a swift new gravity, the 1980s frivolous anti-institutional sentiment suddenly undercut with a deep-rooted critique of slavery. As I read it, I wanted to yell out the lyrics in solidarity and simultaneously mourn Sam’s trade of community for freedom. Hill leaves no room for easy alliance. More than any other poem, this poem contains within itself the intergenerational dialogue that permeates the book. By using repeating lines, images, and life details, Hill creates the sensation that not only are poems whispering across the pages, but the family members are too, parsing out judgment and compassion across generations.
Anya Groner's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Weekly, Damselfly Press, Flatmancrooked, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. She was the winner of the 2008 Glass Woman Prize and recently received honorable mention in the 2009 Memphis Magazine short story contest. She is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Mississippi where she has a John and Renee Grisham fellowship and is the current fiction and art editor of the Yalobusha Review.
The bravado apparent in the title of Karyna McGlynn’s first book, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, is entirely indicative of what follows. Winner of the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, selected by Lynn Emanuel, the book is both a murder mystery and a fractured story of suburban girlhood—a book of “cul-de-sac badlands” and the “duplex kingdom” where birthdays are filmed and sandboxes are turtle-shaped, where “ritalin girls” babysit children in the church nursery and “a barrelful of something muffled” is rolled “down the back of a mountain” (25, 40, 49). Ironic, darkly sexual, and obsessive, McGlynn’s poems are refreshing—and daringly so.
While the title’s premonitory murder would seem to be the book’s focus, the murder is not dealt with directly until the final third of the book. Rather, McGlynn’s sections—titled “Planchette,” “Visitant,” and “Revenant”—contain a world in which the murder has already occurred and has yet to occur, a ghostly world in which the past and present comingle. McGlynn’s true interest seems to be the self and the self’s relationship to the past. In her foreword to I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, Lynn Emanuel explains, “[W]hat makes the book so crafty is that it uses the language and the style we have come to associate with the real and authentic ‘self’—trauma, violation, sexuality—to subvert the expected self and its confessions” (xvi). McGlynn’s first book is indeed an “appropriation autobiography” (xvi).
Even the first poem—at once an introduction and an invocation—contains this subversion of the self and the self’s expected ability to tell her story. Here, that story is simply unknowable: “I wake up somewhere in Ohio. Or, that’s how it smells— / There’s a phone in my hand. I’m thirty years old. / No, the phone is thirty years old. Its memory’s been erased” (xxi). Confession is undermined here by multiple possibilities and the speaker’s own doubt. As these lines reveal, it is the dreamy quality of the misremembered that marks McGlynn’s voice. The past itself proves shaky, incapable of holding up: the speaker’s childhood home, for example, has been “deboned” by termites—“in one bedroom a dresser with blue drawers / its peg legs rested on pure membrane” (3). At any moment, it seems, the whole construct or charade may come crashing down. And by forsaking the literal (for a house cannot be deboned), McGlynn frees herself to work with images and premises as wild and fantastic as she chooses. McGlynn’s observation act is at once originally strange and piercingly accurate.
As a book of subversive observation, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is also a book of revisions played out on the page. In “A Red Tricycle in the Belly of the Pool,” the reader learns: “a girl rode her tricycle around the bottom of the pool / the pool had no water; it hadn’t rained” (6). When the girl falls and scrapes her hands and knees, though, suddenly centipedes are sewing stitches under the girl’s skin; suddenly the tricycle is not a tricycle; suddenly “I’m sorry / the pool was full of water” (7). What we are given is amended before our eyes, which creates multiple possibilities, multiple realities—all or none of which may be true. These revisions—all present and contained in a voice that frequently speaks in a stream-of-consciousness style—together add up to tell the book’s complex and seemingly unmanageable story.
McGlynn works this same magic in terms of formatting. Several poems employ vertically-aligned spaces mid-line which creates the visual appearance of two columns on the page. These poems offer multiple readings—one can read the poem from left to right, moving down the page line by line, observing the medial spaces as a kind of caesura, or one can read the poem column by column. Another poem, “At the Far End of the Room Buzzed with 40 Tiny Fans” (37-38), weaves two narratives together, one of which is italicized, which also creates an opportunity for two distinct and valid readings. Each narrative is at once independent of the other and dependent on the other.
McGlynn’s poetry is, in general, a rather wild poetry in terms of the scenarios presented, though her language is concise and precise, never pointlessly vague or unnecessarily descriptive. Some of the poems are more immediately straightforward—“Amanda Hopper’s House,” for example, presents a breakfast table scene in which a newspaper article and an older sister outside with her boyfriend figure. This is not to say that the metaphorical level is not present, but that the realism of the scene has been purposefully foregrounded. Some poems, however, require multiple readings and encourage more doubt. In these, the reader begins to question what’s happening and, as a result, to question his or her own understanding, his or her own ability to make sense of the situation. “In “Sometimes in the Night a Naked Man Passes,” a beekeeper comes into the speaker’s room at night so that the bees can lay eggs on her face. In answer to her question “where are you going,” he replies, “the women in my life.” Such poems as this are dreamlike and ghostly, and the reader learns to go with them willingly, to depart from any sort of standard reality. In fact, in the disjointed question and answer scene just referenced, the reader senses that the impossibility of comprehension is precisely McGlynn’s point.
Strongest, however, are poems like “God, I Got Down There to Get Off,” “When I Came to There Was a Pearl and a Fish Hook,” “Erin with the Feathered Hair,” and “The Nursery with Half a Window Up Near the Ceiling” in which McGlynn’s meaning resonates through an appropriate ratio of literal clarity and her imaginative mystery which is so powerfully at work in this book. Lines like
Under the lip of the ottoman, something copper winks.
But I’m flat on my belly, hand in my jeans—
and how to say every penny has become the eye
of a dead relative watching me? This one from 1989—
I’m tapping my 6th-grade self on the shoulder,
watching her turn around with a sneer (18)
speak for themselves, full of wonderfully-irreverent lyricism. In the rare weaker poems (like “Post-Nuptials: The Wedding Party Floated Away on an Iceberg”), however, McGlynn loses this balance, and the poems’ confusion overrides their meaning and their purpose in the larger context of the book.
I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is a jarring read, no doubt, but soon enough, as the reader works his or her way through the book, the poems come to make their own sort of marvelous sense. McGlynn’s startling imagery, her disregard for diachronic time, and her brazen and ironic language create a reality that is worked out on the page—a reality in which poetry provides power over the constraints of time. While McGlynn certainly deserves praise for her theoretically-interesting appropriation and subversion of the confessional speaker, McGlynn’s poems primarily stand out as well-written and finely-honed poems full of ironic sass and dark sexuality. Give the book a read—hers is, as Emanuel points out, truly an innovative voice.
Corinna McClanahan Schroeder is currently completing her MFA degree at the University of Mississippi where she is the recipient of a John and Renee Grisham Fellowship. Her work is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry, Measure, and Conte. She is currently the student coordinator for the Grisham Visiting Writers Series and poetry editor for The Yalobusha Review.
Emma Bolden reviews Carta Marina: A Poem in Three Parts, Ann Fisher-Wirth. Wings Press, 2009. $16.00.
With its ability to name and organize the events of our lives, to situate people, places, and events in relation to each other, and to show their respective size and influence, a poem is, in many ways, a map, and the poet a cartographer. Through the searingly beautiful triptych of poems which make up Carta Marina, the reader follows Ann Fisher-Wirth as she plays the part of cartographer, attempting to label, organize, and therefore make sense of those parts of her experience which seem most nonsensical, most impossible to understand, and most impossible to reconcile with and relate to each other. During a ten month stay in Sweden, the speaker attempts to make sense of her existence in the “rainy hours” of an unfamiliar and iced-over country where she is confronted not only by her own physical frailty – her chest hurting so much that she can express the pain only in fractured language (“—Want to sleep want a painkiller strong enough to take the pain / away so I can remember the suppleness of breathing”) ? but the frailty of human life in general. Upon hearing piano music, a revelation strikes her: “that Chuck and Jonathan, my students, being newly dead / would never hear it, never sit in the Aula / gazing up at its leafy panels and painted dome of stars.” Confronted with the tenuous nature of human existence, the speaker realizes that any attempt to make sense of life will be difficult: “There’s no getting out of this easily.”
Having already embarked on a journey through these darkened territories, the speaker’s experience of the world is further fractured when a past love appears in her present. Fisher-Wirth’s poems portray, with unflinching honesty and heart-wrenching accuracy, the process of mapping one of modern life’s most treacherous territories: the intersection between the present and the past allowed by modern technology. She struggles to find a name for the experience, presenting it first in terms of evidence for the reader to interpret themselves. In “Fragment: Email from Paris,” the man we will later know as a former lover admits both to not forgetting about the speaker – “Unbeknownst, however, you have had no trouble // passing through my memory (remorse)” – and wanting to see her again: “If you were not living in Europe / I would probably not have written you now . . . // You, my first ‘real’ girlfriend.” Fisher-Wirth begins a correspondence with him, struggling
[t]o honor the present
and honor the past, be in the present
and not shut off the past [...]
so that loss // is not the whole story.
The poems follow the painful process of transforming the terrain of her life by allowing a past love to develop and grow in the present. The speaker is forced to “re-map” her life in the present and in the past, both as the woman with three grown daughters and a husband who “sleeps beside [her], / beloved, actual,” and as the eighteen year old girl who fell in love with
who loves chess
and hates psychology, whose hands
and eager and whose mouth
always tastes of
now “a doctor in
As Fisher-Wirth maps and re-maps the landscape of her life, she turns for inspiration to Olaus Magnus’ 1539 map, the Carta Marina. The map presents both an eerily accurate depiction of the geography of
Two swans sail in synchrony
above two eels or fish towards rocks where
a fiddler plays a tune
and a ferret or ermine runs home
to his mate peeking out from a shawl-shaped tunnel
Magnus also includes unnatural interruptions, monsters and other creatures which disturb the natural order but nonetheless co-exist with the ordinary animals on the map. Like her former lover’s e-mail, these creatures appear out of the depths to rear their heads and render the natural order unnatural: “Two very large sea monsters / The one truculent with its teeth / The other horrible with its horn,” the “erect whale” who “sinks a big ship / With a look of dogged satisfaction...” and “Demons” who “serve themselves on the flesh of captured men.”
Fisher-Wirth turns to the map and to these illustrations for explanation and guidance. In “The women of the Carta Marina,” for instance, she examines Magnus’ drawings of women involved in the work of life and death. Magnus presents women as playing one of two parts: the murderess who ends lives and the mother who creates and nurtures new life. There is the woman “Poised to shoot her arrow” beside a lover, two women who “are present / for the pouring out of blood,” and women involved in the beginning of life, as the “round-cheeked, / sturdy” woman who stands beside “a three-antlered reindeer,” gazing towards the viewer as “Milk gushes / into a wooden pail / from both udders.” However, as it involves both life and death, and bringing new life to a love which was once dead, Fisher-Wirth’s situation can’t be solved by retreating to these expected roles. She realizes that “the map’s a girl;” cartography, then, becomes itself a mode of creation, and the world of the poems opens as Fisher-Wirth begins to follow not the product but the process of mapping through the telling and re-telling of her story, which, in essence, re-creates it. In this way, and only this way, she can come to terms with their story.
Like Magnus, whose tendency toward continual revision and re-evaluation led to twelve years of work on the Carta Marina, Fisher-Wirth names, re-evaluates, and revises her experience. She first maps their story as that of “a girl in whose belly a child quickens, / who rises naked, calm / from her boyfriend’s bed” only to see a “smear of blood on the toilet paper,” then “the forceps, / the stillbirth, the hospital bed.” This, however, is the story she tells herself, and not the truth. She revises the story to instead reveal the truth she can finally name, now that the past and the present have so painfully joined together. She now knows her lover’s side of the story, and can revise her own in light of his. She re-maps their story as that of “the boy she turned to,” not the child’s father, who “covered her body / with the sweetness of warm rain” until “the waters closed over [them] both.” In mapping, she is able to revisit the moment when “She has not started down the road yet towards the blood, the gray coffin. He has not feared yet what he will fear for 37 years, and never spoke of to a soul: that he murdered her child by fucking her.”
Mapping becomes an act of survival, necessity; she must find a way to name, place, and thereby accept “This awkward, scary love, the way / snow falls everywhere, the way rivers / leap their banks in spring, and sunlight warns us.” In keeping with the sharp and brilliant complexity of the book, Fisher-Wirth recognizes that this is a flawed process, even a sickening form of escapism – “You get to the point where everything becomes metaphor, / everything becomes signal. / Then you sicken.” However, she also realizes that this is all she can do, and directly challenges both the reader and her lover to disagree: “He writes back, ‘It’s too easy, / turning bodies into words.’ Yes, / too easy – but tell me, what would you do?”
With a fierce and wrenching honesty, Fisher-Wirth forces herself through the process of cartography, which allows her to finally feel the emotions covered by thirty-seven years of silence: “One day the waters have their skin on. // The next day, after thirty-seven years, / a voice, a stone falls through.” Able finally to face the situation as it was, the bald mapped facts of it, Fisher-Wirth is finally able to grieve for the stillborn daughter she carries “forever, whose shadowy face is turned forever away from her,” and to love the men of her past and of her present: “Oh the heart / wants it all, every lover forever in me, / every lick of the setting sun wetting the wintry birch trees.” Through mapping her life in language, Fisher-Wirth works beyond her metaphor to the raw and real truth behind the words, which are, after all, just words – “Friend is just a word. / Love is just a word. / In love is just two words.” However, like the key of a map, these words act as tools and symbols to direct her in a journey towards revelation, revision, and rebirth. It is the gruesome and glorious cartography of language that leads her “towards hunger and toward plentitude,” and also towards healing: “I said to Peter, ‘Now I will turn the wheel / and finish the cycle with spring poems.” In this season of rebirth, during which “seeds, seeds / riot in the ground,” Fisher-Wirth is able to move beyond mapping and even beyond language to the center itself, the source of love and life and grief, “The split heart-- // The heart still split-- // All this human love and anguish--”
Emma Bolden is the author of three chapbooks of poetry: How to Recognize a Lady, (part of Edge by Edge, the third in Toadlily Press’ Quartet Series); The Mariner’s Wife (Finishing Line Press); and The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as the Indiana Review, The Journal, Feminist Studies, Prairie Schooner, Redivider, Verse, Green Mountains Review, Salamander, and on Linebreak.org. She was the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship for the 2008 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a semi-finalist for the Perugia Press Book Prize and the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry, and a finalist for a Ruth Lily Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation/Poetry magazine. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of English in Creative Writing at Georgetown College, where she also serves as poetry editor of the Georgetown Review.
Alicia Casey reviews Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, Paula Bohince. Sarabande Books, 2009. $14.95.
In a recent interview with Sarabande Books, Paula Bohince said, “Grief really is its own universe: mysterious, isolating, and transformative.” Her first collection of poems, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, artfully embodies this universe of grief, moving the reader through interior and exterior landscapes in an effort to negotiate the sudden death of the speaker’s father. Bohince’s poems often recall the pastoral tradition, but her deft and subtle use of quietly ominous imagery undercuts the potential for sentimentality.
The first section of the book maps the physical space of the speaker’s childhood on a Pennsylvania farm at the edge of Bayonet woods, the “homestead” which “held many children,/uncles and great-uncles, delicate and stooping aunts,” as well as the interior landscape of the speaker’s memory. Although the speaker displays a clear tenderness for the land where she would “lie in the grove/of crabapples, /inhaling dirt’s pepper, [her] cheek/wet against stubble, /eye to mineral eye”, the reader is consistently reminded of the tenuous nature of recollection, and the ominous quality of a place where the “pasture is owned by a ghost/who turns meaner each hour”.
Throughout the poems of the first section, the reader senses that something has gone wrong in this gothic landscape, but the narrative thread operates like a mystery unfolding. The repeating images of birds serve as omens, but Bohince resists the usual harbingers of death, owls, ravens, or crows, in favor of orioles or the robin “sentenced/in red pajamas like a deposed king. This is the world’s/revenge against masculine beauty”. By flipping convention and using symbols of spring and hope to convey a sense of impending tragedy, Bohince creates a sense of sorrow that encompasses both the death of the father, and the death of the speaker’s hope of repairing their conflicted relationship.
In “The Apostles,” the first poem of the second section, Bohince reveals that the speaker's father has been murdered by “friends,” who “finished him/with one shot through the ribs, left him/to bleed beside his bed”. The second section seeks to explore the character of the father, “an unhappy child/who played with guns and trouble, who had a daughter/by accident, each…bewildered by the other”,
and investigates the lives of the three men who were present at the time of his murder. As the speaker returns home to put the affairs of the father in order, she begins to contemplate his life and death through the poet’s adult perspective and “everything becomes a version of [him],/assumes a fern or bird shape, some feathery thing [she] put[s] want into”.
By the end of the section, the reader has learned, along with the speaker, that the father’s murderer was John, a day-laborer who shot the father in a dispute over money. For the speaker, this knowledge is complicated by her memory of “John in his flowered/chiseling shingles off the roof…dwindling to one sexual minute caught…an image [she] think[s] [she’ll] die from” (42). Bohince conveys the sense of loss and betrayal that occur when the speaker learns the identity of the murderer, and there is a clear sense that the speaker’s trust in her own judgment has been compromised.
The final section of the book operates as a resurrection of the goodness that existed in the relationship between the speaker and her father. In poems such as “Farm Triptych,” the speaker’s recollections of the father, both positive and negative, provide a space for his continued existence: “Thus, he’s alive again,/though ashen as the snowball blossoms,/clusters once cut loose, scattered” (53). Although Bohince insists that she does not think of Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods as a novel in verse, there is a distinct unfolding of plot and narrative that provide the sense and closure of a developed piece of prose.
What prevents the text from being read strictly as a narrative of the speaker’s childhood, the father’s murder, and her acceptance of the situation, are the moments of lyrical transcendence in poems such as “Resurrection” which step completely out of the bounds of the “story”: “Ordinary/mourning. Nothing yet risen, no visible alchemy. Only/linen and dust hesitating behind stone. Brittle/carapaces of beetles to keep company the human husk” (62). There is an authority of voice, especially in the religious themed poems, that allow the reader to believe that the speaker has stepped outside “the story” and achieved a sense of peace.
I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and I continue to be impressed with Bohince’s ability to communicate the vast emotional landscape of grief with sparse and poignant images, and brevity of language. However, some readers may find the choice to withhold the fact of the father’s murder until the second section problematic. On first reading, there is a danger of that decision being perceived as gimmicky, but, in subsequent readings, I’ve come to respect that choice as it allows the reader to take the journey of discovery with the speaker. I look forward to seeing Bohince's future works.
Schroeder reviews Bad River Road, Debra Nystrom. Sarabande Books, 2009. $14.95.
Schroeder reviews Bad River Road, Debra Nystrom. Sarabande Books, 2009. $14.95.
In her newest collection of poetry, Bad River Road, Debra Nystrom revisits the Dakota landscape established in A Quarter Turn (1991) and Torn Sky (2003), and far from risking repetition, she makes new that stretching desolation. Bad River Road, Nystrom’s most expansive collection yet, offers readers familiar imagery to be sure—prairies and blizzards, the swallows and swifts that consistently move throughout her poetry—and familiar subjects—family, loss, the violence of weather and winter in the Dakotas, the tension that lingers from the injustice done to the area’s native peoples. But Nystrom offers new subjects as well—the death of the speaker’s mother due to cancer, the imprisonment of her brother, and the mental and physical decline of her father—and the maturity of these poems is a true measure of this poet’s growth. They are tangible and dreamlike, precise and yet sweeping because, in Nystrom’s poetry, “the boundaries of things are impossible to trace” (14).
In this collection, Nystrom stitches the mini-narratives of the speaker’s mother, brother, and father into a master narrative which reveals the landscape of a changed and changing family—changed by death, tragedy, setback. The book is an elegy for what has come before and for the present moment that is already passing, already gone. In this way, the poems are a stay against the erosion of memory and an attempt to heal what time has ruined. In “What’s Left,” Nystrom writes, “Six months after our mother’s / death, our father’s house will burn,” and the speaker preserves its contents in writing: a furnace room with “quilting hoops and crickets,” “letters / pushed to the backs of drawers” (70). Hers is an art of recovery.
Many of Nystrom’s most successful poems concern a brother. First introduced in “Crush,” the brother-as-child watches television shows about “Prince Good-Heart-Charming, Mr. Gone— / none of us understanding you were him all along” (29). In the second section, entitled “Stubble Field,” almost all of the poems center on this brother who is watched by “narcs” because he “might be bait / for something bigger” (43); who goes to treatment; who spends days in the jail’s “bar-banging choir of rage / and threat, white-lit panic” (56). Here, Nystrom is at her strongest. The speaker reexamines her sibling painfully and generously, and the caged loneliness of the institutions in which he is placed mirrors the Dakota landscape, its flat and inescapable enormity where rivers are the only way out. Nystrom’s language is tight and lyric, especially in narrow, vertical poems like “Shot” and “Days End” which pull the reader down the page. In this section (and in the book at large), Nystrom employs more stanzaic play than in her previous collections—she uses couplets, triplets, and quatrains to emphasize white space, silence, the voids between people and in ourselves. Here, the tension of her subject matter sings.
As in the two previous collections, Nystrom includes several poems about the speaker’s childhood and adolescence spent in South Dakota. They are often simple scenes, like children running downhill—“nothing more, nobody thinking this is a thing / to remember—who decides against remembering?” (40)—but Nystrom’s deft language proves these scenes to be worth remembering, telling anew. She gives us short narratives about cousins, childhood girlfriends, teenagers lying on the high bank of the Missouri River, their “fingers / marking signs in the earth that wouldn’t / be seen by us, or by anyone” (52). In “Bicycling to School,” no speaker is identified—only the title informs the reader. The poem tells of
…a scold from one bird and the moan
of wind over prairie—or maybe that’s an airplane
drifted off-course. The anemometer’s balls turn,
aimless, on top of the courthouse; rain gauge bone-
empty again. Hawthorns in front of school grope away
from the wind, their bearings lost, spikes blurred by
shadows that keep shifting, softening every surface. (14)
Here, Nystrom’s technique is spot-on. The title and the sonnet’s series of descriptions do enormous work in a short, tight space, and those details, coupled with Nystrom’s use of wind-like vowels, form her narrative of place—its sights, sounds, and all.
Incorporated into these poems of maturation are a few poems about Native Americans, some of whom lived on reserves in the area in which Nystrom grew up. Nystrom tackled head-on the difficult history of the Lakota people in Torn Sky, and here, she offers contemporary scenes—John Fast Horse with his Cadillac, the boy selling dreamcatchers by the memorial at Wounded Knee, the slogan “Kill the Indian, save the man […] written / above Father Joseph’s desk”—to which Nystrom stingingly demands, “What man was that? Save what man?” (50). In less skilled hands, such poems risk the soapbox effect, but Nystrom is straightforward when she writes of “graves, in ground seared and / hardpanned by wind and snow and / desolation,” “graves surrounded for miles / by graves never found” (80-81). The observant nature of her writing—and her focus on the images at hand—allows the situation of the native peoples of the Dakotas to come across honestly, full of tension, sometimes hope.
The third and final section contains some of Nystrom’s longest poems to date, and most are powerful scenes and meditations—like “Observatory at the Prison” and “Offerings.” “City of Forgetting” is the longest and unfortunately one of the weakest of the book (an inevitability in any book). Set in Washington, D.C., the poem contains friends cycling through “[m]emorials numbered like a board game” (62), a woman cleaning the dead in Baghdad, the Library of Congress, lines from Emily Dickinson, an imprisoned Moroccan cab driver, and a quotation from Psalm 51 applied to a whole slew of typecasts. Here, Nystrom’s usually tight scene becomes too sprawling, and several nonsensical line breaks also impede the poem’s flow. In this collection, readers see Nystrom’s new but only occasional tendency to breaks her lines on definite articles, prepositions, and demonstrative pronouns for no apparent reason, and at times, one misses the more purposeful and sharp-edged line breaks of A Quarter Turn and Torn Sky.
Overall, I highly recommend this collection. Each of Nystrom’s poems is organic and self-sufficient—in short, each can hold its own. Wonderfully, the poems as arranged in the book also reflect each other, echo each other, and form a dreamlike narrative of moments remembered and saved. They haunt, and in Nystrom’s work, it is truly as if “everything touched / everything all the time” (25). The interconnectedness of the images and subjects mirrors the interconnectedness of memory and time and place, and Nystrom proves again to readers that she is a voice worth hearing out, a voice worth remembering.
Corinna McClanahan Schroeder is currently completing her MFA degree at the University of Mississippi where she is the recipient of a John and Renee Grisham Fellowship. Her work is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry, Measure, and Conte. She is currently the student coordinator for the Grisham Visiting Writers Series and poetry editor for The Yalobusha Review.