A Thousand Mornings. Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2012. 82 pp. $24.95, hardcover. Reviewed by Isaiah Vianese.
Mary Oliver’s most recent collection, A Thousand Mornings, marks an important aesthetic shift for the poet. While the book is a logical addition to her impressive body of work, this newest volume finds her opening up to new references, emphasizing the humility of her speaker, and focusing on a generalized spirituality. These are all welcome changes because they allow her most recent poems to feel bare and clear in a way that we rarely see in a contemporary poetry landscape that often favors obscurity.
Much of the work in A Thousand Mornings discusses loneliness. Oliver is well into her golden years and has been open about the difficulty of losing her life partner (which is also discussed in her collection Thirst). She mines this difficult but rich material, teasing out the intricacies of loneliness, as well as the hope needed to brave being alone. For example, in “The Gardener,” she reflects:
Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I
come to any conclusion?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?
These rhetorical questions feel broad, but Oliver knows this and turns the poem quickly by admitting, “I probably think too much.” She then moves the piece away from the speaker by ending it with the image of a gardener caring for his plants. The structure here is especially smart because it allows the poem to progress from the general concerns about aging and being alone to meta self-criticism, concluding with an image that allows the poem to feel less despairing and more comforting. Oliver does not focus on her own wisdom, but she shares a vision that soothes her, and this generosity calms the reader too.
The technique of battling despair with hopeful images permeates the book. The poet practices this technique in “After I Fall Down the Stairs at the Golden Temple,” “Good-Bye Fox,” “Poem of the One World,” and “Today,” among others. Each of these poems is remarkable, but a few poems capitalize on this structure in an especially transcendent way. The first is one of two poems about the death of the poet’s dog, Percy. In “The First Time Percy Came Back,” she shares a vision of seeing her deceased dog return to tell her about the afterlife, during which she says, “But I wasn’t thinking of that. I only / wanted to hold him.” She finds relief from this desire by ending the poem with she and the dog walking down the beach together.
Similarly, the title piece, “A Thousand Mornings,” creates emotional pressure by discussing the speaker’s insomnia, but then relieves that pressure by moving the poem from night to morning’s light. Here is the prose poem in its entirety:
All night my heart makes its way however it can over the rough ground of uncertainties, but only until night meets and then is overwhelmed by morning, the light deepening, the wind easing and just waiting, as I too wait (and when have I ever been disappointed?) for redbird to sing.
The poet uses a stream of consciousness style, allowing this one sentence to quickly move from a dark internal emotional landscape to a brighter outer landscape. In other words, the natural world pulls the speaker out of her despair by reminding her of its beauty and predictability.
Oliver is not interested in preaching or proffering a specific religion but in the comfort one can find in nature. In “I Happened to be Standing,” she acknowledges that religious distinctions do not matter because the beauty of nature is a common ground for all people:
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.
For her, prayer is not solely a human activity, but an action one can observe in the woods or hear in a bird’s song. While her openness about despair reaches a new transparency in this book, the return to nature feels like classic Oliver and more akin to the work in her early books that garnered critical attention. As such, this newest book feels both authentic and fresh.
The poet balances the poems about despair with a second thread of poems about the joy found in nature and art. Oliver is one of few poets who is not afraid to be ecstatic and celebratory. (Perhaps this celebration is why her books sell so well.) Just as Sharon Olds celebrates the body, Oliver praises the world around her. For example, in “Foolishness? No. It’s Not,” she defends being “half crazy with wonder” and “roaring with laughter, full of earth-praise.” She acknowledges that a reader may be critical of her worldview, and yet she extols the value of her perspective anyway.
However, the most interesting poems of this ecstatic ilk praise art as a way of reflecting gratitude. “If I Were” and “Three Things to Remember” use dancing as a metaphor for happiness, and “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy” is simultaneously a remembrance of her beloved dog, a celebration of loving pets, and an homage to a poem by Christopher Smart.
The most interesting of the art poems is “And Bob Dylan Too,” if only for its embrace of the famous folk-pop singer; the piece also works as a tribute to music and its ability to praise all of our emotions. It considers the Dylan quote, “Anything worth thinking about is worth singing about,” by cataloguing the many kinds of songs that musicians create:
Which is why we have
songs of praise, song of love, songs
Songs to the gods, who have
so many names.
Songs the shepherds sing, on the
lonely mountains, while the sheep
are honoring the grass, by eating it.
The dance-songs of the bees, to tell
where the flowers, suddenly, in the
morning light, have opened.
The piece is not simply an ars poetica, but rather an appreciation of all artists and creatures (including pop stars, shepherds, and bees, among many others) that make something beautiful. The poet, charmingly, ends the piece by saying, “Thank you, thank you.”
Sometimes scholars and reviewers give Mary Oliver’s later work a hard rap, criticizing it as reductive. However, A Thousand Mornings provides a wonderful antithesis to that skepticism. The book brims with warmth, compassion, and gratitude. It is rooted in the natural world and Oliver’s rich inner emotional landscapes. It also finds her facing mortality with bravery, hoping to comfort her reader along the way. How can one not find the charm in poetry humble enough to not only face rapture and depression, but also want to help the reader brave those emotions too? A Thousand Mornings is about a poet and her readers moving away from sleepless nights to music-filled mornings together, and the book accomplishes the noble goal of providing comfort. Mary Oliver deserves every ounce of praise she can get for the collection.
Isaiah Vianese's poems and reviews have appeared in Assaracus, Blue Collar Review, The Fourth River, Lambda Literary, Moon City Review, Rattle, and Wilde Magazine. He lives in upstate New York, where he blogs about music and is at work on his first book manuscript.
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.