WINTERGREEN by CHARLES BENNETT Headland Publications, 2002
Published in Galatea Resurrects, Spring 2006
In my hand I hold a slim green volume of poetry....moreWINTERGREEN by CHARLES BENNETT Headland Publications, 2002
Published in Galatea Resurrects, Spring 2006
In my hand I hold a slim green volume of poetry. On the cover is an amazingly ethereal painting by Giovanni Segantini entitled “The Punishment of Lust” in which we see bare-breasted women floating through an icy channel against a backdrop of snow covered mountains. It is titled Wintergreen, by Dr. Charles Bennett.
Dr. Bennett lives and works in and about the U.K. where he runs the Ledbury Poetry Festival, “the best poetry festival in the country” according to Andrew Motion. Several years ago I was lucky enough to hear him read during Writers Week at the University of California, Riverside, near my home.
Throughout this debut, a collection of startlingly fresh lyric poems, Dr. Bennett employs language that is evocative, revelatory, and steeped in folklore that acts as mythical sinew, connecting these poems to the bone of a narrative structure that draws us through a landscape bristling with the mystery of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The title poem evokes the bright flavor of wintergreen with crisp imagery, then seamlessly turns from the literal to the metaphorical beginning at the fourth couplet, ending the poem with:
Somewhere close at hand you are hiding until I find you:
a remedy for solitude a prickle of white in the wood.
These poems, saturated with a longing the reader can almost taste, seek to satiate that longing with searching. Most are oblique love poems, addressed to an un-named “you” as though letting us in on a private conversation. In “The Unicorn Diaries” the speaker claims:
I have put you together from pentagrams of sugar and salt, from the bones of eleven mice
This invokes, in this reader’s mind, not just a snippet of pagan ritual, but the desire to create that which cannot easily be obtained. When the speaker says:
I wondered if the smell was viburnum or phosphorus, if the feathers
were swans or doves, if the dimpled sheets of your bed were the toad’s pale underbelly ,
or fallen hawthorn blossom,
the text seems imbued with a glow, a sweetness; a softness. The swans and doves and hawthorn blossoms, symbolic of monogamy and fidelity, are countered in the penultimate couplet by the unicorn’s slow dismembering of a wedding dress. She then runs off, leaving a bath full of milk, a trail of hoof-prints in the snow.
In another poem, “The Mermaid Room,” written in the voice of a mermaid, the speaker states:
I am the voyage you will make alone in a small, unstable, open boat for the rest of your life...
further reenforcing one of the major themes of this work: the deeply human quest for all that eludes us. We find ourselves adrift, almost floating from one page to the next, until we reach the final section: a series of linked poems titled “Lost.” Here, on a Wednesday night, we find the speaker wanting to learn how to spell abracadabra -- a conundrum, of course, because as he is spelling out this desire, he is spelling out the word.
This is the trick that is played as we read these simple and elegant and mysterious poems: in searching out a remedy for our own solitude, we find that we’ve had it in our hands all along. (less)
Alex Grant is a native Scot currently living in North Carolina. His manuscript, Chains & Mirrors, won the 2006 Randell Jarrell/Harperprints poetry contest and was recently awarded the Oscar Arnold Young Award by the Poetry Council of North Carolina for most outstanding book of poetry published that year. He has been the recipient of a Pavel Srut Poetry Fellowship, first place winner of the 2006 Kakalak Carolina Poets Anthology contest, and was selected for inclusion in this year's Best New Poets Anthology (University of Virginia Press).
A slender, perfect-bound volume containing twenty-one poems, two thirds of the poems collected here were either finalists or honorable mentions for some noteworthy poetry awards such as the Discovery/The Nation (2005 and 2006), Nimrod's Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize (2005), and the Arts & Letters Rumi Poetry Prize (2006).
Chains & Mirrors takes as its epigraph a stanza from the Robert Penn Warren poem, Tell Me a Story. It reads:
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
In the acknowledgments Grant thanks Warren for this "posthumous thunderbolt," for this is the thread upon which the book is constructed. Each of the poems here tell a story, drawing inspiration primarily from historical and religious subjects. Included among them are poems about Jesus, Neruda, Emperor Qinshihuang, Gilles de la Tourette, Li Po, and Lillian Gish. Though varying in approach from poem to poem, the collection is unified by a consistent tone, a developed voice that is even and measured, clean, precise diction, and lines that are not padded with unnecessary words.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines doggerel as "crudely or irregularly fashioned verse". Far from being crude or irregular, these poems are meticulously crafted: lean, sturdy, and interesting, and at times mysterious, almost mystical.
The book is divided into two sections: Bones & Confetti and Bodies & Water. The first opens with the poem Black Moon:
I watch him drag the boat across the scree, over the dry doggerel of mackerel scales and filament
of a season ended, to the water. The sand flays the last flakes of paint from the boat's hull,
splash and crack at the confluence of stone and water, and he is out beyond the waves, where fishbones
glint like small suns in a black mirror, and the splay of the Pelican's wing stitches the sea to the sky. Brine-
bleached hands haul the sodden creel above the gunwales, and there again is the gaping child-shaped hole,
sawn by the snapping-turtle's teeth, ragged-cut and impossible to mend. Did I say that the turtle is guided
by ambient moonlight? So, the wolf howls. The waves gnaw at the shore. Bones and light are mixed with water.
Bones and light mixed with water. This is the heart of the collection: the appropriation of artifacts, their reconstitution into poetic form, the result being the illumination of the present through resurrection of the past.
Grant writes poetry that is rhythmically astute, equally at ease hammering along an iambic line or in free verse. Additionally, he displays an interest in the work of the Haiku Masters. In His Holiness the Abbot is Shitting in the Withered Fields, he incorporates Haiku both by including it as the title--after Haiku by Buson--and by inserting Haiku into the body of the poem:
So, 7 days bereaved, Issa made his father's death poem: "A bath when you're born, a bath when you die--how stupid."
Ekphrastic works are also included in the collection, but because of Grant's penchant for history they transcend mere description. In one, an ekphrasis after the 1936 photograph by Brassai, The Steps of Montmartre, Grant weaves a dozen or so references that locate the photograph in proper historical context:
.... Through the tunnel formed by the parting trees, battalions of lamp-posts advance and retreat in the morning mizzle clamp chain-link handrails hard into sunwashed cobbles. In less than a year, the corpseless heads on Nanking's walls will coalesce with Guernica's ruined heart, mal du siecle will become Weltschmerz, and the irresistible symmetry of a million clacking bootheels will deafen half a continent. The red brush never dries -
The majority of the poems in Chains & Mirrors are indeed chained to, and mirroring, the past. But the present is not without representation here, as exampled by the amusing, satirical Poetry Final, which takes aim at academic workshop culture in a series of faux writing prompts.
Part five of this poem asks that the poet: Establish a seamless association between the following: an executioner's birthday party, fractal geometry, attention deficit disorder. Result must be tacitly non-judgmental, and be suitable for a sixth grade audience.
The poem culminates in a bonus section that requests that you "substantiate your findings".
Though this collection is indeed chapbook length, it is not insubstantial. Image-rich, leavened with parceled out wit, these poems have been carefully chosen to form a cohesive whole rather than a random sampling of a poet's best work.
On the back cover of the book there is a blurb by Thomas Lux: "Chains & Mirrors is a powerful and stunningly imaginative book that announces a hell of a good new poet!"
Texas Review Press English Department Sam Houston State University Huntsville, TX 773...moreLANDSCAPE WITH SILOS by Deborah Bogen
Published in Rattle, Summer 2006
Texas Review Press English Department Sam Houston State University Huntsville, TX 77341-2146 ISBN 1-881515-93-1 71 pp, 2007 $12.95 Winner of the X.J. Kenedy Prize www.tamu.edu/upress
In Deborah Bogen's debut collection, Landscape with Silos, the surfaces of things often conceal their inherent danger. Fitting, considering that in an interview with Belinda Subraman, Bogen tells us that the serene North Dakota countryside she so often turns to in her poetry was once considered the most heavily armed geographical spot on the planet. The region is laced with silos--agricultural above, missile below. This dichotomy of perceived safety and latent peril is a trope that is carried throughout.
The collection is divided into four titled sections: Learning the Language, The Poem Ventures Out, Visitations, and Within the Porcelain Theater.
The opening poem presents the speaker (and the reader) with a parade of images, all from "an old landscape, / one I've hidden from myself / because it's stupid." This concealment of loaded memories mirrors the concealment of the deadly weaponry below the fields. In image after image we are presented with the potential for danger:
a nail sticking up in a pile of boards air bladders from fish brought home for supper sugar in green glass bowls glittering rattlesnakes
Bogen's style is plainspoken but shimmering in its description of men, women and children rising daily to lives that bristle with the shock of living, and with the undeniable truth that this living is only temporary.
Interested in exploration rather than excavation, we are given a window through which we may peer at what has been buried without fully uncovering it. In Living by the Children's Cemetery, originally published in her ByLine Press Competition-winning chapbook of the same name, the speaker asks:
How do we accept the soil that fills their mouths? How do we ever go inside again?
Coming as it does, as the last lines of the poem, we are offered no room for answers. Instead, what the poem offers is a meditation on a particular form of grief.
In Learning the Language, the last poem of the first section, Bogen uses evocative phrases that you can almost taste:
There was a pile of words out by the shed, another spit from the combine's teeth and words that Ethel said would fuel the nation in its fight for something large and metal.
Aunt Trini whispered voodoo words as silent John backed down the drive, and Gram knew words as bright as rhubarb jam and brown wet words awash in the Missouri.
Kids heard barge words, baseball words, the strangled words of wet sheets groaning through the ringer. There were stately Sunday words swinging from steeples like flags
in a thunderstorm, but they were lost mostly among the snickers of the school boys, their pussywords, those ritual recitations meant to conjure what was missing.
Bogen enlivens the landscape with words that emit a sort of kinetic energy, driving us through. The section titled The Poem Ventures Out intrigues the reader with titles like The Poem Listens to Its President on TV, which is political without being preachy:
O, it wants to be beautiful, to be naked and necessary, it gestures toward sparrows, hums under its breath, but the poem's picking up brutish habits, bared teeth in the bathroom mirror, a vaguely Caliginous grin.
Using the persona of The Poem, Bogen explores the various ways The Poem infiltrates The Poet, the poem sneaking in and asserting itself at inopportune times. A segue into the denser, more emotionally rich material that follows, this section provides some levity in what is otherwise a fairly serious collection.
The section Visitations begins with the epigraph: "My father took me as far as he could that summer". Bogen journeys past that point to show us that even the flattest of landscapes harbor depths.
Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai (Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 2010) Paper, 96 pp.: $14.00 ISBN 978-1-935210-18-4.
Published in Inlandia: A Literary Journey,...moreAdamantine by Shin Yu Pai (Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 2010) Paper, 96 pp.: $14.00 ISBN 978-1-935210-18-4.
Published in Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Winter 2011
Adamantine is Shin Yu Pai’s eighth collection of poems. Early in this collection, in her poem “Blind Spot”, we find the speaker at a crosswalk. After the signal has changed to green, the speaker looks back “at the man poised at the street // crossing, long after / the light has gone green” only to then see “the round sticker affixed // to his chest / I am deaf and blind”. The speaker, who cannot even ask his permission, takes the man’s arm and guides him across the street: “… I / place myself between // his body & the hostile line / of humming cars queuing; // when we reach the other side / he’s ready for me to let go. // there is just this practice”.
Here, the reader – this reader – is forced to pause. What is meant by the heavily emphasized “this practice”? What practice is this? Later in the collection, we encounter another poem, titled simply, “Practice”:
my own practice: carving holes in poetry books w/ exacto blade & straight edge, intervention as design concept
a hole too uneven a hole too big a hole too ragged a hole too small
every event a mirror of mind & heart,
In carving holes into books of poetry, Pai “practices” an excavation of emptiness, and in so doing, we join her in the exploration of what that might mean. In spite of the inherent violence in the act of cutting, it is with compassion and a keen observation of human nature that we are led through these poems, and it is because we trust her that we follow, regardless of where they might lead.
Every poem in Adamantine is rooted in compassion, compassion that springs from Buddhist thought but does not dwell on it, instead panning between east and west. Even the title itself. Adamantine, as defined by Merriam Webster: Unbreakable, from the root word adamant, meaning “refusing to be persuaded or to change one’s mind”, which comes from the Greek, adamas — “untameable.” Adamantine. The hardest non-synthetic substance known to man, commonly known as diamond. And, incidentally, a word intrinsically linked to the particular form of Buddhism that Pai practices, Vajrayana. Often translated as the adamantine, or diamond, vehicle, the word vajra, from which Vajrayana is derived, references “a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an adamantine, or indestructible, substance and which could therefore pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation.” It is one of the core symbols of Vajrayana, and is a metaphor for wisdom, specifically a “wisdom realizing emptiness”.
These poems, while far from empty, are indeed wise, and it is this wisdom, this weapon, that Pai turns toward her subjects, finding beauty in all things. What defines Pai’s Adamantine is a fierce looking-out, both literally and figuratively. There is a clarity here that is rare among poets. Pai observes, and documents her observations with an unsentimental, and at times unsettling, eye that allows those observations to speak for themselves:
At 82, Luciano Mares remembers the night his house burned to the ground and wonders:
Does a mouse have Buddha nature?
I had some leaves burning outside, so I threw it in the fire, mouse trap – the heat loosened the glue
incensed, the creature ran back towards the house where flames lit the curtains & spread up from there destroying everything
Buddha nature. The potential for reaching enlightenment. Does a mouse have that potential? Pai, wisely, does not offer an answer.
Pai, a native of the Inland Empire, has lived in Texas, Massachusetts, Colorado, Illinois, Washington State, and Arkansas — and probably elsewhere as well. In a recent interview she states that she doesn’t consider herself a regional writer, but there is a definite sense of ‘place’ within much of her work, from exotic Asian locales to the unremarkable terrain of Riverside, California, where we learn that the local saying is “homicide, suicide, Riverside” (“The Diamond Path”). But where Adamantine is truly located is within the heart — a recurrent image throughout.
In these fifty poems that comprise Adamantine, what we find, contrary to what the title might imply, is not a study in permanence but an excavation of impermanence, of an existence that is simultaneously full and empty, meaningful and meaningless, intersecting where heart and stone meet; their steadfast refusal to burn.