In her followup to Underlife, O’Neil’s latest collection navigates the rocky world of divorce, while still finding kinship in the women in her life anIn her followup to Underlife, O’Neil’s latest collection navigates the rocky world of divorce, while still finding kinship in the women in her life and experiencing joy in the confusing world of motherhood. One of the best collections I have read this year!...more
I admit it. Sometimes, I buy a book by its cover. This was one of those times. I knew nothing about Catherine Carter’s book The Swamp Monster at Home.I admit it. Sometimes, I buy a book by its cover. This was one of those times. I knew nothing about Catherine Carter’s book The Swamp Monster at Home. In fact, I didn’t know Carter’s poetry at all. But when I stumbled across this cover (along with the great title) while reading the Louisiana State University Press page, I knew I had to try her work.
Sarah Lindsay, in one of the backcover blurbs, invites the reader into this collection by writing “Welcome to the domain of the swamp monster.” This domain, it seems, is a world where myth is revised, where folklore becomes reality, where the unusual doesn’t seem so strange. For instance, in “The Book of Steve” she imagines that Adam was with Steve, and not Eve, in the Garden of Eden. In “Hook Woman” Carter retells the urban folklore tale about the hookman invading the domain of teenagers in parked cars. And in “The Fairy Your Parents Forgot to Ask to the Christening” she takes another look at the dismissed fairies in fairy tales.
My favorite poems, however, are the works where Carter looks closely at the natural world to reveal the unexpected or unusual. For example, the last poem in her collection, simply titled “Swarm” depicts a scene where “a thousand/specks came arrowing out of the west.” Yet, while the narrator waits for catastrophe, she only gets this knowledge: “I didn’t know then that swarming /bees don’t sting, and working bees hardly/sting, and bumblebees let you stroke/their black satin as they drink the blooms.”
A great collection! I look forward to discovering more of Carter's work. ...more
My mother loved photographs. She carefully labeled them, organized them, and then stored them in photograph albums. Obviously, she is not the only oneMy mother loved photographs. She carefully labeled them, organized them, and then stored them in photograph albums. Obviously, she is not the only one who did this, but today, it seems, outside of those who keep photographs in their scrapbooks, photographs are stored on computers, cell phones, and digital cameras. Benjamin Vogt’s collection of poems, Afterimage, reminds me of the time before digital pictures were the norm. Using family photographs to trace personal history, Afterimage explores how we define personal identity.
Vogt begins his collection with a poem titled “Three Photos That Define Me” which contains three stanzas. The first stanza describes a section of Interstate 40 between Oklahoma City and Weatherford where the El Reno prison is located. The poet doesn’t focus on the prison itself, but rather the landscape where “a sign warns that hitchhiker may be/escaping convicts” and where “a gray shirt lies flattened/on the white line of the highway.” In the second stanza, the poet writes a miniature portrait of a little girl who comes walking in from a field where “cows have been grazing on the bent/stalks of butter-colored wheat.” Finally, in the third stanza, we see what we will come to believe is the poet himself: “One child wears a Pepsi sweater, leans away/from grandma’s goodbye kisses.” These brief stanzas provide a perfect prologue to this collection that serves as an elegy to a Midwest of the past and to the people who lived there. Indeed, the poems that follow will incorporate people in worn landscapes, in a hardscrabble world where determination, or perhaps just plain stubbornness, guides their daily lives.
The poems weave in and out of the past. Often, these poems tell stories, so much so that I forgot that I was reading a collection based on photographs. For instance, in “High School Mixer” we read about a young boy’s adventure at a dance where “he’s clearly used to something else — not girls/that’s brutally clear.” Other poems are poetic profiles of people. For instance, in “Uncle with Landscape — Kansas, 1954″ the poet offers a portrait of a small boy standing in a farmhouse yard where “spades and rusted buckets lean/against a toppled silo.” In yet another poem, “Mildred, Two Fords, and Her Friends at 16 — 1938″ a work plucked from another time period, we see the story of more than one girl in a single poem, but mostly clearly hear the voice of the narrator who states, “But it’s just a blur–/who I was, the girls, the sudden stir/of dust-filled shadows on these roads.”
There are also poems of lyrical moments, often told from a narrator who seems to be in deep meditation with the natural world around him. “Fishing,” for instance, serves as a love poem of sorts: “I’ll cast your soul out over the lily pads in June/skip it along the smooth evening surface/hit the pink reflections of the sunset behind/my hapless expressions.” In another work, “July, Just Outside Columbus” the poet catalogs the sexual tension of the landscape through the insect world — indeed, the language is so gentle and rich that the reader will forget that the poem is about insects (or is it?). The lines are visually striking, and we see that “fireflies are hovering over corn” and that “Beetle bodies pulse/bright chemicals like breath released/into the body light the ground ahead.” My favorite lines start the second stanza: “Males are calling, their incandescent lust/an impatient spark, the female’s waiting glow/a calm amongst this storm that binds desire to action.”
Those who read this collection wanting a clear chronological narrative arc will not find it. These poems bounce back and forth through time, carefully cataloging individual moments in history and the present. Readers will find stories, stories of grandparents, uncles and aunts, fathers and mothers — people of the past and fading landscapes, and hopeful glimpses of the future. ...more
A stark, but beautiful collection of poetry that explores farm life as well as being gay in the rural world. Wonderful read, and I am sorry that I didA stark, but beautiful collection of poetry that explores farm life as well as being gay in the rural world. Wonderful read, and I am sorry that I didn't discover Walsh's work sooner. ...more
A wonderful follow up to his first collection, Graves' Basin Ghost has a perfect title as a prelude to the book's poems. In this work, Graves' captureA wonderful follow up to his first collection, Graves' Basin Ghost has a perfect title as a prelude to the book's poems. In this work, Graves' captures the spirits of the past, including landscapes that no longer exist, histories that are almost forgotten, and people who are no longer with us, at least in the physical sense. A beautiful read! ...more
Erin Elizabeth Smith's The Naming of Strays is divided into sections according to different definitions of the word "stray" . What follows in each indErin Elizabeth Smith's The Naming of Strays is divided into sections according to different definitions of the word "stray" . What follows in each individual section are poems that loosely embrace those definitions. For instance, in the last section, the definition is the following: "stray: an animal that has strayed or wandered away from its flock, home, or owner." With this meaning in mind, one might expect that a stray, perhaps an alley cat, may at least make an appearance, but instead, Smith chooses to adapt the idea of a "stray" to human narrators who seemingly have strayed from past lives, past homes and past loves. For example, in "Closet Space" the narrator stares at her clothes, deciding that her closet is "plagiarized from other lives." In another poem, "On Learning to Be Okay" a speaker muses that she does not think "about spring/or how it feels/to be loved" but instead, chooses to find some solace in making "a thick pea soup" and listening "to the radiator/as it bangs/its way to life."
Some readers of Smith's book may consider her poems a bit quirky -- and certainly, with poems like "Winter" she is approaching old subjects with a fresh voice. In this particular poem, she personifies the season of winter as "a pony-tailed redhead/displeased with the undoing of her work." Winter, in this work, is hard and gritty: "She lights a cigarette, taps the ashes on the floor." Even when she speaks, she is all sass, saying, "Spring is my bitch. She'll come/but only when I tell her to."
But what I admire most about Smith is the way that she equates a physical place with abstract emotions. She travels from the Midwest, to eastern New York, to Mississippi -- one may think that this book is a collection of journeys, and indeed it's easy to see the wandering of both emotion and physical meanderings. For instance, in "On Being Erroneously Called a New Yorker Again" the speaker struggles with the meaning of the relationship between physical place and personal identity. In another poem, "Index of the Midwest" the speaker muses about the idea of escape when she says "If only there had been an escape hatch/in August's shorn field. One that falls/forever into this flat/and desperate black." And in still another poem, "Driving Next to Two Men I've Slept With" the narrator muses about personal pasts and tension in a single road trip.
I was introduced to the poetry of Jesse Graves when I attended a reading where he was paired with a novelist and another poet. I was struck by the lyrI was introduced to the poetry of Jesse Graves when I attended a reading where he was paired with a novelist and another poet. I was struck by the lyrical softness of his language, even though his poetry covered all the hard edges of Appalachia: the landscape, the fading architecture of farms, the people. I wanted to buy his book that day, but alas, I was broke, so when I got home I ordered the collection,
Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine was worth the wait. From its title, the book instantly suggests that Graves collection is going to be a work of Appalachian literature, and yes, many of the poems do evoke a strong sense of place. The opening poem, "For the Frozen Wood" is a poem written in pantoum form, and with its repeating line scheme, the reader is drawn into a world that changes but somehow comes full circle.
Graves poems are littered with farms and backroads, ponds and forests. Many of his works contain a persona grappling with his place in a world where relationships are evolving and places are changing. My favorite poem in the whole collection is "Digging the Pond" where a young boy watches his father: "He can name every species of tree, wild root/the compounds of the soil in every field/and knows that I stood off to the side too often/to learn what he was born knowing."
In many ways, this is a collection of journeys. Several poems contain the metaphor of travel through roadtrips. For instance, one poem "St. Paul" tells the story of a young boy traveling with a favorite uncle who spoke to his young nephew "like I might actually know something/which none of the other grown-ups did." Another poem, the almost bittersweet "Detroit Muscle" tells a narrative of a young man who works diligently on a car and then takes it for a spin: "I lost it-the front tire slipped the road and I went/spinning, one ditch swallowed me up and spit me straight/into the other and I landed upside down in a tobacco field/wondering where the road went and why I wasn't on it." While many of these poems stick close to the narrator's home, others wander elsewhere, sometimes traveling to the Finger Lakes region in New York state, sometimes traveling to Louisiana.
All in all, Graves' book is collections of human histories steeped in landscape. In his world you can read about young boys who kick up "devil's snuff" in the back woods of their homes and a fisherman who hopes for a bite from a fish who "wouldn't take a red worm/if it swam into their suction-cup mouths." In his world, you venture into the past through both tangible photographs and abstract memories. With other poems, you venture into a fast fading rural landscape that has scars of both family loss and strength. ...more