Three fascinating little volumes in one here. Valentine Freeman is succinctly and powerfully super-real...moreBook Review by Hugh Fox from Small Press Review
Three fascinating little volumes in one here. Valentine Freeman is succinctly and powerfully super-realistic but at the same time poetically on track about our dissolving in Big Time. Very effective: "You know: you're in a field like a plant, / not totally unlike an animal: / the fine, refracting comb of light..." ("Circumference," p. 10). A strong sense of family, friends, herself...caught in the flux of time. And oddly enough, Robert Peake's work is much the same, a sense of withering time, but never crass or over-obvious, always subtle and Debussyian: "Who knew the river of death would be beautiful? The boatman is not some skeleton in rags, but a man much like your father...it is not until he wraps a chain around the dock...that you realize thoes white dots of paint, bobbing in the wake, might be the last night sky you will ever see." ("Acheron," p. 45). Powerful precisely because of its larger cultural context and veiled (until the end) message. Jensea Storie's work is also filled with a sense of transience, but much more politically oriented. She's a California, but is filled with a sense of Arab and Mexican reality: "We are just ordinary people / looking for our daily bread / living in a city with crumpled roots / and dead gardens, and listening / carefully, to the crashing cymbals / of yet another tyranny." ("From a Market Bombed in Baghdad," p. 77). No one here seems "new" in any sense, more like old pros still professionalizing it.(less)
Emily Bobo writes about an ex-pianist's relationship to her instrument, citing two definitions of "fugue" on the cover page-first, the obvious musical...moreEmily Bobo writes about an ex-pianist's relationship to her instrument, citing two definitions of "fugue" on the cover page-first, the obvious musical definition involving multiple voices playing a contrapuntal theme; second, the psychiatric definition involving a psychological flight from circumstances, manifesting like amnesia.
The mother figures large throughout the collection, imposing discipline and transferred hopes. In one of the early poems, "The Recovering Musician and the Parable of the Mustard Seed" (after Matthew 13:31-35), the mother pronounces, "The kingdom of heaven is like a daughter, which a single mom bore and enrolled in piano lessons."
The collection unfolds a complex tangle of inner and outer relationships, through parables involving Father, Mother, and Satan reminiscent of Louise Glueck's Ararat; to a series of letters, including one "Letter to an Ex-Stalker" which speaks of obsession in musical terms, then declares, "Yours / is the lid I cannot / let close, the wound / I tend with salt / and carefully." Throughout this collection, Bobo "tends the wound" of not playing piano through parable, epistle, and child-like declamations, layering rich contrapuntal melodies sung on the theme of loss.
"It's in my poetic blood to make disjunctive arrangements," declares Joel Craig. In five long poems spanning sixteen pages, Craig employs a kind of idiomatic scrapbooking, combined with syntactic contortions, to achieve surprising psychological assemblages. Language, and where it leads us, is primary in these poems. Narrative takes a back seat. Craig is particularly fond of certain words and phrases. The word "okay," for example, that milquetoast signifier of nothing-much assiduously avoided by most poets, is gainfully resurrected by Craig in multiple poems. The color green, Death Valley, and Buddha also weave their way through this tapestry. The phrase "It's just so fun to speculate" repeats throughout "Thin Red Line", as indeed these poems do speculate-leaping wildly from line to line.
But this collection represents far more than an exhibition of linguistic gymnastics. Near the end of my favorite poem of this collection, "Street Dad," the speaker tells us, "I didn't know I was suffering from an illness / known as depression. For the first time / in my life, I thought I was seeing the world." Elsewhere in "High Park" the speaker says of one character, "He's a person who, when he's attracted to someone / intuitively senses what's lacking in / their emotional life. A compulsion / to become whatever they need most."
These are poems seeking newness through juxtaposition, aware of the insufficiency of their medium even as they endeavor to transcend it, much like the speaker at the end of "Street Dad" who tells us, perhaps anxiously, "I sat for a moment, staring at my knees as I tried / to put broad, wide images / into small, tidy words."
Amy Lingafelter flirts with deeper human concerns through surrealism, holding up, as she writes in "Holoblastic," "a mirror / in the bathroom of the party." The speaker goes on in this poem to admonish those on "the road to Recovery" through cleverly spring-loaded syntax that "you'll never always be wanting / just one thing."
"The Summer I Started Pickling Things" finds poetry by taking the Midwest tradition of pickling to new levels of absurdity-mirrors, siblings, even Shame itself are suffused with vinegar. "Monotremata" casts an at-once poignant and nutty glance at female fertility. Lovemaking, mirrors, tanning, and cell division recur in the ever-shifting worldview of these poems.
In "The Counterfeiter," the speaker, continually "backing up" a charming man comes to realize that, "I will be a happy woman / the day I realize / the secret to your charm / is my charm." The secret to Amy Lingafelter's charm lies in her uncanny ability to hold reality and unreality squarely in the binocular vision of these poems, admonishing us, as she does in "Days of Grace," that, "'Remember' is not the opposite of 'forget.'" These are poems you will both remember, and whose dizzying effect you are not soon to forget.
The opening poem to "The Heights" by Tim Krcmarik tells us, "I like my Shakespeare mixed up with my Dante / the same way I like hot sauce dumped over...moreThe opening poem to "The Heights" by Tim Krcmarik tells us, "I like my Shakespeare mixed up with my Dante / the same way I like hot sauce dumped over my fried / ham steaks and scrambled eggs." God and fire recur throughout this collection, sometimes colliding as in the poem "Beloved," a street-tough retelling of Adam and Eve with the surrealism of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. These are poems that play with sincerity even as they play with language, mistrusting the apparent even as they long for something transcendent amid the mundane. In this Krcmarik has given us something truly fresh and original, a collection of big band recklessness with a cappella hymnals poking through; a series of poems undeniably his own.
In "The Woman Who Cries Speaks," Patricia Staton's long, irregular lines snake down the page. These are poems composed, like a scrapbook, of memory fragments. But they are also punctuated by a direct and declamatory voice, as in the end of "We Have Our Rats", where the speaker exclaims, after a by turns disgusting and whimsical meditation on rats, "Hey! Listen up! Nobody here’s mourning rats. / I’m shivering, frowzy, awake, but no." At once image-rich and idiomatic, gossamer and gutsy, Staton’s poems jostle and sway through a panoply of sense and no-sense, making up their own kind of rhyme and reason as they go.
Many of the poems in "Death Song for Africa" by Victor Camillo are haunted by the past. Others are haunted by the present. In the final poem, "Today is Easter," the language of religion and news interweaves. Referring to "the bible of the newspaper" and "the mosque that is the radio," the speaker tells us, "I know about a death that cannot be held in a communion wafer," contrasting the tragedy that "Indians in Guatemala are being ripped inside out" with the banal annoyance that "the weather here has become unkind." The poems in this collection are poems of conscience, set in the comfort of the modern first world, looking guiltily but unflinchingly at the terrors of the third world, and of the past. Through striking imagery, and carefully-controlled religious and political references, Camillo embraces love, marriage, and fatherhood against the backdrop of an at-once beautiful and terrible world.
The opening poem of "Acts of Contrition" by Gwendolyn Cash begins, "Today I'm going to lie about everything." The poem, like the whole collection, is...moreThe opening poem of "Acts of Contrition" by Gwendolyn Cash begins, "Today I'm going to lie about everything." The poem, like the whole collection, is actually stark and startling for its honesty, taking up Emily Dickinson's advice to "tell all the truth but tell it slant." It is always the story beneath the story, the glittering terrible pieces of a seemingly ordinary life, that Cash studies and renders. In perhaps my favorite poem of the series, "Bully," the speaker guides us deftly in second person from recalling the physical pain of bullying through moments of recognizing the bully on the post office wall, in the news at an arrest, arriving finally to teach a writing class in a prison to find him there. In a symbolic act--is it empathy? fascination? revenge? or some mix?--"you'll hand him a sheet of paper / and a sharpened pencil, your throat / so dry it hurts, saying, / Tell me your story, / Tell it like it is." In twenty-two pages of tight-gripping poetry, Gwendolyn Cash does just that--she tells it like it is.
Boyd Benson begins the poem "It Was Too Late" from "The Owl's Ears" with the simultaneously nutty and philosophical line, "I never saw myself coming." From here, this poem takes on some of the beautiful sorrow of a poet like Larry Levis, as "local dogs / lay down with the sound of my name." Benson guides us through a dreamlike world in this collection. He introduces us to strange characters like "The Silent Comedians" and "The Opener of Doors." In his realm, Magritte-like surrealism, full of portals and hats, can be married to more deeply philosophical concerns (one poem is entitled "Socrates"). Dense with imagery, though fleet of foot, these poems render a delicious turn of mind, at once whimsical and longing--pathos laced with a dash of prank. For those willing to take the journey, Boyd W. Benson's poetry may well be the best thing since lucid dreaming.
Lisa Galloway believes that "poetry should be a shock to the senses, it should evoke something and it should leave you with something." In "Liminal: A Life of Cleavage," poems about love, sex, drugs, and family dynamics look you straight in the eye. The collection involves frank depictions of lesbian culture and sexuality. It is also laced with double entendres, including the title itself. In one of my favorite poems, "How Am I?," the speaker reacts to her mother's cancer, telling us, "like the socket incessantly tongued / from the tooth extracted, / this was one of those things / that you couldn't stop tasting or staring at." Many of the poems in this collection affected me in just this way--drawing me in to another's fully-formed world, surprised, provoked, and unable to put the book down.
Reading Abby E. Murray makes me want to be a better poet. By "better" I mean more wild, fierce, and free. Life can drive you crazy, if you let it. How...moreReading Abby E. Murray makes me want to be a better poet. By "better" I mean more wild, fierce, and free. Life can drive you crazy, if you let it. How refreshing, then, to read poems in Me & Coyote that regularly swan-dive off the edge, with such panache.
A poem like "Barnacle's Son" convinces me, completely, that even if a man can't be born from a rough sea creature, it ought to be possible. And within the language of the poem, it is. Equally convincing is the poem "How I Love You," whose lines taper down and down, constricting on the final phrase, in all its tough rightness: "I love you more than / an iron fence / loves her / house." And when "They Took Her Away in a Birdcage," my face wanted to smile and frown all at once.
But Abby's poems are not all mixed emotion and magical realism. She can hold focus on difficult topics as unflinchingly as a poet like Sharon Olds. Abby does just this in "Bones," written at the bedside of a wounded soldier, giving us "the explosion in slow motion:" "crescent moons and teardrops of shrapnel / spiraling up the leg from ankle to groin like / morning glories curling round a fencepost."
Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Jesse S. Fourmy writes from his "government outpost on the Big Island [of Hawaii]" in Last Night's Fire and the Dwindling Embers of Evolution. These poems fuse a casual tone with a quirky outlook, a deeper pathos always just beneath the surface. If Keanu Reeves could write poetry like William Carlos Williams, the result might read a bit like Jesse S. Fourmy. I assure you there is nothing quite like it.
My favorite poem of the collection, "The Speed of Light," which is broken into several stanzas, ends a "confession" to a former science teacher reflecting on the "cupric" smell of urine, "a warmth of fatted cows staring oddly at motorists for miles." Urination is a recurring theme in this collection, "pissing" outside under "the weight of the stars," relieving oneself as a substitute teacher between classes in the science room sink, or as a three-year-old in a caretaker's lap. This is a collection that reaches ad astra per aspera, neither smoothing over the rough patches nor losing sight of the starlight.
Karen Holman is a social worker in Detroit whose clients include the mentally ill. The final poem of Welcoming in the Starry Night of the Lightning Bees is written to Saint Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally afflicted. The speaker tells us, "Those afflicted in their minds collect and assemble the words they hope will save them. Their sentences tangle but I have a knack with ciphers. In response to their pleas I weave tapestries of words. Speaking plainly to you now is luxurious."
The poems in this collection touch upon the relationship between mother and daughter-allegorically through the myth of Persephone and Demeter, and directly through narrative poems like "No Mood" and "Arguing With My Mother Over My Father's Ashes."
Holman also employs more dream-like, surreal language, as in the poem "Catching My Death Of," which narrates the speaker's parachute-less fall from an airplane. In "Letter to the Wound Dresser," the wounded awakens to "flies / democratic as the mercy of God." It is through the dream-like that Holman finds a more trustworthy language, and one which transcends words. As the speaker says to her brother in a poem about dandelions, "I blow into your ear / to make you dream of wind."
“Even the pick / of those we share our pulse with shares this jolt / beneath the ribs, this double click of love. / How could they cope with even just...more“Even the pick / of those we share our pulse with shares this jolt / beneath the ribs, this double click of love. / How could they cope with even just one heart?”
-Andrew Philip, “Cardiac”
I have Jilly Dybka to thank for sending Andrew Philip my way. Since I have written openly about the difficult and transformational experience of losing our first-born son, she must have recognized the the rare opportunity our being in touch provides. I am glad she did. It is an experience Andrew and I share.
Naturally, I was keen to read his debut book. What I discovered was not only personally moving, but profoundly accomplished work. Andrew writes in both English and Scots, placing himself in a tradition stretching back to John Barbour and encompassing Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns. As an American, I feel under-qualified to comment on the unique cultural and socio-political implications of this dual-language approach. (And, I must admit that I gave the online Dictionary of the Scots Language a good workout in making my way through some of the poems.) However, both as a poet in love with lyricism, and a father who lost an infant son, I can not resist adding my praise and commendation to the acclaim this book is gathering.
Andrew writes not only in Scots, a Germanic (not Gaelic) language, but in German as well. In “Berlin / Berlin / Berlin” he combines all three. If it is true, as Robert Frost tells us, that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” there is a poetry uniquely found between the languages by Andrew Philip. Wildly associative, and at times experimental, the musicality of these poems lend congruity and veracity even as they burst with linguistic mischief. This is, above all, a collection full of life—which is what makes the moments in which poems touch, lightly but unflinchingly, upon grief, all the more profound. From the premonitory vision of a “difficult, unasked-for joy” in “Pedestrian” through the incredible moment in “Still” when grief rewrites the resurrection, announcing in broken lines across the page, “he is not here / he is not here / he is not here,” these poems are rapturous even in despair. Sentimentality and easy words seem as though they might never have been invented in the remarkable worldview Andrew hands us in this book, “in a language,” as he says at the end of “Tonguefire Night,” “yet to be born.”
As part of Salt Publishing’s innovative cyclone virtual book tour, I will have the pleasure of interviewing Andrew in about a month. I hope you will join me. Salt has also recently launched a highly successful “just one book” campaign to save this well-regarded imprint from financial doom. If you do choose to support world-class poetry publishing by purchasing just one, or one hundred, books from Salt, be sure to make your first The Ambulance Box.