[Note: this 131-page anthology includes one poem that I wrote myself, which I for obvious reasons can't review without bias, and therefore I will only[Note: this 131-page anthology includes one poem that I wrote myself, which I for obvious reasons can't review without bias, and therefore I will only review the other 129 pages below.]
Not one but two poems about zombies (!), a subtly rhymed poem about Paris Hilton and a taut sonnet about internet dating, several powerful poems dealing with the wars of the 20th century from the World Wars to Vietnam to the Middle East, two poems limning the inner psychology of murderers, two poems grappling in very different ways with the history of racial hurt in America... The poems in this book cover a diverse range of themes, in a diverse range of forms, having just this one feature in common: they are astonishingly, compulsively readable, hardbitten and unsentimental and full of high spirits as dictated by the lively tastes of the three editors, Anna Evans, Quincy Lehr, and Jeff Holt. As Lehr says in his introductory note, he are his fellow Raintown Review editors tend to be attracted to "accessible poetry that does not wallow in middle-class banality," and Holt concurs, saying furthermore, "[W]hat has always set The Raintown apart from other journals that lean toward traditional forms is that we...actively encourage poems about the gritty side of life."
Some of the more memorable poems "about the gritty side of life" included here are: Rachel Hadas's emotionally charged dreamscape "Winding Stair, Lost Sneaker, Rising Tide"; Lance Levens's lyric "It's Ovre, Ma Pauvre," fizzy with polygot wordplay; Janet Kenny's poem "No," hauntingly stark and surrealistically off-kilter in a manner reminiscent of the great 20th-century Eastern European poets; Rose Kelleher's long poem "Trumpet Vine," whose wide embrace encompasses ruminations on botany, evolutionary biology, sex fetishes, the mundane working world, and religion; Eric Norris's "Takaaki," a love affair retold in a novelistic sequence of Pushkin-esque sonnet stanzas that wittily blend high and low registers; and Rory Waterman's "From a Birmingham Council Flat," which, like one recent N.Y. Times article, gives readers a frighteningly intimate peek at the lives of people who die alone: "Forensics packed / him up and took him off.... And no one cried / at the sight of the wedding album or patches of damp, / or wondered what he'd bothered living for."
I frequently hear people saying things like: "There's no such thing as a good villanelle" or "There's no such thing as a good contemporary poem in rhyming couplets" or "Rhyme and meter are dead." I think those people just haven't read the right magazines, or the right poets, yet. Read the Raintown Review, read Measure, read Unsplendid, read poets like Erica Dawson and Jee Leong Koh and Jehanne Dubrow (all included here), and I bet you'll change your mind.
While some may find the veeeeery frequent liberties that Hacker takes with stress placement in metrical forms to be somewhat distracting, the narrativWhile some may find the veeeeery frequent liberties that Hacker takes with stress placement in metrical forms to be somewhat distracting, the narrative force of medium-length poems like the WWII-shadowed "A Farewell to the Finland Woman" and "Vendanges" is a surprisingly satisfying compensation:
Two thousand orphans, real ones and children of Jewish deported parents, so you and your ill-sorted Red Cross wartime colleagues made it your business to feed and save them.
Blackout: You hacked up dray horses killed in the air raids, and brought the meat to the orphanage: black market lamb a butcher comrade donated, you told suspicious children...
(from "A Farewell to the Finland Woman")
In contrast, the sonnets that make up the book's middle section passed by in a sort of blur for me; they, rather like the sonnets comprising Robert Lowell's Notebook, seem largely content to record fleeting quotidian impressions rather than aspiring toward a fulfilling emotional/intellectual/moral climax the way the above-cited medium-length poems do.
Two positives about Hacker's use of form: (1) she never gets lazy when it comes to rhyming, but crams her poems full of some of the freshest, cleverest rhymes and slant-rhymes I have seen in a while (e.g., casually, in passing, rhyming "lavender" with "haven't or"), and (2) she is the first English-language poet I have observed transmute the form of Guillaume Apollinaire's "La chanson du mal-aimé" into something that works in English:
The days go on, routine. I would be happy never to board another plane. My feet, crossing the river, and the La Defense/Vincennes
line, or Balard-Creteil are forms of transportation quite adequate for me. Other communication failed: well, let it be.
Sorrow becomes a sink and loss becomes a drain. The drain begins to stink. Call the plumber again. Remember how to think...
(from "Explication de texte")
Also of note, nested among other elegiac poems in part I are two of the most strikingly powerful poems about being a teacher that I have ever read, "English 182" and "Embittered Elegy," the latter of which is subtitled "in memoriam Matthew Shepard and Dr. Barnett Slepian":
Sheltered by womanhood and middle age from their opinionated ignorance since I'm their teacher, since they're my students, I try to wedge bars of their local cage open.... But what they're free to voice is rage against every adjacent difference. The week the boy froze on the barbed-wire fence a strapping senior roasted "men in drag": bad attitude, grotesque, arrogant, ugly....
And the tall blonde girl, her long neck's chignon a dancer's, in what context was it revealed to her that "feminazi" was the word for other young women who railed against a certain status quo-- jealous, of course, deserving to be beaten? Did she think I might imagine my own arm-bone splinter as grinning frat boys knocked me down while I read (with a teacher's distance) what she'd written?...
(from "Embittered Elegy")
Reading these two poems made me realize how rarely one comes across a truly great poem about the teaching profession, despite the fact that many if not most of today's poets are embedded in academia. Another standout poem on this theme that comes to mind is Daisy Fried's "Torment," but I cannot think of any others besides these three. Can you?...more
I'd been meaning to check out Tanith Lee's writing for many years now, almost decades, because I'd long heard her mentioned as one of the leading femaI'd been meaning to check out Tanith Lee's writing for many years now, almost decades, because I'd long heard her mentioned as one of the leading female authors of fantasy, but I didn't get around to picking up one of her titles until after reading the praise-filled obituaries published in the New York Times and elsewhere after her death from breast cancer this spring.
All twelve stories contained herein are reasonably well-written, and I want to give credit where credit is due for the laudable fact that Lee is able to write a passable facsimile of a very broad range of literary prototypes/genres (the Southern Gothic ghost story, the Arthurian legend, the Arabian-Nights-flavored picaresque tale, the more-irony-laced-than-Oedipus-Rex Hellenistic yarn, the dystopian vignette, the modern werewolf story, and so on) -- no easy feat! The trouble I had here is that almost all the stories in Tempting the Gods are so morally vapid, so completely lacking in the moral underpinnings that make reading the best works of literary fiction -- and the best works of genre fiction -- worthwhile that I felt empty and even a little bit dirty after finishing each tale, worse off than I was before I began. Don't get me wrong: I'm not a religious person or even a particularly spiritual one. I'm simply saying that I don't feel enriched after reading a story like Lee's "After I Killed Her" wherein the moral stance is a straight-up "Humankind sucks, so you may as well give it all up and let an animal eat you" nihilism, and I turn to fiction because I want to feel morally enriched. So many of the stories here are marked by an aesthetic lushness with nothing of substance to hold onto beneath their glittering surfaces. This absence of any compelling moral vision beyond a suffocatingly flat aestheticism or sordid nihilism made most of these stories feel like a waste of time to me. (Could the short story format be partly to blame? Maybe.)
That being said, there are two short stories in this collection that I might recommend to others: "Where Does the Town Go at Night?" and "The Kingdoms of the Air." At first, "Where Does the Town Go at Night" seems to be merely a prettily written exposition of a fantastical concept: a European coastal village sails like a ship through the universe at night when only a select few are awake and aware. By the time the totally unpredictable ending rolls around, however, it is clear that, at its heart, this is a tale about an imperfect human being's moral growth, the story of a feckless young father learning to take responsibility for his family. The tale's fantasy elements, rather than being gratuitous, exist to further the story's moral arc, and consequently this story is more cohesive and emotionally effective than all the others. As for "The Kingdoms of the Air," it is just wonderful, infused with a subtly unorthodox, dogma-challenging morality like that which infused the best of the classic Arthurian legends, and the kaleidoscopic fluidity with which it massages old Arthurian tropes into new life is exhilarating....more
In addition to being a poet, C. Dale Young is a practicing radiation oncologist. His third poetry collection, Torn, is prefaced by the following dedicIn addition to being a poet, C. Dale Young is a practicing radiation oncologist. His third poetry collection, Torn, is prefaced by the following dedication: "To the physicians who helped teach me the art of Medicine // & // To Donald Justice (1925-2004), who helped teach me the science of Poetry." The chiasmic tension embodied in this dedication is a trait readers well-versed in the works of other physician-poets will not find surprising: it hearkens back to the subversive take on the binary contained in the late pulmonologist-poet Dannie Abse's famous quotation, “I like to think I’m a poet and Medicine my serious hobby.”
Unlike his teacher Donald Justice, Young tends here to write in a quickly flowing, conversational free verse, with his words typically being arranged in lines of similar length and stanzas of uniform shape (often tercets or quatrains). Sometimes, however, his free-verse lines will fall suddenly into a regular iambic-pentameter rhythm that serves to bring his subject into sharper focus, as in this lovely description of the sea: "...this verdigrised metal melted and left behind / by a clubfooted minor Roman god" (from "Reciprocity"). At other times, Young delights the reader by engaging more saliently with poetic form, as in the gorgeous palindrome poem "The Second Omen: Spring" or in the heart-stopping masterpiece "Recitativo," which I could not possibly do justice to by merely quoting from it and which I therefore entreat you to read in its entirety, here: http://www.everseradio.com/recitativo...
Many of the poems in Torn are variations on the theme of coming-of-age as a gay man in a homophobic society, such as "Fourteen," which begins "Bless me Father, for I have sinned" and ends "I know / this is wrong, Father, watching you in the shower. / But I only watched the soap. I only watched the water." Just when his themes might start to seem familiar, though, Young introduces knotty complexities and chilling reversals, as in "The Kiss," a poem in which an embrace that initially seems tender and sweet is ultimately revealed to be a calculated act of intimidation and silencing:
"...There is a boy in the cane fields praying not to be found. It is not the father's belt -- no, that is only a small source of fear -- but the other
boys that frighten him, the boys who beat him, kick him. And then, as if to puzzle, the biggest of them will hold him down, kiss him, the bully's hands unbuckling belts...."
The collection ends with a sequence of poems recounting Young's coming-of-age as a doctor, experiencing the "universal" things all doctors-in-training experience such as sleep deprivation and the guilt that comes of recognizing oneself as a killer for the first time ("Sepsis") while simultaneously facing the unique realities of being a gay man of Asian and Latino descent in the discrimination-filled "black or white world of medicine, / a world in which I do not even exist" ("Imprimatur"). These poems do not shy away from the harsh truth that, in good poetry, as in medicine, there are complications....more
If you just finished reading Benji Davies's The Storm Whale and are looking for another fine picture book about whales, beached and otherwise, you shoIf you just finished reading Benji Davies's The Storm Whale and are looking for another fine picture book about whales, beached and otherwise, you should check out this 1971 Steig classic if you haven't already. Whereas Davies's picture book might be accused of containing too few words, Steig's book errs in the opposite direction, often bordering on the wordy, but this tale of the friendship between a mouse who wants to be a sailor and the stolid amiable whale he meets while at sea -- likely inspired by Aesop's "The Lion and the Mouse" -- is simultaneously whimsy-laced and poignant. Steig's illustrations of a beached whale are appropriately imbued with dignity, gravity, and melancholy, and the solemn permanent parting between the two friends at the end contributes a necessary leavening to an otherwise buoyant yarn....more
I'm always a sucker for a good picture book about whales! This one is about a fisherman's son, a lonely latchkey kid named Noi, who finds and helps aI'm always a sucker for a good picture book about whales! This one is about a fisherman's son, a lonely latchkey kid named Noi, who finds and helps a beached whale, an experience that unexpectedly strengthens the emotional bond between Noi and his father. The text is quite spare, spanning a mere 32 pages, with only one or two sentences appearing on each page; more advanced child readers will finish reading the book in no time and then profess boredom, I expect. Still, there are some poignant visual flourishes in the illustrations -- e.g., after Noi and the whale part ways at the end, there is a splendidly detailed illustration depicting Noi spending time with his father, in which Noi, missing his cetacean friend, is shown wistfully painting a picture of a whale's fluke.
I've been intrigued by the Lowell-Hardwick-Blackwood mythos since a couple winters ago, when I first read Hardwick's Sleepless Nights and Blackwood'I've been intrigued by the Lowell-Hardwick-Blackwood mythos since a couple winters ago, when I first read Hardwick's Sleepless Nights and Blackwood's Never Breathe a Word. Strangely, although Lowell is the glue that links the other two, he has always been the member of the love triangle who interested me the least, perhaps because in my youth I internalized the not-quite-true idea that Lowell was just some stodgy Boston brahmin, the antithesis of my long-time hero, the spontaneous New York sprite Frank O'Hara. Despite these negative preconceptions, I was moved to pick up this book the other day because, at a time when my poem-making faculties were largely lying dormant, I found myself curious to see how Lowell transformed the raw material of life into poems. How did he take the stream of mundane minutiae that constitutes daily existence -- letters, phone calls, dreams, meals, health problems and hospitalizations -- and hammer it into art? How does anyone hammer water?
The short answer is "Not easily," as Lowell himself admits in the unrhymed sonnet "The Friend":
Some meaning never has a use for words, truth one couldn't tell oneself on the toilet, self-knowledge swimming to the hook, then turning -- in Latin we learned no subject is an object.
The Dolphin consists of 102 unrhymed sonnets like this one (unrhymed sonnets were a favorite form of Lowell's and also featured prominently in the other Lowell collection on my bookshelf, Notebook, 1967-1968). The prevailing theme of this collection is divorce and remarriage: the 55-year-old Lowell's divorce from 56-year-old Hardwick in America and his remarriage to 41-year-old Blackwood -- the titular siren with her "Alice-in-Wonderland straight gold hair" and "bulge eyes bigger than your man's closed fist" -- in England. Notwithstanding his disclaimers about "self-knowledge swimming to the hook then turning," Lowell is able to scrutinize the bitterness and hurt that followed from his divorce with eyes wide open, from all angles, as in the standout poem "The Mermaid Children," in which Lowell considers the impact of divorce on the children of broken families:
In my dream, we drove to Folkestone with the children.... Only parents with children could go to the beach; we had ours, and it was brutal lugging, stopping, teasing them to walk for themselves. When they rode our shoulders, we sank to our knees; later we felt no weight and left no footprints. Where did we leave them behind us so small and black, their transistors, mermaid fins and tails, our distant children charcoaled on the sky?
The Dolphin is very much a "concept album": that is, it's one of those poetry collections wherein very few poems stand as well on their own as they do in the context of the group. It's essentially a memoir in verse, divided into sonnet-sized vignettes rather than chapters. One of the meager handful of poems in the book that bears being quoted as a stand-alone entity is "Plotted," a highly relatable poem about feeling trapped by one's life:
Planes arc like arrows through the highest sky, ducks V the ducklings across a puckered pond; Providence turns animals to things. I roam from bookstore to bookstore browsing books, I too maneuvered on a guiding string as I execute my written plot. I feel how Hamlet, stuck with the Revenge Play his father wrote him, went scatological under this clotted London sky. Catlike on a paper parapet, he declaimed the words his prompter fed him, knowing convention called him forth to murder, loss of free will and license of the stage. Death's not an event in life, it's not lived through.
You could go one of two ways with this book. I imagine that not a few readers of The Dolphin will take the route of exasperation, losing patience with Lowell's rather solipsistic stream-of-consciousness meanderings. My own inclination is to look more charitably on Lowell. Why? It's hard to say, but I guess it comes down to this: it's impossible for a non-robot reader to wrangle with such a "confessional" poet as Lowell without at some point pronouncing judgment on the poet's personality, either favorably or unfavorably. If there's something in Lowell's personality that wins you over, you'll be inclined to look more charitably on the weaker segments of his oeuvre. For me, it's the fact that Lowell was married to three of the most talented writers of the 20th century (Hardwick, Blackwood, and Jean Stafford). I hold that a man who marries not one but three brilliant women writers can't be all that bad. :-) (I mean, compare that to e.e. cummings, who was also married three times, but to three women famous for their beauty rather than for their brains....)...more
Every so often, when I am facing a particularly difficult crisis in my life, one of the classic novels I read as a child rises to the surface of my miEvery so often, when I am facing a particularly difficult crisis in my life, one of the classic novels I read as a child rises to the surface of my mind, and I am comforted by the memory of the wisdom that novel instilled in me. Such was the case today with A Room With a View. Forster had a tendency to be a bit of a tiresome moralizer such that, even though I am inclined to agree with the moral and political views with which he stuffed his more "serious" novels Howard's End and A Passage to India, I find little pleasure in rereading them. The only Forster novel I really enjoy rereading time and again is A Room With a View because it is such a delightfully airy confection of wit and romance, lightly tinted by Forster's heavy moral opinions but not weighed down by them. In A Room With a View, it is Forster's flawless style -- deliciously witty, elegant, and eloquent in that quintessentially English manner that few twentieth-century novelists besides Forster and Waugh achieved -- that is allowed to shine. The book is a small masterpiece: despite its short length, the minor characters -- for example, Lucy Honeychurch's hilarious teenage brother Freddy -- come alive as living-and-breathing, flesh-and-blood human beings with piquant verbal mannerisms that the reader quickly comes to love.
Here is the passage from A Room With a View that resurfaced in my brain today -- idea-rich, memorably original, and wise in that conceptually simple yet innovative way that makes you wonder why no one had ever thought of putting things quite that way before:
[Lucy] made the long, convincing speech that she had made to Mr. Beebe, and intended to make to the world when she announced that her engagement was no more. [Mr. Emerson] heard her in silence, and then said: "My dear, I am worried about you. It seems to me"—dreamily; she was not alarmed—"that you are in a muddle."
She shook her head.
"Take an old man's word; there's nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror—on the things that I might have avoided. We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle."
"Beware of muddle." How simple it sounds, and yet how hard! It is not Death or Fate that causes Lucy to kiss gentle George one moment and then enter an engagement with snooty Cecil the next. These kinds of happenings cannot be blamed on Evil, or on Destiny. Most of the time, those capitalized words play no great role in the daily workings of our lives: the majority of people are well-intentioned, and the universe itself is not actively malevolent. It is muddles, then, in which we find ourselves caught to our dismay, and it is only personal courage that can get us out of them.
ETA: Skimming the negative reviews of A Room With a View that other readers have posted on Goodreads, I notice that a lot of readers gave this book low ratings because they expected it to be a satisfying romance with a male lead character who is as well-developed as the female lead character. But I think it's all well and good that George's character is not as fully developed as Lucy's character: after all, in a way, George is beside the point, just as Robert Lebrun in Kate Chopin's The Awakening is beside the point -- If Robert hadn't up-ended Edna Pontellier's life, eventually someone else would have. It seems many people are bothered by the fact that this novel isn't quite a traditional romance, but it isn't quite a feminist manifesto, either: it's just a novel about one girl choosing the life that's best for her (NOT the life that's best for all women, or for all people). If you don't go in expecting it to be something it's not, you'll like this novel just fine....more
I learned about this book through Poetry, which published a sizable excerpt from I Am the Beggar of the World in its June 2013 issue. At times duringI learned about this book through Poetry, which published a sizable excerpt from I Am the Beggar of the World in its June 2013 issue. At times during the past couple of years, I have wondered whether Poetry has been supplanted by other literary journals as the foremost magazine about verse in America, and whether I should therefore cease renewing my subscription. At such times, I reread some of the best pieces that Poetry has published in recent years, such as the excerpt from I Am the Beggar of the World in the June 2013 issue, or the feature on poems written by Honduran orphans in the January 2015 issue, and I remember that, yes, despite its shortcomings, Poetry remains the most important American magazine of its kind. And I Am the Beggar of the World is an important book.
Many contemporary Americans write poetry as a hobby, a recreation, a mode of relaxation, a route to aesthetic and spiritual pleasures, a form of self-therapy, a social activity, a professional activity, or, simply, a means of acquiring awards and honors that they can boast about on Facebook and Twitter, a badge of personal pride they can flaunt to outshine their neighbors, like a patch of prize begonias. These are all valid reasons for writing poetry, but when we surround ourselves with people who write poetry for any or all these reasons, we are liable to forget that poetry is capable of running deeper, closer to the bone. For there are people living in Afghanistan right now for whom poetry is literally a matter of life and death. There are contemporary Afghan women who, forbidden from attending school or working outside the home, at this very instant are putting themselves at risk of being murdered or driven to suicide for the sake of composing two lines of verse. For these women poets, poetry is a door to community, a gate to freedom, and a weapon of defiance: defiance of patriarchy, defiance of the state, defiance of both regional and foreign expectations that circumscribe what an Afghan woman is allowed to be. This is why I Am the Beggar of the World is important: it teaches us that there are places in the world right now where poetry still borders on death and therefore is still at its most alive.
The second reason why this book is important and should be read by all American readers, of course, is that, when one engages in a war, it is vital to attempt to understand the country that one has brought war to.
The landays collected in this book -- two-line poems, each exactly 22 syllables long in their original language -- are folk poems and, as such, they are apt to remind readers of folk poems from other eras and from other parts of the world. While reading this book, I personally was reminded of how, when I was a child, my family would pay regular visits to Saigon Bookstore in downtown Minneapolis, a dusty dingy hovel that reeked of medicinal mints where, in an effort to educate her American-born children about their ancestors' culture, my immigrant mother would buy reams of piano sheet music for Vietnamese folksongs like "Qua Cầu Gió Bay" (the title roughly translates as "The Wind on the Bridge Blew It Away"):
Yêu nhau cởi nón ối à cho nhau Về nhà mẹ hỏi, qua cầu gió bay
(Translation: When we made love, we took off our hats When I got home, Mother asked where my hat was, and I said the wind on the bridge blew it away)
To my mind, there is a uncanny resonance between that Vietnamese folksong lyric and the following Afghan folk poem sequence, from I Am the Beggar of the World:
[Girl:] When you kissed me, you bit me, What will my mother say?
[Boy:] Give your mother this answer: I went to fetch water and fell by the river.
[Girl:] Your jug isn’t broken, my mother will say, so why is your bottom lip bleeding that way?
[Boy:] Tell your mother this one: My jug fell on clay, I fell on stone....
The poems in I Am the Beggar of the World are accompanied by prose explications by journalist/poet Eliza Griswold, as well as starkly beautiful black-and-white photographs of contemporary life in Afghanistan taken by photographer Seamus Murphy. The poems were translated into English by Griswold with the assistance of many Afghan friends and associates....more
Last night, I watched the Andrea Arnold movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights for the first time. Although I had watched the pleasantly-smoothed-and-sLast night, I watched the Andrea Arnold movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights for the first time. Although I had watched the pleasantly-smoothed-and-stylized William Wyler version as a kid, I put off watching Arnold's reputedly starker movie adaptation for several years because, although I can tolerate reading about cruelty on the page, I have difficulty watching cruelty when it is enacted on a movie screen: events feel so much more viscerally real when portrayed in that medium.
I enjoyed many things about the movie: the gorgeous nature cinematography; the intertwining of a minimalist modern directorial sensibility with a surprising degree of faithfulness to the spirit of the novel; the director's clever choice to cast a black actor in the role of Heathcliff, a move that made the orphan's ill-treatment more legible to audiences native to the U.S., where racism is a more visible problem than classism.
I thought the movie had its flaws as well: the noticeable absence of wuthering noises; the overly slow pacing of the second two-thirds of the film; the fact that that the character Nelly Dean was both under-utilized and distractingly miscast (the actress portraying Nelly was a pretty young woman who looked like she could have been Catherine's sister); the fact that the actor who played the adult Heathcliff didn't do a good job depicting the character's intrinsic charisma, intelligence, or cunning, but just walked around looking like a hapless mistreated young boy the whole time. You need to have a bit more spark in you than that if you want audiences to believe that your character was able to amass a huge fortune in three years and then plot out an elaborate revenge scheme over decades.
Watching the movie got me to thinking about the book again. I first read Wuthering Heights as a preteen and loved it -- not because I identified with Heathcliff's and Catherine's ill-starred romance (ironically, I identify with it much more strongly now, watching the film as an adult who knows how destructively snobbish/bigoted a society can be, than I did reading the book as a child) but because, even at that young age, I recognized it for the literary masterpiece it was. If I had to choose my favorite novel about a poor man who disappears for many years to make his fortune and then returns to his former hometown only to find that the fickle girl he wanted to impress with his ill-gotten wealth has married someone else, I would choose Wuthering Heights over its descendant The Great Gatsby in a heartbeat. The quasi-incestuous overtones of the main coupling in Wuthering Heights invite comparison to another complexly layered British novel, Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, but Parade's End has never caught on with the general reading public to the extent Wuthering Heights has. With its tautly intricate narrative structure, Wuthering Heights feels like a miracle of Nature, an act of God, rather than something penned by a imperfect mortal's hand: it has the effortless immediacy and consummate perfection of Athena springing, fully-formed, from the skull of Zeus.
(It goes without saying that this novel is not "romantic," that its hero is abusive, and that its characters are overall not "likable," but anyone who thinks that any of these is a good reason for dismissing a classic of this caliber is weird in my book.)
In his review of the Andrea Arnold movie, New York Times film critic David Belcher disdainfully called Emily Bronte's novel "convoluted" and "chock-full of Faulkneresque passages," especially when compared with the more linear structure of sister Charlotte's debut novel, Jane Eyre. But does it make any sense to call a novel "convoluted" and "Faulkneresque" when the novelist displays such delicious verbal economy as Emily did, telling a convincing multigenerational family saga in half the number of pages that it took Charlotte to narrate a mere ten years of her heroine's life? Unlike the more verbose Charlotte, who often indulged in restating the same idea over and over in numerous different flowery ways, Emily didn't have any patience for repetition but rushed along with her powerful story like a bolting horse.
Like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Villette, with their whiffs of Caribbean exoticism, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is cognizant of, even haunted by, the twin specters of imperialism and slavery: Heathcliff is described in Emily Bronte's novel as a dark-skinned, possibly nonwhite/mixed-race orphan from Liverpool, a city that in those days was a major slave-trading port strewn with displaced immigrants from the far reaches of the empire (an implicit fact that director Andrea Arnold makes brilliantly explicit in her film adaptation, wherein Heathcliff is shown to bear a brand on his skin from former forced servitude). Emily's novel has all the mathematically impressive internal symmetries that Charlotte's Jane Eyre does (the several motherless brother-sister pairs in Emily's novel mirror each other, just as the multiple three-sibling broods in Jane Eyre mirror each other). The most salient difference is that Emily packs it all into a shorter, tighter frame, with electric results. Wuthering Heights is a book that deserves to be filmed again and again, a book that is destined to be filmed again and again, even if no director will ever get it quite right....more
Allison Joseph is well known among American poets as the editor-in-chief of the respected literary journal Crab Orchard Review. Long before online socAllison Joseph is well known among American poets as the editor-in-chief of the respected literary journal Crab Orchard Review. Long before online social networking became de rigueur for all aspiring literati, Joseph had already harnessed the World Wide Web as a tool for building a stronger and more humane literary community: for years, she has served as the moderator of the writers' list-serve CRWROPPS, and her warm, gregarious, generous-spirited presence on social media continues to inspire thousands every day. With her internet savvy, Joseph is a model literary citizen of the 21st century, and yet, paradoxically, her poetry does not shy away from embracing traditional narrative and lyric modes, but idiosyncratically revels in the use of timeless verse forms like the sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, and rondeau.
I first became aware of my visceral need to read Joseph's slim sixth collection, My Father's Kites, after stumbling on Rigoberto Gonzalez's 2010 book review on the Poetry Foundation website. As someone who took years to muster the necessary courage, perspective, and emotional distance to begin confronting my own parents' complex legacy in writing, I was seized by the directness of these lines Joseph addresses to her dead father: “If you could read these words, I’m sure you’d damn / my college education, or the white man / I never even told you that I wed. / I write about your life because I can.” I found everything about these three lines to be irresistible: their emotional nakedness; their grounded yet defiant attitude; their naturally fluent, assured handling of the slippery abacus of race and class; their potent mix of bravery and its opposite (I especially sympathize with the speaker's choice to enter a relationship she feels she needs to protect from the wrong eyes).
In the sequence of 34 sonnets that constitutes the heart of this book (an unostentatiously masterful assortment of the Shakespearean, Petrarchan, Spenserian, and hybrid sonnet varieties), Joseph ably constructs a three-dimensional portrait of a flawed and frightening father: his good and bad qualities, his habits and anomalies, his infirmities and lusts, his beliefs and dreams. As I've mentioned in other Goodreads reviews, I tend to gravitate toward books of verse that traffic in sparklingly witty, acrobatically avant-garde, quotable logodaedaly: Joseph's poems are less flashy, more straightforward and more narrative-centered than the type of poetry I usually favor, but they gripped me all the same. I was particularly struck by Joseph's poems that touch on the subject of race, including "A Daughter's Villanelle" (quoted above) and "Graduation Day, Kenyon College, 1988" ("How come they give a little black girl like you / a Jim Crow Ransom prize? my father asked / that graduation day"). Without apology, without hand-wringing, this poet speaks right to the heart of the thorny sorrows of the POC experience in a way few poets can:
"My grandmother looked pale, her father white, and in Grenada that was all it took to make a woman famous for her looks..." (from "Father's Lineage")
In my day, I've read a good many poems written from the perspective of doctors and nurses, and I can say with authority that few provide insight into a healthcare provider's life as adeptly as this poem written from the perspective of a nurse's daughter:
"My sister tells the story of the time our father came home from work an angry man. He yelled for her as if she'd done some crime, then roared his one unsettling demand: Did my check come?..." (from "Private Duty Nurse")
With My Father's Kites, Allison Joseph makes a worthy contribution to the lineage of English-language poetry addressed to parents, the lineage of poetry that consists of endlessly various variations on the theme Philip Larkin articulated so perfectly in "This Be the Verse": "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do."...more
Fittingly, I finished reading this book on the Fourth of July. Few poets are as deeply integrated into the fabric of American culture as Langston HughFittingly, I finished reading this book on the Fourth of July. Few poets are as deeply integrated into the fabric of American culture as Langston Hughes, and many of these poems were ones I had known and admired for many years already, including "Ku Klux" (an impressively sparse, lean ballad, its characters pared down to mere pronouns, its setting described simply as a "lonesome place" -- and yet so harrowing!), "Mama and Daughter" (another exemplary modern use of the centuries-old English ballad form, its dialogue redolent with verisimilitude), and "Dream Dust" (a poem almost haiku-like in its birdbone-spare, finely etched lines).
Other poems were new to me. Of these, I particularly enjoyed "To Be Somebody" (who can help loving a poem that describes a grand piano as "paddle-tailed"?) and "Island " (a poem that pithily describes the African-American experience of the American dream as a "dream within a dream"). I marveled at Hughes's sophisticated use of repetition and variation in the poems "Same in Blue" and "Song for Billie Holiday" ("What can purge my heart/of the song/and the sadness?/What can purge my heart/but the song/of the sadness?/What can purge my heart/of the sadness/of the song?"). Additionally, I was tickled by the wry humor in the playfully rhymed poems "Crowns and Garlands" ("I love Ralph Bunche,/but I can't eat him for lunch") and "Could Be" ("When you pawned my watch,/you pawned my heart...//Any place is dreary/without my watch and you").
One thing I didn't know about Hughes until I read this book, and which I think most Americans don't know either, is how far left on the political spectrum he sometimes veered: his poetry is often boldly, unstintingly revolutionary (consider: he invokes Lenin's name in two separate poems, without irony)....more
This is the second volume from Pleiades Press's Unsung Masters Series to appear unexpectedly in my mailbox since I acquired a subscription to PleiadesThis is the second volume from Pleiades Press's Unsung Masters Series to appear unexpectedly in my mailbox since I acquired a subscription to Pleiades by reviewing a book for them in 2014. Although now she is all but forgotten, the Minneapolis-born poet Catherine Breese Davis (1924-2002) was much admired during her lifetime for her masterful use of the elements of poetic form, which earned her publication credits in the foremost magazines of her time, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review, Measure, and Poetry Porch. This success came in spite of the many difficulties she faced throughout life: poverty, disability (she had cerebral palsy), abandonment by her father who was imprisoned for robbery when Davis was a baby. She moved around quite a lot, studying with Yvor Winters at Stanford at one point (Edgar Bowers was one of her classmates), and also doing stints in Boston and NYC.
Davis's flawless deployment of rhyme and meter, repetition and refrain, is evident from the very first page of this book, which consists of a 73-page portfolio of Davis's poems followed by seven analytical essays written by scholars who have a deep familiarity with Davis's work and a handful of marginalia. (Vocab words I learned from the highly learned essays: acedia = apathy; caducity = senility.) All that being said, this book didn't really pick up for me until page 65 or so: up until that point, the poems struck me as being too abstract to really sink my teeth into, too coyly evasive in the way they avoided the mention of specific details. Consider, for example, the epigrammatic six-liner "Message (To C.D.M.)," believed to have addressed to Davis's estranged sister Charlotte:
Dear Sister, where are you? You never knew What time and time's remorselessness could do. How can you think your silence is complete? The heart fails, but pitiless years repeat The clear, unspeakable malice of the dead; The grief you came to was the past you fled.
Short as it is, this poem is chock-full of hazy abstractions ("time," "time's remorselessness," "silence," "heart," "pitiless years," "clear, unspeakable malice"). Upon reaching the last line, the reader must resist the desire to shake the poet's shoulders and demand, "What was the grief that Charlotte came to? What was the past she fled? What, in God's name, is this poem about??" It seems almost oxymoronic that a poem should be so tight-lipped and uncommunicative.
...always in a storm of rage laughter torrents of words and wit curses and tears (or as the song on the jukebox goes "if you think I laugh too loud you should hear me cry") oh the collisions the wrecks as if driven by some demon lover of go and find and get (but what? not money) the good die young so she kept going...
Reading this poem, I feel I know exactly what the speaker's mother is like; I feel I can relate to the speaker's experiences wholly and entirely. "The good die/young so/she kept going" -- what a terrifically effective burn!
The poems in the latter part of the portfolio are overall less coy, less secretive, than those in the first part. In these later poems, many of which are written in free verse or in rhymed-but-unmetered center-justified lines, Davis speaks openly about alcoholism, about being hospitalized for mental illness, about her overwhelming devastation when Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. She also writes searingly about a failed love affair in the poem sequence "for tender stalkes," a group of sonnets written not in the usual iambic pentameter but in a sarcastically clipped iambic tetrameter that perfectly suits its subject matter -- a pair of lovers so emotionally damaged and poisoned by cynicism that they could not help injuring themselves and each other. Here is a link to one of the strongest sonnets in the group: http://www.lavrev.net/2011/06/catheri... . My favorite of the "for tender stalkes" sonnets, though, is this one, so tightly controlled and syllogistic in its logic that the psychic pain it communicates flares out all the more movingly:
Do but consider how you went To prove another's worth, and more Than once; returned, restlessness spent, To find what you were looking for.
What did I do then? Did I scold? Refuse you? Did I play your game? Who reasoned, reconciled, consoled? On whom then did we place the blame?
Who's constant? You? because you go But always come back? at your leisure. Or I? who changed to let you know That love, not I, would be the same, And thus was self-betrayed: Your game. I go; I'll come back. At my pleasure.
As a footnote, it amazes me that this collection of poetry almost failed to see the light of day: Davis's longtime companion was initially hesitant to publish Davis's manuscript after Davis's death because, not being legally married to Davis, she feared she had no legal right to do so. In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, it makes my head spin to think that such a valuable collection of poetry as this almost became a casualty of marriage inequality....more
This chapbook is co-authored by two poets, Brenda Iijima and Annie Won, both known for writing what I guess could be called "experimental poetry" (altThis chapbook is co-authored by two poets, Brenda Iijima and Annie Won, both known for writing what I guess could be called "experimental poetry" (although I suppose it could be argued that all poetry, even the most formally regimented and/or most traditional in subject matter, could rightly be described as "experimental," by reason of its necessarily curious and inquisitive relationship with language). Iijima, the more senior of the two poets, has at times been described as a "conceptual poet," working in the recently controversy-inflamed realm of "conceptual poetry." According to the "Notes & Acknowledgements" section that precedes the text of Once When A Building Block, these two poets, like the true denizens of the 21st century that they are, were inspired to collaborate on this chapbook after a conversation on Iijima's Facebook wall in which Won revealed -- to Iijima's delight -- that she was not only a poet but also a professional chemist. In Iijima's own words, "From that interaction we decided to embark on a project that involved insidious elements in the environment using language and imagery that convey their presence -- after all, chemicals, like words, are building blocks in our ecosystem. and not without consequences."
The chapbook is exactly 17 pages long, with Iijima's work appearing on the odd-numbered pages and Won's work appearing on the even-numbered pages. Both Iijima and Won work in a highly visual mode (Iijima refers to their works as "collages"), using found texts -- pages xeroxed from popular magazines, science textbooks, technical manuals, electrocardiogram printouts, and the like -- as a sort of wallpaper or backdrop on top of which they have then pasted blocks of original text, in varying typefaces. Photographs, laboratory signage, diagrams of molecules and machines, and phrases scrawled in Iijima's slanting handwriting are liberally strewn amongst the typed/photocopied words, contributing to the chapbook's multilayered visual texture. And yet, despite all this, the pages are all in black and white -- nothing that an ordinary office's laser printer/scanner combo wouldn't be able to produce -- and, in general, the chapbook's design has a jarringly low-budget feel that seems at odds with its visually exuberant content. The chapbook's cover is an unornamented once-folded cardboard sheet with roughly the same coarse texture as a brown grocery bag, except a bit thicker and sturdier. The chapbook's pages are held together by a length of stiffish black cord that has been threaded through three holes in the book's spine and then tied into a bulky double knot with long overhanging ends. While it could be argued that this minimalist presentation throws Iijima's and Won's collages into relief in a way that heightens their impact, it did leave me wondering whether a publishing company with a bigger budget might have been able to do greater justice to the two poets' boldly untrammeled envisionings.
As the chapbook's title suggests, both Iijima and Won favor an elliptical syntax in their poetry, drawing inspiration from the indices of science textbooks, in which words are loosely linked by commas and semicolons, as in this excerpt from the bottom of page 8:
"if the chemicals speak, 1100; the prison of our bodies, 49; a holding, 4; the worms they are us, 98; very long very monotone, 9; much like, 47; radio silence, 1-33."
The precise meaning of the poetry is therefore sometimes elusive, hanging just beyond the reader's reach. For example, a block of text at the top of page 11 reads as follows:
"The now of then, Fukushima Story mutation/disruption/corruption Now-longgone-bygone-forgone-there The there of then is exactly NOW"
One gets from these words a sense of urgency, a sense of impending environmental/public-health disaster, though the syntactical/logical connective tissue linking the words cannot all be apprehended at a glance....more
An almost ubiquitous presence on the NYC poetry performance scene with poetry forthcoming in The New Yorker, Anton Yakovlev is a writer to watch. His debut chapbook Neptune Court collects 21 quietly perceptive, character-rich Chekhovian short stories in free verse about many subjects, including a cat that comforts dying people in an old folks' home, a troubled vet who finds some happiness masquerading at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, and various pairs of lonely strangers whose lives intersect, briefly and unviolently, but never meaninglessly. The inexorable draw of one's birthplace is a recurring theme in these poems; bereavement is another ("She wears her pajamas inside out, reaches for the light switch from under the comforter. Half asleep, she remembers she hasn't silenced her phone. Then she remembers she no longer needs to"). New Jersey, in all its off-key cheerful vulgarity, is a frequent setting for Yakovlev's poems, but much of the book's action also takes place in railway stations and train compartments that could be anywhere.
Realism and surrealism periodically trade places on the page like two Elvis impersonators, one of whom works the day shift at the casino, the other the night shift. These smooth yet startling shifts between the mundane and the mythic partially account for the success of this chapbook's best poems, including "The Apprehension" and the collection's title poem. A poem that begins with Millet-precise observations about car horns and petunias becomes alarmingly Dali-esque by line 14:
"Noises of cars desperately try to figure things out. She's becoming allergic to beeps. She hears scalpels creaking; someone must be getting skinned for peeling onions wrong..."
No, a casino is the wrong metaphor for Neptune Court. You don't come here to be entertained, exactly; nor do you come here to forget your troubles in adrenaline's bracing embrace. This is art that provides a balm for small griefs even stronger than oblivion. Here are lines of verse with the nourishing solidity of angel statues that won't fly away. And all the time that you are reading, Yakovlev's authorial presence looms in front of you like a large steady hand, boldly ungloved, slowly turning over a king and an ace on the blackjack table, leaving no doubt that the house always wins....more
To date, the poet Daniel Brown has published two poetry collections: Taking the Occasion (2008), winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, and the recTo date, the poet Daniel Brown has published two poetry collections: Taking the Occasion (2008), winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, and the recently released What More? (2015). Having read and reviewedWhat More? back in January, I can authoritatively say that the two books are comparable in length, style, range of subject matter, and amplitude of pleasure they provide. One subtle difference between the two books is that Taking the Occasion, though humor-laced like all of Brown's work, is on the whole more melancholy than What More?, which seems overall to be tinged with a mellow golden happiness. This difference is made more apparent when the pensive opening of the final poem in Taking the Occasion is juxtaposed with the jaunty first lines of the closing verse in What More?:
"When I think about how We deal with our mortality..."
"My lover is my lover; I haven't any other..."
Brown's poetic gifts were already full-fledged when Taking the Occasion took flight. His trademark mode of writing is evident from the very first page: these poems are mostly compact little objets d'art with smooth boxy edges and crisply creased corners, like expertly made origami animals, cleverly folded into strict rhyme schemes and taut meters. Brown's meters are often intentionally irregular but never sloppy (like the most immaculate of Oxford professors, he treats the word realist as the proper three-syllable word that it is -- REE-uh-LIST -- in contradistinction to the typical drawling Joe-Blow-on-the-street, who is apt to compress the word into two syllables: REEL-ist). Even more impressively, Brown never lets metrical constraints squeeze the humanity out of his delightfully human vernacular voice, which, just like everyday non-metered speech, is made lively by its frequent use of slangy syntactical omissions, elisions, and sentence fragments.
Is it because of his surname that this poet's voice reminds me at times of Peanuts protagonist Charlie Brown? For there is an endearing humility in this poet's voice, a tendency toward frankly acknowledged self-abnegation and pessimism in the way he presents his highly intelligent yet commonsensical "home truths," which reminds me of the lovable cartoon character (see, for instance, "Among the Better Blessings" -- a poem that could almost be considered morbid in its Calvinist fatalism, were it not for the don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it undercurrent of wry wit).
My favorite poems in this collection were "The Birth of God,""Deliverance," and "A Salmon Speaks of the Sea" (the last is a mellifluous free verse poem and one of the rare instances in this text where Brown appears to let himself get swept away by an operatic tidal wave of Romantic emotion). An honorable mention goes to "Love Story," a multi-part free verse poem whose structure ingeniously mirrors that of one of the musical works it discusses (Brown holds a master's degree in musicology from Cornell, and it shows)....more
"[T]he face in the mirror is a pale and naked hostage and no one can tell which room he’s being held in."
-Richard Siken, from "Unfinished Duet"
This Yale"[T]he face in the mirror is a pale and naked hostage and no one can tell which room he’s being held in."
-Richard Siken, from "Unfinished Duet"
This Yale Prize-winning book details the travails of eros in the obsessively anguished voice of a latter-day Propertius. With its accessible narratives, its frank passion, and its unabashed sincerity, Crush appears to have claimed a spot as one of the most popular poetry books published in the last decade (if it isn't a contradiction in terms to refer to a book of contemporary poetry as "popular"!), its contents retweeted and Instagram'ed and Tumblr'ed to literary stardom by enthusiastic young fans across the internet. Like its cover image -- a black-and-white photo of a wetly parted mouth in close proximity to a dark and very phallic-looking thumb, -- this is a book that's almost guaranteed to elicit some kind of reaction.
Siken’s poetry is a bit Frank O’Hara-esque in its use of a loquacious conversational voice, its sprawling long lines, the loose-limbed double-jointed space-occupying way the poems spread out across the page -- there might be something of Apollinaire's "Zone" in Siken’s expansiveness, too. (Not to say that there aren’t poems here that use fixed forms: for example, the poem “Straw House, Straw Dog,” which uses quatrains and repetition in a manner that begs comparison to a pantoum, even as it eludes the constrictive prescriptions of a pantoum. Perhaps more accurate than saying that these poems “use fixed forms” would be to say they “subvert fixed forms.") Siken makes use of a number of recurring motifs whose fugue-like repetitions tie the collection together like the hogtied Gulliver in Lilliput -- motifs like dreams, boots, amputated hands, mouthfuls of glass, an imaginary movie called Planet of Love, and the narrator’s tendency to talk about himself in the third person (he's self-aware about it, tho'). As far as thematic and stylistic cohesion goes, this is one of the most successful poetry debuts I have read.
In general, the narrative poems seemed to me to be more effective than the lyrics -- my favorites were all meaty short narratives like "Boot Theory," "Wishbone," and "Little Beast" ("more frequently I was finding myself sleepless, and he was running out of/lullabies"). And a few of the endings are killers, e.g.:
"There’s a bottle of whiskey in the trunk of the Chevy and a dead man at our feet staring up at us like we’re something interesting. This is where the evening splits in half, Henry, love or death. Grab an end, pull hard, and make a wish."...more
I was drawn to this book because of the influence that Hayden has visibly exerted on many of today's most exciting poets -- poets like Eduardo CorralI was drawn to this book because of the influence that Hayden has visibly exerted on many of today's most exciting poets -- poets like Eduardo Corral and Erica Dawson, to name just a couple.
Hayden's poems, especially those from the earlier part of his career, tend to be written in an unimpeachably concise, meditatively paced, formally deliberate mode that at times reminded me strongly of his contemporary (and fellow Midwesterner) Lorine Niedecker. Although he rarely uses rhyme or meter, Hayden is nonetheless remarkably attentive to form, both aural and visual, in his own unique way: he purposefully varies his line lengths and stanza lengths in such a way as to give his poems a tessellated appearance on the page that would give geometers wet dreams. On top of this, he often uses indentations of different width for different lines, bestowing on his stanzas an elaborately patterned look that would make George Herbert proud.
The tastemakers of past eras -- both the compilers of poetry anthologies and the writers who, like Amiri Baraka, vocally criticized the compilers of poetry anthologies -- have passed down to us a distorted view of Robert Hayden: he is now, rather unjustly, remembered chiefly for his tranquil domestic lyrics like "Those Winter Sundays" and for his refined ekphrastic poems like "Monet's Waterlilies." College students these days are introduced to Hayden via self-contained little poems like "The Performers," an unrhymed sonnet wherein the speaker is a well-mannered middle-class gentleman possessed of a desk job at which he can observe (from a safe distance) the working classes living out their lives of risk and struggle. Given this manner of introduction, it is no wonder that many of today's students walk away from their classrooms harboring the false impression that Hayden was nothing more than a maker of fine-spun poems, genteel and urbane, from which the violence of life has all but been sublimated out. Before I read this book, that was how I thought about Hayden, too. I was wrong.
For every poem like "Those Winter Sundays" in this collection, there is a poem like "The Whipping" that unflinchingly interrogates the harrowing violence that always underlies -- and sometimes breaks through -- the facade of domestic tranquility that "These Winter Sundays" seems content to celebrate. Angle of Ascent is thick with poems that devastatingly dissect every era of American history, from the dark ages of slavery ("Middle Passage") to the Civil War ("The Dream") to the Holocaust ("Belsen, Day of Liberation") to the years of carnage surrounding the fight for civil rights ("Night, Death, Mississippi"). Refusing to sugarcoat or whitewash reality but also never giving way to melodrama, Hayden's clear-eyed verse documents a world marred by unspeakable evils: some of the poems (e.g., "The Diver") are terrifying in their bleakness, wearing like a skull-and-bones brooch their searing despair, their undisguised death-wish. Although he found some comfort in the Baha'i faith, Hayden was also skeptical of those who view religion as a cure-all or explain-all, throwing shade at the superstitious in biting poems like "Electrical Storm" and "Witch Doctor." (This vision of superstition as a woefully inadequate bandage for tragedies gets taken to its chilling natural conclusion in the masterly ballad "'Incense of the Lucky Virgin.'") These are quintessentially American poems, probing our nation's raw wounds, not sadistically or superfluously, but with a doctor's meticulousness and care, a wise surgeon's recognition that some wounds will always remain raw....more
I read this book in one sitting (standing?) while browsing the wares at my neighborhood indie bookstore, The Corner Bookstore (a relatively little-knoI read this book in one sitting (standing?) while browsing the wares at my neighborhood indie bookstore, The Corner Bookstore (a relatively little-known but truly delightful local treasure, home to sizable collections of art books and children's books, as well as a black-and-white cat named Hampton who has an endearingly poor understanding of the concept of "personal space"). Haiku: Love is about 80 pages long, and every two-page spread is beautifully laid out with 2-3 haiku or senryu about romantic love -- some by famous poets like Basho, Buson, Issa, and Chiyo-ni, some by less well-known Japanese bards, and a fair-sized sampling by the prolific Japanese poet "Anonymous" -- as well as a gorgeous full-color Japanese period artwork from the British Museum's stunning collection. Editor Alan Cummings has arranged the poems thematically, in addition to sorting them into three major groupings: "Young Love," "Middle-Aged Love," and "Old Love."
by the sparkler she grasps, my darling's arm illuminated
-Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994)
falling blossoms-- even now, I can't believe she's dead
I'm not sure what one is supposed to do with this book, frankly. In terms of its poetry content, it's a bit too skimpy to serve as a gift for a true poetry/haiku aficionado. Given that it contains a good many poems on themes like falling out of love, being trapped in a loveless marriage, and being tempted by extramarital liaisons, it also doesn't seem like a suitable gift to present to a lover or spouse. Moreover, it's a bit too small in height and width to serve as a coffee-table book.... Maybe its destiny is to be an end-table book?
The main reason I'm glad I read this book is because it introduced me to the work of two amazing Japanese woodblock artists with whose names I was previously unfamiliar, Hashiguchi Goyo and Takehisa Yumeji.
Here is Hashiguchi's "Combing Her Hair":
And here is Takehisa's "Woman in Despair":
Patricia Donegan's similarly themed anthology, which I briefly reviewed elsewhere on Goodreads, contains a greater quantity of haiku than this one and also has the advantage of including romaji transliterations of the poems, which this anthology does not. What this anthology lacks in those areas, however, it makes up for by including renderings of the poems in an aesthetically pleasing kanji calligraphic font and by encompassing a superior selection of visual art....more
These richly textured, tightly crafted poems, mostly in strict rhyme and slightly-less-strict meter, vividly evoke life in the southern United StatesThese richly textured, tightly crafted poems, mostly in strict rhyme and slightly-less-strict meter, vividly evoke life in the southern United States from the perspective of someone who has lived there and intimately knows it. Densely strewn with locally resonant pop-culture allusions (Dawson is especially fond of name-dropping touchstones of Americana music, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Old Crow Medicine Show) and the crunchy foreign-sounding names of endemic flora and fauna, these poems invariably succeed in creating a piquant, aromatic sense of atmosphere. However, the relationship between speaker and atmosphere, subject and background, is complex and weird, sometimes seeming to be incompletely explored: in many of these poems, the poem's speaker becomes centered in the poem's last few lines in a way that is unexpectedly sensual/sexual (e.g., "I am the lotus: mama-/And-baby soft, white bunny cotton" or "I'm all lip" or "There, I'd lie in sin/On soldiers marked unknown"); it's as if the poet, after showing us a photo album of her latest sojourn in Dixieland, abruptly turns the selfie stick on her seductively posed self, leaving us disoriented and unsure of what the poem in the end was really about.
One poem in which the scene-setting, self-sexualization, and social commentary meld together effectively to form an explosively powerful, unified whole is "La Revue Nègre," a two-page poem in iambic pentameter in which every single line, amazingly, rhymes with "oh." In this poem, the poet fantasizes about traveling back in time and performing alongside the Jazz Age entertainer and Civil Rights Movement luminary Josephine Baker in a "two-woman show" and, in the process, giving the finger to proponents of racism and minstrelsy:
"...I've got to get a dog first, though, and grow Pin-curled sideburns and learn to pose, tableau Of taut breasts and the navel apropos Of Paris nightlife, drop it hot, slow, low As bass, tell Daddy Rice to tell Jim Crow To take his minstrel smile and o- pen up real wide to suck our titties. Lo, How a rose e'er bloomed when you sang out, Sweet Jo..."
This book gets stronger as you get closer to the end, and boy, does it end with a bang. Some of the stand-out pieces in the second half of the collection include: "Jungle Fever Epithalamium," a wry meditation on the ramifications of being a black woman who marries a white man ("When Malcolm X was ten/At the Cineplex, I read Haley, and, then,//Wore red and black and green--all proud, thick-skinned./Mom said, "You know that you're from Maryland"); "In Black and White," a poem that subverts the Hollywood myth of romantic love by imagining what it'd be like to, um, make whoopee with the Grim Reaper (here, it was the breathy feminine rhyme of covet and love it that won me over); and "Little Black Boy Heads," a paean to the beauty of African-American boys' close-cropped hair, suffused with maternal tenderness. Look, though: you need to read the last two poems in this collection in their entirety right now. Dead serious: drop whatever it is that you're doing and read them right now. Here they are:
"Langston Hughes's Grandma" stunned me with its overlap of formal rigor and stream-of-consciousness fluidity, its poignant depiction of bereavement ("thighs pressed closed"), and its frank acknowledgement of the often-ignored fact that grief is closely intertwined with rage and rancor ("I wish them ill; no right/to do so, yes, I know"). In "Ideation X," a poem whose blank-verse form is so deftly handled that it might easily go unnoticed, I relished how the recognition that the speaker is in an inpatient psychiatric ward creeps up slowly on the reader, and the last four lines struck me as embodying perfection, in every way. ...more
Considered the greatest living Korean poet, Ko Un (b. 1933) has worn many hats in his life: he has been a soldier, a Zen Buddhist monk, a husband, a fConsidered the greatest living Korean poet, Ko Un (b. 1933) has worn many hats in his life: he has been a soldier, a Zen Buddhist monk, a husband, a father, a pro-democracy activist, and (many times) a political prisoner. His poems are a little bit Tu Fu, a little bit Issa, a little bit William Blake. The voice that speaks clearly through these spare, outwardly simple poems is one characterized by sincerity, humility, a torch-like passion for the truth, and an child's uncomplicated hatred of all propaganda and lies. Over and over, Ko Un manifests a disarming willingness to make himself vulnerable, to expose his mind and "skinny body" to whatever rain or "spring snow" may come pouring down, in a zealous spiritual quest to be subsumed by nature in all her death-minded asperity and seasonal cyclicity and thereby return to mankind's original state of goodness and innocence. These poems are tender, drenched with a palpable empathy for animals and plants and old people and infants, as well as occasionally illuminated from within by a fiery compassion for victims of incarceration and state-sponsored torture. At times, Ko Un addresses his wife, his daughter, and his deceased parents with an affection that is almost childlike in its simplicity, anachronistic in its freedom from irony. Yet, as childlike as he sometimes seems, his is undoubtedly a wise old soul, one that chafes at the anonymity and atomization of contemporary urban life:
The light went out in Unit 506 on the 18th floor. Across on the 19th floor, the light in 706 went out soon after.
Sleep well. Get to know each other tomorrow.
To counter the vanity and hedonism of the modern era, Ko Un brings his own unique, tongue-in-cheek brand of wisdom to the table:
Ten, thirty, sixty years... If our lives weren't so short-lived, humans would've stayed an extra primitive horde.
His poems are sometimes written in traditional Korean forms (e.g., the six-line sijo), but more commonly appear to be composed in short spurts of free verse that rely on an abrupt shift to an in-focus concrete image in the last line to jolt the reader into a state of heightened awareness, e.g.:
If wisdom's not love, love is not wisdom, wash them off our hands.
A breeze startled the calf from its doze.
Ultimately, Ko Un's voice is so winsome, so lovable, that one can't help but respond affirmatively to his call-to-arms:
The stars and I are plotting a revolution because the universe is being mismanaged.
Friends, let's all join Ko Un's poetic revolution!...more
This coming Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Vietnamese-American War. For me and for other diasporic Vietnamese like me, tThis coming Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Vietnamese-American War. For me and for other diasporic Vietnamese like me, this date is especially significant, as it stakes out not just a traumatic event in our family histories but also a turning point: April 30, 1975 was the calendar date on which our families were reborn, redefined, translated, transmuted into English speakers, America dwellers, U.S. citizens.
On the back of this book, there is a blurb written by the late American poet William Matthews: "The best writing we've had from the long war in Vietnam has been prose so far. Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau changes that." Presumably, this quotation was elicited from Matthews around the time of Dien Cai Dau's first printing, in 1988. Since that time, it's safe to say the genre of Vietnam-War-related poetry has radically changed, growing broader, deeper, and more complex, to the point where Matthews's quote now seems a relic of a different geological age.
When I was growing up in the American Midwest in the '80s and '90s, it seemed that the predominant narrative about the Vietnam War in U.S. media and U.S. literature was one that was firmly centered around a U.S. military perspective: in this collective cultural narrative, Vietnamese people were portrayed rather two-dimensionally as inscrutable yellow-skinned foreigners whose subjectivity either did not exist or could not be accessed. Vietnamese women, in particular, were depicted as either simple-minded rustics or unctuous whores. Englishman Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American admittedly predates this historical moment, but its introduction of a Vietnamese female character named Phuong -- alluring yet opaque, dim-witted yet unconsciously, tantalizingly sexual, a commodity to be fought over rather than identified with -- was echoed in western writers' portrayals of Vietnamese women for decades to follow. Contrast this erstwhile poverty of imagination with the current state of Vietnam-War-related literature: in both prose and poetry, there is now a wide range of diverse perspectives on the scene, including a whole host of powerful diasporic Vietnamese poetic voices -- voices like Linh Dinh's, Bao Phi's, Cathy Linh Che's, Ocean Vuong's, and Hieu Minh Nguyen's, to name just a few.
In the context of this atomically potent, new poetic paradigm, Matthews's quotation is all the more striking. It is striking because it reminds us that, in a way, we have Yusef Komunyakaa to thank for the richness and nuance that now defines the genre of Vietnam War poetry. Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau was the forerunner of it all. It is the beginning that we have to thank for today's robust middle.
This slim book follows a taut, carefully constructed arc. It begins with poems about military maneuvers, treks, patrols, long periods in which gruff men lived in the company of other gruff men, watching and waiting for the inevitable to happen. The book then moves on to evocations of the non-masculine lives the war touched, the Vietnamese monks and (especially) the Vietnamese women, how some were burned alive or raped, consigned to the role of a military man's two-timed mistress or his saviour symbol. Then we get snapshots of how the military men spent their precious moments of leisure time: playing volleyball, listening to music, seeking sexual release. Then there are poems about POWs (on both sides), the brutalities they faced. This section segues seamlessly into a suite of poems about the unique struggles confronted by African-Americans in the U.S. military, fighting for a country in which racial inequality and segregation were still a reality. In the bleak prose poem "The One-Legged Stool," the speaker, an African-American POW, tells his North Vietnamese captors: "I've been through Georgia. Yeah, been through 'Bama, too.... You eye me worse than those rednecks. They used to look at me in my uniform like I didn't belong in it.... All I have to go back to are faces like yours at the door." Receiving word of Martin Luther King's assassination back home is an additional cause of demoralization in the African-American soldiers Komunyakaa portrays. Finally, the book ends with an elegiac contemplation of the crippled lives the war left in its wake when it ended, forty years ago this week: the boat people, the ostracized mixed-race children, the broken marriages, the bereaved families, the vets grappling with survivors' guilt and PTSD.
There is a lamentable typo in the edition of this book that I bought: "dui boi" instead of "bui doi." Hopefully, this error was corrected in later editions. Overall, though, this is a book with an authoritative narrative voice, informed by intimate firsthand knowledge of Vietnam and of the Vietnam War (Komunyakaa even name-drops the 18th-to-19th-century Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong in his poem "Saigon Bar Girls, 1975" -- a demonstration of deep cultural literacy that only the best writers in the field can match). The language is lyrical and imaginative, full of gloriously unexpected yet emotionally and visually precise metaphors: "Like an angel/pushed up against what hurts/his globe-shaped helmet/follows the gold ring his flashlight/casts into the void." This week, as the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon is commemorated, take a moment to sample the poems in this book. Read "Toys in a Field"; read "Boat People." Yes, there is much to mourn here, but there is also a birth, a new beginning, to celebrate....more
This is one of the few instances in my life where I watched the movie first, read the book second. It is also one of the few instances where I think tThis is one of the few instances in my life where I watched the movie first, read the book second. It is also one of the few instances where I think the movie is considerably better than the book it was adapted from. While reading the book, I found it hard to resist drawing mental comparisons between Gaskell and her contemporaries, comparisons that were not at all flattering to Gaskell. When compared with George Eliot, Gaskell's understanding of every subject from political economics to religion falls short in complexity and nuance; when compared with Charlotte Bronte, Gaskell's dialogues lack the tang of true authenticity; when compared with Jane Austen or Emily Bronte, the style of Gaskell's expository and descriptive passages feels clunky and inelegant, her dramatic pacing faulty. Gaskell's characterizations (especially of minor characters like the imperious servant Dixon and the haughty matriarch Mrs. Thornton) are her strongest suit, the love plot is entertaining, and the bits of psychological analysis plausible. Still, when one reads passages like the following, one feels not as if one is listening in on a love scene between two flesh-and-blood humans, but rather as if one is stumbling through a dense forest of floppy cardboard trees:
His voice was hoarse, and trembling with tender passion, as he said:— 'Margaret!' For an instant she looked up; and then sought to veil her luminous eyes by dropping her forehead on her hands. Again, stepping nearer, he besought her with another tremulous eager call upon her name.
There are also inadvertently funny passages like this one, a dialogue between the heroine Margaret Hale and her father about her suitor Mr. Thornton:
'You are quite prejudiced against Mr. Thornton, Margaret.' 'He is the first specimen of a manufacturer—of a person engaged in trade—that I had ever the opportunity of studying, papa. He is my first olive: let me make a face while I swallow it.'
Occasionally, however, Gaskell transcends herself, as in this not-realistic-sounding but nonetheless very pretty passage in which Frederick Hale is expounding on the beauty of his betrothed, Dolores:
'You must wait till you see her herself. She is too perfect to be known by fragments. No mean brick shall be a specimen of the building of my palace.'
(As a side note, I just love the default cover image that automatically pops up when you add this book to one of your Goodreads bookshelves. I have a huge sentimental fondness for these cutely compact-sized Penguin editions of classic English novels, their titles and authors' names centered in cartouche-like cream-colored ovals on the upper halves of their front covers. As far as I'm aware, Penguin has stopped publishing classics in this format, having switched to an uglier, larger-sized format with a black spine rather than a cream-colored one. It's a shame, for these cream-colored books remind me of that moment at the end of my childhood when my mom took me to Barnes and Noble and let me pick out my first-ever "grown-up books" -- cream-colored Penguin Classics editions of Pride and Prejudice and Villette, two books that remain firmly ensconced in my pantheon of favorites. Those books were like siblings to me!)...more
These poems focus on the lives of black people, poor people, elderly people, disabled people, soldiers. They do not shy away from difficult topics butThese poems focus on the lives of black people, poor people, elderly people, disabled people, soldiers. They do not shy away from difficult topics but do not sensationalize them, either: one piece, titled "the mother," begins starkly, "Abortions do not let you forget."
Brooks inhabits the characters she writes about with a stirringly absolute empathy. By shining on them the quiet light of her unostentatiously perfect prosody, she shows us that even society's most overlooked and alienated individuals are grounded by an inner framework of dignity, that the insides of even the most downtrodden are lined by a nacreous grace. (Something we should all already know but are all occasionally guilty of forgetting.) Yet, as tender as she sometimes is, Brooks can also be pungently wry, stingingly acerbic, especially when casting her eye on the varied manifestations of racism. Consider, for example, this stanza that she drops in an almost-offhand way into the middle of the long poem "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith," an Eliot-esque psychological analysis of a young black male character:
But movie-time approaches, time to boo The hero's kiss, and boo the heroine Whose ivory and yellow it is sin For his eye to eat of. The Mickey Mouse, However, is for everyone in the house.
With its craftsman-like attentiveness to sonic detail, Brooks's language sometimes achieves an intricately filigreed, rococo grandeur that puts one in mind of the master goldsmiths of past centuries:
Vaunting hands are now devoid. Hieroglyphics of her eyes Blink upon a paradise Paralyzed and paranoid. (from "The Anniad")
Maestro of every conceivable meter, from the ballad to the sonnet and beyond, Gwendolyn Brooks deserves better than to be labeled "the finest black poet of [her] generation," as Robert F. Kiernan's front-cover blurb labels her: Brooks is one of the finest poets of her generation, even of her century, period....more