Review by Anita Sullivan
PLAYING BACH IN THE D.C. METRO
by David Lee Garrison
Browser Books Publishing
2195 Fillmore St.
San Francisco , CA 94115
2012, 63 pp., $16.00
“Having an instrument does not make a panhandler a busker. The simple difference is being able to play competently”
—Oregon Vagabond Motivator News, the street newspaper of Eugene, OR, February 2013, p. 2
What if busking on the streets included poets! They would join jugglers, actors, acrobats, and a whole variety of musicians in that age-old line of work. Perhaps if they wiggled suggestively and jumped around while they called out their words—as they do in poetry slams—and if their articulation, cadence and dramatic pauses were smoothly executed, they might be able to hold down regular performing spots around the cities of the world, to ply their art.
This collection—whose title poem is about a famous violinist briefly agreeing to do a stint as a street musician—might be regarded as a set of potential busking poems: they are brisk, fluid, and conversational. They are full of vivid sensual images and short dramatic incidents of the kind that might stop a commuter as she emerges from the top of the escalator stairs in, say, the Bethesda, Maryland Metro Station, where the low-ceilinged, semi-outdoor parking lot is a mass of concrete that turns even the brightest day into a kind of grayish purgatory.
Here, in the Fall of 2002, I stopped to listen to three teenage violinists quite competently play a Bach double violin concerto, their battered cases open in front of them. So glorious and penetrating was this music that we could all hear it very faintly from the bottom of what seemed to me at the time to be one of the steepest and longest stairways into any underground train system in the world. The music drew us up like gold from hell, numbed and bound as we all were by the deep poison of the city’s endless machine voice. And there, as our heads slowly appeared above the horizon, were the performers contorting on the pavement, and as David Lee Garrison says in his title poem, the music …
sang to the commuters in the station
why we must live.
From this opening salvo Garrison’s poems move deftly through all the senses, including humor. We are offered bits of fruit to lick and crunch as we are treated to a dialogue between God and Dog, in which Dog asks for a companion:
So God made Man
with hardly any sense
of smell and just two legs.
And God said to Dog.
“He has only a few words
like ‘come’ and ‘fetch,’
and he knows little of the earth
and its redolence, but let him
totter along behind you and learn.
After this he (Garrison, not God) offers us two quick and delicate sketches of birds among tree branches, suffused like Japanese paintings, with hints of season. Here is “November”:
Like black notes
on gray staves
of oak and ash,
Measure by measure,
they lade the branches,
then swirl away
in speckled clouds.
It’s churlish, of course, to hold an author too closely to any theme that might be implied by the title of his book. And yet, although a kind of transition from sense perception and image, into incident and personal anecdote takes place long about the middle of this book, I feel the collection remains quite true—even down to the food fight on page 43 – to the title’s metaphorical strength. Bach, after all, is a force not to be trifled with, and truthfully, every single piece he ever wrote had a poem in its heart and a story misting out from that poem. If, like the photo on the cover, the heart of this collection remains touched by a violin, it’s most definitely one with gut strings.
Anita Sullivan is an essayist and poet who writes about early keyboard temperaments, translation, gardening, religious philosophy and Greek islands. She has published two essay collections, a poetry chapbook and a full-length collection of poems. She is a member of the poetry-publishing collective Airlie Press, and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Review by Gail Fishman Gerwin
I WANTED A CITY
by Janet Marks
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106978
2013, 91 pp., $18.00
We read Janet Marks’s poetry with the expectation that she should have something to teach us. She has lived through the Great Depression, two world wars, a presidential assassination and a handful of assassination attempts, and moon walks. She has crossed the Y2K line, she has experienced parental love and emotional distance. She has gone through divorce and has lived in many locales: urban, rural, crisp, muddy. Indeed she has stories to share.
She has survived with the insight—fortunate for readers—to provide us with a sweeping view of her own history in context of the history of preceding generations. I Wanted a City is her first full-length collection, one that has been building since her middle years. The book’s acknowledgments run the gamut of literary journals and her work along the road to this volume earned awards, a prestigious writing residency, and ongoing accolades from colleagues.
Some of the book’s most resonant poems come from her life in San Francisco, where the poem “Small View of the Big One” takes us to “… 2 a.m., my bed/ has surged with the inhaling-exhaling earth in/ Mill Valley where small tremors haunt the countryside …” She goes on to pull us through a quake-filled day (“I think the driver is playing with the brakes” … “the Bay Bridge has split apart”) on to 5 p.m. when she spots a “black and white dog” that has “bolted through a window in shock.” The dog teeters on a ledge; she urges him to go back, go in, “but he will not go.” In four short stanzas, she addresses the fear in all of us as disaster strikes, down to one of the smaller, helpless beings who can rely only on instinct. Where can we run to escape life’s big ones? What can we do with our fears? She leaves us on the ledge with these questions; she makes us worry. We don’t know if the dog survives. A true Bay Area resident, she is almost casual with her descriptions of the horror, just another day when “houses and apartments/ built on fill are caving-in and burning” while in counterpoint her tender heart enters the psyche of a defenseless creature. We are with her in her shaking bed, we are with her on the bus, we are with her as she walks in the street. Interestingly, in this and many of her poems, Marks does not always use end-punctuation. She maintains the momentum long after the poem is finished; we provide our own periods after returning to reread.
The book’s very next poem abruptly takes Marks back to a distant time and place, to her tenancy in the womb as another trick of Nature—Texas floods—assails the rural population. She notes, “my immigrant mother/ with me in her womb/ climbs a chair/ until father comes to save us.” Deep inside her mother, she is part of the family, part of the “us” that holds it together. She ages several years within two stanza’s of this poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” to allude to her mother’s instinctual response to “my fevered brain … fetching more and more water/ with more and more pieces of herself.” Mother as protector, mother as nurturer, and in “Growing Up In The Thirties,” mother as stern guide:
she wanted me
to be a piano prodigy but intervened
between the piano & me
compelling me to give it up.
In this poem Marks reflects her generation, one where “college was inaccessible” and studying shorthand the practical path for young women.
Mother as someone distant and private, mother as an angry wife who “… raved at father as though he were to blame” for the Depression. (This father was her mother’s second husband; she lost her first love in the flu epidemic.) The poem “Seeking a Life” goes on to tell how this father borrowed money from an uncle who “never let him forget.” Marks’s mother struggles with her own secret demons, her lifetime of stoic loneliness:
forgetting two old parents she’d sailed away from
never seemed to turn back until the letter
came that her mother was gone
she went upstairs & cried alone
—“Growing Up In The Thirties”
Marks inserts some of her own isolation in this poem; she speaks of sailing into marriage and parenting and throughout the book offers glimpses of her feelings about these states In “Visiting Mother” she speaks of a marriage “cracking in ice storms.” In “A True Victorian Lady” her mother, who practiced her Judaism alone, silently lighting the candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, could not accept her daughter’s divorce and showed her distaste: “To her my words were a foreign tongue/ she picked off herself like fleas.” Despite this disapproval, Marks separates herself from the marriage, yet hints at a type of emotional reconciliation with her former husband in “Visiting Mother”: “now apart we’re kinder/ on the porch he brings our granddaughter home offers me/ his car—I walk this time.” She also lets readers know that despite her innate ability to survive as an independent woman, she misses her parents and her children. On one of her walks that populate the book, this time in Golden Gate Park, “I reach for the steel stays of my mother/ Her voice of loss grips me to her” and she imagines her father, who “comes to say there is too much rain/ on the grave where his bones whiten.” She tells us that the “children I have spawned have learned to swim alone.”
Marks, who describes herself as a wayfarer, belies generations of women who remained in sour liaisons. She comes across as a person who has gone through the funnel of hardship and disappointment yet is whole, who is satisfied with the woman she’s become, a woman unafraid to test herself in many locales. She often views these locales—and exquisitely shares the visuals with us—on foot (“and a blob of jelly quivers to my stick/ makes a hideous face at me./ I am not afraid”) or from a seat on a bus. We ride with her “downtown on the 163 Bus/ on Louisiana Street” when she spots billboards with life messages; in San Francisco she’s on the way to a Woody Allen movie by bus when the quake interfered. She climbs hills, she relishes all she encounters wherever she lives: the animal sculptures of Bufano in Sausalito, at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park pier, where she walks “near the edge of living” with “fourteen Cambodian students …”
Janet Marks has given readers the gift of her youth, the gift of geography, the gift of history, and the gift of her maturity. Yes, she has a lot to teach. She teaches us how to take routes that help us cope with what we cannot control. She teaches us how important it is to embrace the past and to see the present as adventure with no age limitations. And she teaches us how to create a work of art that combines specificity and metaphor. In “I Open My Eyes and It’s Spring,” she carries apples, eggplant, and Sunkist (oranges?) up Masonic Hill; “It’s cold without sun,” she says. Just when we become comfortable with the familiar, in the next moment we see that “the wind heaves me into the Pacific.” Where is she going? Why is she flying? Then back to a beggar at Portsmouth Square who says “all of my former lives were insane.” No insanity here, just a gift of tale. Janet Marks wanted a city and so she created a universal city that transcends any single place in this beautiful collection that mandates several readings to wrap our senses, our emotions, and our eyes around what the poet sees. I Wanted A City is a collection that needs to be read and reread.
Gail Fishman Gerwin’s poetry and reviews appear in journals including Paterson Literary Review, Lips, Caduceus, Pirene’s Fountain, Journal of New Jersey Poets, and The American Voice in Poetry. Her memoir Sugar and Sand was named a 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize finalist and her new collection Dear Kinfolk, was published in 2012. She is associate poetry editor of the journal Tiferet. A Paterson, NJ, native she lives in Morristown, NJ, and is principal of the communications firm inedit.
Review by Claudia Lundahl
WRITING POETRY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
1569 Heritage Way
Oakville, Ontario, Canada L6M 2Z7
2013, 203 pp., $20.00
Have you ever had a book fall into your life at exactly the right moment and wonder if it was somehow more than a coincidence that you fell upon it at a time when you needed it most? I have, a few times in fact, and Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s Writing Poetry to Save Your Life has been one of these incidences. I wanted to read Gillan’s book because, although I was unfamiliar with her poetry, I liked her author photo (as superficial as that may sound, it’s true) and when I did start to read her poetry, I enjoyed it immensely. It was different from any poetry I’d been reading at the time and what was immediately captivating was the way in which the poems struck me as deeply personal and intimate. This is a theme which Gillan writes about often in Writing Poetry to Save Your Life. She emphasizes the need to be personal in your writing and to bear your soul; to expose yourself even if it feels like being stripped naked. In the introduction to this book Gillan writes of it, “It is a way of jumpstarting your creativity; it is a way to get permission to tell your secrets, to write your stories. It is a book about process, rather than craft.” If this were Gillan’s goal in writing this work to get us to jumpstart our creativity and prompt us to tell our secrets, I would have to declare it, from my personal reading and interpretation of it, an enormous success.
This book, though not a poetry anthology, is in every way as enjoyable to read as her poetry. Gillan has a way with words and her prose in this book is a testament to the diversity of her skill. While reading Writing Poetry I didn’t feel like I was listening to someone who felt as though they had the authority to teach me how to write just because they had succeeded in doing so themselves. Instead, I found myself, after reading the first few sentences on the first page, extremely open to the writing and receptive to what she was offering. I trusted Gillan and it was surprising to me how comforted I felt by her words.
She writes, “What you need is paper, a pen, and the willingness to take risks.” It may seem odd that this simple advice had such a profound impact on my thinking and even prompted me to change the way I had been thinking about my own writing. I often find it hard to risks, in life in general and in my writing in particular, but as I continued reading I felt as though Gillan were next to me, whispering in my ear to be bolder, dig deeper, exhume the rotting remains of half-formed thoughts that had been buried under my insecurities. I saw that my doubt concerning my ability to write something moving was what was holding me back from writing things I really needed to write about. And how can I be sure I’m writing about what I need to write about and not just writing what I think qualifies as ‘good poetry?’ Gillan advices, “Your instincts know more about what you need to write than anyone who exists outside of your skin.”
She advices her reader to dispel of any notions about making their work suitable for publication, about writing poetry that will appeal to others without taking any personal risks, without delving into the heart.
I call it poetry for cowards. I call it sausage poetry, poetry that is interchangeable and cranked out of MFA programs across the country. It is totally recognizable for what it is—a product to be marketed. It is poetry that wears deodorant and is guaranteed not to offend.
Here Gillan suggests that there must be something gritty about the poetry we write, a reflection of that part of ourselves that we might not be so willing to show the world at first but we must if we’re to be courageous enough to show the world who we really are as people, as writers, as daughters, as lovers, as friends, as husbands and wives or whatever we may be. It’s a truth not so easily accepted but it’s a necessary one if we’re to continue.
The book is subtitled “How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories” and Gillan writes often about her personal experiences and how having lived her life shaped her writing so that it couldn’t be possibly be anything other than unique. She writes about the need to make your writing personal and confessional, to draw from our lived experiences because in that way a poem becomes something that identifies you, a mirror image of your soul. She encourages us to be specific, even if it’s an idea that seems counterintuitive when hoping to affect people we may never have even met, people we may never meet. Reading Gillan’s poetry though is evidence of how the specifics in her writing connect us to her, help us to trust her, and believe her when she prompts us to do the same.
Gillan’s outlined in Writing Poetry to Save Your Live a syllabus for any MFA Program I would want to attend. The book is suggestive without being so ambitious as to produce any kind of anxiety. She doesn’t talk about writing in a way that makes it seem as though a writer even has the option of failing. Her confidence in each of her readers is contagious and frankly, quite refreshing. Her book is aimed to help us achieve our best writing, yes, but it’s also aimed at helping us become the best version of ourselves.
Claudia Lundahl lives and writes in New York. During the day she works in book publishing and in her free time, she writes. Her writing has appeared in iO: Journal of New American Poetry and elsewhere. She is currently writing her first novel.
Reviewed by Gregg Mosson
by Patric Pepper
35 Circle View Drive
Elysburg, PA 17824
2010, 60 pp., $10
In Greek mythology, the iron-worker god Hephaestus walked around as a brawny, hulking and deformed figure, yet hammered out the finest metalwork and weaponry in the known world. Out of heat, fire, and dirty toil, he forged the brilliant Shield of Achilles, as described in detail in Homer’s Iliad. The modern shield, depicted by British poet W.H. Auden in his post-World War II poem, “The Shield of Achilles,” bitterly showcases a modern wasteland. Patric Pepper, of Washington, D.C., and also Cape Cod, has achieved a startling feat himself: turning his 32-year career as an industrial engineer into compelling and contemporary metrical poetry in his expanded chapbook. Zoned Industrial is not heroic, like the divine shield in Homer. Nor is it bitterly disappointed, as in Auden. Rather Zoned Industrial offers a pragmatic view of a professional navigating the compromises and concerns of modern American life.
Pepper’s focus in his poems on broader contexts as well as exacting detail make his journey told here personal as well as ring true to any reader who’s experienced the hodgepodge of the workplace (humorous, random, insightful, fortunate, and annoying). Each episode in Pepper’s engineering career—from production to meetings to commuting to lunchtime to Sunday respite—appear in well-crafted metrical poetry. The rhyme mostly sounds contemporary. Forms are pleasingly varied. Simply put, Zoned Industrial will appeal to non-readers and readers of crafted poetry alike through its smooth form and well-observed common subjects.
In Zoned Industrial’s title poem, the bare “December woods” rustle and glint outside the factory, reminding the poet of “non-durable goods/ of the non-manned/ natural land.” These woods might indict the industrial factory—yet the “oaks rock and creak,/ and all but speak.” In the end, nature is silent. Nature does not “speak.” Yet the “rock and creak” of the oaks “all but” spark the human conscience to reflect on the disharmony between nature’s grace and our man-made clatter. Zoned Industrial frames this dilemma in poem after poem. However, the poems never take a stance.
Later in a poem “Landscape,” which takes place in a “midnight dumping ground” of woods “behind the industrial park,” the poet reflects, in the end, that he should praise “such gritty grace,” because “nature is not bitter.” There is a certain truth to that remark. As the doves whirl in “Landscape,” and the poet looks up to the sky, the poet recalls that nature, however much “junk” is dumped in the woods, is larger, and still permits a glimpse of grace. Keep looking, says this poetry, at least implicitly. Don’t get swallowed up. The chapbook as a whole, by continually featuring unspoiled nature and the clear blue sky in contrast to American consumer-industrial culture, frames the issue as tension, not conclusion. Pepper’s silence is not as assured as Frost’s, for instance, who in poems like “Christmas Trees,” turns his back on the mercantile world. Nevertheless, “Provide, Provide.”
Zoned Industrial focuses on this tension throughout the journey of the chapbook’s everyman-poet speaker. In “So,” the speaker gets a promotion only to find his first encounter with the boss is comically vulgar. Yet the speaker has been promoted—pay and all—and, “So what,” he says, “So what.” In “The Bosses,” the speaker notes that they are all “just five guys thrown together.” Yet the speaker later remarks, “I love these guys/ but I would never tell them.” He tells us, though, in the poem. As for the tension between nature and industry, this everyman-poet is not romantic; he does not see himself as a world-changer, and chooses to live a professional life without giving up his ability to appreciate nature or have empathy (see “Sunday Poet,” “Blue Skies,” and “Idle Thoughts at Lunchtime”). In the end, the poet is an outsider who needs the world far more than the average person needs a poet.
Personally, this position falls short for me. A poetic sense, for instance, probably animates our green builders and environmental entrepreneurs. Each person can support this more harmonic industrial direction with purchasing power. In “An Invitation to the Factory”—a poem that sums up an entire era—Pepper implies what he does not conclude: Society is tending where we want it to. I quote in full:
Come have a look.
See how the world is made.
Put down your manufactured book.
We’re building circuit boards
for the human hordes.
They’re spun from sand and ore and oil,
your pleasure the measure of our toil.
Come see the crew
bang out their shift tonight,
the managed hullaballoo
here in the thundering plant.
Don’t say you can’t
Please. Please, see your world is made.
Come see your orders are obeyed.
I like this poem. First, it astutely places the force behind the existence of factories, industrial life, and consumer culture on us all. Second, as anyone who has worked in a factory or office knows, this man-made world offers a mixed blessing. In Antler’s excellent poem Factory (City Lights Books), factories are our self-devastation. In Patric Pepper’s “Invitation,” the blessing is an implied appreciation of productive power. This appreciation is implied, I believe, in the end of “Invitation” where the poem praises, and warns, that we make our own world.
Technically there is much to admire here. First, the poem offers intriguing verbal music through varied, short punchy lines. The first stanza surprises with the rhyme change from B to C, when one expects A B A B. (The poem rhymes A, B, A, C, C, D, D). The lower sound of “boards” / “hordes” in the C-rhyme couplet shifts the tone to ominous. Further, that couplet comes in the middle rather than at the end of the poem, against expectation. These counter-rhythms help make effective metrical poetry. I also enjoy the precise description of the factory: “the managed hullabaloo/ here in the thundering plant.” Four well-chosen words communicate a huge scene. If there is any technical flaw in “Invitation,” it’s the last two lines. They don’t sound as contemporary. Maybe the phrase “your pleasure the measure” is archaic.
Raintown Review editor Quincy R. Lehr has noted how much new formalist work—American metrical poetry written since the 1980s—suffers from a conservative nostalgia, a “when Rome was Rome, and Greece was Greece” mentality for some yearned-for bygone era. Patric Pepper’s Zoned Industrial, in contrast, speaks colloquially in meter about today. It addresses these subjects with consideration and intelligence. It is a confessional book that offers a window to the world.
In conclusion, Zoned Industrial is one of the best collections of contemporary formal verse that I’ve read. While the first half of the book is strongest, this 40-page chapbook avoids a lot of filler in today’s ever-expanding full-length collections, and presents solid and sometimes startlingly good poems, page upon page.
Gregg Mosson is the author of two books of poetry, Questions of Fire (Plain View, 2009) and Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River, 2007). His poetry, literary criticism, and reviews have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Potomac Review, Smartish Pace, Unsplendid, Loch Raven Review, and previously in Rattle. He lives in Maryland with his family.
Review by Christopher Moran
By A.E. Stallings
Northwestern University Press
629 Noyes St.
Evanston, IL 60208
2012, 80 pp., $19.95
A.E. Stallings has established herself firmly between the realms of traditional poetry and modern life. In an age of experimentation and poetic extremes it may be tempting to scorn her loyalty to form, but do not be fooled: Stallings is not merely parroting the voice and form of the Grecian classics, but rather putting new wine in old bottles. Her poems honor the form and tone of her predecessors while placing modern life at the center of the classical lens.
Olives is her third book, after Archaic Smile and Hapax. The back cover contains a poem that shares a title with the book and is the first poem in the collection. Though it may resemble her previous publications at first glance, Stallings makes new meaning by playing with and rearranging a single piece of language. The title “Olives” becomes a question as the word contorts in its anagrammatic repetitions (“Is love/ so evil?”), and changes to represent her formal strategy (“I love so/ I solve”).
“Olives” preludes the tone of the work: “Sometimes a craving comes for something salt, not sweet.” Many of her poems carry a sense of foreboding—of delicacies “pickled in a vat of tears,” as the poem puts it. But the metaphor goes beyond this level of melodrama.
Of toothpicks maybe, drowned beneath a tide
Of vodka and vermouth,
Rocking at the bottom of a wide,
Shallow, long-stemmed glass, and gentrified,
Or rustic, on a plate cracked like a tooth …
She places the martini, normally positioned in a higher social space, next to the cracked country plate which is better suited for home than it is for presentation. The olive becomes a metaphor for the poetry: it is consumed by both the upper and lower classes for pleasure and for sustenance. And so should poetry, the poem seems to be claiming. Stallings continues to evoke the delicious taste of country olives and wine, and ends on a note that perhaps is an attempt to present her take on the classic form to the reader: “These fruits are mine—/ Small bitter drupes/ Full of the golden past and cured in brine.”
Stallings breaks the book into four named sections, a trend that I meet with some trepidation. There is some subtitling and explaining that occurs in grouping poems together, such as with the section ‘The Argument.’ While it is nice to have a connecting theme and an event to allude to, it also makes it more difficult to connect certain poems to their echoes in other parts of the book.
In another poem, “Burned,” Stallings unabashedly accepts her missteps and even uses them to create some startling and funny imagery. “You cannot unburn what is burned./ Although you scrape the ruined toast,/ You can’t go back. It’s time you learned.” To me, this household blunder perfectly evokes the idea of an irreversible mistake. Perhaps it does not match the gravity of a personal tragedy, but with those words the reader can feel the desperation of striking a burned piece of toast with a knife as if trying to redeem the unscathed bread. No. The toast is burned. It is what it is.
The poems in the second section draw the reader closer to a more personal world. One of the most startling pieces is “Extinction of Silence.” The way that she anthropomorphizes silence, in this case into a bird, is quite fitting. “Where legend has it some once common bird/ Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.” The image circles around to the idea that silence is dead. The amount of information that a person receives in modern times, even in the most remote corners of the world, is overwhelming. The entire planet and all of its contents are spilling in constantly, and everyday life can no longer be the same. Perhaps it was never truly peaceful and stagnant, as “silence” is often eluded to as an idealistic vision and not an attainable state.
Silence also stands in for other facets of the world that are vanishing, as she references museum exhibits and preserved remains: “Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed/ And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.” That we do not notice silence is also to understand that we do not notice when something is missing from the world. We cannot know the creatures that are extinct beyond our time, or those dying outside of our perception. The poem gives the reader a sense that we are grasping for perspective, but the more we see, the more desperate and lonely we become.
The third section is dedicated to the lore surrounding Psyche in Greek mythology and inspired theater. The legend refers to the sister who becomes romantically involved with Cupid, whose identity must remain unknown. At the goading of her sisters, she demands his identity and he reveals himself, only to be forced to abandon her. After her struggles with death and the gods, she eventually perishes, but Cupid defies the will of Venus and Jupiter brings her to become immortal, allowing the two to be together.
A familiarity with this particular mythos aids the impact of these pieces, as Stallings utilizes Dramatis personæ to great effect. The first in the trio creates an accusation from one sister and then creates a counterpoint by inverting the lines and changing only some punctuation. A line, “You dared not look. A human voice,/ You thought. You never had a choice,” is later echoed, “You thought you never had a choice, you dared not. Look, a human voice.”
The three pieces capture the progress of this myth, and the last poem comes a little closer to a modern persona, with meditations on birth, marriage, and the plight of womanhood.
The last section is the most intimate, with direct references to family and life immediate to the speaker’s home. Most notable to me is the reoccurring presence of a son, a child, through which the world is seen and explored, as in the short poem “Hide and Seek.” The boy imagines himself as a shadow simply by shutting his eyes. His mother is both amused and startled by this: “I laughed and kissed him, though it chilled me a little,/ How still he stood, giving darkness his shape.” The poem, though brief, captures so many of the fears of parenting and of humanity. The child is pretending to be darkness, accepting the metaphor of restricted vision, and his mother admires the power of his imagination. But at the same time she fears this power and its possibility to lead to darkness.
The “darkness” also alludes to greater evils. She worries that the child may pretend to be something far nastier, or that even in the act of pretending he may take on the qualities of darkness. He stands on the verge of transforming from a child to an adult, positioned between innocence and malice. He is reaching the point of defining himself and the speaker is being faced with an inability to affect the child’s ultimate fate. She feels trapped on the outside of her son, shut out by the squeezing of those eyes. It is a mixed feeling that in a moment captures all the fears and wonders of raising a child.
The boy, or another boy, perhaps, appears in “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three,” and contains another startling moment. The child is in love with the story of Peter and the Wolf, and the song itself, “Balanced between the thrill of fear and fear.” He insists that his mother listen to the song and explain the story it tells each time it plays. This is business as usual until the speaker wearies of his antics:
And weary of the question and the classic,
I ask him where the wolf is. With grave logic
He answers me, “The wolf is in the music.”
And so it is. Just then, out of the gloom
The cymbal menaces, the French horns loom.
And the music is loose. The music is in the room.
Again it is the ability of the new generation to draw the wild and the dangerous out of the tired and the oblique. He discovers a raw power within a classic song that the speaker finds played out and opens a window to the reader to find the wolf within the old music. The new life in old songs and the creature lurking in between the lines us both threatening and exciting.
Stallings captures so many of these moments that it can be a little bit of a let-down when a cliché rears its head, but then they may be a matter of taste and belong to the texture of Stallings’ book. There is a delight in rhymes and motions of language she uses that other poets have abandoned in favor of startling formats and abstract explorations. Stallings manages to write poetry that reads, without a doubt, like poetry. “Olives” speaks to the human reader whether they live antiquity, or in the 21st century and beyond.
Like her use of form, I find that the shape of her books may be deceiving. When I first picked up Olives, it bore such a similar feel to her second book, Hapax, that I began to look for the same brushstrokes. But there is new life in here, new sounds and exciting moments that readers will be able to explore again and again. Stallings’ work as a poet continues strong and I am eager to see where she takes it next. Olives is a book that dares the reader to dig through the old attic of poetry and discover a new energy and meaning.
Christopher Moran is in his third year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ MFA Poetry program. His works and interests span literature from short form poetry to doorstopper novels. (firstname.lastname@example.org)