Review by Cati Porter
CHAINS & MIRRORS
by Alex Grant
North Carolina Writers' Network
25 pp., $6.95
Alex Grant is a native Scot currently living in North Carolina. His manuscript, Chains & Mirrors, won the 2006 Randell Jarrell/Harperprints poetry contest and was recently awarded the Oscar Arnold Young Award by the Poetry Council of North Carolina for most outstanding book of poetry published that year. He has been the recipient of a Pavel Srut Poetry Fellowship, first place winner of the 2006 Kakalak Carolina Poets Anthology contest, and was selected for inclusion in this year's Best New Poets Anthology (University of Virginia Press).
A slender, perfect-bound volume containing twenty-one poems, two thirds of the poems collected here were either finalists or honorable mentions for some noteworthy poetry awards such as the Discovery/The Nation (2005 and 2006), Nimrod's Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize (2005), and the Arts & Letters Rumi Poetry Prize (2006).
Chains & Mirrors takes as its epigraph a stanza from the Robert Penn Warren poem, Tell Me a Story. It reads:
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
In the acknowledgments Grant thanks Warren for this "posthumous thunderbolt," for this is the thread upon which the book is constructed. Each of the poems here tell a story, drawing inspiration primarily from historical and religious subjects. Included among them are poems about Jesus, Neruda, Emperor Qinshihuang, Gilles de la Tourette, Li Po, and Lillian Gish. Though varying in approach from poem to poem, the collection is unified by a consistent tone, a developed voice that is even and measured, clean, precise diction, and lines that are not padded with unnecessary words.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines doggerel as "crudely or irregularly fashioned verse". Far from being crude or irregular, these poems are meticulously crafted: lean, sturdy, and interesting, and at times mysterious, almost mystical.
The book is divided into two sections: Bones & Confetti and Bodies & Water. The first opens with the poem Black Moon:
I watch him drag the boat across
the scree, over the dry doggerel
of mackerel scales and filament
of a season ended, to the water.
The sand flays the last flakes
of paint from the boat's hull,
splash and crack at the confluence
of stone and water, and he is out
beyond the waves, where fishbones
glint like small suns in a black mirror,
and the splay of the Pelican's wing
stitches the sea to the sky. Brine-
bleached hands haul the sodden creel
above the gunwales, and there again
is the gaping child-shaped hole,
sawn by the snapping-turtle's teeth,
ragged-cut and impossible to mend.
Did I say that the turtle is guided
by ambient moonlight? So, the wolf
howls. The waves gnaw at the shore.
Bones and light are mixed with water.
Bones and light mixed with water. This is the heart of the collection: the appropriation of artifacts, their reconstitution into poetic form, the result being the illumination of the present through resurrection of the past.
Grant writes poetry that is rhythmically astute, equally at ease hammering along an iambic line or in free verse. Additionally, he displays an interest in the work of the Haiku Masters. In His Holiness the Abbot is Shitting in the Withered Fields, he incorporates Haiku both by including it as the title--after Haiku by Buson--and by inserting Haiku into the body of the poem:
So, 7 days bereaved, Issa made his father's
death poem: "A bath when you're born,
a bath when you die--how stupid."
Ekphrastic works are also included in the collection, but because of Grant's penchant for history they transcend mere description. In one, an ekphrasis after the 1936 photograph by Brassai, The Steps of Montmartre, Grant weaves a dozen or so references that locate the photograph in proper historical context:
.... Through the tunnel
formed by the parting trees,
battalions of lamp-posts advance
and retreat in the morning mizzle
clamp chain-link handrails hard
into sunwashed cobbles. In less
than a year, the corpseless heads
on Nanking's walls will coalesce
with Guernica's ruined heart, mal
du siecle will become Weltschmerz,
and the irresistible symmetry
of a million clacking bootheels
will deafen half a continent.
The red brush never dries -
The majority of the poems in Chains & Mirrors are indeed chained to, and mirroring, the past. But the present is not without representation here, as exampled by the amusing, satirical Poetry Final, which takes aim at academic workshop culture in a series of faux writing prompts.
Part five of this poem asks that the poet:
Establish a seamless association between
the following: an executioner's birthday party,
fractal geometry, attention deficit disorder.
Result must be tacitly non-judgmental,
and be suitable for a sixth grade audience.
The poem culminates in a bonus section that requests that you "substantiate your findings".
Though this collection is indeed chapbook length, it is not insubstantial. Image-rich, leavened with parceled out wit, these poems have been carefully chosen to form a cohesive whole rather than a random sampling of a poet's best work.
On the back cover of the book there is a blurb by Thomas Lux: "Chains & Mirrors is a powerful and stunningly imaginative book that announces a hell of a good new poet!"
I couldn't say it any better myself.
Cati Porter's poems have been anthologized in White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood (Demeter Press), Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel--Second Floor (No Tell Books), and Letters to the World (Red Hen Press). More poems and book reviews can be found online in Galatea Resurrects, kaleidowhirl, mamazine, Literary Mama, and Poetry Southeast, among others. She is the author of a chapbook, small fruit songs (Pudding House Publications, forthcoming in 2008), and edits the online journal Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry. Visit her on the web at catiporter.wordpress.com.