September 21, 2018

Conrad Geller

ELEMENTAL INTELLIGENCE

What interests me now is how a raindrop
nibbles down the windowpane, as if
a forager. First left, then right it feints,
then holds still, contemplating when to make
the next, best move, then coursing down the pane
in seeming triumph. It’s only elements,
with maybe a bit of dust to hold it firm,
but yet it seems to show as much intent
as you do when I watch you getting lunch.
I strain to hear a squeak or caterwaul,
as it noses down without a nose at all.

from Rattle #60, Summer 2018

__________

Conrad Geller: “I can’t help writing poems; my thoughts have just been coming out that way since Harry Truman was president. Sometimes I try to be contemporary and write free verse, but the lines usually twist themselves into iambs.”

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September 18, 2014

Conrad Geller

AND HAVE I LOVED YOU?

And have I loved you long enough by now?
A nod, a touch, our portion is all spent,
but that is what the grudging years allow.

No one can make an everlasting vow
to love, since only meager time is lent.
So, have I loved you long enough by now?

Experience alone does not endow
strong spirit in a mortal element,
but that is all the grudging years allow.

There is no axiom to teach us how
to bear the mystery of slow descent.
Can I have loved you long enough by now?

Only the trembling hand, the withered brow
remain to show us where the music went,
but that is all the grudging years allow.

In spite of everything, then, let us bow,
begin the dance, defying precedent,
for I have loved you long and long by now,
no matter what the grudging years allow.

from Rattle #43, Spring 2014
Tribute to Love Poems

__________

Conrad Geller: “I stopped wanting to be a basketball player and started wanting to be a poet when, at twelve, I found a ten-cent copy of some Poe poems in a used bookstore. How did he do that? Why couldn’t I make something similar out of the bits of language rushing around up there? Well, I found out I couldn’t, not like that, but I have been trying ever since.”

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June 28, 2013

Conrad Geller

THE DESTINATION

The path the old man walked to the Final Place
was dimly lighted, treacherous underfoot
with crusty snow glittering in the moonlight.
The perfect snow for sledding, he remembered.
The night was chilly, but he had a coat
and, anyway, had never minded weather.

He thought of all the pleasures he had passed,
cream cheese, hot cocoa, delicate flaky pastry,
other January nights ablaze with stars.

He did not blame the keepers, who were kind,
nor the hard necessity that made the rule
of making way for children who were coming,
but would have liked some music with the meals
or, all in all, some pictures on the walls.

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
Tribute to Speculative Poetry

__________

Conrad Geller: “I have been writing poems since Harry Truman was president, maybe before that. The problem is, I can’t stop writing them. My pleasure in poetry comes not from expressing myself (who would care?), but from playing with language—its sounds, rhythms, and the reverberations of its words.”

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June 5, 2013

Review by Conrad GellerThe Rigid Body by Gabriel Spera

THE RIGID BODY
by Gabriel Spera

The Ashland Poetry Press
Ashland University
Ashland, Ohio 44805
ISBN 1-933880-32-5
2012, 69 pp., $16.00
www.ashlandpoetrypress.com

For me, the experience of reading good poetry has always been strangely like falling in love. The onset of either one is equally mysterious and unexpected, and when it happens, everything changes. As with love, too, I always wonder whether my reaction to a real poem comes from the object itself or internally, from some sort of magic powder sprinkled on my sleeping eyelids before I awoke. Maybe, I think, this is just a moment when I’m ready for a poem.

In any case, I found myself reading Gabriel Spera’s The Rigid Body with a growing excitement, maybe not, frankly, as ardent as the excitement of first love, but enough for this fading body to accommodate safely. Here, I thought, is finally a real poet, one who cares about both language and feeling.

For example, the first poem in this slim presentation, “Apricots,”  is full of surprises and delights. He says of the ripe fruit that it “flumps to the ground” and lies with “its zither of meddling flies.” The poem itself,  in regularly iambic, rhyming quatrains, follows the fruit from ripening to picking—climbing to them “on toddling ladder feet”—to the “sweet stench” of the canning.

Spera is generally comfortable with traditional forms, a rare enough feature in any contemporary verse.  There is even a  Shakespearean sonnet, “Sonnet (with Children),” a light piece that doesn’t aspire to the heft of the form’s eponymous creator. I was surprised, also, to find a visual poem, “Sisyphus,” in which the lines are arranged to form a geometric figure, in the manner of George Herbert and, more recently, Dylan Thomas.

For the most part, the poet pays close attention to rhythm, cadence, sound quality. When he rhymes, he shows a remarkable ear, mixing strict rhymes with experiments like “parts – thoughts” and “full – possible.” The overall impression I get is that the poet is easy enough with the traditions of his art to tweak them a little.

Many of the poems provide a close observation of the natural world. Topics include crabs, worms, bedbugs, opossums  and the California desert in bloom, brilliantly described:

… through low-slung hills
smothered in a dense slather of wildflowers, hills
like ocean swells slicked with sunset or an algal bloom—

The narratives are another matter. In a few poems, the poet participates in what seems the current fashion of describing suffering in almost pornographic detail. “The Community,” for example, depicts the prolonged gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl, and in “Dark Night” the narrator gives a first-person account of systematic torture. In another poem, “The Forsaken Cry,” Spero comments on cruelty but doesn’t describe it, echoing Auden’s, “The Fall of Icarus”:

About torture, they were all wrong,
The old masters, …

The poet’s unwavering eye doesn’t blink at ugly description, either. In “At the Medical Waxworks at Bologna,” the topic is a museum of childbirth grotesqueries, including:

… child
half born, a cough shy of original sin,
a triple coil of pale umbilical cord
tendrilled around the neck.

The narratives tend to be more like music videos than conventional stories. They offer a rush of seemingly discordant images that somehow make sense. In only one, “Body Worlds,” was I lost in the whirl of images and never  completely found my way out.

I like these poems best, however, when they are about what the poet loves. The ones about children reveal both an understanding and delight in them. The sonnet already mentioned shows a funny mix of love and annoyance at the demands of a child:

My love is like a deep and placid lake …
Not now, sweetie, Daddy’s busy, OK?

My favorite of the light poems is “The Goose in the Bottle,” which retells an Aesop fable as an interaction between a father and his little girl, who has put a flower into a water can and can’t get it out.

The longest poem in this collection, and my overall favorite, is “Studies for a Portrait,”  a frank love poem. In seven parallel sections, the poem looks at the woman’s attributes (“Consider her ability to sleep …”) with the same close observation that the poet spends on moths and birds. The result is one of the brightest and most moving love poems of recent times.

All right. I have to admit that the rush of love isn’t much like the rush of poetry, with different content and quite different expected outcomes. But The Rigid Body has given me new hope that poetry is indeed not dead, and that there may yet be new ways of looking at a blackbird.

__________

Conrad Geller has reviewed books, plays, films and especially poetry in a long career. He is also a poet himself, his work having appeared most recently in Rattle #38.

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March 10, 2013

Review by Conrad GellerDINE-RITE: BREAKFAST POEMS by Louis Daniel Brodsky

DINE-RITE: BREAKFAST POEMS
by Louis Daniel Brodsky

Time Being Books
10411 Clayton Rd.
St. Louis, MO
ISBN  978-1-56809-125-9
2008, 96 pp., $15.95
www.timebeing.com

The diner, along with the strip tease and the minstrel show, is one of America’s few original art forms. For that reason, I generally invite my foreign visitors to a diner, not an elegant restaurant, for a genuine American experience. My motive here may be parsimony, but not entirely. What I hope to show them at the diner are bedrock Americans, plain, abundant food, a gigantic menu, and a working-class atmosphere. Classic diners, mostly the old ones, the ones that really look like railroad cars, fully represent the essential grittiness, egalitarianism, and friendliness that we like to think are the best of what we are. The best representation of diner culture is probably the classic 1983 film Diner.

So with vivid memories of my breakfasts at the Mount Kisco Diner in New York I opened Louis Daniel Brodsky’s 62nd book of verse, Dine-Rite: Breakfast Poems. (That’s right: 62 books of verse, in addition to scholarly works on Faulkner, prose fiction, and assorted other tomes; Mr. Brodsky has apparently been a busy man.) What I found there was some striking language and interesting ideas but otherwise not much to delight the taste of the inner man.

Dine-Rite belongs to the genre of ensemble description/narrative possibly begun with Chaucer but best represented in modern American poetry by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which chronicled the mostly bleak lives of residents of a small town nearly a hundred years ago.  A well-known prose example of the genre is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, with its celebration of the “twisted apples” of human nature.

Neither of these earlier works is  laudatory toward its human subjects, and neither is this volume. The diner itself, set in an unnamed Texas town, is dirty and rickety, subject to sewage floods and rodent invasions. Its main recurring character, John Marks, the owner of the restaurant, is a corpulent, stingy Baptist preacher who conducts loud, daily Bible discussions in his establishment over his greasy pork and eggs.

Waitresses, strangely, are among the few named characters in the book: Dolly, Rita, Junee.  Some of their stories get told—Gina, who glumly refuses to dress in Christmas finery,  and Nelda, who dies unmourned and almost unnoticed in the ladies room. Maybe the prominence of waitresses here reflects their importance in the ambiance of real-life diners.

Too often, however, the patrons of the diner are seen only as members of a group. Mainly there is Preacher Marks’ retinue, loud and intrusive, but we see also some coaches from the nearby Catholic high school, with their blunt jockiness and interminable sex talk, a group of golf-playing Jews, looking down their hooked noses at the other patrons. There are groups of firemen, groups of painters, and a few loners leading their expected bleak, desperate lives. Stereotype follows stereotype in what the poet calls  “… the entire cast of the human drama.”

Such weary expectedness of phrasing is finally what limits this book, as poetry and as fiction.  We hear that Marks looks like “a pregnant hippo.” We have to slog through prosy passages like,

This eatery and its counterparts, nationwide,
Are responsible for maintaining America’s reputation
As a pressure cooker of cultural diversity …

and

This wondrous place never ceases to amaze,
Serve up a cornucopia of gastonomic delights
Of the dessert variety …

that test our understanding of the line between poetry and unimaginative prose.

A diner is primarily, in Brodsky’s word, an “eatery,” so it’s rewarding to find some fulsome catalogs of food, especially in “Easy as Pie,” “After Church,” and “Four-Day Weekend” ( … his corned-beef hash,/ His three-egg, three-cheese omelet,/ His three cornmeal muffins with strawberry jelly,/ His three-cup pot of high-octane brew … ”). None of it comes close to the voluminous description of a country breakfast in, say, Look Homeward, Angel, but some of it does convey that sense of fullness, even distressing over-fullness, that seem to be part of the American diner experience.

I haven’t read any of Brodsky’s other 61 books of verse, so I can’t judge him fairly as a poet. In this book, however, he creates a striking world of hypocrisy and desperation, but he just doesn’t sing about it.

__________

Conrad Geller has reviewed books, plays, films and especially poetry in a long career. He is also a poet himself, his work having appeared most recently in Rattle #38.

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February 5, 2013

Review by Conrad GellerDarkening the Grass by Michael Miller

DARKENING THE GRASS
by Michael Miller

CavanKerry Press
6 Horizon Road, #2901
Fort Lee, NJ  07024
ISBN 978-1-933880-32-7
2012, $16.00
www.cavankerrypress.org

To parody a well-known phrase, “I’ve been young and I’ve been old; young is better.”

Michael Miller’s second volume of poetry, Darkening the Grass, stands defiantly for reality and against those cheerful boosters who would sweeten the terrors of old age and death with euphemisms like “golden age,” “senior citizen,” and “final resting place.” Like Miller, I’m in my eighth decade, and I can second his dark vision of the octogenarian state. Growing old, as my doctor told me when I complained about it, is a bitch.

Many of the poems in this volume are not easy to take. In “The Swimmer,” for example, unflinching physical detail about rape (“His moonlit body/ Covered you. His hand gripped a knife/ And his palm pressed on the mattress/ As he worked himself into you.”) is superimposed on the quiet image of the speaker’s beloved swimming in a pond, “Surrounded by a fence of cattails.”

All the poems are intensely personal. In the first part, they are told from a first-person perspective, dealing primarily with a long relationship between the speaker and a beloved woman. Unnamed, called only “you,” she is seen with tenderness and pity, not desire. “Cutting an Orange” turns an almost microscopic lens on an ordinary domestic act, then suddenly pulls back to reveal a universe filled with the obligations of love:

If I can love this orange, what heights,
What horizons can I aspire to?
Can we eat it together,
Facing each other in Massachusetts
With nothing else between us?

Love is a continuing theme here, but it is not the dominating one. Impending death is. A character even older than the poet, Old Bill, dominates Part II. Old Bill’s experience reveals the ongoing nightmare of physical disintegration: “No longer can he bend/ far enough to cut/ His yellowed toenails that/ Wear holes into his socks.” Among Bill’s fears is that his aging wife will die first, leaving him no ballast for his foundering body. In that event, “ Old Bill will swallow/ The pills he hoards/ With a life-emptying act/ Entirely his own.”

Even in Part III, which is about war and its suffering, Miller returns to his theme. “Listening at the VFW” presents a robust survivor of the Pacific War, 85 years old, to whom the poet drinks, “Afraid to tell him/ Anything, knowing/ He has heard it all.” Part III may contain the best poems in this volume, depicting not only the suffering of war but also the strong bond of its warriors. Unlike the ancient war epics in which soldiers die but rarely suffer, Miller’s combat poetry shows pain and the terror of dying. These poems remind me of maybe the best book to come out of World War II, Peter Bowman’s Beach Red (1945), a verse novel that covers the last hour, minute by minute, of a soldier taking part in an island assault. I remember that as a boy I thrilled to the line, “They closed his life’s book and sat on the cover,” a metaphor that, among other things, turned me on to poetry.

The longest poem in the book, “The Wolf,” presents an extended metaphor of the terror of death:

The wolf sits on his bed,
Its eyes reveal nothing
Of truth, of lies,
As he watches it draw closer.
Smells its breath of ashes
And clover, hears its heart
Drumming his name.

The metaphorical wolf in this poem lives in darkness, kept partly in abeyance by birth, sex and natural beauty, but it always “waits for the dark to return.”

The best poetry needs intensity and imagery, certainly, but it also needs a freshness of language, and this is where Miller occasionally nods. Sometimes he falls into the merely expected (the cat-killed bird is a “red-stained quarry”; an old man going to a nursing home is “dragged/ Like a fish on a hook”; a hawk is “a kite without string”). Sometimes the phrasing is simply awkward (“the forced, dark tunnels of his trousers,” “summer-laden air”).

In all, however, this is a rewarding book of verse, carefully crafted, generally avoiding the tempting pitfalls of free verse, and discovering moments of sensual delight, like:

. . . the long-stemmed lily still climbing
Its invisible ladder of light
and of permanent love, like
She brings him cut flowers,
Arranges them in a vase beside his bed,
Then kisses him lightly, lightly
As a butterfly upon his lips.

__________

Conrad Geller has reviewed books, plays, films and especially poetry in a long career. He is also a poet himself, his work having appeared most recently in Rattle #38.

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March 19, 2011

Conrad Geller

THE COYOTE IN THE GRAVEYARD

I know you, those eyes, that furtive skulk.
I know why you have come, partly to mock
The mourners with their stones, partly to see
A curious ceremony. You are small,
Obviously starving. Your coat is bad.
You have no reason for that arrogance
Because, in spite of fortune, we are the living,
We have come here of our own accord.

But in the silence after everyone is gone
I know you, loping in and out
With your inventory nose, making acquaintance
With new members, comforting the old,
Holding your own service, noting the innocence
With which the other mourners said their prayers.

from Rattle #17, Summer 2002

__________

Conrad Geller: “For more than 50 years poetry has both sharpened and validated even my most ordinary experiences. Its forms make at least a little sense out of otherwise chaotic experiences. Its forms make at least a little sense out of an otherwise chaotic universe, and its music has always invited me to sing along.”

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