May 20, 2013

Review by Anita SullivanPlaying Bach in th DC Metro by David Lee Garrison

by David Lee Garrison

Browser Books Publishing
2195 Fillmore St.
San Francisco , CA 94115
ISBN: 9780982850169
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,
grackles gather.

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.

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October 30, 2012

Review by David Lee GarrisonDance in the Street by Jared Carter

by Jared Carter

Wind Publications
600 Overbrook Drive
Nicholasville, KY 40356
ISBN: 978-1-936138-27-2
2012, 100 pp., $15.00

One of the greatest gifts of Jared Carter’s poetry is his vision of everyday things, as in this last poem of his fifth book:


At every hand there are moments we
cannot quite grasp or understand. Free

to decide, to interpret, we watch rain
streaking down the window, the drain

emptying, leaves blown by a cold wind.
At least we sense a continuity in

such falling away. But not with snow.
It is forgetfulness, what does not know,

has nothing to remember in the first place.
Its purpose is to cover, to leave no trace…

The poem tells us about something we thought we knew, something right in front of us, something so common that we do not really see it. In these elegiac couplets, the poet reminds us of our modest place in the universe, reminds us that in the long run we, too, will leave no trace.

If snow has no memory, this poet certainly does. He remembers what we have forgotten and need to remember. In the opening poem, “Prophet Township,” the speaker comes upon an abandoned farm where people

                     …had no choice
but to pack up and leave—head back
to town, try to get a stake together,
go somewhere else. They brought along
what they could carry. Everything else
was left behind: piles of old clothes,
root cellar full of empty Mason Jars,
strings of peppers tied to the rafters.

These things that people leave behind tell us what their lives were like. Carter finds the things and writes about the people in a way that grants dignity to their hardships. This subtle awareness of past lives is a common thread in his poetry, and “Prophet Township” is a good example of it. It is reminiscent of Carter’s most anthologized poem, “The Purpose of Poetry,” a narrative about a man forced to leave his land when the government decides to flood it for a reservoir.

A Dance in the Street tells us, among other things, about people on the edges of society—homeless wanderers who on a cold night build a fire in a drum to keep themselves warm, a man who returns to his home in order to speak with his father who has been dead for fifteen years, people who are blown about like the plastic sack in the last poem of that section. Carter describes the sack as this “product of modern technology, made / by the billions” that comes “to the end of its journey, / almost aware that something is missing, / managing to rise up for one last look.” The sacks become a metaphor for people, and Carter’s poetry is like that one last look back at where those people have been, where we have all been in one way or another.

The title of the book comes from William Blake: “What is the price of Experience? do men buy it for a song? / Or wisdom for a dance in the street?” The lines suggest a link between music and experience that appears and reappears in the form and content of the book and throughout the poetry of Jared Carter. “Cicadas in the Rain,” for example, is a lyrical poem organized in four-line stanzas of unrhymed iambic lines. It is about

That sound so familiar, so unhesitant, but never
during a storm, and yet with drops plashing
and pelting through the leaves, their voices
coalesced in ways I had never heard before—

some strange harmonic of summer’s ending.

The music of cicadas and falling rain come together here, joined by the speaker’s experience of them and beautifully expressed in the poet’s quiet music.

The book includes many poetic forms—a found poem that is a series of captions from an art museum, a sonnet about roadside crosses commemorating traffic deaths, a number of poems organized in couplets or three-line stanzas, and a few in blank verse. While the majority of the work is in free verse, Carter’s lines are always carefully cadenced. “Miss Hester,” for example, about a woman who played background piano music for silent movies, has the fourteen lines of a sonnet but no end rhyme, and each line has four iambic beats. The poem has a rhythm that is similar to that of a sonnet but not as obvious. Like the music for the background of the movie, the measured rhythm provides the background, so to speak, for the poem.

While many of the poems are scenes from the Midwestern past, several in the fourth of the book’s six sections go back to classical themes. In a meditation on the “Sphinx,” for example, Carter recalls Oedipus:

                             Of all myths,
all tales, it is the most ancient and remote,
the most elemental. Each time it appears,
like some presence that casts no shadow,
it is the wayfarer whose life has changed,
not the Sphinx, which is outside history,
and uncaring, like the oldest of sibyls.

Jared Carter’s poetry is like the Sphinx in that when we meet it, we are changed. We may be no better or worse, we may not have found the answers to any of life’s riddles, but we are different people because we have seen the world in a new way.

His poetry has a simple profundity like that we find in Emily Dickinson. You will hear the fly buzz in this book and be more alive than you were before you read it.

What Ted Kooser wrote about Carter’s After the Rain also applies to A Dance in the Street–it is “a moving and magical book, charming in the best sense of that word….Jared Carter is the real thing.”


David Lee Garrison’s poetry has been published in Connecticut Review, Poem, Rattle, and other journals and anthologies. Garrison Keillor read two poems from his book, Sweeping the Cemetery on The Writer’s Almanac, and one of those appears in Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems American Places. David has a new book out, Playing Bach in the DC Metro, the title poem of which first appeared in Rattle and was featured by Ted Kooser on his website, American Life in Poetry. David is a retired professor of Spanish and Portuguese who lives in Dayton, Ohio, and can be reached at:

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November 15, 2011

Review by David Lee Garrison

by Lianne Spidel

Main Street Rag Publishing
PO Box 690100
Charlotte, NC 28227
ISBN 978-1-59948-307-8
2011, 76 pp., $14

Joseme is the poet’s imaginary companion from childhood. She imagines Joseme coming back, “hair streaky or plain gray as befits / the grandmother you may be,” and these poems tell the stories she would tell her old friend, the stories of her life and the lives of her friends and family. They are good stories. As Charles Harper Webb writes on the back cover, this book “reminds us of what it means to be human.”

The first section, “Old Snapshots,” revolves around childhood memories of the poet’s parents reading the news of World War II at breakfast, of an aunt telling her about Vienna before the war, of the poet making snow angels with her playmates. “Threads” remembers a father who went to work in a suit but changed when he got to the office, where he

rolled up his sleeves and turned
to his drawing board. He never
seemed to need a thing, never bought
more than a single shirt at a time.

While these lines describe the man, his impact on others is subtly revealed in what happens to his clothes after death. His grandson wears the topcoat even though it does not fit. The poet cannot bear to throw away his navy blazer and gives it to a friend who wears it to work “with a dozen glitzy Christmas pins” as a fashion statement. Whimsical and poignant, the poem shows how the father lives on through his clothes and through the love people had for him.

The last poem of this section picks up a different kind of thread. The poet, now a young mother of two boys, hears her husband back the car out of the garage at night and

…thinks how the thread between them
stretches fine, spins itself invisible
in darkness, so that neither will know
the exact moment when it disappears.

While the father goes on living, so to speak, through his clothes, the husband fades away as the delicate thread of a relationship is torn, pulled apart as husband and wife move inexorably toward different “Destinations.”

The second part of the book, “Everyone Gets Displaced,” deals primarily with loss. “Clockwork,” for example, has to do with a man who fixes clocks and one day realizes he has run into a complex mechanism that he cannot fix—his own mind, which is winding down in dementia. The climax of this section is an eight-part tour de force about the poet’s life as a teacher in rural Adams County on the Ohio River:

     Here, richness lay in tangled plants,
wild fruit and the chance of snakes,
and always the river ahead,
drawing us even as we stopped short of it,

a margin to honor, the edge
of the place we had chosen
and would come to cherish…

A lot happens in this place. The teachers go on strike but a few of them, including the poet, cross the picket lines and teach their classes, carefully staying away from the windows. The poet receives threatening phone calls. Her husband runs for judge and loses the election. Eventually he says to her, “‘I have to get rid of my past, / and like it or not, you are a part of my past.’” Years later the poet goes back to Adams County to celebrate the retirement of one of her teacher friends and finds that

Everything was as it had been, the river,
the people, the gently sloping lawn,
the high bluff brooding
beyond the road.

And yet, although the place has not changed, the poet realizes that the people here form a tribe “we took to be our own and loved, / who cast us out of Eden.”

The mixture of description and plain statement the poet uses to tell these stories is unpretentious, haunting, and compelling.

Spidel sprinkles poems about ghosts and supernatural things throughout the book. One of these, “Listening for Emily,” opens the third and final section. In it, the poet and her students are wrestling with a mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson when the classroom door “opened by itself in an empty hall / and I said, “Come in, Emily. / “Have you something more to tell us?” The supernatural element of the book should not surprise us given that it begins with the poet welcoming home her imaginary friend. It ends, fittingly, with the “Arrival” of a new friend, a baby girl, a grandchild. Family members bend close, and

…we hear you hum
a single clear note even
as you sleep, hold our breath
and listen for the fragile thread

of sound spinning around us.

The threads of the father’s clothing, the thread of the poet’s marriage, and the thread of a child’s song intertwine. In the end, the threads of the book wind their way to the magical beginning that is birth.

Emily Dickinson would approve. She knew a good poem when she felt the top of her head coming off and that’s what I felt as I read this book in one sitting. You’ll love it.


The poetry of David Lee Garrison has been published in Connecticut Review, Poem, Rattle, and several anthologies. Garrison Keillor read two poems from his book, Sweeping the Cemetery (Browser Books), on The Writer’s Almanac, and one of those appears in Keillor’s Good Poems American Places (Viking). David has a new book coming out in 2012, Bach in the DC Metro (Browser Books), the title poem of which first appeared in Rattle and was featured by Ted Kooser on his website, American Life in Poetry. David is a retired professor of Spanish and Portuguese who lives in Dayton, Ohio, and can be reached at:

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April 30, 2011

Review by David Lee GarrisonThe Casanova Chronicles by Myrna Stone

by Myrna Stone

Etruscan Press
Wilkes University
84 West South Street
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766
ISBN-13 978-0-9819687-3-5
2010, 72 pp., $17.95

This is the third book by Myrna Stone, from Greenville, Ohio, who is emerging as a powerful new voice in contemporary poetry. She reveals a vast, rich vocabulary and, especially in this book, a fluent command of various forms, from the sonnet to the triolet to the sestina. As George Bilgere suggests in a quotation on the cover of the book, this is an “off-the-wall collection” in which “parrots, puppets and the great Casanova take turns force-feeding Viagra to the stuffy old sonnet. But it’s Myrna Stone’s Rabelaisian gift for language that really steals the show.” It is quite a show and, yes, she steals it again and again.

The book has three parts: “The Ballard Sonnets,” “Schlock Therapy,” and “The Casanova Chronicles.” The Ballard Sonnets have to do with a Long Island eccentric, Alba Ballard, who became a minor celebrity by training parrots and other animals to perform in costume. The poet tells this story in a series of sonnet monologues in the voices of Alba, her husband Marvin and son Claudio, and many of the parrots. “Marvin Ruminating,” for example, begins with the lines: “How I yearn to see you one more time, / Alba, teaching a bird to speak in rhyme / or pose at the piano dressed as Liberace.” The husband expresses his admiration and bafflement at the power his wife had over animals and, in the end, over him. He confesses, in the concluding couplet, that “of all the animals you tried to tame, / just one, Marvin Ballard, loved the rein.” The animals themselves are more cynical. Romeo, the oldest of the parrots, speaking to his progeny, recalls

…Alba, who with me
and Fifi Green (yes, your foul-mouthed, bad-
ass mother) turned into fans the bourgeoisie
of Long Island. The morning I first meowed,
Alba, obsessed, sewed me a cat suit of lame
and your mother a rat suit of felt. Cash cows
we were then, at fairs, bar mitzvahs, the VA.

All in all, it’s the story of a group that had a wild time together. That most of the family members are animals suggests the primitive urges that run wild in family life. Lust, power, greed, rivalry—a Long Island housewife harnessed these emotions for audiences, and the poet lets them loose. It is ironic that she lets them loose inside the controlled environment of the sonnet. The birds run around squawking inside a pen of fourteen rhyming lines, and yet Stone releases their wildness with an enjambed fluency that makes the poems sound like free-wheeling conversations.

A major theme of the book is performance. While the first section involves the performance of Alba Ballard’s animals, the next one moves from puppet performances in the Middle Ages staged by priests to explain the mysteries of the faith to a modern day priest who performs forbidden acts while chiding God about human weakness, from the banter between Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen to the macho strutting of a Mexican cowboy and the romantic babbling of a husband satirized by his wife. The title of the second section, “Schlock Therapy,” comes from a priceless poem about the interview by a young journalist of Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. Cheated out of the royalties due him for his invention, Farnsworth becomes a hermit and dismisses television, saying it’s “pap, it’s a peepshow // in a box, and everybody’s getting it, like a disease.” In his bitterness, he calls out to his wife for another drink and advises the journalist that “If we’re held in the cup // of God’s right hand, it’s because His left’s too busy / wiping our asses.”

In the last section, which provides the title of the book, the poet returns to the monologue sonnet in a tour-de-force sequence that outlines the life of Casanova. With information culled mainly from the lengthy life history written by the famous writer, actor, diplomat, lawyer, priest, and lover, and from other sources about him, the poet creates a kind of play. In fact, to clarify the characters involved, Stone opens this section with a helpful list of the “Dramatis Personae.” In the drama Casanova emerges not just as a libertine but as a multi-faceted human being with a wide range of emotions and talents. The interweaving of plots is too complex to cover in a review, so I will cite just one of the sonnets in full. It is in the form of a letter to a woman who with her sister was one of Casanova’s first conquests:

Letter to Sister Maria Concetta from Casanova

Paris, 2 July, 1750

Dear Marta, your letter cuts me to the quick
each time I read it. What has changed you so?
Can you not see, my love, that bitterness wicks
more than blood from your heart? When you forgo

me, and repudiate the intimacies you and I
and your sister shared, what is left but regret
for the appetites of the flesh? Till the day I die
I will think of you both as my little wives, my debt

to you impossible to repay except by placing
your needs before mine. Thus, I will not see you
again, nor will I speak with Nanetta….The ring
you gave me is herewith enclosed. As evening blues

and my candle gutters, I conjure us up, I crave
us—three virginal shades both happy and grave.

Casanova, having received a letter from the dying Marta who longs to “expunge the wickedness you and I and my sister / committed in our bed,” accedes to her request never to see her again. We hear his voice, we see at the same time his unrelenting belief in the flesh and his sensitivity to his former lover, and we recognize the mix of love and death that haunted the man.


The poetry, translations, and reviews of David Lee Garrison have appeared in Connecticut Review, The Nation, Poem, and Rattle, among other publications. Garrison Keillor read two poems from his book, Sweeping the Cemetery (Browser Books), on The Writer’s Almanac, and U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser featured one on his website, American Life in Poetry. Last year David won the Paul Laurence Dunbar Poetry Award; this year he won an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Montgomery County Arts and Cultural District.

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March 20, 2010

Review by David Lee Garrison What I Know of Innocence by Cathryn Essinger

by Cathryn Essinger

Main Street Rag Publishing Company
PO BOX 690100
Charlotte, NC 28227-7001
ISBN 978-1-59948-213-2
2009, 69 pp. & accompanying CD, $15.95

Cathryn Essinger weaves philosophical themes into almost all of her work. In her first book, A Desk in the Elephant House (Texas Tech UP), she has a poem that revolves around a trick philosophy professors use to convey the idea of the suggestibility. “Don’t think of a bear,” they say, and suddenly we can’t think of anything else. Essinger goes on in that poem to relate this to the act of creative writing when she tells us that she has welcomed the bear into her own reality, “bought him a bed, checked his teeth, / paid the vet. All that is left is to name him.” In essence, writing a poem means naming the bear, identifying that amorphous, indistinguishable thing that lumbers into the imagination and that we manage to put on the page. Something takes shape in our minds; we get to know and understand it by writing it down.

The main thread of her new book, What I Know of Innocence, is the simple philosophical idea that things have meanings. The poet muses about these meanings—what they are, where they come from, how they affect us. The meaning of a mouse, for example, is pondered by professors who discover one in their office building and feed him. They decide that he has “informal tenure—a permanent / position with no job description other than / to be a mouse….” The next poem has to do with the nature of the black cat who “resembles everything that she is not—/ she is the word you cannot recall, the phrase that cannot be taught, // a piece of the night….” In various other poems, Essinger considers the meanings of aging hippies and their need for causes, “the gourd / that grows / into the shape of a saint,” a newborn who inspires inarticulate sighs, a blue ball that gets lost and winds up in the underbrush for an entire winter, and finally something that seems truly meaningless—a murder.

The meanings we give to our world go back to Adam’s act of naming, the poet suggests in the title poem, and sometimes things get so “freighted with story” that they become nameless again. The poet’s imagination of things, her attempt to name them, offers us another look at the world, one that is sometimes comic and ironic, always interesting and haunting. Although according to the poet “symbolism is rampant,” we often cannot understand why things happen or mean what they do. In the opening poem, she broaches this idea with the question: “See how the light chooses / one goblet, but not the next?” In “Shadows from Another Life,” she suggests that “In every house there is a window / no one has ever opened, a dog / no one has ever seen,” and goes on to conclude that “Soon / a door will swing open, a face will / appear, and someone you love will / call for help….” The poet drops these eerie thoughts on us in language that is simple yet startling, as in this passage, one of my favorites:

I remember how my youngest used
to watch the blackbirds gather
along the wires and sometimes
he would ask, “Mama, Mama,
Is that the bird that calls my name?”
Odd, where children get such things.
But it’s true. If you listen carefully,
or sometimes not at all, if you just let
the sound creep up on you,
you can hear something like a name
in the sound of their voices,
something whistled, high and far away.

The sound of a bird is something so mundane that we barely notice it, but through this poem we hear it calling us by name. The idea, the connection between a name and a bird song, is so surprising that it makes us want to hurry out and listen to the birds. These poems creep up on us, tap us on the shoulder, tell us to listen.

The entire final section of the book, “Dark Flower,” has to do with the murder of a young woman by a serial killer. We learn about it from various perspectives. There is the woman who suspects something and does not allow the killer into her house when he knocks on the door and asks to use the phone, the photographer called to document the scene of the crime, the photographer’s girlfriend who does not want to look at the pictures, the coroner who examines the body, even the murdered woman herself. (Various readers interpret these poems, movingly, in the beautiful video interpretation—produced by David Essinger, the poet’s son—that comes with the book.)

The victim remains unknown until we reach the poem titled, “Finally, they name her,” in which, ironically, she is not named. The poem describes how the woman puts her baby down for a nap, combs her hair, gets dressed, and feels pretty. None of these acts distinguishes her from other people, and yet because they are the last things she does in life, they take on all kinds of meaning. The poem endows them with a kind of holiness and makes them, despite their banality, memorable. As readers we take them into memory, which is the theme of the final poem. Memory is, the poet tells us, “forever present, // forever gone, a flower forever / unfolding.”

These poems are indeed memorable. They keep unfolding in our minds long after we have read them. Perhaps the world is made different for us by every book we read, and this one certainly has that effect. But it does something more: it helps us look at the world again to see if we can name some of the things and ideas and people in it. Louise Gluck wrote, “We look at life only once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” Cathy Essinger gives us a second look and lots of memories.

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August 2, 2009

David Lee Garrison


As an experiment,
the Washington Post
asked a concert violinist—
wearing jeans, tennis shoes,
and a baseball cap—
to stand near a trash can
at rush hour in the subway
and play Bach
on a Stradivarius.
Partita No. 2 in D Minor
called out to commuters
like an ocean to waves,
sung to the station
about why we should bother
to live.

A thousand people
streamed by. Seven of them
paused for a minute or so
and thirty-two dollars floated
into the open violin case.
A café hostess who drifted
over to the open door
each time she was free
said later that Bach
gave her peace,
and all the children,
all of them,
waded into the music
as if it were water,
listening until they had to be
rescued by parents
who had somewhere else to go.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008


David Lee Garrison: “I began writing poems in high school when I realized that Iris Meade would never go out with me. I talked with Iris at our 25th reunion and found that she was a much more complex, talented, and beautiful person than the one I saw through the prism of adolescent hormones. We’re good friends now, and I still write poems.”

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