Lynn Levin: “I love to describe things in my poems. Somehow I think that expands or extends life as we know it. Right now I am interested in celebrating small practices in a series of poems I am calling The Minor Virtues. These poems seek to capture pleasant things, although some of these pleasant things may have a dark border.” (website)
Ragged Sky Press
P. O. Box 312
Annandale, NJ 08801
2013, 68 pp., $15.00 www.raggedsky.com
The poems in Lynn Levin’s fourth collection have been aptly described as “sizzling,” “explosive,” and “finely wrought.” The poet’s signature, razor-sharp wit and critical eye toward contemporary life give way to an underlying reverence for the tenderness and vulnerability of the human heart. In one poem we can encounter an argument, an historical legend, a romantic tryst, and a reunion. Yet Levin performs these feats of storytelling with spare, accessible language, providing just enough twists and turns to let readers fill in the details. As with her previous collections, we are active participants in the poems, hard-pressed not to respond with a sense of liberation, noting how in that moment, in that poem, she has once again outed the truth.
While the book’s cover sports the image of a blonde-haired, cosmetically made-up doll presumed to be “Miss Plastique,” there is nothing fake or superficial about the work in this collection. In the poem from which the book draws its title, the speaker asserts that, “Because it should be handled/ with care and can explode/ at any moment, it is like me.” So begins our journey into the mind and heart of a speaker who, like the explosive substance itself, exhibits a versatility of sensibility and poetic form. The realization early on in life that “Something that looks like dough/ can kill you,” sets the tone for the book’s energetic dance between love and hate, illusion and reality, history and the now.
The book’s first two sections introduce us to Miss Plastique and the world that made her. “Being Me” begins with the speaker’s honest admission that “Being me is a kind of neurosis …” and what we come to find is that we are grateful for her neurosis, as it is perhaps the necessary lens that allows the speaker to magnify life’s trifles and triumphs with such acute perception and detail. Levin has fun with the particulars of her 1960’s Midwestern youth, recounting how TV’s Leave It to Beaver and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shaped her image of America and presented a skewed sense of her place in the world. The awkwardness of being female in a world of Dippity-Do, garter-belts and mini-skirts is adroitly conveyed in the book’s second section. Few of us of this generation, male or female, can claim to have escaped such contextualization.
Section II ends with “Hitchhiker,”which is the most comprehensive and multi-layered poem about hitchhiking I have ever read. The poem begins with a play on Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” but immediately breaks off into what is now a common, modern scene: trapped in the car at a red light, the speaker is confronted by a hitchhiker brandishing “a cardboard sign:/ Hungry. Will work for food.” She locks her doors and impatiently waits for the light to change, to break free from the “hard-boiled eggs of his eyes.” The speaker is not uncompassionate, however. She contends:
A shame these days that so many kidnappers and murderers
have given hitchhikers a bad name
for I myself had been a hitchhiker
when carless in Texas, and careless, too
lazy to shoe-leather the mile to the bus stop
or late for work, I thumbed rides.
When I was lucky, good old boys with honest mud on their jeans
Would pick me up in their beat-up chariots,
eight tracks playing Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings.
Truth was, most folks in cars ignored me
but one April morning when the bluebonnets
Maybellined the roadsides,
A man pulled over in a black Gran Torino …
The speaker began accepting rides from a shady character who presented himself as a social worker and used the name, Tom Wise. One day he showed up wearing “a green silk tie/and reeked of Aramis: a real lady-killer.” When Wise pushes for her phone number, she provides a fake one. Then, sensing he is perhaps a pimp, she refuses his ride. He swings a “U-ey” and flips her the finger—á la the hitchhiker who opens the poem:
This made the world a huge drive-in movie theater
And the two of us stars in its fright show.
Afterward, I feared I’d see Tom Wise
Pulling up behind me, idling at a light.
Was spared that, but I remember
the pine-tree air freshener dangling from his dash,
the bluebonnets blooming outside his safety glass.
One can’t help but relish the use of “Maybellined” as a verb, appreciate the juxtaposition of such telling 1970’s images as “beat-up chariots” and “eight-tracks” with April’s bluebonnets. We recognize the Proustian brilliance of memory which associates the flipping of the finger and those same bluebonnets with these two experiences, distanced only by linear time. In the end, the speaker has captured the pivotal moment when her innocent perception of the world was turned upside down. There is no “safety,” and now even the clean scent of pine will be a haunting reminder of those seedy hitchhiking encounters.
Sections III and IV enter the adult terrain of relationship, including marriage, romance, friendship, and professional rivalry. These are among my favorite poems in the book, and perhaps the most intricately woven. “The House on Blackberry Lane” opens Section III with an exquisite adaptation of the Mother Goose nursery rhyme “The House That Jack Built.” The narrative structure is, as with the nursery rhyme, a cumulative tale that uses the house, and things of the house (i.e., the log that is “trundled in by the husband to stoke the fire he kindled”) to indirectly convey the relationship dynamic between husband and wife. Each successive stanza adds one more line, further nesting the details of the relationship in a story. By stanza five the narrative ignites:
This is the carpet fire
sparked by the log that rolled from the hearth
as feared by the wife
who asked the husband
not to add the log, fat as a cask,
to the fire he built
in the house on Blackberry Lane.
Tension builds as one calamity leads to another, including the squashing of the wife’s wedding ring when trying to open a window to let out the smoke, all a result of the husband’s insistence on choosing too large a log to add to the fire which now threatens to burn down the house on Blackberry Lane. The poem concludes with a familial making of amends: “This is the new ring/ bought by the husband who pledged fresh devotion/ to the same old wife who managed to love him.” This is great fun, yet prefigures the subject matter of the poems that follow. Levin proves again and again that no form is out of reach for conveying one of her central concerns: the nature of forgiveness in the context of personal relationships.
Some of the poems in this section cast a cold eye on love, giving voice to views we commonly keep under wraps, and it is for this reason you’ll find the poems so refreshing and liberating. In “To a Rival,” the vindictive speaker reveals herself to be vulnerable too. At first she overtly admits her writer’s envy: “Some say the world is big enough for all of us/but I think you take up too much space/ in the book review section.” Her naked confession is witty and bold, followed up by pointed derogatory comments about the subject’s meters and tropes, even their facial features. Yet soon thereafter a deeper sense of longing for connection wins out, and the speaker concedes: “But if you phoned and said/let’s go out to lunch/ I think, R., we could be friends.”
The speaker in Levin’s poems is endearing because she scrutinizes herself, changes her own mind, and admits to being vulnerable even while striking the pose of attack. She is as brutally honest about her own misadventures and perhaps ill-conceived perspectives as she is about others. We can trust her not to mask the truth or hold up a veil obscuring reality for too long. The poems offer windows of possibility to a change of heart, or another point of view, that we as readers are invited to look through.
“Insomniac Romance” wrestles with the love/hate nature of intimate relationship. A couple lie next to each other in bed like “two statues on a tomb,” ruminating over the day’s fights. “But leave you? I do not think I could,” the speaker attests. “I like what carries on.” “Yes, No, Maybe” is a tritina of ambivalence, reminiscent of the Clash’s hit, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” With no Magic 8 ball for guidance, what are they to do? “Vacation” addresses many a wife’s fear of betrayal by her husband when out of the context of routine. The speaker “spies” on her husband with binoculars and is relieved to find him on the resort course “aiming for birdies and pars/not trying to pick up women in the hot/tub or the hotel bar.” This is the good life, she decides. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Section IV features a series of poems that present the biblical Eve and the legendary Lilith in the most unlikely and contemporary of places. We find them in the fitting room at Macy’s, at the cosmetics counter of a department store, and standing together at the “padlocked gates of the garden” of Eden, which is now, we are told, “a restricted community.” In “Eve and Lilith Back at the Garden,” Eve confesses to Lilith that she thinks she’s pregnant:
“I told you to use protection,” said Lilith.
“But Adam promised …” Lilith rolled her eyes.
“Him and his teaspoon of joy,” said Eve.
A fault line threatened her brow.
“Girlfriend,” counseled Lilith,
“either change your life or accept your life,
but don’t go around mad.
Let that anger go,” said Lilith. “Just let it go.”
Yet when the two women encounter a snake in the grass, Eve is the one to “immobilize the critter’s head.” Lilith pleads with Eve to kill it, but instead Eve follows the advice she’d just been given. “No can do,” she replies. “Eve let the snake go./ She just let it go.”
These poems examine the complexities of female friendship, asking such questions as: Where does one draw the line between friendship and romance? What are valid definitions of female beauty in the 21st century? How do we address issues of aging and beauty, while maintaining a sense of humor and the wisdom of acceptance?
In “Eve and Lilith Go to Macy’s,” the boundaries of friendship are blurred. Levin utilizes the fitting room mirror where three reflections of a customer are visible at once as a prop to prompt Eve’s self-reflection: which one is her real self? she wonders. When Eve turns to give Lilith a kiss on the cheek, Lilith plants a full kiss on Eve’s lips, leaving Eve to wonder if her friend Lilith is gay. “Wishing her friend would touch her again,” Eve begins to wonder if she herself is gay. While the hidden security camera “looks on with its mysterious eye,” the two women “linger in each other’s arms,” knowing that the camera can see them. But still they explore the moment, knowing technology’s betrayal is incomplete; there is no sound.
In “Lilith at the Cosmetics Counter,” the poem wastes no time establishing the distance Lilith experiences between the self reflected back at her from the magnifying mirror on the counter and the self she knows.
Lilith’s face made a face at her
in the lighted mirror at the cosmetics counter.
Craggy, ravined, parched,
that thing above her neck looked like the Sinai Desert.
The makeup clerk makes things worse: “You look as one who has returned/ from a long journey,” she remarks, “then tried to sign her up for a store credit card.” The poem pin-points perfectly that moment of insecurity and self-doubt that comes with walking into the land of female consumerism, the land where beauty portends to be bought, if only you have the right cosmetics and someone to teach you how they should be applied. When Lilith notices the unattractiveness of the saleslady, (she is missing a front tooth, and her eyelashes are overly thick), she recalls an old lover’s advice never to buy makeup “from someone/ who’s not as good looking as you,” and walks out. If there is any beauty derived at all, she realizes, it is the beauty of recognizing the familiar “wilderness” of her own face. Acceptance is a gift.
The collection ends with “This Door or That,” a lyric in which the speaker describes a gift she has given to an unnamed “you”:
so that you would think of me
when you lay down and when you woke up
when you put out the cat
or brought in the mail …
The mysterious gift contains an image of a man and a woman. We know little of them, except that, “Suddenly one was cruel/ and the other silent/for a long while.” Yet, as in many of the poems in this collection, the couple come together in love-making, leaving us with two things: ambiguity and hope. They …
made love so desperately
their souls flew far from life, and who knew
if they would fly back
and through which door.
At this late age, it seems nearly impossible to ask a question for which there is no answer, to create analogies that have not already occurred in literature, to evoke a newness in language that continues to inspire and delight. The epigrammatic quality of Levin’s poems, the use of form to untangle complex narratives and at the same time pull us into their nets, the authentic reaching back in time to make sense of the ironic present, are all qualities you’ll find in Miss Plastique. Lynn Levin’s poetry exhibits sophisticated craft and clear-eyed passion, yet never at the expense of hard truths and life’s conundrums. Miss Plastique’s “neurosis,” is a welcome gift to readers, one which we hope opens the door to her next collection.
Maggie Paul earned an M.A. in Literature from Tufts University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A resident of Santa Cruz, CA, she teaches Writing at Cabrillo College and De Anza College. She is the author of a collection of poems entitled Borrowed World (Hummingbird Press, 2011) and the chapbook, Stones from the Basket of Others (Blackdirt Press, 2001).
CHARMS AGAINST LIGHTNING by James ArthurPosted by Rattle
Review by Lynn Levin
CHARMS AGAINST LIGHTNING by James Arthur
A Lannan Literary Selection
Copper Canyon Press
P. O. Box 271
Port Townsend, WA 98368
ISBN 13: 978-1-55659-387-1
2012, 80 pp., $16.00 www.coppercanyonpress.org
I first discovered the poetry of James Arthur in January of 2013 when I attended a poetry reading he gave in Philadelphia. He had recently published Charms Against Lightning, his numinous debut collection of poems. The reading was no ordinary event. Arthur had memorized all of his poems and delivered them flawlessly in his gentle voice. In between his own poems, he also recited from memory several poems by other poets, including Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Such generosity at a reading—Arthur’s sharing of others’ poems in his own allotment of podium time—speaks of his modest approach to his own ego. In fact, the thing I love most about Arthur’s work is the way his ego performs a series of subtle vanishing acts in the poems.
Take, for example, Arthur’s fanciful and mysterious poem “Ghost Life,” in which the speaker personifies his shadow:
… My shadow feels my company,
my stepping as he steps, feels,
although he knows it can’t be true, that the fall
and all its wreckage were invented
just for him.
As the poem proceeds and the speaker ambles along with his companionable nobody, the shadow is further reduced to something “thinner than a flame.” I detect a faint air of joy and relief in this lessness, this side-stepping of the self. The speaker is glad not to stand on the pedestal of importance. Contrast this with the unnamed famous artist in “The Death of a Painter.” Here is a lyric about a man so consumed by his art and status that “he hardly saw his children,/ by habit was self-absorbed.” The great man is so apart from the humble claims of family that when he dies the woman mourning him must weep “from another room.”
Born in New Haven, Connecticut, James Arthur grew up in Toronto, Canada. A 2012 – 2013 Hodder Fellow at Princeton, Arthur’s many other honors include a Stegner Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, and the Discovery/The Nation Prize. The poems in this collection have appeared in an equally impressive list of publications including The New Yorker, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and many others. Yet with all this acclaim, Arthur states he doesn’t think of his poems as having any effect. “They are like pebbles thrown in the ocean,” he says.
James Arthur is a poet who speaks in mists of images that perfume and disturb the mind. He writes of moments caught and released, that leave one in a beautiful fog. Here are the first lines from one of my favorite poems in the collection, “In Praise of the Indeterminate”:
It has no form, and out-Houdinis Houdini
by dissolving from shape to shape, struggling
to escape itself, remaining the same thing,
like a video feed of the almost-random variations
in the similarity of the sea.
Arthur is in awe of the transient, the unstable, the airy. In concert with this, his rhythms also float. Ever aware of the fragility of life and, beyond that, the instability and changeability of the whole universe, Arthur writes poems that gather and dissipate. In some ways, they call to mind the poems of W. S. Merwin.
This is not to say that Arthur’s poems are without violence. Pain and menace pierce certain poems, in particular the title poem “Charms Against Lightning,” in which the poet calls on some kind of safeguard “Against lupus and lawsuits, lying stranded between nations,/ against secrets and frostbite, the burring of trains/ that never arrive.” Even in invoking the safeguards, the “talismans,” there is the knowledge that the talismans themselves are under threat. Still, the griefs in these poems do not grandstand, largely because the speaker minimizes the self.
Arthur includes several love poems in the collection. In “Summer Song,” the speaker meditates on various scenes of insecurity and threat, but even the threatening scenes ride in on dazzling metaphors—paratroopers sail by like “clothespins/ pinning up the sky.” In the same poem, the vastness of the universe and its galaxies inspire the speaker to tell his beloved, “I marry you in the morning/ and I marry you each day.” What matters is the lovers’ attachment in the face of the losses and hollow spaces of the world. And, still, there is the erasing self, the gentle melancholy. This love poem concludes, “I feel a tall wind rising up to take/ and bear me far away.”
James Arthur is poet of big gifts delivered lightly. I keep going back to the poems because they offer a sort of ease amid their subtle disturbances. And as for his observation about his poems’ being pebbles thrown in the ocean, I can only say that I hope he keeps throwing the pebbles.
Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection is Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013).
I love many things about Borrowed World, California poet Maggie Paul’s first full-length collection, but what I love best is the gentleness and patience with which she addresses often very grim subject matter: a father’s alcoholism, parental domestic strife, the break-ups of couples. In this respect, her voice reminds me of Marie Howe’s. Both poets speak with generosity and tranquility even in the face of sorrow and hurt, and both are permeated with a spiritual awareness. As with Howe, Paul’s references are usually Catholic, though Paul’s spirituality often encompasses Buddhist or pantheistic ideas. And always she keeps faith with the natural world.
For me, Maggie Paul’s poems of a childhood tormented by a father’s alcoholism and absenteeism are among the most powerful in the collection. In “Arriving Home from the Dance,” Paul relates the harrowing experience of the speaker’s return after a social occasion to find the family home in flames: fire fighters throwing the sizzling mattress of the marriage bed out the window, the mother doing what she can to comfort the five children watching the scene and deliberating not blaming the young son who, in all likelihood, started the fire. What fills the mother with grief, says the speaker, is:
the absence of my father
whose whereabouts that time of night
could only be pinned down to one bar
or another, but which tonight and
how to get hold of him?
To deflect the rage one would legitimately feel toward the husband or the probable-culprit son, Paul focuses on the way the mother ascribes the fire instead to an electrical malfunction and reflects on her terror of losing those she loves. Anger and accusation are not the answer:
Blame never changed anything.
I mean, who can blame a nine-year-old
for wanting his father to come home?
The poet does not excuse the cruelty, coldness, or hurtfulness of others; it is that she forces her heart to look at it differently. Paul strives to relinquish, rather than carry, emotional burdens. Take, for example, the lovely poem “Stones from the Baskets of Others.” Here, Paul references no specific hurtful incident, but meditates on how to handle heavy legacies:
Today I talked with my mother
and she mentioned God.
I believed in the god in her
as I believe in the god in everyone
and my way appeared clear
when my own weight
is so great
it competes with my joy
so that I must let go,
god or no god,
of stones from the baskets of others.
But it is hard to let go from the stones of the baskets of others. Spiritual and emotional success is uncertain, but the poet’s desire for peace never lapses. Paul has a balletic way of thinking, an airborne point-of-view that allows her to turn continually toward the restorative powers of nature, motherhood, and spirit.
When I read a collection of poems, I put a dot next to my favorites in the table of contents. I have a dot by “Letter,” an epiphanic poem that speaks of memories evoked when two blue herons swoop over bulrushes. Another outstanding poem is “The Accountant,” which praises a father’s precision bookkeeping while also referencing the alcoholism that would later consume his life. I was also delighted by the witty instruction poem “Guidebook for the Woman Traveling Alone,” which counsels a female traveler to stay sexy and to:
Forget hooded sweatshirts and hiking boots
no matter how comfortable,
unless you want to look and feel
like a stuffed animal outside your natural habitat.
I found that very funny because that’s the dowdy fashion I have favored on my journeys. But then, the poem is essentially about loneliness, and ultimately observes:
Be prepared to befriend yourself.
Make offerings to the gods of human wishes.
Remember: we are all alone.
Although it breaks ranks with the tranquil and transcendent voice of most of the poems, I am particularly taken by Paul’s “Confession,” in which the poet’s voice turns ardent. Here is the poem in its entirety:
I am all about desire.
So my Buddhist friends say, You are not free! I am a fountain of desire.
So Catholics send me to confession.
I am a wavelet of desire.
So dancers adore me.
I am a dream of desire
when my children wake me.
I am a forest of desire
Each time the birds sing.
Not only do I admire the spirit of this poem but also its inverted images: the speaker declares herself a dream of desire when awakened! She is in such sympathy with nature that birdsong wings her to a wild place. That same gift for inversion or transference, of seeing the unusual in the usual, allows Maggie Paul to capture, in the poem “Forgiveness” a painful good-bye between a man and woman, a moment so final it seems almost unbelievable. Here is how Paul allows nature to convey the incredulity:
Morning sun rains on the pond.
It does not expect this day
to be gone forever. Nor him.
But the birds know.
And the wind that led there.
Maggie Paul’s Borrowed World offers the reader much beauty and much gentle wisdom. Reading her poems, I imagine a soul swimming, not so much through, but above harsh currents with deftness, tranquility and grace.
Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection Fair Creatures of an Hour was a 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry. A review of it appeared in Rattle.
1108 Westbrooke Terrace
Norman, OK 73072
ISBN 13 978-0-9797573-8-9
2010, 81 pages, $14.00 www.texturepress.org
As a reader and a writer, I have been striving to liberate myself from the literal, the grounded, and the logical. Toward this end, I’ve been exploring experimental poetry, and in this quest I was most fortunate to discover Valerie Fox’s enchanting new collection The Glass Book. Call these poems anti-narratives or lyrics of serendipitous moments, the poems, many of which are prose poems, tune into our clickable, branching, speeding, channel-changing lives. In this collection, her fourth, Fox pokes at memories and lets her poems vault from images of city streets and parks to old abodes, travels, and frequent references to cameras. The effect is fast-paced. The surprising juxtapositions often conjure the surreal. And while the poems love discontinuity, they are strung together by a sense of whimsy that is sometimes pleasurable, sometimes disturbing. Always through the chaos and trickiness, I feel the comfort of a moral sense.
Valerie Fox is, I believe, exploring the poetry of resistance, a term that Tony Hoagland uses in his essay “Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness” (Poetry, September 2010). Hoagland observes that contemporary poetry is bifurcating into two systems that seek “two different kinds of poetic meaning: Perspective versus Entanglement; the gong of recognition versus the bong of disorientation.” The latter type of poetry, says Hoagland, seeks “dis-arrangement.” It “aims to disrupt or re-arrange consciousness.” It resists conventional understanding and desires to draw “the reader into a condition of not-entirely-understanding.” Valerie Fox’s poems follow this spirit.
Take, for example, the title poem “The Glass Book,” in which the poetic speaker follows the rovings of a homeless and somewhat deranged woman through the outskirts of downtown Philadelphia.
Back in the city, the same woman was living on Green Street. Everyone was always saying how gentrification was happening so fact. Every day she saw it going slow.
She was having a slow life.
She sat in her own cave of warmth. Just a few minutes earlier she had been walking fast, searching and hungering for the word “I.”
The main text follows the homeless woman, but the poetic speaker interjects side statements that deliberately swerve from that lost soul to satirize the writing process or the literary or scholarly life. Many of these remarks, introduce themselves with the phrase, “I’m calling this page…”; and they are enclosed in parentheses. After a passage in which the homeless woman swings from thoughts about a particular street, her unborn children, a new hat, and farm food, the poet jars the reader with this self-ironizing observation:
(I’m calling this page, “What people really think about during times like job interviews”)
At another moment, Fox interjects:
(I’m calling this page, “Letters to real people and lyric poets”)
This longish poem strolls the city blocks glimpsing the violence and loneliness of the streets. It is embedded with compassion for its destitute and confused subject. Then every so often, it jumps from the streets to those satirical observations about life at the desk.
Fox’s interest in dreams and the subconscious meshes with the poet’s attraction to re-arranged awareness. A section of The Glass Book is called “The Dream Book” and includes such poems as “Dream Variations (For Tuesday)” and “Lecture on Dreams.” All the poems in the collection thrive on a mind open to randomness, and much of their delight comes from their constant movement and unpredictability. The poem “Arrange in an Order” offers the reader twelve lines that might variously be seen as hilarious, private, worried, or even everyday. Here are some samples:
you crossed some rivers, like 8 or 9 times
you are cooking this meat outside
you should delete that prison time from your resume
you must have been enchanted when you let go the mules
your fantasies are observing you
Should I try to rearrange them to make conventional sense? I don’t think that’s the point. Playfulness and deliberate re-arranging of consciousness is the point. The lines give me a disturbing kind of pleasure.
The surreal and a sense of threat brew in many poems. Take these lines from “Hotel Resident Artist”:
Then there’s a crow hovering outside my hotel
window. It dips close, red talons raised,
wearing not just fur, but blue fur
and shopped out wheezing under the weight
of its purchases. Walking around underground.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Tour of Old Haunts,” a poem that seems to combine private references to incidents in the speaker’s life with admonitions to self. The impression I get is of a person trying to gently coax herself into forming normal reactions and behaviors. And that would work just fine if events didn’t throw curve balls at her and life weren’t inherently so strange. On a return trip to an old neighborhood, the speaker announces:
She carried around the throwaway camera, all day, and there were many times to use it, though she didn’t.
There’s a lot of undeveloped film in her life, and film canisters.
Across from there they saw Fred’s Magic World. Twice she had to go on stage, once to tie someone up.
The above line about tying someone up in a magic show speaks to a normal event in a magic show, but the reference to the magic show itself casts the poem into a sort of paranormal world. And the poem, true to its subjectivity stays in that mysterious space until it ends with a visit to a retired philosophy professor who is dying and, in his final moments, asks a visitor to tell him who is he is. The idea of visiting one’s old haunts turns from memory to humor to the staging of magic to death and loss of self.
Fox’s poems embody a sly humor but also reference violence and loss. Her poetry of resistance beckons me outside my structured and conventional way of reading and perceiving. The poems tell me to be friends with the unpredictable. The poems say, don’t parse us, ride us.
Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection Fair Creatures of an Hour was a 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry. A review of it appeared in Rattle.
I haven’t had this much fun reading a book of poems in a long time. Paul Siegell’s fast-paced rave-on-the-page jambandbootleg follows a loose narrative in which the speaker and his friends travel the country attending concerts by their beloved jam band Phish. The poems mostly explore the ecstatic experiences of phandom and concert-going. For me, the most exciting moments—and there are scores of such moments—center on the revelry of the “phans” in parking lots before the concerts and the descriptions of the emotional rush of the music in the midst of them. The poems surge with the love of fun, and it’s about time poetry engaged fun.
While Siegell’s poems treat the reader to a rock concert party, his work reveals a deep awareness of his poetic elders, especially Allen Ginsberg (the voracious jazzy language and beat rhythms), G. M. Hopkins (the trippy whirling phrases), and Walt Whitman (the joy and expansiveness). While the poems speak mostly of “phandom” and the hyped-up pleasure of the music, they also engage some of the unhappy sides of youth culture (which Siegell spells as “Uth Culture” ): the travails of job-seeking, the uncertainty of what path one should take in life, the woeful lives of some down-and-outers, and the stories of phans who have lost their way. But mostly the subject and the mood is joy.
As I read the poems, I kept thinking that if Allen Ginsberg had not been kvetching and ranting he might have been writing lines like these from Siegell’s poem “*SET I*”:
stoked split-sec/onds of sensitive, extraAbstract
bandana-delicate aficionados patchwork’d in flux>
how the plan is to play jazz:
the happiness of having tickets—have you examined much:
the forensics of a parking lot?
eYeLeVeL w/ the spontaneous relationships & bizarre
bazaars of Jamband Tailgate Showcase Multitudes—
Come along, my friend my friends:
Shall we off to the estate?
after flirting in a minor key, the great “YEAH!” of rockNroll
cries out from inside—
of a peak’s release, a chills-guaranteeing song, of a peak’s
more ridiculous liftoff
Siegell’s lines provide wave after wave of emotional highs. As with Ginsberg’s “Howl,” these poems look spontaneous on the surface, but they are well-worked pieces. Siegell incorporates witty word plays, language poetry moves (see how Picasso invades “*Patchwork Acrobatics: Harlequin Period Typos*”), references to Jewish spirituality (“*Tekiah Gedolaaaaahhhhh*”), neologisms, anaphora, slant rhymes, unique and comic spellings, and artistic use of typography. I found no clichés, no commonplaces here, but countless wildly inventive descriptions of peak emotional states. Siegell’s sense of awe just keeps on coming.
To appreciate the collection, I had to read up on the band Phish, which Siegell spells as “PHiSH,” and that definitely enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the poems. Plus, I loved getting an inside look into the phan culture. For example, I learned that Phish phans in the audience legally produce bootleg tapes during concerts by holding up boom microphones. They then trade these bootleg tapes, a practice that is also in compliance with Phish’s policy. Hence the title of Siegell’s collection, jambandbootleg. In the poem “*SET II*” the poet writes of:
tradable hours&hours recorded Inside,
during the show, by the microphoneforests of tapers
… consider bootlegs the closest thing
our jampastime has to baseballcards …
I also learned that the Phish phans caravan across the country following the band, setting up tents in parking lots and campgrounds at which the band performs. One poem, “*MIDNIGHT to SUNRISE: N. Y. E. PHiSH 2000*” describes the weary but amazed aura worn by phans after a two-day marathon Y2K Phish concert at a Seminole Indian Reservation (N. Y. E. stands for New Year’s Eve). This was said to be the largest of the Y2K concerts in the US with over 75,000 people present. Much of this poem’s text is laid out in a large numeral 2 to represent the year 2000, and while I will not attempt to reproduce the graphics, here are some lines from the poem:
a two-day fête soundboarding
84 celebrated songs w/ enough gumption
to make it, & us, feel: Meaningful>we_were there
An A+ ambitious,
a once glowring-
I love that Siegell lets me ride along on his excited vibe, that he shares his tipsy neural wow with me. And I don’t even have to camp out and get all sweaty and dirty like a real reveler. I can groove at my desk. Cool!
Other poems in Siegell’s genre of shaped or concrete poetry include “*06.25.00 – PHiSH – Alltel Pavilion, NC,*” a poem that was originally published in Rattle, and which is laid out in the form of a flame. In a portion of “*SET II,*” Siegell rotates some of the type to set up an isosceles triangle. In one non-Phish poem about a younger set of concert goers – “emo/alt teen boys/ in shirts &/ ties…” at a Bright Eyes show, Siegell lays his lines out in a guitar shape. Diversity in layout is key for Siegell. Short lines, long lines, double-column poems also provide constant graphic interest, but the poet never sacrifices language for shape on the page. I also appreciated Siegell’s witty use of typographical illustration as in “<*(((><.” And see “*Meet Me at Will Call*” for some more typographical fooling around.
Taking a break from the plunges into the concert midst, Paul Siegell also writes these beautiful rhythmic lines in “*12.03.05 – Iron & Wine w/ Calexico – Electric Factory, PA*” about a woman for whom the speaker falls in a crush:
girl of the keyhole, haloed
statue in the negative space:
legs bent, posed in a pull on of jeans –
how may I align with such rare signature?
Another calm-down occurs in the long and wondrous poem “*SET III,*” which comes to rest with these final lines, “for Dionysus speaks:/Apollo descends w/ boundaries.” Although I loved the ecstatic poems, one of my favorite poems in the collection was a very grounded one entitled “*Pass/Fail*” that recounts the speaker’s father’s close encounter with the Selective Service. jambandbootleg then has its meditative moments, but mostly its poems dance with musical joy and Phish phandom. They are poems that love being alive, and that’s why they make me cheer.
Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection Fair Creatures of an Hour was a 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry. A review of it appeared in Rattle.
SEEING BIRDS IN CHURCH IS A KIND OF ADIEU by Arlene AngPosted by Rattle
Review by Lynn Levin
SEEING BIRDS IN CHURCH IS A KIND OF ADIEU
by Arlene Ang
Meirion House, Glan yr afon, Tanygrisiau,
Gwynedd, LL41 3SU
2010, 80 pp., L7.99 UK, L8.99 outside UK
The poems in Arlene Ang’s new collection Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu bid farewell to mothers, fathers, spouses, children, comrades in arms, and others. My own parents are elderly, and I know that I will endure some of the losses that Ang describes in this new collection. I will return to her lyrics at that sad time because of the tenderness they offer, but I savor the poems now for their beauty. These poems of death and remembrance speak intimately of family ties. While a few poems might hint of regret, most reflect on relationships that are solid, tender, and loyal. Though unsentimental, the poems are steeped in love.
In her 2008 collection Bundles of Letters Including A, V, and Epsilon, a collaborative work with poet Valerie Fox, Ang was playful, experimental, and avant-garde. Her 2005 collection The Desecration of Doves delighted with stylish, and sometimes sexy, lyrics. In Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu, her fifth collection, Ang returns to the lyrical and richly descriptive style of The Desecration of Doves.
Arlene Ang’s metaphors startle and amaze. A house in August wears “heat like hosiery” (“The Day She Was Called to Identify the Body”). Parents contemplating their adult son’s death, stand outside his bedroom door “like phantom limbs” (“As we think”). In a house of mourning, time passes to no effect: “Like a mother, the clock wipes its face over and over/with its hands” (“A Sun That Isn’t a Source of Heat…”). Ang, who lives near Venice, sometimes brings glimpses of Italy into her poems. In “Col San Martino,” a wife drives to visit the remains of the car wreck that claimed her husband, and the landscape speaks: “From this hillside, the vineyards/sprawl like cemeteries, grape stalks crucified on white pales.”
In the title poem, “Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu,” the poet unfolds a painterly tableau in which a sparrow, a pigeon, and a blackbird alight upon a pew, a statue of Christ, and a bronze of a station of the Cross. The poem opens with these lines:
The silence never lasts long.
Wings in the air stroke and turn it upside-down.
Ears were made to capture chaos,
you said. A tree sparrow raps
its beak on the pew as if to remind the wood
that it was once a tree.
The birds seem to symbolize the spirit of a person – a father perhaps? – who had wanted a room overlooking the church.
Ang often memorializes the dead by describing the spaces in which they lived or the rooms in which they are dying. She shows us a sickroom with its crumpled sheets and pills, a studio, a kitchen. In “Leopold’s Room,” a mother seeks to hold on to the memory of her son who died of cancer by having his bedroom videotaped.
The curtains – craggy with nicotine – billow,
smudging a view of the lake.
The tape jams. You don’t slap
the video camera awake, but watch
the wind shut the door on Leopold’s secrets:
the x-rays, the synthetic wigs,
the unworn sweaters
with moth holes mouthing sarcomata.
Amid the tender moments, Ang faithfully observes the things that are not so neat and beautiful. Various poems speak of incontinence or food spoiling in the dying person’s fridge. And yet, one of the things that impress me about these poems is how kind the people in them are to each other, the sensitivity they show, and the dignity they accord those who are suffering the humiliations of illness. In “Surviving Grandfather,” a poem written from a child’s point-of-view, Ang writes:
In the end, his fingers cast spidery
shadows on the wallpaper, white sheets
became stained: this was coffee,
everyone said, and we shouldn’t stare.
The children are then sent outdoors to play, and there they encounter still other clues of the grandfather’s illness.
Ang includes a number of sonnenizios on lines from the poets Ros Barber, Merryn Williams, and Jean Cassou. Invented by the Kim Addonizio, the sonnenizio is a fourteen-line poem that springboards off a line from someone else’s sonnet and which incorporates a word from that first borrowed line in each of the successive thirteen lines. The poem ends with a couplet. I was delighted to discover the sonnenizio, and I see that it is catching on with other poets.
The poems in Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu throw their net over a world that is receding, fading, and therefore all the more dear. The poet says to us: “You are facing a loved one’s death, you are visiting his possessions and keepsakes. I’ve been there, too, and this is how it was for me.” These are poems that console. They are clear-minded, unsentimental, stoic even, and yet they radiate love.
Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection is Fair Creatures of an Hour (Loonfeather Press, 2009).