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Night with Drive-By Shooting Stars, by Jim Daniels

Night with Drive-By Shooting Stars is the beautiful collection in which author Jim Daniels contemplates the passage of time, reflecting on his growth from a youth restless in a small Midwestern town to a loving father and husband trying to absorb and draw out each fleeting moment with his family.  Daniels handles his subjects – from teen drug use and first sexual experiences to his wife’s pregnancy and a friend’s cancer diagnosis – with a subtle sensuality and with a tone that is consistently compelling in its gentle honesty.  He hints at melancholy in a way that is both controlled and beautiful; but also infuses darker scenes with tinges of hope.

In “Drying Out,” for example, Daniels draws a metaphor between lighting wood in a stove to coping with alcoholism in a brief commentary on the slow beginnings of communication both in a foreign country (here, Italy) and between romantic partners.  An excerpt:

Finally, I handed her a letter about drying out,

how booze had given me a spark,

humor and confidence, goodwill and friends,

lovers. And who was I without it?


I stood outside cutting wood. Sun and work

warmed me. I took off my down vest,

the second skin of that cold-stone winter.


She creaked open the thick wooden door

and stood beside me. It wasn’t as simple

as stone and wood. What is true


is that we learned enough of the language

to get by. We stacked blood oranges in a bowl.


The wood dried so slow we barely

noticed it, but it dried nonetheless.

And it burned.

Daniels also examines the role of poetry and the written word throughout his life, first from “the drone of old English poets/ telling us some shit about love” in high school in “Red Vinyl,” to the “sweat, to fill one page” later on in “Helping with My Brother’s Résumé,” and finally to the reconsideration of his wife’s pregnancy – “When you were pregnant/ I should have used more commas and fewer/ periods” – in “Lately.”  The first of these meta-poems that caught my attention was “Teaching Poetry to the Deaf.”  An excerpt:

I read their poems, the absence of sound.

Missing words. Deaf mistakes,

the teacher explains, filling in,

my guide through this silent land.

Daniels sets vivid scenes whose metaphorical value is evident without the addition of telling words.  The tendency toward narrative descriptions that expose the power and meaning of quiet, private moments in my own poetry drew me to this collection.  Daniels brings us in to his most intimate memories and allows us both to know him and to relate to him with our own experiences.

Reviewed by Courtney Woodburn.

The Colossus

     Although Sylvia Plath did not gain much recognition in her own time, her poetry is certainly worth a read.  The Colossus was her first published book of poetry and has a lot to offer to today’s poets.  Plath sometimes merges classic mythology with present-day issues and language.  The poem “Two Sisters of Persephone” uses the myth as a tool in the poem, but Plath’s poem itself is essentially modern.  Plath’s focus in the book falls mostly on nature and death—and usually nature in tandem with death.  Her language is dark, yet concise.  She does not over-describe a scene.  Instead, she states the situation or description very bluntly, devoid of over-zealous similes.  It gives the impression that her work is very real, not contrived.  She is not trying to write about death as a poet—she is a woman talking about death in poetic form. 

     One of the best poems, because of its deviation from traditional nature-inspired poems is “Frog Autumn”:

Frog Autumn

Summer grows old, cold-blooded mother

The insects are scant, skinny.

In these palustral homes we only

Croak and wither.

 

Mornings dissipate in somnolence.

The sun brightens tardily

Among the pithless reeds.  Flies fail us.

The fen sickens.

 

Frost drops even the spider. Clearly

The genius of plentitude

Houses himself somewhere. Our folk thin

Lamentably.

 

     Where other poets might overdo descriptions of nature or focus on it from a person’s perspective, I respect that although she chose a familiar subject, Plath chose a unique route.  I would recommend The Colossus to anyone interested in poetry that is both hearkening back to the classic yet modern and edgy at the same time.

Frederick Seidel- Ooga Booga

I stumbled into the mansion one afternoon determined to find three volumes of poetry that I at least liked. Once I got into the lending library, however, I realized that I had no idea where to start. Enlisting the help of Professor Rafferty to find poetry for non-poets, we came up with a small stack. One book, an uncorrected proof of Frederick Seidel’s “Ooga Booga” caught my eye. There was a poem called “Bologna” and each of the page numbers in the Table of Contents was listed as “00.” I can appreciate some weirdness.

Seidel is accessible and doesn’t shy away from writing about modern elements of life that some poets shy away from like e-mail. In his metapoem “Bologna,” he seems to express some of the same frustration that I’ve been feeling about poetry. As he says “I find the poetry I write incomprehensible, But at least I understand it.” I think that he’s a refreshing change from the serious, dark and often bleak poetry that I found in the other volumes I pulled from the library. It may not be extraordinarily elevated or challenging but it was certainly an enjoyable read.

This is one Amazon.com review of this collection:

Review

Declension in the Village of Chung Luong by Bruce Weigl

Declension in the Village of Chung Luong

     In Declension in the Village of Chung Luong, Bruce Weigl writes poems about everything that should not be written about in poetry, according to how-to guides for high school creative writing classes.  But he pulls it off magnificently.  He writes about war, its aftermath and death blatantly, but while elevating it to a poetic level.  Weigl does not sugar-coat his message or the events he describes (which would ultimately be a disservice to his topics).  War and the consequences of it should be talked about bluntly, even in poetry.   Weigl’s language is simple, with descriptions that are poetic but relatable.  A good example is in his poem “Whatever”; he describes a “woman’s ass” as a “sweet plum.”  Poetic, yet crass.  As a man in a foreign country, his description is also notably honest. 

     In my opinion, one of the best poems is “Le Filme.”  It perfectly captures what I admire most about his work: his simplicity, honesty and command of language.  The poem is as follows:

 

 Le Filme

     I hear the screams of children

blown to pieces by bombs

     guided precisely to a room

in the house next door

     where a “target” lived, or

didn’t; that kind of thing.

 

The deaths pile up

     as if on my shoulders;

this is no metaphor;

     The pile grows and grows.

We can’t keep up with the names anymore.

I am pulled inside the war. I am pulled inside the war.

     Nothing I can do

can stop even one fucking death; not one.

The film is black and white,

     and one day will be “lost.”

 

     Weigl’s language is painfully honest and it gives an emotional vulnerability and rawness to the poem.  Instead of tackling the huge issues of war overall, he speaks of an individual’s experience to connect to a larger meaning (the futility of war and the destruction that it brings). 

     I highly recommend the book, despite its dark subject matter, mostly because Weigl handles the topic brilliantly. 

Bucolics

This collection, Maurice Manning’s third, consists of all untitled and unpunctuated poems, all addressing the same person or thing, “boss.” As the poems progress it becomes clear that “boss” means a creator of sorts, and the speaker addresses “boss” through questions and praise for their work on Earth. With out any periods or commas, each poem seems to flow directly into the next. At times it seems the whole book is just one large poem, which it concievably could be. At first I was slightly skeptical whether or not I could remain interested until the end, with the repetition of “boss” and the lack of punctuation, but Bucolics managed to hold me until the end. It’s beautiful praise of the natural world and an continual fresh and simple outlook on life is really made this book keep its grasp on me until the end.

 

Excerpt:

III.

there was a fox Boss in my dream
last night a fox the color of
the field before it wakes to green
I didn’t know there was a fox
about until it moved until
it moved like it was sliding Boss
it slid across a furrow then
I barely saw it sliding to
the woods sliding to the river Boss
I never know what’s going to cross
my path O never what will make
me ask another question that’s
a question in itself I’d like
to know why everything is stuck
in the middle Boss of something else
why the fox was stuck inside my dream
though it was making for the river
do you make nothing Boss but questions
did you set that fox inside my head
did you lay that field behind my eyes

Poem a Day: Karen McCosker; Nicholas Albery

Poem a Day is a collection of poems put together by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery.  I highly recommend it for any aspiring poet as a way to bring poetry into every day.  The collection is diverse, giving the reader examples of many types of poems, and consequently many new ideas on what can be done with poetry.  Their method of connecting poems to dates, usually because the poet was born or died on that day, helps keep too many similar poems from following one right after the other, and thus keeps it more interesting.

The opening and closing poems are very apt, January 1st has “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge, which sets a hopeful and uplifting tone to the tomb.  Meanwhile, “Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns is a classic for December 31st, and a reminder of how poetry has seeped into daily life, through songs, while poetry can also celebrate daily life.  “Valentine” by Carol Ann Duffy was perfect for February 14th, and had a nice image of giving your love an onion.

The anthology has a broad spectrum of poems, ranging from the political “First They came for the Jews” by Pastor Neimoller, to several Shakespearean sonnets, to “The Tyger” by William Blake.  The diversity in subject matter and style helps showcase the whole world of poetry.  This truly is the perfect book to add a little poetry to daily life.

Temper by Beth Bachmann

Temper by Beth Bachmann is a poetic page-turner, grabbing the reader at the first verse and refusing to let them go.  It tracks the time and feelings the speaker has after the death of her sister.  It flows in a storytelling manner, an especially good read for people who don’t normally read just collections of poems.

The poems themselves are beautifully written, with interesting illusions.  Bachman’s habit of dividing the poem into groups of two lines provides an interesting reinforcement for the relationships the book focuses on, between the speaker and her sister, the speaker and her father, and the sister and the father.

One of my favorite poems was “First Mystery of My Father,” because she ends talking about how Eve saw her father naked and felt ashamed.  It was a creative way of addressing her feelings about learning details about her parents that she might not has wanted to know, addressing a sort of universal feeling against knowing all the sordid details of one’s parent’s past.

I like her title, as temper can refer to anger, and crimes of passion, which could have led to her sister’s death.  However, temper can also be a state of balance, or a way of softening something, which would imply her father wasn’t responsible.  This ambiguity over whether her father is guilty persists throughout the poem, and helps give us access to the speaker’s feelings, as she herself doesn’t know.  Overall, the book was one of the most gripping poetry books I’ve ever read. 

Woods and Chalices, by Tomaž Šalamun

Woods and Chalices is the translated collection of poems by Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun.  I picked up a used copy at Riverby Books, having been intrigued by the blunt brevity of the poems inside.  Šalamun constructs verse with a disarming directness as he blends past and present, fantasy and nature, obscenity and sensuality, as well as the landscape of his home country.  Most of the poems in the collection are short, taking up less than a page, and they end abruptly, taking the audience through a roller coaster of images and leaving us hanging.  Many of the allusions are beyond me, often coming from Slovenia’s history, presumably, and Middle Eastern culture.  Even though I reach the end of many of them with only a patchy understanding of their meaning, the language in the poems is impactful alone.  His choppy verse is no-fuss; we get an image or scene, an action, and a cryptic ending.

One of my favorites reflects on the process of aging in a comparison to machinery, meanwhile inducing imagery of the body:

Perfection

Leather without history. Strength without

rickets. From a drawer. On the hand a wire. Blood

is silk. Walk silently. Blood is like

fruit. Here, too, is heated.

Shah’s tanks are entrenched. First we thrashed

ourselves. We roared and got excited.

Mirrors have to function as ovens. You see them

from the road. On the machines producing

dreams. Some read between them. The perfect

form springs up like an ear. I know

a chiropractor who can pull out your arm.

Five centimeters out of your shoulder.

Joints crunch. No need for oil. You spin

as you please. You leave when the tools fall asleep.

Another I enjoy well-exemplifies Šalamun’s work with its rich imagery that mixes elements of nature with contemporary setting and colloquialisms:

Odessa

You’re lazy, Fedor, stupid and godfearing.

If you look at the bottom, you don’t see crystals.

Crystals are bedsprings, they have noddles

in their robberies. As crooked as sea-

weed. It sways, sways and doesn’t go down.

The water levels it. Crystals are mouths

of sweethearts. An agave is cut down with a hatchet, too.

A stomach, a sweetheart, an artichoke.

The neighbor’s hand, clad in plastic,

cleaning up dog shit. We’re in front

of Barnes & Noble. In front of the pyramids.

Across the street you can buy wine,

and when going to JFK and changing

at Howard Beach you watch

whales or sea elephants again (fish

that flash) for which the artists drew

gold pears, beards that reach

to the airborne planes and to the depths of the sea.

Šalamun’s strength lies in his mastery of language and his direct and sometimes humorous tone. His tone is bold and simultaneously understated, leaving the reader to decode the mysteries Šalamun weaves throughout his deceptively straightforward prose.

Reviewed by Courtney Woodburn.

Magnetic North, by Linda Gregerson

Magnetic North, the collection from award-winning poet Linda Gregerson, offers reflections on a variety of subjects, from religion to nature to cultural events.  Gregerson uses scientific language and unexpected images to talk about larger themes like 9/11 and adolescent self-injury.  In “Bicameral,” for example, she uses the terminology of embryology to examine the divide between Western civilization and Third World countries.

The poem opens with the following excerpt:

Choose any angle you like, she said,

the world is split in two. On one side, health

and dumb good luck (or money, which can pass

for both), and elsewhere… well,

they’re eight days from the nearest town,

the parents are frightened, they think it’s their fault,

the child isn’t able to suck. A thing

so easily mended, provided

you have the means. I’ve always thought it was

odd, this part (my nursing school

embryology), this cleft in the world

that has to happen and has to heal. At first

the first division, then the flood of them, then

the migratory plates that make a palate when

they meet (and meeting, divide

the chambers, food

from air). The suture through which (the upper

lip) we face the world.

Her meticulous attention to detail attributes to the well-crafted quality of her work.  She masterfully incorporates hard facts in ways that enhance the poems’ lyricism, thus expanding the scope and meaning of poetry.  In “Make-Falcon,” for example, Gregerson examines the falcon through the perspective of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor during the 13th century, in a way that compels us to see art in anatomy and the natural world, beyond the conventional designations of art.  An excerpt:

You must open

the breast and extract the organ that moves

by itself, which is to say, the heart,

and let the falcon feed.

The sultan

has sent me a fine machine combining

the motions of sun and moon,

and Giacomo makes a poem of fourteen

lines. The music is very good,

I think. (Of those who refuse to come to the lure… Of

shirkers… Of bating…)

But give me the falcon for art.

Despite the elevated language in her poetry, Gregerson maintains an observational first-person presence that sometimes interacts with other voices as well, thus balancing the highly intellectual quality of her work with a conversational tone.  Many of the poems feature formal experimentations Gregerson has not attempted until this collection, according to the back of the book.  In “Dido in Darkness,” for example, she uses the space of the entire page and gives the impression of erratic thought by having single lines stick out by themselves, by trailing off with ellipses and asking fragmented questions, and by using enjambment on unlikely words.

This work was admittedly difficult to begin, given its demand for “muscular reading,” but upon further exploration, Magnetic North is a fascinating patchwork of culture and science and moments both personal and international that pushes us to consider the innate relationship of seemingly diverse elements in our world.

Reviewed by Courtney Woodburn.

You Get So Alone Sometimes That it Just Makes Sense

       Before reading this collection I was unfamiliar with Charles Bukowski’s work. Really the only reason I picked it up was because I liked the title, and skimming through it I liked what I saw. After finishing the collection, I have a love-hate relationship with it. The poems in the collection generally operate through several main themes – alcohol, horse racing, and being an established poet who receives letters complaining that he doesn’t write the way he used to. The common factor tying all of these poems together though is the singularity behind each of them. Even when describing interaction between people, the heart of the poem is in the speaker’s awareness of being alone, disconnected. One of my favorite poems, “no help for that,” acts as a fairly decent summary for the focus of the collection.

 

no help for that

there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled

a space

and even during the
best moments
and
the greatest times
times

we will know it

we will know it
more than
ever

there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled
and

we will wait
and
wait

in that space.

 

I think it would have been beneficial to have been acquianted with some of Bukowski’s previous work before reading this particular collection, as some of the poetry operates on the idea that the reader is familiar with his work. However, I didn’t find that my reading was vastly affected by my unfamiliarity.  Bukowski’s biting sarcasm and rather hopeless view of the world simultaneously depressed me, made me laugh, and deeply resonated with me. I will be picking up another Bukowski collection in the near future.

 (Reviewed by Erin Longbottom)

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