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A Serenade at the Villa

A Serenade at the Villa
by Robert Browning
read by Elisa Caballero

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

Birthday Letters, as its title would imply, is a book of poems addressed by the speaker to various people that have touched his life, many of them gone now, although the focus is on the poet’s deceased wife, Sylvia Plath (potentially as a response to accusations of being partly to blame for her suicide). Many of the poems are touched uncomfortably by contempt, albeit somewhat affectionate contempt. The overarching theme is one of loss and absence.

There is an undercurrent as well of the speaker’s absence, that the loss explored so thoroughly in the poems (also through displacement; there are many travel poems) is a loss of self, both Plath’s and his own:

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced.
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water,
Listening for them–in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching–
Then dancing wilder in the silence.

(From “God Help The Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark”)

Aside from any speculation on theme or meaning, what drew me most into this book was the sheer density of the poetry. Many are multiple pages, the lines are long and wordy, well-crafted and complex. I appreciate poems this solid, and I keep going over the particularly intriguing ones again and again, hoping to get a little more out of them.

An excerpt from one: “Fate Playing”

When I got off the train, expecting to find you
Somewhere down at the root of the platform,
I saw that surge and agitation, a figure
Breasting the flow of released passengers,
Then your molten face, your molten eyes
And your exclamations, your flinging arms,
Your scattering tears
As if I had come back from the dead
Against every possibility, against
Every negative but your own prayer
To your own gods. There I knew what it was
To be a miracle. And behind you
Your jolly taxi-driver, laughing, like a small god,
To see an American girl being so American,
And to see your frenzied chariot-ride–
Sobbing and goading him, and pleading with him
To make happen what you needed to happen–
Succeed so completely, thanks to him.

It is worth noting that as a newcomer to reading poetry, I came to this book and read it ignorant of its context. Learning its context afterward certainly cast it in a new light, though I am not more than passingly familiar with Sylvia Plath and the controversy surrounding her suicide.

(Review by Elisa Caballero)

Hotel Insomnia by Charles Simic

Someone (I don’t remember who) recommended Charles Simic to me (a particular book, but I forgot that too), so I went to his shelf in the library and browsed titles. Hotel Insomnia struck me. Personifying abstract concepts like insomnia is fairly common in poetry, but the idea of insomnia as a place one might go was intriguing.

Not all of the poems in Hotel Insomnia are set at night when one should be sleeping; an equal number are set at ambiguous times, or even in the day. What Simic does that is interesting, is set up night as the dominant time, and day as a vague interlude between nighttimes, creating an interesting reversal. There is an overall tone of unsettledness, and many of the poems have at their center an unsettling uncertainty, something that is about to happen, or might have happened, creating an atmosphere of surreality and disturbance.

There is a certain sense of despair in these poems. The speaker turns often to the dying and the homeless. But the despair is taken along with good humor: a favorite motif of mine was the series of mythic figures (everything from ancient Greek statues of Aphrodite to Jesus to Martha Washington) working as waiters in a series of indistinguishable all-night diners (or, in the case of Martha Washington, as a ticket-taker at a movie theater).

One of my favorite selections was the poem with which the book ended: “Country Fair”hotel_insomnia

If you didn’t see the six-legged dog,
It doesn’t matter.
We did and he mostly lay in the corner.
As for the extra legs,

One got used to them quickly
And thought of other things.
Like, what a cold, dark night
To be out at the fair.

Then the keeper threw a stick
And the dog went after it
On four legs, the other two flapping behind,
Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

She was drunk and so was the man
Who kept kissing her neck.
The dog got the stick and looked back at us.
And that was the whole show.

(Review by Elisa Caballero)

Mother Chaos: Under Electric Light by Mattie Smith

Although this book of poems was written by the mother of my best friend from boarding school, I am not partial to her work because of this. Although she is not well-known, I hope that she will be one day. She talks about nature in ways that other poets seem incapable. Nature is something of beauty and poetry, but it is also something that puts us in touch with the realities of life. Mattie Smith’s poetry puts the candidness and keenness with which she approaches her life into a written text, bringing to light many of the hard facts of human existance. She has a talent for telling the truth in a beautiful way, that I have found in few other poets in my life. Here is an excerpt from her poem, “An Invocation for the Tattooed Man,” one of my personal favorites.
I see you from a distance
Too wide for words to cross,
Sitting behind a barrier
Of breezes and light.

Tattoos tatter your skin,
Border on torn tablets of white.
Serpents and vines wrap your arms,
Wind to harbor that heart
Beating beneath branched bones.

You rest your arms on your knees
And each inked figure twists
On flexes of linked muscle.
I could never weave a work
To tell your flesh story:

A horned man raises a sword,
Above the throat of a princess;
Her breasts burst with tattoos
And the words, Born to Die.

Smoke rings rise from your mouth.
You are your own display,
Perched on the evening’s stairs
To catch customer’s eyes.

I could climb into
Your parlor, walk
Through your beaded curtain,
And tattoo my own body…”

Although her poetry tends to be more conservative, her poetry brings many figures to life that need to be given attention and a voice. She captures truth in unexpected places, showing us all how “ill at ease” we all really are with the world around us.

Midwest Ecologue by David Baker

This book of poetry fits nicely with the other book of poetry that I wrote about “Dismal Rock,” which talks about the rural South. This describes a slightly different,but in many ways similar, sense of rural America that is really interesting. David Baker’s poetry is extremely earthy, he doesn’t have a single poem that doesn’t include imagery from the natural word, often his own backyard. He often includes imagery of people working within the natural world and describes the relationship between people and nature. His poetry includes a lot of interaction between the poet and characters from history or imagination, neighbors that do actually exist, and even several of his close family members; his wife plays a particularly important role in his work. The scenery of the Midwest, mainly Ohio where he lives is central in all of his work.. it can be seen in the following excerpt from his poem “Bedlam.”
It’s a buggy day in Ohio, smeared
with humid clouds. I’ve been hacking back brush,
lopping trees, whizzing my loud weed-eater
down fenceworks and pond’s edge to curb the growth.
More and more I recognize the torment
in another’s mind better than my own.
I’ve got a mean streak a mile wide. But why?
I’ve got a mouthful of weed seeds and bark
and blisters like green grapes in my hands —
gasoline sears the grass slits up my arms.
But it’s nothing a little balm won’t soothe,
nothing another pill won’t ease. I think
the work does me good, trimming things down
to their marrow-most clarity. When Clare
says he’s feeling very melancholy,
he means he’s been cooped up, half-crazy or
worse for years. He’s in love with two women,
Patty and Mary, one real wife and one
beloved in his imaginings —

This pasage from David Baker’s poem “Bedlam,” shows the ways that Baker combines imagery of nature with conversations with characters to portray his thoughts and emotions, and even to comment on his world on a social level. I had the chance to hear David Baker read his poetry on two occasions, and have to say that his poems take on a whole new light and meaning when read aloud. However, the next best thing to that is his book “Midwest Ecologue,” which is a beautiful portrayal of modern American life, and the roots which connect us all to one another and to our pasts.


-Annie Pates

Attempt to Upload Poem Recitation

Emotional Idiot- Maggie Estep

I’m an Emotional Idiot- Maggie Estep

Dream Poetry.

Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos

It’s she unchanging who makes

The hands of the sundial move

She who rules over the breathing

Of lovers and sleepers

(excerpt from “Mermaid”)

Robert Desnos is a fairly obscure poet who was involved with the Surrealists.  The Surrealists were interested in dreams and the unconscious.  They developed various methods of tapping into the unconscious.  The Surrealists believed one could record raw, unfiltered thoughts through the practice of automatic writing.  Much of the poetry in The Voice of Robert Desnos was created in this way.  However, Desnos had a unique way of reaching into the unconscious realm – he would first undergo hypnosis.  He would then recite his poetry; someone nearby would record.  Sometimes these performances were done in front of an audience.

I find the works done under hypnosis to be rather fascinating.  They give you a glimpse of the first sparks of inspiration before any polishing is done.  This is not what you normally get to see.  Towards the end of the collection, there are more structured poems, however.  Here is an example:


In my afternoon sleep a hundred thousand years

Went by in less than a second.

I went to the depths of a dream unopposed by

The reality of my flesh and the world.

In my mouth I found again an ancient taste

And names out of the past and kisses so tender

I no longer know who I am or if my heart

Beats in the sure present or in the ashes of the past.

Volcanoes erupt from the depths of memory.

Drown a weary soul in your lava

Burn the old notes and tarnish forever

That mirror whose silver backing gnaws at the glass.

What Narcissism Means to Me

narcissimTony Hoagland’s collection, appropriately titled “What Narcissism Means to Me,” is all about the self, the writer’s own judgements of others, his internal monologues, the things he thinks but would never say aloud to anyone.  It is such a fun and honest read that manages to not only show the author’s frank tendencies toward self love and elevation about those around him but also his insecurities and short-comings.  Here is a passage from “Argentina” in which Hoagland demonstrates his tendency towards self-loathing:

How did I come to believe in a government called Tony Hoagland?

with an economy based on flattery and self protection?

and a sewage system of selective forgetting?

and an extensive history of broken promises?


Hoagland also uses a repeating cast of characters within his poems who are revolving friends and lovers of his.  Though he occasionally writes poems commenting on the faults and oddities of these people, he also seems to care intensely about them and finds most of his self-inspiration from them turning it inward and asking questions about his own life like in “Migration”:

This year Marie drives back and forth

from the hospital room of her dying friend

to the office of the adoption agency.


I bet sometimes she doesn’t know

what threshold she is waiting at–


the hand of her seick friend, hot with fever;

the theorectical baby just a lot of paperwork so far.


But next year she might be standing by a grave,

wearing black with a splash of banana vomit on it,


the little girl just starting to say Sesame Street

and Cappuccino latte grande Mommy.

The future ours for a while to hold, with its heaviness–


and hope moving from one location to another

lik the holy ghost that it is.

Hoagland also slips into this collection his meditations on life.  The more you read these poems the more you begin to notice that they are not so much about narcissism at all, but about Hoagland’s desire to understand the immeasureable pain and weighted sadness he feels in his own life.  Perhaps the greatest example of this comes from my favorite poem of the bunch.  In a passage from “Man Carrying Sofa” Hoagland describes his feelings towards life; how superficial and menial things can seem externally and how deeply complex emotion and pain can be internally, yet also how hope fits into it all as is echoed by the previous excerpt.

What a great journey this is,

this ordinary life of ants and sandwich wrappers,

of X-rated sunsets and drive-through funerals.


And this particular complex pain inside your chest;

this damaged longing

like a heavy piece of furniture inside you;

you carry it, it burdens you, it drags you down–

then you stop, and rest on top of it.

The Second Child by Deborah Garrison

Probably the most impressive quality of Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child: Poems is its relatable-ness. The poet deals mostly with themes of motherhood, particularly a mother suffering from postpartum depression as in the aptly named, “Not Pleasant but True.” Garrison explores a multitude of emotions of a new mother although she is discussing the birth of her second child. She includes poems that say goodbye to a past way of life as well as physical location—her family moved from New York to New Jersey following the birth of their second daughter. She writes about the fears of explaining things such as death and infinity to her five year old daughter. And of course, she spends much of her time describing the joys of loving a new baby:

“A Joke” (excerpt)

Drinking on my left tonight
you tossed up your left
hand and sweetly poked
your index finger in my mouth,
and I, amusing myself, suck it
in time with you—you all
mine, good enough to eat,
blank baby boychik.

All in all Garrison’s second volume of poetry is a beautiful look at the swift changes of emotional needs that a mother takes upon herself with the birth of her child.


Riverspeak by Greg Nielsen



I found Greg’s work to be chock-full of imagry about landscapes. It was a good lesson in finding words that work well in nature poetry. Almost every one of these poems is about or has the title ‘River’ in it. If one were to be thinking of how to keep a theme through several poetry pieces, this would be the one. His work has a rather native American feeling. It seems to be coming from a very simple, unencumbered place. His piece titled, ‘Red Oxygen, Blue Feeling’ really struck a chord with me and then I found that he had won an honorable mention for it in a international poetry contest based out of Ireland.




Red Oxygen, Blue Feeling
Just a touch of wind.
Tickling tree top leaves.
Cold rushing water – spring.
Hot green tea cooling
Steam swirls rising,
Evaporating into mountain air.
Blood resonating with river,
Red oxygen, blue feeling.
I don’t have to go anywhere
When I’m here – now.
Thoughts tickle my mind,
Feelings giggle my soul.
Laughing waters
From Minnehaha Falls
To the mighty Mississippi,
The river of my childhood.
The rushing water in my veins.
Visiting the source.