Review copies of several poetry books have found their way to my desk this month, and I wanted to mention a few I’ve enjoyed. I remember how greedy I was for books in high school, when the $15 cover price of a slim volume seemed impossibly extravagant. I read the same few authors repeatedly: Auden, Sexton, Eliot, Robert Hass, Mark Strand. Now I can hardly do justice to the many books that I get in the mail, and I don’t have the luxury of rereading. Something is wrong with this picture. It’s probably the same character flaw that’s responsible for my novel’s excess of subplots. Too many competing priorities.
Some books worth slowing down for: I was very pleased to discover a new publisher from England, Templar Poetry, which runs a chapbook contest with a good-sized prize and better-than-average book design. A lot of chapbooks look like they were xeroxed and stapled together at Kinko’s (the name does mean “cheap book,” after all). Templar’s have full-color covers with French flaps, and are printed on nice ivory matte paper. So far I’ve read and admired two of last year’s winners, Angela Cleland’s Waiting to Burn and Judy Brown’s Pillars of Salt.
Cleland is a masterful writer who never over-explains her meaning. Like Robert Frost, she writes poems that work on many levels. The surface narrative is quite clear, but the more you study it, the more you see that she is using that narrative as an extended metaphor for something more important. Where a lesser poet might say, “X is like Y,” Cleland spends the whole poem telling the story of “X”, but with such subtly loaded language that the reader makes the connection to “Y” on his own. Take for instance her opening poem, “A Guided Tour”:
We asked to see the mechanism.I read this as a poem about original sin, but note how wisely Cleland avoids the familiar tropes (garden, apple, good and evil) in order to seduce us into identifying with the knowledge-seekers until the very last lines, when we see that the protagonists are not trustworthy after all. The tour guide’s “huge, jealous” hands and his “brow like the sky” are clues to his God-identity, while the unexpected “delicate” drops the first hint that he is not just a mean authority figure but a compassionate protector against the real damage that his audience could do.
Asked if he would show us how
it worked, this exquisite machine.
Cogs turned, clean and golden;
oiled springs, fine-coiled stamen
quivered in our minds as we imagined.
But he frowned, his brow like
the sky, and with huge, jealous,
delicate hands, he hid his design,
as if afraid we might cheapen it
with ham-fisted home-made attempts.
Behind his hands the catch snapped
shut. It echoed round his workshop,
rattled screws in the countless devices
that spun and circled us like questions.
One of us nodded. We all nodded,
agreed, of course, this was for the best,
each one with his hand in his pocket,
each one fingering his lock-pick.
What I appreciated most about Judy Brown’s chapbook was her eye for physical details that captured a place or a character. Because her authorial voice is not intrusive, the occasional aphorism or emotional revelation has that much more impact, as in these lines from “Life in the Green Belt”:
Far away in the real countryside
I was slimmer
and one thing led to another.
But here and now
at the edge of a deserted golf course at dusk,
we lay spikily in unattractive positions.
Your unhappiness and my unhappiness
lay between us like two of my relatives.
Most of her poems are more hopeful than that; one of my favorites is “Passenger,” about a shard of glass embedded in her head from a car accident, which fell out 17 years later:
…When I lifted my hand, it fell, a diamond
from the devil’s spittoon, onto the crested paper,
the nailtip of a stalactite breaking.
Did I feel alone without my tough glass star,
its chunk of crystal shining by the bone?
It had brought me more darkness than light
so, for all our long companionship, I let it go.
The other review copies I’ve been reading are from the Kore Press First Book Award series. Kore Press is a well-regarded publisher in Tucson that specializes in poetry by women. I am still trying to find something intelligent to say about Sandra Lim’s Loveliest Grotesque. Her language is beautiful and fascinating, but so nonlinear, so anti-narrative, that I often can’t figure out “why this word and not another?” So far, about one-quarter through the book, I’m most enamored of the title poem and “The Horse and Its Rider”. The latter’s mood reminds me of all those great old ballads about the girl who’s swept away by the sexy bandit. Here are the last lines (the line-break slashes are part of the poem):
someone who belongs to another / what difference does it make to be here alone?
/ take this street, take this hand / eros has a thousand envoys /
now / now / wait for all the arrows to hit their mark / now / now I am going to be
happy / conditional / hardly birthright / strange, worn, contented dolls /
the piano nobile / an endless pageantry / now / let you be lifted / as a frost, old age
will take us /
cleave then / which way
The title, of course, made me picture a literal horseman, but it could also be an allusion to the classical image of reason as the charioteer who masters the horses of passion. Evidently, from the emotions and disjointed style of the poem, the horse is the one in control here. “Which way?” It doesn’t matter; the speaker is along for the ride, even if it ends badly (“as a frost, old age will take us”).
Another Kore Press winner, Elline Lipkin’s The Errant Thread, is quite different. She writes clear, controlled narrative poetry with a deep awareness of connection to history — mostly European history and culture, but also the mythic figures who symbolize women’s struggle in a man’s world: Philomela, Dickens’ Miss Havisham, and in this poem (my favorite from the collection), the Maiden Without Hands from the Grimms’ fairy tale.
Conversation With My Father
After we speak I go to the hardware store
to decide on a drill, feel each black–packaged tool
bristle with its will to do harm. I interlope
among bit sets, arrays of blade and shaft,
gun–like metal shapes that brag of power.
The word–whir of our talk still buzzes its drone
a hot saw always left in the corner, ready to hack.
Important — safety instructions flutter then drop.
I follow your advice on what’s needed to needle
a skin of paint, the force it takes to punch the wall.
How much better if I could have been like Athena,
springing clear as a doe, neat as a sum, blasted out
of your head like a sweep of clean logic. If only I could
have been pure as a product of the mind’s mitosis,
justified as when ‘if’ begets ‘then,’ and ‘a’ equals ‘c,’
each chamber of reason I passed smelting an iron–ore
layer over my breast. How alike we could be when
I emerged, balanced as an axiom, threaded straight
as a theory, and born armed, with bow and arrow in hand.
Instead, in your grip, I was Thumbelina, a glass angel,
a set of porcelain arms crossed behind a back.
My hand was to stay undissolved as a spun–sugar
lump until asked for, approved of, then towed down
an aisle. But I’ve told you I can’t be good as
Grimm’s girl, when we stand near the ax I draw
my wrists back. Each pointed finger is my true weapon.
I won’t let you bronze the cut cups of my palms.