March 19, 2016

Pictures at an Exhibition: A Review of Sandra Marchetti’s Confluence by Angele Ellis

Cover Credit: Sundress Publications
Confluence by Sandra Marchetti
Sundress Publications (2015)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Reading Sandra Marchetti’s first full-length book of poetry is like being immersed in a series of works in an art gallery. Each scene of unfolding—in rich brushstrokes of language—pulls the viewer/reader in, and doesn’t quite let go. Like paintings, Marchetti’s mostly brief but lush lines convey both miracles of beauty and intimations of strain and mortality. (Confluence’s cover is a detail from early 18th century Dutch painter Jan van Huysum, in which a rose and peony are captured on the cusp of over-ripeness, and a zinnia’s stem already has fallen.)

This artist’s view of the world is made explicit in some of Marchetti’s poems. In “Saints,” the poet’s eye glides from the “stars” of the Virgin of Guadalupe to an evocation of the techniques of such classic Dutch painters as van Huysum, as in these lines:
…They say
a glass of water
is the very hardest thing…

… The Dutch could do this—
hold water in their eyes—
inside the painter

a glass would become full,
a flower fresh
with drops of dew,
insects on the petals.
And “Sur l’herbe” is a direct allusion to 19th century painter Édouard Manet’s erotic shocker “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.” Addressing a lover, perhaps, the poem’s speaker directs her own scene like a master:
… Don’t move:
you can’t see
you are a strange

Like Manet,
I strain each stroke
of cup and nape
to show I can…
These excerpts demonstrate Marchetti’s command of not only the images but also the music of poetry—including alliteration, enjambment, rhyme and near rhyme, and the punch of the spondee (a metrical foot in which both syllables are stressed—DUM-DUM—as in “Don’t move”). Marchetti is frank about her poetic influences and the ways in which they haunt her work. This is particularly evident in this passage from her essay “Rhyming with the Dead” (The Turnip Trucks, 1-28-2016):
… My influences include the confessionals, Bishop, Hopkins, Dickinson, and others. I have done it both intentionally and unintentionally; indeed, this is very common in contemporary poetry… I have found all of my poems are part of this interconnected web and that is why certain lines ring in my head—they are not wholly mine; they chime with other voices. In short, I rhyme with the dead.
Later in this essay, Marchetti compares her poem “Lunch” to Anne Sexton’s “The Truth the Dead Know,” a mid-20th century classic that Marchetti has learned by heart. She reflects:
… When Sexton says “June” on the Poetry Speaks recording, she gives such weight to word. I remember my initial reaction to its heavy vowel jab. I have never forgotten it. “Lunch,” another poem of mine, incorporates the same syntactical maneuver of Sexton’s “It is June…” line. The second stanza of “Lunch” reads:
Sorting the demands of red-orange,
pink, cream, I flick stems on the bank,
watch them wash downstream. It is noon,
the bees are circling for somewhere to land.
(Marchetti, “Rhyming with the Dead.”)
Nourishment, sex, art—and the ultimate inability of these things to hold back destruction—make every object in Confluence (animal, vegetable, mineral, the very landscape) a precious yet vulnerable body. In “Orange Bouquet,” one garden-harvested cauliflower encompasses a world of meaning, from “loos[ing]” to “snap,” as in these lines:
… The dark farm in diorama
crams between each branch.

I brush caterpillars into the sink
and geese wink out, smatter

dirt on my hands
in their landing.
Again and again in Confluence, the speaker uses smooth and sharp turns of language to meld with her subject. In “Borderland,” an ordinary fenced-in swimming pool becomes the center of a mystery, with something “… gnawing at your waters.” When the poet asks the pool “What are you?” the answer is “A country.”

The word that provides Marchetti with this book’s title, confluence, has multiple meanings. Literally the merging of two bodies of water (as Pittsburgh’s Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merge to form the Ohio River), it is figuratively any coming together—of factors, ideas, cultures, beings. At the point of confluence, something is both lost and gained. The book’s final poem, “One Secret” (perhaps echoing Elizabeth’s Bishop’s “One Art”), is both a love poem and an artistic credo. In the last lines of this poem, the speaker’s consciousness expands to embrace her lover’s body in the present, its inevitable demise, and the “rhythms” that define her art and world:
… Dusk flares the bones’ groan, so I rub your stomach
until you sleep. I neat my breath to yours,
as if you were a child; the confluence
of rhythms begins. It is only sound
and meaning. Sound and meaning.

March 5, 2016

A Personalized Americana: A Review of Bethany Reid’s Sparrow by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit: Writers & Books
Sparrow by Bethany Reid
Big Pencil Press (2012)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

Bethany Reid’s poems come off the page like a mix of polite gossip and prayer. She writes with the quiet eloquence of Mary Oliver, the raw honesty of Sharon Olds, and shares details of her heartland childhood and coming of age as with Ted Kooser’s sacraments of the everyday. She begins the book with “My Country,” a detailed recounting of life events that, in youth, combine with faith to become a cautionary yet celebratory tale:
Life and death held hands and said grace
over my childhood, every cat that got into rat poison,
every dog hit by a logging truck on our creek road,
every calf with scours….

… Never a way to embrace
All that suffering arm and arm with all that joy,
That astonishing joy I knew as a child in my country.
These are often subtle but substantial poems, a tour of the rural and emotional landscape by a woman who takes nothing for granted and is unabashed in sharing her discoveries. Broken into three sections (Three Horses, Death Must be a Waitress, and What Tongue but My Own), Sparrow takes the reader through a litany of reveries and moments of ripening, rites-of-passage and emotional metamorphosis, and finally a sensually rendered meditation on mortality.

There is an earnest curiosity and humored cynicism where religion, a considerable force, is concerned, as in “What Broke Loose:”
What broke loose when all hell went?
I didn’t have that kind of childhood.
We kept buttoned up. We minded.

Somehow I learned
to experiment with possibility—
the earth crackling like a too-hot stove,
bones budding like exotic flowers.
The same goes for “Rapture,” where the poet remembers savoring the word as a girl, undaunted at the prospect (“A fervent child, I never feared I’d be left…) but wondering how life would be for those on earth, even the mild sinners (“My history teacher who had once / inserted a casual ‘goddamn’ into a lecture…”). Once the faithful were plucked from their everyday lives on the planet, the poet wonders about “…what chaos / we’d leave behind us, my dear, drunk uncles / with no one to fix their suppers, / our cows finding no one at the barn / to throw down their hay.” She also puzzles over the world continuing, unrepentant and unaffected by the absence of the righteous:
What if the world didn’t miss us,
but remained steady on its course,
one ear cocked to the susurrus
of a Pentecostal wind?
In “Prodigal,” we meet the girl-poet in the midst of her early rural life, awakened by birds in the garden, and where she “…chopped wood, / made beds, folded clothes / fresh from the line... picked strawberries, read books, dreamed.” A line that could be a slogan for Sparrow’s underlying sentiment is when the poet admits, after growing up and away from experiences that become cherished in adult memory, “…the smallest of things still beckons.” From the intimate ritual of a waitress undressing and unwrapping her inner selves (“Matyrouska”) to the mother shaking a thermometer like a wand to relieve a fevered daughter (“Pond Girl”), the private scenes in Sparrow echo with heartache, persistence, and joy in dream-like spurts— the totality of a lifetime pieced together in wondrous, ephemeral episodes.

February 6, 2016

Breathing With and Without Air: A Review of Lisa Fay Coutley’s Errata by Anthony Frame

Cover Credit: Southern Illinois University Press
Errata by Lisa Fay Coutley
Southern Illinois University Press (2015)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

In her prize-winning full-length debut, Errata, Lisa Fay Coutley traces the life of a woman who embodies the roles of daughter, mother, and lover. She is lake and desert. She is the lapidary, the chisel, and the gemstone. She is both the trauma survivor and the language of the disaster. As Coutley writes in “Love & Squall,” “Mine are two / hands, reaching during a squall, brittle / enough to grasp at anything unseen.” Coutley’s poems are constantly grasping for air, water, and for the people who populate her lines. The question her poems pose is not whether any of these can be held, but how. 

Coutley’s poems tend to circle back to four central relationships—the speaker and her father, mother, sons, and lover—that are present in all four sections, rather than collected into one section. This allows these themes to grow and evolve throughout the book much in the way a single piece of music repeated throughout an entire symphony grows and gains new meaning. For example, in an early poem, “Researchers Find Mice Pass On Trauma to Subsequent Generations,” the father is a singularly violent force. He tries to drown the narrator’s pregnant mother and he forces the speaker to fill her mouth with M&Ms. Coutley writes, “before I took my first breath / … / I mastered a palpable fear of choking.” Later in the second section, in the poem “Goodbye in the Voice of My Father,” the father warns his daughter about tornadoes in the new state to where she is moving. The tension in the relationship remains (“A normal bird’ll nest near the nest / where it was born,” the father says), but there has been a shift. “He hates me / for leaving,” she writes. “Himself, for shoving me from the nest.”

A similar evolution occurs in the relationship with the speaker’s sons. Early in the book, in “On Home,” she writes, “in a wake of black mascara / mothers drive away.” But later, in “Driving Up-Canyon with My Two Teenage Sons,” she pulls her sons close as the three of them attempt to claim ownership over their lives:
This, kids, is the year we’ll write our history
        of black ice & snow. Here, each of you hold
                a wiper blade, & I'll accelerate, eyes closed.
Coutley not only evolves the tense relationship between mother and sons, but also the driving image. Earlier, a car that was once a source of distance becomes the binding force. Throughout, the relationships and the recurring images build and grow as the speaker searches for new, better ways to hold on to these people, even as she leaves them and as they leave her. Complementary to her fiercely etched narratives, Coutley’s brilliantly permits the lyric quality of her lines to drive the narratives. Her images are crisp and evocative. She mixes influences of narrative poetry and deep image poetry, allowing sounds of images to pull the reader deep into the poems. Take, for example, “Self-Portrait as Pyrocumulonimbus.” Here, she adopts the persona of a fire cloud, jumping from space to space. She follows the logic of language, of sound, as she traces the path of this storm. “I wander. I err,” she writes. “I lunge / into ductwork & become the bedroom.” The force of the poem comes less from following the storm’s journey than from those hard consonant sounds ringing through the lines. Coutley similarly accomplishes this in “Patentia,” a narrative in which the speaker’s lover has left. She writes:
                                                              She & I:
        whispering to an outline of a shadow. Because bodies,
                we know, are built for falling.
Here, once again, the narrative is allowed to fall to the background. The lover has disappeared, becoming an outline and leaving only the speaker’s divided self. The emotional punch of the poem is then controlled by the counterbalance of those soft sounds and the abruptness of the bodies falling. By heightening those repeated o-sounds, Coutley controls her reader’s ear, offering a blanket against the roughness of the b-sounds. As the images fall, her use of language safely catches the reader with those final words, “for falling,” which are full of breathless consonants.

Coutley’s collection is a masterful exercise in controlling both technique and subject matter. Her speaker moves from lakes to desert, carrying with her the ghosts of her past. And as the poems’ fears–of violence and of losing dear ones–grow, the controlling voice becomes more confident in her ability to carry the weight she bears. “I'll never stop talking,” Coutley writes in “Listen.” This ability to talk, to interpret, allows the speaker’s life, and Coutley’s book, to become an errata—a collection of a correction of errors. It allows Coutley to write a book obsessed with, among other things, psuedodysphagia—the fear of choking, of being without breath—all while crafting a series of poems that will leave her readers breathless.

October 24, 2015

The Disembodied Voice Within: A Review of Liz Robbins’s Freaked by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit:
Freaked by Liz Robbins
Elixir Press (2015)

Review by Mindy Kronenberg

What is it about being a freak, or possessing freakishness, that summons public curiosity or our private fears of exposed peculiarity? The notion of being a “Freak”—outsider, misfit, against which others measure their merits or failures— rises from superstition or class snobbery. Our society has become a devoted audience to the broadcast lives of the dysfunctional rich and anonymous disenfranchised, those loudly or meekly suffering their private anomalies. The greater the lens on our own conflictual, alternate cravings for camouflage or celebrity, the more uncomfortable we grow within the skin of our own humanity.

Liz Robbins’s Freaked magnifies concern about how easily friends and intimates could be considered pathetic or profound by a simple twist of phrase. Where does eccentric and abnormal differ or intersect? What life styles (or circumstances) determine our value as citizens and intimates?

Divided into six sections that focus on different and intriguing themes to present the skewered human drama, Freaked unravels tales borne from rites of passage, wrong turns, well-intended but misbegotten gestures, and love’s confounding fickleness. These include horoscopes, tabloid curiosities, social and spiritual ritual, and Diane Arbus-captured portraits. Robbins’s prowess is in the language and rhythm of each narrative, creating a dream-like tension through phrasing that approaches incantation, as in “[the scorpion]:”
sooze, the radio jesus says our salvation must come
without body, i’m not willing to wait and you are,
the sax solo growing buttered layers as it complicates,
this explains all—
Or from “[the twins]:”
and mine’s no more a faux life than yours, it’s just you actually
get to the gym, your slept-with-list thinner than mine—
you go out in the day and i stay in, the apartment becomes
a shotgun shack teeming with bad-dream melting clocks
and skyscraper mice—
Poems in the section inspired by “News of the Weird” columns reveals Robbins’s talent for summoning personal tales from the odd reportage of ill-gestured wannabe heroes, benign offenders, and the spiritually afflicted, among others. These headlines-turned testimonies manage a dark humor along with the ridicule of each story. There’s “Drive-In Church,” where the daughter of a devout choir singer expresses her own approach to faith (“… you don’t even have to / get out of your car and therefore your pajamas, just tool / right up with your ciggy’s on the dash and a 12 pack / of Krispy Kremes, reggae on the tape deck…”) and “Man Chokes to Death on Pocket Bible,” a story of a young man’s fatal attempt to purge himself of the Devil, where the poet speaks on behalf of the demon (“For months now, / I’ve explored his brain’s gray maze, turned flowering/ girls to mean drunks and parents to shrieking crows…”). “Rebellion as Ice Floe,” inspired by the story of three teenage boys who commit a robbery and make a regrettable getaway, is an especially strong narrative musing on adolescent angst, and restlessness (“… what waited beyond the yard’s split-rail fences?”). An awkward attempt in escaping (“How / little I knew, stuck in the reach-out-and-grab delirium, assuming / a hard run would bring safety, not paralysis. Like when I backed / down our driveway’s hill, only to stall at the bottom.”) is followed not only by embarrassment but also parental forgiveness for foolish acts.

Robbins excels in ekphrastic interpretation, moving seamlessly from poems of elaborate statements and unfurling lines to a series of sonnets that are deftly connected by their last lines. She summons both the empathy and unease of Arbus’s photographic subjects, as when their confident posturing belies their personal crises. In “A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NY, 1968,” a couple relaxes on lawn chairs while their young son hovers over an inflatable pool caught by his own reflection. There are clues to their diminished passion— “(Dad covers / his eyes, tired from the sun, Mom’s in the mid- / life crisis bikini.)” —and the accoutrement of marital ennui, such as:
… their bodies turned away to smaller traces
of comfort: stuffed ashtray, the full glass
on the table in between. Their weekend bliss:
the country club tan. Their weekend pass:
him running the yard. They do not kiss
or touch, but once they did…

Robbins also effectively evokes the pained hopes and fears of a giant’s parents (“A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY 1970”). All the details in the title, taken, as with all of the poems in this section, directly from the photographs, are required to understand the complexity of ambition and disappointment in this family dynamic. The giant’s mother wishes for her son “movie contracts, straight spine, blond wife, fakes guns.” And he gains celebrity, a mixed blessing:
A great man he became, eight feet high.
Played in movies too: son of Frankenstein’s
monster. Looking at him, Father thinks, Why
me. Mother thinks, A nightmare, but he’s mine.
Eddie looks down on them, leans on a cane
(back hunched, shoes thick-soled), dying of bone disease.
Freaked taps into the confounding ways we live, longing for acceptance or denying dependence on others, rejecting convention yet regretting alienation. Robbins captures our attentions with carefully crafted vignettes of dismayed but determined souls striving to be human. It is our dilemma—or privilege—to recognize ourselves among them.

September 26, 2015

The Likeness of the Waves: A Review of Niki Koulouris’s “The sea with no one in it” by Anthony Frame

cover credit: The Porcupine's Quill
The sea with no one in it by Niki Koulouris
The Porcupine’s Quill (2013)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

Niki Koulouris is a poet of the ocean, of the sea with its wide blue horizon. Although the vast, expansive ocean may be intimidating to those born inland, with only rivers and lakes to dip their toes in, Koulouris’s debut collection of poems easily draws in readers. Perhaps it is the shared love for bodies of water; perhaps we can recognize the rhythms of water found deep in these lyrics. Certainly, Koulouris’s lines and images, tight and terse, flow with “the likeness of the waves” and create a remarkable and daring collection.

“I’m fond of ships,” writes Koulouris in the opening poem of The sea with no one in it:
their progress,
the turning weather
for they are never without alternatives
and they may contain the whole population of the mountains
Here we can see the rising tide of her book—the short lines slowly expanding, the pacing of the syllables, even the careful use of articles to control the rhythm. The lines creep up on readers, tentatively, only to suddenly crash into us. Like waves, they then slowly pull back into the poem’s body. This rhythm is fairly consistent, and even the few poems that play with form use the formal repetition to create a sense of water coming in and out. This consistency then binds the book’s two disparate sections.

Koulouris’s book is comprised of forty-four poems. Most are shorter than a page and contain barely a half dozen or so words per line. Each poem is numbered rather than titled and they are separated into two untitled sections. The poems rarely use punctuation or capitalization. When they do, they occur only when the lines’ structures are not enough to convey syntax. In the book’s first section, twenty poems create a catalogue of the sea. The second section, with twenty-four poems, is comprised mostly of ekphrastic poems with a few sea/water images scattered throughout. This changes with poem No. 39 when the sea returns as the dominant poetic vehicle.

At first glance, her poems are reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s most famous poems. They are crafted with short lines that use pitch-perfect and evocative descriptions. In poem No. 12, for example, she writes about “the steak of Africa / the broken comma / of New Zealand.” And in No. 8, she describes the Aegean Sea as “the colour of a stork.” A Whitman-esque poet might unpack that image, spending a handful of lines stretching the stork metaphor until it snaps. But Koulouris is confident enough to let it hover there, allowing the reader to ponder this rich and unique image. And it is an earned confidence.

But there is more to Koulouris’s work than the precision of the Imagist school of poetry. Throughout, she avoids description and offers a directive statement or an imposing question. In this way, the poems carry an air of the famous ending of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (“You must change your life.”). This is best seen in poem No. 3, during which Koulouris explains what we shouldn’t mention about the sea, “for her waves / will never be yours.” She ends the poem with three stunning couplets:
her heart is solid fire
her eyes are weak

if it is not the sea
it is the shores

where would you be
without regrets?
That final couplet seems to come from nowhere, but it is a remarkable conclusion. She evokes a regret of not fully knowing the sea because it can never be ours, a regret of not tasting her waters and not touching her shores.

More than anything, though, what is perhaps most admirable about Koulouris’s poetry is her subtle irony and humor. This is especially true in the second section of the book, which adopts a darker tone. Many of these poems, inspired by artists and writers like Philip Guston and Maurice Sendak, address mortality. In No. 21, for the German Expresionist artist Anselm Kiefer, she describes “a landscape razed for battle.” Later, she responds to Picasso’s Guernica in No. 28. But rather than focusing on the destruction shown in the painting, she finds a voice of bitter irony. “the band is / paid to screech,” she writes, and “to my surprise / there were wares / outside.” But through this, she doesn’t ignore the horror of Guernica, as seen in this tercet: “a formidable horse / drinks from tinted water / strikes oil.” Earlier poems also contain this biting humor, but none more so than No. 13, which is a catalogue of what the sea does not need, including:
all of Alabama or the NYPD
and I am sure the sea does
not need Jack Kerouac
to take a stab at it
There is something entrancing about Koulouris’s poetry. It makes readers want to dive deep within it, to drown. Its rhythms are intoxicating and, like a riptide, refuse to let go. The surface appearance of simplicity belies the poems’ complex and daunting depth. “It is always midnight / in the river / between two poems,” Koulouris writes in No. 44, the final poem. There may be rivers between her poems, but they are, indeed, oceans.