August 30, 2011

Thom Dawkins reviews Three Recent Collections from Alice James Books

Between the Scylla and Charybdis of Contemporary Poetry:
Three Recent Collections from Alice James Books

lie down too by Lesle Lewis
This Strange Land by Shara McCallum
Heart First into the Forest by Stacy Gnall

A recent Poetry Foundation podcast aired segments of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, with Christian Wiman, Poetry Magazine’s editor, praising this year’s recipient, David Ferry. Wiman, to my surprise, was uncharacteristically assertive in his declaration, saying, “We live in a time of obvious, even aggressive assertions of style and singularity. Among younger generations, the eccentric is prized, even the grotesque. I like, very much, some of the poetry that comes out of this impulse, though the sheer deluge of willed eccentricity can be a bit exhausting.” I was shocked at this bit of public division between the generations , not because I was offended, but because I found myself agreeing for once with the figures of the status quo.

I think I can state without much controversy that there is nothing truly avant-garde or even interesting about the Inaccessible or the Hard to Understand, even as a certain “willed eccentricity” has become de rigueur for contemporary poetry. Equally true, there has never been much to praise in the Immediately Accessible. As poets on the Odyssey of the modern market, it still matters where we chart our course, but the best poetry seems to find its most brilliant passage between the Scylla of the grotesquely eccentric and the Charybdis of the flatly familiar.

The publishers of Alice James Books (AJB). like many smaller presses, seem to know where they stand in the poetry market. Unlike many presses, however, AJB seems to understand that good poetry isn’t anymore about “willed eccentricity” than it is about maintaining a stodgy party line. Good poetry always comes from an understanding of the establishment that forges ahead into the excitingly unfamiliar. Three recent collections from AJB exhibit their commitment to publishing what’s good instead of what’s immediately popular, and while each is stellar in its own way, it is also clear that not every book is for every reader.

In lie down too, the second Lesle Lewis collection to be published by AJB, every page is a list of (what seem to be) unrelated declarations. Yet, for all the bravado that normally accompanies the declarative sentence, the reader is left with hardly more than a stupefied silence. One poem, “The Plastic Baby,” begins with said plaything taking movies of itself on a moving walkway, (the last concrete image we will be given in the poem), then asks some basic questions about life and suffering, then ends several detached lines later with the statement, “To stay with the accessible would be ridiculous.” Some readers might be left wondering, “Is it so ridiculous?”

It would be easy to either praise or deride Lesle Lewis for the use of detached phrasing in these poems, but the real task is to determine where there is anything worth fighting to understand here in the first place. The answer is that there is something in the book as a whole, but you can’t eat an obscure piece of fish without swallowing some delicate bones.

The other answer is that there is a lot of wisdom in this book, and it comes at you in waves. I mean this almost literally: As if standing on the border of land and water, at the border of sense and chaos, the spare images of this book roll toward you at a rate that is both overwhelming and measured. Before one line has finished affecting you, the next line obliterates the preceding context and forces the mind to draw the circle of understanding ever wider.

My evaluative abstractions may be confusing, but they should be, as it’s the only way I can describe the cumulative effect of reading lines like those in “Red Bank:”

I wanted a horse.

I jumped from a plane.

I was not comfortable with your illness.

I was a detective at the wedding…

While quoting any of the lines out of context may be unfair, I will skip ahead to the ending:

I was like the goose bathing in parking lot puddles.

Definitely, I am on a train.

If these lines have anything in common, it’s that they belie the ending, and everything about the speaker and her situation is indefinite, and thus not placed assuredly on the train: The horse is unpossessed; the speaker is mid-fall; there is mild discomfort instead of joy or sadness; the speaker is the estranged guest; the bird is out of habitat. When the “Definitely” of the final line appears, we know that nothing is definite. If we assume the speaker is definitely on the train, then her perception of her surroundings is unstable and perhaps apocryphal. If she is not on the train, then we are similarly caught up in her lost-ness.

The value of lie down too will be found by the reader who enjoys dwelling in “uncertainties…without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” If you are not that reader, Alice James might still have some business in you, especially with Shara McCallum’s This Strange Land, a more grounded collection that seems interested in bringing the reader into the poet’s own community and family history.

The poems in This Strange Land are often based on McCallum’s childhood emigration to America from Jamaica, a country she left on the day of Bob Marley’s funeral, leaving her parents behind to mourn the international icon without her. The details of that departure (as well as her father’s death), are revealed subtly throughout the book, as if the poet is discovering her own familial history alongside the reader. The result is not so much the self-reflexive disturbance found in Lewis’s poems as a shared attempt between McCallum and her audience to redress a past estrangement in the life of the poet.

This Strange Land poignantly and appropriately begins with “Psalm for Kingston,” a poem that calls out to a violent city and its resilient inhabitants. The voices of Kingston, (its market and its music in particular), are brought up and left to fade into the fabric of the verse, just as the half-heard shouts of a busy city are overcome by further noise but never disappear. It is a fitting way to introduce a book that is in search of what feels almost lost and yet ever-present. The poem, like some psalms, relies on a refrain; each stanza begins by evoking the city itself:

City of school children in uniforms playing dandy shandy
and brown girl in the ring—
eating bun and cheese and bulla and mangoes,

juice sticky and running down their chins, bodies arced

in laughter, mouths agape, head thrown back.

The bittersweet beauty of this poem reminds us of all the poet has lost, even as the sheer overstimulation of detail brings us into her culture and her memories. We hear the music of the marketplace, taste the food, and feel the anguish that hides under each overwhelming peal of laughter.

There is much in McCallum’s book that can’t be covered in a short review. The haunting dialect poems of “Miss Sally” in particular deserve a review of their own, as does the disjointed yet thorough “From the Book of Mothers.” (I would also have loved to cover the audio cd that accompanies the book, but like the Luddite poet I am, I somehow managed to cover the disc with glue taking it out of the package.)

Where Lesle Lewis might be too obscure for some readers, and where Shara McCallum may be too transparently tangible for others, there is a third book out from Alice James that falls somewhere in-between. Stacy Gnall has just published her debut collection, Heart First into the Forest, and it may just be that rare find in contemporary poetry: an utterly original work that manages to eschew weirdness to find real wisdom.

Like many poets before, Gnall guides these poems through the re-telling and the elaboration of myth. Unlike many poets, Gnall finds a truly human note in these stories with a visceral, whimsical approach to the language without losing any of its seriousness. One poem begins with an epigraph alluding to the murder of a girl found with taffeta stuffed in her mouth. Rather than being gruesome, the poem takes a more attentive approach to the story:

First, she gold rush of hair
as she collapse, light

avalanche from the hands

that ferried her there.

She slung on his arm

and set—an epaulet.

Most of the lines in this poem come without a verb, and if one appears, the lack of a complete thought implies something both liminal and yet absolutely real. We sense the lack of agency in a girl completely helpless against her murderer, but everything beautiful and sublime about her still insists upon rising to the surface. The same could be said of Gnall’s poems: She knows enough to not force her meaning upon the reader, leaving just enough tension and mystery to justify close consideration.

The best poems in Heart First into the Forest are often more personal, but they are by no means confessional or nostalgic. Instead, a backward glance at childhood reveals something even more peculiar, even more strange, even more ripe for terror and transcendence. Consider the beginning of “The Insecticide in Him,” which starts simply enough:

Leaning against the stubborn shed, my brother looks right
and sinister with his shirt untucked.

He is a hopscotch-skip away,

speculating what a second tongue tastes like, the contents

of a schoolgirl’s skirt, about babies: how one plus one makes three.

While there are no crimes or tragedy in the poem, it does not suffer for being less sinister. In fact, the building drama of adolescence becomes a fearful, insidious thing in Gnall’s capable hands. the first two lines move from what could easily be a photograph of a brother looking very much in his element (“my brother looks right”) toward the first signs of something frightening (“sinister with his shirt untucked”).

Ultimately, good poetry can be as tangible or as obscure as we wish it to be, but it should never feel over-done. With all three of these collections, Alice James Books finds the fine line between the eccentric and the familiar. In all three poets, I am thrilled to find contemporary voices that refuse to be predictable.


Thom Dawkins is a poet, educator, and critic whose most recent publishing credits include Mayday, Caliban Online, Pleiades, New Orleans Review, DMQ Review, Weave Magazine, and Puerto del Sol. He earned his MFA at Chatham University and studied theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Thom lives in Columbia, Missouri, where he teaches poetry and composition.

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