May 24, 2012

Garon Scott Reviews Heidy Steidylmayer's Fowling Piece

In Fowling Piece, Heidy Steidlmayer’s first collection of poems, the poet registers the spiritual aches that feed desire, and often finds their reflections in nature, driving the poems forward with end and cross rhyme, stringing them together by a more traditional (though carefully imperfect) meter. In “Couples,” for example, she too looks to nature and romance’s emptiness:

ask me if my emptiness equals all
your clothes, if the light shows
through your thinnest shirt
to hurt, or if the wind blows
your darks from the line by design

Through poems on protozoa, saints, and hospitals, her idiom is unflaggingly buoyant. A patched-over, palsied eye reveals “the mind in its weedy prominence.” A Chinese mantid wilts “deep in his ester of acetic acid.” The book’s final poem, “Charybdis,” opens “I am the crepe de chine of Paris green, rauwolfia, and atropine.”

The book’s first third is its most pliant. Evidenced by titles like “Heartbreak,” “Couples,” “Taxonomy of Grief,” and “Agonal,” the dominant mood is, well, heartbreak, grief, and agony, especially that of couples. There are, however, portents of matters to come—two poems that struggle with institutional religion, a poem about an orrery (“Sad amplitudes of clocky junk/crank moons and tiny globes of granite”) and an interest in prophecy and the supernatural throughout.

In the book’s second section, Steidlymayer’s voice is less urgent as she considers three routes to the unknown: Christianity, Greek mythology, and science. Her technical play and diction is less surprising here; her themes either buried or too dominant. The Christian poems are split between dissent against religion’s ritualistic, human-controlled side, and impersonal poems of Biblical stories, miracles, and the cults than surround them, like Naple’s thrice-yearly sensation, the liquefying blood of Saint Januarius. Science, it seems, in all its strangeness, catalyzes the poet’s language-impulse in exciting ways. She is determined to present this world in its own argot—Lepidoptera, not butterflies, entomology, not insects, elytra, animalcules, ootheca, cirri. Sometimes, the technical language works, but the twitch of misunderstanding and the impulse to run to a dictionary often deflate the experience of the poems.

Paradoxically, it is with a more distant subject that the poet finds her most personal, moving voice. Her poems of Greek mythology—as she inhabits the voice of Charon and Callisto, Scylla and Charybdis—are so effective because the act of speaking feels imperative. These are voices of impulse, irresistible, vital. Speaking of Zeus, Callisto asks,

Cynosure of all
eyes, did he
rise in a hood of bees

and throw off

his otherness?

The imperative to speak, and the unornamented weight it produces, carries from Steidlmayer’s Greek poems to the book’s final section, in which we discover the reason, or perhaps the culmination, of her restless spiritual searching—a brain tumor. Like another book recently reviewed by Weave—Christian Wiman’s Every Riven ThingFowling Piece confronts the surreal world of the hospital—the ubiquitous white, the masked faces, the screaming stranger in the next bed over—while attempting to make sense of death and self. Here, Steidlmayer is at her most brilliant. Her images are exact and necessary, no longer simply enjoyable flights of language, but the inescapable products of her topics. Where Wiman progresses from horror to spiritual serenity, Steidlmayer, as though under an analgesic haze, registers dreamlike visions in floating, punctuation-free lines:
the anesthesiologist, her faded countenance
as far away as a giant

my husband beside the bed, his face
as if I had just fallen from one of his branches

In a poetic world that, for better or worse, values idea over execution, Fowling Piece is a remarkable testament to the potential of technique, and is all the more so for being a first book. Steidlmayer uses—and is not used by—devices such as meter and rhyme, and though very few poems in the book could be called formal, the influence of formality is felt throughout. She handles line breaks masterfully because she lacks allegiance to form, and yet her most memorable lines are often weighted by their metric regularity. Moreover, the book’s passion for the unknown, for our pains to know and make claim on meaning, is admirably broad and honest, and its resolution—with poems of motherhood, creation, nature, and myth—is one of not certainty but hope. Her imperative in “Poverty,” one of the book’s earlier poems, may as well be to herself:

let the sun beat
down its fat old heart
bring another day to its knees

there is nothing left
to carry but your voice.

Reviewed by Garon Scott

Fowling Piece by Heidy Steidylmayer
TriQuarterly, 2012

May 11, 2012

Gents Who Read Ladies: D. Gilson's Tribute to Adrienne Rich

WEAVE MAGAZINE is committed to celebrating a diversity of voices, including those speaking to, through, or about sex, sexuality, and gender. We also recognize that due praise far too often falls along the separating lines of gender. Thus, we are introducing Gents Who Read Ladies, an occasional series written by one of our male reviewers, offering due praise to one of our favorite women writers. The series begins with D. Gilson’s tribute to Adrienne Rich, a powerful force in both poetry and politics, whose work continues to inspires us both as individuals and as a community. --Weave Reviews Editor, Thom Dawkins

freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.
—Adrienne Rich, from “For Memory”

The week before I defended my MFA thesis, Adrienne Rich died. The poetry world—and especially the world of poetry-that-can-do-something—lost its matriarch, the woman who, since the early ‘50s, didn’t ride the waves, but made them.

I don’t write these platitudes to make her death about me, or even about our community; but in this time of transition, as I leave the comforts of a graduate program in creative writing to hit the streets, I’m thinking about Rich, and how none of this could be possible without her.

During an undergraduate literary theory course, we were assigned Rich’s essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” I was beginning to take baby steps out of the closet, manifested by drunken nights at Martha’s Vineyard, the local gay bar, and by a hush-hush tryst with a married professor. And certainly by my reading tastes. What was I reading that semester? I know there was lots of O’Hara and Doty and Virginia Woolf. I was in British Lit, so surely some Wilde. In a theater class, we read The Normal Heart. My poems from this time—atrocious things! but necessary—are filled with men thinly veiled behind gender-neutral pronouns. Looking back a decade later, it was Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken” that was most formative.

“It’s exhilarating,” she writes, “to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful.” It seemed Rich had written it just for me! Which is ludicrous, of course, but as a 19-year-old budding homo taking critical theory and women’s studies and poetry workshops, finally, I thought, someone gets it.

Oy vey!

But that part—that someone getting it—is absolutely true. For a generation of others, of women and racial minorities and queers, Rich had opened the door to a valuable new hybridity: that between creative writing and academic discourse. There was so much power there, and Rich was collecting all of us together, making us a part of the conversation, that essential conversation of art and politics and living. “The sleepwalkers are coming awake,” she continued, “and for the first time this awakening has a collective reality; it is no longer such a lonely thing to open one’s eyes.”

It seems dramatic that I would think this, but opening my spiral notebook from that literary theory class, looking at the pages of notes taken while we discussed Rich’s essay, I had written some marginalia in a curlicue, all-caps script: NOBODY CAN FUCK WITH ME NOW. Overstatement, yes. But also some deep truth here. Through conversations with colleagues and presentations at a myriad of academic conferences, I see the thumbprints of Rich everywhere. And thankfully, not only in those other-ed populations, but also in the work of straight white men. They, too, must be a part of the change Rich spent her whole life trying to affect.

Her trying wasn’t in vain, either. We have a lot of work yet to do, but it is work built on the foundation of Adrienne Rich. It seems fitting I would write my first contribution to Weave’s “Gents Who Read Ladies” series with a bit about her. I wouldn’t be a poet or an academic or an agent for change without the words she breathed into the world, a challenge—“Old words: trust fidelity / Nothing new yet to take their place.”

Written by D. Gilson

May 3, 2012

D. Gilson Reviews Useless Landscape, or a Guide for Boys by D.A. Powell

It’s 2012 and we’ve come to trust a voice like D.A. Powell’s. Rightfully so—Powell’s style is one grounded not only in the culturally essential, the nitty gritty of our every city and backwater county highway, but also in his mastery of language, the forging, and we must call it forging, of high art. Consider these lines—an ars poetica?—from “Goodbye, My Fancy”

All the boys of recent memory
have been like this: accomplice,
adjutant, aide-de-camp.

I should just toss you my thesaurus.
There are words for the kind
of love we have,
though none of them quite suffice.

What can this be called if not superlatively versed wisdom? And his most recent collection, aptly titled Useless Landscape, Or A Guide For Boys and available from Graywolf Press, provides such astute, beautiful perception from beginning to end. What makes these poems so brilliant? In short, I’d argue, their reliance on every imaginable artifice, which is also to say: their over-reliance on nothing. Often, the poems function in a blatant, humored camp:

The first knot doesn’t count.
You’re bound to fuck it up.
The rabbit comes out of the hole;
he starts to circle the tree. Halfway home,
he finds another bunny. So they tangle.

These poems reference nursery rhyme and Valley of the Dolls, the Oscars and a porn fluffer, but they are surely as comfortable gliding through classical and Biblical mythology, or through natural history, such as here, in “Transit of Mercury”—

I’ve got a heat-seeking missile for heartbreak.
& so do you. If there’s another side
of the sun, then you must hide there
in less than your underclothes,
emitting every molecule of thermal funk.

Powell’s fifth collection brings us poems comfortable in their own skins, shinning in their brilliant containers and begging to be read aloud once, then again, then again. In “Pupil,” however, Powell appears to confess: “I have never written a true poem, it seems.” Mr. Powell, it is not true. I can only imagine that in the coming eons, when we’ve all turned to the other side, wherever it may be, there will be people (are we still calling them people in these future times?) studying, nay, engulfing your poems, learning of the “intimacy that flourished here, an outlaw, / just as the outlaws themselves had flourished / in the slapstick goldrush days” of our own age.

Rest assured, Weave readers, I endorse Useless Landscape, Or A Guide for Boys, wholeheartedly, and look forward to its nominations for major awards this coming year, which the collection so rightfully deserves.

Reviewed by D. Gilson

Useless Landscapes, or a Guide for Boys by D.A. Powell
Graywolf Press, 2012