Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Poetry Worth Reading, Now in Softcover: James Richardson, INTERGLACIAL; Adrian Blevins, THE BRASS GIRL BROUHAHA

Summer has arrived (in spite of some wild weather here in Vermont); the strawberries are ripening, the birds feed nestlings, thunderstorms erupt in glory.

And because these two striking collections are now available in softcover, they're ideal for taking to the beach or up the mountain:

INTERGLACIAL by James Richardson is subtitled "New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms." The hardcover came out in 2004 through Ausable, now part of Copper Canyon Press.  Selections from five earlier books by this award-winning Princeton poet range from narrative work like "In Touch" -- burying a cat-killed bird and digging toward death -- toward the rhymes and rhythms of "A Measure," which opens with:
Now that my hands are full, the world, anyway, on the fly,
and there is not time enough even to know what I know,
I take the heft of things by eye.
Richardson opens an "us" that extends well beyond the persona of the poem and its beloved, to the wide sense of being human that we all share. He tastes life as if it were his calling, and calls forth its savor and shivers.

New work makes up the final quarter of the volume, for which "Spellbound" gives a satisfying example:
And what of the child Bad Magic,
clanged shut in a bluebird,
who sat half-lit in the re-leafing arbor,
listening for his old name in the family hubbub,
who meant to cry out ...
With this hint of summer family, the bluebird becomes one of us, trembling among the familiar evening sounds of the back yard, "coffee on the lawn, / their voices lowering and slowed" -- until his thoughts are ours also:
and he meant . . . but too-swift heart,
flit like forget and South like a soft downstairs
and something sang him something flew him away . . .
This startling blend of familiar and luminous lays the ground for the second subsection of "Interglacial," called "Half-Measures" -- and these intricate puzzles of six to ten or a dozen lines each become crystals in formation, like this second half of "Paused":
I was rounding the marshy point
when I confused
sinewy wind in reeds
and froze,
snakeshy. All these years.
When the third subsection, "Vectors 2.0: More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays," offers 150 pithy composites of language and twisting thoughts, they blossom like wildflowers. Here's number 28, one of my favorites: "28. When it's clear on Saturday, who notices? When it rains, it always does."

This summer would be a good time to let all of this volume slide down the throat or into the ear. It's almost time for a sequel; "By the Numbers: Poems and Aphorisms" is scheduled for publication this fall.

In 2009, Wesleyan brought out a new Adrian Blevins collection, "Live from the Homesick Jamboree," that braids her Southern background into her recent arrival in Maine, where she now teaches at Colby College. I like in particular this list of her "areas of expertise" from the college web page:
  • Writing Poems, Writing Stories, and Writing Essays
  • Contemporary American Poetry and Fiction
  • Teaching Creative Writing
  • The Comic Vision (in contemporary American poetry and fiction)
  • Southern Literature

Her preceding volume, THE BRASS GIRL BROUHAHA (2003), was another Ausable pick and is now in softcover. For an example of how Blevins spins those "areas of expertise" into poetry, consider this opening from "Life History":
I got this nose-shaped bruise on my left arm from falling into a rack of dolls at Wal-Mart.
The scar on my ring finger came from when I put my hand into a beehive when I was two,
a calamity about which I wept into Daddy's lissome clavicle for three and a half months.

As for the stretchmarks, don't ask about the stretchmarks. There are men who like them,
but men are liars making lairs, body-shaped soul-boats of stretchmark-making  liquids
and big ideas about the beauty of women.
Other titles include "Hansel on the High Road," "Failing the Republic," and "Mid-Divorce Weather Report." There is so much fun embedded in the life and losses here that if you read these on the beach, people will keep staring at you as they wonder why you're snickering. (Well, at least that's what happened to me, more or less.) And yet the depth and sorrow resonate in these also, sometimes simultaneous with comedy. A long piece that reaches for life's redeeming threads, while also plunging into what "America" feels like, is "Channel 88" where
Thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah
does remind me of the 1960's,
when people were just trying to get their sorry hearts

or wake up somehow somehow somehow
though from a certain child perspective (meaning mine)
it looked like the drug overdoses and psychedelic orgy
that it was.
Reading this before the "current" Blevins collection offers roots from which to savor "Jamboree" -- and reading it afterward is just as good. Hurrah for softcover editions!

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