Sunday, July 18, 2010

Interlude: Some Poetry for This Summer

1. Many thanks to poet Michael Rattee for a review copy of FALLING OFF THE BICYCLE FOREVER (Adastra Press 2010). Rattee creates a form that suits his storytelling gift: Each poem is an extended sentence without closing punctuation, a window into a person or situation or way to understand both words and being human. I found each one to be an invitation that I explored with quiet pleasure. The opening poem "Somewhere with Your Name" is a good example, as it starts:
Somewhere there's a dog
with your name
roaming the streets hungry
somewhere there's a child
running away with your name
The stream of possibilities keeps flowing until, at the end, "somewhere there's a star / with your name / falling toward you" -- and I felt as though I had been sitting out under the night sky listening to an incantation of love from a grandparent, an older brother, a mentor.

Rattee holds the form, although he gives it varied attire, and takes it especially into the lives of children and into their existence within us, as well as in front of us. "Everyone wants to be someone else / if only occasionally" he writes; and in another piece, "My roof has a hole in it / last week it rained / my lover got her toe wet" -- each sequence declares its own measure of unpredictability, teasing and turning and encouraging the unfolding of unexpected blossoms.

Adastra ( is one of my favorite small presses, and this 64-page volume of poems is simply laid out, allowing the words to provide their own "a-ha" and "a-ah" moments. I found myself longing for a second form, though: a set of cards with one poem on each, so I could place them in the corners of my rooms and workspaces. I'll be quoting bits of these for years to come.

[NB: Rattee's other titles include two more from Adastra: Mentioning Dreams (1985) and Enough Said: A Poetry Dialigue Between Father & Son (2002).  His Everything Green Everything White came out from Apropos Press in 2008.]

2. Pamela Alexander's fourth collection, SLOW FIRE (Ausable, 2007) , is two books in one: The first section summons up the fragile moments that follow a death, in this case of the poet's mother, but they are so precisely nailed, so delicately laid out, that I think they will ring a true note for many such fragrant wounds. We grow from our losses; we discover often what's most real through its absence.  The conclusion of "Aries" struck me as a tender portrait:
I woke one spring to find my mother dying

gently. One by one she put her words
down, too hard to lift them. And then she loosed
the years, which flew away, light as light.
And then there's the moment in "Hard Light" that gave me a new image to savor: "We found a nest with eggs once / in the pocket of a scarecrow. Shall I / look for you there?"

After this section the collection takes a far different turn, playing with language that presses together stone with heart with fire; teasing; pondering. In "Woods That Won't," Alexander introduces us to a house that has overeaten and is depressed -- so she takes a walk to set a good example, roaming where deer, fox, and porcupine refuse to appear, and in the process, "Peering at tracks, I see / even my present is past. // Only a dropped hat crouches / in the path. The hat says / Go home, furless one." Finally, "I gather my wits in a heap / on the ground. They are / few. Under them I light a match."

Long walks, collections of absurd love-tokens, playful lines that play with the lines of play -- Alexander spreads them in a delicious feast. This might be better than beach reading: It's ideal for a deck chair on a shaded porch, an iced glass of sparkling chill at one's side.

3. I would read almost any poetry recommended by Jean Valentine. And when the credits include Ellen Bryant Voigt and Elizabeth Alexander, as well as the great leaders of Cave Canem, how can I resist? SHAHID READS HIS OWN PALM by Reginald Dwayne Betts won the 2009 Beatrice Hawley Award, which makes it a 2010 volume from Alice James Books. More than palm-reading, it reminds me of the Illustrated Man created by Ray Bradbury (1951) in the form of 18 stories that explore being human. That's what Betts does in these pages through the voice and moments of a jailed prisoner, Shahid. There's a ghazal of prison life "in the hole" that unexpectedly calls out at the end, "Shahid's fingers were left in a cotton field -- / now he forever cornrows the sky above." There's a fiercely questioning witness to suicide, "The Day Carlos Jumped from the Top Tier." At the center of the volume are delicately choreographed wrestling matches like "Tell This to the People You Love" -- "stray cats that ran wild here / & still cry at night, all / straining against what's thrown at them."

I found my heart especially snagged by the gruff lines and twists of "Winter Hunger," laying out the bitter conflict and longings between son and father, between life and prison. The phrasing "love's austere // and lonely offices" catches me unexpectedly, and for a moment I "get" some of the cost that this poet has paid. But oh my, to write like this is a very good gift to draw out of the lost years.

Here is one of my favorite openings from the collection, the start of "The Spanish Word for Solitude":
Soledad is a mouth
full of dust, the taste
of Guinness & one night

a trigger tucked under
my index like a
spliff. It is a man

awakened by a .380's
muzzle, or
my heart folded

into a cell.

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