Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring Diversion: Poetry for Those Who Rise (Kevin Goodan, Kimberly Burwick, Martín Espada)

"Well, there’s always the search for things beyond the world. Often times I feel that maybe God is here, he’s just put down in shorthand and we have to capture little pieces of him or his language, which is the natural world." Kevin Goodan to Kimberly Burwick, in an interview in Rain Taxi, 2008
If neither Easter nor Passover can drive us at this time of year to the big questions -- life, love, loss, justice, grief, heaven, hell -- the season for us northerners (Global North, or American North) should do so: Green blades of grass sneak forward under the brown thatch of last year's winter-dulled fields, old crusts of snow glitter with ice crystals and are speckled with "snow fleas" hopping, and the miracle of daffodils is something that's already old in New Jersey but still uncertain here in the mountains.

When I want to remember that G-d is much stranger and larger than a worship service, I can walk the ridges of land -- or I can pick up any work of poetry by Kevin Goodan. His latest collection, UPPER LEVEL DISTURBANCES, reached publication long after he'd left New England and found a new home in Idaho. Within driving distance of the Montana of his birth and childhood, and nestled within the landscape where he fought forest fires for a decade, he writes in these poems of fire, barrenness, and the greasy, strenuous effort of work in a slaughterhouse, as well as the sheep farm he tended while in New England. He opens these darknesses to reveal the songs of lightning and of prairie fires, of aching muscles and of grief.

Yet Goodan is our Gerald Manley Hopkins, bound in a call-and-response with the higher power and the rituals, traditions, and passions of the Church. In my favorite sequence in this collection, "Showings," Goodan begins with, "I open my eyes and taste God. / A sky blue through bare trees / Then birds. The spirit moves /Surely but not upwards. / I make a fire but no words come --" and resolves this passage with, "As I am my own offering / When the unsayable is lodged in the throat."

Much later in the collection, in "Sacerdotes Domini," he couples fire, barn, and hawk, building toward "The black earth without mercy. / I wipe ash from my mouth, squint as if / I know exactly where I'm going." Within the lines, and under the impact of the poems accumulating, the disciplined questioning by this powerful poet draws me into his vision of "the redemptive dark."

I marvel at the interview of Goodan that Kimberly Burwick provided in Rain Taxi, as excerpted at the head of this post. Not only is Burwick an award-winning poet herself -- she, like Goodan, has drawn strength and illumination for her writing while living in vastly different parts of America: Wisconsin, Los Angeles, New England, and now Idaho. She is married to Goodan, which makes the hunt for multiple meanings in her poems -- and his -- especially fascinating in terms of pronouns. When Goodan writes "you," about 85 percent of the time I think he's talking to that Higher Power, and maybe 5 percent of the time he's overlapping or pointing toward Burwick within the "you." In Burwick's work, I read the "you" as being often directed toward Goodan, or toward the body of attentiveness that he carries.

Yet this is only a result of the knowledge that the two are connected -- clearly, Burwick's poems speak an investigative voice far different from his, and with less obvious losses and darknesses. In HORSES IN THE CATHEDRAL she enfolds the quintessential Western partner to human life, the horse, within her identification of a separate pathway into the quest, the search, the long walk where flowers and cardinals splash bright, aggressive hope. In "The Anxious Ones," she confesses, "I want to be alone, and not." As she moves the short yet rich poem through the question of one's "place in the world," she weaves back to her own core: "I breath for a long time / with pasture in my breath, / my voice weeds and undergrowth, / I am not for vineyards." And in "Desire for Collapse," where the juniper of the opening could be either in New England or in Montana, I find the necessary contrast of breaking and bending, followed by, "I touch birds mid-breath to know the motion / of the instant as deer know sighting. / Dusty roots and the law of falling bodies / appear suddenly as flesh without path."

For a more story-driven and justice-demanding read, I recommend highly the collection THE TROUBLE BALL by Martín Espada. (Apologies to the poet and publisher; I meant to review this in early September, when it was released, but life got in the way.) "The Trouble Ball" is a reference to a baseball pitch by Satchel Paige, who'd already demonstrated fantastic action and theory while playing in Puerto Rico. Espada's father Frank as a child went to a ball game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, expecting to see this magnificent player, and after waiting and waiting for Satchel Page, says the poem: "Dónde están los negros? asked the boy. Where are the Negro players? / No los dejan, his father softly said. They don't let them play here." Although Frank Espada would himself become a ballplayer, this piercing awareness of the color line threw a "trouble ball" into the American life of the family. Martín Espada, a father himself, takes the material as more of the rich clay from which he shapes his challenges to America today.

The collection is elegiac in the most exhilarating of ways, probing the lives of "truth-tellers" who make a difference; in the poem "Blessed Be the Truth-Tellers," for Jack Agüeros, Espada recounts being a child headed for a tonsillectomy, bragging about all the ice cream he's be given, like that provided by "Johnny the ice-cream man, / who allegedly sold heroin the color of vanilla / from the same window" of his truck. But when "Jack the Truth-Teller" (which is, indeed, a kind of Giant Killer) visits the projects, herding real camels and writing "sonnets of the jail cell / and the racetrack and the boxing ring," and pushing change into place, Jack tells the small boy what will really happen: "Ay bendito cachifrito Puerto Rico. / That's gonna hurt." And of course -- it does. "Blessed be the Truth-Tellers," Espada concludes, "for they shall have all the ice cream they want."

Another of my favorites in this collection is "The Day We Buried You in the Park," for Sandy Taylor. A conspiracy of family and friends to deposit Taylor's remains in the Poets' Park becomes a tangle of grief and risk, concluded with three remaining scoops of ashes that, the poem asserts, the poet took home in "a coffee can: Chock full o' Nuts, the Heavenly Coffee," on the container. "At your desk there was bad coffee and good poetry, / but no heaven, so I will look for you under my bootsoles, / walking through the world, soaking up the ghosts wherever I may go."

For more insight into this complex and articulate story-teller poet, there's a well-appointed website here: Most of all, though, as before, I recommend attending one of Espada's readings -- he brings with him a vigor, music, and assertion on the part of both goodness and justice that makes our losses and pain worth remembering and honoring.

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