Saturday, March 31, 2007

Poetry and the Visual: The Ultimate Appreciation

[Intaglio prints embodying the poems of Cleopatra Mathis.]

It's been a wildly busy week, and the poetry events of yesterday (Cleopatra Mathis) and today (Rachel Hadas; 4 p.m., St. J. Athenaeum, receiving the Athenaeum Award medal in the arts) are the happy fruit of it.

Yesterday's reading by Mathis, in the fireside lounge of St. Johnsbury Academy's gorgeous library, drew a capacity crowd of students, as well as area poets and readers. Mathis told the personal narrative behind her book WHAT TO TIP THE BOATMAN -- beginning with the death by suicide of her daughter's close friend in grade 8, her daughter's subsequent emotional illness, and the struggle to regain her child, which led Mathis to seize on the Persephone/Demeter myth as the backbone of the intense sequence of poems. But those poems only came after Mathis's own rebirth, after more than a year of being wordless on paper.

Students in the Academy's "Intaglio Society" and "Printing II" prepared a surprise for the poet. Wrestling in advance of the event with her poems, especially the ones from her most recent collection, WHITE SEA, they crafted intaglio prints that embodied the work, and surrounded their images with Mathis's words. The prints, in varied colors of ink, included powerful abstractions of human figures and the sea, and more concrete designs around snowflakes, birds, trees. The work struck both Mathis and the other poets on hand as an amazing way to receive and appreciate the words.

Queried by her listeners, Mathis also described her own process: She is terrified of the blank sheet of paper, so instead, she keeps a journal and working notebooks. When it's time to write, she thumbs through these, seeking the words that will trigger the poem. She avoids putting the poem into a computer for quite a while, as she finds computers make it "too easy" to lose phrasings that have been part of earlier revisions. And she spoke of her sense of building the work as connected to both the world around her and the "secret world" of the psychic and emotional.

Among her upcoming readings will be an especially unusual one in Amherst, Mass., on July 14, when she'll talk about some of her roots in Emily Dickinson's poetry. (See the Emily Dickinson homestead web site in early summer for details.)

Coming next in the Fireside Literary Series at St. J. Academy: poet Kevin Goodan, May 4, 3:30 p.m.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

THE SUSPECT: John Lescroart's Blend of Crime and Counsel

The steady sequence of crime fiction by Californian John Lescroart has featured most prominently the characters Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky. Hardy thinks through the courtroom strategy; Glitsky pushes the officers in pursuit. It's a nice blend of police procedural and legal thriller and thus a successful series, somehow a bit less well known than it should be. Polished, smoothly written, well plotted, these are books to enjoy repeatedly.

Lescroart moved off-series with THE HUNT CLUB, building a stand-alone centered on Wyatt Hunt and his development as a private investigator (keying eventualy into the Dismas/Hardy community) -- and the risk paid off, boosting sales and readership. Fresh territory and a fresh vigor, I think. This year's book, THE SUSPECT, uses a similar approach: Gina Roake, a secondary character from the original series, a 57-year-old attorney, has taken a lot of time off to cope with the death of her fiancé, the well-liked series character David Freeman, who had become the "wise mentor" of Lescroart's books. Now wealthy in her own right, and one of the named principals in the legal firm of Freeman, Farrell, Hardy & Roake, she can glide for as long as she needs to.

But as the book opens, Gina is shaking off the depression and related lethargy, in a move that in many another tale would take place near the end, giving "hope for good changes ahead." Here, the character shift presages the ferocious determination she'll apply to a case where it seems clear she's defending a guilty man -- the "suspect" of the title.

And this is where Lescroart shines: His attorneys don't turn into super snoops themselves, but their drive toward justice and toward fairly representing their clients forces them to demand harder, smarter, riskier work from the PIs and detectives around them. In Roake's case, that includes Wyatt Hunt, for instance. And since she's actually defending her first murder case, her legal partners become essential factors in whether she can unravel the truth in time to save her client's liberty -- and life. Here's a sample of Gina arguing the start of the case with legal partners Wes Farrell and Dismas Hardy:

She paused for a moment, took a small breath. "I guess at this point my gut wants to believe he didn't do it."
Farrell looked over to Hardy. "Told you."
"And," Gina went on, "now you're going to tell me how stupid and dangerous that is. Which I'm aware of. So." She addressed both her partners. "What am I supposed to do, then? Not defend him?"
"No," Wes said. "Not believe him."

I have two ad hoc scoring measures that I apply to a book like this: how many people I will recommend it to, and how soon (if ever) I want to re-read it. On both, THE SUSPECT ranks highly. In fact, I've already enjoyed it twice. Skillfully managed in its Bay Area setting, intelligently plotted with a twist of medical research and related law, and packed with intelligent people scrambling for insight, it's definitely a keeper.

Andrea Barrett at Vermont Studio Center, Monday March 26, 8 p.m.

Novelist Andrea Barrett is scheduled to read at the Vermont Studio Center tomorrow night. Bring your questions about process and depth; she's clear and responsive. Also be sure to phone VSC to confirm (the Vermont weather does seem to force more changes) and to save a seat for yourself: 802-635-2727. Many of the winter events have been held in the cafeteria in the red mill building, another factor to check when you call. Here's the VSC description of Barrett's work:

Andrea Barrett is the author of five novels, most recently The Voyage of the Narwhal, and two collections of short fiction, Ship Fever, which received the National Book Award, and Servants of the Map, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A MacArthur Fellow, she's also been a Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and has received Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships. She lives in western Massachusetts and teaches at Williams College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

When Poets Are Heroes ... The Athenaeum Medal

Saturday March 31, 4 p.m., at St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, we participate in that gracious institution's award of the Athenaeum Medal in the Arts to RACHEL HADAS, who'll read from The River of Forgetfulness and new work, as well as some classics from her 14 books. Ticketed event ($15; reserve seats at 802-748-8291). The Athenaeum has extended the sign-up perriod through Monday March 26, and it would be great to have more poets gather for this opportunity -- it's not often that a poet gets a medal for the heroism of writing honestly, steadily, with deliberate craft and knowledge. Yet what greater gift is there to the world?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Growing Into the Trilogy: David Stahler's THE SEER, Sequel to TRUESIGHT

As a young adult reader, I found my way from THE HOBBIT to the three volumes of THE LORD OF THE RINGS simply -- the books were already published. The same applied to Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. As an adult discovering the fresh possibilities of a new trilogy by Philip Pullman, I devoured THE GOLDEN COMPASS. And then I had to wait for the library to add THE SUBTLE KNIFE, and wait literally years for the end of the story in THE AMBER SPYGLASS. It was agony.

So when Vermont author David Stahler Jr. brought out TRUESIGHT in 2004, I braced for the long wait for the other two parts of his planned trilogy. It's hard to do: read a good novel and reach the end of it, knowing that the story is incomplete. This spring (April 10) the second volume comes out: THE SEER. I tucked into the advance (uncorrected proof) copy without re-reading volume 1, and couldn't put it down. It's a keeper. But to show you why, I'll backtrack to the beginning of it all.

In the little farming community of Harmony, on a distant planet with twin moons, everyone is blind. They know that in other places, eyes provide vision -- but their own eyes don't. Jacob, a pretty ordinary boy about to turn thirteen, knows his community made a choice to be this way: stepping away from evils of greed and self-centeredness, searching for a closer knit community with a kind of purity and firmly closed barriers to contamination. Although there's a sighted section of the planet, it's far away, urban, and seen as evil.

The trilogy's first volume, TRUESIGHT, provides Jacob with a terrible choice: As his eyes unexpectedly begin to function, he becomes an outcast, an abberation. Moreover, vision brings with it knowledge, and home no longer looks simple, pure, or even safe. Can Jacob's innocence be restored? Is he willing to endure the cost?

Here's an example of what he values at home:

The song ended and Harmony exploded in applause. Jacob joined in. He felt whole again, connected to the mass of people expressing their appreciation to the chouse. The feeling of peace lingered, leaving him dazed and barely listening to the high councilor's speech to the community.

But on the other hand, Harmony's rules are absolute, even as Jacob's father patiently spells them out all over again:

"Hey, all I'm saying is that we take care of one another. Except for a very few things, we don't depend on the Seers for our sustenance. That's what makes us unique. It's what makes us pure. Hardship is good for the soul. It keeps us honest."

Still, Jacob's own honesty can drive him out of Harmony.

As THE SEER opens, Jacob struggles to reach the sighted city on the planet -- the home of "Seers," as he himself has begun to be called. Amid the towering buildings and frighteningly strange urbanites, he learns the ropes of true friendship and even romantic love. But were his parents and their neighbors right? Does vision lead to a hunger for possessions, a hunger that will compromise the goodness of the soul? When a new friend criticizes Jacob's home community, he sticks up for it:

"It's not that bad, you know. I was pretty happy until ..." He knew the words but didn't want to say them.
"Until you began to see?"

Without spoiling the plot, let me note that Jacob's choices -- deliberate, and paid for dearly -- lead him toward a third option: a world where willing individuals can look at events and people in newly potent ways.

Stahler's often tender portrayal of the quest that takes us from childhood to genuine adulthood is clearly rooted in the best values of his own rural upbringing. The sweetness of a summer afternoon in the grass, the strength of friends who grow wise together, and the agonized weighing of ethical choices are braided into this strong story. Even though the concluding volume of the trilogy is at least a year away in terms of publication, I recommend THE SEER as a compelling read. And, inevitably, after I finished it, I re-read TRUESIGHT and it was just as good that way.

The trilogy, due in part to Stahler's productive streaks of writing (and he's also an English teacher and dad!), was interrupted by publication of two stand-alone novels that Stahler brought out for "young adult" readers in the meantime: A GATHERING OF SHADES, and THE DOPPELGANGER, both darker Gothics that depend on a twist of fantasy rooted in the nature of evil. And maybe that's more true to today's urban experience.

But give me the struggle and reward of the Truesight trilogy instead, with its conviction that our friends and our inner sense of truth and justice can together bring us through fear and risk, to happier times. We earn the good parts. And that too, I think, reflects the Vermont ethos at its best.

Taking Off Cross-Country: The Great Escapes of Ellen Dudley's Poetry, THE GEOGRAPHIC CURE

Lips. Tongue. Desire. Belly. Straddling, sweating, entering. This powerful new collection from Vermont/Hawai'i poet Ellen Dudley groans, sighs, pants, exults in the physical delight of love. Reading it can wake you to what you've tasted and what you long for.

A self-confessed "wild woman" -- although a bit less so now than a decade ago, when these cross-country and global adventures erupted -- Dudley is also a poet whose precision and narrative drive come together in tightly crafted lines. When I finished my second reading of the collection, I began pulling out other poets I think of as sexy: Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, then at a friend's suggestion, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux. "The Shipfitter's Wife," one of the most recognized Laux poems, catches a bit of the flavor of Dudley's work. But I found no close parallels.

When we women began to write about sex more colorfully in the 1970s, we saw much of our effort as feminist: to dare to speak about what had been silenced, and to take on the role of the seducer as much as the seduced. Audre Lord, Nikki Giovanni, others put women's thirst into words. But Dudley's audacity could not have been framed then, half a lifetime back. There were no words then for the combination of frank sexuality and personal power when it came in female form.

THE GEOGRAPHIC CURE (Four Way Books, 2007) opens with the strangest mother-daughter poem I've ever read, one in which the two women call bats to them and exult in the winged creatures flying through their hair -- "leaving us laughing with their wind on our scalps." This amazing countering of the standard "women terrified of bats getting tangled in their hair" is the only moment in which Dudley summons her daughter on the pages. But it is a terrific image of the reversals about to explode in the first section of poems. Here is part of "Tyele-Koula," which opens in Sarajevo and continues on the train past Belgrade with a "found man" in the poet's train compartment:

We had no common language and we didn't even kiss,
but I straddled him in the train car,
Sobranie in one hand, smoke
making halos of our heads in the sun,

she writes, spilling scents and savors (onion, potatoes, slivovitz, soft coal, sex) onto the page and erupting in an orgasm that is "both of us panting, jerking with the train."

Let's confess right away that poetry is not reportage -- I can't say for sure that Dudley pinned a strange man to the bench in a train in Europe -- but to frame these actions and images is to demonstrate both passion and determination. The "geographic cure" of the title, the notion that life can change if you change where you are, pushes the sequence of poems that follow, to driving through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia ("blood pooled in your belly, skin sang and every truck became a hazard and a joy"), then to Eden, Vermont, then Dakota. Dudley's speaker stands under an outdoor sprinkler, accepting the wet translucence of her clothing, even driving through a darkened town with "shirt off, breasts flickering white in street / or truck lights and the guardrail singing by too close / because my hands have left the wheel." The stare of a passing truck driver only brings back the wild love that surges in memory:

Give me the body in the dark, the slick arc of c*ck sliding
up the thick, teeth in the tender skin of armput.
This is where I want to be let in -- to this body,
which, even up against me, still hovers, is imperfect, and will die.
[asterisk is not Dudley's but mine, for the sake of freedom of the press]

How far this is from the stickiness of romance novels or even the multiple images of the natural world layered into, say, "Vacation Sex" by Laux ("one long glorious night in a cabin in the woods / where our crooning and whooping started the coyotes / singing"). For Sharon Olds, in "Topography," the meeting of bodies is like the laying of one state's boundaries against another. But for Dudley, woman as actor releases sexuality from compulsion or invasion, into excitement and satiation.

There are some dark shadows: "The Road from Corpus Christi to Sangre de Cristo" paints a "Navy boys" gathering that includes a standard porn flick and that brings back memory of sex that includes threat: the 8 millimeters of the film echoing against the measure of a blue steel Beretta, and even the movement into darkness being spelled out as "I'll kill the lights." And another piece reveals how local "boys" in some nasty seacoast location make seagulls literally explode in the air, "rats with wings" that rain onto their torturers in fragments of feathers, blood, meat.

There are also segments where place exceeds person in importance: exploring Hawai'i, where long-time Vermont resident Dudley winters, and Mexico, and the lives of migrant laborers in the Southwest, swiped by racing cars as if they were stray dogs on a highway. "The color / of blood in any flag is red." The geographic cure on its own won't release a person from the nightmare of life, if that's what the focus has come to be.

Still, the opposite also applies: If it's joy you see, Dudley can point to more of it in the actions of a boy with Down's syndrome; in an earthquake and tidal wave smashing a town; in a scratch on the leg from a lover's fingernail "because you'd bitten and he thought you liked pain." I love the conclusion to "Equinox, New York," a poem that isolates the poet in her thinking and driving:

You're safe to make the fiction of your life,
to love the one you love the most: your want, your longing.

Dudley's forms race across this generous landscape in plentiful variety: couplets, four-line stanzas, blocky sonnet-length pieces, even some prose poetry. Yet the line clearly intensifies her narratives, forcing attention to bodies, feet, the glow of a swimmer's cap, salt on the tongue. Each piece wraps a person or couple or even group of travelers into a place and a wind and a thrill of embodied presence. In a sense, each can be cupped within a lover's two hands, or within a boat, or the car of a train slipstreaming over the landscape, with witnesses at the window unable to intercede in the scenes they pass. People approach, recede -- the heart pounds, sweat slickens the night. Here, from the prose poem "Train," is Dudley's own explanation of her geographic cure:

Tonight we'll be able to lie with the windows open and if the wind is right, around midnight we'll hear the train as it passes up the valley -- as it did the summer nights its whistle called us to the geographic cure: another time, another day, another continent perhaps and life would be better, lovers happier, the dead un-dead.

Though we cannot make the dead un-dead other than through what we write and speak, Dudley insists that we make life itself vivid and resonant. As in her final poem, her voice pelts us with calls that demand a response: "Where are you?" and "Come in."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Young Poets: The Frost Place, Franconia, NH

Attention all those who want to make sure young poets get the door or window to climb through into writing MORE. Show them this information. In fact, give them a scholarship and send them with your blessing!

MARCH 30 is the application deadline for young poets (grades 8-12) for this spring's Frost Place workshop. Details:

3rd Annual Young Poets Conference
April 27-29, 2007

A chance to be immersed in poetry for a weekend in a historic New Hampshire inn, with time for writing, revision, workshops, readings, and games, and with a field trip to the nearby Frost Place, featuring faculty poets Eloise Bruce, Geof Hewitt and Elizabeth Powell.

Tuition: $275 for students or teachers, includes meals and lodging. $75 day-rate for teachers attending just Saturday (includes lunch).

Eloise Bruce is famous around The Frost Place for her sense of humor and dramatic flair; Geof Hewitt is Vermont's king of slam poetry. I don't know Elizabeth Powell yet, but I like the bit on the FP web site.

For more information, including where to send an application, click HERE.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Scandinavian Mysteries: Håkan Nesser, BORKMANN'S POINT

[Cemetery by the ocean, photo by Jef Maion]

I appreciate the threads that lead from book to book. Reading Henning Mankell led me to Karin Fossum (brutal noir with a quirky sense of mischief, believe it or not; but more of that, at another time), and then, figuring maybe the whole Scandinavian "thing" was worth exploring, I discovered the Swedish mystery author Håkan Nesser. Truth: I lost a lot of "work time" because I couldn't put down his Inspector Van Veeteren mystery, BORKMANN'S POINT.

Van Veeteren has the issues any inspector might after 30 years on the force: a bit of drinking, a heavy dose of depression, a persistent sluggishness that doesn't light up into eagerness any more. Confronted with the first ax murder of his career, he glumly pours a beer and realizes he has forgotten to buy food.

But Van Veeteren is also willing to ask the simple necessary questions that lead more deeply into the nature of the crime: After hearing the details of when and where Heinz Eggers was killed, he tilts the team toward its investigation by ruminating aloud, "What kind of a man was Eggers?" And, caught in a multi-jurisdiction tangle, he continues to quietly ask questions -- rather than spit out instructions. His careful movement and human warmth reward him with a partnership with the locals.

Yet as we say here, "No good deed goes unrewarded," and the response can sometimes be a painful reward indeed. By the time three murders pile up and a promising young female detective on the team goes missing, Van Veeteren's personal despair is in harmony with the cold seacoast, which depresses the criminal as well as the hunters.

Today's New York Times Book Review includes an alert from veteran crime reviewer Marilyn Stasio for the next Van Veeteren mystery, THE RETURN. Stasio offers the phrase "introspective viewpoint" to describe Nesser's language and narrative, and points to the book's probing of the presence of evil. That's enough to move this new arrival to the top of my bedside stack for next week's reading.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Poet's St. Patrick's Day

Meg Kearney, director of Pine Manor College and author of two collections of poetry, is also a contributor to the newly released BOOK OF IRISH AMERICAN POETRY: FROM THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY TO THE PRESENT (U. Notre Dame Press). She'll join other contributors at the Concord Poetry Center at Emerson Umbrella, 40 Stow Street, Concord, MA, on St. Patrick's Day -- which is Saturday March 17 -- for an 8 p.m. reading. Kearney's web site also offers the tip that around 10 p.m., the second round of the evening begins at the local pub. Info, 978-897-0054 and

Then again, if you're up here in northern Vermont or upstate New York, it may be easier to just slip over to Burlington to catch a taste of the snow country's best Irish festival:

St. Patrick's Day Concert: Cherish the Ladies 8:00 p.m.
Once again the partnership of the UVM Lane Series, the Flynn Theatre and the Burlington Irish Heritage Festival present an evening of first-rate Irish talent. Over the past 16 years, the name of a time-honored Irish traditional jig has become equally well known as the name for one of the most engaging ensembles in Irish music-Cherish the Ladies. Five women with "a terrific sense of fun and heaps of music in their fingers and toes" (Glasgow Herald), Cherish the Ladies delight with their spectacular blend of beautiful vocals, virtuosic instrumental talents, and stunning step-dancing celebrating all aspects of Irish traditional culture. Enjoy Saint Patrick's Day with one of the most celebrated Irish-American groups in Celtic music history.
Location: Flynn Theatre, Main Street, Burlington, VT
Admission: Tickets start at $28.00 and can be purchased online here or by calling the Flynn Box Office at (802) 863-5966.

Finally, if you'd rather celebrate the Green Saturday snug on the couch, here's a reminder that one of the finest Irish American poets is up here in the Green Mountains: Greg Delanty. This poem is from his 1995 collection AMERICAN WAKE.

The Fifth Province

Meeting in a café, we shun the cliché of a pub.
Your sometime Jackeen accent is decaffed
like our coffee, insisting you're still a Dub.
You kid about being half & halfed.
The people populating your dreams are now
American, though the country they're set in
is always the Ireland within a soft Dublin.

In the country of sleep the voiceless citizens
trapped in my regime of dreams are Irish,
but they're all the unlikely green denizens
of an island that's as mysterious
as the volcano, bird or sheep islands
that Brendan with his homesick crew,
bound for the promised land, bumped into.

Last night I combed sleep's shore for its name.
A familiar adze-crowned man appeared
waving his crook's question mark, nursing a flame
on a hill and impatiently declaring in weird
pidgin Irish that the fifth province is
not Meath or the Hy Brasil of the mind.
It is this island where all exiles naturally land.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Poetry to Grow Up With: Reeve Lindbergh

Reeve Lindbergh writes for "grownups" often enough -- a gifted narrator, she has provided three book-length memoirs of the Lindbergh family. Her father was aviator Charles Lindbergh; and Reeve's mother was Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose book A GIFT FROM THE SEA is treasured by so many that it has even become the theme of a museum in Florida. Reeve is also a gifted and generous reviewer of books by others, and dedicates time, effort, and funding toward preserving the beauty of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. She serves on the local library board, too.

Her connection with children and her willingness to struggle for exactly the right line of poetry blend to make her children's picturebooks extraordinarily beloved. It's hard to find a decent copy of her earlier books in hardcover, because they've literally been read to death. And as anyone who's tried it knows, to craft poetry for children means at least as many revisions as for adults. Not only do the words need to express ideas and images that children can readily grasp, but they need to flow smoothly from the tongue of the exhausted parent at bedtime.

So it's great to announce that Reeve has done it again: brought forth a picturebook that people can't wait to own and read. It's illustrated with bright, amusing watercolors by Kathryn Brown, and is called MY LITTLE GRANDMOTHER OFTEN FORGETS. You don't need to know that Reeve's son Ben and his relationship with his grandmother Anne Morrow Lindbergh were the starting point for the book -- but it's another aspect of the story's charm. Grandmothers often love us so completely and uncomplicatedly that our return love for them survives even the stages of memory loss. As Candlewick, the publisher, described this:

Sometimes Tom’s grandmother forgets the way home from the market, or that Tom’s name is Tom and not Roy. But Tom doesn’t mind. He loves to help his grandmother and just spend time with her. The special bond between a beloved grandmother affected by memory loss and her devoted grandson is described in Reeve Lindbergh’s most personal book for children, one that is based on her own and her son’s relationship with her mother in the last years of her life. Kathryn Brown’s watercolor illustrations tenderly capture the unique characters -- and the love that is universal.

Here's a sample of the text. Tight, memorable, fun, easy to read alound -- and Reeve can recite it, and I bet others will soon, too:

My little grandmother
can't find a thing.
She can't find her glasses;
she can't find her ring.
She can't find her teacup;
she can't find her shoes.
She can't find her cat --
and that cat's hard to lose!

On Monday March 12, at 4 p.m., Reeve Lindbergh will visit Kingdom Books to read aloud from, and sign, copies of this delightful new book. We have a limited number of copies, which Candlewick is shipping to us ahead of the actual release date of March 13. Please contact us to reserve a signed one (802-748-5488 and

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Maxine Kumin: "Let Them Eat Baked Potatoes"

Maxine Kumin read her poetry this afternoon at Plymouth State University, introduced by her "neighbor," U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall (she lives in Warner, NH; he lives in Wilmot, NH; the bulk of Mt. Kearsarge rises between them). She opened with a poem she said was especially dear to her, "Morning Swim," with its rhyming couplets and declaration of faith. Then she gave a grand sampling of the work that makes her so well loved: the poems about dogs, horses, haying, rural life with its generous doses of labor, miracle, and tenderness. Anecdotes crept into the reading, such as for the poem "Praise Be," about a foal that arrived much later than expected. It was Kumin's habit to sleep in the barn when a foal was due, and she lay on a mound of sawdust that positioned her to look directly into the foaling pen. "I slept on that pile for twenty-one days," she marveled ruefully.

Working her way forward in time through her collections, she reached "Three Dreams After a Suicide," and explained simply, "Of course it's all about my friend Anne Sexton, with whom I was terribly close for seventeen and a half years until she took her own life." Kumin "scribbled incessantly" after Sexton's death, and the poem came together after about thirty years of writing.

Her finale was a set from her most recent book, Jack (she has another book headed for publication in fall 2007). One, written at the 25th anniversary of the blizzard of 1978, also confronted the eruption of the Iraq war ("New Hampshire, February 7, 2003") and was the only one of her choices today to reflect her strong anti-war stance. The next, "The Apparition," enfolded the "putting down" of a long-loved dog; she followed it with "Jack," for a horse whose path out of her hands left her with "guilt about a sin of omission." And she concluded with a poem about her friend Stanley Kunitz and his garden.

With a chuckle, she shared one more tale: "I like to always tell the story about my moaning to Stanley about how I never could find time to write because I had all these family obligations. And he patted my hand and said, 'Just put them all on baked potatoes.'"

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Word, the Image, the Knife: Ellen Bryant Voigt, MESSENGER: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006

I've watched Ellen Bryant Voigt confront a group of teachers who had forgotten how to listen, how to see, most importantly, how to think. In some ways she resembles her own description of her mother at such moments:


Whenever my mother, who taught
small children forty years,
asked a question, she
already knew the answer.
"Would you like to" meant
you would. "Shall we"
was another, and "Don't you think."
As in, "Don't you think
it's time you cut your hair."

Though the poem concludes with Voigt shielding her emotions and visible self from her mother -- knowing that the outward result was foreordained -- it presents also the formal relationship of teacher to student. In Voigt's case, the relationship is professorial (Harvard, as well as Warren Wilson College), and the expectation of learning is fierce.

Voigt's newly released collection, MESSENGER, received a warm review in The New York Times from Sven Birkerts, author (most notably) of THE GUTENBERG ELEGIES. Birkerts sees Voigt's poems as framed in garden, farm, nature -- and calls her extension to larger topics "uncharacteristically big" in effect.

I couldn't disagree more. I assert that Voigt's work, from the start, has grappled with the Big Issues: truth, violence, the links among love and death and grief. And her poetry also carries the voice of the insistent teacher, as in "The Last Class": "Put this in your notebooks: / All verse is occasional verse." Her field of images carries the teachings, as paper carries words. Knifelike in her choices of how to pack and enjamb both words and issues, she demands attention.

Please see our web site,, for a longer review.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Gold Star for Frank Bidart's Poetry

Frank Bidart was announced the winner of the Bollingen Prize by Yale University in a media release that went out on Monday. Here is almost the entire release:

New Haven, Conn. — A three-judge panel has named Frank Bidart the 2007 winner of Yale University’s Bollingen Prize in American Poetry.

The judges described Bidart as “a poet whose work exemplifies consistent originality of theme, sustained linguistic and formal explorations and a strong sense of the profoundly serious and adventurous nature of the poetic calling.”

This year’s judges were Langdon Hammer, professor of English at Yale, Nicholas Jenkins, professor of English at Stanford University, and the poet Ellen Bryant Voigt of Vermont.

Bidart was born in Bakersfield, California, in 1939 and educated at the University of California, Riverside, and at Harvard. He joined the faculty at Wellesley College in 1972. His volumes of poetry include “In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965–90” (1990), “Desire” (1997), “Star Dust” (2005), all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and “Music Like Dirt” (2002), by Sarabande Books.

The judges also said: “An unearthly mixture of the Dionysian and the
Apollonian impulses, the terrifying and the humane, the wildly inspired and the
minutely crafted, Bidart’s poems — eerie, probing, sometimes shocking, always subtle—venture into psychic terrain left largely unmapped in contemporary poetry. His imaginative strenuousness and his fastidious avoidance of complacency or easy repetitions of past triumphs have led him to “Star Dust” (2005), one of the strongest books of the last two years, in which Bidart manages to extend his range while never losing his voice. Indeed, Bidart’s uniquely stringent meditations on the problems, enigmas and possibilities of a poet’s ‘voice’ constitute one of the most distinctive characteristics of his poetry. For all these reasons, the Bollingen Prize Committee for 2007 is pleased to honor Frank Bidart, who has already built up a lifetime’s worth of memorable work and yet whose future writing seems certain to be freighted with fresh challenges for himself and for his readers.”

The Bollingen Prize in Poetry, established by Paul Mellon in 1949, is awarded biennially by the Yale University Library to an American poet for the best book published during the previous two years or for lifetime achievement in poetry. Previous winners include Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, E. E. Cummings, Louise Glück, Adrienne Rich and Jay Wright. The prize includes a cash award of $100,000.

A sample of Bidart's poetry (which certainly exhibits torque!):

by Frank Bidart

You know that it is there, lair
where the bear ceases
for a time even to exist.

Crawl in. You have at last killed
enough and eaten enough to be fat
enough to cease for a time to exist.

Crawl in. It takes talent to live at night, and scorning
others you had that talent, but now you sniff
the season when you must cease to exist.

Crawl in. Whatever for good or ill
grows within you needs
you for a time to cease to exist.

It is not raining inside
tonight. You know that it is there. Crawl in.

Copyright © 2005 by Frank Bidart. From Star Dust.

Clusters of Poetry: The Ukraine

When I wrote about Bruce Weigl's book DECLENSION IN THE VILLAGE OF CHUNG LUONG, I found a cluster of war-related books of poetry on the desk at the same time: Brian Turner's HERE, BULLET (note -- we plan to host Brian here in October!), Doug Anderson's THE MOON REFLECTED FIRE, and Dunya Mikhail's THE WAR WORKS HARD.

In like manner, the work of Dzvinia Orlowsky jumped at me today. Orlowsky, whose roots are Ukrainian, is a founding editor of Four Way Books and author of three poetry collections, plus a fourth that's in press (2008). After listening several times recently to Ilya Kaminksy, another poet with roots in the Ukraine, craft his unforgetable, heavily accented, impassioned readings, I'm curious about Orlowsky. If you're in the Boston area or willing to drive there, Pine Manor College just added her to the series of Solstice MFA readings it is sponsoring in the region this month. Details:

Poet Dzvinia Orlowsky will be reading on Saturday, March 24 at 9 p.m. at the East Bridgewater Public Library, 32 Union Street in East Bridgewater. For more information, visit

And here, from the PMC web site:

© Roman Borysthen-Tkacz

Award-winning writer Dzvinia Orlowsky is the author of three poetry collections, including Except for One Obscene Brushstroke. Her translation from the Ukrainian of Alexander Dovzhenko's novella, The Enchanted Desna, is forthcoming from House Between Water in 2006. Her fourth collection, Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon University Press in spring 2008. Her poetry and translations have appeared in numerous anthologies, including A Map of Hope: An International Literary Anthology; From Three Worlds: New Writing from the Ukraine; and A Hundred Years of Youth: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Ukrainian Poetry.

And a sample of her poetry:

Carpe Diem
by Dzvinia Orlowsky

A fly sticks to a strip, its life work.
In Hidden Acres, the town’s new development,

a man tests a chain saw
against a hunk of tree.

I drive the long way around
anything that reminds me

of myself—
easy sweets, the greasy,

screaming open all night restaurants
of my middle-aged blood.

A motorcycle cuts across
the day’s pale lawn

leaving behind an empty helmet,
its rider passed into oblivion.

In my daughter’s room
sand dollar chimes drop onto the windowsill

while two hermit crabs
inch toward a damp sponge,

a bright green peace sign painted on one shell,
a Harley flame on the other.