Friday, August 31, 2007

Brattleboro Literary Festival: Watch for Changes!

The Sixth Annual Brattleboro Literary Festival is a three-day celebration of those who read books, those who write books, and of the books themselves. Located in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, the Festival includes readings, panel discussions, and special events, featuring emerging and established authors. All events are free.

And if that sounds familiar, even kind of "the same as before," don't believe it -- almost everything in the 2007 schedule is different from "the way it's always been." For instance: Don't count on attending the event that features award-winning children's author Lois Lowry unless you contact the festival folks NOW -- it's been scheduled at 1 p.m. on Friday Sept. 28 and the theatre will be packed with children, by prearrangement. There are few (if any) seats available for adult visitors. Check the site and see:

Next, although Vermont's noted Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Galway Kinnell gives a reading, and so does New York Times best-selling author Augusten Burroughs (Running With Scissors), that may not match the previously "expected" headliners -- no John Irving, no Saul Bellow. Instead, the festival organizers have spread their funding over more of a mid-list selection of authors, with some biographers, some novelists, poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar (whose name is not yet a familiar one to many mainstream readers). Actually that should be a great "plus" for readers and listeners: less massive crowds, more attentive audiences.

There's less commotion in each time slot, so it will be a bit easier to pick where you're going. And on Sunday, when the festival has traditionally wound down, it will instead coalesce into a major food-related panel and tasting. Hmm, a delicious way to draw a fresh audience or hold on to the folks who've been there for the other two and a half days already!

In fact, the more I prowl through the schedule, the more it feels like getting ready to attend First Night on New Year's Eve -- opportunities to meet new faces, new books, new opinions. And a laid-back length of time to fill, all the way up to the final hour. I like it!

2007 Schedule of Events


Lois Lowry Latchis Theatre
Augusten Burroughs & Haven Kimmel Latchis Theatre


11:00am - 12:00pm
Galway Kinnell Centre Congregational Church
11:00am - 12:00pm
Matt Tavares Hooker-Dunham Theater
12:30pm - 1:45pm
Randall Kenan & Colum McCann Centre Congregational Church
2:00pm - 3:00pm
Ibtisam Barakat Centre Congregational Church
2:00pm - 3:15pm
Laure-Anne Bosselaar & Ellen Dudley Hooker-Dunham Theater
3:30pm - 4:30pm
Deirdre Bair & Sven Birkerts Centre Congregational Church
3:30pm - 4:30pm
Zak Smith Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center
5:00pm - 6:15pm
Ann Beattie & Joshua Harmon Centre Congregational Church
7:00pm - 8:30pm
Write Action Reading The Mole's Eye


11:00am - 12:00pm
John Crowley The River Garden
11:00am - 12:00pm
Wayne Carhart Brooks Memorial Library
11:00am - 12:00pm
Leda Schubert Hooker-Dunham Theater
12:30pm - 1:30pm
Jon Clinch Hooker-Dunham Theater
12:30pm - 1:30pm
Allen Shawn Brooks Memorial Library
2:00pm - 3:15pm
Kurt Brown & Martha Rhodes Hooker-Dunham Theater
2:00pm - 3:00pm
Debby Applegate Brooks Memorial Library
3:30pm - 5:00pm
Food Panel: Eating Close to Home The River Garden
5:00pm - 6:00pm
Closing Reception and Local Cheese Tasting The River Garden

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Archer Mayor's 18th Joe Gunther Police Procedural: CHAT -- The dark side of the Internet...

Hold the date! Kingdom Books announces our second annual Limited Edition Dinner -- this time with Vermont's premier mystery author, Archer Mayor. "Limited Edition" means we'll only offer 20 seats to the dinner ($25 each), keeping the event small enough for intense conversation with the author. The lucky first 20 people to sign up for dinner here, to be held Monday October 22 at 5:30 p.m., will be able to purchase Mayor's 18th Joe Gunther mystery, CHAT, that evening. Bring your collection along and get it all signed while you're here... and best of all, bring questions, comments, and the things you've always wanted to discuss with this master of the Green Mountains version of gritty realism. (Oh yes, of COURSE we have copies of the earlier books in the series!)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Magdalen Nabb Follows Michael Dibdin Off the Map of Italian Mysteries

[Magdalen Nabb, photo by Dirk Vogel, from]

In the early 1800s, Edgar Allen Poe provided "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and Wilkie Collins segued into THE MOONSTONE. The mystery began serious evolution, and arguably became most defined for popular readers with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. But it was not until the surge of escape literature of the 1930s -- one sweet result of the Great Depression -- that readers within the mystery genre could begin to pick favorite subgenres: American urban noir, British country house mysteries ("cozies" would be an offshoot later), French detectives. And when they fell beyond the outlines of North American and its linked nations in Western Europe, settings for mysteries fell into the category of "exotic."

Since the 1970s, one subgenre that's steadily matured has been that of mysteries set in Italy. In Sunday's New York Times Book Reviews, critic Marilyn Stasio saluted the passing of Michael Dibdin as she praised his final, posthumously published volume. Stasio wrote:

Donna Leon has staked out Venice, Magdalen Nabb knows every narrow street in Florence, and Andrea Camilleri holds Sicily in the palm of his hand. But only Michael Dibdin, in the clever and exuberantly witty police procedurals he created for a dyspeptic cop named Aurelio Zen, tried to wrap his arms around the whole of Italy.

Today's New York Times brought word of a second death among this foursome: Magdalen Nabb died in Florence on August 18, from a stroke suffered while horseback riding.

I'd already pulled a Dibdin classic onto the bedside table (VENDETTA, 1991); I'll be tugging the Nabb books from the shelf next. What better salute can there be than to read, whether for the first time or for a satisfying second or third, the forays of Aurelio Zen and then of Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia?

Here's a list of Nabb's work, courtesy of

Death of an Englishman (#1) ©1981
Death of a Dutchman (#2) ©1982
Death in Springtime (#3) ©1983
Death in Autumn (#4) ©1984 Florence
The Marshal and the Murderer (#5) ©1987
The Marshal and the Madwoman (#6) ©1988
The Marshal's Own Case (#7) ©1990
The Marshal Makes His Report (#8) ©1991
The Marshal at the Villa Torrini (#9) ©1993
The Monster of Florence (#10) ©1996
Property of Blood (#11) ©1999
Some Bitter Taste (#12) ©2002
The Innocent (#13) ©2005
Vita Nuova (#14, the last) Spring 2008 Publication Date
Also set in Italy (not the Guarnaccia Series):
The Prosecutor (co-author: Paolo Vagheggi) ©1986

Friday, August 24, 2007

Update: KR Award to Margaret Atwood

Here's the promised update on the Kenyon Review award to Canadian author Margaret Atwood:

This fall, the first annual Kenyon Review Literary Festival will be held in Gambier, Ohio. Scheduled for November 9-10, the festival complements the sixth annual Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, which will take place on November 8 in New York City. The award recipient this year is Margaret Atwood, whose poetry, fiction, criticism, and children's books have achieved critical and popular success, garnering dozens of awards from literary, cultural and social institutions throughout the world.

Highlighted by a keynote presentation by Atwood, who will travel to Gambier after the award dinner, the festival is designed to bring literature home with seminars, readings, and more, available to Ohio residents. The festival will also host the Midwest Literary Magazine & Small Press Fair in conjunction with the Council of Literary Magazines & Presses (CLMP), offering great discounts on literary magazines and attracting editors throughout the region to meet writers and readers.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grace Paley's Life Moves to a New Theater: Beloved Essayist, Story Writer, Poet Died in Vermont at Age 84, August 22

She gave, and she called out, and most of all, she told stories of herself and the people around her. Vermonters in particular will miss Grace Paley, whose term as state poet was about to end. Her performances ranged from reading poetry at the Bread and Puppet Domestic Resurrection Circus (in the "old days"), to talking with high school students about what it's like to speak out for peace and liberation, and she was always more likely to say yes than no to anyone asking for her time and voice.

She leaves her second husband, Robert Nichols, also a poet and adopted Vermonter. Their home has been in Thetford, Vermont, for many years now -- but that great New York/Jewish accent of the daughter of immigrants is what sticks in the ear and the heart. "Yeah, sure," she was most likely to reply.

Farewell, Grace.

"Crime in the City" on NPR: Michael Connelly, Friday Aug. 24

[Bangkok photo credit, NPR]

I caught today's installment of "Crime in the City" on National Public Radio, featuring Laura Lippman and "her" Baltimore. Already interviewed: Donna Leon on Venice, and John Burdett on Bangkok. Tomorrow (Friday) will be Michael Connelly on Los Angeles. The interviews are archived and can be played at . Definitely recommended!

From the NPR site:

in this Series
Part 1: Donna Leon's Venice: A Tale of Two Cities

August 20, 2007 · To detective novelist Donna Leon, there are two Venices. One is the real Venice inhabited by ordinary Venetians, who know each other's secrets. The other is filled with loud tour guides and attracts up to 20 million visitors a year.

Part 2: Beyond Sex, Tourists in John Burdett's Bangkok

August 21, 2007 · John Burdett's Bangkok is far more than the bizarre murders, corrupt cops and big-hearted bar girls of his novels. It's also the city as a living breathing, thing. Web Extra: Book Excerpts

Part 3: Laura Lippman's Baltimore: Loving a Flawed Place

August 23, 2007 · From the Antique Man's giant ball of string in Fells Point, to the crab cake lunch downtown, Laura Lippman loves Baltimore. Despite the city's crime and other problems, the crime novelist says its flaws are what make it an interesting place.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Vision and Clayton Eshleman: Reciprocal Distillations (Hot Whiskey Press, 2007)

There are seventeen poems in RECIPROCAL DISTILLATIONS. The book opens with a detailed perspective of modernist art provided as a foreword by Roberto Tejada; it concludes with "Further Notes & Appendix." There are also interior notes after the poem "Spirits of the Head." One might argue that for a small collection, this is enough explication.

Yet what Eshleman offers -- in his lifelong tradition of teaching while discovering -- is an explanation of the roots of many of the poems, their birth within his journeys: to museums, to exhibits, to caves of Paleolithic artwork, to the complex inner journeys of his shamanistic experience. And what Tejada offers is a modernist binding of the poems to art history.

So this brief "poetry alert" takes the third aspect of vision: that of the poems as written.

There is never a case for "just the words" in Eshleman's poems. They deliberately evoke layers of meaning and experience. Like the Paleolithic "hominid" (CE's word) who placed a slash along the curve of an ox rib (a "core meander"), then added another (a "branch meander"), Eshleman deliberately pushed for core and branch in himself and his words, echoing his discoveries in the caves of Lascaux that he and his wife Caryl explore once a year or so, with or without a cavalcade of literate associates.

Read this way, the poem meanders through inner heads, the eye as crater or as target, the jawless (this becomes clearer again with a glance at Bacon's haunting, despairing images). Then Eshleman pulls the horror into theos:

God has withdrawn into the Devil's Skull from which he fires spider filaments into the glory hole of mankind.
Within the face, Bosch working the pumps:

And thus we seize another vision, Hieronymous Bosch's evocation of condemned existence in the Dark Ages of humanity. Yet spinning around again (which I find Eshleman's work provokes in my reading), look at Bacon: he's not just painting horror, he's specifically painting aging and its effects. Eshleman wraps up his poem with,

Can I made the unsayable bark to verify that racial whitewash will never succeed in gating the community of souls?

The long wrapping line with its levels of abstraction and query becomes a hook back to the outside of the poem -- as in, where do we go after we close the book? What strength or what wounds do we carry into our daily tasks of response to the world, after reading Eshleman's response to the art that has cried out about war?

The note Eshleman adds to the poem, seven pages long, insists on adding yet more complexity: He adds more mention of occult study and comments that Bacon's renderings of male heads, that of his lover/model George Dyer in particular, "struck me as a clot of desire, rage, inspiration, and destruction, with asymetrical planes exuding soul-stuff. ... a combination of whipped cream and sperm, and thus the brain-muelos described by LaBarre. Bacon the head-hunter!"

There is in fact much darkness, much death in this collection. "Corot, 1870" layers shadows of existence upon layers of landscape. "The Beheading" digs into the soul of Caravaggio, who "could not completely / slip the Christian corset." And "Radix," a series of "improvisations for Khaled Al-Saa'i," begins with alphabet demons and Cro-Magnon "night talk," erupting however into "peonies swelling / with crimson joy."

The collection's finale, "Monumental," entwines the grim protesting paintings of Leon Golub with Eshleman's vision of war, of racism, of Western culture:

The Golub archetypal question:
if abstract color fields are peeled away,
what terrors will show through?

I recommend this collection for a season (at least) of labor, digging into its allusions and visions, as well as into the works of visual art that shadow the words. This poet brought us five publications in the past year, all deeply and meticulously reworked to multiple levels of conversation and response, and all at last calling us to our own responses. Here is a fragment of a blog pieces called "Responsories: from artist/writer Art Durkee that sets Eshleman's work into yet another context:

Some of the most interesting books, to me, are responses to Paleolithic shamanic art: Clayton Eshleman's poetic study of cave paintings; Gary Snyder's research into Native American poetry; Jerome Rothenberg's anthologies of modern re-tellings of the old chants, poem-stories, and songs.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Our Loss: Liam Rector, 1949-2007

He was Donald Hall's good friend. That's what I carry with me when I think of poet Liam Rector, as he sat on the stage with the newly named U.S. Poet Laureate at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, nearly two years ago. (see the blog entry from November 5, 2006.) The two men shared the podium with Rector's wife Tree Swenson, and they wrestled with what it meant to have an iconic poem for a generation -- as Ginsberg's "Howl" was, and (suggested by Hall) perhaps Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lions." Rector, after visibly thinking the question over, decided his own generation did not have such iconic poems.

Now, in the moment that it takes to pull the trigger -- but really in the much longer time that it takes to understand critical and chronic illness in one's body and choose a final line for the page -- Rector is gone. Whatever afterlife there is for him, we're not sharing it yet. But we have his poetry. And a visit to the monument erected to Rector by poetry and poetics blogger Ron Silliman provides five separate and impressive links to work by and about Rector. Go visit them to savor these achievements, connections, constructions, strength.

Meanwhile I offer one small further addition to the evidence Liam Rector left behind, from the web site of the Briery Creek Press:


At the inception of this competition, we wanted to provide a much-needed venue for poetry publication in an often-difficult market. More, we wanted to recognize and honor Liam Rector, a man who has dedicated his professional life to the success of American Letters. Mr. Rector has served as the executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), and has also administered literary programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Academy of American Poets, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and is the founder and director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Through both his own poetry and his role as arts advocate, Mr. Rector has served the American arts community tirelessly, facilitating opportunity and access for countless emerging writers. This contest, we hope, will serve as a modicum of appreciation for that work, while also continuing his legacy of creating opportunities for writers.

We thank everyone who submitted for sharing their work with us. We received a fascinating range of poetry and found the decision-making process difficult. We left this process, however, reassured that the love of reading and writing poetry is alive and well in the American market.

We're pleased to announce that our first winner is:
Leaving Iowa by Michael Meyerhofer of Carbondale, Illinois.

Mr. Meyerhofer's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, North American Review, Southern Poetry Review, and others. His chapbook, Cardboard Urn, won the Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest from Southeast Missouri State University. He is currently pursuing the MFA at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

Of Mr. Meyerhofer's work, our final judge, Craig Challender, writes: "there's real voice here: an all-too-rare accomplishment in these days of gentrified poetry. The language here is consistently fresh--a volatile mix of humor and anger, spot-on pity and forgiveness--that gives the ears meangingful work to do."

And here, from his final collection, THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE FALLEN WORLD, are Rector's words for the approach of the end:


Now I see it: a few years
To play around while being
Bossed around

By the taller ones, the ones
With the money
And more muscle, however

Tender or indifferent
They might be at being
Parents; then off to school

And the years of struggle
With authority while learning
Violent gobs of things one didn't

Want to know, with a few tender
And tough teachers thrown in
Who taught what one wanted

And needed to know; then time
To go out and make one's own
Money (on the day or in

The night-shift), playing around
A little longer ("Seed-time,"
"Salad days") with some

Young "discretionary income"
Before procreation (which
Brings one quickly, too quickly,

Into play with some variation
Of settling down); then,
Most often for most, the despised

Job (though some work their way
Around this with work of real
Delight, life's work, with the deepest

Pleasures of mastery); then years
Spent, forgotten, in the middle decades
Of repair, creation, money

Gathered and spent making the family
Happen, as one's own children busily
Work their way into and through

The cycle themselves,
Comic and tragic to see, with some
Fine moments playing with them;

Then, through no inherent virtue
Of one's own, but only because
The oldest ones are busy falling

Off the edge of the planet,
The years of governing,
Of being the dreaded authority

One's self; then the recognition
(Often requiring a stiff drink) that it
Will all soon be ending for one's self,

But not before Alzheimer's comes
For some, as Alzheimer's comes
For my father-in-law now (who

Has forgotten not only who
Shakespeare is but that he taught
Shakespeare for thirty years,

And who sings and dances amidst
The forgotten in the place
To which he's been taken); then

An ever-deepening sense of time
And how the end might really happen,
To really submit, bend, and go

(Raging against that night is really
An adolescent's idiot game).
Time soon to take my place

In the long line of my ancestors
(Whose names I mostly never knew
Or have recently forgotten)

Who took their place, spirit poised
In mature humility (or as jackasses
Braying against the inevitable)

Before me, having been moved
By time through time, having done
The time and their times.

"Nearer my god to thee" I sing
On the deck of my personal Titanic,
An agnostic vessel in the mind.

Born alone, die alone—and sad, though
Vastly accompanied, to see
The sadness in the loved ones

To be left behind, and one more
Moment of wondering what,
If anything, comes next . . .

Never to have been completely
Certain what I was doing
Alive, but having stayed aloft

Amidst an almost sinister doubt.
I say to my children
Don't be afraid, be buoyed
—In its void the world is always
Falling apart, entropy its law
—I tell them those who build

And master are the ones invariably
Merry: Give and take quarter,
Create good meals within the slaughter,

A place for repose and laughter
In the consoling beds of being tender,
I tell them now, my son, my daughter.

Liam Rector

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Vermont Summer Book Fair, Sunday Aug. 12

A special note to fellow booklovers:

The Vermont Summer Book Fair is held in a cool, bright, spacious site in the Union Arena, about 2 miles west of Woodstock on Route 4. It starts at 10 a.m. this Sunday. We hope you'll be there to add to your own collections from the 40+ dealers who'll be exhibiting -- including Kingdom Books, of course. We're bringing lots of New England poetry, mostly signed, including work from our current U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall and the newly named successor, Charles Simic. And we're bringing an amazing collection of broadsides!

At the Vermont Summer Book Fair you'll be able to stock up at reasonable prices, and in our booth if you mention this blog, we'll offer you an added 10 percent booklovers' discount.

Dave and I hope to see you there. If you'd like more info on the show and the dealers who'll be exhibiting, with their specialties, see the VABA web site:

Oh yes, and when the show is done (at 4 p.m.), we'll be racing home to pull together the last-minute details for Monday's Fine Press Appreciation Day (our fourth annual). At the moment, it looks as though four to six of New England's book designer/printers will be on hand for conversation. And we have the work of dozens of small and fine presses for people to browse through and enjoy. The fun starts at 2 p.m. on Monday August 13 and continues to 8 p.m. Nice nibbles on hand, of course!

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Art of the Chapbook

We're getting ready at Kingdom Books for our annual Fine Press Appreciation Day, held on Monday August 13 from 2 to 8 p.m. Some experts in the art of the book -- printers, designers, collectors -- will be here from time to time during the afternoon and evening, and we'll set out a "light repast" to keep the conversations well nourished.

So this seems a good moment to add a new link to our sidebar of interesting sites and blogs to visit: the one for Plan B Chapbooks, offered by stevenallenmay of Alexandria, VA. In his words, the point of the blog is: "This space is dedicated to the underappreciated art form of the chapbook which has been of significant importance in the launching of many fine authors. What follows are images and observations on the writers and their books."

I'm especially intrigued by the May post, which considers Perishable Press -- long a favorite of mine -- and in particular an item by William Stafford, pictured here. Hope you can make time to take a look.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Cohort of New England Poets: Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin, at the Frost Place

In and around the barn where Robert Frost once stood, on his small homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire, some two hundred people gathered on August 1 for a remarkable conjunction of poets, as Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, and Maxine Kumin read from their work -- a gift from these three noted New England poets to the poetry center on the forested mountain.

The threesome had more than location in common: Kumin and Hall have served New Hampshire as Poets Laureate, and Hall is nearing the end of his two-year labor of love as U.S. Poet Laureate; Kinnell has held Vermont's equivalent position, Vermont State Poet. All have garnered significant awards for their collections. All are firmly grounded in a narrative of place, as well as the lyric sense of wonder that New England can evoke in its lovers.

Curiously, Hall's habit of sharing his poems-in-process with other poets -- either by good old "snail mail" or, for the most part, via fax -- created yet another link. As he rambled through the farms and mountains of his poems (opening with "The Maples," then "Mt. Kearsarge," with reference to his grandmother braiding her hair on the porch of the home where he now lives, then his noted "Ox-Cart Man" and "Old Roses), he also reflected on the changes he'd made from suggestions "Max" and Galway had offered. "Max and Galway have helped me a lot," he confessed. For instance, he spoke of shaping the poem "Weeds and Peonies," the first that he started to write after the much-grieved death of his wife Jane Kenyon, also a poet. He envisioned her walking with their dog Gus, "his great tail wagging" -- and when Galway read a draft, he neatly inked out "wagging" and inserted "swinging." Hall concluded with a smile, "And he was right!"

Hall noted other influences too, such as Thomas Hardy -- whose work shaped Hall's period of working in closely rhymed stanzas. But he demonstrated that the inner delight of the way the poem sounds and turns and speaks can demand an independence of its own. For "Old Roses," he confessed to poetic license: "Really the roses are by the road, they're not by the barn door, but I had to say: 'flarre of thorrns by the barrn doorr," he growled.

Kumin read second, and called herself "the sandwich between the two men," chuckling. She also noted that Hall and Kinnell each have in their new collections a CD of their own voices reading the poems -- Kumin said "I'm the only one whose book does not have a CD attached -- it's kind of a disappointment, but Norton doesn't do that -- yet!" After an homage to Frost by reading his "Fire and Ice," she read two older poems ("Looking for Luck in Bangkok" and "Praise Be"), then poems from her two most recent collections: JACK and STILL TO MOW. Her sharp humor turned a serious blade on wars and government and especially the conduct of the Bush Administration's war in Iraq, boldly slashed out in ironic lines and even some "strong language," was in her "Please Pay Attention as the Ethics Have Changed," which ends with "f*** the Geneva Convention." She included a villanelle, "The Domestic Arrangement" (drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth's journals), and a pantoum, "What You Do." The collection also includes narrative reflections on her youth and her view from age 81, as well as farm and animal delights. In the words of Frost Place director Jim Schley, "The small and the large, the daily chores and the daily news, are always entwined in her poems."

Galway Kinnell responded to a quick question from the audience by saying that his earlies attraction toward poetry came from reading the poems of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. He gave a tender reading of Grace Paley's poem "Here," in acknowledgment of the current Vermont State Poet, who couldn't attend the event -- then launched into his own poem about Robert Frost, from which he read two sections that refer to a visit he made to the grand old man in about 1960. Then, after a vivid diversion into two poems about sows, Kinnell plunged into the complex glory of his "The Fundamental Project of Technology." After this serious wrestling, he led the audience to chuckle along with him in enjoyment of his narrative poem about his son Fergus's fourth birthday party ("It All Comes Back") and concluded with the loving and especially place-based narrative of both Fergus and his sister Maude in "Everyone Was In Love," to wild applause.

As the centerpiece of the week-long Festival and Conference of Poetry, the event called out the spirits of New England past, present, and even future -- and perhaps most strikingly, celebrated the friendships among these three committed poets.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Long Lines, An Ache of Language: P. H. Liotta's The Graveyard of Fallen Monuments (Poems)

Riddle: When is a small press the best resource for printing a substantial collection of serious poetry? Answer: When the forms of the poems demand a nonstandard presentation.

P. H. (Peter) Liotta built his fourth collection of poems (not counting the ones he translated; his The Ruins of Athens won the Garden Street Poetry Prize and the third was published only in Macedonian) over a quarter century. Quale Press ( brought the book out this summer. Neat and glossy in brown wraps with photo inset on the front, THE GRAVEYARD OF FALLEN MONUMENTS is 8.25 inches wide, and only 7.25 inches high: ideally structured for the long lines within. Liotta, a former Fulbright Artist-in-Residence in Yugoslavia and an NEA Fellow in Poetry, is a professor of humanities at Salve Regina. There, he also directs the Pell Center of International Relations and Public Policy.

But don't let the string of qualifications suggest that his poems will be intellectual excercises. Instead, they provide compelling narratives where people and their surroundings hover in moments of light that enhance their significance. Many are prose poems; some are sequences of couplets; and a few are crossover creations. Almost all demand attentive peeling back of the layers of allusions.

Here's one of the three paragraphs of Liotta's prose poem "Why I Will Not Write About a Failed Marriage":

What was I thinking? That dawn, I carried the broken carcass of a dog, a shepherd, and wanted to offer her to the yawn of the sea. Hours before, I had found her at the edge of the road, heard the whimper of pain, saw her swimming in blood. You son of a bitch, the old man had screamed: You killed my dog! My wife and me, we loved that mongrel like a child. I heard him whimper, too, when she died. She died for love.

Liotta's poem then repeats that he in fact had not killed the dog, merely found her at the edge of a road -- but the old man never grasps that difference. "I took the dead thing in my car, carried it in my arms to the sea. We died for love."

Though this poem is labeled "East Quoddy Head, Maine," many of the others in the collection were written in the republics that have replaced the former Yugoslavia, and in their neighboring nations such as Greece. Liotta's outreach extends to the terrain, the languages, and the people of the Balkans, the Middle East, the fragmented mountainous terrain of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia. He brings Vienna to the pages with "Wittgenstein's House" and "The Study of Freud," prose poems whose extended width on the page makes them appear short and intense -- and intense, they certainly are.

The collection's three sections -- The Fury Alecto; Broken Sonnets; and Snow Pouring Through Absence -- echo three epigraphs from Wittgenstein's "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus." Its title is shared by a "graveyard" of sculptures in Moscow, where the statues of the Soviet era huddle. Liotta writes that the final draft of the collection "began in Dusanbe, Tajikistan, and ended at Villa Aventino in Rome."

Although sections one and three are meaty and worth digesting slowly, it's the center section that forms the heart of the book. Within the Broken Sonnets section is a single 24-page poem titled "The Ghazal of Memory." Fourteen subsections of the poem are each headed with a Greek letter and formed of long couplets, lines ten metric feet long, heavily enjambed, resonant, lush. But it's the narrative of the piece that stuns: the trail of a near-fatal ascent of Iran's symbolic (mythic) Mout Damavand. Despite the "ghazal" proclamation in the title, the form is without refrain or obvious rhyme, and even its rhythms are fractured, with half steps tucked in like scrabbling boots on stones. And only the special format of the physical book can frame the long lines adequately, although I'll try to show them here by specifying that what follows is five couplets on the book's ample pages:

bruise the crested Elburz mountains, harsh, neglecting dusk blooding snow-peaked slopes. On
the runway and taxi paths men swept the asphalt bare, pendulums of brooms swinging in an

orchestrated concentration to clean the dusk, the air around. There is a lake at the mountain's
summit. The mountain's name is Damavand. The lake of ice is a mirror. North from the Caspian,

it calls
. Across the vast expance, a stranger waves: my father. Distant, the long customs
corridor frames his agile height. There is a lake at the mountain's summit. The mountain's

name is Damavand. The lake of ice is a mirror. North from the Caspian, it calls
. My mother
does not know me, my hair blond from a San Diego summer course (training with the nation's

finest: U.S. Navy) in underwater demolition. There is a lake at the mountain's summit. The
mountain's name is Damavand. The lake of ice is a mirror. North from the Caspian, it calls.

This is the principal section of the poem to insinuate the flavor of ghazal through such repetition; the others, however, bring back fragments of the "refrain" and carry the hiker into a demanding landscape of ice, temperatures twenty below, thin atmosphere, fierce differences among people who can barely speak enough common language to communicate the essentials. And among the essentials on this ascent are visions, threats, fear, fire and ice. The speaker recalls asking his soldier father, "And how many did you kill when you were there?" The reply chills as much as the ascent of the mountain. Dawn and darkness alternate, and the local guide apears vanishes, appears, vanishes ... and at the crest, "I pulse for air I breathe I fall I see images unfold impossible Escher-like the world as normal..."

The long lines, like the long swings of the effortful climb, craft a back and forth of what's real and what's true, what's vision and what's visionary. Eventually Liotta demands, "Open your life, stranger; let me in." And he concludes with "unmeasured space where one language shares the silence with another." Last on the page is the itinerary of the poem's creation: Tehran, Iran; Ithaca, New York; and Ithaka, Greece.

There is much more to read, reread, sort through for symbols both American and Eastern. Complicating and deepening the collection is the mystery of the poet's belief structure, which entwines early Christian motifs with Greek ones, as in the poem "Resurrection of the Christ Figure," which concludes:

The Owl of Minerva perched at the Savior's shoulder. O, the lashing of tongues tied to the mast, the weeping for joy.

It would be good, I think, to spend an evening in conversation with this poet. But it will be at least as satisfying to spend more evenings with his book.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Charles Simic Named U.S. Poet Laureate

[photo by Alexandra Daley-Clark, New York Times]
The New York Times announced today that New Hampshire poet/professor Charles Simic has been named the next Poet Laureate of the United States. And what a great choice! This great poet is also a gifted teacher and committed editor, and will enrich many with exposure to his brilliance, wicked humor, and intensely distilled insights. Age 69, he lives in Strafford, New Hampshire; born in the former Yugoslavia, he adopted the United States long ago, and it's grand to see the nation return the favor to him. His next book is due in early 2008 -- maybe the announcement will hurry the publisher, so we can dip into the new collection sooner. Hurrah!