Friday, November 30, 2007

Vermont Day at Kingdom Books, Sat. Dec. 1

[Kris Kristofferson in the film version of DISAPPEARANCES, from the book by Howard Frank Mosher, produced and directed by Jay Craven]
I've been baking for two days -- Dave says, "isn't that overkill?" But I don't want to run out of holiday goodies, as Kingdom Books throws its spectacular VERMONT DAY on SATURDAY DECEMBER 1 from 10 a.m. onward. Here are the details:

At 10 a.m., join Vermont's Mark Twain, novelist Howard Frank Mosher, for breakfast - and chat about his newest book, ON KINGDOM MOUNTAIN. We have most of his others available, too.

At 11:30, Steve Delaney, one of the voices of Vermont Public Radio, arrives with his new book VERMONT SEASONINGS -- a generous, tender, smiling collection of weekly readings on the "other" Vermont Life: the real world of mud season, voting at Town Meeting, surviving hunting season, and more.

At 1 p.m., illustrator Mary Azarian signs copies of her newest picturebook, TUTTLE'S RED BARN. With narrative by Richard Michelson, the book tells the tale of a New Hampshire farm settled in 1616, with changes generation by generation, all abundantly pictured in Azarian's brightly painted woodcuts.

Lots of books on hand, lots of good food, lots of readerly friends. Hope you can join us. See our web site for directions.

Boston: Tribute to Poet Melissa Green

Calendar alert:

Tribute to Melissa Green
Wednesday, December 5th at 7 p.m.

**Note Location and Time Change**

Room 129, Jacob Sleeper Auditorium
College of General Studies
871 Commonwealth Avenue

This event will feature a reading of several new poems by poets who contributed to the breathtaking collection, A Sheaf for Melissa (Arrowsmith Press, 2007). Readers include Frank Bidart, Bill Corbett, David Ferry, Melissa Green, Fanny Howe, George Kalogeris, Gail Mazur, Jennifer Moxley, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz, Tom Sleigh, and Rosanna Warren.

Melissa Green’s work has appeared in Yale Review, Agni, Paris Review, and The New York Review of Books. Her celebrated first volume, The Squanicook Eclogues, four long poems that weave memory and landscape with an almost religious understanding of the passage of time, received the Norma Farber Award from the Poetry Society of America 1989 and the Lavan Younger Poets Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Green is also the author of the harrowing and exquisite Color is the Suffering of Light: A Memoir (1995). Her new volume of poems, Fifty-Two, is forthcoming from Arrowsmith Press. She lives in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mystery in Tibet: Eliot Pattison, Prayer of the Dragon, Fifth Shan Mystery

Through THE SKULL MANTRA, WATER TOUCHING STONE, BONE MOUNTAIN, and BEAUTIFUL GHOSTS, Philadelphia-area author Eliot Pattison has taken Shan (Shan Tao Yun) through layers of agony and wisdom, in the struggle to preserve the remains of Tibet's monks, monasteries, and holy knowledge. Sometimes it seems Shan is very much alone in his quest: A Chinese national himself, but one who has fallen from the exalted political ranks of Beijing special investigator, into the dreaded gulag of the Chinese prison system, Shan's attachment to the monks in his life has come as a counterforce to his own fears and repeated nightmares. Once he had great power; now he seeks comfort, or at least some release, at the feet of the most powerless. For Tibet is under Chinese occupation, and the monks -- who can draw followers simply by their humility and prayers -- are enemies of the all-potent state.

Pattison's earlier Shan books have taken the fallen investigator through both success and failure as a student of the wise. Shan's failures are nearly always rooted in the skilled investigation that he has mastered to the point of having it be an automatic part of how he sees the world around him. In this fifth book, PRAYER OF THE DRAGON, Shan repeatedly walks circles around scenes of murder and loss, ironically imitating the movement around a mandala or holy sand painting. He is consumed with his effort to protect his beloved monastic friends Lokesh and Gendun. Yet the two holy men are shamed by Shan's attachment to healing the world, to solving murders, to tracking down killers.

PRAYER OF THE DRAGON lands Shan in double spiritual trouble. Not only are Lokesh and Gendun urging him to let go of the latest scene of corruption that he has noticed so clearly -- those long-honed instincts and skills of both investigator and gulag survivor always at the front of his interactions -- but also his path tangles with that of two Navajo seekers on a holy Tibetan mountain. Lightning strokes, thunder, and entryways to heaven and hell appear as Shan struggles upward.

In an author's note at the end of the volume, Pattison admits that his decision to pair the Tibetan and Navajo/Dine spiritual traditions -- to the point of asserting that today's American Navajos may share common genetic stock with the early Tibetans -- can be seen as a aromatic fancy. In a short defense of the notion, he outlines overlaps in the two forms of sacred wisdom, and adds wryly that because Tibetans are often exiled from their land, some are now settling among the Navajos in the American desert.

Whether the sciences of anthropology and genetics ultimately support this connection is not crucial to the book, however. What matters most is whether Pattison's weaving of the tale carries sufficient veracity and authority. What indeed will we believe as Tibetan monks meet a singer of the Navajo Blessingway? And how much will this collision of worlds distract us from the vital quest taking place in Shan's life?

For me, the answer was, with a tip of the hand back and forth, "perhaps it's a bit distracting." I find it hard to envision Tibetans borrowing pollen and sweat rituals from a visiting Navajo, no matter how much terror their village has endured. Likewise, I am not sure that a Navajo without an undue amount of political savvy could enter Chinese-occupied Tibet and make sense of his experience.

But Pattison crafts far more than a who-walks-where, and more than a contrast-and-compare of rituals and wisdom. It's Shan's personal struggles with trust, with loyalty, and with the awkward blessings and pain of friendship that are the strong, resilient skeleton of PRAYER OF THE DRAGON. His investigations make sense (although they are a bit heavily loaded with explanations in this volume), his skills match the tasks in front of him; most of all, his griefs and angers resonate across the worlds of culture. Once again, Pattison offers a compelling novel; accept a willing suspension of disbelief about the Navajo/Tibetan premise, and the forces that move Shan forward will likewise propel a reader through the pages and dangers, to a classic Pattison resolution.

[European cover version]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A New England Farm Is More Than Fields and Cows: A New Picturebook to Love

Richard Michelson, an award-winning Massachusetts poet, and Mary Azarian, Vermont's beloved illustrator, have collaborated on a gem of a picturebook: TUTTLE'S RED BARN: The Story of America's Oldest Family Farm.

The tale opens in 1616, with the arrival of John Tuttle on a storm-wracked Maine coast. It took the young English settler ten days to walk inland to the settlement of Dover, New Hampshire -- at the time, a cluster of twenty cabins surrounded by forest and unhappy displaced Native Americans.

Generation by generation, Michelson's clear prose portrays the eagerness and delight of the Tuttle sons who chose to carry on the family farm. And although the Red Barn is known today as one of New England's highlights, an engrossing shop of fresh foods from both the family farm and its neighbors (extending to France!), it wasn't until the 1920s that the family created this thriving store. Until then, "Tuttle's farm" more or less supported itself. Michelson shows clearly how the hunger for what had been left behind brought travelers home to Dover, NH, to purchase the home-grown and farm-made comforts that tasted and felt so good, on the tongue, to the hands, and in the heart.

Azarian's colorful woodcut prints bring this history to life on the pages of the generously framed picturebook. In her hands, people beam at each other, bond to their work, and treasure the barn full of animals and possibilities. I especially like the family likenesses that she conveys, and the colorful garments and surroundings for the Tuttle family members.

Creating a children's book that will entertain the little ones in your lap while at the same time drawing them into the course of America's dreams and growth is far from simple. But Azarian and Michelson have crafted this one well; I found it comparable to Donald Hall's delicious OLD HOME DAY, and to the Vermont family narratives spun by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, like her WILDERNESS CAT. Although it is less complex than, say, Karen Hesse's THE STONE LAMP, it has the same clear love of the purpose and pursuit of independence in its narrative and its images.

I predict that most copies of the book will show steady wear, as parents and grandparents will open them repeatedly to explore with young children, mostly preschool ages. So if you're a dedicated Azarian collector, better buy two copies: one to preserve and gently regard with pleasure, and the other one to love so much that it grows soft and even a bit worn -- a familiar friend for family and guest alike.
A bit of background: You don't need to know this to enjoy the book, but Vermont resident Mary Azarian has now illustrated more than 40 books, including SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY, for which she won the Caldecott Medal. Rich Michelson, perhaps best known for his art and book arts gallery in Northampton, Mass., is an award-winning poet whose books for children have been shaped by his own two (one daughter, one son) -- and he is married to the granddaughter of a farmer. I like what New England humorist Rebecca Rule has witten about TUTTLE'S RED BARN: that it "tells the history of a family, a place and a nation. It's a tour de force. That's French for wicked good book."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Bit More on Bill Pronzini's Books

Dave and I tend to read very different sets of mysteries, and when Pronzini was pronounced a Grand Master last week by the Mystery Writers of America, I had to head to Dave's shelves and beg for "something to read" from his Pronzini collection. What I wanted to start with was one of the "Nameless Detective" series, of course -- "nameless" in that in the entire 32-book series, nobody calls the narrator/protagonist by name. So even though the reader's entirely in this guy's head, book after book, there's no name to separate him from you. It's a neat notion, and to sustain it for 32 books is quite a feat.

So Dave issued me a copy of BREAKDOWN in hardcover first edition, never read -- Dave tends to read the softcovers when he can, protecting his gems, a wise option -- and I spent the next three days holding the book carefully in a snug V shape, peering down the pages to read the tale without making the binding any less crisp or tight. (The things you do when you're married to a serious collector...) And I've got to say that in spite of Turkey Day interference and a bit of editing work that had to be done, I barely set the book aside. It's a gripping San Francisco noir work, and if it's less directly bloody than, say, a Jan Burke or a John Lescroart, it's nonetheless a true California gumshoe mystery, where detective work and the darkness of the narrator's personal demons are what push the plot (along with a few deaths of course). If you need a reminder of the plot/placement, this one is a sequel to the narrator's experience with being kidnapped and held hostage in grim conditions -- and hinges on what a "coyote" is in northern California. I found the narration to be sort of a serious version of Donald Westlake's (East Coast) novels: no capers, but similar attitudes among the characters, I thought. And Westlake's career resembles Pronzini's in the movement among pen names and characters, as well as longevity.

I'd read it again (for perspective, BREAKDOWN is from 1991 and is number 18 in the Nameless Detective series), but I've got others to explore first, including some of Marcia Muller's books (Muller is Pronzini's second wife; they've collaborated on a few books too), plus Dave's own personal favorite from this author's recent work, GUN IN CHEEK (he keeps selling our copies and we have to restock). I also want to enjoy a holiday browse through SNOWBOUND/GAMES, which is an omnibus Pronzini with an intro by Muller and was just issed; Pronzini also is due to bring out SAVAGES this year, which my resources lists as Nameless Detective number 31 (skipping the short story collection that swells the following list to 32). There's another Nameless Detective title scheduled for March 2008, too, FEVER.

Here's the Nameless Detective list. Let us know which ones you think are the best.

Nameless Detective Novels

1. The Snatch, Random House, (1971).
2. The Vanished, Random House, (1972).
3. Undercurrent, Random House, (1973).
4. Blowback, Random House, (1977).
5. Twospot, (With Collin Wilcox), Putnam, (1978).
6. Labyrinth, St. Martin's, (1980).
7. Hoodwink, St. Martin's, (1981).
8. Scattershot, St. Martin's, (1982).
9. Dragonfire, St. Martin's, (1982).
10. Bindlestiff, St. Martin's, (1983).
11. Quicksilver, St. Martin's, (1984).
12. Nightshades, St. Martin's, (1984).
13. Double (With Marcia Muller), St. Martin's, (1984).
14. Bones, St. Martin's, (1985).
15. Deadfall, St. Martin's, (1986).
16. Shackles, St. Martin's, (1988).
17. Jackpot, Delacorte, (1990).
18. Breakdown, Delacorte, (1991).
19. Quarry, Delacorte, (1992).
20. Epitaphs, Delacorte, (1992).
21. Demons, Delacorte, (1993).
22. Hardcase, Delacorte, (1995).
23. Sentinels, Carroll & Graf, (1996).
24. Illusions, Carroll & Graf, (1997).
25. Boobytrap, Carroll & Graf, (1998).
26. Crazybone, Carroll & Graf, (2000).
27. Bleeders, Carroll & Graf, (2002).
28. Spook, [Carroll & Graf, (2003).
29. Scenarios (short stories), Forge Books, (2005).
30. Nightcrawlers, Forge Books, (2005).
31. Mourners, Forge Books, (2006).
32. Savages, Forge Books, (2007).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

NPR: African American Women Seize 2007 Poets' Prizes

Lucille Clifton (Lilly Prize), Natasha Trethewey (the Pulitzer), Elizabeth Alexander (the Jackson Poetry Award), and more...

NPR's broadcast points out that 2007 is the first year African American women have seized four of the major U.S. poetry prizes. It's worth a listen:

Black Women Shine in This Year's Poetry Prizes

by Judy Valente

Listen HERE [6 min 17 sec]

All Things Considered, November 18, 2007 · Four of the most prestigious poetry prizes went to African-American women this year. Some say the accolades are well overdue. Fueling this trend are a growing number of literary organizations that nurture the work specifically of black writers.
from QUILTING by Lucille Clifton:

wishes for sons
by Lucille Clifton

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
I wish them no 7-11.

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.

later i wish them hot flashes
and clots like you
wouldn't believe. let the
flashes come when they
meet someone special.
let the clots come
when they want to.

let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

New Tibet Mystery from Eliot Pattison Releases Early: PRAYER OF THE DRAGON

Originally scheduled for release at the end of December, PRAYER OF THE DRAGON is unexpectedly -- hurrah!-- available early, now, thanks to Soho Crime. I'll follow with a review next week, but in the meantime, here's the publisher synopsis of this much-anticipated fifth mystery in Pattison's Shan series:

Summoned to a remote village from the hidden lamasery where he lives, Shan, formerly an investigator in Beijing, must save a comatose man from execution for two murders in which the victims’ arms have been removed. Upon arrival, he discovers that the suspect is not Tibetan but Navajo. The man has come with his niece to seek ancestral ties between their people and the ancient Bon. The recent murders are only part of a chain of deaths. Together with his friends, the monks Gendun and Lokesh, Shan solves the riddle of Dragon Mountain, the place “where world begins.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Bulldozer ... or a River ... Searching for the Right Simile After Stanley Plumly's Poetry

Finalist for the National Book Award (for his newest and tenth collection OLD HEART), winner of awards named for William Carlos Williams and Lenore Marshall, distinuished university professor at the University of Maryland -- all this arrived with Stanley Plumly as, dressed for a frosty Vermont night in the small 19th-century lecture hall in Johnson, Vermont, he took the podium and opened a book.

But from that moment on, there was only the low growling rumble of Plumly's voice, steady, slow, calm, pouring forth poem after poem.

He opened with this sonnet:

Wrong Side of the River

I watched you on the wrong side
of the river, waving. You were trying
to tell me something. You used both hands
and sort of ran back and forth,
as if to say look behind you, look out
behind you. I wanted to wave back.
But you began shouting and I didn't
want you to think I understood.
So I did nothing but stand still,
thinking that's what to do on the wrong side
of the river. After a while you did too.
We stood like that for a long time. Then
I raised a hand, as if to be called on,
and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.

Then, in a brief diversion, he mentioned that his small school in Ohio where he grew up had odd ideas for field trips -- like visiting a classmate in an iron lung, or stopping at the slaughterhouse. Perhaps that explains the strange routes his classmates have taken since then, he noted, in a quiet slide into a longer piece that links each classmate's death or destiny with a particular bird.

In another quick comment, Plumly asserted that he's "kind of a literalist, in the sense that I really can't make anything up" -- an explanation for the poem "Simile" for which he first lined up a set of objects, then wrote from the physical line. He provided a doubly braided take in "Paraphrase as the Parable of the Prodigal Son," weaving a version of King Lear into his bitter ending.

Listening to the slow growl that lingered just long enough to make each string of alliteration more deliberate, I thought: This is a quiet steady reading, gentle somehow. But poem upon poem, I began to realize that -- in Vermont language -- Plumly's reading was "gentle like a bulldozer." Or a swollen river insisting on passage where there was once a dam.

Heir to Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, Plumly summons both the poets and their words in his work. His finale this evening was from his new collection and has the title "Elevens": referring, among other things, to the form, which is eleven verses, each containing eleven lines of eleven syllables each. "This is a sort of geography lesson, this poem -- it travels all over the place -- in a way it's about heights, elevations," he rumbled as he noted the use of the form to frame the ramble. Here's one part:

Eliot says that home is where you start from,
memory and body so confused they are the same.
In London, in Holland Park, in late October
on a Sunday, in an after-rain late afternoon,
I stood under the great horse chestnut
I'd stood under in the spring when it lit
its candelabra into flame. The chestnuts,
like the eyes of deer, were gone--buckeyes
if you'd grown up in Ohio, conkers if you
played them or fed them to the horses.
And half the leaves were gone. Yet through

the intricate yellow lattice of what was left
the changing sky took on a shape less random.

Listening to Plumly read from this collection adds depth and resonance, a force both vocal and already written onto the page. Read them aloud; they are clearly constructed for this rich possibility.

C. D. Wright to Judge Dorset Prize, 2008

Tupelo Press just announced that Rhode Island poet C. D. Wright will judge the Dorset Prize for 2008. The submission period is NOW -- details here:

Tupelo Press $10,000 Dorset Prize, Open to All Poets Writing in English

Submission Period: September 1 - December 15, 2007 (Postmark)

Again this year, the Dorset Prize includes a cash award of $10,000 in addition to publication by Tupelo Press, a book launch at Poets House in New York City, and national and international distribution through Tupelo Press and Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, Inc., Ingram and Baker & Taylor.

More information and full guidelines can be found at the Tupelo Press web site.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tribute to Poet Philip Levine, 80th Birthday

The first real snow landed yesterday, a key element Vermont's November magic: a mingling of deer hunting season, bare tree limbs, and winter white that arrives for a day, makes the animal tracks easy to follow for a few hours, and vanishes a day later, with a wild gray promise to return in quantity. Who could long to be anywhere else at this season?

But if you're near New York, or have a yen to zip into the city for a taste of holiday festivities, here's a solid poetic reason to be there:

PHILIP LEVINE 80th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION (courtesy of Random House)

If you're in New York City on Thursday, November 29, 2007, don't miss a special 80th birthday tribute and reading featuring Philip Levine with Kate Daniels, E. L. Doctorow, Edward Hirsch, Galway Kinnell, Yusuf Komunyakaa, Malena Mörling, Sharon Olds, Tom Sleigh, Gerald Stern, Jean Valentine, and Charles Wright.

Philip Levine was born in Detroit and is the author of 16 collections of poetry, most recently Breath. His other books include The Simple Truth, which won the Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is, which won the National Book Award; The Names of the Lost; Ashes: Poems New and Old and 7 Years From Somewhere, both of which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is the distinguished Poet-in-Residence in the Creative Writing Program at NYU.

Co-sponsored with the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center, the Academy of American Poets, Cave Canem Foundation, Cooper Union, Knopf, Poets House, Society of America and Poets & Writers.

The details in a nutshell:

Philip Levine 80th Birthday Tribute
Thursday, November 29th, 7:00pm
Great Hall, Cooper Union, East 7th Street
Free and Open to the Public

Here's one of my favorite Levine poems, as different as possible from Vermont's photo imagery -- and yet, the one time I met Levine was here in the Green Mountains.

Coming Close
by Philip Levine

Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

From What Work Is by Philip Levine, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Friday, November 16, 2007

2008 Grand Master of Mystery: Bill Pronzini

Here's the full press release from Mystery Writers of America with yesterday's exhilarating announcement. More later on the books!


(NEW YORK, NY) – Author Bill Pronzini has been selected to receive the coveted title of Grand Master, Mystery Writers of America’s (MWA’s) highest honor bestowed on an individual. He will be honored at the 62nd Annual Edgar® Awards banquet on Thursday May 1, 2008 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City. The "Edgars," as they are commonly known, are named after Mystery Writers of America's patron saint Edgar Allan Poe and are awarded to authors of distinguished works in more than a dozen

The annual Grand Master Award represents the supreme level of achievement in the mystery field and was established to acknowledge important contributions to the genre, as well as significant output of consistently high-quality material.

"Bill Pronzini is not only a passionate author and reader of crime fiction – he is also one of the most ardent proponents of the genre," said Daniel J. Hale, Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America. "For forty years he has distinguished himself with consistently high-quality writing and editing in all areas of the field, including creating one of the longest lasting detective series ever."

Bill Pronzini started down his path toward the Grand Master in 1969, when he embarked upon his professional writing career. Since then, Pronzini has experienced a prolific career, penning more than 70 novels and non-fiction books, including 32 novels in his popular “Nameless Detective” series and three novels written in collaboration with his wife Marcia Muller (MWA's 2005 Grand Master).

Pronzini is no stranger to critical acclaim for his achievements. He is a six-time Edgar® nominee, including a nomination in 1987 with his wife Marcia Muller for Best Critical Biographical Work, “1001 Midnights: The Aficionados Guide to Mystery Fiction”. He is also a recipient of three Shamus awards and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America. Pronzini’s suspense novel,
Snowbound, was the recipient of the Grand Prix de la Litterature Policière as the best crime novel published in France in 1988.

Pronzini joins a notable list of previous Grand Masters. Past recipients of this distinguished Award also include: Stephen King, Ira Levin, Mary Higgins Clark, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, P.D. James, Ellery Queen, Daphne du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie.

Mystery Writers of America is the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre. The organization encompasses almost 3,000 members in three categories of membership that include publishers, editors, literary agents, and screen and television writers, as well as authors of fiction and non-fiction books. For more information on Mystery Writers of America, please visit the web site:

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Time and Materials, Poems 1997-2005: Robert Hass Wins the National Book Award in Poetry

The arc of the well-crafted poetry collection is easiest to perceive when you read the entire collection at once -- which is very difficult to do with TIME AND MATERIALS. The poems opening the volume are small, direct, simple as a droplet lingering on the end of a rain-washed leaf. Love, sensuous love, love's beauty: it shivers among the lines, as in the third segment of "Three Dawn Songs in Summer":

Because he has opened his eyes, he must be light
And she, sleeping beside him, must be the visible,
One ringlet of hair curled about her ear.
Into which he whispers, "Wake up!"
"Wake up!" he whispers.

And then, meandering more deeply into a forest of experience, the word-foliage grows verdant, lush, entangled. "The Problem of Describing Color" shatters in fragmented lines and visions. "Winged and Acid Dark" probes a horrible moment described as taking place in occupied Berlin in 1945. And then suddenly artists, languages, cultures mount upon each other like pyramids of meaning whose stony contours resist time and weather. Hass transforms the words of Tomas Tranströmer and Czeslaw Milosz into layers of image and movement.

Another strand that tugs the poems together is protest: of war, of abuse, of the capacity to ignore history's clear lessons. The poem "Bush's War" roots in the violence of Germany in the Second World War, but equally in the firebombing of Tokyo, the martyrdom of Arab suicide bombers, and in the tender ministrations of Walt Whitman in the most American of all wars. The arc of the book insists on the presence of truth that is multilayered, multisourced, rich as a choral symphony.

Hass has said that he writes one poem at a time, seeing the arc as the poems begin to form a gathering. The design of this bright volume with its jacket patchworked in red silks and flowers and birds draws the interior outward, echoing "The Problem of Describing Color": "If I said fire, if I said blood welling from a cut --"

Even the elegant table of contents insists on an equality and persistence of verse titles as they pile one upon another to form the whole.

There will be many analyses of this poet's newest contribution, and winning the National Book Award only intensifies the spotlight that would aim here, no matter the award. This is the work of a poet not yet old enough (born on 1941) to be saying "I told you so" or "farewell," not locked so securely to one place (though he was born in California, lives in California, teaches in California) to stand only for that place, but instead a full glory of a tree in leaf, an eagle in flight, a poet unhidden.

I close with a full poem from the work, one that will bear much scrutiny as Hass himself declares it rooted in his eight years of commitment to environment, rivers, Earth:

Ezra Pound's Proposition

Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics. Though he is no recommendation
For poets on the subject of finance,
I thought of him in the thick heat
Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you
Outside the Shangri-la Hotel
And says, in plausible English,
“How about a party, big guy?”

Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazard Frères in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Poetry of Protest: Maxine Kumin, STILL TO MOW

In 1995, Maxine Kumin was named a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets. It was a prestigious position, an elegant crown to a career that already included a Poets' Prize, a Pulitzer (for her poetry collection “Up Country”), a term as Poet Laureate of the United States (then called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress), and five years as poet laureate of her own state, New Hampshire.

Yet in 1999, Kumin resigned her chancellorship in protest, determined to encourage broader representation of women and minorities in the organization.

With the fall 2007 publication of her collection “Still to Mow,” the 83-year-old poet demonstrates the art of effective protest - that is, of protest where listeners can grasp the issues, understand the passions, and develop a sympathy that may in fact draw them onto the speaker's side. In a time of multiple global wars, in addition to global warming, “Still to Mow” offers a necessary set of choices.

Kumin was born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1925 and earned her degrees from Radcliffe College. Married for more than sixty years, she speaks from the welcome familiarity of a truly long marriage (“The Long Marriage” was even the title of one of her books). A child of Jewish parents but schooled at first among the Catholics, for the benefit of the better education available, she speaks also from experience of “outsider” identity, and her poems burn with desire for justice.

Like California essayist Anne Lamott, Kumin finds the Bush Administration choices of invasion and occupation intolerable. The opening poem in “Still to Mow,' called “Mulching,” refers to her life as “a helpless citizen of a country / I used to love,” confronting a stack of old newspapers that proclaim suicide bombings, AIDS, earthquakes, and diaspora. Later, in the brutally graphic poem “Please Pay Attention as the Ethics Have Changed,” she rages at Vice-President Cheney's duck hunting (shooting at “pen-reared mallards”) and at the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib: “But where is that other Humane Society, the one with rules / we used to read aloud in school // the one that takes away your license to collar / and leash a naked prisoner” - and when reading the poem aloud at The Frost Place last summer, Kumin pointed to her unprecedented (for her) use of “the F word” twice in the poem. “It felt good to say it,” she burst out, enflamed with anger at her government's betrayal of the ethics she thought were agreed-on necessities.

But she is careful to paint the human background from which her voice speaks: She writes of her innocence in college, battling for union workers until FBI agents visited her father; of the similar innocence of leaping into marriage after graduation; of Jewish view of the Messiah and hope for the world. And then, inverting the telescope, she peers back from her eighty-first year, with the stubbornness of body and spirit that once nourished her recovery from a broken neck, an injury that made her beloved chores of caring for her horses into far harder work.

This open door into her life and emotions - including her grief and anger at the suicide of her close friend Anne Sexton - also opens a door to listening. Instead of polemic, Kumin's protests are braids of passion, honesty, and invitation. There are no footnotes here, no flourishes of foreign languages, no obscurity. There are instead the clarity of a mountain spring, the cold certainty of granite.

And in the end, when we ask why we should stand up for the weak, protect the poor, house the homeless, Kumin leads us as simply as if we too were aging lonely horses glad for her touch, as she writes in “When the Messiah Comes”:

“The first green pushing past the last snow / the old horses in their spattered coats of rubbed plush / lined up facing downhill, sunbathing, / shedding great handfuls of hair toward the reckoning / when the Messiah comes up the sluicy drive / and the crows, holding nothing back, / halloo their praise.”

This is a collection to come home too, after visiting Iraq with embedded poet Brian Turner or facing wintry death among the lambs with Flathead Indian son Kevin Goodan; here is the voice that not only parents us on our way, but demands that we become the adults we always meant to be. Even our own aging need not deter us, for as Kumin quotes John Gardner in the epigraph to the book:

“When you look back there's lots of bales in the field, but ahead it's all still to mow.”

Friday, November 09, 2007

Farewell to a Poet of Grace and Form: Jane Cooper

Today's New York Times announced the October 26 death of former New York State Poet (1995-1997) Jane Cooper, author of five collections, most recently FLASHBOAT. The NYT obituary does her due honor -- but a richer tale of this poet and her life is provided at the New York State Writers Institute web site, which is worth visiting.

And the Beat Goes On: Poetry Rebels Write!

[Allen Ginsberg and Barbara Moraff at 7 Arts Coffee Gallery, NYC, 1959; photo by Dave heath]
Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac are gone, but their iconoclastic writing continues to energize not just the Baby Boomers with whom they grew up, but rebels of today's generation, too. Among booksellers, it's said that Beat poetry is so much in demand that it's the most likely on the shelves to be stolen.

From a poetry reading and collecting point of view, Ginsberg and Kerouac can be the tip of the mountain of exhilarating materials ahead. I like spinning outward in their circles, and particularly in the spiral of poets that attach in influence to Ginsberg, whose longer life and close ties with Buddhist networks allowed him to care about, mentor, and appreciate many others.

For instance, there's Barbara Moraff. At the time when she met Ginsberg and Kerouac, she was just a teenager -- Kerouac called her the "baby Beat." She read poetry in coffeeshops, even in Hell's Kitchen, and found her way to Ginsberg in the city. She read poetry with him in Paterson, NJ (where she grew up), to honor William Carlos Williams, as well as in New York; her kind and generous mentor was Leroi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), who encouraged her to submit material to Evergreen Review (which soon published her poems). Bob Arnold at Longhouse (see his web site on the right side of this blog) brought out her FOOTPRINTS in 2007, and it's a gem. Still writing -- in fact, writing a lot these days, in her Vermont home, where she's also working on a "collected and selected" -- Moraff called last month to announce another new publication in process: ALL SET, being issued by John Martone and his Tel-Let Press. Visit his web site at Drop him a note to tell him you're interested and eager, so he'll bring this out sooner.

Dave and I were recently deeply honored by the chance to visit long-time Ginsberg partner Peter Orlovsky, also in Vermont; Orlovsky signed some of his books for us and mentioned he's thinking about writing his autobiography. That would be fantastic! Meanwhile, here's a great old photo that shows in the back row Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky, and in the front row Gregory Corso and Peter's brother Lafcadio (photo taken in Mexico). For a really nice description of a visit with Orlovsky and a recent photo of him, check out 2006 blog entry by Jacqueline Gens at

Snail Poem

Make my grave shape of heart so like a flower be free aired
& handsome felt,
Grave root pillow, tung up from grave & wigle at
blown up clowd.
Ear turnes close to underlayer of green felt moss & sound
of rain dribble thru this layer
down to the roots that will tickle my ear.
Hay grave, my toes need cutting so file away
in sound curve or
Garbage grave, way above my head, blood will soon
trickle in my ear -
no choise but the grave, so cat & sheep are daisey
Train will tug my grave, my breath hueing gentil vapor
between weel & track.
So kitten string & ball, jumpe over this mound so
gently & cutely
So my toe can curl & become a snail & go curiousely
on its way.

1958 NYC

From Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs, Pocket Poets Series #37, City Lights Books ©1978 by Peter Orlovsky.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Violence, the Reader, and the Compact: New Series Mysteries from Patricia Cornwell, Andrew Vachss

Taste develops from tasting -- even in mysteries.

I like narrative, and clues, and emotion. And I confess my favorite mysteries include a balance of some sort of justice. The good guys don't always have to get rewarded, and the bad guys don't have to go to prison, but if justice is truly perverted at the end of the book, then I want an explanation, a sense of the author's frustration with how life doesn't always go right, and a touch of hope of some sort.

When Scott Smith's horror gem THE RUINS came out last year, I dug into the advance review copy determinedly, knowing the author's reputation for intense, dynamic plot work. And the book showed all of that, along with images I'll never boot out of my head -- but it turned out to be a book that I couldn't put down, but also couldn't feel clean or satisfied about. And that was a matter of taste: I like a story where the protagonist has a chance to get things right, and where the best efforts turn out to be worth something. Instead, in THE RUINS, as in many a Stephen King novel, the creeping sense of horror and dread builds from the exact opposite: the reader's awareness that no matter how good or strong or perceptive the protagonist becomes, the forces of dead or mutilation are gonna win.

Reading one of Andrew Vachss's Burke novels comes with the inverse guarantee. For all the darkness and malevolence that Burke uncovers in his lifelong crusade against child sexual molestation, Burke's world of strong friends and savvy allies ensures that the bad guys will indeed be punished, and Burke will console himself for his losses by leaning on his good friends.

However, the newest Burke -- number 17 -- takes its time getting to the action. At a rough count, the first third of TERMINAL is spent drawing out the details from the ex-con who wants Burke to help pull a super-money con game on a team of molesters. The lashings of anger and statistics that Burke dishes out in those pages have given rise to some accusations that the book is political and over-the-top. As a result, this isn't the Vachss volume I'd recommend to a newcomer to the series. Spare, terse, often broken into short stretches of thought or memory, the story unspools in a ragged pace that resembles in fact the pace of recovery: up one moment, then dragging the depths, held to the distant surface only by the safety line of phone calls to friends and fellow travelers. But for fans of the series -- like me -- it's a must-read, not only for the plot but for the revelations about Burke's friends and the hint that, after the major losses he's sustained in his life, some daily tenderness might yet fluorish.

Which is a long way of saying: It fits the agreement with the reader. Burke's successes come from his hard work. His pain, which is a side-effect of his roots and his work, gets shared with his friends and is bearable (more or less). The satisfaction is there, painted in red and black but there.

Similarly, Patricia Cornwell's fifteenth Kay Scarpetta novel, BOOK OF THE DEAD, is a must-read for a series fan. And also similarly, it's a volume I won't place in the hands of any novice to Cornwell's style of psychological threat and sickening malevolence. Kay Scarpetta has a chance at recovering some balance and steady affection in her life in this one -- but she has an archenemy whose vicious plan is constantly revealed to the reader, as the "omniscient" narration slips back and forth among the characters. And there's actually nothing much Kay can do to dodge the pain that the wicked Dr. Self is aiming with such accuracy at the examiner of the dead -- who are recorded at the morgue, by the way, in the "book of the dead."

The helplessness and ensuing losses snowball, and Kay's friends aren't as magical in their skills and connections as Burke's. And in this sense, the imbalance of forces -- the winning side is clearly the evil side, even at the book's conclusion -- violates the conventions of the solve-it-with-the-investigator mystery, as opposed to the grim realism style of, say, true crime or realistic horror.

Is the book worth reading anyway? Of course. Cornwell's continued development of Kay Scarpetta as a character is compelling, and the narrative is edgy and tight.

But this is one I won't be scheduling for a second reading in the near future. The psychological force of Dr. Self and the flailing, clumsy, unprotected Scarpetta gave me a couple of really nasty nightmares.

Which I guess is another way of saying: Like Vachss, Cornwell knows how to write the evil side. Both books make the night a bit more threatening, a bit more dark indeed. I'll find some antidote in my choice of the next book I read -- but both authors have played fair with the reader, and despite the discomfort and desolation, the compact has in fact been kept. Thanks.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Poet Stanley Plumly, Nat'l Book Award Finalist, Reading in Vermont Monday Nov. 19

At the moment, the Vermont Studio Center has a reading by poet Stanley Plumly scheduled for Monday November 19 at 8 p.m. The schedules often change, so it's wise to call to make sure an event is still taking place on the day planned -- 802-635-2727.

Plumly's latest collection, released this fall, is OLD HEART. It's one of the finalists for the National Book Award, a powerful collection from the 70-year-old director of the University of Maryland creative writing program (and author of more than 350 books, articles, essays...). Here's a taste from the collection. Norton, which published it, is quoting Rita Dove, who said Plumly is the heir to the poetry of James Wright and Keats:

from “Childhood”

Let the stone gods
In their fountains move like clockwork—
they’re no less rooted in the rain
nor their marble less perfection of the snow—
let the clay gods circle in the fire. The body
piecemeal wastes away, the something soul
slips from the mouth, muse and sacred memory
shuts its eyes. I died, I climbed a tree, I sang.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Novelist Richard Ford at Plymouth State (NH), Sunday November 4

Ten points if you know where novelist Richard Ford is living now.

His moves from one state to another have been a much-enjoyed characteristic that readers of his novels -- especially INDEPENDENCE DAY -- have seized on, to point out contrasts with his characters and their lives. INDEPENDENCE DAY was the first novel ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award -- and it was a sequel, to his well-known THE SPORTSWRITER. When THE LAY OF THE LAND came out in 2006, Ford said it would be the last in the sequence featuring Frank Bascombe. The term "dirty realism" may well have emerged with critical attention to the series.

Ford will read at Plymouth State University, Plymouth, NH, on Sunday November 4 at 3 p.m. -- tickets are free but call ahead to reserve them, so you'll have seats (603-535-ARTS).

Oh yes, the answer?



One reason Ford appeared at PSU's Eagle Pond Series, named for Donald Hall's family farm, is that his connection with Hall is a powerful one. Ford recounted that Donald Hall "changed Christina's and my life back i 1970 in a way that, had he not, I would probably be a carpenter now." Ford was literally about to earn his journeyman's license in carpentry when Hall invited him into an audacious program at the University of Michigan, which would accept five people -- who would just WRITE for three years. "It was really just Donald who did it, Donald taking a flyer on a kid like I was."

Ford read from his final novel in the Frank Bascombe series, THE LAY OF THE LAND, which is set in the margin of time in 2000 between when the presidential vote was taken and, in Ford's words, "December, when the Republicans stole the election." He called this interlude a time when Americans were asleep.

After reading from both the opening chapter and a mid-book chapter when Bascombe's wife's first husband walks back into the couple's marriage, Ford took questions and quoted Randall Jarrell: that "a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." He went on to explain the process of his latest book, for which he spent almost 3 years writing the first draft in longhand, then read the book aloud to his wife Christina, then read it aloud again to himself -- in order to be sure that "every word and stop and line break is chosen."

Which in turn reflects a principle that Ford and Donald Hall hold very much in common, doesn't it?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Advice from Poet Galway Kinnell

[photos by Mary Ellen Reis, courtesy St. Johnsbury Academy]
More than a hundred people crowded into the Grace Stuart Orcutt Library (St. Johnsbury Academy) this afternoon to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and neighbor Galway Kinnell read and talk about his poetry. It was a masterful reading, with poems and "stories" about them adeptly selected for the group of mostly high school students. Afterward, I overheard a Creative Writing teacher introduce a promising young author to the poet and ask him for advice.

Kinnell replied: "Read, read, and read. And write, write, and write. In other words, give it everything you've got."

Short bit of good news, especially for those waiting for another book from Vermont poet and translator Jody Gladding -- who took the Yale Younger Poets prize for her collection STONE CROP, followed by the chapbook ARTICHOKE and the fine press collection THE MOON ROSE: Gladding mentioned today that her next book has been accepted for publication early in 2009. Hurrah! More details later.
And one more tidbit: James Hoch has accepted the position of Resident Poet at The Frsot Place for summer 2008 (Jody Gladding took it in 2007, Rob Farnsworth in 2006, Major Jackson in 2005). Bear in mind that this position is designed to replicate the situation that Robert Frost lived through while staying in the house that's now The Frsot Place: some publication but not yet reknown in the US, and ripe for generating powerful fresh work during concentrated time on the New Hampshire hillside. More on Hoch and his work later, too.

When a Poet Gives a Gift -- From the War

We brought award-winningpoet Brian Turner to our corner of Vermont last week for a pair of readings -- one in the school, one public. I think for the students especially, it was amazing to talk with this man who'd been a sergeant in Iraq and who had the skills to tell them his experience vividly.

This morning a friend sent me word that Brian Turner's latest New York Times blog piece, Requiem for the Last American Soldier to Die in Iraq, in the special section called Home Fires, opens on the deck at the back of our house. Maybe you'd enjoy reading it. I certainly did! And although the text is a clear call to trying to know daily -- as much as a "civilian" on the home front can -- the cost and presence of this war, I receive it also as a gift from this poet and new friend. Thanks, Brian; you found just the right way to touch our hearts.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation (The Whiting Awards)

Two poets received Whiting Awards last week:

Paul Guest, poetry. He is the author of two collections, The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World (New Issues Press) and Notes for My Body Double, which will be published this year by the University of Nebraska Press. He is currently Visiting Professor of English at University of West Georgia and lives in Carrollton, Georgia.

Cate Marvin, poetry. Her new book of poems, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, was published by Sarabande in August 2007. Ms. Marvin teaches poetry writing in Lesley University's Low-Residency M.F.A. Program and is Associate Professor in Creative Writing at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. [Explore this often humorous lyric poetry at]

And a Vermont author snagged an award too:

Brad Kessler, fiction. Birds In Fall, was published by Scribner in 2006. He is completing a nonfiction work, The Goat Diaries, and lives in Vermont.

For the entire list, see the foundation's web site.