Friday, October 08, 2010

Interlude: Poetry for an Autumn Night

Wonderful surprises: DOGGED HEARTS (2010, Tupelo Press) by Ellen Doré Watson startled me time and again, with its fresh language, powerful images, and lashings of love. A tree thrusts out its arms so that "its joy threatens the house as we speak." After a miscarriage, a woman prays to the "Dear Rash World so far outside / my window, oh f***, may this third new nub of child live." At the emergency room, the evaluation of a man with multiple fractures, aged 55, includes that "There is some kissing left in his mouth."

And that's just in the first three poems. The central portion of this fourth collection from the Massachusetts poet and editor (and director of the Poetry Center at Smith College) packs female and male against each other, in "Baker & Tess." And the third, which has the most variations in form, is "Dreaming We" -- where I especially like the opening of "Ghazal for Shahid":
So, if there's a God, does He comfort or jeer first?
Write the poem backward, you said: put the fear first.
With her final poem, "God or No God," Watson summons the value of life itself, while wrestling with sump-pump and cumin seeds and kisses. This is a collection crammed with the flavors of life.


Call me a skeptic, but when I realized Rebecca Dunham's second collection, THE FLIGHT CAGE (2010, Tupelo Press), would riff on the life on Mary Wollstonecraft, I whimpered a bit. Then I opened the book. Oh, wow!
Cassandra's not the only
prophetess. I will not be confined,
content to peacock and preen

my manifold eyes.
Before I had quite caught up with the multiple layers of image and meaning, I found poems in which Dunham presented material from the Salem Witch Trials -- and discovered some of the parallels, some of the voices that seemed to call and respond.

Like Watson's collection, this one features a center section that stuns: It's a crown of sonnets thorned with collaged text from Wollstonecraft's letters, pounding the losses of thwarted life and the sense of woman as midwife to the world. And then the final section, "Séance," tilts all the pieces off the table into a cage as wide as the night sky, a song of both lament and power. It's going to take several readings (and the endnotes are essential) -- but I expect to get more from Dunham's poems each time I encounter them again.


You can take the poet out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the poet. It's clear from THE PUZZLE MASTER AND OTHER POEMS (2010, NYQ Books) that F. D. (Franklin) Reeve hears jazz riffs within most conversations, and can reshape the words to beat back and forth in joyous improvisation. Reading aloud -- especially with multiple voices -- makes the ekphrastic "A Girl and Two Doves" climb from the page. Try this part:
She walks barefoot on her journey
                                         like the great runner
who, when her parents were her age,
                                                       carried news
of the victory at Marathon
                                         home to his people,
unaware she would come
                                        and in her own way die.
There are more investigations of art, infused with questions about human and God, as well as war. The forms are light and sometimes very short; the topics are deep, as befits a man who walks a Vermont farmscape and ponders which trees to cut.

Most of this slim volume is devoted to "The Puzzle Master" -- a "verse text for a jazz opera," which indeed is being set to music for future performances. Riffing off the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, complete with a Chorus, the verse-play also evokes "The Tempest" in its setting on an imaginary island in the Caribbean. But it teases with its direct application to ordinary life at the same time, as Ingram (Icarus in the myth) asks his inventor father Delling (Daedalus):
A turbocharger on a lawn mower, Pa?
How will you do that? Besides,
supposing you succeed, what then?
Won't it take off on its own?
Could I fly away with it instead
of having to mow our endless lawn?
Seeing this on stage, with layers of jazz, is sure to be a treat. While you wait for the performance, you can pick up a copy of this enchanted and brightly lit book from New York Quarterly:

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