- Katharine Cole's "Trail Guide"
- Katie Kingston's "Concourse A Exhibit"
- Steve Langan's "The Midwest"
- Greg Pape's "Waking to Rain"
- Patricia Smith's "Laugh Your Troubles Away"
- Theodore Worzobyt's "Fugal"
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Thursday, November 3, 2011
Wednesday November 16th 7:00—9:00 P.M.
Salt Lake Public Library Main Branch
210 East 400 South
Salt Lake City UT 84111
Celebrate the release of recent issue of Sugar House Review with readings from Shanan Ballam, Star Coulbrook, Jen Hawkins, Cathy Peppers, and Mike White as part of the City Art Reading Series.
Shanan Ballam poetry has appeared in several journals, including Indiana Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Cream City Review. Her chapbook, The Red Riding Hood Papers, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2010. She teaches poetry writing and academic writing at Utah State University.
Star Coulbrooke directs the Utah State University Writing Center and is responsible for Helicon West, a bi-monthly open readings/featured readers series. Her poems are published in journals and anthologies such as Redactions: Poetry and Poetics and A Cadence of Hooves: A Celebration of Horses. Her poem, “How I Stopped Selling Life Insurance,” was named Editor’s Choice in the anthology, New Poets of the American West. Star lives in Smithfield, Utah, with her partner, Mitch, and their three labby-heelerish dogs.
Jen Hawkins is an English/Philosophy double major and Art minor at Idaho State University. Her writing and artwork have been published widely and have received numerous awards. A recovering masochist, Jen enjoys caffeining, shebeening (with all due moderation) and making stuff. She loves Joe with all her bleeding heart.
Cathy Peppers holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University, a PhD from the University of Oregon and has taught at Idaho State University since 1998. She lives with singer-songwriter Bob Picard on a one-hundred-year-old farmstead with superfluous creatures, including a blackjack of cats, two horses, a motley of chickens and a goat. Her poetry is loosely collected in a few manuscripts; the poems here are from Arts & Sciences (call it love), regressing forward and in loving detail.
Mike White poems have appeared in venues including Poetry, The New Republic, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The Threepenny Review, Denver Quarterly, FIELD, Witness, Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize anthology on six occasions, most recently by Sycamore Review. He is a graduate of the doctoral program in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah, and a former editor-in-chief of Quarterly West.
Most featured readings are followed by an open reading. City Art is sponsored by the Utah Arts Council, the Salt Lake City Arts Council, Catalyst, the Salt Lake City Public Library, Xmission, and the Zoo, Arts, and Park Fund.
The event is free and open to the public. City Art is sponsored by the Utah Arts Council, the Salt Lake City Arts Council, Zoo, Arts, and Parks, X-mission, and audience donations.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Texas poet Larry D. Thomas is as keen an observer of the natural world as any of America’s best Regionalist poets. Pervading the heart of A Murder of Crows, Thomas’ sixteenth collection of poems, is an intensely rich, imagistic evocation of the life of birds, an articulate vision that enables the reader to cross into a phylogenic hinterland.
So positioned, Thomas witnesses intractably arrant realities, a world re-inscribed in crisp, penumbral language exemplified through terms such as “black angular presence,” “utter darkness,” “looms there in stark solitude,” “sonata of darkness,” or “a world beyond the sun.” Even “a canvas of blue sky” is laden with a coal-black portent. One may even place Thomas alongside certain European Expressionists, particularly in their use of synaesthesia to merge or blur metaphoric borders of the senses, combining them in a single image—that deliberate creative expression, consciously developed by writers, particularly in the Expressionist and Keats traditions. We see this, for instance, in “Blackbirds,” their “blue- / black cacophony / of terror, / a choir / of wildest eyes,” and likewise in the “savage cerulean scream” of the golden eagle, in “Raptor.”
Thomas arrests us through an immersion in the sensual, often violent, aesthetics of the sublime, an element that drives the intelligence of raptors and scavengers alike. In “Unabridged,” Thomas cites the crow’s “genius // with a perfect IQ / of instinct.” In “To Sight a Bunting,” this variety of passerine is plagued by starlings which “settle their voracious breasts / on straw still warm / from the slaughtered dead,” the dead being the bunting fledglings murdered by the starlings and shoved from their nest. To complement this scene, on the facing page we see the shrike, “weighing in // at but an ounce / or two, / ... / impaling your prey // on barbs and thorns.”
The artistry of such language traverses and melds with other art forms, offering the reader resonation across various mediums, particularly painting. In “Sanderling Chick,” the flurry of the bird’s legs immediately recalls Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. In “Great Blue Herons,” the opening lines, “They stand so still in the shallows / it’s as if they’re outgrowths / of the river itself,” hold a mirror up to Cubism’s intersecting surfaces. Thomas speaks even more directly to the painter in “Raven (oil on canvas by Otis Dozier),” noting the late artist’s apperception, “What life there is / is silent, solitary / against the vastness // of place, locked in the black, / angular presence of a raven.”
Thomas opens his compilation not with a grand raptor but with the lowly sparrow. Here, he turns any deceptively diminutive view of this pedestrian species on its head, pointing us to “its world where survival / by the minute is enough,” this beast all-too often beholden of “cold, hunger, or the brutal / amusement of a cat.” Similar to the sparrow, Thomas does not leave out the unexciting “Pigeons,” that bird so woven into human folklore. Thomas acutely renders the pigeon “the urban version / of the buzzard,” not flocking to tourists feeding them in a Venice square, but “embedded in the grill of SUVs”; and, at the sudden crack of a crushed pecan shell, departing a tree en masse, and beautifully so, in a “ravishing shrapnel / of feathers.” “Pigeon Egg,” the companion poem on the facing page, shares a kindred imagery with “Pigeons” with its “bloody // calculus” of hatchlings born on “desiccated clods of potting soil.” Such blood, moreover, is not simply a byproduct of the hunt, but an ingredient intrinsic to a predator’s survival, as we are reminded in “Preying for Rain.”
A reminder that man shares in birds’ ultimate destiny appears in “Inca Dove,” where a dead young bird is buried by Thomas’ wife, “loosing it / to the shadow we’re all headed for, // the black unraveling shadow / of a phoenix on extended wing.” Thomas opens this poem through an incisive apposition where “Dove” in the title contrasts quickly with the simile of “mean-spirited schoolmistress” in the first line. In “Winged Gull” and “In Rowdy Reverence,” a synergy abounds; from the bucolic “canvas of blue sky,” gulls do their work “with breath reeking / of fresh fishrot,” still “giddy in an epiphany / of soaring, the mindless blue,” likewise, the raven’s “fetid breath fumes from his beak, / the price he pays for acumen / in the commerce of death.”
As readers may well deduce at this point, wherever Thomas’ sense of the pastoral is evoked, it is a harsh one. When we read, in “Starlings,” that these birds “descend / from the heavens / like shredded // midnight,” baby sparrows in their clutches, in order to “drop them / to burst / like ripe figs,” we witness a pastoralism equal to that of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. Moreover, the juxtaposition of terror and beauty is Thomas’ forte, for both elements become a pact between opposites where artistic tension is created and where images are delivered so skillfully. In “Old Blue Jay,” the image of “the rosy fabric / of the dawn” is staged alongside a beautiful blue jay’s rage for eminence as it “leaves a trail / of scraggly feathers, / he could care less [about].” Such is the dark fortitude that endures across the legacy of beauty and terror.
Survival-laden habits often jar us with their severity, like the purple martin mother that murders her young, “one by one, extending / with their deaths the feathers / of a sole surviving heir / who’ll one day take to the sky” his bloody lineage, his “resilient kind.” Similarly, the crow will be “content to turn / upon his nephew // for a meal” in “Both the Proposition and the Proof.” Even among gulls we suspect as laggards in the bird kingdom, there reigns an ominous vigilance born of deadly experience. We see this exemplified explicitly in “Eyeing the Gulf,” where gulls cannot afford to spare—lest their prey flee—“for one split second, / the bestial, / ocular excellence / of their guard.” This deadly experience is captured by Thomas in interesting ways, as in “Totem Crow” where death seems to haunt even the simulacrum of a crow fashioned by the hands of men. Thomas also considers the sublime’s steeper ledge, the stalking ghost of extinction that lingers over the natural world. In “Ten Brown Pelicans,” his poet’s eye watches these species “rowing the oars / of wings through the storm- / tossed sea of extinction,” and suddenly we wonder if these creatures will go the way of millerbirds, or the pelican’s fellow sea mate, the dusky seaside sparrow.
Yet not all is the terror of the sublime, the starker realities of the hunt. There is, for Thomas and his readers, space to relish the beauty of birds. In “House Finch in Summer,” we behold the finch “never tiring of his antics, // as if relishing the air.” “Old Crow” is a celebration of the life and rustic splendor of longer-living birds abiding in blessed habitation, one “content to rattle / against the shell of odds / his tasty kernel / of longevity.” Thomas often speaks to a sense of anatomical and metaphoric duality in the fact that bird wings are hollow (pneumatized). Such hollowness is requisite for the birds’ aerodynamics, but it also harbingers fragility, one that brings them into the wider vanishings around them. Confluent with beauty are spiritual echoes that cut across several poems, not in a full transcendental sense, but in one that speaks to the junction of art and science. In “Above the Bait Stand,” gulls are “patient as pillars / of salt,” recalling Lot’s wife gazing perilously back in the Bible and Cities of the Plain. In “The Screaming, Actual Angel,” a gull becomes trapped in a church sanctuary, finally captured by a priest, the bird becoming the “actual angel / flung into the sanctuary // by the inscrutable hand of God.”
As well, there are unexpected resonances with the world of men. In “Hawks,” the raptors’ airborne formation, spaced at intervals nature bred into them, is imagistically set alongside a man musing on the sleeping form of his adulterous wife: “her slow, guiltless breathing, / the aquiline silhouette” of her silent, recumbent form. Another deep trait observed by Thomas is the persistence, if not faith, of rituals. In “For Her Nest,” humans observe, near-incredulously, doves enduring “wind and violent thunderstorms” just to keep two hopeful “perfect stems” of grass for a nest, “as if her weightless, ledge- / clawed life depended on it.”
Amid the scientific grounding, the poet finds a godlike quality to the purview of certain bird species. Thomas opens section three of his book with the austere beauty of our national symbol, noting at the onset that “Everything that moves / is potential prey / as she has / no natural predator,” soaring in almost omniscient
tones in surveillance over “everything that moves.” We find this same sense of omniscience in the owl that probes “every atom / of the shadows.” A prime characteristic of such raptors is a pinpoint aim. For under a white-tailed hawk’s boresight “a mouse freezes, / holds its breath, / but blinks / its death knell.” Unlike the misty shores inhabited by Thomas’ gulls, raptors are often set in his verse against the chasmal blue of desert skies—“a dome / of limitless, / unfaceted / sapphire.” Though expansive in breadth, Thomas leaves his enlivened readers to ponder the deep well of natural mysteries inhabiting the realm of birds, from the common crow and seagull to the resplendent, rarely-seen eagle. For those who want the best in poetry, Thomas is one who belongs on their bookshelves. I give A Murder of Crows my highest recommendation.
The book is split into five sections, each called a “network,” and each of these concerns itself with a particular theme: “The Knot,” “The Joker,” “The Franklin Party,” “Financial District” and “Mercury Rising”. Each network deals with a particular event or events in history, and traces their origins into our current day through an exploration of linguistic connections. To that end, most of the sections are peppered with subject words, related to the sectioned themes, that trace these words back to their earliest roots. These maps allow the reader to see how the seemingly different words such as ‘peace’ and ‘propaganda’ derive from the same linguistic origin.
In the section entitled “The Joker,” Osman traces the early origins of the joker, or jester, from medieval times, when “only the jester could openly criticize the king,” up through the current Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade, where questions of immigration policy are acted out by white men in sombreros. Interspersed with these accounts is a plethora of historical and cultural tangents including a brief history of Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs and its influence on the later Batman comic character The Joker, a look at the sugar monopoly in America, as well as racism after Reconstruction. Osman’s blending of prose and poetry allows different subjects to speak to each other and facilitates transitions between these subjects:
Not surprisingly, the
epic journey of Gwynplaine does not end well. He gives up his seat
in despair. Upon his return home, his true love (a blind, goodhearted
girl whose life he saved in infancy) dies. In response he kills himself
it must go to a refinery to be whitened.
Although Hugo’s novel is now considered one of his more obscure
works, Mark Twain almost instantly appropriated it on publication
in order to satire the presidency of Andrew Johnson.
Thus, Osman works through a hybrid of poetry and the lyric essay. Even the more documentarian portions have a poetic sparseness to them, and like good lyric essays, attempt to answer questions about inherent racism within the sugar trade or the Mummer’s Parade.
This blending occurs in each network in the book as each section is a network of ideas and explorations surrounding language. It’s also easy to see how such an erudite and sometimes abstruse work of art reflects our current times, even while referencing history. In “Financial District,” while discussing the financial intrigues of the slave and sugar trade in America, we get the lines:
but the end, money paid as an end or settlement comes from via
end settlement. blood on the hands, a paradoxical policy of tolerance
for those who can invest. to end comes with such forms as peltry. as
whence the yields becomes becomes whence whence. the company
brought trapped Africans to the colony. clothing and architectural
implements from the English hurt trade for the Dutch.
The format of this passage is dense, yet one could almost scan the lines for meter. In addition to the blending of prose and poetry, this passage, with its rampant violence and exploitation in the name of profits, seamlessly connects the images of the past to the financial crisis of our present in a way that feels natural and unforced. Likewise, in “The Franklin Party,” that failed expedition that likely ended in cannibalism, Osman laments:
2003. While the U.S. makes its case for invading Iraq in the
newspapers, I find myself making another attempt. I hardly touch the
analogy: the brute force of the expedition, its naivete. Franklin and
his men had no plans to hunt for food, no sleds, too many mouths to
feed, giant ships that almost instantly locked in the ice, and particular
opinions about the locals.
Though Osman discounts the analogy, one cannot help but be drawn into the comparison between the tragedy of the Franklin Party and the ill-fated and seemingly endless quagmire in Iraq. A few pages later Osman drops a line that could stand as the aim of the book as a whole: “How to map a changing thing, rather than a target of frozen / particulars.” Osman tracks our histories, both of language and events, in a way that gives credence to the fact that the import and meaning of words change throughout time.
At times, the linguistic jargon is confusing. Accounting of linguistic trails and etymologies pull the reader out of the poems. Some poems drag a bit, waiting on another historical note or tightly crafted lyrical line. For example, in “Whitehall + Securities,” within the section “Financial District,” the passage ends with the lines “there remains the Latin prefix-compound: the privative prefix without / from ‘without anxiety or care’ when the adjective Latin has / derivative oblique stem whence and yield.”
While it’s clear that Osman took care to give even these passages a taut sonic quality, meaning and reference are occasionally lost in the shuffle. As the density of the jargon in this network is taxing, its length suggests import to Osman in interpreting the text. However, in a collection that is so focused on language and meaning, this confusion could be a positive attribute if the “Financial District” section had been a bit shorter.
One reason that this particular section sticks out is that the other sections so beautifully meld the linguistic concerns with imagery and musicality. Early in the book, in the section entitled “The Knot,” we get these incredibly evocative lines:
cp. Nexus, node, noose
he builds a wall and slips in sand
the sand then parts and takes his hand
below the sea
nouch, a brooch, a tie, a chain
the hand is now the sea’s debris
it washes up
and winters out
a rope to tie the animals, ouch
polished further into depth
pushing its shell
breaking its dust
a noose is from nous see node
emerging on shore
pulling himself up
what’s this place?
ou or eu
or neo net
Here, the confusion is tempered by Osman’s attention to music and rhythm of the section. Rhyme, both within the columns and between them, helps blend the two seemingly disparate subjects into one. Furthermore, the etymological discussion that happens on the right hand side of the page proceeds poetically, the white space giving the reader time to digest what precedes and follows.
Early in The Network, the speaker tells us, “Rather than invent a world, I want a different means to understand this one.” The rest of the collection tries to understand the world, both present and past, through a close examination of language. What is realized, in a fresh way, is the old cliché of history repeating itself. Whether it’s in the racist tendencies of the Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade, first aimed at African Americans, and now more towards immigrants, or the sly influence and control big industry has in our government (at one time big sugar, now big oil), Osman’s collection repeatedly remolds the tool of language. The collection provides a fresh consideration of the many ways in which words create the world. Ultimately, in her search to understand the world semantically and syntactically, Osman imparts the sheer complexity of the language we use which, while beautiful, is a dangerous thing, rife with blind alleys and trap doors leading us to meanings we never intended.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Sugar House Review in partnership with the Utah Humanities Council is pleased to announce a reading with poets Nick Demske, author of Nick Demske, and Rob Carney, author of Story Problems on Monday, October 24th at 7:00 p.m. at the Mount Tabor Lutheran Church (175 South 700 East). This event is free and open to the public and is part of the Utah Humanities Council Book Festival. Sugar House Review would like to thank them for their sponsorship.
Nick Demske’s first collection, Nick Demske, is ostensibly a collection of sonnets, though it’s more like sonnet taxidermy, the sonnet eviscerated. The hide is in place, the constraints are there, but our pet is no longer our pet. The eyes are different and the lips curl up just so. The fourteen lines are present, except when they trail off. The rhyme schemes, while they shift from poem to poem, are nearly always present though Demske innovates on the form by simply breaking words as is convenient to make rhymes work, a move now known as “the Demske.” These breaks are startling, confusing, and simultaneously hilarious once the pattern begins to emerge.
Nick Demske writes from culture like the Hollywood version of a rebellious slave, the role shredding off him, culture's synthetic exemplary tales shredding and piling up on the floor of the projector room, but non-biodegradable, sticking around, the pancake makeup also strangely persisting, rendering his face plastic and one with the material of the film, the celluloid itself. How can we tell this dancer from his nasty dance? The sonnet is one brief sequence played backwards and forwards until its fake, twitchy face says everything. –Joyelle McSweeney
Nick Demske lives in Racine Wisconsin and works there at the Racine Public Library. His self-titled manuscript was chosen by Joyelle McSweeney for the Fence Modern Poets Series Award and published by Fence Books in 2010. He is a founder and editor of the online forum boo: a journal of terrific things (http://boojournal.wordpress.
Rob Carney is originally from Washington State and earned his BA from Pacific Lutheran University, his MFA from Eastern Washington University, and his PhD from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He is the author of New Fables, Old Songs (Dream Horse Press, 2003) and Boasts, Toasts, and Ghosts (Pinyon Press, 2003), which won the 2004 Utah Book Award for Poetry. His collection This Is One Sexy Planet won the 2005 Frank Cat Press Annual Poetry Chapbook Contest, and he won The National Poetry Review's 2004 Chapbook competition for The Book of the Living. His writing has appeared previously in Atlanta Review, Mid-American Review, The National Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, Quarterly West, Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, and many others, as well as in the collection Flash Fiction Forward (W.W. Norton, 2006). Currently, he is a professor at Utah Valley State College and lives with his son Quentin in Salt Lake City.
The mundane and its ongoing complications—raising a family, getting older, doing the day to day—is the starting place for many of these poems. “Dull Affairs,” one of the best in this book, begins,
How am I to concentrate
on the heavy and dull
affairs of state
with the sound of a baby having a dream
in the other room.
Unlike the speaker in the above passage (and Rohrer’s conception and realization of art, we could say), the state
it is like the sound of a baby crying out
that is only imagined
it is much worse/a small cloud
that looks like an enormous flea
crouches over the city.
A restless interrogator and transformer, Rohrer ends the next poem, titled “They Pull a Suicide from the Water”: “they pull a suicide from the water / I clip my toenails out the window / it is going to rain.” There are many uses for the mundane. In Rohrer’s poems, the mundane bores, inspires, distracts, angers, confuses, burdens, gives, takes away, distresses, soothes. At the end of “Poem for Starlings,” which recounts just another harried day of not getting his way in the city, the speaker says all we really need and want him to say, “I wish / the world were different.” “The Terrorists,” a poem in five parts, is mysterious and ominous. A series of 24 interconnected spare four-line stanzas describes a vivid commute. It’s titled “Believe.”
Aware that punctuation is just a 15th century innovation, Rohrer eschews it in most of these poems, and summons it idiosyncratically in others. This creates openings and opportunities for his complex and multi-layered voice. Like almost everyone else who has been reading and writing poetry during the last 50 or so years, it is clear that Rohrer has been listening to W.S. Merwin, who established the possibilities for ambiguity at the level of the line, and Merwin’s many descendants. But if Merwin is trail guide to the transcendent, Rohrer is watching us, and watching us watch him, as he moves us down the trail toward a transcendence that is almost always incomplete. Make no mistake: this stunted transcendence is no fault of these poems, which are remarkable and genuine achievements. The complex culture, with its endless levels of social distortion, anxiety, compromise and horror, intervenes—and Rohrer is right to acknowledge these facts, right here in these vivid and contemporary poems ... right in the middle of a line. And then, with and for us, he provides a service, turning away.
Monday, October 17, 2011
But I had to be honest with myself, and with you, Nick Demske. Your willingness to address yourself in the third person again and again like some kind of hip-hop mogul makes me comfortable addressing you directly. This admission only serves to display how the prime real estate of my mind has been foreclosed on by pop culture but, throughout my reading of Nick Demske, all I could think of was a stunning routine by comedian David Cross where he describes the way rednecks threaten one another before a barfight:
I’m the last guy you wanna fuck with, man. Cause you don’t know me
man [ ... ] Cause you don’t know man I’m like a motherfuckin’ earthquake,
wrapped in a hurricane, nestled in a box of tsunamis, man. That’s what I am
man. I’m like a fuckin’ natural disaster times triplicate [ ... ]
Nick Demske, as you say in “Will Not be Televised,” I’ve been “Nick Demsked.” Your poems are a motherfuckin’ earthquake, wrapped in a hurricane, nestled in a box of tsunamis. Unlike the Nick Demske in “Pop Sonnet” who tries “not to think about art,” I am trying to think about it, but like the best Priapus poems, your sex jokes and scatological references remind me that the overlap between those two views is where all the fun is.
Nick Demske is, ostensibly, a collection of sonnets. It’s more like sonnet taxidermy, the sonnet eviscerated. The hide is in place, the constraints are there, but our pet is no longer our pet. The eyes are different and the lips curl up just so. The fourteen lines are present, except when they trail off, as in “Sonnet,” which contains only the octave and ends,
[ ... ] Because I say it’s
Poetry. Because I am the substitute teacher, better than any
[insert six more lines here]
The rhyme schemes are present though Demske innovates on the form by breaking words to make rhymes work. These breaks are startling, confusing, and simultaneously hilarious once the pattern begins to emerge. The first example is in “Common Sense,” which begins,
I didn’t think it was loaded. But it was a kn
Ife. So we’re both right. I forsee
The last word in the first line is later rhymed with “dan” rendering the “k” in “kn” silent. “Dan” itself is a cut-up of “dancing” and the second syllable has been sent to the beginning of the next stanza. Later in the poem we find a similar tactic, only this time using slant rhyme.
Uglying everything else a reflect
Ion so unfamiliar you feel impolite confronting it. I am the lex
Icographers, staring back into a nightingale.
Some of these breaks seem more self-conscious than others. The ones that work best offer both pause and insight into the image against which they are juxtaposed or they participate in one of the numerous jokes or puns that Demske employs, as in the second stanza of “Breakdown” which ends,
Gawk. You’re ruining the ending like a pre
Mature apocalypse. You suck at life. Your combustion lacks spontaneity
These breaks beg for the poems to be read out loud. When they are verbalized, they give the poems a stutter that would make Tzara and Schwitters proud (there it is, Nick, I finally got some names in here).
As if the line breaks aren’t enough to keep the reader off kilter, the passage dem-
onstrates another prominent Demske peculiarity—self-reference. The title of the book clues the reader into this immediately but he wastes no time working Nick Demske into the poems.
Remind me what it’s like to be offended, Nick Demske.
Ah. Already with thee.
And several pages later, in “Hotdog,”
Nick Demske you are everything wrong with the world. Which is to say: the wor
Ld. Share with me your secret ingredients.
Remarkably, the trope is not tiresome. Instead, we look for Nick Demske to return—extravagant, prodigal son that he is—and his absence is conspicuous. Nick Demske the character quickly becomes a kind of Coyote or Loki figure within the book, while Nick Demske the author broadens his scope of self-reference to include not only himself, but also the larger task at hand—the writing of the book. Demske references his own trials with poetry repeatedly, each time more self-effacing and charming than the last. In “Bowdler-Dash” he writes,
Do not look directly at the poem. Offer val
Id only at participating locations. MF
A. Slave dialect. I want your native tongue in the recess
and adds an even more striking example in “As a Dog Returneth to His Vomit,”
[ ... ] Just one won’t hurt. I promised
Myself I’d stop writing poems. I broke that promise.
I line broke that promise. I enjambed that promise
So far up the Muse’s tuchis we still shit shards of meter.
In Nick Demske, we are dealing with a man who knows himself well and likes what he sees; even his failings shine. But this is not narcissism, not self-love for its own sake. Demske simply can’t resist a good turn of phrase (i.e. “If you’re going to act like a brat, / I’m going to eat you like one”), especially those in which the profane glad-hands with more conventional images. He appreciates that the best jokes come at the expense of one’s self, such as in “Bowdler-Dash”
[ ... ] I’m a tramp on the streets and a Jesus freak
in the bed. Don’t ask stupid questions? At a low, low price? Point and click.
Shuck and Jive. Do you want to feel
My scars? My sweet topography, like rubberized Braille?
I thought you’d never ask.
That said, the best joke in these poems may be the one played on those for whom poetry is only a matter of reverence, poetry spelled with a capital “P.” Here poetry is force bred with pop culture to make a nightmarish amalgam—a swearing, retching, fucking beast that, unlike most of our crimes against nature, is far from sterile and much like revered fallen pop stars, is impossible to look away from. Thus, we see Dr. Love, Dr. Kevorkian, Dr. Huckstable and Dr. Frankenstein appear back to back to back to back in “Everything Personal.” It is no small feat that Demske rhymes delectable with Huckstable or that Madonna should appear as the muse at the end of “Pop Sonnet” in what is a deceptively ominous couplet about inspiration.
[ ... ] and she’s not okay
With that. In the midnight hour. I can fee
L your power. Down on my kneeeeees.
These jokes are deftly arranged and the reader is as likely to gloss over them as they are to laugh out loud. What is more impressive is that they never grate. Instead, they propel the book forward, much like trickster Nick Demske, and make of it a puzzle. However, the most remarkable thing about Nick Demske is how subtly Nick Demske uses references and puns to lure the reader into deeper and darker waters as the book progresses. This is a funny book, but it is not just a funny book. Its humor begins to coalesce into a defense mechanism that leaves the reader wondering which emotion is a suitable response, embodying the lines of “View From a Balcony.”
Doesn’t asking this further question just make matters worse? No.
It makes anti-matters better. [ ... ]
[ ... ] I’ll hold back your hair. Like lovers, we two; obscene.
Rest your weary head, which is a chip, on this shoulder. Which is a guillotine.
Nowhere is this effect more disorienting than in “Dying Words,” which is quickly recognized as partly a litany of taglines from pop culture artifacts but is devastating nonetheless.
I want my MTV. I want my daughter back.
I want AIDS. I want my brother’s wife. I want to be pretty.
I want a midget. I want my daddy.
I want to puke. I want to go home how. I want a rematch.
I want of a better word. I want to go to college.
I want my money back. I want an apology.
So maybe, in the end, this poetry thing is serious business. Maybe Nick Demske
is on to something here. After all, how much of our favorite comics’ best work is
birthed in tragedy? Perhaps humor is the best way through the attention-deficit
morass we’ve made of our culture. Late in the book, Demske writes “Wow. How
do you follow that? Perhaps with a procession / Of mourners, a light reception.”
In the book’s final poem, he offers a glimpse into the birth of the quipping mad-
man that occupies most of its pages and he comes out of it decidedly human,
frail, and sharp.
[ ... ] I want to do something permanent,
Something undoable. I want to kiss you
And reveal my secret feelings for you. For a long time I considered
Hating everything in the world. Instead, I decided
To huff it. All of it.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
“Jungle Appetites” is found in Brewer’s eighth book of poetry, Give Over, Graymalkin. The poem’s speaker, having evaded “guide and driver,” follows the call to probe his exotic surroundings.
canopy of peem and pine. Elephant dung marked
the way. I kicked apart one clay-like brick.
Strawy warmth, halo of gnat, inarguable
musky perfume, Black-faced langurs swung ahead.
Here is a moment would-be explorers can relate to—escaping to a wild place where “elephant dung mark[s] the way.” Behind the scenes and beneath a “canopy of peem and pine,” the reader is greeted with the sensations of the inner jungle. The child in us understands the excitement of visiting an unfamiliar region—off-limits and therefore hallowed—and the glory of some taboo and gross act, like kicking a brick of dung. This poetry invites readers to revisit what the newness of adventure feels like through the apt vehicle of the poet’s travels and thoughtfully crafted poems. Readers find themselves immersed in the contemplative, like the speaker toward the end of “Jungle Appetites”: “From the spidering crux of an immense banyan, / I watched the light move and tried to listen.”
Brewer’s collection engages with adventuresome verse that is lyrical, rhythmic and lush with allusion. For instance, “Dead Metaphor: Fidelity,” contains the sagacious lines:
You know any charm outside four walls
is siren-song, first order Circe or Charybdis.
Soft lie of lips, arm grazing hip and so on,
Exist anymore as grainiest abstraction,
Its counterpart on the following page, “Dead Metaphor: Infidelity,” describes an unlikely cheating wife from the suburbs: “Head abuzz with physics of deniability. / Even your name hangs tight in the shoulders;” and ends cheekily:
I cannot tell a lie, you mumbled again,
as the cherry tree went promptly down
and you stroked the Delaware together
toward some terrible, rapturous new country.
Making the serious humorous and vice-versa, Brewer wryly nails the issues up for viewing. To be or not to be faithful are admittedly social classics, all the way back to the Greeks, and even Washington was not, and still isn’t immune. To label this poet jaded, however, would be myopic. His work is also reverent and straightforward, as evidenced in “Dead Metaphor: Day Lilies”, which begins:
The crisp snap of each neck as you collect yesterday’s
prizes in two hands—monument of dripping mush.
Today’s today, another morning of inventory and praise,
and continues its beautiful and brutal realism farther down the page:
June sun will pale her lemon throat to ivory,
then brief and angry storm shred apricot petals.
There is such pleasure to be discovered in line after line that it’s almost easy to forget to consider each poem as an orb within the larger composed universe and that, as with each poem’s title, there is the matter of the book’s title. An unfamiliar title begs the reader to consider its allusion. Brewer’s Give Over, Graymalkin points to a line inSuttree, a novel by Cormac McCarthy, in which the protagonist has exchanged his socially acceptable but meaningless life for one of wandering the outskirts of 1950’s Knoxville and encountering its cast of fringe characters.
The poet gives clues to this choice of title with the epigraph to his book’s third section, “South to North,” “Give over, Graymalkin, there are horsemen on the road with horns of fire, with withy roods.” This phrase appears in Suttree as its principal is running toward the mountains and away from a witch-woman whose potions have caused him disturbing dreams. “Graymalkin” is a name attributed to a “familiar spirit” or witches’ helper, one of the spirits in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and one that often takes the form of a cat. Brewer’s reference to Suttree’s surreal milieu draws an imaginative framework for the poems of Give Over, Graymalkin. It suggests that there are multiple worlds to navigate: the tangible place we breathe in and the breathtaking others—of faith, imagination and possibility—where things and dimensions are not easily defined.
“To the Wind” is an ode in the “South to North” section that sings amidst its footing of measured syllables and restrained lines and illustrates the wind’s ranging effects on its environment. It begins,
You are the muscled silence
that roughs the world to sound.
Waves growling and aroused.
ripe applause of olive grove,
The first line unexpectedly joins an animal attribute—muscled—to the now charged “silence.” What might be regarded as a void of noise has physical power that, in the next line, “roughs the world to sound.” Further, “sound” in such close quarters to “world” suggests “round,” denoting the world’s girth and the prowess needed to stir it. The mighty wind affects “waves growling and aroused,” thus evoking the sensual, tense setting of a world where animal/human qualities are assigned to non-human entities. “To the Wind” brings to mind the bulging rocks and strained sky of William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring Strains,” in its sensibility and in delegation of pathos to the interconnectedness of nonhuman things, qualities reflected throughout Brewer’s poems.
As the otherworldly wind generates “ripe applause of olive grove,” Brewer’s talent with sound is showcased. The poem grooves in its repetition of “v”s— “waves,” “olive,” “grove”; and its repetition of “ow”s—“sound,” “growl,” “arouse.” The melodic vowel mix of the lines that follow offers a bit of relief to the poem’s tension:
cool gossip between the cedars,
whispering mountain rose, prickly
and languorous. I too am nearly
defenseless to your bullying
as you articulate the sail of my shirt
fiercely across chest and plane
a quiet urgent lyric over cheek.
Relief is quickly replaced with new tension when the poem’s speaker identifies his own vulnerability to the “bully” wind, that is also sophisticated enough to “articulate the sail” of his shirt. The poem ends uneasily with the disclosure that the wind’s sway is brutal though “not quite” limitless, while an abused shutter on its hinge suggests a metaphor for the thread by which life hangs.
I’m nearly upended, but not quite,
unlike the shutter you rudely
slap open and shut all night long,
until exhausted on its hinge.
Brewer’s poems are the unapologetic products of a mature writer, fresh presentations of our human role as travelers, vulnerable to some degree. There is more than one state of lost just as there is more than one path to redemption. From what is strange to what is negotiated, part of our journey is trying to understand and aim for peace, even if no resolution or accord exists. Give Over, Graymalkin also reminds us of what is most dear: simple earthly pleasures andfamiliar memories of togetherness that comfort when we are far from home.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
These two flavors of poetry—sweet and acidic, if you like—can be illustrated with passages from two poems that comment differently on religion. From “Recommended Daily Allowance”:
may there always be corn in Nebraska,
and bees for honey on our cornbread,
and cherry orchards in Washington,
and the alchemy of smokehouse and barbecue. . .
bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts.
And bless others. Bless those who are hungry.
And move us to do as much as rain does, as daylight.
Contrast the above passage to this passage from “You, You Goliath”:
with your All-Knowing Umpire, All-Powerful Flowing White Beard—
don’t try peddlin’ that door-to-door vacuum here.
What you’ve got is an empty pocket not something glorious for me.
[ ... ]
So why do you want to put the world in a headlock?
Why do you assume you have the key?
You can keep your cosmic cruise ship. I’m happy with a kayak
And anyway, I’m busy now: going out to show the kids how to slingshot rocks.
The dramatic tonal differences of these poems suggest Carney’s range. They also reveal voice and style: the voice with its saucy directness, quips and quirks, and lyrical interludes and the style, liquid and lilting rather than compressive and subtle. Ease of expression governs the poems. The opposite of hermetic, multi-layered, and cautious, Carney’s poems are insouciant and open—perfect for performance.
While Carney has a great sense of humor and is quite clever, his critiques of religion and politics sometimes take on beliefs and behaviors that are adequately self-mocking, resulting in poems that risk seeming sophomoric as in the ending of the poem “Politics.”
Okay, then, let’s vote:
Who thinks God is on their side?
Gee, what do you know,
Now would everyone please shut up?
The finest poems in the volume have none of the heavy-handedness that occurs when Carney shadow-boxes with the more obvious lunacies of religion and politics. “Where Everyone Goes for Answers, But,” for instance, ponders the big questions, but it challenges the formulaic answers of religion with its own depth and complexity, creating a more effective poem using indirection rather than the direct punch.
it’s a quest because of the questions.
That spirit, or love, or that axe in your hands
isn’t there. And what good could these do? —
you can’t attack emptiness, or split it into firelight,
can’t back it into surrender; it’s empty of fear,
it’s empty of everything.
[ ... ]
the pleasure in these isn’t math—
like this woman’s beauty, or a man asleep by his son ...
No, emptiness was always, and emptiness is always.
Anything you find there, you brought along.
This provides a more compelling (and kind) rebuff to the missionaries at the door than does the icon bashing and sarcasm. Unlike those tactics the above lines invite lingering. “Where Everyone Goes for Answers, But,” is admirable in every way, with its elegant couplets, its pregnant line and stanza breaks, its pacing, its overall depth and thoughtfulness. It’s a poem you stick on your wall.
That Carney honors mystery and demands it be respected is a poetic stance that
itself deserves respect. “The Mole Measures Profit and Loss”—belying, perhaps, the whimsy of its title—is a poem that makes room for mystery.
There’s a tunnel in my closet that runs from the house,
under the yard, then deeper,
past moles’ bones,
deeper than mine shafts and bedrock,
deeper, to a secret lake,
whose water tastes like the night the world was born—
like a fist: so cold it knocks the wind out—
The poem’s lake permits neither boating nor exploring, neither birds nor sandflies, not even sand may rest on its shores. It’s for drinking alone.
[ ... ] And only with my own cupped hands.
That way, I can’t carry it back,
can’t bottle it all for myself or for sale
Whatever the speaker finds cannot be taken back for personal inebriation or for sale; it can only be known and experienced in the eerie down-under of the dream. As in “Where Everyone Goes for Answers, But,” whatever wisdom is found is indelibly shaped by the knower upon an emptiness that won’t answer back.
While Carney is thusly respectful of the unknowable, he’s an exuberant and exhilarating myth-maker. Perhaps my favorite poems in the volume are the origin stories, poems about how this or that came to be, told in the manner of America’s First Nations. The volume provides this form or type of poem—called “fables,” “parables,” and “Old Songs”—in delicious abundance. The myths Carney fabricates aren’t presented as alleyways to truth but as catalysts to wonder and astonishment as in “The Woman Who Gave Blackberries to the World.”
[ ... ] something strange appeared
in a widow’s yard. At first, nobody noticed,
or they pretended not to see.
Even ants, in their disciplined lines, marched right around.
It rose from the ground above some loneliness she’d planted
tall enough already to cast shadows, snag fog [ ... ]
[ ... ]
[ ... ] the strange plant had spread, had overgrown her fence,
cast vines and thorns like fish nets, so in the Old Songs,
they decided to ask her to leave. But just then,
children saw the blackberries. And tasted them. And ate,
and couldn’t stop, no matter how scratched they got, and it was good.
And people came carrying baskets, telling stories.
And the woman was no longer all alone.
The poem’s implicit metaphor—the resemblance between loneliness and a thorny bush protecting sweet berries—is an inspired comparison, one that both child and adult might ponder. So many of Carney’s fabulisms set their mark and make it, creating poems that are wildly imaginative, yet charmingly simple, poems that are fresh and unpretentious. In his myth-of-origin poems Carney’s talent is on extravagant display—not only his inventiveness but also his capacity for a lyricism that genuinely moves the reader. In his capacity to poetically re-imagine how the world came to be, Carney helps his readers fall in love with it once again.
Monday, April 18, 2011
The poem that brought me eagerly to Ms. Brimhall’s book was “Aubaude In Which I Untangle Her Hair.” The first few stanzas grab the reader by the lapels,
will be full of stamps and maple dark hair and apologies.
After he left I carved “summer” into the tree and above it,
“summer” and below it, “summer.” And I made my axe
kiss all three summers, and they became firewood.
When I burned them, the stump outside began singing,
The first series of poems in this collection is about betrayal. Brimhall expresses pain with such bitter beauty that with each succeeding poem there is the trepidation of one who is viewing something so intimate that the first response is to turn away. Yet these poems do not have the feel of confessional poems, though Brimhall’s speaker explores personal details without meekness, modesty, or discretion. There is no “look at me and my suffering” that many confessional poets succumb to. See “Aubade with a Fox and a Birthmark.”
in your hair. I forgive the way you touched her knees,
your amber memory of her body. I make you tell me
in a trap’s jaw, blood on her thigh. I want to hear
how freckles on her stomach made constellations
I tasted her sweat on your knuckles, her whispers
in your mouth like second hand smoke. I’ve wandered
north to the railroad tracks, throwing gravel at the cars.
escape out of their mouths. And we don’t say
their names. We lure wary schools of sunfish
with dead horseflies
We palm their hearts and watch to see
which stops beating first. When thy slow, we toss
the limp muscle into the lake.
But the spirit that wants to be locked in the crucible
Of flesh until the soul burns clean…
have you sat on alone, trying to spot the same scabbed
my name to yourself, its taste like pennies,
you’d pressed your thumb to the hollow of my throat?
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Reviewed by Carol Henrikson
“They open to you and open to you.”
What is true of the yellow trees, the cottonwoods, black walnuts and poplars that Utah poet Nancy Takacs describes as all along the desert horizon—with theircadmium,/ochre,/pumpkin,/saffron,/hardly any green now,/in stands and circles that spray yellow-blossom—further, how they shine in the dark—is true of all the poems in this, her third book, Juniper: they emanate the same huge translucence. Sensuous imagery is everywhere, imagery she draws from a deep connection to the natural world, her desert landscape and home, from earth’s resonance within her.
In this collection of thirteen poems, recently published in a beautiful letterpress edition by Limberlost Press (featuring cover art created by Takacs’ son, Ian), Takacs invites us in. These are poems we can enter, trust and, like the poet, feel our way along. Right from the start, the title poem tells us
I love, the tree that makes me feel
I’m less on Mars than Utah.
The tactile world, and her own inner truths, are equally her home, leaving no room for the dictates or dogma of imposed, inherited beliefs, namely religion—I gave up religion / years ago, but still believe / in junipers, she states. Nor is there room any longer for the fear-inducing tyranny of her Hungarian grandmother’s superstitions: No hats on the bed, / shoes on the table, / open umbrellas in the house. / No kissing a man who wears a hat. It’s a wonderful moment, at the end of the poem, when Takacs describes this deeply serious, seemingly trivial, act of defiance, I take the hat from my husband’s head / and throw it on the bed and more wonderful, and profound, when she then proceeds to describe what she does choose, what she does draw nourishment and poetic inspiration from. She tastes the bitter pungent juniper berry,
Which takes me away from its cousin narcissus
And back to the tree itself with its ancient
Shaggy-body universes of dark-blue berries
That know in each green center
How to pine the air, how to
Curry the tongue.
It is a voice felt throughout this collection of poems. In “Twentieth Anniversary,” which begins by tenderly conveying the lasting love in their long marriage through everyday detail—Last night we had a feast of halibut / he cooked with fennel, / and I sliced tomatoes from our garden—and setting the scene, showing herself looking at her husband’s Old Spice and Everafter cologne bottles in their medicine chest. Takacs continues, reflecting on a time of doubt and suspicion, of how she came to feel, to understand, to trust her husband’s ways, though different from hers.
though he doesn’t reveal much.
Which I do. I always do.
whiter than any teeth or stars, so white
I can go out at night and still see them
along the fence all the way up to my front porch,
Their coffee-bean-dark stools, then their deep
Hoof prints, double trails through the snow, winding
And crossing. I follow to the beginning to look
Where they jumped in.
water under every tree if you raise
your young among the milkweed
and bindweed in my yard.
Likewise, in “Flying Home After Visiting Aunt Ginny With her Broken-Hip Delirium,” there is such sadness in the image of her aunt she has just visited in the hospital who
glued in by an aide each morning,
made sure they were still there.
She held the blue sheet
over her head, pushed it
through the bedrails,
asked me to push it back.
Her face was always dusky, afraid,
her eyes in constant surprise.
of last spring’s badger
I didn’t mean to corner
in our old railroad-tie shed…
widening to show its back teeth.
of unearthly green, early snap peas? Broccoli? my aunt ate to keep herself well.
daisies, beginning fortunately
all by themselves, how
they appear to live only on air,
with so much grace.
has made another turn on its stem,
has leant again toward the light. It won’t be
long before the ruby slips from its green lips.