Friday, December 26, 2014

Little Oblivion by Susan Allspaw
(Elixir Press, 2013)

reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb

Antarctica, the expanse of ice, the blues and whites, the temperatures with their sustained lows, the wilderness and wild that is there—seals, petrels, terns—and the humans who wrap themselves in layers of down to work and study in an unforgiving environment, a place of surprising life and obvious death: this is what Susan Allspaw’s first book of poetry, Little Oblivion, would have us consider.

Allspaw tells us, in her poem, “Burial,” that “the ice is trying / to tell me a secret it’s been keeping // for years.” That’s a clue to these poems, free verse poems that exhibit moments of narrative, though the real story is Allspaw’s examination of ice as “other,” of place as mystery, of landscape as the story-teller and mirror for what haunts and intrigues her. For Allspaw, this ice and landscape is father, mirror, and companion. We’re not just reading a poetry of place, of ecology, but a navigation of map and meaning, a reflection of “our nakedness as wonderful as icebergs.”

That nakedness is how we get to the overarching feeling—longing, for both meaning and connectedness—that dominates these poems. A poem early in the book, “Heading into Dion Island, Antarctica,” starts us on our journey to the ice—though to enter this challenging landscape, we must also recognize what we’re leaving—on a mission to count penguins and eggs.

    Twenty centimeters of ice below the bow,
    seven knots, and the barometer falls on us like bad news.

Yes, the good news is behind us. Yet, this adventure is a letter to her father, a man no longer with her. “Writing the dead is not easy,” she says, cleverly writing both to and about “the dead” in this case. “Pity dead fathers / can’t see us trawling for science, wanting to write home,” and we’re in Allspaw’s landscape, the place of craft and examination where she tells us about so many delicate things at once, recounting the science, her concrete mission, but linking to longing, to the human grasp of what’s already gone and can’t be regained, no matter how intelligent the writer or scientist.

    […] Dad, the sun rises in the north here, and the Southern Cross
    is pointing with us, south, where we will census

    what hasn’t been born yet. I can’t reach him through the salt water.
    Sea smoke, my father. Brash churned with tide.

We experience the place, the past, an address to a father, but then the first-person brings us back to reality, to the more abrupt present. The voice of the letter, this story-teller attempting to send mail, faces the constraints, the reality, of this unforgiving place, of life. The tide and ice and water become both her father and the barricade that prevents her from reaching him. Allspaw has guided us to this lonely and poignant ambiguity.

Allspaw, who serves as support for the US Antarctic Program, is in the grip of that paradox. In the poem, “Weightlessness in a Red Parka,” she writes: “I walked on water / for hours. I lay in a seal’s old cradle, ready to curl up / for my own hibernation.” There is an almost religious attachment conveyed; we’re close to transcendence, something out of body, closer to animal than human. In other poems, this attachment is conveyed using remembrance and comparison, frequent tools in these poems used to bring in other worlds. In “The Body of Ice Remembered,” a male diver, one of a young crew who’s “excited about everything they see—smoking Erebus, / distant splashes of seals making holes, even the slush / forming on top of the dive hole,” also remembers his girl in Colorado.

    His body will sink in the water
    because when he isn’t in it, he is loving that girl
    in Colorado, swimming through her,
    all her parts.

Colorado is an alien word here, a collection of syllables that stand out as foreign because we’re so far from the vocabulary and vision of that kind of landscape. The western girl may as well be on the moon, and the divers and scientists feel this, too, according to Allspaw,
                […] if only that girl
    in Colorado could grow like a glacier, if only
    she could move with the freedom of icebergs.
    If only he could stay down, below the surface,
    his breath forming a body on its underside, then hands
    wouldn’t matter, then deep water would be enough.

So we are again merging with the landscape, wishing what was distant could merge with the rich experience of the ice, the deep water, an experience that can make the “other” world seem superfluous.    

The lessons of Antarctica continue through this volume, reflected facets of human learning from what is essentially a desert landscape. “Even ice over ice creates heat,” she teaches us. This heat and longing is what Allspaw shows us about her Antarctic life. It’s how a vast plain of snow and ice can become her father, her obsession, her life. In this book we are down-clad and trekking, we are naked and groping. We are deep in the sticky dryness of this vast southern-most continent. This long meditation gives us a gorgeous understanding of compulsion: “When we leave, / it clings, the damn child, / the obsessor, the stalker. / The ice never learned to let go.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Royal Nonesuch by Steven Schroeder
(Spark Wheel Press, 2013)  

reviewed by William Neumire

If a pun, a limerick, and a sonnet got together to drink and impugn America for its dehumanizing free market economy and idiosyncratic stupidities, and things got a little sloppy, and they had a one-night stand, this would be their child. Steven Schroeder’s second book of poetry, The Royal Nonesuch, is silly-thick with sound like a braid of tongue twisters and mad gabs.

A nonesuch is a person or thing without an equal, but in Schroeder’s collection, it alludes to the scam run by the duke and the king in Huckleberry Finn in which the audience, expecting a drama, gets instead…nothing. Bitter over the philistine sensibilities of the townsfolk, the con artists scam two different audiences like this, and before the third can pummel them with rotten food, the pair make a run for it. How does this translate into Schroeder’s poems? In “Better Consider My National Resources,” the reader gets a microcosm of the whole collection’s bent attitude, as the speaker riffs on “The National Anthem,” “This Land is My Land,” and other chants of Americana: “Oh say can you see my cheese fries…I only regret that I have but one life to give for my third job at / 7-Eleven.” It’s a joke bitter with debt, the failed promise of the American dream, and most of all, a joke bitter about loneliness amidst plenty.

The book moves forward in four thirteen-poem sections, each poem a little 13-line sonnet (a scam in itself) with sporadic stanza breaks; it is reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s Lichtenberg Figures in form. The poems are accusations documenting the collapsing expectations of this myopic, conned speaker:
                       In that last dusty library book,
    the vocation least likely to become obsolete

    remains bookmaker.

There’s an underlying and absurd desire manufactured by an even more absurd, amoral free market economics at work in poems such as “Imbecile, Donkey, Flax-Head, Dope, Glump, Ninny and Fool,” whose speaker begs, “please oh please / may they name this disease after me.” In half-rhymes, iambs, and homophones, the book regularly details money’s Marxist role in devaluing people and engendering loneliness:

    Cash makes you fun. A check can stop
    without your help and when it wants
    Credit cards only hurt themselves…

                                               To save
    your country pay until you’re spent.

Schroeder also plays this game of homophones throughout the collection, as in “Where the Bank Fails”: “Lenders weigh debtors down with pounds / Of Krugerrands and launder their hands / Tender in the green-eyed current, see?” Note the sly slipping of currency into current, see and legal tender into “tender in the green-eyed current.” It’s smart and funny and acrimonious all in one grand blur.

With titles clipped from pop culture (such as “I do not think it means what you think it means,” lifted from The Princess Bride, itself a grand mock), this is an indictment of whatever vestige of “the American dream” remains, as the reader can see in a jaded take on Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “America, your song was too big to fail / Your song cost more than itself.” The poems slip like this from funny into somber, like a tough guy deflecting pain with humor, and then finally cracking.

Chained to each other and cleverly phrased in this language as tongue-in-cheek game, Schroeder’s poems constantly set up and break from expectations: “After a break // on whatever levels of the word, we can make up / reasons to repeat these moves we make, Love.” Here, in “Each One Goes Alone,” we get that comforting, euphemistic cliché, “make love,” broken by that direct address comma in such a way that both meanings come through, though—as is usual in this book—the conventional meaning is tainted and fraught with contempt, or at least strong critique. But cynicism gives way to internal collapse soon enough in most of these poems, as in “Code Name Is The Only One,” where Schroeder writes “your password is passive-aggressive… // Why can’t you guess this picture I encrypted / in invisible ink? It’s obvious it’s loneliness.” And loneliness here gets the last echoic silence after the laugh.

On Poetry’s podcast a while back, Don Share declared, “language makes lying possible.” These poems, as much as they accuse and complain, are odes to that language of lies, and to the greatest lie: that all of this belittling madness is not ephemeral,

    When we closed your eyes for good, you looked
    like you were checking the lids for pinpricks.

    When we closed ours, we could deny everything.

It’s always there, that hollow sense at the end of the joke, that hangover after the party:

                      Add in bed after any of my statements (in bed).
                               We’re Pete and Repeat sitting in a boat.

    If I complement you, will you compliment me?
               When I’m with you, don’t whisper implications.
                        When I’m incognito, tell everyone I’m cute.
                                   When I’m gone, say I was beautiful.

A reveler in oxymorons and ironies, Schroeder rolls through The Royal Nonesuch with his cheeky, stinging mojo on full-tilt: “This bunker-buster bomb is user friendly, idiot proof and child safe for the entire family to enjoy, eight to 88 / This gun wants to tuck your kids into bed / This one would fuck anybody.” He’s a gamer and a scam artist to the very end, where he offers his “Transgressions” index, a sort of categorizing of the sins his poems illustrate, everything from “bad advice” to “substance abuse.” And though this collection can feel, at intervals, like it strikes the same note too many times, it’s fast-paced, double entendre, witty jabs and word games make it too much fun to put down. It’s a good laugh (itself difficult to pull off so intelligently in contemporary poetry) that also gradually builds a poignant sense of pathos for its conned and broken speaker.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

History of Grey by Katie Kingston
(Main Street Rag Publishing Co, 2014)

reviewed by Diana Anhalt

Katie Kingston’s latest collection, History of Grey, explores lives that lie in-between—in that area beyond judgment, which is neither black nor white. In addition to the grey in the title, colors vibrate in these poems. They are exhilarating and full of life. Fusing history and legend, they cover a region encompassing Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Traveling from past to present and back again, they imply that the past informs the present; the present the past. Time flows like the river, El Rio de Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (The River of Souls Lost in Purgatory), introduced in the book’s opening and its voyage speaks of struggles and perseverance.
The first of the book’s three sections introduce two figures, Umaña and Bonilla, roughly translated from Spanish as Human and Beautiful. Part history, part legend, the two are reputed to have set out in search of Quivira, a utopia noted for its great wealth. They meet their fate on the banks of the Colorado river, El Rio de Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio. According to legend, when Bonilla and Umaña die, their souls end up in that grey area, located midway between heaven and hell. In the poem “Flood,”

    Bonilla laughs. His mouth fills with water,
    a traveler of mirrors toward sea
    with a voice like bees in the crabapple.
    The opaque world of indigo rapids splashes
    his rugged lips. He cares about sound,
    how the river evolves its own name,
    Purgatorio, Purgatoire, Picketwire.

More recent history—the 19th and 20th centuries—is depicted in the second section of the book with a series of highly lyrical poems, many in the first person from the points of view of women. Often they portray their lives on the frontier, their struggles and yearnings. The personas speak for themselves and are never idealized, never self-pitying. They inhabit that middle ground marked by uncertainty—a grey area undefined by right and wrong, a place not unlike purgatory, where suffering is the norm. This is their history. Like most women of the time, they exist on the margins of society, and here Kingston captures their voices, the reality of their day-to-day lives. Catherine German, a girl held captive by the Cheyenne in Kansas in the second half of the 19th century, wonders whether she has been stolen and sold again. A laundress at Fort Kearney, Wyoming, writes in a journal of her night visitors and the pleasures she takes in her simple life. Among the most compelling is a Colorado miner’s wife who studies her daughter’s hands “as she lifts chunks into wheelbarrows”; a woman whose own mother told her “it would be this way / child after child, the sky without pelicans”; a woman who finds solace in her own voice, “whispers the color blue / just before snow releases down feathers, / eclipses the sun.”

Because of their honesty and simple, straightforward tone, “Unwritten Letters from Josefa Carson to Kit” are particularly moving. In this poem, Josefa’s words are punctuated throughout with the refrain, “I remember your fingers,” evoking their intimacy. She writes:

    I am waiting for you, dear husband,
    to return with your company of Ute,
    your tobacco pouch sweetened with candy,
    pockets teeming with buffalo nickels,
    to return with your feet blistered,
    your hair sullen, your skin tinged to rosa.

Characteristic of Kingston’s writing is her ability to individualize her subjects and avoid stereotypes in order to capture their sense of reality. This is evident in a poem like “Stampede,” where the speaker remains anonymous:

    In my wilderness warriors
    rise up like hornets, women like spiders.
    Flutes serenade wheatgrass. Water
    lifts its voice. I see blue windows,
    yellow willows, red clouds. I see
    turquoise, drums, corn dances.
    In my wilderness I hear pick axes,
    chisels. I hear horses.

To a great extent,  her ability to use  vivid, evocative language makes her work so memorable. In “Relocation of Old Sopris Cemetery” she writes:

    […]When I leave,
    names trail me like children, sun
    spilling down their backs
    into their shoes. Sunshine
    flicks celadon through poplars,
    bleaches tombstones, turns
    white pickets to grey. Erases.

Although grey may figure in Kingston’s title and much of her work here deals with life’s grey areas, color—though sometimes muted (white, black, rust)— appears throughout. Her work is insistently visual and often references works of art. They appear in such poems as “Bonilla’s Portrait,”  “Bonilla as Artist,” “History of Grey” and  “River Canvas,” where she writes:

    I have been thinking about your painting all weekend,
    the breast dissected into angles, the coffin floating
    like a barge through the faces of the living, a woman’s neck
    in layers of white. And what is that color, the one
    that resembles a vein of rust in candlelight?

This last example from the third section of the book is one of thirteen poems that take place in the present. Here Kingston alludes to her work as a teacher, drawing from her students, her youth, and to scenes from everyday life.

In an attempt, perhaps, to illustrate the flow of time, how history repeats itself, she terminates where she began, in the past. In her final poem, Bonilla gives Umaña directions:

    If you want to get to the heart, study the underbelly
    of clouds just after daylight, learn their vaporous language
    before it dissipates. The bone sky knows marrow,
    knows sorrow.

While Kingston possesses the skill to create gorgeous imagery and give life to voices that are singular, what sets her apart from other merely competent poets is her ability to summon complexity of meaning. She transforms the “in-between,” the gray, into more than just a place or situation. In her words, these become a frame of mind. To that she adds language of depth and dimension. Long-legged and bold, these poems travel through centuries. They cross many lives and bring her full circle, starting the collection and ending it with a river called Purgatorio.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Sweeter Water by Sara Henning
(Lavender Ink, 2013) 
reviewed by Kate Savage

A sweet title introduces poetry that is also all-at-once deliciously sour, bitter, salty. Sara Henning’s debut collection speaks out of hard-bit scars, a secular stigmata of suicidal fathers, brutal lovers, animals rescued or left for dead, a cruel mother, and the motherly ‘bad girl’ next door. There are dahlias and peonies in these pages, but they grow on spit and sulfur. Her words heft the weight of those trash bags from her gut-wrenching piece “Dead Reckoning”:

    so full of his things and her sorrow

    they could have held dead bodies.

This is a confessional text, heartfelt and autobiographical—and yet it skips away from the traps of naivety and self-indulgence. Henning explains in her opening poem:

    My father taught me how an artist disappears behind the walls of his work,
        that the dismantling of composure is cutting cobalt from a rattle, soft ochre 
        from a tabby’s fur, a father from removal’s intense red.

Henning knows how to cut herself out of the whole cloth of her craft. She disappears behind the walls of her work but never manages to hide.  

The resulting pieces reveal a peculiar kind of snipping and stitching, a demon handicraft of domesticity. In “Self-Portrait as Stitching a Summer Body, Philomela,” she begins: “The striking thread carries so many portals, occlusions.” Thread, which would bind us in homey togetherness, operates through striking, tearing, cutting­—making an opening and a break. We are brought together by all the ways we are separated from each other. Any moment of apparent nostalgia for togetherness and home is always revealed as more “occlusions.”

It’s worth noting the allusion to Philomela in the title. In Greek mythology, Philomela was raped by her sister’s husband, who then cut her tongue out to silence her. Mute, she weaves a tapestry to tell her sister the story, stitching to reveal a wound. When the sister reads what happened in the tapestry, she kills her son and feeds him to her husband in an act of revenge. Finally, the sisters are turned into birds (Philomela to a nightingale) to escape the cycle of vengeance. Henning’s quiet sign-post to this brutal story tells us something of the weight of weaving and cutting in this volume—and also the weight of “family,” with both its unspeakable violence and its fierce solidarity.

Another stitching poem explores the inevitability of brokenness. “Twine and Needle” is an attempt to compose a face­—specifically the face of childhood:

Shortly after my birth, my face shattered to pieces.
    When surgeons attempted to construct a new one, each attempt fell to the 
        floor like exhausted porcelain.

The shattering that splits us off from others is shown in this poem to creep internally as well. Our only face is a failure to construct one; our identity grows out of the dissolution of a self. As with Philomela, Henning’s poetic voice seems to grow out of the scar of a tongue’s removal.

Her more fundamental similarity with Philomela, however, is her need to communicate an actual narrative. These poems aren’t primarily ‘about’ ideas or moods: Henning is a story-teller. The events that happen in these lines are described with clarity, as in this scene from “Requiem with Dog, Dead Sparrow, and Wisteria”:

    I too wouldn’t turn
    against the piston syllable of love holding
    me down. Once, I slept with my leg wrapped
    in a towel, the other wrapped around
    a lover who cut me, blood like snuff mouthed
    loosely, spit in the rust of a can.
    In the morning, he threw the towel’s
    wet elegy of fever in the trash.

The solidity of events in her poetry allows a nuance—and even a muddling—of its attendant emotional responses. Like the bees in “How She Loved Me,” Henning is constantly dovetailing “to where soft and terrible is the same pithy center.” Her second piece, “Home,” seems to offer in its first line an uncomplicated, nostalgic metaphor for returning homeward:  

    Like listening
    to a river that heads toward the sea [. . .]

Which she then troubles with a clarification: “Fresh to salt.” Going home isn’t a return to freshness; it’s salty, with the sting in a wound. “I let hole replace wholesome,” she writes in “Zuihitsu Beginning and Ending with Wildflowers.” If you want to find something wholesome in the title A Sweeter Water, you may: or you may read it as a longing to fight one’s way upstream and get the hell away from home.

As with the nightingale’s singing, Henning is capable of loveliness in these lines. But when the speaker in “Philomela” describes herself knitting and stitching, the reader can’t quite decipher if she’s cross-stitching Home Sweet Home for the mantlepiece or cutting herself. Henning looks deep into the emptiness of home’s cliches, and fishes out the unsettling.

Henning’s poetic creation is always a double-movement; here nothing can escape either its own shadow or its own luminescence. She writes in “First Striptease”:

    [. . .] sometimes we kiss deeply
    just to turn away, so one day we won’t feel the holes
    in our bodies so desperately, so one day they
    can’t help but startle us.

She strikes a distance from her poetic subjects, but finds this space only serves to magnify. It’s as though Henning is capable of binding together lack, in one solid mass, and simultaneously breaking apart all possessions with a claustrophobic gasp. This paradox is the seat of her versatility. Compare the dense paragraph-poem “Lost Things” with the structural dissolution of “When You Ask if I Ever Really Loved You.”

From “Lost Things”:
    I begin my list: tomcat with feet flexed in a seizure of pleasure, belly chasing
    sun; hen rescued from a truck jumping against the heft of her body for a
    crust of bread; brother plucking sorrow from my lap like peonies. No one
    wants stories about fits of nostalgia, mothers, birds that call with the sun in
    their mouths. No one gives a shit about your brother even if he’s blitzing
    through the binding of the same lost father. [ . . . ] The tom was cold when I

    touched my face to his fur; my brother is marrying a woman I have never
    spoken to, and yet this urge is here to name things which I am not: hen’s
    wing ripped off by a dog, mother burning my childhood on a pyre, childhood
    expunged from my body like a struggling sack of sugar.

From "When You Ask":

    When you love
    another woman,

    you’ll plant in her
    the same brutal

    seed that won’t stop
    pulsing, and I’ll

    forgive her [. . . ]

Henning rides the ridge between escape-from and longing-after, marrying an overflowing brain with an animal whimper. All of this makes her a new artist of that very old subject: Love. What is A Sweeter Water but a particularly fresh, nuanced, and troubled love song? The honesty, novelty, and grace which Henning brings to this task makes her a poet who deserves to be read and reread.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Sound of Sugar....Erica Dawson

Everybody Down

Around this time of year, someone will fall
Over Great Falls. It could be me if I
Left Tampa’s flatness for Virginia’s drawl.
Altiloquent, high-flying cardinals’ cry

Whit chew. The Civil War has its own app,
e-iPhone forts; but, love rides war roughshod
Over Virginia for lovers and sap
Sugar maples. I could get right with God

Here, and descend from blue preoccupations
Catching humidity latching on white
Oak trees, and tangle with indoctrinations:
Survival of the fittest; fright or flight;

Heat rising. Metamorphic slab for miles
Above the water table, stipule spines
Float somewhere for a stagnant spot. Rock stiles
Tease ticks to Climb back up. The ripples’ brine

Is really schist’s sharp grains. How do you like
Me now, God? Accident of fractured bone,
One with nature, the solstice, and a hike.
I bloom in spring. In spring, I die as stone.

About the Poet:

Erica Dawson’s first collection of poems,
Big-Eyed Afraid(Waywiser 2007), won the 2006 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her new collection, The Small Blades Hurt, is forthcoming from Measure Press. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Poetry: A Pocket Anthology, Harvard Review, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches in the undergraduate, and the low-residency MFA, program at University of Tampa.

About the Sound of Sugar:

We’ve loved reading the work that we’ve published (clearly), so now we want an opportunity to better hear our contributors. We will feature an audio recording of a poem from one of our seven issues, read by the poet and updated every couple of weeks. This an open invitation to all contributors from any of our issues, we were delighted to print your work, now we’re eager to hear it.  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Sound of Sugar....Charlie Malone

Illusive, Weeded

white chicken feathers scatter across the lawn
red specks glisten wet grass thick with
                  the door to the coop is ajar.

beyond this    flight    thick rows of pine

dead limbs scratch and snap

                                               heart slows
deeper in the woods     skittish deer bed down
within the rectangle of a toppled sugarhouse
bucket rust.

                        pick up a brick and the wet
rotting leaf smell it holds down rises

the cold mass fills small hands.

an earthworm writhes in the vacancy
reddish centipedes scatter

a potato bug rolls in the palm.

About the Poet:
Charlie Malone recently returned to the Midwest to occupy a house in the woods outside a small town home to a not-exactly-small university, Ferris State. Malone studied literature and writing at Kent State and Colorado State and liked it just fine. He is grateful to all his students, teachers, colleagues, his wife, and the the kind editors who see something worthwhile in his work. Charlie's writings can be found in or are forthcoming with The Dunes Review, Phoebe, The Laurel Review, as well as the anthology A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park. 

About the Sound of Sugar:
We’ve loved reading the work that we’ve published (clearly), so now we want an opportunity to better hear our contributors. We will feature an audio recording of a poem from one of our seven issues, read by the poet and updated every couple of weeks. This an open invitation to all contributors from any of our issues, we were delighted to print your work, now we’re eager to hear it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Large White House Speaking by Mark Irwin
(New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2013) 
reviewed by Danielle Beazer Dubrasky

Mark Irwin’s poems juxtapose the preservation of memory with a poetics of the inaccessible. He asks, “Tell we hear music / in silence, or a dead person’s voice / in our minds (that child’s swing / blown back and forth).” These lines perform a kind of mining through memory that takes us to an edge where sound and language are ultimately inaccessible and are conjured up only through an associative image. The remembered voice is conveyed through an image of absence hermetically sealed in parentheses that can never be completely opened. It is around this point that poems revolve in the collection Large White House Speaking.

The recurring theme of preserving the past is introduced in the first poem, “On Sundays, Sometimes.” Irwin uses language to plumb a line toward memory:

     I’ll start in the afternoon and follow the words of a new sentence
     ...I’ll open a photo album and descend
     into its cellar where people are walking toward me, out from
     the white chancel of each corner

In these lines, time is transformed into place and place represents a time preserved. “Memory is love’s quarry,” a phrase from the poem “Creation,” describes this fusion. In “April,” the fusion exists through a link between a father’s football helmet and a bronze Corinthian helmet. The former is found in an attic and is described as “scratched and dusty in the dormer’s blast of sun.” This family artifact is decaying from the elements. But a memory has preserved another image associated with the father—a brassy pole and shiny firetruck from the speaker’s childhood. A brightness exists in memory that becomes dull in the present. That brightness returns when one literally touches the past: “In London once / I touched a bronze Corinthian helmet whose pitted crown / was dented from blows.” This helmet corresponds with the football helmet, yet its existence conveys a certain defiance of time that the other helmet does not have.

Irwin’s poems explore both a desire for the past be tangible and the unnerving discovery that sometimes only abstract words can be a source of preservation. “April” expresses one of the few moments when the desire to feel the sensations of the past is fulfilled. The poem “Elegy” takes the opposite view. There is again an attempt to revive the past in the lines, “I am polishing the lens of a telescope to make / the distant more bright.” However, here the past is represented by a daughter and a marriage each lost in some way. There is no preserved artifact in the attic nor in a museum to represent what is gone, what cannot be retrieved: “—A glove, a ball, a house collapsed. A carcass of vowels wept.” In “Elegy” the speaker seeks objects and hears them from decaying letters that become a strange metaphor of absence. The house with its inhabitants is no longer intact. These interior letters that provide shape to words are simply sounds. It is the sealed, parenthetical phrase turned inside out with the loosened letters falling into a void.

The poetics of the inaccessible is aided by telescopes and telescopic poems, as in “Augenblick” which begins by looking into the eye of a dead robin then shifts to a glimpse of the setting sun into which the speaker sees “closer far.” In that instance, the speaker sees a moment from his past: “I remember Katherine now… / Some things you can never hold.” The poem “Ghost” addresses this relationship with the past head-on:

     Sometimes your name’s
     a dress like an iron/ bell the years
     swing shadows from/longer than home.
     Can you hear/that word peal? I’m going
     there now,
     carrying the windows/from inside
     all the vowels

The question plaintively expresses desire for sound to be tangible. The speaker wants to touch sound itself, and an attempt is made through the remarkable last line “I’m going there now”—as if sound is a place. These vowels and their sounds are now the opening to that place, to the bell’s peal.

The drive toward an interior space is contrasted by other poems that move almost cinematically through an exterior pastoral world. Images of trees, leaves, sunlight, insects, and the presence of other animals exist in these poems to clarify time into a tangible present. Yet the poems are both entranced by and skeptical of the natural world. The recurring seasons and their seeming beauty testify simultaneously of continuity and inevitable death. The poem “Red Feather” elucidates the former idea: “The owl / blinks its glass eyes / in a tree. Sometimes I think the red feather’s / the word is.” Likewise, in “Moment” the juxtaposition of singular images gives a nod to the pastoral hope of cheating time through recurring common events:  “Years. It was cold. You wore / red mittens…/ Summer. The late light / upon us. Blue coppers, just hatched….” Yet it ends with a sense of oblivion: “... then you are sent to a country of nameless people / where there is no time.”

There are two poems in which a brutal death coincides with images of the natural world that convey continuity. “Pastoral” defies the connotation of that word by referring to the rape and murder of a young girl whose body is found beneath an elm, “A balloon, red, was tied, bobbing from a limb / above her.” The childish image of the balloon in the tree and the reference to growing grass create a haunting contrast to the girl’s life cut short. In a poem about Matthew Shepherd, “Shoes,” Irwin places the image of people leaving “their offices and homes in that quaint / mountain town” next to the image of Shepherd: “He was tied, naked to a fence, then beaten.” Here it is the continuity of the sky that creates a brief, if inadequate, refuge.

In poems such as “In Winter,” Irwin plays more gently with notion that time and death stalk the pastoral. The former poem describes the lives of two widows. One husband is memorialized through the simple gesture of tracing a map, the other as his widow hangs bedsheets in which he died out to dry. The speaker acts as conduit between these women and their dead husbands. When he helps the one widow hang the sheets, their hands accidentally touch and for that moment, he breaks the loss that time awards through death.

Large White House Speaking is divided into four sections and while there are poems focused on memories, they never settle into nostalgia. Instead, there is a restlessness that indicates it is not enough to restore the memory and the people within it. Instead, these poems explore how language unlocks memory to fulfill a desire for the sensuality of those lost moments. It is that desire that compels so many of the poems and creates the deft metamorphoses the reader encounters in seeking lost sensations. Often, after several transformed images, the only result is untranslatable sound. This happens in “The Mirror in my Parents’ Room” in which the mirror has trapped within its silver, the Milky Way’s “phosphorescent, streaming light” which hums “infant sounds.” “Ars Poetica” conveys an unsatisfied hunger for the sensations of words,

     So many words I put
     together, pushing them along their way, packing them
     with light, loss, smells, tastes
     silence, seasons, and the lost
     seasons of an hour

The speaker responds to this hunger with a desire to “unwrap the cellophane from what we mean.”

The complexity of these poems is a pleasure as is the thematic insistence that pushes toward an elemental space. To focus on sound as being the doorway to that space creates unusual relationships between the words and their context. The sense is that if Irwin could shake these words from their context he would detect the heart that beats inside the letters. When he comes close to doing this, there is almost a euphoria at the discovery, as in the final lines of “Survey”:

     And there are those, who, almost
     after a lifetime, only listen.What
     ushers us through the years? Yellow leaves
     swirl past a stop sign. It is
     a ringing you/can feel.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Sound of Sugar....Steve Langan


I remember this old guy at the bar
where I worked gestured toward a girl
seated with friends at a round table
and said, You really need to learn to pause,
study the small of a woman’s back,
the parallel lines subtly curving upward—
are her shoulders little shouts or whispers?—
and her neck, slightly untuned, does it plead?—
to know how best to begin to pursue her.
But I was mainly interested in scoring then,
in showing you how many bottles I could
hold aloft in the dim light, and getting
and staying loaded for days at a time.

It’s rude to talk too much about yourself.
That’s what we learn here in the Midwest.
Days are numbered, we ask you to contribute
to the bottom line, to catch one another
in your sullen reproaches, crashing swoons,
make it look easy these next squalid hours.
Some little nitpickers claim we’re improving.
But we can’t all be angels of mercy or pain,
hunting and gathering, failing and building,
saving nothing for later, sleeping it all off.

About the Poet:
Steve Langan was born in Milwaukee and raised in Omaha. He earned degrees from the University of Nebraska and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Langan is the author of Freezing (2001), Notes on Exile and Other Poems (2005), Meet Me at the Happy Bar (2009), and What It Looks Like, How It Flies (2013).

About the Sound of Sugar:
We’ve loved reading the work that we’ve published (clearly), so now we want an opportunity to better hear our contributors. We will feature an audio recording of a poem from one of our seven issues, read by the poet and updated every couple of weeks. This an open invitation to all contributors from any of our issues, we were delighted to print your work, now we’re eager to hear it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Sound of Sugar....Natalia Treviño

Tortilla Skins

In the hot light of your kitchen, ‘Uelita, you showed me how to
press the thick dough against your popping, aluminum table. Your
hands the size of the tortillas to come, willing the mass to open
as soft disk. My hands too small to maneuver, to stretch over it,
to pull the dry powder in. I was fifteen and knew you were happy.
Years after ‘Buelito had died, you a new kind of woman. Certain eyes.
Laughing, traveling, playing cards. Able to wake and say no, to skip
the heat of the day to cook the midday meal. Bake a cake instead, at
night. Crochet and smoke at the same time. Speak up around men.
Accept a small glass of beer. The dough as cool as your hands, your
red fingernails disappearing into the ball. Would you remarry? I
ask. You are quick to answer. Yes, it is ugly to live alone. Your fingers
have memorized this motion, this touch. All I can think is how the
wives in Mexico flail in sick waters, in tired, wakeful oceans, choppy
white crests salting their faces, silenced and gasping by the slap of
spray. Romantic novella endings kneaded into the eyes and ears of
daughters, spiteful neighborhood chisme, the sealing orders from
men, sons, brothers, husbands. The lines on your face, Uelita, deep
like the folds of the dough in your hands. The portraits in your
living room, bridal framed faces, faint as shells at the end of flat
beach, stripped of color by the brine of dry sunlight, waiting for
the tide to soak them, turn them, or swallow them. Bone exposed at the
back of the neck, you bend to your yes. And we press our tortilla
skins to the heat, their faces down, to cook them.

About the Poet:

Born in Mexico City, Natalia grew up in Texas where her mother taught her Spanish and Bert and Ernie gave her lessons in English. Natalia has won several awards for her poetry and fiction including the 2004 Alfredo Moral de Cisneros Award, the 2008 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2012 Literary Award from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio. Currently, Natalia is an assistant professor of English at Northwest Vista College where she works with students of all levels.

About the Sound of Sugar:
We’ve loved reading the work that we’ve published (clearly), so now we want an opportunity to better hear our contributors. We will feature an audio recording of a poem from one of our seven issues, read by the poet and updated every couple of weeks. This an open invitation to all contributors from any of our issues, we were delighted to print your work, now we’re eager to hear it.