See below for reviews of books by Sandra Meek and Gerald Stern
In the Labyrinth of Forgiveness: A Review
By Daniel T. O'Hara
Cynthia Hogue, In June the Labyrinth
. Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2017. 79 pp. $12.95.
All sorts of labyrinths dot the landscapes--literal and psychological, historical and symbolic--of this volume of poems composing a serial poem, in which verbal tags, seemingly chosen at random from conversations, books of history, other poetry, the O.E. D. and so on, form the mare's nest of intertextuality, like the dark matter structures or cosmic strings ghosting and sustaining the galaxies as they wheel at tremendous speeds yet without falling apart at the edges. We have as well the prayer labyrinths underneath or attached to cathedrals, such as Chartres, to mystical or sacred elaborations of the figure itself drawn from practices of various kinds, to the labyrinth of the meditating mind Yeats and Borges explored so memorably, each in his own way. The later poems in the volume even cite and revise earlier tags, to the effect of making the text we are reading a labyrinth, indeed a labyrinth of labyrinths. It is a stunning achievement, both amazingly self-reflexive and yet presented in a language both accessible and inventive, demotic and with a uniquely imaginative linguistic twist.
The occasion in life informing the volume, as mentioned in the accompanying notes, is the series of deaths, including her mother's, which the poet suffers during its two-years or so of composition. Hogue tracks the familiar five stages of grief--denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance--but in doing so stages the process in terms of the composite figure, largely standing in for the mother, she names simply "Elle" on this more generic figure's quest to be true to herself and her experience, especially of love alone. Elle's quest is replicated by the poet's, or, the poet's and Elle's inversion mirror each other as much in their differences as in their similarities. For example, the acts of composition, unlike the acts of Elle, it appears to me, reach out to bring in others, readers, family, lovers.
They thus make this brilliant serial poem less a revelation of the Demonic Beast at the center of the labyrinth, a la the mythical Minotaur in Daedalus' fantastic famous invention, which Theseus, thanks to Adriane' thread, returns from after slaying. Instead, as several of the earlier poems in the book make clear, we have a feminist, or better expressed, a woman's labyrinthine invention that works to grant, as only the gift of death sometimes can, the blessedness of self-forgiveness for the child, the daughter, the Persephone of every Demeter, otherwise self-destroyed by a beastly bitterness indeed:
("the labyrinth of forgiveness")
In the middle of the end she lands.
She'd said Come to all of it,
and it all came and now it's all,
as it must be, gone. She never called for help.
She never said "forgive me" to another,
but the language of forgiveness can be silent:
unheard or unspoken.
Forgiveness is a labyrinth, a way.
going this direction and not that,
the ethical route and heart's root,
the core, of course, riddle of how
to cure the poison of the demon,
that bitterness which
bent her like a bell
until at last she sounded
Elle is sound, that is, sounds as sound, in the end, but the poet sings words made out such sound into beauty as the forgiveness of oneself, first of all, and then of those others such a vision reaches at their cores (their Kore's, too, no doubt). Unlike what many today take to be Yeats's grandiosely boasting masculinist self-forgiveness at the end of "A Dialogue of Self and Soul," Hogue's goes on in the final prose-poem installment of this serial poem "("still her")" to show Elle entering her own cathedral labyrinth, performing as she dies in her hospital bed, all the imaginative acts of the poet herself, not least of all, playing the future music of all the dead to come: "She would set a candle now that she was here in the nave, the great stone arches, the stained-glass windows spectraling the light, and Phantom playing the spectacular organ" (76). I like to think that under the cover of another Phantom playing the organ in popular culture, we have the ghost of Yeats being made to accompany the muse-mother of the poet here. In June the Labyrinth is that great a connected series of poems in one volume: a masterly creation.
(Please see a portfolio of Hogue poems in the winter/spring 2018 issue.)
Sandra Meek, An Ecology of Elsewhere
New York: Persea Books, Inc., 2016. 120 pp.
Review by Katherine Watkins
Sandra Meek's most recent collection, An Ecology of Elsewhere
, is an artist's examination of the relationship of living things to their environment. Drawing on the poet's extensive travels through southern Africa, many of these poems explore the way that culture, history, political tensions, and landscape intersect in nuanced ways to form the unique identity of a place. At other points, the collection assumes a more personal tone, as two adult sisters and their aging father travel to Hawaii and the American Southwest while coming to terms with a difficult family past. The common element at work in all the poems, however, is Meek's gift for meticulous description coupled with an unmistakable reverence for the natural world, the closest analog to which may be found in the work of someone like Marianne Moore.
Much like Moore, Meek's work is distinct in that it combines the scientist's affinity for precision and taxonomy (poems describing specific animals or plants have titles that include the organism's Latin binomial) with the artist's eye for detail and observation. Add to that Meek's extreme linguistic dexterity and at times formidable syntax, and readers will begin to appreciate the challenge and delight of navigating this rich and intricate collection.
Ever sensitive to her audience's needs, however, Meek includes seven pages of notes at the end of the book--a supplement of sorts that gives readers the option of learning more about the background and context of most of the work's twenty-seven poems. Ranging in length from a single sentence to multiple paragraphs, these notes provide additional commentary on specific words, species, and histories that may be unfamiliar to an average American reader. While the poems themselves certainly function autonomously--one can elect to ignore the notes entirely--the added gloss is a welcome bonus that most readers are likely to find interesting and informative.
When writing about a work so uniformly dazzling, it is difficult to choose just a few poems to discuss in isolation. A good place to begin, however, may be with one of my personal favorites: "River Horse (Hippopotamus amphibious), Okavango Delta," the second poem in the collection. "River Horse" evokes a sense of motion and impermanence through a vivid encounter with the natural world. On a literal level, the poem recounts a speaker's experience gliding through waterways of Botswana's Okavango Delta--"lily stems snarled / to drowned bouquets beneath a leaf-fanned surface / undulating with midge-drenched blooms"--in search of wildlife, namely hippo. The speaker's guide, Shadrach, "names each aquatic grass / and flower--Vein Ink, Bullrush, Riverbed Tea, Magic/ Quarri." This lush setting becomes a catalyst for memory as the speaker remarks:
most remains: each spindled shadow's the stain
of a long-gone season's deeper green
fringing these waters my twenty-years-ago husband
scrubbed his wedding ring away to
with a frying pan's grit, only our guide urging return
to sift the shifting sand of those sweet shallows we'd
long since decamped.
The futility of "urging return," of seeking to reclaim what's lost, or even of avoiding destruction permeates the catalogue of images that follow, from "what golden orb spiders, reed / to reed, have veiled with webs"--webs the speaker regrets she "can't help but raze"--to "the most perfect lagoon" ironically "starved" by its own abundance. Furthermore, readers learn that Shadrach's modern vessel "only mimics now / in fiberglass" the traditional, wooden mokoro that Meek's notes explain were once hand-carved by Bayei fishermen before tourism replaced fishing as the area's primary mode of commerce. Only the non-living exist outside a world in flux, as evidenced by the speaker's memory of a hippo fetus "decades bleaching" in museum glass. Nature's creatures are:
Animated here only
in freeze: a diorama's painted background for birds
dangling in faux flight
The inevitability of change and loss emerges as a major theme in An Ecology of Elsewhere and one for which Meek finds a perfect corollary in the cycles of nature. The sense of awe and wonder that often permeates these poems stems largely from a sober acknowledgement that existence is fragile and transitory, making each color, taste, image, and sensation all the more rich and exquisite by virtue of that knowledge. This is certainly the case when near the conclusion of "River Horse," the wild hippo finally appears, "skating the pooled horizon" in a "golden noose of late afternoon light," like all that is sweet, "too briefly lingering."
Whereas many poems, like "River Horse," tend toward the lyrical, there are moments in the collection where specific storylines shift to the forefront. Poems about family, for example, often draw upon real memories and events from Meek's own experience (a fact she explains in her notes). These pieces explore, among other things, the difficulty of reconciling childhood memories of an often-absent father with the immediate reality of relating to him in later life. Meek's treatment of this subject matter is restrained and devoid of sentimentality. By focusing on specificity of description, she leaves room for readers to supply their own emotional reaction to situations she describes.
In "The Imaginary Heart," for example, personal memories are woven together with rich sensory descriptions to form a complex meditation on family history. The speaker begins:
To ring a pineapple, to fashion canned peach slices into pairs
of parenthesis hemming a cottage cheese mound
married to a reef of lettuce--iceberg, rigid enough to endure
without wilting the evening's wait for my father who again
wouldn't be calling and wouldn't be home until evening
had better passed with friends and the ubiquitous bourbon
at the Black Knight bar--this was what my mother
first taught me of salad.
From there the speaker imagines scenes from her father's years in the military, his deployment to Oahu some sixty years earlier, and the "Rainbow Bomb Parties" held there on July 9, 1962 when the U.S. Military shot nuclear warheads into space, "charging the night sky to how many brilliant / never-before-seen colors." These images are juxtaposed against ones of a return trip to Hawaii the speaker and her sister take with him decades later so that he might "show / his aging daughters his own lost youth; as if those islands / long stitched to a single star in the flag he served / might have lived on as perpetual fantasy."
Taken in whole, the poem captures the difficulty of forgiveness: "What frees the father / binds the child," "what's held too tightly / tumors the body." Near the poem's conclusion, the description comes full circle, settling again on the image of a pineapple. Here, the speaker recalls her mother's death, wondering:
was it anger she couldn't outlive
to share this fresh pineapple my father, now advancing
in his own cancer, has had fresh-flown in
for my sister and me, as much memento of the trip we three took together
as fruit of the one time he'd signed on to something he'd never once regretted.
While this second pineapple may itself be a "perfect reconciliation of sweetness and light," the father's "open-armed gesture" at reconciliation somehow fails to register its own inherent complication.
The world as seen through Meek's eyes, though occasionally harsh and unforgiving, is equally arresting and wondrous by virtue of its fragility. An Ecology of Elsewhere is a rigorous and demanding collection, but what it asks of readers it gives back tenfold, continuing to surprise and enthrall upon each successive read. Until I discovered An Ecology, I regret to say that I was unfamiliar with Sandra Meek's poetry. Now that I have experienced the depth and quality of her writing, I plan to waste no time getting my hands on her other four collections and eagerly anticipate more from this outstanding poet.
Katherine Watkins majored in Creative Writing as an undergraduate student at Rhodes College before moving to Scotland for two years where she earned a Master's in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh. Currently, she teaches Advanced Placement Literature and Dual Enrollment English at a Title 1 high school in Memphis, Tennessee.
Gerald Stern, Galaxy Love http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Galaxy-Love
W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. 119pp
Review by Alice Allen
When people write about Gerald Stern, winner of the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Award and many other literary honours received during a long literary career, they invariably use words such as generous, passionate, intense, energetic, outrageous, boisterous, free-wheeling, warm-hearted; and the same words are often used to describe his poetry. He is celebrated as an unruly, larger-than-life character writing larger-than-life unruly poems. The line between Stern the poet and the persona in his poems is blurred if not completely indistinguishable, and this feels refreshingly clear-cut and direct.
Of course, the relationship between poet and persona is never simple or completely transparent. Many of the poems in Galaxy Love
are delivered in the first person in an easy, storytelling tone, but often there is a sense that you, the reader, have only just entered the room and happened upon a story that is already under way. Many poems appear to start mid-story with lines such as "With me it was the large rat" in The Hill or "With me, it wasn't a yellow cab" in Decades or "So what if it wasn't a weeping beech" in Billionaires. With a Stern poem we are immediately drawn into the drama and thrust of the story, but we don't always know where we are or what happened before we got there.
Similarly, the effect of Stern's seemingly rambling one-sentence poems, which draw you in to the story, line after line, with no full stops or stanza breaks to take a rest and catch your breath, is ultimately not lulling, but unsettling. What on the surface seems an easy, laid back style has an underlying intensity, a claustrophobia even. And the intensity of the long sentence is the perfect form for poems that frequently blast the reader with unexpected connections and jumps that we are not expecting. For example, the poem Hiphole describes a journey through Italy, and the problems of sleeping rough on an entirely flat surface (the need to burrow out a hip hole, for instance), and before we know it we are in a pre-historic jungle sleeping face down in the trees or in hollows on the forest floor:
for we lived mostly in the understories
and that way we left our lakes for distant cities
or what we took for cities then, the thought
was still with us when we were eating
mortadella with warm tomatoes and washing
our faces at the spigots
And we are now somehow back walking from Lake Garda to Venice.
The long sentence softens and smooths the extraordinariness of what is being described. Camille T. Dungy has written of long sentence poems as "dissenters, resisting the rule of law, the brevity we tend to desire of highly-communicative language" and that "the beauty of the best one-sentence poems is that they manage their dissidence largely unnoticed." The comfort and ease of Stern's extenuated poetic line supports the leaps and jolts of connection by focussing our attention on the line, on getting to the end. Sterne is telling us a story but he is also taking us on a ride .
And nowhere does he do this more effectively than when he writes about time.
Stern frequently undermines the passage of time in his poems, conflating points in time and place in a way that is refreshingly abrupt, fast moving, jolting. In The Truth, the poem starts off in the present day and we finish up in ancient Greece; in Cup Cake Store, a vivid yet oblique scene is described (are we looking at a painting, a tableau, a model village?) and the line "and if I were living then" takes us in an entirely different direction, at once fascinatingly personal and unsettling as we are left thinking, what just happened?
In the poem Space and Time, our perspective is wryly altered as we move through a reconstruction of the Russian train station where Tolstoy died "Only fifty minutes away from Filthy Delphos" which is also a restaurant with a long queue, which leads us to a tour of other notable gatherings of people paying their last respects, not least the famous crowd of visitors to Tolstoy's death place:
but such is fame that the huge crowd had dispersed
only a century ago, such a short time now,
considering that the bird of paradise
is in charge of time as the crow of space
The image of the bird of paradise stewarding time itself is extraordinary and exemplifies how Stern sees time in his poems: flamboyant, illusive, unattainable.
Reading many of the poems in Galaxy Love
is like diving into a flurry of memories and their attendant connections in the speaker's mind, only to be pulled up to the surface by the abruptness of a final line that announces the actual date with a jolt: the final line of Azaleas is "attested to May 11, 2014, Christian time".
The Hill closes with:
my father in the back seat,
my mother humming "Melancholy Baby",
going on seventy years now.
Rather than making the passing of time more understandable, these factual end lines labelling the actual date serve to highlight time's paradoxical, unknowable nature.
The weight of memory has itself altered the perception of time, as in the poem Route 29 where the speaker claims:
And this is the time of no time
you get to know in your eighties
The usual rules of perception, association and of linear thought have changed. Objects appear out of place, connections and associations between place and time have been interrupted and fragmented. Some lines from the poem Sylvia in an earlier collection, Everything is Burning, named after his sister who died in childhood, may help here:
it turns out is profound though the profound
because of time it turns out is an illusion
and all of this is infinitely improbable
Seen in the context of these lines, Stern's loose connections are not merely a freewheeling, rambling style but an expression of how Stern views time and the nature of existence itself.
Amongst these poems that express the dynamic flux and illusion of time's flow, two poems stand out as being markedly different in tone and appear abruptly in the collection like dark, still pools. The poem No One is chillingly sad, expressing the loneliness of having "No one there to remember with me":
nor is there anyone to help me with the words
of a song I sang in Miss Steiner's chorus
nor anyone standing there with me in the blue
The poem perhaps remembers people who have lived long lives and are no longer alive, but it also seems to leave an imprint in the mind of Sylvia's presence.
The second poem that stands out as different in tone is the poem Ghost, the last lines of which express with an uncanny clarity the experience of watching the final moments of someone's life:
the last thing to go
the gift of hearing
with no sign of life
neither heart nor lung
but the hearing remains
even if it's like an echo
a tunnel a hole where it goes the ghost goes.
is an extraordinary collection by an extraordinary poet, who sees the world differently and projects that vision through the prism of his poems. And isn't this just what we want and need our poets to do? To see the world differently so we can see it more clearly.
Alice Allen has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan, Wales. She is a poetry reviewer for the website Sabotage
http:// Camille T. Dungy, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2009/06/no-pause-for-breath