(For reviews of books by Alan Michael Parker and Richard Lyons, see below)
Tod Marshall, Bugle.
Ann Arbor: Canarium Books, 2014. 50 pp.
Review by Lisa Grunberger
In a 2016 interview writer Tod Marshall, and author of Bugle
, asks: "How can one reconcile belief with actualities? I don't know the answer to that question, but I know that my understanding of art is that it should rouse us from complacency in the midst of such duality; if we become accepting of the horror, then we are not feeling that horror." This recalls Franz Kafka's comment about "books that wound or stab us"; and that "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us." For "axe," here, read "bugle" whose repeated calls and blasts are meant to disturb the reader and break through her frozen complacency.
It is ironic, therefore, that the poems in Bugle
, Marshall's third collection, which moved me most, are decidedly not the ones that were explicitly in my face about social and ecological catastrophes. What may be most resounding in these often technically accomplished poems is not that Marshall bears witness to suffering in a world habituated to daily catastrophe (and catastrophic complacency), but that it is the more quiet, restrained poems which are most effective and moving; they "bugle" the loudest. That the poet takes his time, in "Why Long Brushes are Best," to pay attention to how a golden eagle "will wing-smack / a mountain goat / from steep cliffs" makes this collection more nuanced, taking in the wild plenitude of life, than if the poems were only to be dominated by "news" and lists of daily domestic horrors including the rapes of young girls and suicides. It reminds one of Proust's dictum: "Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life."
A reluctant eco-poet, Marshall rejects both traditional religion and romanticism. In the opening poem, "Buccinator," he bids "toodle-oo to Gideon, Joshua and Saul." In the sparse and desolate "No Accident," two people on the side of a highway wait in "Darkness (the moon long ago fed to the shredder)." The repeated bugle calls, as was said, assume we are not sufficiently awake to daily horrors, and this repeated shove towards awakening is the collection's greatest strength and its weakness. Do we go to poems to be awakened? To feel guilty about not being awakened enough? Are poems a call for social action? Does the poet sit Beauty on his knees, as Rimbaud did? Do poems make anything happen? Are poems themselves happenings? These are just some of the persistent questions Marshall's Bugle
provokes for itself. And these are good questions to think about in the company of a sincere, devoted poet looking for new ways to tell stories about evil and suffering.
For Marshall clearly believes in something, despite the pessimistic and often apocalyptic imagery. This is not surprising, as deeply held belief often resorts to the apocalyptic--from apokalyptein
"uncover, disclose, reveal," so to as unveil or reveal a truth, or reality, otherwise concealed by its own appearance or by habitual perception. He believes in the power of language to disrupt our habitual (mis)perception. And clearly Marshall is inveterately in love with words, as a poet must be, and, in this collection, many words in his chosen vocabulary reappear like a puzzle, a mosaic, an aural echo: rhubarb, skitter, skittl, fuck, blood, red, meat, nature, body, embouchure.
Listen to the sensual opening lines of the book:
Bullock, buculus. Castrated young bull.
Coiled horn The long light shakes across the lakes: we buy in bulk.
Give me that oral tradition, that ancient wordy call:
gums, tongues, and mouths mouthing, eat, sucky, talk.
It is in his control of language where Marshall often excels. In one of the strongest poems in the collection, titled "OK," Marshall's preferred themes converge; here his narrative art lives, his dark humor, his lyricism, and above all his play upon and within the music of his own language:
Do you rename the flowers
after relatives living and dead?
That red one there with an arching stem
must be Kathryn, niece smashed
by a jeep in her driveway (getting a ball
from underneath), older sis at the wheel.
The universe is a wildflower. Remember
that blue blossom the color of summer sky?
Dare you say to say mama, to say daddy or love
or please. In Oklahoma, the rivers are red
with red dirt and red water. Sunset,
when it finally arrives, is red no matter what
you say or do or dream. No matter anywhere:
learn to rip things tenderly apart.
The opening rhetorical questions invite the reader into this lyrical poem of place and memory; it is, too, an invitation into poetry itself. For "OK" is a poem about renaming the world as an ethical imperative. Indeed, the violence of the world, of human beings especially, must be known and remembered, but the ease with which this knowledge, this remembrance become habitual and complacent calls for disturbance and disruption; we must "learn to rip things tenderly apart."
When William Carlos Williams says "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there," it is not the "facts," that is "the news," if any, we find in poems that are the source of their sustenance. It is, actually, in
their 'difficulties'; it is in their emotional truth, their incessant tender ripping apart of things--what all "news" lacks, and in their use of everything of which literature is capable to contend against, what Nietzsche names, "the tyranny of the actual."
In some of the less effective poems, Marshall's tyranny of "actualities" take over to the point of caricature, diminishing the poem's effect.
" People will steal
copper pipes, pull wire from walls, feel crippled women's tits,
bake puppies and babies in cars, skull fuck little kids,
drown spouses, and sit down to enjoy a delicious meal.
what mother spewed us out?
Vagina slime then tubes, semen from a spout."
The intentionally, brutal, bludgeoning list of ingredients in the daily bread of our suffering, in the collection's first poem, titled "Bugle" (there are four poems entitled Bugle which herald awakenings), makes one turn away and not trust the poem itself. It feels manipulative, in a way similar to how "news" is packaged and delivered, with an ideologically calculated attempt to produce an already anticipated effect, to enlist the reader in a programmatic 'awareness' or 'feeling.'
Marshall's language is at his best in some of the shorter poems in this volume. In the six-line "Carnivore" he finds strong verbs, striking images within a short narrative scene. And then the unexpected line my favorite of the entire collection suddenly appears in the penultimate line: "Heat is a run-on sentence about the future." With this line he distances us from the poem by drawing attention to language, to grammar, to time and elemental knowledge. But the last line returns us to the body, with its monosyllabic words: "Chew your meat, leave fat for a yellow jacket feast." The music of meat and feast is arresting. Everything is here of Marshall's prodigious artisanship in six short lines.
In short poems like "Extraction" we also see Marshall's craft at play:
spiking from the muddy yard
like bloody, broken bones,
like bad teeth. The leaves
grow wide and poisonous.
The sour stalks
burn calories to digest.
Eat only them, and you will starve.
Contrast this short poem with the longer, looser "Etymology is a Layered Word" which feels like it is still digesting and interiorizing its own vocabulary and meaning: "Tarn means occipital in the language of lakes / much like ocean floor is the sound a corpse/hears when someone tenderly arranges arms / across a body's chest beneath a highway/underpass...." The desire to tell the story in sedimentary layers of concentrated language is clear but it doesn't feel fully arrived quite yet. Thus the poem has to explain that "now all we are left with is a riddle of bones."
The poem "Bugle", which opens the second section of the book, proclaims:
The world is a heap of happy hour
or a copper desert, inch-deep layer
of toxic dust. Either way, these brass buttons
are coins enough to pay Judas, Charon, some Egyptian
toll-taker foraging under our tongues with enough
left to buy a skinny sugar-free vanilla latte.
Here is a delightful motley range of evocation and reference, composed as though a cross between a song lyric and an epic poem. "We walk to where the river / rivers, and the green light glows," so this poem declaims. And is it an old-timer country bluesman, like Charley Patton, telling us this, or is it blind Tiresias in the Odyssey
, or the impersonal chorus that has seen many an oracular prophecy fulfilled? When Marshall achieves this kind of interplay between his music, the mythical, and the quotidian, but without overstatement, calculated cleverness, or as if broadcasting "the news," he also achieves that combination which, Horace said, is the poet's aim: to inform and delight.
Marshall's love of declamatory lists, in "Leftovers" and in other poems, is reminiscent of Whitman. Here is Whitman in "I Sit and Look Out":
I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world and
upon all oppression and shame,
I hear the secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish
with themselves, remorseful after deeds done,
I see in the low life the mother misused by her children, dying,
neglected, gaunt, desperate,
I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the treacherous
seducer of young women.
, Marshall too sits amidst "all the sorrows of the world." He looks out, which is to say, intently and intensely within, braving, not succumbing to, fears, horror, repulsion, anger, and despair; making his "bugle" answer with his love of language and belief in poetry, to all that is vomited forth from contemporary hells of nihilism. His poems aspire to see and to hear, as Whitman's poems do. In many admirable instances, he has achieved poems which are a delightful, though at times also harrowing, unison of the best of his poetic art with what he has seen, what he has heard.
How to write about suffering, about atrocity, about "all the sorrows of the world" is one of the questions all poets, at one time or another, contend with, as much as did the poet of Ecclesiastes
. It is, still, after millennia, the work of a sentence, of finding one true sentence and writing on from there.
Isaac Babel, who could see the sun as a severed head rolling across the sky, concentrates his insight, about what is the poet's work, into one inimitable expression. "A sentence is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm and you can only turn it once, not twice."
In his final "Bugle" call, Marshall, it seems, has also realized this, borne from his own reading and writing life, and delivers a declaration, a sentence, to which he gave one perfect, almost invisible turn. It is a sentence that as much as any of the poems in this collection feels necessary, urgent and true:
You must pull ribs from that rotting body,
words that matter: love me, love me not.
Alter, Robert, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with
Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company 2011.
Babel, Isaac, The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.
Kafka, Franz, Diaries, 1910-1923, Schocken 1988.
Kafka, Franz, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, Schocken, 2016.
Kafka, Franz, Letters to Milena, Schocken, 2015.
Homer, The Odyssey, Trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics 1999.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Untimely Meditations, Cambridge University Press 1997.
The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Second edition, 1989.
Patton, Charley, Definitive Charley Patton (3 CD Box Set), Catfish 2001.
Proust, Marcel, Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 2004.
Rimbaud, Arthur, A Season in Hell & The Drunken Boat (English and French Edition),
New Directions, 2011.
Whitman, Walt, The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics 2005.
Williams, William Carlos, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams,Vol. II:
1939-1962, New Directions 1991.
Lisa Grunberger is the author of two books: Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie's Adventures in Love, Loss and the Lotus Position (Harper Collins, 2009), and a poetry book, Born Knowing (Finishing Line Press, 2012).
Alan Michael Parker, The Ladder
North Adams, Massachusetts.: Tupelo Press, 2016. 73 pp.
Review by Dorothy Chan
Alan Michael Parker knows how to speak the languages of love, sex, and beauty. His latest collection of poems, The Ladder
, evokes this as he gives us a dash of Hollywood with every situation that fluctuates from the ordinary to the romantic. Parker's speakers are charming. They give the reader unexpected asides that actually
go somewhere. For instance, in "I'm Here to Give a Little Talk on Singing," the speaker actively lists places where he doesn't sing in order to get to this comical swerve: "or when kneading sweet, gluey dough / deeply with my palms and my wrists,/for the best butter cookies." Here, we get the speaker's appreciation of ordinary beauty of this ordinary action. He acknowledges his full concentration in making butter cookies. As simple as this gesture is, it makes me like the speaker more--he's a speaker that gives everything its full, deserved passion. This marvel of the ordinary leads to an admiration of art: "I'm at the museum / and there's the Chagall, / no matter that my whole body / standing before the Chagall / is the sail of every boat, ever, in every wind." Parker displays a skilled use of repetition throughout. It's part of the speaker's charming obsessions--"there's a Chagall," and as a result, we feel the "sail of every boat, ever, in every wind" by envisioning this painting. The poet delivers an unexpected sensuality amidst his simple forms. In this way, Parker is rewriting his forms through his content. Parker's writing is full of surprises, and we all love surprises.
The collection's opening poem, "The Raking" gives us beautiful caesuras. And in true Parker homage, I think it's necessary I thoroughly look into these details of technique:
I want to live in a pyramid of leaves
a red leaf like a gulp of wine
sex the leaves everywhere
twirl a stem and see
what's turned away from God
Parker evokes the sensuality of a simple leaf, teaching the audience that sensuality can be found almost everywhere, especially in nature. A "pyramid of leaves" already sounds elegant, but with this, Parker adds in a standout leaf that's like "a gulp of wine" and "sex." The caesura after "sex" is integral--we end up thinking about that hearty leaf with its curves and natural beauty that translates into a metaphor for our own sexuality. This metaphor evolves into Parker's constant defining of beauty in the book. For instance, in "Enough," Parker lays out a brilliant universal truth: "and I wore a third watch / because it was beautiful / and beauty makes sense."
Again, "beauty makes sense." This juxtaposes well with lines from "The Cossacks": "and the sunset is pretty / but no one can eat pretty." I love Parker's associations--from appreciating the hands he uses to knead cookie dough to fully appreciating the most beautiful Chagall in a museum. Here, he makes the association between the permanence of pretty mixed with its untouchability. The sunset is beautiful, but no one can fully absorb it as one's own. Defining beauty seems ineffable, but Parker achieves this well. And on the other side of this beauty, Parker yields a courageous, dare I say, "freak show" passion. With this "freak show" passion comes decadence sometimes in the form of rich, luscious food and sometimes as the metaphor in my own words: "Hollywood beauty seeks the meaning of life."
We get the start of this "freak show" in "On Not Burning a Matisse." This greatly contrasts the still admiration of Chagall we encountered earlier. I love the speaker's decisiveness in the following:
If I could pick one work by Matisse
and not set on fire
and let my attorney tell the judge
He wouldn't have set that Matisse on fire
I would probably choose his relatively unknown print
"The Nightmare of the White Elephant"
This decisiveness, the speaker's choice of "The Nightmare of the White Elephant" instead of Matisse's other masterpieces is the confident brashness that brings a different emotion to Parker's work. We now get a speaker that's charming not only through his neuroses but also through his passion. This passion is evidently clear in "Springtime in Tampa." Parker's speaker describes lodging at a Sheraton in Tampa, Florida, noting the tacky seashell décor. This reminds me of the seashell beds that were popular in 1950s Hollywood. There's a touch of glamour with a lot of camp. Parker brings out this camp more: "Someone figured out that I like seashells, / and that's true, I like seashells, / and shrimp scampi, / and that I'm a Capricorn." Again, the lines are so controlled, but the content is so unabashed and witty and funny. Adding to this is the fact that the speaker orders fish tacos in the seashell themed room. Parker's speaker then takes us back to the unstoppably sexual: "I wish you were here: / hotel sex is the best," and then ending with "and in your honor I do / naked jumping jacks on the balcony." The "naked jumping jacks" is a perfect ending in that it doesn't try too hard to be an ending. It's sexual. It's bold and straight to the point.
Another great "Hollywood" poem is "Reading Antony and Cleopatra
at the Airport Again." First off, the inclusion of Antony and Cleopatra enhances the romance of Parker's collection--what a beautiful, cinematic, and timeless reference:
But now she's reading again
her thumbed copy of Antony and Cleopatra:
maybe there will be a test in the morning,
where's the battle, who's the general,
who's the friend, where's the lover.
And finally, "I buy / a bottle of water and a pack of gum I'll never chew / just to get a glimpse up close / of her movie-star eyeliner." This Hollywood in the mundane is Parker's necessary ending. It's that little touch of detail that gives us that cinematic ending.
The speaker's longing is enhanced in "Lights Out in the Chinese Restaurant," when he describes the "famous ingénue at a corner table" who
snuffled her lover's ear.
You know her, she was in
that film, oh, you know.
If she had seen me, she would have smiled.
The speaker's confidence in "If she had seen me, she would have smiled" is a perfect summation of Parker's collection. The statement is bold yet full of longing. It is also ordinary yet filled with the romance of Old Hollywood. I mean, what's a more Old Hollywood trope than the "famous ingénue?" Parker's collection brings to light this constant discovery of romance in everyday life. He wants us to stop and pause and look at that Chagall or Matisse, to imagine our lovers in our hotel rooms, and to take the bold move of approaching that attractive stranger.
Dorothy Chan is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review. She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2016 semi-finalist for The Word Works' Washington Prize.
Richard Lyons, Un Poco Loco
Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 2016. 77 pp.
Review by Rebecca Beach
Miles Davis once said, "The thing to judge in any jazz artist is, does the man project and does he have ideas." If we take Davis at his word, surely he would favor the collection of improvisational and striking poems that make up Richard Lyons's work, Un Poco Loco
. The frontispiece of Lyons's book shows a portrait of Nat King Cole's unyielding, yet graceful hands atop a piano keyboard. His arms, in a pin-stripe jacket, are tense and straight while his hands seem to claw at the keys, clasping at the song he plays, as if the music itself were breath and life. This same melodic intensity captured through the snapshot mirrors the poems found throughout Un Poco Loco
as it unpredictably riffs on our own fickle and strange world. Lyons's poems honor the variation and dynamism to be found in music, just as he similarly records the varied and dynamic moments wrought from memory and experience.
The first poem in this collection, is, appropriately, if perversely titled, "I Begin." Lyons quickly bends the seemingly simple start by writing, "Beginnings are always this way, spastic tumbleweed" (4). His beginning is not so neatly cut, filled as it is with "tumbleweed" and "shadows"(8). Lyons focuses on the inherent difficulty in making a start and uses the wonderfully surprising image of a snake shedding its skin to emphasize his point: "Someone will always / disagree with how we might want to proceed, and besides, inertia / and entropy alter the motion of a venture till it sheds is signature, / like a snake it's skin, for all intents and purposes, involuntarily" (8-11). Other imaginative beginnings--the ringing of cans "fixed to a newlyweds' car," and "the wisteria blinking" (14) --appear, only to then quietly disappear into expressions of doubt and regret: "We start with an idea of where we are, but then events / turn themselves inside out and give us the bum's rush" (15-16). The poem, which begins with a musing tone concludes with a staccato-like note, reiterating the forceful emptiness of spoken platitudes uttered for beginnings gone awry: "Ignorance and innocence are real excuses. We spit them out to speak" (24). The startling way Lyons turns to a particular image and idea, then winds it out into a completely unexpected place and phrase, underlines his resistance to easy answers and pat narratives.
The sense of regret and loss that infuses "To Begin" follows in other works like "Cousins of the Heart." In the first half of this poem, Lyons lists needling questions that evoke nostalgia, anger, remorse, and wonder. These questions act as a poignant refrain: "Would it have made a difference" (1); "Could it have made a difference" (7); "Could it really have made a difference" (10); "Could it have mattered" (15); "Would it have changed me" (18) "Will I ever" (28 and 29). In portraying a world which might have been different, Lyons adeptly describes stark images of "police and administrators who care for the excellence/ of order and money" (9-10) and a frightening natural disaster followed by death-- "the dead in their coffins [who] bobbed in the current" (12). The focus then narrows when the speaker unearths his own private world and past, when looking back upon two women, "she with her ease and the other / with her passion" (21-22), along with youthful memories of gigging frogs and crushing a scorpion. Each evocative glimpse of this history reverberates with a sense of disquiet for what might have been and for what was. In the last stanza Lyons explains his own understanding of "lament", writing, "Lamenting admits/ I won't change in a way I can see" (50-51). Like a recording that can be rewound and watched in backwards motion, the poem concludes by looking upon the natural world with imaginative and unexpected grace, to show how it might be restored and made whole:
I could return the shiny lapis, the citrine arrowheads,
the malachite, and the jasper to the damp creases in the earth.
All it would take is a bucket of seawater for the turtle, miles of floss and hair
or the bird nests. I could engage the female cardinal in conversation, a few
primitive peeps at first and, after a few years, a longwinded eventual eloquence
my windpipe would channel, tonsils and muscles alien to the mouth singing. (58-63)
This inspired conclusion transcends an indifferent past and the unaffected present. Music, it seems, like other art forms, performs the vital task of animating the nuances of our shared humanity.
Music, particularly jazz and blues, sounds throughout Un Poco Loco
like a solid bass beat. The second section of the book contains titles like, "A Blues Too Late for Dolphy, 1928-1964," "Blues in Blueprint (Alternate Take)," "Blues on the Passing of Milosz," "Eponymous Hard Bop to Horace Silver," and, of course, the title of the collection, itself, Un Poco Loco
--one of the first and greatest pieces from jazz pianist Bud Powell. The frenetic intensity and syncopated precision of the 1951 recording with piano and drums contrasts to the language of illness and loneliness found in Lyons's poem: "You'd like to know the secret--the body you launch/ attracting lint and dust, a rosette bruise at the cheek. / After a while, the world is so crowded/ you don't get credit as even a sideman" (21-24). At the heart of this work, as others, is the author's underlying and profound connection to the music and musician. For example, we see in "For Bud Powell: Un Poco Loco" a figure "teetering between two highways" (26) and being pushed "like a stick, / street to street" (14-15) who, despite this (or perhaps because of this) drums up "arrogance" to find "good beneath your fleet hands" (30). Lyons writes with careful intimacy about important jazz figures throughout his collection, but the form of the poems themselves, also, suggest the zigzags, the kinks, the swells, and measured movements found in that musical genre.
Other art forms provide the backdrop to several poems that follow. The striking figures found in paintings and sculptures of Italian artists like Giorgio De Chirico and Francesco Signorelli, and others like Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, trigger the poet's meditations on the ephemeral nature of the human body. In "Flesh and Bone" Lyons writes, "There are so many beautiful bones in the Museum of Natural History. The / stingray's skeleton looks like a chain mail set of wings" (18-19). Roiling beneath the evocative observations of art--naturally and purposefully wrought---lies a sense of existential wonder and turbulence. Lyons deftly moves from images of art to the natural world, then to anecdotes tinged with nostalgia and sharp musings. In "Art and Death" he writes:
But I want to note the narrow base of this colossus
Where the figure of Adam lifts a hand to warn Eve,
the way the altar boys swing the censer over the hip
on holy days, the limited human scale in the humble
odor of smoke. I'll take experience over reverence,
any chance at counterbeat... (9-14)
Lyons's lines of poetry consistently move, pushing the reader forward and backward: between the past and the present, between nostalgia and expectancy, between beginnings and endings, and between music and silence. This ever-shifting movement underscores the fluidity of these seeming binaries we find in the world. In a poignant way, it also conjures an image of a rocking boat--a motif that floats through several poems in the fourth and final section of this collection. From a boat "barely moving" off the coast of Maine in "Flesh and Bone," to two drunk divers reminiscing in "Two Studies of Two Male Figures," Lyons notably ends his work with "Repent or Perish" wherein memory and regret uncomfortably reside within a small boat with expansive surroundings of the sea and sky:
There is no place to lie down and curl up on this boat,
what with the miles of thick rope and the pitching
of the deck. Please excuse my stare. I'd like to say
my eyes don't stop going out, nothing stopping sight
from flying further and further out, sky and water. (35-39)
With this last stanza, Lyons looks forward with lucid resolve. The book begins with a poem that eloquently conveys the way beginnings falter and plunge in their unfolding, and then he fittingly ends with a poem that suggests the vastness of life's passages.
This impressive collection is full of persistent energy and protests that speak to the rugged nature of life's journeys and their unexpected beauty. There is a tenacious quality to Lyons's work. His poetry never shirks away from the raw and puzzling facets of living and memory. What a gift it would be, then, if these stanzas could be transcribed by the hands of those jazz legends, those like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, venerated within this collection of inventive poems, to sound out with musical verve and force.
Rebecca Beach is a native of Clarksville, Tennessee. She holds an M.F.A. in creative non-fiction from Emerson College and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky.