Scroll down for reviews on McCallum, Freligh & Lerner
Some Words for Joseph Bathanti's The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2016. 88pp.
Review by Bruce Weigl
The 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Joseph Bathanti's most recent poetry collection, is a requiem for an American way of life an American consciousness really that has been lost to technology and to the changing demographics that has had the most dramatic and perhaps regrettable effect of breaking families apart, and of a kind of isolationism marked by front porches all across America being abandoned for decks and the privacy of backyards. Biblically, this is the Gospel according to Matthew that describes, among other things, the Day of the First Fruit, or the Festival of Reaping; the day Christ sent the lepers to the priests to show that he who wishes to be freed from sin must continually seek absolution. The poet's absolution here takes the form of his seeing back into another life in order to discover something valuable, even the truth. Only if we know who we were can we know who we are now, the poet seems to say. I'm not being coy when I say that I believe one has to be unsound to write these kinds of frozen on a rope moments into poetry; you have to find a way to disengage from the restraints of time a literal regard, for the world imposes on us with the intensity of a realist Russian novelist. I admire Joseph Bathanti's ability to do that.
Bathanti, a writer widely accomplished in several genres, to me is most elegantly at home as a poet, and this is his most accomplished collection to date. Notably absent from this collection is any kind of autobiographical note that typically accompanies a collection of poetry. This is not an oversight, or a mistake, because of course the poems themselves provide all of the information we need about the speaker, which is not to say that these poems are not elevated beyond the ordinary into that rarified air that great poetry can occupy through deft acts of craft married to a powerful faith in the imagination. One of the sacraments of life in the neighborhood was baseball, and Bathanti opens this collection with a poem of the same name that you must see here in its entirety so that you will have a clearer picture of what I'm talking about:
I learned to play baseball on Omega Street,
in the lot across from DiDomeni Row.
The left field line was Chippanellis' grape vine.
Right was bound by a barbed-wire compound
of rusted I-beams and railroad ties
oozing creosote and tetanus.
Straightaway, deep in Center, quaked
the threshold of Saints Peter and Paul
its steeples higher than the roof at Forbes Field,
over which Babe Ruth launched his last homer.
On the convent lawn,
the American flag clapped its pole.
We patched together teams of pick up:
the Negro brothers, Anthony and Raymond Jefferson;
the DiDomeni girl who became a nun;
straggled gypsy children, from the projects,
just off the boat, who spoke no English.
Out of that parched yellow earth, cracked and scribed,
Grew igneous, sharp metallic rock
(tiny purple meteorites),
Dandelions, chickweed, broken glass,
panels of turquoise tile we unearthed
from the foundry berm for bases.
Hitting a ball with a taped bat,
Running everything out, as I'd been taught,
my sins, beneath the summer sun,
seared from my soul.
My flat, homely glove whispered
the secret of catching.
The field was a cut-through to Mass.
You had to cross one-way Reiter Street,
where Pasquale Bellasario,
turned berserk by West Side Story,
lurked with his BB pistol.
He was more than just a bad boy;
Lucifer had punched a needle in his arm.
When I dashed for the plate,
he shot at me.
But I was at peace, invulnerable.
I had wrested from Jesus His promise
of eternal life so happy,
so fleet, nothing could snare me.
Only a child can know Christ this way is the poet's real point, and this is the beginning, the departure point in its truest literary sense, of Bathanti's journey not outwards toward the otherness of oceans, but inward, towards some heart or center that must deeply call to him. Jesus and baseball and a developing consciousness of the other are no less than iconic throughout these poems. One of the key aspects of growing up on the streets in the 1960's in America was baseball. It was a holy ritual that most of us practiced, and in this poem, Bathanti manages to not only write beautifully and quietly about baseball, but include as well a serious consideration of Jesus, and a beautiful image of a growing consciousness of others, another cornerstone of this collection.
What's most remarkable here is the ability that the poet has to evoke the feelings of an entire era, for an entire generation of Americans; this is Winesburg Ohio on acid, as in the following passage from "Betsy Wetsy," about the speaker's sister's doll:
Betsy Wetsy could wet,
her singular feat,
her raison d'etre,
what we all waited for.
Scandalous: a hole
out of which pee dribbled,
soaking her dotted swiss.
Marie bathed, then diapered, her.
I despised her undressed.
Mother washed her clothes with ours.
My father built her a cradle.
I thought she was one of us
that eye fixed on me.
From these first poems we are taken carefully but deeply by Mr. Bathanti into not only the neighborhood, but into a particular historical moment that resonates with the gravity of loss sometimes, and with a clear sense that what's at stake matters to us.
It is a good thing to pause in the middle of reading a collection of poetry and to ask the question What is the point here? What is it that the poet is telling us? What does he or she want us to feel? Like many thoughtfully put together collections, there is not so much an arc, or a sweeping movement towards some grand inevitability here, but instead a careful layering of consciousness which, in the best of these fine poems, we rediscover alongside the speaker and can then, therefore, enter the world of these poems and feel the way they vibrate with the force of a version of the world that no longer exists. If that doesn't happen when you read a collection of poetry, if you don't feel, or have a sense of that force, then you may as well be reading the newspaper; if the work isn't transformative then it's not up to the best of our poetry. Joseph Bathanti's visionary memoir of mid-century, working-class Pittsburg is exactly that: transformative, for the clarity of the poet's telling and for the power of the iconic world that he is able to reveal.
Finally, form is an odd thing in poetry for the way, for example, the most rigorous English lines can sound as natural as a greeting passed between neighbors in the hands of a master. Bathanti's prosody though has more to do with the rhythm of good talk, as in Williams for example; the American idiom not from the eastern seaboard but from the gritty neighborhoods of steel mill towns. Bathanti's is the prosody of refined free verse wherein through his thoughtful delineation he controls our experience with and through the poems, and if you listen carefully enough, you can hear the rhythms of a neighborhood like a steady heartbeat, and you can hear the rise and fall of voices, their utterances only a song in the poet's memory.
I don't know if the speaker of these poems ever makes his way back to that almost utopian world of his memory, but I know that he travels deeply into the landscape of that world, and that because of the power of his observations and the imaginative clarity of his memory, he is able to take us along with him; that is no small accomplishment in poetry, and I am grateful to have these poems, as you will be too.
Bruce Weigl's most recent poetry collection, The Abundance of Nothing, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2013.
Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 86 pp.
Review by Elizabeth Catanese
I, too, dislike it, Ben Lerner's essay. And like the poetry he defends, The Hatred of Poetry is engaging and important. The book is short--just 86 pages--with marginal annotations rather than chapter headings to help the reader find key passages. Lerner establishes his ethos (and the paradoxes which characterize his argument) by saying that although he dislikes poetry, he has "largely organized his life around it" (6).
As a poet myself, I too deeply love reading and writing poetry, which means I am constantly waking up to simultaneous inspiration from Poetry Daily, as well as poetry rejections (with the occasional acceptance) in my inbox. I am constantly pushing harder to write better poems, even though I know it's impossible to get it "right" and that, furthermore, it's hard to get anyone to agree that my "close to right" matches theirs. I admire The Hatred of Poetry because it doesn't shy away from such paradoxes of poetry and the poetic life. Lerner airs his frustrations with poetry while at the same time showing his deep respect and love for the genre.
The opening of the book is about Lerner's experience memorizing poetry in grade school. Marianne Moore's poem, "Poetry" which Lerner's book title references, presents his first problem with poetry. Lerner, in an effort to avoid memorizing poetry that was overly long, chose to memorize the shortest poem available to him at the time: a version of Marianne Moore's canonical poem, "Poetry," which begins "I, too, dislike it." Lerner reports his dismay at the difficulty of memorizing the poem, despite its relative brevity, because of the poem's formal complexity. The discussion of his failure to memorize Moore's poem is a relatable and entertaining anecdote--I, too, remember my frustration at having to memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Ms. Springer's tenth grade English class, stumbling horribly on the oral test, and for fifteen years afterwards, waking up in the morning at least once a month, reciting it in Middle English against my conscious mind's will.
While school-time struggles with poetry memorization have been shared by poets and non-poets alike, Lerner draws a distinction between poets and non-poets in other parts of his book. For example, he speaks about how non-poets often need to know whether or not the poets they are speaking to are published, as if publication legitimizes poetic art regardless of the woefully small number of people who read poetry on a regular basis. I see some problems with his ideas here. I've gotten the question about whether I am published too, but I see it as a desire to connect and find common ground more than a desire to know whether or not the person speaking is a legitimate poet. Additionally, in the section of the book labeled "Who are your favorite poets," Lerner bemoans the way that non-poets will ask poets who their favorite poets are, despite not having an internal repository of poets that they themselves know. While also frustrating, I think this points less to the paradoxes within poetry and more to a desire for humans to find common ground. As I read The Hatred of Poetry, I kept wondering if Lerner's complaints about the difficulties of being a poet were blocking his gestures towards greater insight about poetry itself. However, just as I began to feel judgmental with regard to his anecdotes, Lerner would move to an account of those who have been frustrated with poetry throughout history, which strengthened his points.
Particularly interesting is Lerner's discussion of Plato's contempt for poetry, as always failing to get at truth, and Sidney's "The Defense of Poesy," which put poetry on the defensive in the early 20th century. Lerner's central and most well-argued point is that poetry is supposed to be a representation of its own transcendence, but poems can't, as limited material artifacts, do the work that they aim to do.
Lerner explains, "When we experience a poem's radical failure, we must be measuring it against some ideal, some Poem" (25). He even analyzes a poem written by William Topaz McGonagall, the Wikipedia-proclaimed worst poet in history, against the slippery ideal "Poem." To build this argument further, Lerner explains that Emily Dickinson's dissonance is part of her poetic power. Later, he analyzes Whitman's contradictions as both representations of diverse openness in poetry and the ultimate limitation. "What makes Whitman so powerful and powerfully embarrassing," Lerner writes, "is that he is explicit about the contradictions inherent in the effort to 'inhabit all'" (64).
Lerner's book draws to an end with commentary on contemporary poet Claudia Rankine's poetry. Lerner's discussion of Rankine is, in part, about the relationship between poetry and social consciousness, and Rankine's work is well-chosen to support his point. Her books represent social consciousness both because their content covers social and racial injustice and because their form enacts losses associated with such injustice. Lerner explains that the prose format of Rankine's book Citizen is explicitly anti-lyric because it declares the death of lyricism by virtue of its poetic prose form. Yet, its subtitle "an American Lyric," simultaneously and paradoxically marks it as a work of lyric. In addition, he writes about Rankine's decision, in her final version of Citizen, not to use virgules--the poetic slashes that indicate a line break when a poem is converted to prose form. The slashes, he notes, bring to the surface the poetic "unavailability" or "ghostly presence" (72). He wishes she had kept them. For Lerner, poetry is at its best when it explicitly shows its seams: its marks of potential and its inability to achieve that potential. Lerner's discussion of the contradictions inherent in poetry work best for me throughout the book when, as in the section about Rankine's work, he closely reads poems and analyzes the function (and flaws) of their formal elements. I am most compelled by his ideas when he supports them with close readings of poems.
Just as Rankine decided to convert her poetic lines into prose form, Lerner decided to express his ideas in prose form. The Hatred of Poetry elevates poems by placing them into a prose narrative-- giving them an alternate context in which to exist--a gesture that gives the book more of a shot of being read by non-poets (or even those who hate poetry!) than if it were a book of poetry. Lerner quotes the narrator of his first novel saying, "I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced by slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility" (23). In "The Hatred of Poetry" Lerner creates a poetic patchwork with "the echo of poetic possibility." While talking about the failed poem, Lerner emphasizes "that it succeeds by failing, because [the poet's] failure can be recognized more or less universally and does in this sense produce community" (30). Lerner's book elevates poems by putting them in prose form, looks at the poetic life and poetry in society by way of personal anecdote, and ultimately is explicit about the importance of possibility over perfection. While it does not do its job perfectly, its pages draw together a community of poets past and present, and open possibility for the next analysis, the next poem. The Hatred of Poetry, too, succeeds by failing.
Elizabeth Catanese is a visual artist and writer whose work has appeared in The Stillwater Review, Referential Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, OVS, and Anomalous Press. She is an assistant professor of English at Community College of Philadelphia.
Sarah Freligh, Sad Math
Springfield, Missouri: Moon City Press, 2015. 70 pp.
Review by Carolee Bennett
In "Woman's Work," a poem about one third of the way through Sad Math, the narrator tells us this about her mother:
she liked to polish
the kitchen counter
until the white Formica gleamed
her face back up at her.
she rubbed harder. (23)
Throughout Sad Math, the poet scours, too, reveals faces so distinct they stick with you both because they're lit so expertly and because they shine back at you your own. This does not mean, of course, readers' lives resemble the narrator's in the particulars. Readers may or may not have had sex in a cornfield, worked in a bakery or lost her or his mother. These poems may be written in the first person, but they belong to us as readers -- as anyone who's fumbled through teenage lust, been treated unfairly on the job or suffered loss.
Freligh accomplishes this because she is adept with narrative, precise with details and because she is heavy-handed with neither. She gives the reader scaffolding instead of skyscraper, and the result is an incredible view from a height the reader and narrator ascend together.
The term "narrative" is far too vague to describe these poems, so that's not what I mean. Yes, many of them tell a story, but I do not want to imply that the poet takes a "first this, then that" approach. Sarah Freligh understands what makes story great, and in each poem, she polishes only the most poignant elements and trusts the reader to fill in the rest.
For example, "Shut Up, Please, I'm Speaking," is a poem about a sexual encounter seen from a night in a motel bed. It starts with the subject of love (sex) and says, "You remember. We made it / once in a crummy motel near Binghamton" (15). The poet describes the weather (a snow storm) and the room and then takes us immediately to "afterward."
you untangled the sheet from our feet,
rolled wordless into sleep leaving me
to stare at your back, smooth as the motel
soap fresh from the wrapper.
In the brief poem seven couplets we learn only a little bit about the couple (to borrow an image from the poem: "a slice / of light that cut your back in half"). It's also everything we need to know.
Freligh is as precise with description as she is with the elements of story. When a thumbnail snags a pair of tights, "the run laddered up my thigh, displaying beige leg flesh in each little window" (36). When the narrator is at a bar with live music, she watches the bass player's "big hands... plucking / at his stringed crotch" (65). When wartime phone operators sit "elbow to elbow" as a "knife of static stabs the news from London" (6). And a poem called "Pilgrims" opens this way:
Two men from the halfway house
are hanging out on the corner,
shin deep in ragged snow
tagged by a graffiti of dog pee
and car dirt. (56)
Notice in each of these instances the use of metaphor. The run in the tights is ladder. The static is knife. The dog pee is graffiti. And instead of the musician's bass guitar being like his crotch, it's the thing itself. There is no intermediary. In Sad Math, there is no such buffer. These poems are sensual and tactile. They are present and urgent.
The shared view
Metaphor isn't the only reason the poems in Sad Math live and breathe in real time. It's also the way Freligh handles her first person narrator. She does not force the "I" of the speaker upon us. Instead, this first person "I" manages a strong, yet unobtrusive, presence as she delivers poems' narration and details. In "The Beginning of Something Is Always the End of Something Else," for example, we learn that the speaker is worried about her elderly cat:
I know this will end in ashes
at a cemetery where we stood
over my mother's urn, hugless, useless
hands dangling from our dumb arms
while on the hill above us a guy wearing
soiled khakis lounged in a golf cart,
waiting for us to understand this was it,
the end, we needed to leave already
so he could finally begin to dig. (38)
The speaker does not lean on her own sentimentality (journeying from the old cat to the dead mother), and she does not tell the reader what to feel. We feel the weight of the story, not the weight of the speaker's feelings, and so we are pulled in: we may be lingering around the grave, but the grave digger wants to go home.
This is the way the gravity of Sad Math comes to bear on the reader. We come to it in communion with the details of the poems. Consider, for example, "Wondrous," which recalls a scene from the narrator's childhood in which her mother reads from Charlotte's Web. Like E.B. White himself, the mother does not make it through the passage "She died alone" without choking up. Here's how the speaker recalls it:
wondrous to hear my mother's voice
ten years after the day she died -- the catch, the rasp,
the gathering up before she could say to us: I'm OK. (70)
The feelings the poem builds toward are palpable. They're not like a lump in a throat. They cause an actual catch in the reader's own breath. It's also why I recommend reading Sad Math straight through. Just as each poem delivers emotion as physical sensation, the collection as a whole has a true, beating heart.
Almost anyone who's studied poetry or tried to assemble a poetry manuscript has heard Robert Frost's statement that the book itself is the final poem. And Sad Math's final poem is stunning. Although the individual poems carry their own meaning (and do so with great assurance), they're part of something bigger and proud of it.
The collection opens with a poem that establishes distance between the speaker and her mother (and her emotions about her mother). It ends with a powerful and intimate move back to the mother, that because of the trajectory of the book, becomes a move back toward the self. For anyone who's ever lost or been lost, that's a journey worth taking.
Carolee Bennett has an MFA in creative writing (poetry) from Ashland University in Ohio and works full-time as a writer in social media marketing.
The Transforming Self in Shara McCallum's Madwoman
Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2017. 100 pp.
Review by Brendan Egan
In Shara McCallum's new collection Madwoman, her fifth, the poet sketches a composite portrait of her title figure through an impressive variety of voices and forms. This eponymous character, of course, brings to mind the gothic persona of Bertha Mason, and Gilbert and Gubar's seminal feminist study of Victorian literature that made her a symbol of repressed sensuality and power. McCallum's book, however, takes the Madwoman as her own--she becomes (from poem to poem) a patois sighing mother, a torch singing chanteuse, an imploring Salome, the trickster of a folktale, and an earnest scholar of the self. Throughout, McCallum draws on memory, both intimate and mythic to make and remake this figure of the Madwoman.
In a sense, we can read the poems as a chronological sequence, charting the stages of womanhood, from youth onward. Early poems concern the desire for transformation and the belief in the possibility of metamorphosis, describing "a slip of a girl" who "still could become a queen," and who does "not conceive of beauty / as something that could end." But there is an air of retrospect to these hopeful girlhood poems, as framed by the opening riff on Hadrian's "Little Soul," the original of which was reportedly composed on the Roman Emperor's deathbed. McCallum's "Little Soul" is addressed by a world-weary speaker (the Madwoman, perhaps), for whom much has changed. "My girl," she says "what compelled you once // is no more."
This wise, if somewhat jaded perspective is further developed as we see the central figure of the book pass through other stages of life. In "Madwoman in Middle Age," the speaker claims she no longer sees the world as "mutable," explaining: "Now when tea leaves drift / through steaming water, // sifting into shape, I say: / This portends nothing." Similarly, in "Fury," the Madwoman is resigned to futility against the indignities of her past. She "counts minutes, sees patience as a ticking out of life's losses." In this vein, motherhood is treated tenderly, yet realistically. In one of Madwoman's wittiest lines, the speaker confides: "my child figured out I was no God. / What a relief! It was exhausting, perfection's climb. Now I'm a mother." This sentiment is echoed in "The Deer," which describes a mother's frozen moment in encountering a doe and fawn blocking the road on which she is driving. "What should we do?" her child asks, but the mother has no ready answer, finding herself "stranded" facing the deer that are no longer "playthings of the imagination."
Still, for all the moments of too-sure insistence on the ever-limiting possibilities of life, the Madwoman consistently finds magic and metaphor in the world and in herself. A grasshopper becomes the symbol of her restlessness. In her age, she harbors a belief that she can breathe beneath the water like a fish. In the Madwoman's hands, even death becomes a kind of enchanted state. It is both: "an ill-fitted suit / that can be worn longer than we'd imagine" and "an archipelago / reconstructed in a dream." It is maybe McCallum's greatest strength that she gives the Madwoman both her unflinching, honest gaze at struggle and pain as well as the dazzling strength of her imagination. This allows her not only endure or overcome unpleasantness, but to take it into herself and thereby transform it into something beautiful and even astonishing. In "Oh Abuse," for instance, violence becomes a "lullaby of razors and knives." Even more directly, in "The Parable of Shit and Flowers," the sage Jamaican Creole speaker explains to a young person how she deals with adversity:
Yu choose fi believe
is only bed a rose, but hear mi: I did grow them.
And what yu haffi put in dirt stink to rass,
but is what mek them come up.
One of the most striking features of McCallum's book is the sheer, dizzying variety of shapes these voices take on the page, which progressively complicate and deepen our understanding of the Madwoman. Some verses appearing early in the book ("Memory," "To Red," "Race") are representative of a compressed, short-lined lyrical style. McCallum also favors, at times, sonnet-ish forms of rhymed or unrhymed couplets, as in "Elegy," or "Madwoman Exiled." However, soon words are ranging across space, as in "Coda," where the lines move like a breeze of yearning nostalgia, recalling:
in early morning misted
midday so hot
a body would pine for wind
Aesopian prose pieces tell the stories of "Madwoman and River Mumma," "Madwoman and Horse," and the poisonous apples of the Manchineel tree, with "leaves weeping skin-blistering sap after rain." Among the more unusual forms in McCallum's wide range are several lovely chiming ghazals, and "History and Myth," which adopts the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse traditionally used for epic heroes, to ironically treat the colonial history of Jamaica, starting with a resoundingly oblivious epigraph from Christopher Columbus.
As technically impressive as this array of forms is, these explorations are not merely virtuosic displays, but a reflection of the themes of self-transformation and becoming, around which Madwoman is centered. The shapes and styles of expression that McCallum gives to the Madwoman are seemingly without limits, drawing on a rich variety of traditions befitting her Creole heritage. Moreover, each new form is not only inherited, but put to her specific use. It is a demonstration of mastery.
Nowhere in the collection is this purposeful shaping made clearer than in the concluding poem, "Madwoman Apocrypha." Here, a confluence of polyvocal techniques retells the life story of the Madwoman, from "the night that made [her]" to "the night of [her] unmaking." At least three threads of this story stream intermittently down the page--a kind of interview against the left-most margin, a narrative of visiting Port of Spain, Trinidad in a central column, and a swaying lyric sequence that drifts in and out of Creole as it flutters down the right hand side of the space. The effect is the weaving of voices--uncanny, ghostly, and harmonious. At one point the poem seems to be attempting to define the whole of McCallum's project:
Q: This woman you keep speaking of, who is she?
A: Whenever I see a stream, I think river,
then sea, then ocean.
She misplaced some of her children,
two husbands, five countries, three continents.
A sudden rainfall began as the taxi drove up
the winding hill to the Abbey of Our Lady of Exile,
rain moving across the Caroni Plain like a
pen scribbling across a page. Then quickly
as it had started it stopped, and when I stepped
into the nave of the church someone
was lighting a candle, someone was murmuring.
These were some of the facts
but hers, like all stories, haunts us
It seems impossible to pin down precisely who McCallum's Madwoman is: mother, Medusa, prophet, outcast. At times she is each of them and occasionally she seems to be all of them at once. And this, it appears is the very point. Whomever the Madwoman appears to be, we can be sure that she has made herself in that form and for her own purposes. Likewise we can be sure that she can transform again, becoming what she might need to be.
Brendan Egan's stories and poems have appeared in DIAGRAM, Threepenny Review, Crab Orchard Review, Quarterly West, and other journals. He earned his MFA from McNeese State University. He lives in west Texas where he teaches at Midland College.